A few years ago I came up with this rule that I have to visit a new country every year. When I booked my trip to Riga in Latvia it was to not break that five-year-streak coming up.
I have probably never prepared as little for a trip as I had done with this one. I had checked how to get from the airport to the city centre though – with bus number 22. Off course the first thing I did after having arrived in Latvia was running around the airport like a lost possum looking for the bus stop. Eventually I had to google it and found out it was on the other side of the parking lot. Somehow I had missed the big sign just outside the main exit.
I made it into the city centre without any more confusion and as I had two hours to kill before I was allowed to check into my holiday apartment, I got off next to the Riga Central Market.
Riga Central Market
The Riga Central Market is the largest market in Europe at 72,300 square metres and the main structures are made out of five old German Zeppelin hangars. It was finished it 1930 and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
As I got there I saw market stands outside as well, but since it was freezing I decided to head into one of the hangars. Of course as a non-meat-eater I chose the one that would have put a shark into a feeding frenzy if it had legs and could breath air. The smell of it was too much for me though and I had to head back out into the cold. I did not want to risk heading into another hangar in case there were more than one hell. I had a quick look through the outside stands instead. I had wanted to find somewhere that sold ready-to-eat food but saw none so decided to just keep walking to see where I would end up.
I found my way into a shopping centre and had a look through to see if there were anywhere I could grab some food. There were a few places, but nothing I wanted so I went for the backup option and headed into the supermarket where I also picked up two days’ worth of breakfast, lunch and dinner. The rest of the time I killed over a coffee.
When it was time to finally get to my apartment I got lost again. This time though I blame the lack of correct signage. I was staying in a really derelict neighbourhood where every second building had the windows boarded up. The ones that people actually lived in looked like they were about to fall into a pile of rubble at any moment. Ok, a slight exaggeration, but only slight. My apartment building was really nice though with fencing around. The reason I had “missed” it was that the sign over the entry had a different name than that on my booking.
A6 and A8
After dinner and some laziness it was time to head out and explore. I decided to head straight for the river and then walk towards the city centre from there. It was now dark outside and the derelict houses looked kind of spooky in the shadows of the street lights.
As I got closer to the river I realised there was a heavily trafficked motorway blocking my route. It was the A6. I followed a couple of people walking on a grass path along it and found a dark narrow tunnel going underneath. After a few moments of hesitating I went for it and made it out alive on the other side. I had still not reached the river though. The path led up to the bridge where another motorway was crossing the river. This time the A8. I almost turned back around, but decided to go and stand on the bridge for a second first. It was lucky I did because there I found a path leading down to the river and under the A8. I had made it to the river side.
The river running through Riga is called Daugava and it flows through Latvia, Belarus and Russia. The path running along it was really nice to walk and the lit-up bridges in the distance was a stunning sight. There were a few places along the path that did not have a fence so I kept a safe distance from the edge as the dark river water looked rather scary in the cold. The bridges looked awesome up close as well and I walked until I reached the last one that was next to Riga castle.
Riga Castle was quite a nice-looking building where the President of Latia holds residence, but I did not linger as I had decided to find the city canal and follow it back towards the central square. On my way I came across an artwork with a digital clock counting down to Latvia’s 100th anniversary. In 1918 they gained independence from the Russian empire, which does sound like it is worth celebrating. With my lack of pre-trip-research I had missed that, but the Latvia 100 signs I had seen everywhere suddenly made sense.
I found the canal easily and followed it until I came across the Freedom Monument. It is a 42-metre high memorial honouring the soldiers killed during the Latvian War of Independence that took place between 1918 and 1920. The monument was unveiled in 1035 and is an important symbol of Latvia’s freedom and independence.
Before I reached the central square there was a bit more canal to walk along and there was another lit up bridge heading over it. This time it was the underneath of the small walking bridge that was lit up with rotating colours. It looked magical and I stopped to get photos in every shade.
My second day in Riga I woke up exhausted and eventually had to force myself to leave the house before noon. My agenda for today was exploring the Riga Old Town and my starting point was the Freedom Monument which I now got to see in the day light. I crossed the Riga City Canal which location once upon a time held a wall protecting the Old Town. The area is called Vecrīga and it is also a UNISECO protected site.
I aimed to first find the statue called the Bremen Town Musicians and because it is more fun I chose the backstreets to get there.
Bremen Town Musicians
Having a tourist map at my disposal I found the statue without problem. The statue is a rooster on top of a cat, on top of a dog, on top of a donkey. It depicts the Town Musicians of Bremen which is a fairy tale recorded by the Brothers Grimm. It basically tells the story of the four animals scaring off a band of robbers on their way to Bremen where they plan to retire as musicians. The statue was a gift from Riga’s sister city Bremen in 1990 and I thought it rather cool.
St Peter’s Church
The statue stands in front of the St. Peter’s Church were you apparently can take a lift up the spire of the church to a panorama viewing platform. Of course I managed to miss that. When I went inside I got as far as the ticket office. Since I could see into the church from there it felt unnecessary to spend money on a ticket. Had I known about the tower it had been a slightly different story. Yes, I do have a tower-climbing-obsession.
The church was first mentioned in records 1209 but it has gone through three construction phases and two reconstructions since. The first reconstruction as a result of lightning hitting the tower and setting fire to it in the 18th century and then the second from fire during the 2nd World War.
I continued walking pass the nice-looking Old Town buildings and soon found my way to the Town Square where I also found a Buddy Bear. In the summer of 2018 there was a United Buddy Bear exhibition at another Old Town square with more than 140 of the colourful 2-meter-tall bears. They were there to set an example of tolerance and international understanding. The one I came across was designed by Latvian pupils. Though I had not come to the square to see the bear. I was there to visit the House of Blackheads.
House of Blackheads
This time I went further than the ticket desk at the entrance. I paid the entrance fee and headed down into the historical cellars. The House of Blackheads was built in 1334 and the original structure of the cellar still remains intact even though most of the building was bombed to ruin during World War II. The reconstruction of the building was made between 1995-1999.
But who were the Blackheads? The Brotherhood of the Blackheads was a guild for unmarried merchants, shipowners and foreigners in Riga. They used the cellars to store their goods and the historical cabinets at the first floor is where they would have held their meetings. Now there is an exhibition of silverware in of one the rooms which I had a quick look through. The cellar had been more interesting.
I walked upstairs to the second floor where I had a look at the Halls and Gallery of Composers where concerts are now being held. Without the music it was not much to see so I went back out to have a second look at the building from outside. The design is rather spectacular.
My next stop was Riga Cathedral that also goes by the name Dome Cathedral. It was built in 1211. I decided to have a look inside as well as it was not very expensive. The church’s interior was really nice, but my favourite part was the walk around the courtyard with the arched openings from where you could see the statues of men in various poses scattered about.
Outside the cathedral there was a playground where you could find a dragon, a unicorn and for some reason an armadillo.
The Three Brothers
It was time to go and search for the Three Brothers. They are not actually people, but the three oldest dwelling houses in Riga. One of the buildings date back to the late 15th century.
When I found the houses I saw a woman walk into one of the doors, first thinking that maybe she lived there. I decided to have a look and saw there was the Latvian Museum of Architecture inside. I headed in and asked another woman at a small desk how much is was and she told me it was free. It was basically just two rooms with information on the walls but considering it did not cost anything it was worth a visit. Plus it felt kind of cool just to open the door and being able to go inside.
Just next door is the St. James’s Cathedral and the Parliament building which I passed on my way to the Swedish Gate. It is the only surviving gate which was built into the city wall in 1698 during the Swedish rule. Having Swedish roots myself it was on my must-see-list.
I also passed the 18th century Jacob’s Barracks and the Powder Tower where I saw there was a museum inside as well. It was the Latvian War Museum, but I was not up for that, so I went in search of the Cat House instead.
The Cat House
Yes, there is a place called the Cat house and no, it is not a house filled with cats. It is a building with two angry looking cat statues on the roof top. Their tails are turned towards either the house of the Great Guild or the Riga Town Hall because the man who commissioned the building had a dispute with one of them depending on which story you believe to be true.
That was it – I needed a break. I found myself a hipster coffee shop where I had a nice hot drink and had a think about what to do next. I decided to tick off a few more things before I headed back to my apartment.
Nativity of Christ Cathedral
I walked to the fancy looking Nativity of Christ Cathedral where I saw you could go inside as well, though only as a woman if you covered your head. I did, hoping I was not breaking any religious rules by just covering it with my knitted hat that I was already wearing.
The interior was quite grand with a theme of gold, but I decided not to pay a ticket to have a walk through. I was still not sure my knitted hat was enough, plus it felt like a bit too much after my long day so I headed back out again. On the other side of the park is the National Museum of Art, but I did not even try to go in there. I was on information overload already.
Home sweet home
My last stop was the St. Gertrude Old Church, which was not really worth the detour, but the area was nice to have a walk through with lots of great architecture to look at. It was better than my derelict part of town. Though to be honest I kind of loved staying there as it gave me a better view of Riga and it was definitely time to head back to my run-down part of town. I was exhausted and luckily at the time not knowing that the fire alarm would go off in my building at 4 am. It was a false alarm, but it took over an hour until the few of us staying there found out. Half asleep I made it to the airport the morning after with the same bus I had taken two days earlier.
Riga had definitely been alright, but London is where my heart lies and I was so happy to be going home.
- October 2018
Good to know
The currency in Latvia is Euro.
Bus 22 will take you from and to the airport. The buses in Riga costs 1.15 € per journey if you pre-buy it in a ticket machine or 2 € (cash only) from the driver. The ticket machines take card and there was one at the airport bus stop as well as several around the city.
There is a dress code at the Nativity of Christ Cathedral.
There are toilets available at the Riga Central Station, though you have to pay for them. The House of Blackheads have free toilets once you are inside.