RIGA, LATVIA: After the Western World and roads to Europe opened 25 years ago, visitors flocked to Riga on low-price-wings for party. Now the Latvian capital is far more than guests on unsteady high heels walking the cobblestone streets of the Old Town. Riga has become a vibrant cosmopolitan city and a renovated cultural centre – with opera, theatre, modern art and a city centre expanded into new and exciting areas. The difficult past with Stalin, Hitler and new occupation by Stalin is nearly wiped out. Now people of Riga wake up to sunshine and horde of relatively peaceful tourists.
Gothic spires dominate Riga’s cityscape. Our search for soul and heart we found the locals are quite and reserved on the outside, but powerful chemistry going on inside its hip bars, modern art and design centres and in cool experimental restaurants.
The younger generation has taken over with knowledge of both the history and the modern Latvia. The story is partly on the walls of Latvian National Museum of Art – including photos and paintings of Lenin. But new artists have filled the gallery walls, venues and festivals with high profile content. Little reminds me of the big neighbour to the east, although Riga still has a large population of Russians.
The artist. Ieva Ekmane (27) is one of many new and talented artists. Her working space is located in a former factory with exhibition space in the ground floor.
“In the beginning I painted only for myself, now I earn money too. Twice a year I have exhibitions and normally all artworks are sold out. In this country art has been something important” Ieva says. She creates large painting, make glass art and special art for children.
At a fairly reasonable price level shops and shopping malls are other reasons to visit Riga. As a start you should take the elevator to the top of St. Peter’s Basilica and enjoy the overview in all directions. At ground level the Old Town reminds me of Stockholm, its bohemian as Prague, has a bit elegance of Paris and is flashy as Moscow.
Old Riga. Most of Riga’s main landmarks are within walking distance of the compact city centre. Its only when you visit the preserved Old Town you get a greater understanding of the city’s history. The district on the east side of the river Daugava is the natural point for tourists, whether you are in Riga for a celebration or experience art and culture. This is where most of the city’s attractions, plus cafes and trendy restaurants. Trendy means a lot of people on weekends and stiff prices.
The history. In Riga you get an understanding of the country’s history. Take a tour of the Occupation museum, which provides an insight into how Latvia experienced under the Soviet and Nazi regime. One should remember that Latvia was occupied in 1940 and virtually wiped out in 1949 when a large part of the population was deported to Siberia. The past with Stalin, Hitler and occupied by Stalin for the second time is not particularly beautiful, just like the building where the museum is housed.
The Swedish gate, built 1698 is a beautiful and picturesque gateway to the Old Town, and a relic from the time Riga was one of Sweden’s largest cities. Although Riga is reasonably large, it is easy to get an overview of the city with the beautiful facades, narrow streets, atmospheric squares with trees and small houses.
Places to eat. Modern fusion cusine, astonishing combination of flavours and Latvian traditional meals are the profile of Riga’s gastronomy.
Trompete bar and restaurant is a sparkling place with jazz band and excellent food. Address: Peldu iela 24, Vecriga. Trompete.lv
Restaurant Locale is a highly recommended alternative. When chef Andrea Bressan made his new kitchen he went from being cook to also become an entertainer.
“The dancer can not dance without music, the artist can not paint without a brush,” Andrea says. He made all effort to use local ingredients. Locale has a selection of cheeses, both fresh and mature produced by local farmers, and an impressive selection of wine.
Biblioteca is located right in the city’s excellent park – a place with plenty of books and exciting food made for foodies. You get small portions of luxury food that fills the mind – not necessary your stomach. Recommended for those who expect some extra and pay a little extra.
Wine Bar. Tinto Wino, address: Elizabetes iela 61, Riga. This place is famous for food, wine and cocktails plus music from the 60s and 70s and a bartender with a bachelor in drink mixing. Wine selection is extensive and tapas with Latvian cheese a specialty along with chocolate cake.
Alberta Street is the hub of Riga’s Art Nouveau district and the best place to drink in the view is from the top floor of the high-rise Star Lounge bar at Albert Hotel.
Shopping. I found small souvenir shops and art galleries in the narrow streets of the Old Town. Europe’s biggest market is located to five hangars built nearly 100 years ago where to find cloth, food and mostly everything between heaven and earth. Among a myriad of people are also pickpockets. A bit further away is the Black Market, in charge by Russians offering everything from second hand TV to pins of Lenin and emblems from the old Soviet Army. For reasonably priced local contemporary art visit the exhibition hall at Artist Union of Latvia.
Balsam. Latvia’s most iconic export is Latvijas Balzam, potent and strong schnapps in a black bottle. Catherine the Great fell ill when she came to Riga, and was cured by this stiff mixture, which has a taste that resembles between Jägermeister and cough syrup – no stuff to bring on your return flight.
Read more about Riga