During 2018 commemorations will be held in Latvia to mark a century since the country gained independence. Riga, the nation’s capital, straddles the River Dauguva and has much to offer travellers who enjoy good food, architecture and history.
Latvians celebrate their Independence Day each 18 November: the date an independent republic was called into existence back in 1918. The Freedom Monument honours the soldiers who fell fighting for independence between 1918 and 1920. During World War Two, the nation was invaded by the Red Army, which was subsequently pushed out by German forces. The Russians returned later in the conflict. For decades, until independence was restored in the early 1990s, Latvia was part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). The story of that era of Latvia’s history is conveyed in the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia.
You’ll still hear Russian spoken on the streets of Riga, though Latvian is the language most widely used in this Baltic nation of around two million. English is widely spoken in Latvia, so there’s no need to have concerns about communicating while visiting the country’s capital. With a population of more than 640,000 people, Riga is the home to nearly a third of the country’s people and dominates Latvia’s intellectual and cultural life.
That means numerous museums and attractions to visit. It’s worth packing a set of smart clothing to wear while you’re in Riga. Tickets for performances of the Latvian National Opera are modestly priced. Spending an evening in the ornate auditorium of the grand, 19th century building could be way of impressing your partner or simply an opportunity to enjoying an evening of entertainment.
During 2014 Riga was a European Capital of Culture. To mark the occasion, a new National Library of Latvia building, designed by Gunnar Birkerts, was opened on the left bank of the River Dauguva. The 13-storey building looks like a miniature mountain of learning and is nicknamed ‘the castle of light’.
Let’s suppose architecture is your fancy, then don’t miss an opportunity to stroll the city’s streets and look up at the many Art Nouveau-influenced facades on the street called Alberta iela. The Riga Art Nouveau Museum is a good place to learn more. The style of architecture is known as National Romanticism in Latvia: Mikhail Eisenstein was the architect who designed several of the city’s buildings. He was, incidentally, the father of the film director, Sergei Eisenstein, whose works included Battleship Potemkin and Alexander Nevsky. The latter, about the prince who defended Novograd in the early 13th century and was subsequently made a saint, shares its name with the orthodox church that stands on Brivibas street in the city centre.
The Esplanade Park, the home of the grand Nativity of Christ Cathedral, is also the location of vast statue of Jānis Pliekšāns, a man who was is widely known by his pseudonym, Rainis. A playwright, poet, translator and politican, Rainis helped forge the Latvian language and a sense of national identity.
Riga exudes a positive buzz come nightfall, hosting a number of chic bars. Modernists (Krišjāņa Barona iela 31) lays claims to being the Baltic States’ first concept store. It is a design boutique and Champagne store plus a place to sit enjoy a glass of bubbly and snacks. For panoramic views over the city centre head to the Skyline Bar on the 26thfloors of the Radisson Blu Hotel Latvia. If you want a taste of the local herbal liqueur, order a shot of Black Balsam. The blackcurrant flavoured version of the drink came recommended by several barmen in the city.
For well-presented international cuisine visit the restaurant Mute (Tērbatas iela 63). The subtly illuminated restaurant has a polished concrete floor and high black walls. At the end of the dining room it has an open kitchen, from where servers in black designer clothing fetch the carefully arranged food. Simple dishes such as belly pork and burgers count among the dishes served.
For traditional Latvian cuisine, you could stop by Niklavs (Mārstaļu iela 1) in the city centre. Latvian dishes are also served in the restaurant Lido, which occupies Europe’s biggest wooden building. Grab a tray and pick whatever appeals. You can also pour yourself a beer.
Then again, If you’re into motor vehicles, don’t miss the opportunity to spend time in Riga Motor Museum, which reopened in 2016 after extensive reconstruction. Riga was once a major vehicle producer and several of the cars, buses and fire engines that rolled off production lines are displayed on the museum’s lower level. This attraction tells the story of transport technology and displays the Kremlin Collection, vehicles once used to shuttle the premiers of the USSR. They include an armoured vehicle with a statue of Joseph Stalin on its back seat and the 1966 Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow that Leonid Brezhnev crashed in 1980 while driving on a private road.
Hopefully you’ll fare better as you head back into central Riga.
Tell me more about this insider guide to Riga
Visit the Latvia Travel website for ideas about places to visit and things to do in Latvia.
For information about things to see and do Latvia’s capital, take a look at the Live Riga website.
Where can I stay in Riga?
The Radisson Blu Radzine Hotel (tel. +371 6709 3333) is a modern, four-star property by central Riga’s Esplanade Park. The attractions of the Old Town are a short walk away, across the park. The hotel has 95 guestrooms, a sauna and fitness room (with city views) on the fifth floor, a bar that stays open until 11pm, plus a restaurant.
The hotel is around the corner from the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia, so handily placed if you want to discover more about the country’s recent history.
How can I book a break in Riga?
Regent Holidays (tel. 020 7666 1244) can offer a three night stay at the Radisson Radzine in the city centre of Riga, Latvia, priced from £395 per person. The price is based on two sharing on bed and breakfast basis and includes return flights and transfers.
How can I get to Riga?
Air Baltic flies from London’s Gatwick Airport to Riga International Airport. The duration of the flight is two hours 40 minutes.
How can I get about in Riga?
The city’s public transport system is well developed. Trams, buses and trolleybuses operate in Riga. 24-hour, three-day and five-day tickets are available and worth purchasing if you plan on mal]king multiple journeys over the course of your visit.
What can I do near to Riga?
If you enjoy walking in the countryside, visiting medieval castles and participating in adventure sports, consider taking a day trip to Sigulda. The town, which has a bobsleigh track and numerous woodland cycling trails, has a long history and is the location of three castles founded by knights of the Teutonic Order. Sigulda is approximately one hour’s drive from Riga