The New York Times last week carried a travel piece on Riga, Latvia. Reading it, one familiar with Russia can't help but think: Gosh. This place seems to offer all the attractions of Russia with none of the drawbacks -- and with some of its own unique charms, unavailable in Russia, thrown into the mix. No wonder the Russians hate them so much!
RIGA’S property boom drives Latvia’s economy, one of Europe’s fastest growing, giving it the edgy, electric appeal of a boomtown. With stunning Art Deco architecture, a vibrant night life and varied and inventive restaurants, the city’s Soviet gloom has been replaced with a sense of Baltic optimism. In addition to the Soviets, Riga has been ruled by the Poles, Germans and Swedes, and all have left their mark. Few other cities afford the opportunity to investigate the ravages and vagaries of European history at such an intimate level.
1) A VIOLENT CENTURY
Understanding a bit of recent Latvian history will greatly enhance your time in Riga, and there is a perfect place to start. In the mid-1960s, the Soviets built a Museum of the Revolution in the southwestern corner of the Old Town; in one of the more delicious strokes of post-independence revenge, Latvia turned it into the Museum of the Occupation (Strelnieku Laukums 1; 371-721-2715; www.occupationmuseum.lv; free entry). With clear English explanations, this is among the most thoughtfully designed and well-curated historical museums in Europe. Its comprehensiveness is extraordinary, taking in everything from Latvian partisan Nazi and Soviet uniforms to propaganda posters, from chess sets carved from scrap and wood in the gulags to heartbreaking, hastily scribbled notes thrown from trains by deportees to Siberia.
2) THE HEART OF THE COUNTRY
Riga’s Old Town (Vecriga) is a cabinet of wonders best explored aimlessly, guided just by eye and fancy, but if you had to pick a place to start, it would be Doma Laukums (Cathedral Square), just across from the Occupation Museum. At its center is the enormous medieval cathedral, begun in 1211 by Albert von Buxhoeveden, the German missionary-warrior who sailed north to convert the Livonian heathens. The more interesting building, though, is the House of the Blackheads (Ratslaukums 7; 371-704-4300; entry 2 lats, or $4 at $2 to the lat), on the southern side of the square. Built to house bachelor Hanseatic traders and sailors, it derives its name from their patron saint, Mauritius, or Maurice, traditionally depicted as an armed Moor. The Soviets completed the destruction of this magnificent Gothic-Dutch Renaissance building that World War II had begun — its Teutonic architecture was too decadent — but after independence, it was one of the first structures to be rebuilt. Being very close to Rigans’ hearts, the work was financed by individual donations.
3) A CAUCASIAN FEAST
No, not mayonnaise and baloney sandwiches on white bread with extra-dry martinis, but one of the glories of the Soviet culinary legacy: the well-spiced, hearty cuisine of Azerbaijan, Georgia, or, in the case of Akhtamar (Merkela Iela 9; 371-721-5032; infolatvia.com/akhtamar), Armenia. Don’t let the ethnic kitsch décor — brick walls, kilims, wooden tables — dissuade you from diving head first into the menu. The shashliks (kebabs, so named for the shashki, or sabers, on which they were once cooked) are full-flavored and perfectly cooked, but Caucasian cuisine shines in its deeply flavored stews, particularly the tomato-and herb-based chakhokhbili. A full meal, including appetizers, drinks and tip, can easily be had for about 15 lats a person.
4) DRINKS AND CONVERSATION
Riga’s thriving bachelor party trade means it abounds in bars featuring scantily clad women, filling-rattling music and vodka served by the gallon. Give these the widest possible berth. Vecriga has a fair selection of Irish bars (De Lacy’s at Skunu Iela 4 is the best), but better to cap off your night at Galerija Istaba (Krisjana Barona 31; 371-728-1141), just north of the elegant Vermanes Park district. Its first floor is an art gallery, filled with knickknacks designed by local artists; the second floor is a cozy, friendly bar that nightly attracts a wide swath of bohemian Riga. The décor is just on the chic side of rough, but the bar is well stocked, the service friendly and the conversation invariably interesting.
5) PURIFY YOURSELF
Like its neighbors, Latvia takes its saunas seriously: most people prefer to get their hearts racing by dashing between a steam room and a cold pool rather than on a Stairmaster, and a few hours enrobed in eucalyptus steam is an ideal way to sweat out the excesses of a late night. Riga’s saunas run the gamut, from unrepentantly grimy Soviet sweat shacks to the beautiful new Taka Spa (Kronvalda bulvaris 3a; 371-732-3150; www.takaspa.lv). At Taka’s heart is a large room with a warm dry sauna, a hotter steam room and three pools: cold, medium and a Jacuzzi. The idea is to move from the sauna to the steam, get as hot as you possibly can, then dive into the cold water. The sensation is truly exhilarating, though it does not come cheap: an hour will cost you 24 lats (or 6 lats if you book other services as well, like Pilates, a facial or a massage), but will leave you feeling rejuvenated.
6) GOING GREEN
Osiris (Krisjana Barona 31, 371-724-3002) opened in 1994, which makes it a Riga institution. It was the first Rigan restaurant to address Soviet crimes against salad: Osiris’s are large, leafy and based around fresh vegetables, rather than the standard quivering bowls of mayonnaise and carrot cubes. It draws a mixture of urban professionals, artists, writers and politicians; it was among the first gay-friendly spots in Riga, and remains welcoming to all. Its menu is eclectic and changes daily; one can follow a traditional herring and potato salad with kung pao chicken or excellent pelmeni (small Russian dumplings served with sour cream and vinegar). The specialty dessert — pancakes folded over enormous wedges of homemade sweet cheese — will fill you up for days.
7) STREET ART
Riga boomed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, both in population and wealth. The most visible remnant of that boom can be seen in its architecture: it has one of the largest collection of Art Nouveau buildings in Europe. Alberta Iela, just north of the Esplanade and Kronvalda Park, is the best single street for viewing these treasures. Mikhail Eisenstein, father of the film director Sergei, designed several of the most striking buildings.
8) JEWELS AND ANTIQUES
For a city so steeped in history, it seems only fitting that the jewel of choice is amber, which has been washing up on Baltic seacoasts for millenniums. For convenience sake, you can get your amber at any souvenir or jewelry shop; for local color, though, visit the stalls behind St. Peter’s Church or along Valnu Iela behind the Hotel Riga. Riga’s antiques shops also hold treasures of the more earthly kind: everything from old artwork to church artifacts to Soviet knickknacks. Small stores dot the city; for variety, depth and the cheerful disorganization, try Antikvariats del Arte (Krisjana Barona 16/18; 371-2948-1568). For books, mostly in Latvian or Russian, try the Jumavas Antikvariats (R. Vagnera Iela 12; 371-722-7629).
9) STARRY NIGHT
Rigans will tell you that Vincents (Elizabetes Iela 19; 371-733-2634; www.restorans.lv) is one of the best restaurants in the city. Martins Ritins, the chef and owner, pioneered the local-organic approach in Latvia; his restaurants almost single-handedly enabled the survival of dozens of small farmers. More importantly, though, he makes extraordinary food. His style could be described as Franco-Baltic-Scandinavian — his signature dish is a potato cake with foie gras and marinated eel. He also has a showman’s touch: a recent dinner featured as a palate cleanser an instant sorbet, composed tableside from Riga Black Balsam (a local bitter spirit, like Fernet-Branca with heavier caramel notes), blackcurrant juice, brown sugar, club soda and liquid nitrogen.
10) CAPITALISM IN ACTION
No trip to Riga would be complete without visiting the sprawling Central Market in the fascinating, grimy area of town known as Maskvas Forstate (the Moscow Suburb). The market comprises almost 1,200 vendors spread across five enormous zeppelin hangars, as well as a secondary, more informal network of stalls outside the market proper. Vendors are arranged more or less by wares, and even if you buy nothing (though it would be a shame to go home without a loaf of Latvia’s glorious rupjmaize (black bread), simply strolling through the market provides a carnival of delights. You can find everything from fresh farmer’s cheese to lemongrass to pig snouts; outside the market, the stallholders sell leather goods, DVDs of dubious provenance and freshly foraged mushrooms.
Carriers including Czech Airlines, Finnair and Air France fly from Kennedy Airport in New York to Riga, usually with one stop. A recent Web search showed round-trip fares starting at about $750. A cab from the airport into the city costs about 10 lats, or $20 at $2 to the lat. Use the reservation stand if it’s busy, otherwise just flag a taxi outside and save a couple of lats.
The Europa Royale (Kr. Barona 12; 371-707-9444; www.hoteleuropa.lt/index.php//231) is hard to beat. Just across from Vermanes Park, in a renovated industrialist’s mansion, its rooms are comfortable and its service is friendly. It’s about a 10-minute walk from Old Town. Doubles start at about 100 lats in the low season and 120 lats in the high season.
The Reval Hotel Latvija (Elizabetes iela 55, 371-777-2222) began life as a Soviet Intourist hotel, as its 27-story blockish structure testifies. A recent refurbishment, however, has given the interior a decidedly more luxurious feeling. Doubles start at about 70 lats.
The Sunday Travel Section: If you Like Russia, You'll Love Latvia!