Riga, the Latvian capital, is still relatively unexplored by Western visitors. It is an eclectic mix of a medieval Old Town with its romantic narrow streets, Art Nouveau houses, ugly Soviet blocks of flats, Orthodox and Lutheran churches, shopping arcades and nightlife that is so vibrant it is bordering on notorious.
Many of Riga’s attractions have already become tourist magnets, and you should definitely see the Dome Cathedral, buy Latvian amber and linen from the wooden market stalls in the Dome square, climb the spire of St Peter‘s church for a view of the city… But apart from the standard tourist routes, there is a lot more to be seen. Many corners of Riga have yet to be discovered and appreciated. Some years from now Riga may become just another overcrowded touristy destination, so perhaps you should consider visiting before it looses its provincial charm. Here are some of the reasons to help you decide.
1 – Now May Be the Time to Get the Best Deals
Latvia is one of the countries that has been hit hardest by the current financial crisis. Despite dramatic increase in value added tax that has been especially hard on the hospitality industry, food and accommodation prices are starting to come down.
Rumours of possible devaluation of national currency have been in circulation for a while, and it yet remains to see what will become of Latvian economy.
For travellers, however, all of this means that Riga is actually becoming a cheaper place to visit. This is especially true when it comes to hotels. Many businesses are virtually on the verge of bankruptcy, so don’t be shy to haggle and ask for their best deal!
2 – Culinary Delights at Great Prices
Latvia cannot boast a world-renown culinary tradition, but the food is simple, hearty and filling, some of it inspired by German or Russian cooking. Riga has an overwhelming choice of places to eat in all price ranges. Many of those are now offering discounts and happy hours to attract visitors, so eating in Riga shouldn’t be a problem any time of the day – or night.
For the budget-conscious traveller, the best choice for any meal or snack are the many self-service eateries. Pelmeņi XL on Kaļķu 7 in the Old Town is open from 9 am to 4 am and serves several varieties of Russian filled dumplings, pelmeņi, which can be compared to oversized ravioli in appearance. You pay by weight, but a generous portion of pelmeņi with soup or salad shouldn’t cost you more than 3 Lats (Ls) or 4,30 EUR. Also in the Old Town and in the same price range, Ševpavārs Vilhelms on Šķūņu 6 is the place to go for delicious cheese, meat, banana or plain pancakes.
Outside the Old Town and off the main tourist routes, visit Staburags on Čaka 55 for a taste of traditional Latvia. This dimly-lit restaurant and beer bar with ethnographic style interiors serves rural Latvian food at a reasonable price. It is a pleasant mix of small rooms and private corners, oak furniture and quirky decorative items, such as stuffed chickens or beer barrels. Enjoy live music on Friday and Saturday nights.
3 – A Taste of Insanity: A Mental Hospital-Themed Restaurant
The new restaurant Hospitalis that has just moved to Tirgoņu 4 in the Old Town is alone worth a visit to Riga. Decorated with restored medical attributes from the Soviet times, it is one of the few medically-themed restaurants in the world, and the only one where diners can opt for being strapped into a straight jacket and spoon fed by nurses in skimpy uniforms.
There is a lot to see and do – unless you are of the squeamish kind. You can eat in a dental cabinet or a gynaecologist’s chair, share your dining experience with live white mice, drink cocktails from test-tubes and walk through an insane asylum with upholstered walls only to find a door to nowhere…
A varied and reasonably priced ‘normal’ international menu is offered for the less adventurous, but the real attraction is the ‘crazy’ menu – a handful of dishes that are bound to make a lasting impression. All ‘crazy’ items are served with surgical instruments instead of cutlery. The ingredients are all more than edible, but the appearance of the dishes requires you to sign the Informative Patient Agreement. You are unlikely to ever forget an experience like this…
4 – Art Nouveau District
Riga boasts the largest and finest collection of Art Nouveau buildings in Europe. The UNESCO World Heritage listed district comprises over 800 houses, most of them built by Latvian architects in late 19th – early 20th centuries. You will immediately recognize the characteristic flowing undulating lines, geometric ornaments, plant-derived forms and fantastic elements when you get to the Art Nouveau quarter in the centre of Riga. The principal streets where some of the best buildings are located are Elizabetes, Antonijas, Alberta and Strelnieku.
Make sure you visit the building on Alberta 13 – built in 1904, it now houses Riga Graduate School of Law and is publicly accessible. For those seriously interested in this creative era, a visit to Riga Art Nouveau museum on Alberta 12 is a must (open 10 am to 6 pm, closed Mon & Tue). Most of their information and printed matter is in Latvian, but they can help with routes and addresses for visiting another another Art Nouveau district in Mežaparks, 4 km (2.5 miles) from Riga centre.
5 – Riga Central Market
You can hardly miss the landmark constructions that used to be one of the biggest markets in Europe. The five enormous former Zeppelin hangars have been converted into market halls in 1930 and have retained their traditional division into types of food they sell.
Buy fish, meat, dairy, bread and vegetables inside and clothes, CDs and appliances outside. There are seldom any exclusive fashion articles or souvenirs to be found, but a visit to this giant bazaar will give you a feel of the local life like perhaps no other attraction.
Haggling is seldom acceptable, but you are expected to taste a bit of the food you’re buying, so if you’d like to sample fresh Latvian produce, this is the place to go. Local cheese and bread are especially worth a try.
6 – Pardaugava: Target Practice Across the River
While most visitors pass through Pardaugava on their way to and from the airport, few have ever explored ‘the other side of the river’ – a charming, even if somewhat shabby, part of Riga. It is a heaven for off-the-beaten-track traveller, boasting shady parks and old Soviet monuments, wooden houses, abandoned factories and even a railway museum.
The lack of tourist attractions makes eating and shopping there easier on your budget, and you will probably find Pardaugava less polluted and crowded than the city centre. And, what’s even more important, every photo of Riga skyline has been taken from Pardaugava.
To get there, cross over Vanšu or Akmens bridge (it’s better to walk during the rush hour). If you wish to get a first-hand experience of AK-47, Uzi and Magnum, try Regro S – a shooting gallery in an abandoned bunker on Daugavgrivas 31 (phone +371 67601705). They charge by ammunition, so check in advance if you can actually afford the AK.
7 – Ethnographic Open-Air Museum
This fascinating collection of historical dwellings and workplaces from all over Latvia occupies 87 hectares (215 acres) on the outskirts of Riga on the banks of Juglas lake. To get there, take bus No. 1 that goes along Brīvības street to Brīvdabas Muzejs (open 10 am to 5 pm daily, entry 2 Ls).
You can request an English guide at 20 Ls for 90 minutes, but make sure you book in advance if you think you need this. Otherwise, stroll the museum grounds and witness the ways of life and work long gone by. There is often an opportunity to buy traditional produce at crafts fairs. The museum also has a working church with organ where services are held each Sunday at 10 am.
Traditional celebrations of spring and autumn equinox and winter solstice usually take place on first Sundays after the respective dates. However, the truly special event is a celebration of summer solstice on the night from 23rd to 24th June. It is a national holiday in Latvia, and the tradition of celebration goes back to pagan times, so re-enactment of some of the ancient practices, like jumping over the fire, is to be expected.
8 – Riga Motor Museum
This museum, the biggest of its kind in Eastern Europe, hosts a unique collection of antique and rare motor vehicles. Apart from the historical Latvian and Soviet cars, as well as exclusive Rolls Royce and Mercedes models, visitors can see an intriguing display of Kremlin cars and WWII equipment.
Experience for yourself sports cars and fire trucks, Stalin’s armored car and Brezhnev’s limo, or the very first Latvian bikes, motorcycles and buses. The museum is located well outside Riga centre, on Eizenšteina 6 and is open from 10 am to 6 pm (3 pm on Mondays). Reach it by bus No.21 to Pansionāts stop.
IF YOU GO
Riga has a very efficient public transport system that operates from 5 am to 1 am. You can buy tickets and choose from a wide variety of options in Narvesen and Pluss Punkts kiosks and Rimi supermarkets. Single ticket costs 0.50 Ls, day ticket 1.50 Ls.
Accommodation options are many, and you should have no problem finding a place that suits your needs and pocket. An inexpensive Dodo hotel within walking distance from city centre offers quality lodging from €39 per room per night. Backpackers Planet Hostel, located virtually at the Central Market, offers accommodation from €12 per person in a dorm, and €14 in a double or twin room per person sharing.