europe, travel

Old Towns of Eastern Europe- Riga

Riga, the capital of the Baltic country of Latvia, is a beautiful city to visit. This former USSR state contains stunning architecture and natural beauty to match an interesting history. The city contains Medieval elements, and has easy access to castles outside the city, as well as the coast and forests.

The main international airport is in the capital of Riga, although people may wish to fly into neighbouring counties and travel in via train.

To get from the airport to the city centre, Bus 22 can be taken from the airport forecourt and costs between €1 and €2 depending on whether you buy the ticket at the machine at the stop or on the bus.

Language- Latvian

Currency- Euros

THINGS TO SEE

Old Town

The cobbled streets of the Old Town of Riga are a joy to walk down. you can oggle at the many beautiful old buildings, rich with history. Some buildings are no the originals, rebuilt in their early likeness having been destroyed during wartime, although are the original. The House of the Blackheads square contains some remarkable buildings. Originally built during the 14th for the Brotherhood of Blackheads, a guild for merchants and others which became known for wild parties, it was later renovated in the 17th century. It was bombed during the World Wars and demolished before being rebuilt in the late 1990s. It is open to the public to visit, and now houses a museum. For evidence of the original 14th century structure, the only remains are visible in the cellar.

The square was also the location for the first public Christmas tree, with a plaque now marking the spot and the current location for Christmas trees during winter.

Another gorgeous site worth visting in the old town are a trio of buildings known as The Three Brothers. Located at 17, 19, and 21 Maza Pils Street, The houses are brightly coloured, with the oldest from the 15th century. They are hidden away down side streets, making them seem even more magical and oldworldly.

Riga Castle, the current seat of the president of Latvia, is a fortress within the old town area, visible throughout the city. Originally built in the 14th century, it has seen multiple stages of redevelopment which can be observed as one walks around the complex. Multiple museums are also housed within the fortress. I enjoyed wandering around the square and venturing along the river.

These are just some of the many gorgeous old buildings to see in Riga, and I highly recommend taking side streets and enjoy strolling around. It is pleasant to experience the city by foot, and admire the wide range of historical architecture.

There are many beautiful religious buildings, including the orthodox cathedral (please dress respectably) and the church of St Peters.

When I visited at Christmas, I found the Christmas market held here to be fantastic. The atmosphere was phenomenal, with lots of traditional crafts being sold, and delicious food and drink. Be sure to try the hot cherry black balsams- a traditional Riga drink but with a warming, Christmas twist. Whilst I was not able to make it to Riga this summer for Midsummer like I had planned, I have been informed that the Midsummer market is equally lovely and traditional.

Admire the Art Nouveau architecture

Riga has the largest collection of Art Nouveau buildings in the world, due to Riga being a wealthy city during the heights of Art Nouveau. The area is a UNESCO world heritage site and for good reason- each street contains remarkable architecture and you can spend hours just looking at the intricate detail in the art work. The streets that contain this art are around the ‘Centrs’ area, with the most famous focused on Albert Street (‘iela’). However, this is just to get started, as many of the streets of Riga contain stunning Art Nouveau buildings and you can find yourself walking for hours and stumbling upon tons of gorgeous buildings. It is worth walking around and looking up at the buildings around, as many unassuming buildings may have decorations.

Riga Central Market

Riga houses Europe’s largest indoor market, which is also a world heritage site. The market is constructed out of 5 repurposed German zeppelin hangers, containing over 3000 trade stands. The market sells fresh produce such as meats,  cheese, fish, and honey, with each hanger themed towards each produce. The area had historically market/selling nature since the 1500s and the  permanent structure was built in 1930s and incorporates the Art Deco art style that was en vogue at the time.  Located close to the train station, these are well worth visiting, especially for lunch and picnic snacks.

The Monument of Freedom

The Freedom Monument honours soldiers killed in the Latvian war of Independence (1918- 1920) and unveiled in 1935. The relief at the bottom of the sculpture depict Latvian culture and history, and during the years of Soviet rule there was talk of the statue being destroyed, and Latvians were not allowed to congregate around it.

It is located on Freedom Boulevard, alongside the main park. The park is beautiful, with a canal running through it built upon the former city moat. One can feed ducks, or row boats, and it is great picnic spot, I enjoyed visiting the city during both the summer and the winter and the park was lovely to stroll through in all seasons.

The Academy of Science Tower

This tower, built in the 1950s, is one of the Palace of Cultures built under Stalin within USSR occupied cities. From the 17th floor, a great view of the city can be admired, including the Radio and TV Tower, the largest structure in the Baltic states.

You must pay around €5 to go up the tower, which is a functioning work place, so careful where you wander. If you look up on the walls, hammer and sickles of the Communist era are still visible.

Other places to visit in Riga include exploring the downtown area, and visiting the Occupation Museum and other soviet life museums such as Chequer House. I also enjoyed the Rabbit Kingdom during Christmas- Christmas in Riga is remarkable, and there are so many amazing Christmas markets, my favourite containing a big fenced off area full of little wooden castles and lots of well fed rabbits.

For more insight into the earlier Latvian life, the Ethnographic Open Air museum is close to the city and yet transports you back to earlier times. Established in the 1920s, the museum contains over 100 buildings from all over Latvia, to show a reflection of rural life of the country and the various folk traditions. During the summer months, you can experience the traditional craft work being made, and purchase it.

It costs €4 entry during summer and €2 during winter. It is accessible from Riga via bus such as the ‘Riga satiksme’ or the ‘Ekspress Adazi ‘or you could even cycle along bike routes for 14km if you are feeling adventurous!

DAY TRIPS

Sigulda

Sigulda is a town to the east of the capital, deep into the forest laden centre of the country. The area is full of caves, castles, and gorgeous nature. It is easily accessible by public transport from Riga, and exploring the wooded area is exciting. I loved visiting Sigulda, all the castles can be visited in a day trip easily, so no need to limit what you see!

Travel to Sigulda– train or bus taking 45 mins to just over an hour. It costs around €2.

Just some of the many places to check out in Sigulda include:

Krinulda Castle– deep into the woods, these ruins date from the 14th century and create an air of magic once you stumble upon them in the overgrowth.

Sigulda New Castle– This lavish chateau was originally built in 1878, with the adjacent Yellow House as a summer castle. It was destroyed in World War I and rebuilt in the inter war period.

Sigulda Medieval Castle– built in 1207 by the Livonian Brothers of the Sword, a military order of warrior monks. The ruins can be explored, with the tower and gates accessible. During the summer, the castle also acts as an open air museum.

Entry cost is €2

Turaida Castle– This recently reconstructed Medieval castle was originally built in 1214. It dominates the skyline of Sigulda, high above the trees, and is visible from all over the town. The castle contains a large museum complex, consisting of various archaeological, craft, and art museums. One of the oldest churches in Latvia, made of wood, is also within the complex.

Entry cost is €6 in the summer and €3.50 during winter

Gutmans Cave– the largest cave in the Baltics. The stream running from it is often drunk from.

Jurmala

Whilst Riga conjures up old town and capital city vibes when discussed, it is easy to forget its proximity to the coast.

By taking a 20 to 50 minute train up the coast (depending where you stop) for around €2, you can visit the coastal towns and the sea. The main resort town, Jurmala, reflects seaside towns of other countries, with colourful high streets and a lively atmosphere – Jomas Street being the busiest. It consists of a string of smaller resort towns, and the train you will need will be Kemeri rather than Jurmala. Like Riga, Jurmala has interesting architecture, with wooden houses dating from the 19th century that are popular amongst visitors. The beach is relatively calm and safe, and due to lack of knowledge, is often empty compared to other beaches in Europe.

The region is also heavily wooded and deep within the woods you can wander along boardwalks through the forests. Further west is the Kemeri National Park, which contains a long Bog Boardwalk that visitors can walk along and explore the bog environment.

An open air museum celebrating fishermen heritage throughout the region is also located in Jurmala.

Bauska Castle

It isn’t just Sigulda where one can see castles in Latvia easily from Riga, as many Medieval structures are easy to be visited from the capital. Bauska Castle is a beautiful 15th century castle, built by the Livonian order of Teutonic Knights. It is situated on a small islet, a 40 minute walk outside the town of Bauska. During summer, the large castle and its elaborate rooms are open to the public, and during winter when it is snow covered, one can walk the grounds.

It is an hour’s drive from Riga, or 1hr long bus and 40 minute walk from Bauska to the castle.

Rundale Palace

Regarded as the Versailles of Latvia, its decorative gardens are gorgeous and large, as is the Baroque building. Built in the 18th century on the ruins of a Medieval castle, it later became used as a school before finally a museum.

It is in the South of Latvia, close to the Lithuanian border. It is an hour’s drive from the capital, or you can take the bus to Bauska and get a bus from there to Rundale (around 2hrs 30 and costing €3)

Entry cost is €13 or € for just the gardens

Kuldiga

Kuldiga, an town consisting of quirky old buildings, a red bridge built in the late 1800s, and the widest waterfall in Europe is far west from the Latvian capital for those wishing to venture further afield. I visited at Christmas time and I enjoyed the chillness of town away from the captial city. The old buildings had charm and we found large, cheap places to stay to be alone and away from the Christmas time capital.

The bus from Riga takes 2 and a half hours and costs €6.. Keep your eyes peeled along the journey for a creepy house whose front garden is completely filled with life sized white, stuffed dolls.

PLACES TO EAT

DON’T EAT AT THE RESTAURANTS DOWNTIME, THEY ARE BIG TOURIST TRAPS

My partner is from Riga and has made these recommendations, as well as taking me to these places when I have visited his home city. These are his genuine recommendations as a local, mixed with my own personal experience at them.

Folkklubs ALA Pagrabs- highly recommended by locals. This bar is based in a cellar and has delicious Latvian beer (I love the cherry beer I had here) as well as traditional bar snacks to soak up all the affordable booze. The atmosphere is fantastic and is well worth visiting.

Hedgehog in the Fog- this fantastic cocktail bar has a fabulous vibe, and also serves very tasty food.

XL Pelmeni – for geuine local grub, this place is fantastic, especially for a late night post-booze grub (in lieu of a kebab). This place serves dumplings by weight

The Armoury Bar- For a drink with a cool atmosphere, I recommend the Armory Bar. The bar lives up to its name, containing a slew of weaponry across the tables for patrons to pose with whilst they drink.

Lido- This si a buffet style resutarant consisting of traditional Latvian foods. As you walk around the counters of freshly made food, you plate up and then pay at the tills at the end for what you have selected. It is cheap, and a favourite of locals and tourists alike.

Sushi is popular in the Baltics, with very tasty and affordable sushi found throughout the capital.

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