The bus trip from Tallinn was actually quite comfortable; the journey took 4hr 40 minutes but unlike any other bus trip like this we had been on, it had in-coach entertainment! We were able to watch a couple of films which made the journey go quicker and they had free tea and coffee and a toilet if required! We encountered a blizzard on the way, but unlike the UK the roads were adequately prepared and there were no delays. There is no hard border between Estonia or Latvia we just had to present our passport before we boarded. We had a couple of stops on the way including Parnu and arrived at Riga bus station at 5pm.
It was snowing heavily when we arrived and we did struggle to get a taxi but eventually, after getting very cold we managed to find one to take us to our hotel. We had booked into the Rixwell Terrace Design Hotel located centrally down a side street. The hotel check-in was good and the room was ideal for our needs. After a short rest despite the weather, we decided to head out for some dinner and see what Riga had to offer. We were well prepared with thermals and very glad of them at this point!
Armed with Google maps off we set to the Old Town; the snow made everything seem really pretty and although it was cold it was bearable. We found ourselves at the Our Lady of Sorrows Church, a white and blue stone church just on the outskirts of the Old Town. Just next to the church on Pils iela was a Mexican restaurant called El Santo X which given the weather and our hunger we happily dived into. Some tasty warming spicy food later and we were ready to brave the elements again.
Just down the street, we found Dome Square, the largest square in the Old Town. The Square has 7 streets which meet there and it has been central to many events in Latvia. It has its name due to the fact it is overlooked by the Riga Dome Cathedral. From the beginning of December until 6th January the Christmas Market is the main feature here with copious food and drink stalls and vendors selling local seasonal produce. We, of course, had to sample some of the local hot wine with blackcurrant.
After some playful shenanigans as featured above, we moved on to Town Hall Square; which was completely rebuilt following its complete destruction in WWII. The square has been pivotal to all decisions in respect of the city since the 1200s when Riga was founded as the meeting place for the council. The square as it is now, houses the Riga City Councils, the House of Blackheads (sounds a bit grim however Blackheads were a guild for unmarried merchants, shipowners and foreigners in Riga), Tourist information, Museum of Occupation of Latvia and several cafes and restaurants. Here we built the most pathetic snowman ever called Latka lol!
For our last stop of the night, being a little tired we carefully walked to St Peter’s Church. The church is 123 metres high and is a Lutheran Church dating back to 1209. There is a lift in here which takes visitors up 72 meters high to the second gallery which is said to offer spectacular views of the city. Due to the time of the evening, we didn’t get to go up it; however, it costs 9 euros entry to the church. Instead, we opted to have a drink in a Jamaican bar just down the side of the church before taxifying a cab to take us back to our accommodation.
The next day we had breakfast at the hotel which we were quite excited at reading the reviews…. It offered fizz for breakfast which was certainly a first for us but as it was my birthday we decided why not! hic! a couple of glasses later and a more than adequate breakfast we chilled out for the rest of the morning before heading for the special treat Nigel had organised for me; a trip to the Skyline Bar on floor 26 of the Raddison Blu Hotel. The Skyline Bar offers a host of cocktails and some Korean food choices. We had the Korean Fried Chicken and the Beef Tataki both which we highly recommend. The online sales brochure suggested “sunset cocktails”, sunset would have been at 3.30pm if there had been any sun, but I think that yellow ball of fire in the sky is rarely seen from Latvia in January. Instead of “sunset cocktails” we merely had cocktails, with a lovely view of the snowy landscape and great fun sampling the alcoholic creations on the menu. It was definitely worth a visit, you can just turn up but we’d suggest pre-booking as it is a very popular venue, with a limited number of tables with a view.
We took a slow meander back to our hotel after our meal stopping for some coffee on the way. Riga is not short of coffee shops at all, many of which are open quite late into the evening. After another short rest, we headed out for the second part of my birthday celebrations. Nigel had done some prior research and had found a highly recommended folk club called Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs; a live music venue based in a cellar which hosts a variety of live music acts and serves copious different beers and traditional Latvian food. It gets very busy and we had reserved a table which unfortunately meant we had to order food (we were still stuffed from our late lunch! arghh) however we ordered a couple of small dishes to share and sat back to enjoy the show.
The band playing that night was a singer called Atis Levins who played a variety of Latvian rock and the likes of U2, Nirvana and Police with a band. He appeared to be very popular and the place soon got crowded with lots of crazy dancing (including Nigel) and headbanging. It was a great atmosphere and we really enjoyed the set there. On other nights they have folk, country, classical, and basically any style you can think of. It is worth checking out what’s on if you visit and it was easy to get to in the Old Town by taxi. It is located on Peldu Street where there were lots of other clubs and bars.
A little tired after our day’s alcohol and food consumption we headed back after the set finished around midnight for a well-earned sleep. All in all, it was a lovely day.
The next morning we overslept and were slightly late for breakfast (oops). The weather was bitter and snowy at – 7 yet despite this we were still determined to get out and about; after all, that’s why we brought the thermals! We headed towards the Old Town again and ventured on a bridge; it was that cold the river and the sea were both frozen!
We had a well earned warm up in a coffee shop before undertaking a quick google search of what we still hadn’t seen in Riga. We had only at this point seen everything at night due to our busy day yesterday.
We decided to head back in the direction of Dome Square to see what it offered during the day. Despite the weather, the square was still bustling and all the stalls were open including the local food choices (the pig’s snout was so unappealing we just had to get a picture!). What we did find quite bizarre was the fact there were still children queuing to see Santa Claus on 5th January; something we would never see in the UK.
and unfortunately, the cold temperatures did appear to be a bit too much for some…..lol
Heading back to the Town Hall square we spied the Latvian Red Rifleman Monument. The Soviet monument is quite controversial with many wanting it taken down due to its links to the communist days. Others believe it is a necessary tribute to Latvians who fought in WWI. It is now considered a tribute to all soldiers both red and white who served in the war. Whatever your thoughts it is definitely an impressive monument.
Heading onwards we decided to stop for some lunch before heading to the Freedom Monument which honours the soldiers who died in the Latvian War of Independence. The statue is 42 metres high and was unveiled in 1935. Made of granite, copper and travertine, the location of the monument is often used for public gatherings and official ceremonies.
We headed back through an area which is called Jacobs Barracks; an area of red-roofed buildings on Torna Street which were historically barracks for several armies up to 1990. It has now been renovated and hosts an array of bars, restaurants and coffee shops and hosts the Swedish Gate which was erected in 1698 to allow access from the barracks to the city.
Going through the Swedish Gate we headed back into the Old Town and stumbled across ‘Cat House’ a building of medieval architecture which is most recognisable for the angry looking cats adorning the top. It was built it 1909 and there are two different anecdotes about its history; the first is that the cats were as a result of tradesman seeking retribution from the House of the Great Guild, the other was that a wealthy tradesman placed the cats at the top with their tales facing Riga City Council due to a dispute with them.
In 1282 Riga joined the German Trading Union Hansa. The Hansanic league governed all trading along the Baltic seacoast until the 19th Century. The league founded the Guild of the Holy Spirit in Riga which was separated into the Great Guild comprising of more wealthy merchants whilst the Small Guild comprised of craftsman and artisans. The buildings in the picture below show the meeting place of the Small Guild which is now used for conferences. The Great Guild building which unfortunately we didn’t picture is now home to the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra Concert Hall.
With the end to our sightseeing, we grabbed a hot Black Balsam (a traditional drink which resembles cough medicine and is made from many natural ingredients) from a street stall and headed back to our hotel.
For our last night in Riga, we decided to head back to Peldu Street where all the action seemed to be last night and to try out some of the other establishments. Arriving at 9pm it appeared to be a little early for the action.
We headed into a small bar down an alleyway called Limonade which wasn’t particularly cheap but served some pretty good white Russians! The lighting in the bar was a little strange and the music was quite varied. We spotted a game we had never seen before being played and of course, attempted to play it ourselves by our own rules. From asking online we were informed this looked like the game called Caroom however in our rules I won!
After a couple of drinks here we headed to a pub/club just next door where the white Russians weren’t nearly so good. It was also pretty dead so after a brief sit down we went across the road and grabbed some pizza before heading back into Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs. It was again lively with a Latvian band playing. We chilled with a couple of beers before calling it a night and heading back for some sleep. The next day it was time to leave Riga and head back to Tallinn for our last night before heading home; we caught the 12:00 Ecolines bus arriving back in Tallinn at 16:30.
I really liked Riga for its history, its magical winter wonderland qualities and the fact there was lots to see and do to occupy us even if it was just chilling in a coffee shop watching the world go by. I think we both thought of it as a winter destination but I am sure it also has a lot to offer in the summer months too. Nigel didn’t find the Latvians as friendly as the Estonians and felt they made less effort with us; more of the Estonians we met spoke English than did the Latvians we came across. Riga is by far the larger of the two cities, with a population approximately 50% higher than Tallinn, but both cities we felt had something different to offer and both were definitely worth a visit; Tallinn was less ‘touristy’ than Riga and Riga was definitely more multicultural. Altogether it was an amazing break – just remember if you go that time of year to take your thermals!