Gentle snowflakes touched my brow as I stood proudly next to a Siberian husky. The tranquillity of the white landscape, deep in the Latvian countryside after dog sledding amongst the pines, was peaceful. Or at least I imagined it would be. My recent purchase of a leopard-print ear band matched my gold puffy jacket and tan furry snow boots perfectly. I already had my Instagram image perfected in my head.
After boarding our Ryanair flight at Stansted to Riga, Lizzie and I chatted over a wine and giggled at the fact that we had no idea what to expect at touchdown. My Lonely Planet download failed and out of character I had done no planning. Weather, food, currency, language, tourist sites…I would have to go circa 2003 backpacker days and just wing it as after all, there was no snow on the ground so dog sledding would have to be postponed until next time. The above was just a fantasy yet my outfit remained the same.
It turns out Riga was pretty cool despite the untraditionally warm weather. In fact, it’s considered one of the most “hipster” cities in all of Europe. Here are some tips on how to make the most of your time if you a have quick escape to Riga.
Latvians are passionate people, so this also explains their love of smoked meats, sauerkraut and pickled everything.
- Ala: Every person I spoke to elated both the authenticity and fun factor of this traditional folk house. If frequenting over the weekend, go early to snag a bar seat or even better make a reservation to sit at one of their large communal tables. The local beer selection is vast (26 taps!) to compliment the over-sized portions of conventional Latvian cuisine with a modest price tag to match. Stay late as it transforms from eatery to party spot. In addition, the service was fantastic as our bartender and waiter both made sure we had an opportunity to sample all the local delicacies and brews on tap – the garlic bread is extraordinarily different, delicious and a must try.
- Burger Story: I would argue that this is the best burger I’ve had in my life. Hipster with a clubby vibe and unsuspecting, this late night spot is the most Western yet delicious meal I ate my whole time in Latvia.
- Šefpavārs Vilhelms (pancake house): Latvians love a self-service buffet and this small pancake eatery is as authentic as it comes. While there were also labels in English to describe every pancake available under the sun, from banana to cottage cheese fillings, I felt the most anticipated option of potato pancake was bland. Then again, I didn’t fully take advantage of the variety of toppings including candied fruit and sour cream, all of which the locals appeared to drown theirs with. Better yet, my entire plate was a mere two Euro.
- Central Market: In what was once a WWII Zeppelin hanger and considered one of the worlds most modern markets during the 1930’s, this colorful hub where all of the grannies come to gossip is sensation overload. It contains everything you would need, from fruit and veg carts to aged meats to a fishery as pungent as a bad joke. Handicrafts and knick-knacks line the market’s outer walls offering tourists a cheaper alternative to the souvenir shops in Old Town.
Riga was described to me as independent, and the embodiment of culture. If you’re good at what you do and good at getting by, you live in Riga. While central Riga does have its fair share of chain stores, Latvia is the type of country where you can certainly score something interesting when supporting independent retailers.
- Riga Free Walking Tour: Everyday at noon outside of St. Peter’s Church you’ll be greeted by a bright yellow suitcase to signify you are on the Riga Free Walking tour. Tours vary from exploring Old Town or leaving the touristy cobblestone streets to get out of your comfort zone and into greater Riga to see the Russian and German influence alongside the Art Nouveau architecture. Agita was a wonderful host and I would recommend the tours to anyone – please tip as you feel appropriate.
- Kalnciema Kvartāls (craft market): Only held once a month, we took the scenic route and walked the 40 minutes out of the city centre to get here. A cab would have been more appropriate to avoid the busy walk amongst the paved highway extension. This market is as authentic as they come. Predominately tourist free, we bundled our scarves up tighter as snowflakes landed across our thick winter coats while we witnessed native sellers showcasing dried meats, liquor and cheese to winter outerwear and Latvian couture. Everyone gladly spoke english once we responded wide-eyed to their enthusiastic explanation of goods on display.
As a top eastern European stag-do (bachelor) destination, Old Town Riga has a plethora of late night spots and hostel-hosted pub crawls. Expect Riga Black Balsam, the traditional Latvian herbal liquor mixed with vodka (45% ABV) to play a big part of your night. Also anticipate beautiful Latvian craft beer.
- Naughty Squirrel Hostel: We checked into our private room with en-suite and were immediately handed two shots of Balsam. “Tradition,” we were told. So when our pub crawl host introduced himself as Voldemarse, or Volde for short, I knew then that we were going to have a great night. He actually commented that he doesn’t mind that his name is so closely affiliated to the Harry Potter villain Lord Voldemort as at least guests remember his name. 5 pubs later and we were sharing a pint and burger with Volde at the hostel bar.
- Aussie Pub Riga: Conveniently situated next to Old Town Hostel, with over 14 Latvian beers on tap served from an old VW van, this small Aussie-themed bar is one of the top spots for beer tasting. In fact, you can sample them all for only 10 Euro. The upstairs is small but cosy and a great place to chill as you can expect the pub crawl to use the ground floor bar as the standard first stop. Don’t let that turn you off from watching biathlon though, the Olympic sport which combines cross country skiing and rifle shooting.
- Tims Mints: This local hangout in the heart of Old Town is a hipster haven for locals, craft beer and cocktails. They even have board games and table football. This is the type of place you could quietly chill in the afternoon with some friends or dance the night away as it becomes a popular meeting point in the centre of it all.
So there you have it! Medieval Old Town meets post-communism hipsters. Riga certainly is an easy place to enjoy a weekend away.