When we booked our tickets to Riga, we didn't really expect anything out of this Eastern European city. Like us before this trip, If you don't know much about Latvia, it is one of the three Baltic states along with Lithuania and Estonia (omg cannot wait to go to Estonia). The great thing about having no expectations is we came to discover that, Latvia has a rich heritage and Latvians are proud of this culture. We also happened to be there during Latvia's Independence Day, so the cultural show was in full glory for us! It made for a surprisingly fun weekend and a perfect city break for the weekend.
Accommodation & Getting around
We recommend staying in Riga Old Town. It’s quite centrally located and walking distance to all the key attractions, the markets and a wide range of restaurants, pubs and clubs. Once in Old town, we didn't have to take public transport the entire weekend as everything is within walking distance. We had a gorgeous AirBnB to us right in the middle of Old Town with an exceptionally amazing host. We landed quite late on Friday night and didn't realise that this particular AirBnB had specific check-in times. Being well past the check-in times, we couldn't get hold of the host! Frantically trying to reach the host on one hand and trying to find last minute accommodation in the other we were literally waiting at the airport with no where to stay for the weekend. After about 20-30 mins, we finally got hold of our host (who happened to be away that weekend). Despite us ignoring his check-in time, he was so helpful and navigated us to his cleaners house to pick up the spare keys. Went out of his way to co-ordinate this for us at mid-night! Thank you to his cleaner too - to stay up that late waiting for strangers to show up at her doorstep!
Sites & Attractions:
The main tourist attraction in Latvia is the House of the Blackheads. It is the red building that shows up on Google images when you Google 'Riga' and is on every postcard.
Originally built as a meeting venue for German merchants and traders (Brotherhood of the Blackheads), this building has been bombed several times during the Second World War. Later re-built, it now showcases Latvia's rich history as a museum. At some brief time, it was also used as a temporary residence for the Latvian president. The entry fee is €6 - not too steep and about 40 - 60 mins would be more than enough to go through the museum. It is the iconic edifice of Riga, so you might want to take some photos outside the building. The square outside is also great for people watching as it is lined with cute cafes and bars all along the perimeter.
We also visited the local markets around Riga Old Town. These are like any other European city - but a great way to get the local arts and crafts flavour.
One thing definitely not to miss is St.Peters church. It’s an €8 entry fee but the view from the top is totally worth every cent. It’s a stunning 360 degree view of the entire city of Riga. If you can brave the winds, it is definitely a magnificent view and a chance to take some stunning photos.
Latvian Independence Day
Unbeknownst to us, it just happened to be Latvian Independence Day on the 18th Nov, the weekend we chose to visit Riga! Specifically the 99th year of Latvia’s independence from German and Russian occupation. We were in for a treat! The whole city had an electrifying atmosphere on Saturday starting with a gun salute in the morning to officially begin the day's celebrations. These were Independence Day celebrations like nothing we have ever seen before. After dinner, near the Freedom Monument, the city hosted a free rock concert with thousands and thousands of people with torch flames singing along! It almost felt cult-ish to be part of that crowd with such energy and passion!
Important monuments and buildings were also part of a light show displaying history of Latvia (almost Sydney Vivid or London Lumiere style)
To cap it off, at 9:00pm the city produced breathtaking fireworks! Pro tip: The best view of the fireworks is by the main city bridge just on the harbour. However, it does get quite crowded so aim to get there early - around 8:30pm.
Public transport is also free on the day if you need to get around. All in all, it is an absolute experience to be part of the celebrations (that go on well into the night) and if you do happen to choose Riga for a random city break - be sure to choose the weekend of the Independence Day if possible. :)
Food & Drinks
Like many Eastern European cities, bread and meat feature heavily in each meal. Latvia in particular is known for its breads, particularly Rye Bread. One particular delicacy that we tried that we thoroughly recommend is the sauerkraut soup in a bread pot. It’s common to see this dish brought out during brunch or lunch.
Another must-try Latvian drink you need to try is the Riga Black Balsam. It tastes like blackcurrant juice but its mixed with very strong vodka! It has a distinct bitter yet sweet after-taste. You'll find this drink anywhere!
It’s definitely worth checking out a hipster part of Riga near Meera Iela a.k.a. peace street - a bit further out from the city (approx 20-25 mins). There are several funky cafes and bars in that area, including one called Dad Cafe.
Food-wise, the highlight of Riga was without a doubt Restaurant Renomme at Gallery Park Hotel. It is a beautiful hotel and the menu was a delicious blend of Latvian and Southern European cuisine, It is a fine-dining experience so be sure to book prior and splash a bit of cash (Approx £120 - £150 per couple for a 3 course meal with wines). Being on the fine-dining side, the menu also has an extensive set of vegetarian-friendly options. The staff were extremely friendly and welcoming and we had a great time!
Although not Latvian in any way, one particular bar that we definitely recommend checking out is Moonshine, in the heart of old town. An American themed diner bar, filled with tributes to Rock and Roll icon Elvis Presley, the bar is buzzing every night of the week. From live music, to funky cocktails and great food, it’s a great place to check out late on a Friday or Saturday evening for a bit of dancing if you fancy!.
For our last night, we headed to an underground medieval restaurant called Rozengrals in Old town Riga. The restaurant does a brilliant job of re-creating that era in its large underground cellar / banquet-hall all lit up in candles paying attention to every detail reflecting Riga's historical charm. The food is tasty and not too overpriced and to add to the medieval magic, we were greeted with fantastic live music and service throughout. Highly recommend if you are after something different. :)
Overall we had a fantastic time in Riga and, as far as weekend trips go, we thoroughly recommend it. A weekend is the perfect amount of time to capture the essence of Riga’s rich history and vibrant culture but we would love to go back for a road trip around Latvia in the future! Furthermore, if you happen to time it around Nov 18, particularly in 2018 for the 100 year celebration, you will get to see Riga put on a show like no other. :)