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48 Hours In: Riga

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.