So I guess I should begin this post by wishing you a very Happy New Year! I had planned to have a post published sooner but as always, life got in the way. We’re already over a week into the new year and I’m pleased to say I have started off 2017 as I mean to go on: exploring new cities and countries. I spent 3 days in Riga, Latvia with my sister Becka and it was amazing!
I’ve wanted to visit the Baltics for ages, but it was only in the past six months I thought about actually planning a trip. Heading back to the UK for Christmas meant I would be in the ideal location for a visit, and what better time to see a fairytale city than in the winter, covered in snow? Ideally I wanted to do a bigger trip of more cities in Europe – oh well, next time!
Riga is the largest city in the Baltics and is a beautifully quaint city with so much to offer. The history is rich and very recent – Latvia itself was only formed less than a hundred years ago in 1918 and it has faced the challenges of World War Two and Soviet/German occupation since. Visiting Riga in early January meant that the Christmas festivities were still running – and, we had snow! Here were some of our highlights from our trip.
The House of the Blackheads
This is the number one attraction in Riga so of course it had to make this list! Although it is impressive in photos (it was a photo of this building that made me want to visit Riga!), it’s just as spectacular in person. The building itself was completely demolished by the Soviets during the Second World War, and the building that is stood proudly overlooking the square today is an exact replica of the original. While the castle is being renovated, the House of the Blackheads is the temporary residence of the Latvian king, so unfortunately it was closed to the public.
Riga is the birthplace of the Christmas tree – there is a plaque in the square to commemorate it! The story has it, that on a chilly Christmas Eve in 1510, a group of bachelors who were partying at the House of the Blackheads, filled with Christmas cheer (and alcohol, presumably), hauled a huge pine tree into the house, adorned it with flowers and decorations, and set it alight. Decorating a pine tree at Christmas caught on, but thankfully setting it on fire didn’t!
The Architecture in the Old Town
Wandering around Riga’s Old Town, you might think you have taken on the lead role in a Hans Christian Anderson story. There is definitely a fairytale-feel about the town centre which is something just magical – especially in the snow. Triangular roofs jut out above pastel-coloured walls and windows seem to be poking out from the eaves at whatever angle they can. And then there’s the spires of the churches escaping above the buildings, and the castle-like towers which are simply shops or apartments. And be sure to keep your eyes peeled for a furry friend on one roof in particular! This is definitely a city in which you’ll constantly be looking up. The architecture of Albert Street is recommended in the Lonely Planet and on Trip Advisor, however we didn’t think it worth the 20 minute walk in the -12 degree cold!
Dinner at Lido Alus Seta
There are a network of low-cost, authentic Latvian restaurants dotted around the city of Riga called ‘Lido’. We were intrigued and decided to go to Alus Seta, the restaurant in the Old Town, on our first evening in Riga. The set-up is basically like a cafeteria; you serve yourself what you’d like to eat and pay at the end before taking a seat. The restaurants are apparently always busy with both locals and tourists – because the food is just so good! Being vegetarian, I was a little worried that, as an authentic Latvian restaurant, the only options on the menu would be meat-based. I needn’t have worried. First, there’s a salad bar, so I piled my plate high with all the veggies I could, before we shuffled onto the mains section. Here there were all types of meat as well as – I could hardly believe it! – a vegetable stew! I got a hefty portion, with rice, and it was DELICIOUS, so filling, and the perfect meal to warm us up from the cold weather outside. Our meals (2x large salad plate, 2x veggie stew, 2x dessert) came to 15.85€ – how’s that for budget-friendly!?
We were spoiled for choice while we were in Riga, as the Christmas markets were still in full swing! The stalls had everything from mulled wine to Latvian snacks, knitted gloves, scarves, hats, socks, traditional Latvian honey, as well as ornaments and other souvenirs. With a Christmas tree everywhere you looked, these markets were places for locals and tourists to meet, grab some food and enjoy the atmosphere as the Christmas songs played.
We also went to the Central market, a local food market located near the railway line, which sells an abundance of fruit and vegetables as well as clothing and trinkets.
Churches and Cathedrals
Churches and cathedrals always seem to be such vital part of the itinerary when you travel to a foreign city, but they are something I rarely visit in my home country – funny isn’t it. There are a few churches in Riga that are well worth a visit.
The Riga Dom Cathedral (3€ entry) dates back to 1211AD. It’s quite impressive inside with beautifully coloured stained-glass windows and you can walk around the courtyard outside.
The Nativity Christ Church is free to enter and is simply beautiful from the outside and inside. It’s a practising church though, so be sure to adhere to the rules and be respectful. You cannot take photos inside the church.
Old St. Gertrude’s Church is the only church in this list not to be located in the Old Town; in fact its about 15 minutes walk from the Old Town and used to be located on the outskirts of the city, as it is outside of the city walls. The architecture of the church is quite beautiful.
St Peter’s Church (9€ entry for adults, 8€ entry for students) was by far my favourite of the churches we saw in Riga. You can pay a lower price to enter the Church and an additional fee to go up the tower – which everybody does, because the view is just GORGEOUS! Somehow, we managed to time our visit perfectly, despite queuing for ages at the ticket desk, and again for the elevator (there are no stairs to the top, only one lift which does continuous trips up and down the tower). We caught the sunset; the buildings were basking in the last few minutes of the sun’s golden glow. The only problem was the wind was SO cold it felt like our fingers were going to fall off!
Balsam (spelt Balzams in Latvia) is an alcoholic drink that you can’t leave Riga without trying. Not because I’m telling you to; but because there’s signs all around the city advising “you haven’t been in Riga until you’ve tried it!” Almost every bar in the city will have Balsam on the menu. We chose to enjoy ours at the Radisson Blu Skyline Bar – a bar on the 26th floor of the Radisson Blu hotel, which, as you can imagine, boasts a pretty amazing view. We tried the original Black Balsam but decided to buy the Blackcurrant flavoured version as it was slightly less strong. As for taste, I’m by no means a connoisseur when it comes to alcohol. Think cough medicine. But blackcurrant flavour. Top tip: get a soft drink to have it with!
Eating & Drinking
As always when I go on a short trip, food and drink take a front seat in the itinerary. I love trying local cuisines as much as possible and visiting recommended bars and restaurants.
Double Coffee is a chain of coffee shops; there’s two in the Old Town alone, but they offer a surprisingly wide range of options for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The food isn’t anything too fancy, but my porridge kept me full for hours.
The Fat Pumpkin is an excellent vegan/vegetarian restaurant which serves an abundance of dishes and has a whole menu of smoothies! We opted for the burgers – one falafel and one veggie burger – delicious!
Cuba Café is a Cuba-themed bar in the Old Town. Its dim, red lighting and crowded display of pictures and memorabilia on the walls makes it a warm, cosy place to stop for a drink. Their mojitos are on point!
On our final day, we spent some time hiding from the cold in Apsara Tea Room. Its ceiling-to-floor windows offer 360 degree views of the trees, and river in the park in which the tea room is situated. A small spiralling staircase leads to an endless outward-facing circular bench, where you can sit amongst the cushions and enjoy your tea.
We also went to a couple of Italian restaurants, because there’s quite a few of them and because well, you know, pizza. The first, Monterosso, was the most expensive restaurant we went to in Riga, but it was still only 11€ for a margherita pizza. We did feel very important though, as the restaurant is quite posh, so we had to try very hard not to be uncouth. On our last evening before heading to the airport, we ate at Sale e Pepe, a gorgeous restaurant set in the most beautiful stonework. The chefs are Italian and I think you can taste that in the food.
Be sure to try some of Latvia’s chocolate, Laima. There are numerous shops dotted around the city.
Where to stay in Riga:
We stayed at the Liberty Mansard hostel, a recently refurbished place in a central location. There’s a common room with a kitchen and lots of bathrooms – you won’t have to wait. The whole property was spotless. And the wifi worked perfectly!
How to get to Riga:
Riga has an international airport which is the largest in the Baltics with direct flights to over 80 destinations in 30 countries, including budget airlines such as WizzAir and Ryanair where you can get flights within Europe for under 50€.
From the airport, take bus number 22 or 222 to the city centre. In Riga they have buses and minibuses – either will get you where you want to go.
What to pack:
- If you’re visiting in the winter months, you must pack sensible clothing and shoes that will be suitable for the weather. When we visited at the start of January, we did not see temperatures over 0 degrees and on our last day it was minus 12 degrees celsius (that’s really cold!). Take thermal layers, numerous warm jumpers, hats, socks, scarves, gloves and a very warm coat. Bring extras of everything because they will get wet from the snow. Walking boots or snow boots (I like these ones) are ideal – our chelsea boots didn’t hack it and we had one incident where we had to return to the hostel to warm up because I genuinely lost all feeling in my toes!
- The travel adapter you’ll need in Latvia is the two pin circular adapter used throughout Europe. Bring a spare memory card for your camera because you’ll want to take loads of photos of this beautiful city.
- If you’re a student, bring along your Student ID card as many establishments will give you a discount off entry for it. We were never asked for proof of age to buy alcohol in Riga. The euro is the currency used in Latvia.
Have you visited Riga or elsewhere in Latvia? Do you enjoy visiting places in the snow?
Thanks for reading and happy travels
This post contains affiliate links which help to run this site. Some of the photos in this post were taken by my sister Becka – you can follow her on Instagram here.