Felicity Glover recommends Riga, Latvia
The Baltic city of Riga might not be at the top of your bucket list of must-see destinations. And I have to admit that it certainly wasn’t on mine – let alone at the top of it. But sometimes, visiting a new city without any expectations can make for a much more enriched experience.
And so it was with Riga, which I happened to visit by chance thanks to a last-minute decision while visiting family and friends in Stockholm, Sweden.
The connection? Stockholm is home to the Tallink Silja Line, which has a large fleet of passenger ships that ply the Scandinavia/Baltic route and offers reasonable midweek and weekend breaks to some of the region’s most beautiful cities.
Our decision to try Riga came about only because our first choice of Tallinn, Estonia, was fully booked. Fortunately, our last-minute decision paid off.
Riga has a long history – more than 800 years – and it is evident in its architecture, which stretches back to 1201. There’s also a strong Soviet influence; no surprise there considering the city only emerged from the shadow of the former Soviet Union in August 1991, when it declared de facto independence.
In 1997, the city was named a Unesco World Heritage Site thanks to its stunning German art nouveau buildings and a unique collection of quaint wooden houses in Párdaugava, which is just a 40-minute walk from the centre of the city.
My favourite place
I’m a sucker for old towns, be it Gamla Stan in Stockholm or the stunning medieval city of Visby on the small Swedish island of Gotland. Riga’s charming Old Town, or Vecrīga, is no exception. The Old Town begins in Town Hall Square, where you will also find the Museum of Occupations and the House of Blackheads. Originally owned by a merchant guild, the House of Blackheads was built in 1344, but sadly destroyed in World War II. But to celebrate the city’s 800th anniversary, it was rebuilt and is now a museum. It is worth taking the time to meander about the cobbled streets of the Old Town, where you will find hole in the wall cafes serving delicious cakes and pastries, some of the city’s best restaurants, as well as small artisan boutiques and an odd doll museum tucked away in a back street.
A visit to Riga wouldn’t be complete without a stroll near the Daugava River to gawk at Riga Castle, which is also known as the “President of Latvia’s crib”. It has been destroyed numerous times, but the current building sits atop the original foundations that were built in the 13th century. These days, it is home to two museums and is also the office and residence of the President of Latvia, currently Andris Bērziņš. It is also worth checking out the historic Swedish Gate and trying to find the remains of Riga’s original city walls, located in the Old Town.
There’s an air of former Soviet shabbiness that continues to pervade, more so when it’s a rainy day and the gloom takes hold of what is an otherwise a beautiful city that is beginning to attract film production companies (when we were there, we spotted Kenneth Branagh filming near the Old Town).
Like Estonia, Latvia is renowned for its amber which is available almost everywhere and is relatively cheap. If pottery is your thing, then traditional ceramics from Kurzeme will appeal. The Berga Bazára Centrs, the only covered outdoor antique market in the city, is a great place to pick up Latvian arts and crafts and other antiques, but is only open on the second and fourth Saturday of the month.
Where to stay
Because we took the boat over, we picked up a great deal that included a two- night stay in a centrally located hotel. But all budgets are catered for, including the opulent Grand Palace Hotel. Situated in the Old Town, it was built in 1877 and housed the Central Bank of Latvia. But for those on a budget, Funky Hostel is a fun choice, a great way to meet fellow travellers and is also near the Old Town.