Riga was our second destination in the Baltic; we spent a week in Riga in mid-June, arriving the week of the Janus festival celebrations. It was a fantastic week to be in Riga; there were pop-up art and cultural exhibits, concerts and Latvians wearing beautiful folk costumes all over the city throughout the week. We had planned on hitting up Jurmala, Riga’s beach resort neighbor, but the frigid Baltic waters kept us away from the beach. None the less, we had a great time; we can’t wait to go back someday to visit the market again!
There is a lot to see and do in Riga; Riga has some fantastic architecture spanning centuries, tons of museums suited to diverse interests, and an amazing central market. Restaurants in Riga are not as cheap as Warsaw, although lodging is comparably priced, so if you want to save some money on your grub, hit up the market for some authentic Latvian eats.
Riga Central Market is a must-see destination; located behind the bus station, the market spills out from several old zeppelin hangars. Tables piled high with wild mushrooms, cabbage, and herbs greet you as you enter the market. If you’re here in late June keep your eyes peeled for vendors with cups of delicious alpine strawberries, and expect to see folks gearing up for the Janus festival by wearing crowns of flowers and oak leaves. Each zeppelin hangar is devoted to a different food group; one has meat, one has fish, one has vegetables, one has dairy products and baked goods, and there is also a dizzying hangar filled with clothes, home goods and all sorts of other odds and ends. This is also a great place to find Latvian folk art, vendors selling woolen goods, ceramics and woodwork abound. Our top picks from the market include the black breads, caraway cheeses, alpine strawberries, chanterelle mushroom, smoked fish and Kvass - Latvia’s favorite soft drink, made from fermented rye bread and raisins, it’s earthy and delicious!
The best lodging is right in the downtown area; there is lots of lodging outside of the downtown, but the further from downtown you go the sketchier things get. Riga can get pretty sketchy. Avoid looking lost, or you may get some undesirable attention. Riga has a large homeless population, and a serious alcohol problem. As far as the Riga Central Market goes, it is huge and packed, so keep your money in a safe location and pickpockets won’t be a problem. During Soviet occupation, the USSR transplanted lots of people here, there is a large Russian speaking minority, and there are sometimes violent confrontations between Latvian nationalists and Russians, as a traveler chances are you won’t get caught up in these, but it’s a good thing to know about.
If you want to escape the fast pace of the capital without going far, take a bus or the tram to the Open Air Ethnographic Museum just outside of the city. Nestled in rolling pine forests, you will feel like you stepped off the bus into another era, traditional Latvian log cabins, windmills, churches and other buildings have been painstakingly reconstructed on the grounds to give visitors a taste of traditional Latvian culture throughout the ages, prepare to be bombarded by beautiful folk art as well.
If you want to get back to the blue of the Baltic, take a regional bus north to Jurmala, Riga’s beach resort neighbor. Lodging costs a bit more here than in the city, but you can wander from the beach back to your bed without having to worry about catching a bus back to the city. Soviet industry once tainted these waters, but it is once again become a popular beach destination, Latvians assert that the government has stopped pollution and cleaned the water, rendering it safe for swimming.
When the spirit moves you to leave Latvia, head back to the bus station in Riga and get a ticket to Tallinn. Riga to Tallinn is about a 10 hour bus ride. The ECOLINES buses are just fine; minimal food service, air conditioning, bathrooms, and Russian spy films playing over and over on the TVs.
We enjoyed spending a week in Riga, hitting up the museums, sampling the beers and admiring the architecture. There are dozens of museums in Riga, and despite our best efforts we only got to visit three during our week there. We loved the ethnographic museum, situated outside the city; it was like stepping back in time, while we were there we had the opportunity to tour one of the ceramic workshops located on the grounds, and watch potters make ceramics using traditional methods and glazes. The Natural History museum was also fantastic; five floors of exhibits, including some outdated Soviet ones, and an amazing butterfly collection! The Sun Museum (which I was the most excited to visit) was the biggest letdown; a small collection of Baltic pagan sun art (which was of superb quality) was followed by “sun art from around the world” aka made in China sun decorations, some still wearing their made in China stickers mixed in with a few more pieces of genuine sun art…huge disappointment. We went to the market nearly every morning to buy our provisions for the day, it was our favorite part of Riga by far, and one of the biggest markets we’ve ever seen!
A few more sights of Riga follow:
EDITOR'S NOTE: Linguists on the Loose have just released an eMagazine entitled, "The Path Less Traveled", which features lots of gorgeous photos and helpful information on visiting the Baltic region. You can download a copy at this link.