Apparently Riga blossoms at the beginning of centuries. It was a spectacular place to be at the beginning of the 20th century. Sadly, it then became embroiled in the challenges of that century in a very prominent way but, luckily for those of us born to be able to enjoy the 21st century, Riga is making an impressive comeback. For visitors from the prosperous west, it is a place where you can live large – so be sure to tip generously!
I’ve covered the most intriguing tourist sights but there are a few more places that are noteworthy. There is the spectacular Riga Synagogue, built in 1905, and the only surviving synagogue. Not far away is the Freedom Monument. It was paid for by public donations and erected in 1935 where a statue of Peter the Great once stood. It’s affectionately known as Milda and, during Soviet times, it was off limits to the public and people placing flowers at its base were prosecuted. Of course, this makes the flowers you see there today
If you are into flowers, you will love Riga. Like Amsterdam, there are many flowers for sale and the quality is astonishing. The Flower Market is near the river. You can just enjoy its beauty from the banks or you can hop aboard a vessel and cruise along Daugava River.
In Old Riga, you will also want to check out Riga Castle, the Swedish Gate and the Powder Tower, remnants of the power struggles among European empires for this Baltic treasure.
I am no longer surprised by the amazing food and drink to be found in Eastern Europe. There are not as many choices as there are in Paris or London but that doesn’t mean there are not sufficient choices, invariably at a fraction of the sticker shock you will encounter in London. I was sleep deprived as I was trying to check out as many options as I could 🙂
One place to definitely check out is Gutenbergs. (It is also a great choice for accommodation). I snuck in without a reservation but I would recommend making one. Then, perhaps, you could sit on the patio. I didn’t understand why I couldn’t as there were empty seats the entire time I was there but it’s best to just play along… I still had a great view of the cathedral, Riga rooftops and the pink and blue sunset.
To add to the experience, the meal was divine. They are really into gin so ordered an Estonian gin and tonic, which was excellent. Went full carnivore and ordered the most expensive thing on the menu – 21 day aged local entrecote. It came with a plethora of roasted vegetables and everything was perfectly cooked and delicious for 22 euros. That might just get you the cocktail in London… Enjoyed the steak with a great glass of Primivito. Better than any steakhouse dinner for probably half the price.
You can get good cheap beer easily but there is also an emerging sophisticated drinking scene as well. I started with an excellent Manhattan at the Radisson Skyline Bar in order to check out the view and the sunset. It’s the most expensive drink I had in Riga (still probably half what you would pay in London) but it was worth it for the expansive bird’s eye view over Riga.
The thing to drink in Riga is Black Balsam. Mittel Europa is big on boozy botanicals. I guess it was all the forests… It’s worth trying but you may not fall in love. You can do it straight or in a cocktail. There is also a currant version, which is more user friendly. As already noted, I tried it first in a cocktail at the Albert Hotel. My most memorable experience though was when I stopped in late afternoon at an outdoor café near the Swedish Gate (Sweden used to throw its weight around via military force until they invented Ikea and H&M ;). I was mostly tired from walking and needed to consult my guidebook but wanted to try Black Balsam in the raw before I left Riga.
I went through a shift change so ended up with two different servers. They were both young women excited about the prospects of Latvia and one of them was anxious to see more of the world. We ended up having a great conversation as the café wasn’t busy and I stayed long enough that it was time for an early dinner. For some reason, almost all my great conversations in the Baltics were with young women. Maybe the Communist influence? There was a lot to regret about Communism but it did tend to promote women as equals. Whatever the reason, I was very excited to see all these young women thriving and dreaming. Each Eastern European country is different and there is no doubt they are disadvantaged compared to the West but there is also a sense of optimism and hope that is often lacking in the West. Most young people don’t have the same sense of entitlement. Instead they are excited to see what they can do to improve their communities.
If you like talking to cool young women then your next stop should be the Left Door Bar. It’s in the Art Deco district close to Albert iela. It wasn’t on my weekend route so I ended up there on a Sunday but that allowed me to chat with my server. Apparently they had run out of Black Balsam because the weekend was so busy! She informed me that each cocktail came in its own special glass. I had the Philosopher Martini, which had been invented by the chef. It included Absolut Elyx Vodka, Nordic Vermouth, Luxardo Maraschino Cherry Liqueur and was served in a vintage glass. I drank it very carefully 🙂
It rivalled anything I had in London (also part of this trip). My server informed me there were three cocktail bars she would recommend in Riga so you will have to do some research but it will be worth your while.
I ran around Riga a bit like a whirling dervish because it is compact, beautiful and safe so not sure my notes really do it justice but there were some other memorable experiences I can share with potential visitors.
I managed to find some of the nightlife so can offer some recommendations. You can watch live jazz at Trompete (Peldu 24). Unfortunately, no one was playing when I went there but did have a nice beer and it’s close to Folksklub Ala Pagrabs, which became one of my hangouts. It’s a huge cavern filled with beer, music and Latvian pride. The bar strives to reflect the full geography and diversity of Latvian beer. I ended up on the dance floor a couple of times, first with a nice Latvian who was scared off by some loutish lads and then a Brazilian guy who seemed to have a complicated life.
There is music at Blues 54 Jazz (Terbatas 54). It’s also a great street to check out for food and architecture. If you want a surreal experience of kitsch, head to Moonshine, a Latvian tribute to 1950s America circa Happy Days (i.e the fantasy USA as exported by television). The décor didn’t do much for me but there was a very good band upstairs.
If beer is your thing, also check out Alus darbnica Labietis, which promotes more obscure Latvian breweries. If wine is more your thing, check out Vina Studija (Elizabetes 10) after your Art Deco tour. My server seemed to have taken his customer service tips from Soviet times but the wine was excellent and well-priced!
My final night in Riga was a Sunday so that made things a bit more difficult. Latvia has definitely discovered the tourism industry so a lot is open but not everything. My Left Door Bar server dissed KID so went off in search of Bibliothek or Kolanade. I never found Bibliothek and Kolonade was closed.
Do consider checking it out though because it is also near the river in a gorgeous setting in addition to the food experience. I LIKE walking but was starting to feel both weary and hungry so headed for Old Riga, which I assumed was touristy enough to have restaurants open on Sunday night. Locale looked promising and ended up with a nice cocktail, a glass of wine and some excellent lasagne to finish my tour of Riga on a high note.
Riga has a lot of high notes. You really should go and meet the new generation of dreamers in one of the most spectacular settings in the world. Latvia is still under the radar enough for a visit to paste you with a patina of cool but it’s discovered enough you won’t be a trailblazer… why I think I need to go to Tbilisi 😉
<I laughed reading this as I did a first draft a while ago but didn’t finish and post until now… and since then have booked a trip to Tbilisi! Will actually be going to Georgia the country and Georgia the state for the first time next year. Both very cool destinations from what I read.>