July 19 – August 16, 2017 (Summer)
Greeting: Sveiks (to a man)/Sveika (to a woman)
Currency: Euro (€)
Cost of living: Medium
By the time we arrived in Riga, the Baltic states were already near to our hearts. Long summer days, big markets, a nice apartment, and the promise of another beautiful and walkable city made Latvia’s capital easy to love. We spent a pleasant month avoiding the heat wave smothering the rest of Europe. A network of elegant, leafy parks allowed us to walk anywhere we needed with the busier parts of the city at arm’s length. And through it was neither as charming as Tallinn nor as hidden a gem as Vilnius, Riga nevertheless impressed and delighted us. When the Old Town flooded with tour groups, we simply fled to the Latvian countryside and explored a more relaxed side of this likable little country.
Where we stayed
We really lucked out with our Airbnb↗ this month. Just a kilometer north of the city center, we were in a refreshingly peaceful neighborhood between the river and the city’s infamous Art Nouveau district. Our host was brand new to Airbnb and excited to have us. He was super responsive and helpful, and met us in person to hand over the keys and provide all the necessary recommendations. The apartment was a fantastic value and we’re glad we took a chance on it.
Inside, it was spacious and light, with high ceilings and plenty of room for our stuff. Latvia’s long summer days meant that we didn’t need to turn on lights until late in the evening and that it was easier to wake up because the day was guaranteed to already be bright. Our single complaint was the lack of a door separating the living room from the bedroom. Though the bed was around a corner at least, our differing sleep schedules meant some light and sound annoyance were inevitable.
Once again, we suffered some construction noise, though this time thankfully outside the apartment rather than within. The road out front was being resurfaced, and it was surprisingly rapid and unobtrusive work. A marked difference from our experiences in Southern Europe! Traffic only backed up a bit at rush hour, and the street noise never penetrated the walls. Upscale restaurants and embassies lined the road in front of our apartment, and the courtyard behind us housed an impressive army of stray and outdoor cats. Overall, it was a lovely and livable area. Not the sort of place many tourists would wander – exactly the way we like it.
What we did
Riga’s biggest attraction is its many-spired and highly-polished Old Town. Gorgeous architecture abounds, from the stately House of the Blackheads, to the curious Three Brothers, and the towering Lutheran and Orthodox Cathedrals. It is so well-restored, in fact, it feels a bit fake. (Warsaw↗ had a similar problem.) But the city’s current prosperity is nevertheless miraculous. Latvia has had a rough first century of independence.
The War Museum, located in a medieval tower, details the many conflicts that shaped the nation. The Museum of the Occupation of Latvia focuses on the city’s occupation by Germany in World War II, then by the Soviet Union from 1944 to 1990. And the 1991 Barricades Museum covers Riga’s final fight for independence, as citizens barred the streets with rubble to prevent USSR tanks from invading to retake control. Latvians are proud of their hard-won liberty, and memorials to the struggle can be found everywhere.
As pedestrian-friendly as the Old Town can be, the most delightful side of Riga is found in its parks. When the city walls were torn down, they were replaced with a stunning canal and greenbelt. It was easily the most pleasant way to get around. We rented a kayak for a twilight paddle down Pilsētas Kanāls (or City Canal). The currents and eddies ran faster than expected and made steering a workout, but we had fun. After navigating under a mall and past the Central Market, the waterway spat us out into the Daugava River. As the moon rose behind the railroad bridge we noticed its shape seemed off. A quick check online confirmed we had stumbled onto a partial lunar eclipse. It was the second↗ such surprise on our trip and easily made our workout worthwhile. After sunset, the park bridges lit up to inject one last bit of magic into an already stellar evening.
Latvia is a relatively low-lying country, intimately connected to the Baltic Sea. Riga is a bit too far upstream to appreciate the seaside, but the nearby beach town of Jurmala is the city’s favorite weekend escape. Having only seen Tallinn’s cold and rocky shoreline, we were blown away when we stepped onto the long sandy strand. It was a hot afternoon (relatively, at least) and thousands of other people had the same idea. Turns out Latvia rivals Uruguay↗ as the great unknown beach destination. Dzintari Forest Park is another gem. It has an amazing (albeit expensive) ropes course, but the observation tower is absolutely free. It affords unparalleled views, as long as you don’t mind standing over 33.5m of horrifying empty space.
In the opposite direction we found Sigulda, which guards the entrance to Gauja National Park. This friendly hamlet has a climbable church steeple as well as two incredible adjacent castles with lots to explore. We saw Turaida Castle in the distance and couldn’t resist hiking there ourselves. Along the way we passed Gutman’s Cave, the widest and highest cave in the Baltic countries. Previous visitors were apparently impressed at least, as every inch was carved with some historical variant of “we were here.” Turaida was far more remarkable. The museum was pretty if underwhelming, but the view from the tower easily paid off our hiking efforts.
Far west of Riga, in the middle of the Courland Peninsula, sits the little village of Sabile. It once held the record for the northernmost open-air vineyard in the world, and the city still preserves its winemaking heritage. The Sabile Wine Festival is their biggest celebration of the year. At the end of July, the streets are decorated (and briefly closed for a parade), and every available public space is given over to traditional music and dance►, hand crafts, food, and of course, wine. Grape wines were rare and rather poor, but the real star of the show is the vast assortment of fruit and berry wines. We tried every flavor imaginable: rhubarb, strawberry, sea buckthorn, rowanberry, lingonberry, plum, pumpkin, quince, currant, dandelion, apple, lilac, even wines of fermented birch sap and oak leaves! The gathering seemed very much a local affair, and many vendors were shocked that two Americans managed to find the place. Though most happily switched to English, German, or mime in order to explain their wares.
Food & Drink
Our nearby Rimi supermarket had an great selection and decent prices. But for fruit and fish, the Central Market was unbeatable. It was built as a chain of Zeppelin hangars, and that mammoth floorspace is now given over to Europe’s largest market and bazaar. Being on the other side of town, it was just too far to visit frequently. So when we went, we tried to stock up. Fresh berries are the midsummer specialty: serviceberries, blueberries, fresh cloudberries so delicate they crush under their own weight. They were sold by the cup or the bag, made into jam, stuffed into pastries, and even pressed into wine or liqueur.
Latvia’s two favorite carbs are potatoes and dark bread. Loaves of hearty rye are filling by themselves, but can also be fried to make a tasty pub snack. The flavor is so beloved, it even has its own ice cream. Another savory delicacy is Latvian grey peas, though they’re more brown than grey, and more delicious than pea-flavored. Cooked low and slow with plenty of bacon and onion, we found them irresistible and tried our hand at making them ourselves. The peas need to soak for ages though, and the longer they cook the better. This is not a last-minute meal.
Chip flavors were generally unimpressive again. Danielle found some nacho cheese balls that made her day, and dried shredded seafood made for an interesting if unusual snack. We were happy to have skyr on the menu, though. And we found local producers trying their hands at flavored cheeses and peanut butter in ways that gave us hope for the future.
The massive Spirits and Wine Outlet, just minutes from our apartment, offered a huge selection of beverages to try. Estonia’s Vana Tallinn was there, as was Latvia’s own identity-tied liqueur, Riga Black Balsam. Unlike Estonia, Latvia’s drink wasn’t whipped up in the 60’s as a sweet treat but is actually a traditional medicine that dates back hundreds of years. And it is gross as hell. No mixer can save it and it has no redeeming qualities. Luckily, there was a whole warehouse of wine and beer to choose from instead. We previewed wines from some of our upcoming stops like Macedonia and Georgia as well as sweeter fare from nearer by. But our favorite treat was a single bottle of Chateau Ste. Michelle Syrah from Washington state. It’s a fine wine back home, but it tasted like the nectar of the gods after so long away.
Latvian beer is certainly above average by international standards, but after such green pastures in Lithuania↗, it was hardly Riga’s fault that we were disappointed here. Styles were similar, with most brands offering both gaišais (light) and tumšais (dark) options. And the city was swimming in great craft bars, like Beerfox, Folkklubs ALA pagrabs, and especially Alķīmiķis, whose incredible handmade lineup included such gems as Eternal Rhubarb of the Spotless Gooseberry. Easy Beer had a cool gimmick – scan a card at different taps to pour your own beers – but the small selection and high prices turned us off a bit. And in the end, our favorite beer in all of Latvia was a solitary bottle of Lithuanian Kanapinis. Still chasing that dragon from the month before.
Riga has a good-to-great transit system, with plenty of buses and trams zooming around town. The long-distance bus station sits directly across the canal from the Central Market. We arrived and caught a tram to our neighborhood within just a few minutes. Transit tickets (called e-talons cards) are available from machines or newsstands. A single ride cost €1.15. Our final trip to the airport took two single trip tickets for each of us. Only 45 minutes of travel time even with a transfer, and much cheaper than a taxi. Uber↗ wasn’t yet available in Riga, but we got along fine anyway.
We made several trips to outlying towns during our stay. Jurmala and Sigulda are accessible both by bus and train. We picked trains where possible because they was cheaper and quicker, around $3 per person round trip. For Sabile, bus was the only option and cost around $11 apiece. Tickets were available at the respective stations and could also be purchased from the bus driver.
Our flight to Timișoara laid over at Berlin Schönefeld, which might be the most janky airport we’ve ever visited. It’s basically a smattering of warehouses masquerading as terminals. It gets especially bad in the staged waiting area to board a flight; we sprang for priority boarding, but in this case that meant they simply put us at the front of the mob that bum-rushed the airplane. The lone redeeming trait was the rather nice restaurant we hit up while we waited between flights. Being Germany, it’s basically impossible to screw up a lunch of bratwurst & beer.
Stuff of interest
Our SIMs↗ this month came from Tele2. Their prepaid Zelta Zivtiņa SIMs came with a whopping 15 gigs of data, good for 30 days. The cost was €15 per person.
We happened to arrive as the European Choir Games were taking place. Venues and parks across the city were swept up with all kinds of musical presentations. “Friendship” concerts were open to all, so we happily took in some free music and culture►.
Pokémon Go had already wound down from the previous year’s highs, but the release of new “raid battles” briefly reignited the phenomenon in Riga. We have to admit, the social aspect of teaming up with a dozen strangers was pretty thrilling while it lasted. Unfortunately, within a day or two the events were spread too thin across the city, evaporating the crowds, and with it, the excitement.
Our debit cards were set to expire this month, so we arrange to have our replacement cards sent to our rental unit. We felt confident they’d arrive within our four week stay. They didn’t. Eventually, the bank determined that they had accidentally sent them to our mailing address stateside. But they never turned up there, either. They were apologetic and much more effective at reaching our next destination. Primary takeaway? Withdraw plenty of money before letting your sole source of petty cash get deactivated.
The mountainous silhouette dominating the opposite bank of the Daugava River is the new Latvian National Library, also called the Castle of Light (Gaismas Pils). Its shape is partially inspired by a traditional folktale that foretold a Castle of Light would rise from a lake once Latvians were in control of their own land and destiny.
What we learned
Riga proved yet again that the Baltics feel like home, even after the impossibly high bars set by Vilnius and Tallinn↗. With more tourists crowding the center and a higher cost of living we found it marginally less enjoyable than its counterparts. But on its own merits, Latvia’s capital was beautiful, charming, and eminently livable.