48 Hours In: Riga

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

William Cook explores the Latvian capital's rich medieval and Art Nouveau architecture as the city gears up to become European Capital of Culture

Travel essentials

Why go now?

The Latvian capital is the joint European Capital of Culture for 2014 (alongside Umea in Sweden). Festivities begin on 17 January, with a performance of Richard Wagner's first opera, Rienzi – written while he was living in Riga – at the Latvian National Opera (1) on Aspazijas Bulvaris 3 (00 371 67 073 777; opera.lv). For more information, visit riga2014.org.

The euro becomes Latvia's official currency on New Year's Day; prices quoted here may differ slightly when the move takes effect.

Touch down

Riga's airport (00 371 293 11187; riga-airport.com) is 8km west of the city centre. The main airline from the UK is Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com), with flights from Stansted, East Midlands, Manchester, Leeds/Bradford and Glasgow. Air Baltic (00 371 6700 6006; airBaltic.com) flies daily from Gatwick, and launches flights from Aberdeen in April. Wizz (0907 292 0102; wizzair.com) flies from Luton.

I travelled with Baltic Holidays (0845 070 5711; balticholidays.com), which offers a range of bespoke holidays in Riga from £93pp.

Bus No 22 takes 30 minutes to reach the city centre. Buses depart from 5am (6am at weekends) until 11.30pm. A single ticket costs €0.70 from the tourist information bureau in the arrivals hall, or €1 from the driver (00 371 8000 1919; rigassatiksme.lv). Alight at 11 Novembra Krastmala (2) for the old town. A taxi costs about €13 and takes 15 to 20 minutes.

Get your bearings

Riga is the biggest city in the Baltic states, but most of its main landmarks are within walking distance of the compact city centre. Most historic sites are situated in the beautifully preserved old town – a jumble of medieval and Renaissance buildings on the east bank of the Daugava river. Further east, beyond the pretty City Park lies one of Europe's largest concentrations of unspoilt Art Nouveau architecture.

Riga's tourist office (3) is at Ratslaukums 6 (00 371 6703 7900; liveriga.com; 10am-6pm daily) on the main square. The flamboyant building in which it's housed, a 14th-century guildhall, is an attraction in its own right.

Check in

Built in 1877 as the head office of the Bank of Latvia, the Grand Palace Hotel (4) at Pils 12 (00 371 6704 4000; grandpalaceriga.com) enjoys a prime location in the heart of the old town. Doubles start at €179, including breakfast.

In the shadow of the cathedral, Gutenbergs (5) at Doma Laukums 1 (00 371 6781 4090; gutenbergs.eu) is a homely four-star converted from a printworks, with an old-fashioned interior that's quiet and cosy. Doubles start at €69, including breakfast.

The three-star Hotel Hanza (6) is an excellent budget option. It is in a cobbled square beside a wooden church at Elijas 7 (00 371 6779 6040; hanzahotel.lv). Doubles from just €40, including breakfast. There's even a small spa. It's a short walk from the main train station (7) and the bustling Central Market (8), which is housed in three huge Zeppelin hangars.

Day One

Take a ride

Riga City Tour buses (00 371 2665 5405; citytour.lv) depart from Latviesu Strelnieku Laukums (9) between 10am and 3pm daily. Tickets cost €15 and are valid for 48 hours. You can hop off and on at a dozen stops along the way. The route takes in the old town, New Riga (the Art Nouveau district) and wooden Riga (the traditional timber houses on the west bank of the Daugava). The tour takes between 60 and 90 minutes, depending on traffic.

Take a view

Take the lift up the spire of St Peter's Church (10) at Skarnu 19, a short walk from the Latviesu Strelnieku Laukums (9), where the tour buses terminate (00 371 6718 1943; peterbaznica.riga.lv). Tickets cost €7 and also include admission to the church, which doubles as an art gallery. The ticket office is open 10am-5.30pm Tuesday to Saturday and from noon to 6pm on Sunday.

The view from the top is breathtaking, but this Unesco-listed Lutheran church – which was originally founded in 1209 by the Germanic crusaders who established Riga – is also well worth a visit.

Lunch on the run

Located around the corner from St Peter's, Province (11) at Kalku 2 (00 371 6722 2566; provincija.lv) is the perfect pit stop. The décor is quaint and folksy, the food is nourishing and hearty. A big bowl of cabbage soup with pork and potatoes, followed by bread pudding with cream, figs and nuts, washed down with half a litre of cold, strong lager, costs €13.10.

Take a hike

Brivibas iela ("Freedom Street") is like a timeline of the last century. A walk along this busy boulevard constitutes a crash course in Latvian history. Start at Latviesu Strelnieku Laukums (9), beneath the statue of the Latvian riflemen who fought for Lenin. Head east along Kalku iela, past rows of handsome houses built by German merchants, to the graceful Freedom Monument (12) erected during Latvian's first era of independence, between the wars.

Further along is Riga's Russian Orthodox Cathedral (13), a planetarium during the Soviet occupation, now a place of worship once again. End outside the former KGB HQ (14) on the junction of Stabu iela and Brivibas iela. A plaque remembers the countless Latvians who were imprisoned, tortured and killed there.

Window shopping

Latvia's most iconic export is Latvijas balzams, a potent liqueur in a black bottle that's distilled to an eye-watering 45-per-cent proof. Catherine the Great fell ill when she came here, and was cured by a stiff shot of it – well, that's the story. You can buy it in 50 shops around Riga – visit lb.lv or call 00 371 6708 12 13 for details. Contents include raspberries, bilberries, ginger, nutmeg, linden blossom and valerian root. The acquired taste resembles a cross between Jagermeister and cough mixture.

For a less boozy souvenir, visit Pienene (15) at Kungu 7/9 (00 371 6721 0400; studijapienene.lv; 10am-8pm daily) which sells products made by local artisans, including clothes, cosmetics and children's toys. The shop contains a stylish café, selling handmade truffles.

An aperitif

Alberta Street is the hub of Riga's Art Nouveau district and the best place to drink in the view is from the top floor of the high-rise Albert Hotel (16) at Dzirnavu 23 (00 371 6733 1717; alberthotel.lv). The penthouse lounge is a laid-back bar, with DJs from 8pm and draught beers from €3.

Dining with the locals

A block away from the Albert Hotel is Restorans Alberta 1221 (17) at Antonijas 13 (00 371 6733 6500; alberta1221.lv). The décor is modern, the menu is European with a contemporary twist: goulash with apricots, sturgeon and salmon borsch. Three courses cost around €22, without wine.

Day Two

Sunday morning: go to church

Riga's magnificent brick cathedral (18) on Doma Laukums (00 371 6722 7573; doms.lv; 10am-5pm daily; €4.30, except for worship) is the biggest medieval building in Latvia. It was founded in 1211 by the Teutonic Knights who established this Hanseatic port in the 13th century.

There are services in German at 10am (except for the first Sunday of the month) and in Latvian at noon on Sundays, and organ recitals on Wednesdays and Saturdays at noon, admission €7.

Out to brunch

The island of Kipsala, with its old wooden houses, is the ideal destination for a Sunday morning stroll, and Ostas Skati (19) at Matrozu 15 (00 371 6750 8658; ostasskati.lv) is a sublime setting for Sunday brunch.

This sleek waterfront restaurant has lovely views of the old town, across the River Daugava. The buffet costs €11.25, including coffee. It's always popular, so best to book ahead.

Walk in the park

The Freedom Monument (12) is the best starting point for a wander around Riga's City Park.

Follow the canal north to the Congress Centre (20) or south to the Opera House (1). In summer, you can take a boat trip along the canal and out into the Daugava river (00 371 2591 1523; kmk.lv).

Cultural afternoon

Built in 1923, in ornate Rococo style, the Splendid Palace (21) at Elizabetes 61 (00 371 6718 1143; splendidpalace.lv) was the first cinema in the Baltic states to show talkies. Ninety years later, it's still a working cinema, showing a wide range of European films and live transmissions from foreign opera houses. Riga Story, a 30-minute documentary screened daily in English at 10am, noon and 2pm, is a useful introduction to the history of this extra- ordinary city. Admission is €7.10.

Icing on the cake

Designed by a German from St Petersburg in the style of a Venetian palazzo, Riga Bourse (22) epitomises the Latvian capital's eclectic heritage. The old stock exchange at Doma laukums 6 has been lovingly restored, and is now a palatial art museum (00 371 6722 3434; lnmm.lv; 10am-6pm daily except Monday, until 8pm on Friday). The permanent collection features a respectable selection of Dutch and Flemish Masters, and a spectacular haul of Meissen porcelain.

Until 4 February, an exhibition called "Impressions and Parallels" charts the close relationship between Latvian and Belgian modern art. Access all areas: €6.40.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Ashdown Group: Marketing & Sales Manager

    £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A reputable organisation within the leisure i...

    Recruitment Genius: Car Sales Executive - Franchised Main Dealer

    £30000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity for...

    Recruitment Genius: Group Sales Manager - Field Based

    £21000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Located on the stunning Sandban...

    Guru Careers: Email Marketing Specialist

    £26 - 35k (DOE): Guru Careers: An Email Marketing Specialist is needed to join...

    Day In a Page

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
    World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

    Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

    The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker