encountering riga, latvia

When I was researching my trip to Riga I read a wonderfully ranty blog post about people being lazy and not really bothering to know the difference between the three Baltic capitals, by thinking that a visit to one is much the same as a visit to another. The information I’ve retained from that post, and supported by what I learnt during a free walking tour* of the city, is that Riga is the largest of the three, it’s near the coast (unlike Tallinn which is on the coast; Vilnius is far inland), and that for much of its history it has been a hub within the region. It is also a city with a very complex history, having been occupied (by the Polish, Swedish, Germans and Russians) for many years – in fact, this period since it gained independence in 1991 is the longest it has ever been under its own rule.

So, what to expect? I wasn’t sure but I came away completely smitten and am already planning to return, when the weather is warmer and I can see what life in the city is like when it’s not snowing.

The food and drink scene is obviously what I’m going to be writing about, but more broadly, this is a beautiful city, with art nouveau architecture scattered throughout (also concentrated in some areas) but intermingled with heavier Russian architecture and, if you head out of the old town, particularly if you cross the Daugava river, traditional timber houses.

We stayed in a great Airbnb flat in the north east of city, in a vibrant area packed with cafés, bars and restaurants. Our Airbnb host gave me lots of local tips and we did a pretty good job of working our way through them. I had both brunch and lunch at Mute, a glamorous café-restaurant (a lot of places in the area seem to be open for brunch, lunch and dinner, serving tea/coffee and cake in between). Both times the food was delicious but portions were on the small side. This didn’t matter so much with my eggs benedict breakfast choice, which was very rich and filling but when the black burger I had for lunch (a cheese burger with lots of extra toppings, served in a black brioche-style roll -you need a knife and fork to eat this) came with a portion of chips that would barely have fitted in the palm of my hand, I was less happy. Having said that, there is a counter full of delicious looking cakes and pastries so you can decide between extra sides or a pudding.  

The other local place we had brunch was Makonis (which apparently serves great cocktails), where I also had eggs, this time in an omelette with local soft cheese mixed through; if you’re in Riga over the weekend, Makonis is worth having on your list for their 7e, all you can eat, waffle brunch.

Another local spot which is good for a breakfast or lunch, as you walk towards the old town, is Big Bad Bagels, which has good range of bagels, fruit and vegetable smoothies and quick, friendly service.

To get a sense of how people shop and eat on a day-to-day basis you should definitely visit the Riga Central Market, which is just by the river. Housed in five historic buildings which used to be Zeppelin hangars (look up when you’re inside and you’ll see how the roofs used to be opened), with a bit of overspill into the adjacent squares, the market is still very much in use by local people. Each hangar has a different speciality – the range of fresh and smoked fish in one had me salivating and wishing that I was staying longer so I could stock up and try things for myself; in the meat hangar, you must try the smoked chicken which looks unappealingly black but once you peel off the skin (don’t eat this) you’ll get to the beautifully white and flavoursome smoky meat; the range of fruit and vegetables was fabulous. There are obviously seasonal products on offer too – when I was there the maple water was just in season so I bought a bottle to try - it looks like water and tastes slightly sweet and of trees; I don’t recommend it other than for novelty.

Next to Riga market is the Spikeri area, with its redbrick converted wharf houses. This was mostly deserted when we visited but apparently it’s a real hub for outdoor arts, cafes, bars and other gatherings once the weather picks up. 

Also nearby, if you want to indulge yourself and have a bit of pampering, is the Verdant Eco Spa, which is fabulous value for money. I had a great full body treatment here (scrub, wrap, massage and facial) all using fresh organic products, for 99e.

Alternatively, if you want to be a bit more active, you can head across the river. I was interested to see the old timber houses that line these streets, as well as the Agenskalns Market. We didn’t make it as far as the market, instead visiting (twice, once before exploring and once an hour later, when we’d had enough of the snow), Kūkdari, which is apparently one of the best patisseries in town. There was a wonderful selection of savoury pastries, cakes and biscuits and its status as a good place to eat was obvious by the hordes of students who started arriving late afternoon.

That covers most the places we ate apart from our two evening meals (why yes, I did spend three days eating almost solidly!). My favourite place was Valtera, which aims to showcase local produce in contemporary Latvian dishes. Things started well with a glass of local sparkling rhubarb wine which was a delicate and delicious aperitif. I chose the platter of local dried meats, cheeses and pickled mushrooms to start, which was delicious albeit very filling – you could easily share this between two or three! I then had a lovely, almost rustic lamb stew that came with tiny brussels sprouts and pickled beetroot. I was far too full for pudding but we stopped off for a final cocktail at the Left Door Bar, which I’d thoroughly recommend (and do talk to the bar staff if you fancy something that’s not on the menu). Also nearby is the Albert Hotel which has a penthouse bar; I don’t recommend this other than for the view – service was slow, drinks were average and it seemed to be a popular spot with large groups who were already the worse for wear when they arrived.

Our final meal was at Vincents, the one restaurant which I was told was a must-go-to. Again Latvian produce is a part of the menu but here it’s more likely to be alongside fancy American or Japanese (wagyu) beef and seafood from further afield. The cooking style is also different, with more French-inspired dishes and an emphasis on creating dishes that are served with a sense of drama – dry ice, foams, beautifully sculpted chocolate spheres etc. Everything we ate here was good, but for me it didn’t have the same love attached that I’d felt at Valtera. However, it is obviously the place to go, as a central room with photograph-lined walls and famous faces throughout, will testify. As you’d expect, it’s not cheap.

As well as a wide range of delicious food and a fascinating history, Riga also has plenty of great independent shops, many of which are full of local and regional products – Pienine (also a café) and Bang Bang (shop and coffee; there are a couple of branches) were both great. I also liked the Gift Shop (yes, it is called this) near the freedom monument where I bought lots of food and drink souvenirs to bring home – the rhubarb sparkling wine was as good as I remembered and I liked the salamis and tinned fish that I chose, but the local milk toffees and date chocolates were less successful!

I loved visiting Riga and will be back.

* a final useful bit of information from my walking tour guide - if you want to try the local beer the best brands to choose are those whose names begin with the letters B, T, U or V; avoid those beginning with A and Z.