Riga, Latvia

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Admittedly, before this short visit to Latvia, I knew very little about any of the Baltic states, and it probably wouldn’t have crossed my mind to visit. Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia all have easy access to the sea, so regular interaction with the other European states. Historically, they’ve been in many spheres of influence: Danish, Swedish, Polish-Lithuanian, German, and – of course – the USSR. As a result the history, language, cuisine, art and architecture is fascinating, borrowing and mixing from so many courses of history.

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The Baltic states seem to have been relatively unscathed in modern history from war, violence and revolt, particularly from the end of WWII through the fall of the Soviet Union. Most remarkable was the Baltic Way in August 1989 as Gorbachev’s power started to crumble and the citizens across the states organized a huge campaign of civil resistance against Soviet rule. The Baltic Way is the name given to a spectacular demonstration, a 2,000,000-strong human chain that stretched from Tallinn to Vilnius, ultimately contributing to the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Above: Latvian Red Riflemen Statue, commemorating the soldiers who died alongside Soviet troops, fighting the German invasion during WWII.

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I was bowled over by how beautiful Riga is. Above, the stunning House of the Blackheads (on the right), which was destroyed in WWII and recreated in immaculate detail in 1999.

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The top of the House of the Blackheads. I didn’t go inside, but like so many interiors (and exteriors for that matter) in Riga, I understand it is stunning.

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Walking the streets of the Old Town on my first night, designated an UNESCO World Heritage site.

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Our first of many delicious meals at Neiburgs. They provide a telephone book-sized menu with choices from raw and vegetarian dishes to the heartiest meat dishes of all. This is the one they’ll point to if you’re overwhelmed: the oven-roasted Latvian beef fillet with butter beans, kale, mushrooms, celeriac and horseradish purée, and red wine gravy. Tis good.

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As far as the other food is concerned, expect to see dill in everything, creamed cauliflower bedding most meals (especially in season), and pike perch on most menus. For drinks, they source beers across Europe and for cocktails, the most unique option to Latvia involves Black Balsam, which I’ll come back to a little further along.

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L A T V I J A S R A D I O

I love the mix of medieval architecture in the centre, surrounded by Soviet-style buildings like this and held all together with the most stunning art nouveau. Again, stay with me for more on that.

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Also loving the rust & blue colour pallet that Riga wears so well.

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Looking out over Riga’s old town from St. Peter’s Church Tower. Worth visiting for sure, though it’s a little pricey to get access, and a little claustrophobic to visit. There’s one elevator that runs every 10 minutes and a little caged walkway around the top of the bell tower to peer over the city.

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Although there are a few other places to take in views of Riga, this is, I think, the best. Look at how absolutely stunning this city is!

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Another notable view can be taken in for free (well, if you’re a paying customer) from the Skyline bar at the top of one of Riga’s Radisson Blu’s.

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My first day of the conference, I was presented this envelope with an invitation to join the President of Latvia in Riga Castle (what is this world) for a drink’s reception. Dress code: dark suit. Dark suit?! Where even am I!

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A distant view of Riga Castle: where you see the short, wide white turret and the quad it corners. I arrived with a few colleagues and went through fairly intense security, then climbed all the stairs to the top….

The reception was in this huge hall that seemed to go on forever. How many chandeliers would you like? Alllll of the chandeliers. They’re also clearly in the process of having bespoke murals filled into the guilt ceiling – a few spaces yet! It reminded me a little bit of the Vatican Museum’s Map Rooms.

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From the left: Jo, Emma and John.

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The stunning Freedom Monument and the golden domes of the Nativity Cathedral.

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This Stalinist architecture gives me chills. Vaguely reminiscent of the stunning, Moscovian Hotel Ukrania.

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Peering down from St. Peter’s at this stag do in the golden hour.

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Inside St. Peter’s

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During a free afternoon I patched together a self-guided tour of the Art Nouveau quarter of Riga and I have got to tell you: I was losing my damn mind. So, so much muttering / exclaiming / talking to myself happening. It was astonishingly beautiful and well-preserved. We’re talking turn-of-the-century buildings with elaborate flourishes, faces, motifs, gargoyles and the most stunning details.

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This beauty: Alberta iela 8, designed by Mikhail Eisenstein, the boss.

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This one, too!

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Alberta Iela 2, also from the man of the hour: Mikhail Eisenstein.

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But you know what really blows my mind? There are more than 700 buildings – 700 BUILDINGS! – that survive in Riga with art nouveau architectural design and detail. I cannot stress how much I was jumping up and down inside walking the streets of Riga: an aesthetic dreamland.

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Fairly sure that this beauty was the work of Konstantīns Pēkšēns.

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Over one third of Riga’s buildings are examples of art nouveau… why? Well, when the style was at the height of its popularity, Riga happened to be experiencing a financial boom which also coincided with a lifted ban against masonry buildings within the city walls.

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And so just to quickly say, especially in light of some of these shiny, straight lines, the main difference between art nouveau and art deco is: if something looks sleek, angular and shiny it’s probably art deco, but if it’s out-the-butt elaborate – naked ladies, floral motifs, screaming faces and animals – then it’s more likely to be art nouveau.

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The best way to reach the concentrated art nouveau district if you’re coming from the Old Town is through the lush city parks. Then take in Alberta Iela, Elizabetes and Strēlnieku.

Another activity to add to the list: a canal tour. That, or a night kayaking trip. Lots of great boating options to see another angle of Riga.

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The Cat House, or Kaķu nams, is a must-visit. You’ll find it within the Old Town. The house was commissioned by a wealthy old tradesman who instructed the architect to add these cats to the turrets with their backsides facing the Riga Town Hall as a protest following a dispute with the City Council.

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The art nouveau building that houses Neiburgs, of the first night in Riga.

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One of my absolute highlights from the trip was visiting the Latvian National Opera House. Built in 1863, the Opera House has been incredibly reconstructed to its original design. It is like walking into a time capsule as you pad up the heavily carpeted stairs, sliding your hands over brass railings all covered in a soft, golden light from the super low voltage globe lanterns. The furniture, elaborately textured wall paper, polished bar and immaculate crowns are all breathtaking enough by themselves.

But.

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Dear lord, the great hall. Riga is just too much! How can there be so much insane beauty in one, barely-mentioned Baltic state capital?

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We managed to get tickets on the same day as the ballet for only 8 euro! I would have been more excited to see an opera performance, but I cannot complain about that price.

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GOOD! GOD! Check all that out! More angles on this restoration project here.

Just stop!

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The restored Dress Circle Hall, aka probably a room that was ripped out of the Titanic and restored to perfection.

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Ah! As promised: Black Balsam. If you visit Latvia, apparently you must try this herbal liqueur.

According to Wikipedia: “It can be had on the rocks or mixed with schnapps, akvavit, or vodka, or warm, in tea, coffee or black currant juice, or mixed with soda water or a soft drink, or in any variety of cocktails. It is also occasionally enjoyed as a topping on ice-cream.”

Its constituent parts are not really that easy to keep track of. Basically, get yourself some vodka and add about 24 different plants, flowers, buds, juices, roots, oils and berries and then mix that all up and let it do its thing in some oak barrels.

On my last morning, I was determined to make it over to another side of town to see even more architecture and specifically to hunt down one of the largest murals in the world, which I’d seen pictures of online and needed to see in person.

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First, some more architecture courtesy of Konstantīns Pēkšēns.

This was so, so worth the walk. It was considerably far outside the centre of Riga, but important to see the different neighbourhoods, including some of the more blighted and abandoned parts of the city to get a more realistic, rounded dimension of the city’s scope and disparity.

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This enormous mural, Pērkons Saule Daugava, is a collaboration piece between Rudens Stencil and Kiwie. It’s 800 square meters and required 1,500 cans of spray paint. Inspired by a 1938 poster for Latvian Song Festival with the Lielvārde belt featuring prominently around the singers. I had to stand a considerable distance away to get a full, undistorted shot.

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Walking back across the city for more detail hunting.

Back on Alberta Iela.

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Inside the Art Nouveau museum, the best detail of all is the staircase. Admittedly, it’s the only reason I visited (reviews were pretty middling), and though you’re normally required to pay a fee to take pictures, this is also the entrance (before you get to the ticket desk), so you know I was taking some sneaky shots.

The museum is situated in the old apartment of Konstantīns Pēkšēns, another iconic architect who designed 250+ buildings in Riga. This one at Alberta Iela 12.

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Also worth visiting, Art Cafe Sienna, which has impeccable attention to detail, also keeping every piece of furniture, dish ware, and decoration faithful to the belle époque.

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I gather this is even better than the art nouveau museum – you can have a coffee and quiche while you flip through the stacks of old photography books and admire the most careful, specific details covering every inch of the cafe.

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And the Freedom Monument, a little closer (the Skyline bar is in that Radisson, by the way).

Of all that I managed to see and do around my work obligations, my top recommendations for Riga would be:
1. Visit the stunning Opera House. Really, don’t miss it. Even if you don’t think opera is your thing: GO. It’s high class performance at popular culture prices.
2. Obviously, and I can’t even believe this isn’t number one, take in the art nouveau architecture of Riga. Go on one of the guided tours to really appreciate it (I didn’t, but I hear they’re worth the cost).
3. Spend time enjoying the UNESCO World Heritage Old Town, in all its Medieval glory. Climb St. Peter’s Tower. Visit the cat house. Try to go into the House of the Blackheads or the Occupation Museum.
4. Take in the view! You can see so much for free: the architecture on the streets, the public art, the … art nouveau museum staircase if you sneak in like me. And for a bit more, the Opera House and the view from St. Peter’s.
5. Enjoy the many miles of beautiful public parks. Take a boat along the canal and climb little hills for yet more views of the city.

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From St. Peter’s, a view across the river from the Old Town, where my conference was (in the National Library). Not every part of Riga was beautiful – this smoggy walk across the bridge every morning, dodging bicyclists and being flooded with exhaust fumes was my least favourite part.

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But! The library was also stunning. Another free view for you!

Next time I’m in Riga, there are a few things I didn’t do that I think may have made it onto my top 5 list if I had.

For next time (in no particular order):
1. In the Old Town, go to the Rozengrals restaurant, as tacky as it looks from the outside. The building it’s situated within is a well-maintained 12th century building and apparently it’s quite the experience dining there. Imagine Medieval Times but more authentic.
2. Go on an official art nouveau walking tour (better with a bigger group, as the prices drop).
3. Visit the Central Market (though watch out for pick pockets apparently).
4. See an opera performance at the Opera House.
5. Take a few hours out to visit one of the many spas around Riga. There really are so many.
6. Try taking an interior tour of more buildings – the House of the Blackheads, any of the old Soviet-style buildings, even the National Library.
7. Visit one of the many beer halls and beer gardens.
8. Take a boat tour of some kind – the night kayaking or more relaxing canal tour.

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