Baltic beauty: 5 reasons to fall for Riga

Baltic beauty: 5 reasons to fall for Riga

by Karen Bradbury
Stripes Europe

There’s something about cities perched on the edge of the sea. As natural hubs for commerce and melting pots, many of the world’s port cities have plenty to offer tourists. That’s certainly the case for Riga, the capital city of Latvia. Despite its stature as a small city (approximately 627,000 residents) in a small country (approximately 1.86 million), it offers more than enough to engage the curious tourist over a weekend or longer. Here are just five of many more good reasons to consider Riga as your next city break destination:

A gleaming Old Town: Riga was founded as a port town near the mouth of the Daugava River in 1201 and was an important center of the Hanseatic League, a confederation of guilds and trading towns, for the next two centuries. Its well-preserved medieval core, high concentration of Art Nouveau buildings, 18th and 19th-century wooden architecture and green boulevards earn it a spot of the UNESCO World Heritage List. Amongst its top sights are the soaring Riga Dome Cathedral, the largest medieval church in the Baltic States and the House of the Blackheads with its sumptuous Renaissance façade.

Don’t miss: The Cat House at 10 Meistaru iela, known for the sculptures of two cats with arched backs and raised tails on its roof, is memorable because of its backstory. According to legend, the homeowner wanted the cats’ tails to point toward the Great Guild house as an expression of what he thought of its members.

Shopping: Ceramics, linens and amber and silver jewelry are just some of the things shoppers will be tempted to take home. Look for colorful, leather-bound notebooks and photo albums, wooden toys and knitted goods in colorful patterns. Those with a sweet tooth will appreciate chocolates and sweets of the brand name Laima. Many cosmetics are of high quality and often contain organic ingredients. Don’t miss the Riga Central Market, housed across five pavilions that once served as hangars for zeppelins. A visit to this bustling bazaar is like a step back into the time of the Soviet Union, with Russian, Uzbek and Georgian vendors selling fruits, spices and a random assortment of obscure imported goods.

Don’t miss: For high-quality, handmade items, visit the Art Nouveau Riga shop where jewelry, lamps, antiques, books, posters and more tempt buyers. The shop is located at Strelnieku 9.

Food and drink: Latvia’s food and drink tends toward simple, locally grown fare and shares similarities with Russian, Polish and Scandinavian cuisine.  For a taste of national cooking, try the dishes awarded official protected status from the European Union. These include “Latvijas lielie pelēkie zirņi,” Latvian big gray peas, typically served with smoky bacon pieces; “sklandrausis,” a vegetable-stuffed tart; river-caught lamprey from Carnikava, and tasty rye bread.  Other dishes to try are “kartupeļu pankūkas,” potato pancakes; “saltibarsciai,” a cold beet soup; and “maizes zupa,” a cold, soup-like dessert made of rye bread, spices and dry fruit. The country’s fine dairy products include yogurt, kefir, sour cream and soft cheese. Try “Jāņu siers,” a cheese made of sour milk and caraway seeds. Don’t miss the opportunity to sample domestically produced ice cream!

The country’s best-known drink is “Rīgas Melnais balzams,” Riga Black Balsam. The viscous black herbal liqueur looks quite threatening at first, but it just might cure what ails you. While out experiencing the night life, you might find it as an ingredient in your cocktail.

Don’t miss: To sample the local cuisine at a reasonable price, make way to any one of the restaurants belonging to the LIDO chain. The food is served buffet-style in a rustic atmosphere, complete with folk music.   

Bustling nightlife: When the sun goes down, the fun doesn’t stop, and for many, it’s only beginning. Restaurants offer everything from casual outdoor dining to formal dinners, bars serve cocktails and delicious domestic beers, and plenty of clubs deprive the young and restless of a good night’s sleep. The country has a reputation as a stag party destination. As such, there are a handful of places where beautiful women attempt to part young men with the contents of their wallets; be wary of appeals to buy the lady a drink at the bar of her choice.

Don’t miss: The Skyline Bar on the 26th floor of the Raddison Blu offers stunning views of the city, classic cocktails and an innovative menu. It tends to attract a hip, international crowd.

An easy beach getaway: With a 45-minute ride on a local train, one is whisked to another world, one of white sands, the scent of pine and the dazzling blue waters of the Baltic Sea. Jūrmala is your break-within-a-break, a resort town worth a visit in its own right. Even when it’s too chilly to swim along its 18-mile stretch of white sand, visitors can enjoy a stroll along Jomas Street, a pedestrian-only street lined with ornate wooden houses that serve as cafes, boutiques and souvenir shops.

For the kids: Children will enjoy a visit to Dzintari Forest Park, which offers playgrounds, a viewing tower, paths for rollerblading and a “Tarzan” climbing park. At times in the winter, there’s enough snow to allow for cross-country skiing there. For a glimpse of 19th-century life in a Latvian fishing village, drop by the Jurmala Open Air Museum. Those enchanted by Jūrmala can opt to spend part or all of their holiday at one of the area’s spa hotels, which range from the readily affordable to the ultra-luxurious. 

Don’t miss: All ages will enjoy a day out at “Līvu Akvaparks,” billed as northern Europe’s largest water park, which offers pools, slides and a wellness complex.

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