Latvia: The crossroads between Northern and Eastern Europe
Because of its geographical position, Latvia has always been interesting to a number of people. As a result, it’s had many different rulers over the last 8 centuries. Partly due to this, Riga’s architecture ranges from wooden buildings to Art Nouveau, and Modernism to Gothic – depending on which part of the city you’re in. I expected the city to be pretty grey and very ex-Soviet, but was quickly corrected. It looked more like Paris, Vienna or some part of Scandinavia. The vibe of the city, the culture and its people seemed far more Northern European than I would have expected. Here’s what I did in my few days in Riga before I explored other parts of the country.
I first thought these were military aircraft hangars. I guessed wrong. These five old German Zeppelin hangars from the 1920s have now been transformed into Riga’s Central Market.
Being the largest market in Europe, it has the most unexpected treasures. Unlike many other markets, this is a very real place of trade for many locals who come to buy their everyday products – ranging from berries to mushrooms, cheese to herring, clothes to even oysters or bottles of birch water, tapped directly from the tree. My most interesting find? Coffee brewed in sand.
I hadn’t heard of coffee brewed in hot sand until I saw the magic happening live at Bern Coffee in Riga’s Central Market.
Inspired by Turkish tradition, they use heated quartz sand as a base and then insert the coffee in a small vessel (to which lukewarm water and spices have been added) to brew and heat up. The sand acts as a uniform heat regulator. After a few minutes in the hot sand for the coffee to foam to the top, it’s poured out and left to rest for the coffee granules to sediment out. And then it’s ready to drink. I’m no expert but thought the coffee was richer and deeper, though slightly more bitter, when made this way.
Easter in Latvia
I find the meaning behind local traditions and their associated stories to be fascinating.
In Riga, my host family made me a beautifully decorated Easter Egg and asked me to join their traditional family breakfast. At the table we had an Easter Egg ‘fight’ where you knock one end of your egg against your neighbour’s and see whose egg cracks. And repeat with the other end of the egg. Then, by virtue of elimination, a winner emerges. I also learnt that eating your egg with salt stops you from telling lies for the coming year 😂. And riding on swings prevents the Latvian mosquitoes from biting you in the summer heat!
A quaint spot on the less popular left bank of the Daugava River is the Kalnciema Quarter which has a lively Saturday farmers’ and crafts market. For Easter, they also had many live musicians and dancing. I managed to try 8 different types of honey (who knew so many existed?) and bread with purple cornflowers. I nibbled on food from different vendors and avoided the slightly expensive but delicious-looking Maja restaurant in the courtyard making Latvian seasonal delights. Whichever way you spend your time, being surrounded by classic wooden architecture, live music, local art and chatter, you’re guaranteed a fun Saturday in Riga.
Art Nouveau District and the St Gertrude Lutheran Church
Don’t you enjoy things a little bit more when you stumble and discover them by accident? While on my way to explore Riga’s Art Nouveau district, I happened to look right when crossing a road and saw the St Gertrude Lutheran Church. Fact for the day: the biggest Christian denomination in Latvia is Lutheranism (due to historic links with the Nordics & Northern Germany).
Being the imposing structure that it was, my curiosity was piqued so I turned around and walked in. I was greeted by the rich sound of a cello filling the whole space, with the evening sun streaming in through the windows. They have regular, free concerts on many evenings and were currently rehearsing for one that very day – with a choir, harpist, organist and electric guitar!
Unable to believe my luck, I excitedly went for a walk to the Art Nouveau district aiming to be back in an hour for the concert. This district is just north of the Old Town and you immediately notice the red brick and grey stone being replaced by colourful, tall buildings with lots of sculptured detail. The heart of the district is in Albert Street. I felt like I was walking down a street in Paris, and had to remind myself several times that I was in Riga. Apparently ~40% of buildings in Riga were built in the Art Nouveau style, making it the city with the highest concentration of such buildings anywhere in the world. Before I knew it, an hour was up, and I was rushing back to the church eager in anticipation of listening to the melodious cellist!
Kanepes Cultural Centre
Just a typical 100 year old Latvian wooden house? Oh no – this is now the Kanepes Cultural Centre. A hotspot for local artists and their supporters, they run a range of events from live performances to readings, music and film with a laid back bar for people to socialise in.
I walked into a room with a wallpaper assembly titled ‘The Grammar of Feminist Organising‘. The artists looked at similarities between early radical feminist movements and modern associations, showcasing forms of resistance that are often overlooked but have the ability to challenge and reshape communities. They used photographs of women’s gatherings in early 20th century Sweden to create this wallpaper. At this time, where women had no civil or political rights, just the act of gathering together could be seen as rebellion in itself. Isn’t that crazy?
By the River Daugava
I have a soft spot for cities that have rivers flowing through them. Mainly because sitting alongside a river is something that I find greatly calming.
The same applied to Riga – sitting on a bench on the right bank of the Daugava River which separates the city into two parts at sunset is incredibly peaceful. Most activity happens on the right bank; the left bank is mostly residential. I’m told the best view of the Daugava and the cobbled streets of Riga’s Old Town is from the top of St Peter’s church spire. Sadly the last tickets are sold at 5pm and I just missed it!
Latvia is surprisingly affordable relative to its northern European cousins. From great value massages (check out Joker Klubs) to opera tickets for less than €20, otherwise expensive indulgences become more affordable treats.
Sadly I couldn’t catch any shows at the Hapsburg-era Latvian National Opera but instead wandered through the park near the theatre on my first night in Riga. It’s undoubtedly one of the city’s more charming spots at night. Riga is not yet on the international tourist circuit, which means crowds are thin – and at night, it’s even quieter. While sitting on a bench in the park, I spied this bridge which was most magnificently lit and wondered how long it would be before the tourist floodgates opened towards Riga and diluted its quiet charm.
Cross carrom and billiards. What do you get?
While walking through Riga’s marvellous green spaces, which have canals running through them, I spied something that looked suspiciously similar to carrom – a game my brothers and I learnt from my Indian grandmother while growing up. Turns out it’s a game called Novuss – a cross between carrom and billiards, with its own unique spin. And it’s a national sport in Latvia!
On Food & Drink
Riga’s passion for good coffee follows in the footsteps of its Northern European cousins. Cuisine here is more than just meat, boiled potatoes and salad with sour cream. Riga is home to several decent restaurants and bistros – here are the five I enjoyed the most.
1. Lido: A chain with multiple locations around town, doing Latvian self-service buffet-style food. Excellent ambience, great value and the old town branch had live music after 7pm. Price guide: I had chicken stroganoff, roast potatoes, gravy, beetroot salad and mint tea, all for <€5! Highly recommend trying 3 other local delights that I savoured: cold beetroot soup (aukstā biešu zupa), chicken dumplings, and fried cheese balls. Latvian food is not spicy at all, so I generous helped myself to chillies on the side 🙂 [Photos 1&2]
2. Rocket Bean Roastery: They take their coffee seriously here; there’s a whole roastery onsite. You can even get coffee ‘consultations’ at this local hipster hangout 😉 Pretty pricey though, with a coffee close to €3. [Photo 3]
3. A.L.L.Cappuccino Café: A place I discovered completely by chance when I was looking for somewhere to warm up after getting lost in search of Andrew Island near the port. After I got out of warehouse land, this cozy cafe with their smooth hot chocolate and scrumptious pecan pie was a welcome retreat. Well away from any tourist path, it’s cozy and intimate. My favourite cafe in Riga! [Photo 4]
4. Stock Pot Bistro: A tiny establishment with communal seating and the aroma of being in someone’s home kitchen. They do lots of healthy bowl concepts (curries + rice; soups), with a lunch bowl + smoothie costing €7.
5. Andaluzijas Suns – slightly expensive but relaxed and feels great at any time of day. I wasn’t very hungry, so got the Tomato and Basil Soup with Sour Cream, Horseradish and Goat’s Cheese. It was not only delicious and filling, but also cost only €5.5!
For me, this was chicken dumplings and fried cheese balls at XL Pemeni, a cheap canteen-like restaurant in the Old Town. You won’t regret it.
Drink Riga’s traditional, unique liqueur – Black Balsam. I never tried it, but it’s supposed to have a medicinal taste (made with plants mixed in vodka) and be warned: it’s strong!
Visas: For those poor souls requiring a visa like me, Latvia is part of the Schengen Area.
Flights: RyanAir and WizzAir regularly ply the 2.5hr London-Riga route. Accommodation: I chose to stay in Riga for my whole time in Latvia, and did day trips outside, which is perfectly doable since public transport (train & bus) helped me get to Gauja National Park, Kemeri National Park and the beach very easily. Staying on the left bank of the river is cheaper, though slightly further away from the action. My Airbnb room (about a 30 min walk from the centre of town) cost ~£10/night in total.
Also read my blog post on the rest of Latvia – from white, powdery beaches, to national parks and bogs with therapeutic mud – Latvia never ceases to amaze.