As we were planning our trip to the Baltics, Riga was added as almost an afterthought. We didn’t know much about it, but I’m not one to let that deter me. In fact, it’s a quality I look for when seeking novel places to visit. If we were going to be in Tallinn, we figured “why not check out Riga?” And I’m incredibly glad we did.
A little background for you…
Riga is the largest city in the Baltics. According to some of the research I did, it’s known best for its historic Old Town (an UNESCO World Heritage Site), city centers and beautiful Art Nouveau buildings—apparently some 800 buildings are built in this architectural style. The Daugava River runs through the city, and the Riga Canal is a (much) smaller version skirting the outside of Old Town. Riga was founded as a port city and became a major trade hub. Riga has been ruled by Sweden and Russia, and occupied by Germany throughout the years. As a result, there’s much influence from these countries—in the culture, the architecture, and the food. Anyway, I could go on and on about the history of Riga, which is just one thing that fascinated me about this city.
The Colorful, Diverse Buildings
As I mentioned, Riga is admired for its collection of Art Nouveau buildings. One of the most famed of these is the House of the Blackheads. It’s probably one of the most photographed spots in Riga. The original building was home of the Brotherhood of Blackheads, a guild for unmarried German merchants. Much of the building was ruined when the Germans bombed it in 1941, but it has since been reconstructed and returned to its former glory. I definitely recommend making a stop here to snap a photo. Unfortunately, you can’t go inside to see the museum, as it’s under construction for the next six years.
The Three Brothers, located down a narrow street, just off the main square, are the oldest dwelling houses in Riga. Each one represents a different period of development. The first building (17 Maza Pils Street), dates to the 15th century and features some Gothic decorations and some details from the early Renaissance. The second house (19 Maza Pils) dates to the mid-1600s, and has some influences from Dutch Mannerism. The third house (21 Maza Pils), is a Baroque-style building. The three houses now house the Latvian Museum of Architecture.
These were two of my favorite architectural sites in Riga, but there are many more. If you just wander the cobble-stoned streets, you’ll discover numerous stunning, intricately designed structures, including the Swedish Gate, the Big and Little Guild and Dome Cathedral.
Latvia, like the rest of Europe, has had its fair share of violence. Wars have plagued the area for centuries, and the country has been under the rule of many other nations. When I was in school, I never heard much about military activity in the Baltics. It wasn’t an area that was mentioned much, if at all, in my European history classes.
But Latvia, and Riga’s, war history is one that should be heard. On our second morning in Riga, it was pouring rain. We were desperate to dry off somewhere, and just happened to be walking by the Latvian War Museum. We figured, why not check it out (plus, it was free to enter). The first thing that’s interesting about this museum is where it’s located. It’s housed in the Powder Tower, which is all that’s left of the 18 towers that made up the city’s defenses. Part of the tower dates to the 14th century, but the rest was rebuilt back in 1650 after the original was destroyed by the Swedes. The structure has 8-foot thick walls, designed to protect the gunpowder stored inside. There are apparently nine Russian cannonballs still embedded in the walls (although we couldn’t see all of them).
The Latvian War Museum features exhibits from the 15th century all the way through the Soviet occupation. The World War I exhibit is the most comprehensive and offers an in-depth look at the affects the Great War had on Latvia. Hundreds of photographs, weapons, documents, military equipment and uniforms are on display, and there are lengthy descriptions next to every item. (Note: some of the exhibits only have section and object labels in Latvian. There are books at the entrance with English translations, but it makes it a little harder to follow.)
One of the most interesting places we visited was the KGB Building. It’s part of the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia, but it’s located outside of old town in the original building where the KGB operated during the Cold War. The building, known as the “Corner House,” was a symbol of terror in Latvia for decades. If the Soviet’s suspected one of being a dissenter or a counterrevolutionary, he or she would be summoned to the Corner House, where they would be locked up, interrogated, tortured and sometimes executed.
The museum has only been open a few years, and almost nothing has been changed since Latvia gained independence back in 1991, offering a true glimpse of the past. It’s free to enter the main level of the museum, but if you want to see the cellars, interrogation rooms, and administrative offices, you must take a guided tour (5E). We, unfortunately, missed the last English-speaking tour and we had to catch our flight that afternoon. Given the chance, you should take the tour. It’s definitely a depressing experience that highlights a painful past. However, it’s a testament to the Latvians and how they have now embraced a very bright future.
Kayaking on the Canal
Now for something a little less somber. As an active person, I enjoy doing things that are physically challenging when I’m traveling. When I learned we could kayak on the Pilsetas Canal and the Daugava River, I had to do it. There are a couple different companies that offer kayak rentals and tours. We rented a double kayak from Luzumpunkts, an adventure organization located near Old Town.
We went on a Wednesday, and there was no wait for kayaks. In fact, we were the only people there around noon when we arrived. After a quick lesson on proper technique, we were handed a map with a few different routes. Once we pushed off from the dock, we decided to go through the canal first. It took us a little while to get a rhythm going, but eventually we got the hang of it.
It was a peaceful ride through Bastejkalns Park. I loved taking in the leafy green scenery, observing people strolling the paths or sitting in the grass. We occasionally had to scoot out of the way for wooden canal boats ferrying visitors around the city. FYI, this is a nice tour option if you’d rather not do a lot of work. You can enjoy views of Riga while listening to a guide give you some background on the city.
When we reached the river, the currents became a little stronger, and it was harder to paddle the kayak. Still, we had an exciting time taking in the city from the water. We opted to kayak on our own, but as I mentioned before, you can take a guided kayak tour, if you feel more comfortable with a knowledgeable leader. There are even night tours, which are unique to Riga. It can get chilly in the evenings, but if that doesn’t bother you, I suggest trying a night kayak tour.
A La Carte Breakfasts and Latvian Garlic Bread
Some of the best food we had on our trip was in Riga. And while I’m usually not a big breakfast person, I absolutely loved every morning meal we had in Latvia.
Breakfast at most places is self-serve, but there’s no set price like a traditional buffet. Every food item is priced individually, and you select exactly what and how many you want. We ate many stuffed pancakes and crepe-style dishes, each one costing less than 2 euros each. Every place we went had a variety of sweet and savory dishes, from meat stuffed pancakes to cheese crepes to strawberry filled blintzes. But be sure to read the signs to make sure you’re grabbing the right thing. I had an unfortunate incident with some kefir, which I accidentally poured in my coffee, mistaking it for milk. That cup was effectively ruined. Apart from that major fail, our breakfasts were delicious, filling and super cheap.
Breakfast Recommendations: LIDO is a popular restaurant where you can grab a quick, inexpensive breakfast. They also serve lunch and dinner, but we never tried it for those meals. If you prefer something less traditional, I highly recommend Big Bad Bagels. We went here on our first morning in Latvia, and the bagel sandwiches were to die for.
One of my favorite dishes that we tried was Latvian garlic bread, or as the locals call it Kiploku Grauzdini, which means garlic toasts. It’s made with dark rye bread, which is fried and rubbed with garlic cloves. It’s served with dill-topped sour cream, which pairs perfectly with the garlic-drenched bread. I tend to steer clear of garlic, but when it came to this delightful Latvian snack, I couldn’t get enough.
Latvian Craft Beer and Balsam Cocktails
You know what pairs best with Latvian garlic bread? Latvian beer. Luckily, there are many places around Riga where you can grab a local microbrew. Our first night, we visited Alķīmiķis, a small brewery located underneath Bierhaus (Lacple a iela 12, Riga 1010, Latvia). It was a quiet bar, despite nearly all the tables being full. But it was a Monday night, so that may have played a role. I ordered a pint of the Saison, and Steve went for the Sweet Trump Belgian IPA. The scene here is mellow, but it’s perfect if all you want is to chat with friends and enjoy your beer.
Another great bar with a wide range of Latvian craft beers is Folkkubs Ala Pagrabs (Peldu iela 19, Riga 1050, Latvia). Rough translation: folk club ala cellar. This tavern is in an old wine cellar (part of which dates to the 13th century). They have nearly 30 Latvian beers on tap, and we were eager to try as many as possible. We arrived a little after 6pm on Tuesday night, and the place was packed. Word of advice, if you want a table, get there early. We were lucky to grab two seats at the bar, which was the best place for us to be. We had prime views of the different taps, and easy access to the bartenders, who were all extremely friendly, and eager to share their favorite beers. I had the Mezpils (Golden Ale) and Kviesu (Hefeweizen) from Aldaris Brewery, and the Mikela Originalais (amber lager) from Mikela Alus Brewery. I liked everything I tried that night, and if I wasn’t so full of beer and food, I probably would have had more. I probably should have checked to see if they offered flights. (Next time, for sure!)
I realize not everyone likes beer, but Riga has a solution for that. Riga Black Balsam is a traditional Latvian liquor, and you can find it on pretty much any restaurant menu in Riga. It can be enjoyed neat, on the rocks or mixed. On our first night in Riga, we had dinner at Trompete (highly recommend this place for a nice meal). The restaurant has a selection of Balsam Cocktails, made with the original, as well as other variations of it. I tried the Stairway to Heaven (Riga Black Balsam Currant, fresh ginger, tonic and ginger sphere) and Steve tried the Jazz Mojito (Riga Black Balsam, Trompete’s peppermint lime syrup and sparkling water). They were both delicious and refreshing (and very reasonably priced). Before we left, we picked up a few bottles to bring home. I have yet to make a Balsam cocktail since I’ve been back, but as I’m writing about it, I may just have to mix one up soon.
The black cat is a major symbol of the city. To be clear, Riga is not filled with black cats, at least, not live ones. You can spot them in street art, in souvenir shops and on buildings. What’s the fascination? It’s a funny story. Legend has it that prior to World War I, a Latvian merchant wanted to join the Great Guild, but he was denied entry because he wasn’t German. At the time, membership was reserved for Germans only. The merchant owned the building next to the guild, and in retaliation for his denied entry, he put two statues of black cats on the roof. He positioned them so their backsides faced the guild. Eventually, after a lengthy battle in court, the merchant was granted entry, if he agreed to turn the cats around so they would be facing the guild. Today, those cats are still on the roof of Cat’s House (what the building is now named).
I’m a sucker for stories like this, I eat them right up. It’s a nod to the city’s past, and gives you a fun glimpse into the culture and history of Riga. Of course, once we heard the story, we knew we had to purchase some black cat memorabilia. We decided a black cat Christmas ornament was the perfect souvenir, and a wonderful way to bring the story of Riga’s cats home with us.
Another reason to visit Folkkubs Ala Pagrabs? The dancing! As the name clearly states, it’s a folk club. The main reason we went there was for the craft beer. However, we soon learned that live Latvian folk music is played nearly every night, and coordinated dances are performed for patrons of the restaurant. This is another reason it was so crowded on a Tuesday night. The dancing takes place at the very back of the cellar, and those tables fill up quickly as people battle for a prime viewing spot. We managed to squeeze our way through the crowd and catch a few routines. If you follow me on Instagram, you may recall some of the dances from my story. I’ve also posted a couple below so you get a small taste of this experience. I will say, it’s a little touristy, but I loved it!
I was mesmerized by Riga’s beautiful buildings, fascinating history and vibrant culture. That combined with its great food, thriving beer scene, and quirky hidden gems makes for a distinctive Baltic experience. There’s even more to see outside the streets of Old Town, and I hope to return soon and explore even more of this wonderful city.
Have you ever been to Riga? If you have, what was your favorite part about the city? If you haven’t, is it somewhere you’d like to visit?
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