I arrived in Riga, the capital of Latvia on a direct flight from Moscow. I will never forget stepping out of the airplane just after midnight and standing at the top of the staircase to take a deep breath. I had come from the polluted and chaotic capital of Russia to be welcomed by the quiet and fresh air of Riga. The airport was surrounded by forests and I could actually smell spring flowers and a cool breeze bustled through my hair. The tourism board had organized a transfer to my hotel so spotted my name and soon found myself zooming into the old town. I couldn’t help but smile as we were the only car on the highway driving past lush forests. After a rather hectic and stressful adventure in Russia I was looking forward to the quaint beauty which can only be found in the heart of the Baltics.
The car screeched to a halt, I stood open jawed at my new home, the majestic Art Nouveau Hotel Neiburgs. My suite featured a kitchen, living room, king sized bed, stunning bathroom with massive bath tub (which got plenty of use over the next few days) skylights and a perfect view of the cities landmark Dome Cathedral. I slipped under the covers and soon found myself in dreamland.
The following morning I scoped out the hotel’s buffet breakfast which featured: crepes, pastries, cold cut and cheese platters, pickled fish, salads and yogurt. I sipped on a hot pot of coffee and waited for my tour guide, Zane Supulneice to arrive. If you are planning on visiting Riga give Zane a shout she offers excellent tours of the city and is a wealth of information! I spent the next few hours following her lead as we embraced the historic centre of Latvia’s capital.
Out tour started at the historic centre, the City Townhall which features the Occupation Museum and House of the Blackheads which during medieval times was a brotherhood for young unmarried foreign merchants. We then walked over to Saint Peter’s Church and the famous Statue of Town Musicians of Bremen which everyone rubs for good luck (so much so that the bronze is well worn). We zig zagged through a few cobblestone back streets and then stopped in for a visit at Black Balsam Bar to learn a bit about the countries magic drink, stronger than vodka and allegedly cures broken hearts (I bought five bottles obviously).
We then strolled through Livi Square which offers up a plethora of cafes, restaurants and live music in the evenings. The square is famous for its Small Guild (medieval organization for craftsmen) and Great Guild (medieval organization for merchants) as well as the cutesy Cats House. We marched over to Dome Square which showcases the cities landmark Cathedral and onwards to The Three Brothers which is the oldest dwelling in the city and now houses the Museum of Architecture. We passed through the Swedish Gates which are romanticized through the story of a local woman who fell in love with a Swedish soldier. Along this street several old warehouses have been turned into funky bars and restaurants.
We walked past the Powder Tower which now houses the War Museum and then hopped over the main street to Bastion Hill located in the city park which features a bridge where young married couples come to place a lock as a symbol of the strength of their love. On the other side of the park we arrived at the Freedom Monument and Opera Square where a beautiful fountain featuring a dancing nymph entertains pigeons and wee children.
We were then picked up by a private van and driven to the cities famous Art Nouveau quarter featuring some of the worlds best preserved Jugendstil architecture much of which was built by Latvian architect Konstantins Peksens. The architecture here is most certainly one of Riga’s gems and a must for anyone visiting the city. Architecture nerd or not its hard not to appreciate the colourful and creative facades. It started to rain just as we were finishing up our architectural tour but we made a quick jaunt into the cities historic Cinema Splendid Palace which now showcases local films and the years international film festival favorites. We hopped back into our van and zipped past Vermane’s park famous for its open air chess tables.
I waved goodbye to Zane after she dropped me off at Hotel Bergs where I would be eating lunch at the exquisite Restaurant Bergs with Guna the PR pro from Riga Tourism. Once finished our lunch Guna and I wearily looked out at the torrential rain pouring over the city. Cobblestone streets were now filled with rushing rivers. We ordered a taxi and bid each other farewell. After a long day I slid into my massive bathtub and faded into a happy state of warm relaxation.
In the evening I walked back into the old town as a fog and mist fell over the city from the late afternoons storm. I visited a local grocery store to buy a few local beers and was shocked when three large bottles cost less than $3.00. On my walk home I popped into an Indian restaurant where I ordered take out. I had decided I was going to treat myself to an evening of creature comforts and relaxation. I was dying to eat food with a bit of spice so Indian seemed perfect. After over three weeks of excessive eating at fine dinning restaurants I was ever so excited to eat take out in my hotel while watching a movie on my laptop. My chicken Korma paired nicely with a few ice cold Latvian lagers.
The following morning I enjoyed a quick bite with a marketing expert at Riga Tourism. We chatted about social media and culinary tourism over latte’s and flaky croissant. I then ran into the street with a jam packed itinerary. I started off at the tiny Museum of Barricades of 1991 and then marched into the Dome Cathedral a hop, skip and a jump down the street. I spent a good chunk of time wandering through The Latvian War Museum which is an essential visit for any tourist as it does a great job at showcasing the coutntries unique position in Europe during both World Wars and eventually its success at gaining independence from Russia. I made a quick stop at the Latvian National Museum of Art and then walked towards the Train Station to visit The Central Market which is located on the east bank of the River Daugava. The market was good fun and reminded me a lot of Toronto’s St Lawrence Market. The streets were filled with flower shops and farmers selling rhubarb, strawberries and cranberries. Inside there were endless counters selling meat, cheese and baked goods.
Once finished up at the market I walked along the river bank and took a few snap shots of the cities iconic bridges. I had a quick shower at my hotel and then rushed back into the street for my reservation at Kalku Varti. I waddled back home after an inspirational feast.
The storm had cleared and for the first time in Riga I was able to stare out of my hotel room window to enjoy a clear sky and multi-coloured sunrise, a perfect backdrop for the Dome Cathedral. I leaned against the window and smiled. I truly had a whirlwind trip in Riga and was so pleased I was able to discover the heart of the Baltics. The city has been declared the European Capital of Culture for 2014 and I have no doubt in my mind that the cities old town will delight tourists as a top destination in the years to come.