Late summer is a lovely time to discover Latvia's capital, with space to appreciate the impressive architecture, as well as the city's cosmopolitan atmosphere. By Neil Taylor
Saturday 23 August 2008
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Why go now?
Most tourists visit Latvia's capital in summer, and therefore miss all the cultural events that begin in September. They also miss the autumn colours, which come earlier to Riga's parks and gardens than to ours. Many new hotels have opened in the city, and the sharp drop in hotel prices more than compensates for the fall in the value of the pound against the local currency, the lat, which is tied to the euro.
Four years after joining the EU, Riga –particularly the centre – feels like a composite of most of the EU members: a French breakfast can be followed by an Italian lunch, German coffee and cakes, a pint in a pub and a Greek dinner, all within a few hundred yards of each other. Latvian food should not be forgotten either, with the country's lakes providing wonderful fresh fish, and its herb gardens delicious salads. These days, Riga is a city looking West, not East.
Air Baltic (00 371 9000 6006; www.airbaltic.com) flies each evening from Gatwick to Riga. Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) flies daily from Stansted, and two to three times a week from Liverpool and East Midlands.
Express bus 22a goes to the Orthodox Cathedral (1); the slightly slower bus number 22 will take you to the bus station (2) and railway station (3). The passenger fare on both is 40 santims (45p), but luggage is more expensive: each case costs 80 santims (90p). Taxis at the airport are properly regulated and cost about 8.50 lats (£9.50) to most hotels.
Get your bearings
Architecturally, central Riga divides into the Old Town – largely built before 1800 – and the New Town, with some excellent Art Nouveau architecture. A canal and a large swath of parkland divide the two. One of the few 20th-century buildings of note is a 100ft-high granite tower called the Freedom Monument (4). A 10-minute walk through an almost totally pedestrianised area leads to Town Hall Square, where the tourist office (5) (00 371 6703 7900; www. rigatourism.com) is located at Ratslaukums 6. It opens daily 10am-6.30pm.
The Gutenbergs (6) at Doma Laukums 1 (00 371 6721 1776; www.gutenbergs.lv) is right next to the cathedral, and so called because it used to be a publishing house. It is unashamedly 19th century throughout – the floors are uneven and wooden beams cross some of the rooms – but that is part of its appeal. From its rooftop restaurant, the determined can spot 17 church towers. Double rooms with breakfast cost 120 lats (£135).
Staying just outside the Old Town ensures spacious rooms, a sensibly sized lobby and reasonable prices all year round. Next to the American Embassy, the Reval Hotel Ridzene (7), at Reimersa 1 (00 371 6732 4433; www.revalhotels.com), manages always to be a year or so ahead of most other Riga hotels in its facilities, from electronics to air-conditioning to top-floor sauna. Fortunately, its prices remain a few years out of date. Expect to pay about €99 (£83) for a double, including a lavish buffet breakfast.
In the Hanza Hotel (8), at Elijas 7 (00 371 6779 6040; www.hanzahotel.lv), you are beside the largest wooden church in Latvia. The market (9) and railway station (3) are a 10-minute walk away. Doubles with breakfast are 75 lats (£84).
Take a view
Climb the staircase at the Janis Rozentals and Rudolfs Blaumanis Memorial Museum (10) (00 371 6733 1641), at Alberta 12, on the corner of Strelnieku. The Museum is on the top two floors, and occupies the flat that the artist Rozentals shared with the writer Blaumanis from 1906 to 1908. As one would expect, it is full of paintings and manuscripts, but of greater interest is the view across and down on to Alberta Street's array of Art Nouveau buildings. It opens 11am-6pm Wednesday to Sunday, admission 1 lat (£1.15).
Take a hike
A turn around Town Hall Square (5) tells an illuminating story. Much of it was demolished in the late 1940s as the Soviet authorities tried to eradicate Germanic architecture. However, the splendid House of Blackheads (11) (00 371 6704 4300; www.nami.riga.lv), originally the headquarters of a guild of bachelor German merchants, has been rebuilt and is open 10am-5pm Tuesday to Sunday, admission 2 lats (£2.25).
One Soviet building, now the Museum of Occupation (12) (00 371 6721-2715; www. occupationmuseum.lv), tells of the horrors of both occupations in explicit detail. It opens daily from 11am to 6pm, admission free.
Afterwards, to recover your composure, visit the Mentzendorff's House (13), on the eastern side of the square (00 371 6721-2951; www.mencendorfanams.com), to see how Baltic German merchants lived and traded. It opens 10am-5pm Wednesday to Sunday, admission 1 lat (£1.15).
Lunch on the run
Pelmeni (14), at Kalku 7, serves huge portions of noodle dumplings with meat or vegetable fillings at very low prices. The really greedy try all six versions, have a salad and soup, and still only pay about 3 lats (£3.40). In good weather, visit the farmers' market in the hangars (9) behind the bus station (2), and put together the ingredients for a picnic.
The Arsenal Museum of Art (15), at Torma 1 (00 371 6735 7527; www.lnmm.lv), is full of out-and-out-individualism, usually on a very large canvas. Surprise your friends, perhaps even shock them, with a postcard bought here: socialist realism disappeared very early on when Latvia regained independence in 1991. The name of the building dates from the Swedish era in the 17th century, when a barracks was located here. Open 11am-5pm daily except Mondays, 2.50 lats (£2.75).
Few Rigans go to their modern railway station (3) to catch a train, buses being quicker. People do, however, pack into the grandiose station to shop. One outlet sells 50 different teas, another 30 types of swords. For refreshment, head for Soprano and its 30-plus varieties of ice cream, where a cornet costs 1 lat (£1.15). For stylish local products and delicacies, go to Bergs Bazaar (16).
There are two opportunities to toast the city at the Skyline Bar on the 26th floor of the Latvia Hotel (17). Have your first drink when the sun sets over the Old Town, and the second when the illuminations are turned on. Riga Balzam, the local herb liqueur, goes well with blackcurrant juice or sparkling wine. Otherwise, work your way through the vodka cocktails, bearing in mind that double – or larger – measures are standard.
Sunday morning: go to church
Riga Cathedral (18) was founded in 1211, and is still going strong. It was already ahead of its time during the Reformation, and today it displays English prayers on a large projector during Latvian services. With luck, the service will be followed or preceded by an organ recital, though it is unlikely that all 6,718 pipes will be used on one occasion.
Take a ride
Buy a 40 santim (50p) tram ticket at any kiosk. Then find the tram stop called Stacijas Laukums, Station Square (19), which is actually on Radio Street, just off the square. Tram 11 will whisk you to Mezaparks. You'll travel past Art Nouveau buildings, with interludes of Art Deco and Functionalism, and a local cemetery, always full of freshly cut flowers, followed by the formal one built for Latvia's heroes.
As the tram crosses Hamburg Street, a café appears with the name Gustav Adolf.
Mezaparks was known as Kaiserwald, or Imperial Garden, to the Germans. Visitors who know Berlin will immediately be reminded of Grünewald. Just remember not to say "ein Bier, bitte" at one of the many bars around the park. Latvian, English or Russian will quickly produce the goods.
Write a postcard
Head for the café above the Globuss bookshop (20), at Valnu 26. "In the Beginning was the Word" proclaims the sign behind the cashier, and around the walls are quotes from Dante, Goethe and Mark Twain, to name but a few. In such an environment, inspiration should come easily.
Icing on the cake
On your homeward journey set off early for the airport. Check in, and then allow 30 minutes for the Aviation Museum, situated about 300 metres from the main terminal. Its opening hours and admission charges are highly erratic and depend on who is on duty.
If the museum is closed or the weather bad, a meal at the airport's Lido restaurant is compensation. Tuck into a radish and herring salad, then a hearty serving of meat and vegetables, followed by a fruit compote.
Neil Taylor is the author of Bradt's 'Baltic Capitals' guidebook
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