Heading to the Baltics for a cruise or a drive? Riga’s cosmopolitan cool will excite any traveler. Here’s our quick guide to places to explore in the Latvian capital.
1. Check out the Old Town
Eastern Europe capitals are known for their charming old town centers, and Riga’s is certainly a memorable one. But few cities have the towering, gingerbread-esque buildings that dot the Old Town Square. Spend a picturesque afternoon wandering the alleyways of Old Riga (Vecriga) any day of the year. The architecture is particularly pretty in winter, when Christmas markets and huge evergreens light up the warm Dutch colors and art nouveau rooftops.
2. Try Balsam
No, it’s not a vinegar! Riga black balsam is an herbal liquor made from vodka. Though somewhat morphing into a drink for the locals, it’s still to be found in many homes as an old-fashioned cocktail or a general remedy for the common cold. Traditional recipes are made of 24 different herbs, berries, roots and oils, and is somewhat bitter to the taste. The golden-brown color can be poured over ice or mixed with juices or spices, served hot or cold. Balsam dates back all the way to the 18th century, a pharmacist concocted the beverage to cure Empress Catherine the Great of Russia of an ailment. In the winter, it’s sometimes mixed with black currant and heated, much like mulled wine. Though the drink is not to everyone’s taste, I say, “when in Rome!”
3. Freedom Monument
In the middle of Bastion Hill Park towers a huge memorial honoring soldiers killed during the Latvian War of Independence, 1918-1920. The landmark is an important symbol of freedom and the sovereignty of Latvia. At the top of a white monolith stands a woman, her arms outstretched and holding three stars, that represent the three historic districts of Latvia. Locals call her Milda. Built in 1935, the 138-ft monument was designed by notable sculptor Kārlis Zāle, who won an award for his design “Shine like a star!” Guards regularly patrol the area, with a changing of the guard every hour from 9am to 6pm. Guards are required to be at least 6 feet tall and to stand without moving for half an hour!
4. Gauja National Park and Gutmanis Cave
Though technically outside of Riga, the achingly beautiful Gauja National Park is reachable by a 1-hour drive. As the oldest and largest such park in Latvia, Gauja makes a refreshing day trip into the countryside. Established in 1973, it’s 90,000 hectares of sandstone cliffs, natural springs and thick foliage. Discover one of the more notable attractions, Gutmanis Cave, an old site of pilgrimage. The sandstone cavern walls are smothered in graffiti that dates all the way back to the 16th century, depicting coats-of-arms and the names of various barons. Legend has it that the waters of the nearby spring will heal any ache, injury or hangover. Once upon a time, the Liv chief Rindaugs buried his unfaithful wife alive on the banks of the Gauja river. The woman cried so hard in her grave, and her tears flowed out of the cave, creating the curative stream that flows there today.
5. Art Nouveau
Though Art Nouveau peppers the streets of Riga, the best specimens can be found along Elizabetes Street, in the so-called “Quiet Center,” a 10-minute walk from Old Town. Some 800 facades in the area flaunt decorative motifs, floral patterns, peacocks, detailed female figurines and masks. At the turn of the 19th century, architectural themes remodeled from abstract romantic to more figurative and imaginative design characteristic of the Art Nouveau style.
For the true art-inclined, the Museum of Riga Art Nouveau (Alberta ielā 12) is the perfect place to start your tour of the city’s architecture, with its stained glass windows, elegant twisting staircase and sharp corner tower.
6. Bergs Bazaar
The intimate and arched promenades of the Bergs Bazaar is nothing short of charming. The atmosphere is more garden than mall, and along its 130-year-old cobblestones you’ll find around 140 cafes, restaurants and boutiques. It’s a great place to come in the evenings for a languid stroll, and watch the locals chat and go about their daily business!
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