I chose Riga because it was cheap. One of my favourite travel daydreams begins by typing London to Everywhere into SkyScanner and sorting by price. Very often I find a return flight into Europe for less than £50 and Riga was no exception. When I find inspiration this way, I know little about my destination. The Riga in my mind was full of overflowing bars reserved for the pleasures of British stag weekends. But for those of us not nursing persistent hangovers, it’s much more.
My eyes were opened to Latvia’s complex culture and history of occupation in the two days I spent in the capital. Riga’s UNESCO listed old quarter with its myriad architectural styles is easily accessible from the small airport and distances within the city itself are walk-able. Thirty minutes out of town, I found myself leaning into sharp turns through snow-covered pines behind a pack of rampant huskies.
Like many European cities, Riga came alive at night. Despite the recent appearance of some chain restaurants and of course, the odd Irish pub, it’s still possible to sample the traditional. The Latvians love their beer and a wide range is sold in every establishment. Food is hearty and warming, consisting of pork stews, fresh fish, soups and their national ingredient – black peas. I spent my evenings in Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs, a basement tavern where all the above is offered in large portions and local bands take to the stage.
As a budget European destination, Riga quickly hopped into my top three. With cheap eats, oodles of fascinating (albeit sobering) history, and a romantic spattering of snow throughout the winter months, the city packed a punch in less time than it would take to reach some destinations! This is what I did with my 48 hours in Riga:
I started by getting my bearings at St Peter’s Church, where, from the bell tower you have a view of the whole city.
The walk from the hostel to St Peter’s Square was a pretty one – the perfect way to work off a breakfast of fried potato pancakes and sour cream!
Riga’s hostels offer trips to the surrounding countryside to go husky sledding (snow dependent!) It makes an adrenaline-filled break from the city! We went for the morning and were back in Riga for lunch…
Opera in the UK is expensive: We watched a matinee of The Marriage of Figaro at The National Opera House for 7 Euros!
A young folk band entertained the crowds on a Saturday night at FolksKlubs Ala Pagrabs – our dinner and drinks tab came to no more than 10 Euros each.
I started the second day with breakfast at Riga’s famous markets. Once Zeppelin hangars during the war the five separate buildings now hold different foods
One hangar is dedicated to fish, one to meat, a third to vegetables and another to sweet goods…
The first stop of the morning was a walking tour with Toms, a local guide who showed us the history between the old town walls. Today only small sections are visible as the walls were used as the back of buildings to save materials.
Walking guides offer an insight into the history and culture of their city – small details you wouldn’t notice otherwise: This sculpture show the animals of a famous german fairy tale in honour of Bishop Albert who founded Riga. What most books won’t tell you, is that the animals are actually stepping through a symbolic ‘iron curtain’…
I walked through parks via the Freedom Monument to find a lunch spot – locals were sliding down an icy embankment so I had to have a go!
Guards are only allowed to stand at the monument in temperatures between -10 to +25. It was a balmy -1 as we passed.
Pretty parks surround Riga’s orthodox cathedral…but it’s best seen from above.
From the top floor bar of the Radisson Hotel (Where a cocktail is still significantly cheaper than London!) you can see Riga in all its glory as the light fades.
My return flight was at 10pm, which allowed just enough time for a chilly stroll back to the hostel via the canal and The National Opera House before heading to the airport!