48 hours in Riga

Latvia's medieval capital is bursting with music this summer, from Eurovision and opera to the country's patriotic Song Festival. After centuries of turbulent history, the city is now in tune, says Neil Taylor


WHY GO NOW?

WHY GO NOW?

Early summer is blissful in the Baltics. Get in ahead of the pop fans who will descend on the Latvian capital for the Eurovision Song Contest on 24 May. Or wait until next month and head over for the Opera Festival (10-20 June). Even better is the nation's "real" Song Festival, which brings 250,000 patriotic Latvians into the capital for a week from 27 June to 3 July.

BEAM DOWN

British Airways (0845 77 333 77, www.ba.com) flies five times a week non-stop from Heathrow to Riga, for a fare of around £250 return. From other UK airports – Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow – fly to Riga via Copenhagen. SAS (0845 607 2772, www.scandinavian.net) has frequent services in conjunction with Air Baltic. Riga's airport is five miles south-west of the city. Bus 22 runs every half-hour to the city centre for a fare of 0.20 lats (25p) and takes about 20 minutes to its town-centre stop near the Freedom Monument. Perhaps to deter tourists from using it, the bus leaves from across the short-term car park, about 200 yards away. Taxis cost about 8 lats (£9) for a ride into town.

GET YOUR BEARINGS

The chief physical feature is the broad Daugava river, which curves around to flow north through the city. Almost everything of interest is on the right (east) bank, notably the Old Town – enclosed by the Daugava and the former castle moat, now a meandering canal. Many visitors never leave the Old Town during their stay in Riga. The hub of the city is Town Hall Square. The city's tourist office (00 371 704 4377, www.rigatourism.com) is located in the square in Schwab House – which dates from 1890, so is very modern in Rigan terms. It opens daily from 9am to 6pm.

CHECK IN

In the Old Town, the Centra at Audeju 1 (00 371 722 6441, www.centra.lv) has fine views from most rooms. Singles are €70 (£50), doubles €80 (£57). For luxury, try the Hotel Gutenbergs, just next to the cathedral at Doma Laukums 1 (00 371 781 4090, www.gutenbergs.lv). You can mug up on Latvian literature and publishing from the portraits, antiquarian books and old printing presses displayed on each floor, or climb to the roof garden to look across at no fewer than 17 church steeples. Singles are €90 (£64) and doubles €100 (£70). For a budget option, try the OK Hotel at Slokas 12 (00 371 786 0050, www.okhotel.lv), a 10-minute ride on tram 2, 4 or 5, or a 30-minute walk into town. It is certainly OK for a price tag of €40 (£28) single and €55 (£39) double.

TAKE A HIKE

Start a tour in Town Hall Square. The House of Blackheads, just east of the tourist office, is where the Baltic German plutocracy gathered for centuries to indulge themselves. Blown up early one Sunday morning by the Soviets in May 1948, it was rebuilt for Riga's 800th anniversary in 2001. It opens 10am-5pm daily except Monday. A macabre contrast is just west: the Occupation Museum, which explicitly details every Nazi and Soviet horror between 1940 and 1956. It opens 11am-5pm daily. Head east from Town Hall Square to St Peter's church where Baltic Germans worshipped for seven centuries until they finally left in 1939. You can take a lift to the top for a panorama of the Old Town. Next, head left into Skarnu and walk into Konventa Courtyard. The nuns are long gone, replaced by cafés, jewellers, antiquarian booksellers and the Porcelain Museum (open 11am-5pm daily except Monday). Turn left along Skarnu and head to the Applied Arts Museum (open daily except Monday 10am-6pm). This is probably Riga's oldest building, having served as a church for three centuries before the Reformation. See the amber, glass and tapestry produced throughout the last century, however repressive the political regime. At the junction with Kalku, Skarnu turns into Skunu before reaching Dom Square. On the east side is Latvian Radio, one of the few buildings in Riga that date from the 1930s. The bullet holes were made in 1991, when Soviet troops made one of their last attempts to suppress Latvian independence. The 18th-century Dome Cathedral is by far the largest in the Baltics, and a venue for frequent organ concerts.

THE ICING ON THE CAKE

The former Red Army Museum at Pils Laukums 2 has been converted into the Musical Instruments Museum (open 11am-6pm from Wednesday to Sunday). Visitors are so few and far between that they are each escorted around and invited to play the 19th-century pianos and harpsichords.

A WALK IN THE PARK

Cross the Daugava river from Town Hall Square and pass the Railway Museum on the left (or don't pass it if you like old German steam locomotives) on your way to Uzvaras Park; the name means "victory". The memorial in the centre of the park commemorates the Soviet victory of May 1945. Yesterday, as on 9 May each year, elderly Russians held a ceremony here which was boycotted by most Latvians; Russians still comprise a sizeable percentage of the local population.

LUNCH ON THE RUN

At Cafe Inese at Skunu 6, a pint and a large potato salad will cost about £1.50. For picnic ingredients, there is only one choice – the farmer's market set in former aircraft hangars just outside the Old Town, beside the bus station. Go for black bread, ham, soft and hard cheeses and plenty of pickle.

CULTURAL AFTERNOON

The Fine Arts Museum at Valdemara 10a (open 11am-5pm daily except Tuesdays) is one of Riga's largest buildings, classical on the outside and with a Jugendstil interior. The Latvian paintings are on the first floor, the Baltic-German and Russian ones on the ground floor. One name to look out for here is that of Latvia's most famous female painter, Alexandra Belcova (1892-1981).

OUT TO BRUNCH

Get your teeth into some history, then tuck into some sturdy cuisine. The Ethnographic Open Air Museum, Brivibas gatve 440, (00 371 799 4510) eight miles north-east of the city centre, is worth the half-hour ride on bus 1, 19 or 28. It opens 10am-5pm daily. Wooden churches, farmhouses, and windmills have been collected from all over Latvia. Allow plenty of time and an empty stomach for a thick soup, barbecued sausages and ice-cream plus beer for around £5.

WRITE A POSTCARD

Sit at the roof-top Opera café and look across Esplanade Park to the Freedom Monument built in 1935 and which the Soviets never dared to remove. In the morning, rehearsal sounds for a future performance may well seep out. Look down to the statue of Janis Rainis (1865-1929), Latvia's most famous writer and translator of Shakespeare.

TAKE A RIDE

Blow the equivalent of £1 on a boat to Mezaparks. The vessels leave from the pier beside Akmens Bridge, and the trip takes about an hour. First admire the Old Town silhouette and then look more ambivalently at the industrial developments downstream, some in clear decline and some booming. The park combines a zoo, a funfair, woodlands and a riverside walk. Take a tram back into town, admiring the wooden villas to which Rigans have always aspired, ever since they were first built in the late 19th century.

SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH

St Saviour's is ultra-English. Not only were all its red bricks imported from Britain, but so was the soil on which the church was built. By 1857, the Anglican community was large enough to need a church of its own and it would thrive for 80 years. The Soviets converted it into a disco for the Technical University next door, but the Latvians were happy to let it return to its original use after the restoration of independence in 1991. Services are held every Sunday.

DINNER WITH THE LOCALS

Vermanitis at Elizabetes 65 is where unpretentious Rigans meet. The generations mix well here too. The self-service elements and the dance-floor probably help. The stained-glass and the stonework create an ambience of the 1930s as does the quantity of pork served as part of most main dishes. The salad bar and the vegetarian pizzas add a modern touch. Being just outside the Old Town, prices are very reasonable; a substantial meal with beer is unlikely to cost more than £8.

AN APERITIF

Deliberately built one metre higher than St Peter's church by the Soviets, the recently gentrified Hotel Latvia Elizabetes 5, makes the most of its bar on the 26th floor. Enjoy the long sunset with an equally long drink.

WINDOW SHOPPING

A&E is not a hospital casualty ward but an upmarket purveyor of the local speciality, amber jewellery, to the high and mighty. Alternatively, you could chance your luck at the stalls near St Peter's church. Rebels will go to Kalku 7 where Nordwear promotes itself under the slogan "Amber-Free". Go there for anything which on Rigan terms is unconventional, such as an irreverent T-shirt or poster.

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