What springs to mind when you think of Riga, Latvia? Unless you’ve been there, you’re probably right now imagining… nothing. That’s all we knew about Riga before we cycled into town in the summer of 2013.
Riga is a vibrant small European capital, with a large proportion of the population under 30 (34%, according to the CIA World Factbook, 2014 data), leading to a youthful feeling city that is also filled with gothic, imposing, and hundreds of years old buildings. Since our first visit, I’ve been back a few times, teaching yoga, and have a few favourite places I like to visit each time.
Ring A-Round Riga
If you need a break from the amber strewn light sandy beaches on the Latvian coast, or are heading south from Tallinn, a day trip to Riga is ideal.
This day-long walking tour takes you from the heart of the city, up to the chocolate factory, past the Opera House and back to where you started, just in time for dinner.
The Old City and a Secret Garden
We start on the winding cobbled streets in the Old City of Riga. The narrow passages date from the middle ages and are lined with brightly coloured buildings, restored to their original splendour, offering lots of eye candy for architecture fans. The tourist office is inside The House of the Blackheads, a building that evokes memories of competition-winning gingerbread houses, crossed with a cuckoo clock.
Riga Domkirke, also known as Rigas Doms, is the main Riga Cathedral, and forms the centrepiece of this maze of streets. It is the seat of the Archbishop of Riga and also a popular tourist destination, making it an unlikely place for My Five Acres to ever want to visit.
We start here because we are in on a secret. A secret garden, that is.
The Riga Cathedral is like many other churches in the world – large, ornate and filled with dark, forbidding images of sinners and bright, exquisite paintings of redeemed souls.
Walk across the church to the far side, however, and a door transports you into a secret garden, unseen from outside the church walls. Lined by a colonnade filled with artefacts spanning the city’s tumultuous history, the garden is simple, quiet, and contains a shade tree perfect for sitting under and contemplating life.
It wasn’t quite spring yet on my recent trip to Riga, so the tree was still getting ready to bloom, but I look forward to coming back and sitting under its branches.
Art Nouveau Treats
After wandering through the circuitous alleyways of the old city, make your way across the canal and stroll along Kalpaka bulvaris with the park to your left and a row of glamorous mansions to your right. Soon you are in Embassy Row, where the Russian and Ukraine embassies stand perilously close to one another.
Near the corner of Strelnieku iela and Alberta iela sits the Stockholm School of Business, in the heart of Riga’s Art Nouveau quarter. The collection of Art Nouveau buildings in Riga is one of the best in the world, so get your camera ready.
These grandiose ornamented buildings are everywhere, looking for all the world like giant exquisitely decorated cakes. If museums are your thing, the Art Nouveau Museum in on Alberta iela. Let us know what it’s like if you’ve been there. I didn’t stop in.
Coffee, Beer, and Vegetarian Riga
MiiT is a vegetarian cafe, serving local roaster Andrito small batch coffee and house-made vegetarian and vegan food. They have the usual pastries, cakes, and also a lunch menu with pastas, salads, and the like. They are bicycle-themed café and until recently also ran a companion bike shop. Pop-in to rest your feet, get on their WiFi to share your best Art Nouveau photos, and enjoy the delicious food.
If you’d rather a beer, right next door is ALEhouse. They brew their own beers, and have an incredible selection of craft beer from around the world. You can enjoy it in the bar, or get a few bottles to go. It’s worth stopping in just to browse the selection and enjoy the graphic design of beer labels from around the world.
Tippler’s tip: The sale of alcohol is still very restricted in Latvia. Good luck buying a bottle of beer after 8pm in a store.
Riga’s own Laima chocolate, who have been making chocolate in Riga since 1870, run a museum dedicated to the dark, sweet, goodness of cacao. There is also a new chocolate shop that is like something out of Willy Wonka. Laima makes some of the best northern European chocolate I have had. They do tours of the museum if that’s your thing. However, I really came this way to stop in at Riga’s newest coffee roaster, Rocket Bean Roastery.
Walking in to Rocket Bean is like walking in to any hip coffee shop on the West Coast of America. Rough hewn wood, old filament light bulbs, and an array of extraction styles await. There is also a “coffee laboratory” in the back where their roasting happens behind large glass walls, so everyone can enjoy the process.
The coffee at Rocket Bean was exactly what I like, deeply flavourful and not over-roasted, and I bought some beans for my morning fix.
The Wild West of Riga
When most of us imagine old Europe, we picture formidable stone and marble giants with ostentatious decorations. We don’t picture the rundown slat-board houses of Riga, which look like something lifted directly from America’s Wild West.
They are in various states of decline, but a resurgence of interest in these homes is leading to a slow renovation and improvement process. On Murnieku iela, you can see several houses that have recently been renovated and the street has been re-cobbled as well, giving you a feel for what the entire city would have looked like once upon a time.
Follow my route map, or wander down whatever streets you like to make your way back to the Old City, past the Freedom Monument and the Opera House, and back towards the Cathedral. Now that you have come full circle, you are probably hungry (again).
Burgers and Fries, European Style
Stop in at Fat Pumpkin, a vegetarian (and vegan friendly) restaurant, just a short walk away. I recommend their house special burger. They make the patty in house, and it’s the staff’s favourite. They did recently expand their burger menu though and have several options, including a vegan fish burger. As a bonus, the fries were fried to perfection (even if I would have liked twice as many).