Look skyward while walking around Riga and you will be rewarded with glimpses of fanciful architectural flourishes. Roughly 40 percent of the buildings in this port city were built in the Art Nouveau style.
Some of these stately stunners—constructed primarily at the turn of the 20th century, during the height of Riga’s wealth, and clustered in the city’s historic city center—have seen better days. This fact, along with the blustery weather that accompanied my visit, lent an air of Baltic melancholy to the streets.
Still, there is a quiet but palpable spirit of renewal in Riga, demonstrated by construction cranes and a spate of new shops and eateries opening up around town.
Heather Hall, an American travel blogger living in Riga, reports that the city remains under the international tourist radar, meaning that crowds are thin, even in summer. “You can enjoy the city’s wealth of cultural attractions and stunning architecture in relative peace and quiet,” she says.
Compact Riga is tailor-made for a weekend visit. And for travelers in search of authenticity, the Latvian capital delivers in spades.
Here’s my brief guide to the best sights, eats, and stays:
> Wander: Five Must-Dos
The massive Central Market, which consists of five imposing structures incorporating the frames of World War I-era dirigible hangars, is almost certainly Europe’s largest bazaar. Tip: Look for a local favorite in the spring—bottles of birch water, tapped directly from the tree.
Meander down Miera Street. In addition to discovering a veritable treasure trove of charming local boutiques and restaurants on this hip byway, you’ll find the Laima Chocolate Museum. Locals rave about Riga Black Balsam, a vodka-based herbal liqueur, though I found it to be too potent to enjoy. A more palatable way to sample the traditional flavor: Snap up a box of Black Balsam chocolate in the museum’s shop.
Head to the Art Nouveau Museum for a fascinating peek into Riga’s love affair with the well-loved aesthetic philosophy also known as Jugendstil. Tip: Pop across the street to the Art Nouveau Riga shop to pick up a functional—and beautiful—souvenir to take home.
Visit the Kalnciema Quarter, a cluster of restored late 19th-century wooden buildings located a five-minute drive from Riga’s Old Town (Vecrīga) on the right bank of the Daugava River. Tip: Go on a Saturday to experience a popular food and craft market that brings live music to the quaint neighborhood. “Latvia has a strong handicraft tradition,” Hall told me. “The workmanship is exquisite.”
See a performance at the beautiful Hapsburg-era Latvian National Opera, which draws opera lovers looking for affordable access to world-class performances from all over Europe. “Tickets can be had for less than 20 euros,” Hall says. Not an opera fan? Cruise by anyway; the park surrounding the theater is one of the loveliest spots in Riga.
> Eat & Drink: Three Ways
Typical Latvian cuisine revolves around pork, cabbage, pickled vegetables, and hearty soups (frikadeļu zupa, meatball soup, was my favorite). But like many cities I visit, global influences are making their way onto the food scene in Riga.
Coffee: Happily, there is a lively cafe culture in Riga. And nearly all coffee shops serve casual food. Follow my lead and overindulge in frothy cappuccinos at Rocket Bean Roastery. If you’re in need of a hair cut, there’s an on-site barber shop at popular gourmet coffee bar Vest Riga.
Food: Located around the corner from the Art Nouveau Museum, Art Cafe Sienna is one of the most sumptuous Old World spots in town. (Plan to spend a couple of hours nibbling and people-watching here.) For hearty, healthy food served family style, try Istaba, one of Hall’s favorite spots for dinner. And tiny Stock Pot Bistro features communal seating and smells like home-cooked bliss. That’s the idea, as servers spoon heaping portions of curries onto your plate.
Cocktails: Krogs Aptieka: This bar (operated by an American-Latvian) takes inspiration from an old-school pharmacy, with antique pills and bottles for decor. Bar grub, think burgers and chicken, is served at night.
> Sleep: Two Great Stays
On the whole, Riga hotels offer travelers an incredible value.
I loved the Dome Hotel, a Relais & Chateaux property set in a 400-year-old building on a quiet Old Town street. Its location directly behind Dome Square allowed me to wander Riga without a map and find my way back by scanning the skyline for the weathercock atop the grand Riga Cathedral, the square’s focal point.