Most Norwegians spend their Easter break tucking into oranges and Kvikk Lunsj bars after a day of skiing in the last of the season's snow. Not being Norwegian, we flew to Latvia instead!
Riga, the nation's capital, was the second stop on my Baltic tour after visiting Tallinn back in March. I expected a similar city and a similar experience, but it turned out to be quite different.
Riga – I love you!
A charming old town, a modern city centre, gorgeous parks, cheap shopping and the biggest surprise of all – really good food.
Yes the 20C temperatures helped – sun will almost always improve anyone's impression of a city – but take that away and I think I would have enjoyed Riga just as much. Here's a flavour of the city…
The Old Town
Riga's historical centre – Vecpilsēta – isn't up to the beauty and medieval atmosphere of Tallinn, but in its place is the art nouveau charm of Ålesund. The lavish style is visible on over 40% of the buildings in this part of town. Just try and walk around without looking up – it's impossible!
There is a lot less tack than Tallinn's Old Town, where people dressed up in medieval costumes begging you to buy almonds or come into their restaurant. This behaviour is still on display in Riga, just not to the extent of Tallinn.
The City Centre
We arrived into the city centre by bus and immediately I felt familiar. Were we in Oslo? Several streets reminded me of Karl Johans gate, Trondheimsveien, and even Grünerløkka. Our hotel, the Radisson Blu Latvija, was based here, with a terrific view over the numerous parks and other public spaces, something there is a lot of in Riga.
The walk along the river was just gorgeous, helped of course by the sunshine lifting everyone's mood. I popped into a cute tea shop to grab some water to cool off, before exploring the area for hours taking photographs and just enjoying the atmosphere. A wonderful place to hang out!
I presume the orange bikes in the trees are connected to Riga's current status as European Capital of Culture…
Market and Warehouse District
On Sunday morning we took a stroll down to the outdoor market, located immediately behind the massive Stockmann department store and the central train station. All of a sudden the tourists disappeared and we were surrounded by local Latvians going about their business. At first we thought this was a simple fruit & veg market, but as we walked further away from the centre it became more and more random – leather goods, suitcases, jeans – until we got to a decidedly shady looking section that we chose to sidestep!
Next to the market sit the beautifully renovated brick warehouse buildings of Spīķeri, a fast developing area home to Riga's emerging art and design scene. As we were headed for somewhere else we only skirted the edge of this district, but it's on the list for the next time.
That somewhere else was the Latvian Academy of Sciences, one of the few obvious examples of Soviet architecture left in Riga's central area. Built after World War II, between 1953 and 1956, the building was partly financed by collecting a “donation” from those working the land in rural Latvia. It's imposing, mysterious, and oh so Soviet.
Last but definitely not least, the food. Oh, the food! From the local craft beers to the thick, spicy and sour solyanka soup, everything we tried seemed an improvement on the last. The undoubted highlight was the underground Latvian folk club “Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs”, full of atmosphere, offering 19 Latvian beers on tap, and a menu packed with intrigue. It's also outstanding value. We enjoyed a shared starter platter, two hearty main courses, four tap 0.5l beers and a 0.3l honey beer for a total of just €26.60, that's just NOK 220, less than the price of one solitary main course in most Norwegian restaurants.
Riga is a fascinating city. It's moved on from the Soviet era forging a unique cultural identity. We'll be back, for sure.
Until then, I'll leave you with the impressive Freedom Monument, a reminder of the turbulent history of Latvia yet at the same time a symbol of solidarity and hope for the future.