When I tell people I’ve been to Riga, far too many don’t even know where it is. But luckily, the fact that Riga (the capital of Latvia, by the way) is now a major hub for popular cheap airline, Air Baltic, means more people have a reason to visit, if only for a few hours in between planes. In fact, the first time I visited Riga was for exactly this reason. I had a choice between spending six hours in Budapest and spending 6 hours in Riga on my way home from Berlin. I’d already been to Budapest and a quick check confirmed that Riga’s airport was close enough to town to make a brief stop viable. I spent a few hours in town on a grey, miserable day, but still fell in love with the place so much, I felt the need to come back for a bit longer, meet some locals and learn more about this awesome place. Here are the cool, alternative things I’ve discovered.
- Cool Stuff to See
- More random shopping
- Food & drink
- Going Out
Cool Stuff to See
Art Nouveau Buildings
I’d read about Riga’s beautiful art nouveau buildings before visiting and was wondering where to find them. The answer is: just walk around the centre and look straight ahead and up. Everywhere you go, you’ll see absolutely amazing buildings. I must have taken hundreds of photos. I’m sure locals are used to tourists being perpetually attached to their phones or cameras by now. If you have any interest in old world architecture, you’e gonna be living the dream.
The Old town
This is definitely tourist-ville, full of overpriced (for Riga) things to buy, hordes of tourists, hotels, tourist attractions, and restaurants with English signs. On the other hand, the narrow streets and old buildings are absolutely beautiful and totally worth the visit, if only for the multitude of perfect photo ops. I enjoyed walking around taking pictures on a quiet Sunday and some of the little boutiques in the smaller streets looked interesting (many were closed on the Sunday). I also found a little cafe down a side street that serves some truly decadent hipster drinks and seems to draw a younger, more interesting crowd (see Strada below).
Touted as the city’s “hipster street”, Miera Iela has a good mix of little shops, cafes, a bar or two and cool old buildings like the ones I photographed here. It’s not too far from the centre and a nice enough walk along quiet streets full of pretty buildings. The interesting bit isn’t very long and is basically between Brivibas Iela and Tallinas Iela (see below), but it’s a nice place to kill an hour (or longer if you want to eat or drink). If you smell chocolate in the air, it’s because the Laima factory is here. That’s apparently a very popular (most popular?) local brand of chocolate. You can do factory tours, and there’s also an adjacent museum with a factory store. Their chocolate is all over town and at the airport as well, so if you just want that, you don’t have to go to the factory. I didn’t go in, so can’t tell you whether or not the tour is interesting, but hey, it’s chocolate, and a factory.
This cute neighbourhood has two main draws, as far as I can tell: cool old wooden buildings, and a local craft / farmers’ market that happens on Saturdays. It’s on the other side of the river from the main bit of Riga. You actually pass it on the way from the airport. If you’re coming from the main part of town, it’s easy enough to get here by bus. Aim for Kalnciema Iela (which is the stop on the corner) or one of the stops further down it. Unless you really like taking photos of wooden buildings, there’s not much to do here if the market’s not on, unless there’s another event happening. The street / neighbourhood does have an active Facebook page with all kinds of event listings (markets, exhibitions, workshops, music). Some include info in English. Otherwise – Google translate can help.
Pauls Stradiņš Museum for History of Medicine
Antonijas 1 * Tues, Wed, Fri, Sat 11:00 – 17:00, Thu 11:00 – 19:00, Sun 11:00 – 16:00
Four floors charting the history of medicine from ancient times (and more contemporary tribal medicine) to the mid 20th century. Lots of weird medical instruments, curios (like this “two headed dog”), freaky displays, and information about notable scientists and doctors. Lots of Soviet era focus, East European focus, and, in keeping with Latvia’s fascination with herbal and traditional folk medicine (see below), more than your fair share of stuff about herbal medicine. Out of the four floors, nearly two are to do with, shall we say, more esoteric things, including freaky masks and fetishes used for tribal and shamanic medicine around the world, large displays of local herbs (sadly, the info was in Latvian only), and an entire display celebrating mineral spas for their medicinal properties. Amusingly, the “future of medicine” room was pretty much all about space and astronauts, including a taxidermy dog and the pod that got her into orbit. I’m not entirely sure how this relates to either the history or the future of medicine, but it was pretty cool. A ticket to this magical world of freaky wonders costs something like 2.5 euros – a bargain, considering I spent several wonderful hours there.
The KGB building (or the KGB museum, or “The Cornerhouse”)
Brīvības iela 61 * Mon, Tues, Thu, Fri, 10:00- 17:30, Wed 10:00 – 19:00, Sat-Sun 10:00-16:00
A pretty building with a gruesome background that should give you an idea of Latvia’s rather depressing history. Entrance is from a very unassuming door on the corner. I missed it the first time. There’s not much here in the way of artefacts and you don’t get to see most of the building, but only a tiny section. On the ground floor you can feast your eyes on some Soviet-era “décor”, read lots of info about the KGB’s operations in occupied Latvia on big placards in the main hall, and watch some fascinating (read: chilling) videos of interviews with people who were detained and tortured by the KGB. There’s also a very authentic Soviet-era toilet you can use, complete with a non-functioning light.
All this is basically free (though donations are encouraged). If you want, you can also tour the cells in the basement for a fee. There’s a schedule of tours on the website and you can also book tickets there. There is another museum about the occupation somewhere else (you can read about it on the same site), but I think the permanent exhibition is closed till spring 2019. If you like depressing moments from history, you should know that Riga also has a Holocaust museum near where the Riga ghetto used to be. I didn’t go.
Cool stuff you can buy
If you’re coming from western Europe, Riga is extremely cheap. Also, there are lots of funky things to buy. Here are some popular things you might want to keep an eye out for.
You see this stuff everywhere – big woolly socks, gloves, scarves, shawls, etc. Lots of pretty and bright patterns. Handy for cold winters. The cheapest place I’ve seen them is the central market.
And anything to do with stuff that bees make – honey, bee bread, bee pollen, honey cosmetics and soaps, natural beeswax candles and lots of other stuff. There are quite a few stalls at the central market, as well as shops around town. If you’ve missed all those, you can buy some stuff at the airport, too.
Traditional crafts and souvenirs
Well, I assume they are traditional anyway – ceramics, woodwork (carved wooden spoons, mostly), stained glass, amber jewellery and stuff like that. Craft markets have lots of stuff of this sort. I found a lot of it quite tacky, but there are some nice things too.
I was so excited to discover how much Latvians love traditional medicine. There are so many herbal supplements and herbal teas for sale everywhere. Unfortunately, not much English information. I found someone who spoke English at one craft market once and asked what each tea did, eventually settling on some blend that makes you sleep. I can confirm it cured the fuck out of my insomnia (out in 10 minutes). If all else fails, I’ve found that the Google translate app with the photo function works well enough if you point it at a thing. There are herbal stores all over town and the central market has heaps of stalls inside one of the buildings. I also found a really cool store that deals in aromatherapy supplies plus some herbal things and seemed to have some English info on things:
Avotu iela 3 * Mon-Fri 10:00 – 19:00, Sat 10:00 – 15:30
Website (no English): http://aromstudija.lv/lv/
They had some herbal sachets to use in the bath that looked especially awesome.
Fun food things
Visit a farmers’ market if you can. So many awesome jams and things made out of berries I don’t even have a name for.
Soviet era memorabilia
For the history-obsessed. The flea market is full of this stuff and you can also find some in the central market. Also lots of Chinese-made replicas posing as authentic. For the human garbage, there seems to also be an active trade in fake (and maybe original?) Nazi shit. Don’t buy Nazi shit. Nazis are shit.
I’m obsessed with markets, so the first (and last) thing I did in town was visit some. Riga has some particularly fine markets.
Nēģu iela 7 * Mon-Sat 7:30 – 17:30, Sun 7:30 – 16:30
TL;DR: it’s awesome. Visit the market. This place is super cheap and is packed full of all kinds of awesome things. There is an outdoors bit with stalls selling fresh fruit & veg, cheap fashion, souvenirs, and even flea market stuff, including lots of Soviet era uniforms, pins and memorabilia, alongside somewhat less wholesome Nazi things (though I guess for most Latvians the Soviet era was just as bad). There are also a few large buildings, including one dedicated to fresh meat and fish (the first one I walked into by accident, obviously, seeing as I’m a vegetarian), and a couple of others dedicated to other foods, plus some fashion, homewares and other random market stuff.
Before visiting Riga for the first time I hit up some blogs and read about the central market. The woman whose blog it was warned readers against hanging out in the outside areas, saying the outside bit was “sketchy” and that you should be careful with your valuables. Well, you should always be careful with your valuables no matter where you are, but I didn’t find the outside bit sketchy or scary at all. I got zero hassle and there was lots of good shopping to be had. You gotta wonder sometimes about what scares people. I’m guessing maybe the existence of poor people?
The first time I visited was in summer and the whole market was full of berries, cherries (including Morello cherries, OMG) and wild mushrooms, all at cheap cheap prices (1 euro for a kilo of cherries? Don’t mind if I do!). Apart from big, more “commercial” stalls, there are whole rows of people just sitting with buckets of stuff they’ve obviously foraged in the forest. This is apparently a very big thing in Latvia, where you’re allowed to forage for food pretty much everywhere.
Find the busy building with the restaurants, cheese and random food stalls for some really cheap treats like these dishy fresh doughnuts. Each costs about 25 euro cents or something. You can also get this fetching cup of carton fruit juice, or a coffee made with the sort of machine you’d see in a soviet era office (they ask you if you want sugar in it and the machine puts it in for you). After my third visit to the market, I figured out the system locals use. You can buy a delicious pastry in one stall and ask for a takeaway (well, they wave a plastic bag at you, which is the takeaway option and you can just nod). With your bag of treats, you can head off to the one good coffee stall in the building that does proper cappuccinos, espressos, etc., order your coffee there and then enjoy your cheap pastry with a decent drink. Nobody seems to mind.
On weekends you can get beer and freshly prepared food (meaty things, mostly, it seems) outside. When I went there was also some band playing. That’s probably a summer thing.
Firsa Sadovņikova iela 9A * Mon – Sat 8:00 – 17:00, Sun 8:00 – 16:00
A small but fully packed “traditional” flea market, i.e. full of lots of random junk. Not much in the way of clothes, but lots of old toys, random homewares, bits of weird, old tech (and new generic TV remotes, car radios and stuff like that), old cameras, and lenses and the obligatory stalls selling Soviet and Nazi shit. Like all flea markets, it’s better to come early in the day as some vendors leave early.
Kalnciema Iela 35 * Sat 10:00 – 16:00
Local crafts, a little bit of cool alternative fashion, plus fresh fruit & veg, and a whole load of exciting local delicacies. It’s a good place to grab some more interesting local souvenirs or gifts or try out quality local foods and drinks. It’s not huge, but there’s plenty of choice.
More random shopping
I randomly found a health food store selling lots of vegan food. Handy if you’re vegan.
Lāčplēša iela 17 * Mon – Thu 10:00 – 19:00, Fri 10:00-18:00, Sun 10:00 – 17:00
Riga is a Humana city! If you don’t know Humana, it’s a European charity that has a massive chain of charity / thrift stores. There’s a very big, famous one in Berlin (and a bunch of smaller ones). I was very happy to discover there are quite a few in Riga. Don’t expect rare vintage – it’s mostly second hand stuff from big chain stores like Zara and H&M. However, stuff is super cheap and in good condition. Here’s a link to the Google map of Humana stores in Riga.
Food & drink
If you’re doing any sort of research about Riga, you’ll get this thing rammed down your throat as a “must do” thing while in town. It’s basically one of the “medicinal” alcoholic drinks like Unicum and Jaegermeister. It has a very high alcohol content and lots of secret medicinal herbs, and is touted as a magic cure for most things (especially colds). I tried it neat and it was vile, but then tried it mixed with hot blackcurrant juice (the way locals drink it) and it was actually lovely. Ask for “hot black balsam”. The bar I was at heated the blackcurrant juice with the coffee machine’s milk steamer, which I thought was a particularly nice touch. There’s a lighter version of the drink you can buy that’s premixed with blackcurrant juice. My new Riga local friends assure me this can be had in shots and tastes nice on its own.
As a vegetarian, I found Riga a bit meaty, but it’s not as bad as some places. Generally places that are a bit more hipstery will have something you can eat. I mostly ate in cafes.
Miera Iela 29 * 8:00 – 21:00
Possibly the most hipster place I’ve been to in Riga. They do actually roast coffee in the back, and it looks very industrial and “real” back there with lots of fancy, shiny machines. The café part looks like a hipster’s wet dream, with artfully stripped walls, industrial (yet tastefully dim) lighting, simple wooden tables and a consciously rustic bar counter. The coffee is great (and costs 3 euros a cup), and there are some fun meal options too. Vegetarian options in my case included this lovely carrot soup, and there was also a veggie burger. Vegan options may be a bit of a nope (not sure whether the burger has any surprise cheese or anything in it).
Illuseum Tea house
Miera Iela 19 * 12:00 – 22:00
Everything you could want in a tea house – a dark, mysterious interior, lots of what looks like salvaged wood, shelves upon shelves of exotic blends from around the world, and a lovely, cosy vibe. If coffee’s not really your thing, come here instead if you’re on Miera Iela.
Jāņa iela 5 * Mon – Thu 9:30 – 21:00, Fri 9:30 – 22:00, Sat 12:00 – 22:00, Sun 12:00 – 21:00
I found this place by accident while walking around the old town. It serves very good coffee, as well as specialty teas and posh stuff like matcha and mocha ice lattes. There are also some nice sandwiches and cakes. The crowd seems to be a mix of locals, foreign students and hipster tourists, which is a bit more interesting than your average tourist trap in this area. Prices were comparable with Rocket Bean.
Kaņepes Kultūras centrs
An alternative cultural centre with lots of cool stuff going on – live music, parties, poetry (in Latvian, most likely) and more. The Facebook page has event listings, with occasional English info.
Tallinas Iela Kvartals (Tallinas St Quarter)
A warehouse area turned into a cool art / culture thing. they host exhibitions, screenings, parties and all kinds of other cool alternative stuff. Check the Facebook page for info.
Kalnciema Iela 39 * Mon-Wed, Sat, Sun 17:00 – 23:00, Thu 17:00 – Fri 12:00, then Fri 17:00 – 2:00
I ended up at this place quite randomly because I was out with some locals in the area. There were some interesting people in it and it seemed to be a location for a funky local art / poetry event at the time, so it gets extra points for being cool. There’s both indoor and outdoor seating and it’s right next to Kalnciema market.