After a relaxing week in Tallinn, we bid Estonia farewell. Riga was the next stop on our year of travel, and who knew the bus journey would be a preview of things to come- pleasant, comfortable and surprisingly entertaining!
Rail travel between Tallinn and Riga is, unfortunately, not easy. To do it, you need to transfer a couple of times making it an all day affair, while the bus is direct and takes just four hours. No brainer. For more information on travel by train anywhere in the world, please visit one of the best travel websites out there: The Man in Seat Sixty-One. It doesn't look all high-tech, but what he has compiled is so comprehensive and unbelievably helpful, I owe him a debt of gratitude.
There are two main bus services, Lux Express and Ecolines. We paid 18 euros each, although they advertise tickets as cheap as 5 euros which I believe involves some serious advance booking and off peak (i.e. middle of the night) timing. We went with Lux Express and while you can book online, I bought our tickets in person at the main bus terminal (Autobussjaam) about a mile east of the Old Town. The seats were relaxing with individual entertainment screens and a movie selection far better than any airline I've flown lately!
Like Tallinn, I knew very little about Riga before I read up on it during the four hour journey. I discovered that it's the largest city in the Baltics, and known for its architecture and museums, making it a great city for tourists. While it shares a similar history to Estonia and Lithuania, Latvia still holds strong ties with Russia, while Estonia asserts its Nordic heritage, and Lithuania leans towards its continental European roots. I heard a lot of Russian being spoken on the streets of Riga, but without the angry St. Petersburg vibe.
With great history, culture and food, Riga is the perfect long weekend destination. Unlike other places, where I've been looking to get under the surface, I decided to change it up and approach Riga with a carefree 'long weekend' mentality.
After checking into our lovely AirBnB apartment, we were starving and headed for a restaurant that I had heard was an atmospheric cellar (Perry's favorite!) serving hearty portions of Latvian food and beer at ridiculously low prices. Upon arriving at Folkklubs ala Pagrabs, we descended into the cool and candlelit cavern of a restaurant.
It was 5 pm so no reservation was necessary, however, if you want to have dinner and stay for the music entertainment, pre-booking is recommended. The cheap and hearty reputation lived up to its billing. The food and drinks were delicious (beer for 1.40 euro) and our total bill with drinks, starter and two mains amounted to only 14 euro.
Afterwards, we walked our full bellies around the Old Town where I was impressed by its liveliness with music playing everywhere. Riga's Old Town is noticeably more substantial than Tallinn's, and has a bit more commercial appeal.
We came across the famous 'Cat House'. Legend has it the owner of the cat house (pictured above) was angry at being rejected membership at the Guild across the street and asked that the two cat sculptures have raised tails turned towards the Guild house as an insulting gesture, but the city insisted they be turned the other way. We continued to meander, admiring the narrow alleys and pretty streets.
Later, we happened upon a free multimedia exhibit at Art Museum Riga Bourse called Gondola: Doors to Venice. Set to Vivaldi's Nisi Dominis (made famous in Guy Ritchie's film Revolver) the performance was held in the courtyard of the art museum under its famous installation called Gondola, a three dimensional air borne 'explosion' of a real gondola. A local favorite, citizens of Riga frequently make plans to meet friends under the gondola.
Afterwards, we walked around a bit more, but being a Saturday night, there were many stag and hen-do's crowding the streets. So we climbed the 97 steps to our apartment and collapsed for the night.
In the morning, we had a nutritious breakfast of coffee and truffles at the chocolate shop next door, Vilhelms Kuze. Such indulgence was the perfect start for our walk down Alberta Iela, the most famous of Riga's jaw dropping Art Nouveau streets. I'm sure the residents are sick of tourists walking by their homes, but hey, if you are going to live on a street that is pure eye candy, be prepared to share it with the rest of us!
We continued towards the Latvian National Museum of Art, which just re-opened after a three year renovation. Entirely impressive, the space successfully integrates an intricately decorated Art Nouveau main area with modern, spare upper and lower levels. Many of the floors have see-through spaces which gives it a strangely comforting communal feeling.
Our high brow tanks filled, we decided to lunch at the common man's gathering spot, Lido. A local favorite, you slide your tray along the counter as you choose from a variety of Latvian specialties, before checking out with an efficient cashier that reminds you of grandma and makes you feel guilty for not having vegetables on your plate. It's a cafeteria, Latvian style.
Stuffed once again, we decided to take a very long walk. First, we strolled through Vermanes Darz, a beautiful park filled with music and picnicking Rigans who were out enjoying the fine sunny day. We crossed the Daugava River to get a closer look at the National Library, an impressive building that commands the landscape of the riverfront across from the Old Town.
We decided to walk along the river to the next bridge, the Vansu, a cable structure built during the Soviet era. It turned out to be a very long walk as our phones clocked in at 15 miles total that day! It made me feel less guilty as we strolled casually by the cross-fitters working out under the bridge.
On the way back, we walked by the monument dedicated to the Latvian Red Riflemen, who served as Lenin's personal bodyguards. It's a controversial statue that many want torn down, but it's certainly impressive to see.
Despite it being a Monday morning and likely to be slow, we purposefully hit up Central Market to avoid the crowds and leisurely look around. A Riga landmark, the market consists of five former German Zeppelin hangars and is a popular tourist attraction. We had a quick breakfast of baked goods and then bought fresh fruit for a mini picnic in the park.
Perry is a hot chocolate aficionado and we had consumed it in every city thus far on the trip, so after the park we headed to Black Magic Cafe where their specialty is hot chocolate served with Black Balsam, the famous Latvian herbal liquor.
Unfortunately, long term travel means there are days one must take care of personal business and on this day, we were both in desperate need of hair cuts, so that is how we spent the afternoon. We capped off our day with one more stroll around the Old Town Square and a stop at the Galleria, as we find malls to be a great place to get a feel for local tastes.
For your third day, you might visit a church (St. Peter's has tower you can climb), visit the House of Blackheads, another architectural wonder or take in a performance at the Opera House or National Theater, both rated as exceptional.
We flew out of Riga International Airport (a 15 minute, 10 euro cab ride from Old Town) early the next morning (via Berlin to Salzburg) on the efficient low cost airline Air Baltic. We left Riga with good memories but wanting more and eager to return. We find it best to leave a few activities for another visit, which is our way of saying 'see you next time' instead of goodbye.