Riga, the capital of Latvia is one of those European cities that are hardly ever visited by ordinary tourists traveling across the old continent. There's very little information about it and it almost never appears in the media. To be honest, we hadn't planned visiting Riga either. The reason why we went there at all was because we had a stopover in Latvia on the way to the unknown and absolutely amazing Kazakhstan (read posts about Kazakhstan here). Our visit in Riga was completely spontaneous - we didn't have any plan regarding what to see and where to go but the Latvian capital turned out to be a surprising hidden gem - large enough to offer many attractions as well as the beautiful old town and small enough to walk around in only one day!
How to get to Riga
As I've mentioned before, we came to Riga on the way to Kazakhstan. However, I think the best way to visit Riga would be during one longer trip across the Baltic states: Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia (you can also see Kaliningrad - a little piece of Russia squeezed inside the European Union). The flights within EU are really cheap and you can get to all of those countries (except Kaliningrad) directly from all major European cities. Afterwards, you can travel by bus or train between them. If you're interested in something completely off the beaten path, visit Minsk and other cities in Belarus - it's the least visited European country - more people vend up visiting countries like Moldova, Albania and Macedonia. As we love this sort of destinations the most (the less tourists, the better - you can see how different such countries are from the way they are perceived in the west), we're going to visit Belarus soon!
Things to see in Riga and why it was surprising
The Old Town
Although it's a capital city, it's best to visit Riga as you would visit a small, cozy town. The old town surprised us immensely as we hadn't expected much from it - charming narrow streets and squares were well maintained, all the buildings - renovated and it all looked very neat and beautiful. If you've been to the places like Prague or Krakow, you'll like Riga. It's much smaller, but for me. it was in no way less attractive.
Within the old town you can see quite many historical monuments and buildings. The area is pretty small so you don't even need a map - just walk and explore! For the rest of the city, read below - I've described how to visit all important sights in an easy way on foot.
The most popular is probably the House of the Blackheads - where the Brotherhood of Blackheads (unmarried merchants and ship owners) resided. Original building dated back to the 14th century but it was destroyed during the second world war. What you can see now is the reconstruction from 1995.
Right besides the House of the Blackheads, you'll see the tallest church in Riga - St. Peter's Church dating back to the 13th century. It houses an art museum and its tower serves as a great viewing platform offering the 360 degree panorama of Riga. The view over the red roof tiles in the old town is beautiful - the only drawback for us was the price which was pretty ridiculous - 7 EUR!
Behind the church, you'll see the monument of Bremen Town Musicians - a donkey, a dog, a cat and a rooster standing on top of each other. Now you can get deeper into the old town - get lost in the maze of beautiful, winding streets! Some of them look like taken from a fairy tale - from the times when kings ruled medieval Europe.
Don't miss the Riga Cathedral - the most important church in Riga, the two guilds - small and large - which are a mix between an ordinary building and a castle, the Three Brothers - the oldest complex of original buildings still standing in Riga (from the 15th century), Our Lady of Sorrows Church (18th century) and the Riga Castle (16th century) - it's called a castle but it's not really spectacular, it looks quite ordinary. Unfortunately, the Riga Cathedral was under renovation during our visit so we didn't see it properly but all the scaffolding was covered by a painted sheet which was aesthetic to the eye.
New Riga is different from the old town area but it's very clean and well maintained, too. It's a mix of various influences - you can find here typical to Central Europe buildings, Scandinavian wooden architecture, Russian orthodox churches and even some of the Soviet legacy.
After visiting the old town, cross the Bastejkalna Park (from the House of Blackheads keep going down Kalku Iela street) and now you can explore the new parts of Riga. Here, you can see a different style of architecture - especially orthodox churches - The Nativity of Christ Cathedral (19th century) is the most spectacular one. Keep going down Brivibas avenue and you'll also encounter the unusually bright and yellow St. Aleksander Nevsky Church. Some might say it looks cheap but I liked it. One block from there, there's another church from 19th century - St. Gertrude's Old Church.
Now, go back to the Bastejkalna Park and follow one of the streets parallel to the river towards the train station (for example Raina Bulvaris or Merkela Iela). In this area, you'll find the gigantic monument from the Soviet Era - Latvian Academy of Sciences (which resembles the Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw, Poland).
Next to the Academy, there is a huge market hall where you can find all the local items - from fish, seafood and roe (which you can get at surprisingly good prices) to hand-picked wild mushrooms and berries, many varieties of meat, pastries, sweets, candies as well as souvenirs and other everyday items. I love to explore such markets with local produce, it seems that in every post-Soviet state there is a market like this (like in Almaty, Kazakhstan, Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, Kiev, Ukraine, etc...). It is so much better to browse all the stalls with so many types of original foods and other things than, for example, go to the boring, western-style shopping malls which are all the exact copies of one another.
Food and accommodation in Riga
Food and accommodation prices are only slightly higher than in the rest of Central or Southern Europe, which makes the Baltic states attractive to backpackers. We rented a private bedroom for 3 people in the city center for only 10 EUR per person! Riga is also an amazing place if you love sincere, good local food at ridiculously cheap prices! In the very heart of old town, visit one of the restaurants called Pelmeni XL - you can choose from many types of pelmeni - local dumplings with various fillings. It's delicious and you can fill your stomach for around 5 EUR!
There was one more thing I liked about Riga. Besides the charming old town, beautiful monuments and delicious food, the originality and uniqueness is something I enjoy greatly. In Riga, we came across a cool band playing in the underground passage, some unusual monuments, funny graffiti on the walls, and a very inventive sign in one of the restaurants: "We serve beer as cold as your ex-girlfriend's heart!"
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