we’re entering our 7th month of being on the road and at the risk of jinxing our future travels, i have to say that we’ve been rolling pretty good over the last few months. we’ve had our share of hardships but they’ve been relatively few and far between. the weather was pretty much great as well for all of june and july. we covered tons of ground via cars, buses, trains and planes. we’d do 200km daytrips and be back in town for dinner.
and then riga happened.
now, i can’t say that it would have been any different had we gone to another area of eastern europe but we’re here now, sitting in the middle of a weather pattern that i can only describe as schizophrenic. we’ve had our share of good eats which was what i was looking forward to after our first 24 hours but a big draw to coming here were all the daytrips we could have done. let me elaborate…
the sights of riga:
the historic town of riga was dubbed the european culture capital in 2014. much of the city has been built in the art noveau style which can be seen as interesting, beautiful and also conversely, nightmarish. i personally like the look of many of the buildings as the columns and balconies are adorned with facial busts making all sorts of expressions. some can be downright scary.
the unesco worthy old town:
the old town, like every other major european city we’ve come across is gorgeous. i have to admit that i was completely over and done with ‘old towns’ after seeing a new one every two days throughout summer but riga’s is both compact and daunting in a vertical way. the massive cathedrals and churches can be seen from across the city
old town is very lively and every evening there is live music on almost every patio. probably the liveliest old town we’ve seen on our travels. and as per the status quo for old towns, it feels very much like a theme park. patios are packed with travellers, all the live music is in english and it’s one mickey mouse shy of a disneyland. and therein lies the double edged sword of unesco heritage sites. our biggest surprise of old town was that we had our best meal more or less smack dab in the middle of town at a much cheaper pricepoint than we expected.
the food of riga:
so this was our favourite meal of our trip… domini canes which is located in the heart of old town across from the massive cathedral. it is about 30 feet from a restaurant that had two chefs train at noma, the world famous restaurant in copenhagen, and their pricepoint is in the 20-30 euro per entree. still cheaper than eating in denmark but this is a far cry from denmark.
i found this place via a blog of someone who lives in riga. she listed off 10 places around town and i must say that i was surprised when i went through the post. all the ingredients used are local, the plating is outstanding and there were many options in the 10 euro per entree range. i won’t go as far as to say that the food quality is as good as somewhere like a france or italy however it gives them a run for their money. another thing we noticed about the food, and this was consistent over our 8 day stay, was that food is not overly salty, fatty, oily or buttery. coming from croatia where EVERYTHING except our truffle meals came with a fistful of salt, this was a huge and welcome surprise.
another thing they do well here are potato pancakes. they’re pretty similar to pancakes except of the extra tasty & crispy variety and usually served with a creamy mushroom sauce. actually what am i saying, they were freaking awesome. i had a burger and fries and still ate half of haha’s serving of four potato pancakes.
and finally, lunch is a big thing here. business lunches are the menu dias (spain) of riga and for 7-8 euros, you get a three course meal with a drink. these aren’t sloppily put together meals either. our favourite lunch was at pagalms. our first lunch started with a greek salad followed by a very delicately crafted bolognese with a rasberry couli topped meringe for dessert. on our last day in town we had six hours to kill before our evening flight so we went back for another round. this time we had a spicy gazpacho, grilled chicken skewers over a vegetable pasta & cream sauce and finished with some sort of banana rice-cake-ish dessert, sprinkled with cocoa crumblings/streusel. so good. so good that i had to eat haha’s dessert too.
pagalms also has two patios and a very nicely decorated interior (think oakwood but with black wood instead of dark brown). one of the patios is facing four clay tennis courts too. droooooooool.
so to elaborate on the downpours that we found ourselves caught in… in a span of 10 minutes the skies can go clear and sunny to dark and stormy. i haven’t seen weather roll in this fast since hokkaido. the odd thing is that as the forecast would predict rain to come at 3pm, the clouds would show up roughly 15 minutes beforehand and the impending drenching was right on schedule most of the time.
after a few days of ignoring the weatherman’s warnings (because seriously, how often are they correct?), we started to play it safe and wouldn’t you know it, days with rain in the afternoon would turn sunny. even our last afternoon in town had rain forecasted all day and instead it was gorgeously sunny with temperatures in the mid 20s. we are getting punished by the beach gods :/
the central market:
spending time in the local markets has been a ritual for us this trip. aside from feeding our habit of cooking half our meals at home, they’re lots of fun to explore and offer up lots of photography targets. the central market here across from the main train station did stand out from the others in that it was probably the largest one we’ve been to across all our travels. larger than mercat de la boqueria in barcelona and although it had its share of tourists, the overwhelming majority of shoppers where local ladies in their 50s and up. watching the older women interract with acquaintances was very cute and while it was a great place to take candid photos, i got warned when i snapped one in a no-photo zone. i’m not one to argue with anyone of eastern european descent so away the camera went.
the neighbourhood markets:
on saturday we ventured west of the river to an older neighbourhood that hosted a weekly market at kalnciema kvartals. pretty standard stuff here: local arts and crafts on sale with some produce stands as well as warm food stalls mixed in with wine and cider booths as well; all food and drinks being sourced locally. it may have been one of the smallest markets we’ve been to with 30 small stalls at the most but something about this market stood out to us. only a few of the booths were selling the same items which is a nice change from the mega markets that have so many choices that you have to pit them against one another. in this case, making choices were easy, we followed our noses after we made one lap around all the stalls. that brought us to a giant wok in a corner of the market that was being used to make batches of lamb biryani.
the beaches of riga:
until j-lo lead us down this path, we had no idea that latvia was loaded with pristine beaches. with many beaches within a one hour train ride of riga, our plan was to alternate sightseeing and beach bum days however we only managed to get out to one of them before the weather turned sketchy on us. it was our first full day in the city and we trained it out to the town of jurmala, the most developed beachtown of latvia. it was only 30 minutes north of riga and and cost 2.70 euros round trip to get there and back. i can’t recall when train travel has been this cheap since portugal would have been more than double of this. jurmala has 33km of white sand coastline to its name and is the fifth largest cities in latvia at 55,000 people. yup, it’s pretty small.
the beaches were a 10 minute walk through a quiet neighbourhood and then a growth of pine trees, which is quite common here. pine trees keep the beaches secluded from roads and towns. the beach is unsurprisingly long, clean and the water stretches out for hundreds of feet. i walked out about 100 feet and was still only about thigh deep. very kid friendly beaches. we did notice a few things different here compared to the other beaches we’ve been to this trip:
a) garbage cans spaced out all along the beachfront (hi santorini, are you listening?)
b) very little development along the water for the biggest beach in the country
c) fine white sand devoid of cigarette butts and plastic
d) calm waters, almost too calm
e) lots of power walkers, exercising with their walking sticks which is also a big thing in latvia
f) no beach loungers. something about this gives it a more low key/family feel
g) lots of soccer nets and volleyball nets setup at intervals along the beach. really cool although a little hectic during busy times but this is a great idea. of course, when you have 33km of beach to play with i’m sure you could sacrifice some to sports.
h) a packed down pathway of sand along the beach that allows bikers to ride up and down the whole stretch
the weather only got up to the mid 20s on our daytrip and we spent about four hours in jurmala but we really liked it. many of the other beaches are more secluded what what i’ve been reading and i would have loved to make it out to vecaki to the east or even leipaja way over on the westcoast of the country; leipaja is supposedly beautiful and is just as good of a base as riga with many daytrip opportunities.
daytrips from riga:
daytrip options from riga are plentiful and was the top draw for us to book our flight to latvia in the first place. mental note: check the forecast beforehand. after getting caught in multiple downpours over the initial days of our stay we opted to lay low on any day with rain forecasted which unfortunately was everyday until our last day. there are swimmable waterfalls, national parks, historical manors and castles, countryside museums and small beach towns just to name a few. we made it out to just ONE of those… sigh.
our daytrip to sigulda:
our one daytrip was to nearby town of sigulda. sigulda sits next to gauja national park which we found out was absolutely massive. our whole day turned in a comedy of errors that i can assure you was not very funny at the time. i’ll start from the beginning. rain was forecasted for the morning so we opted to get a late start to the day to assess if the sun would be holding up for the afternoon. by 1030 the sun was out in full force and the roads were drying up so we decided to go for it. we did manage to start the day off with a great breakfast at a small cafe. little did we know it was going to be straight downhill from there.
the train to sigulda only cost 3.80 euro per person round trip and takes about 75 minutes. this didn’t make sense to me as the more frequent buses cost the same price and also take the same time. we found out why once the train started moving.
slowest. train. ever.
not to mention that passed through some sections with torrential downpours… we were thinking that we might have to take a roundtrip without ever getting off in sigulda. i regret not doing that.
sigulda greeted us with warm weather and sunshine. lots of it. a stop to pickup some maps of the area led us across the street to contemplate renting a bike. traffic was nearly nonexistent and i heard it was an hour’s walk to get to all the attractions so we opted to rent a pair of bikes since we had about 4 hours to explore town if we were to keep our dinner reservations. bad decision.
the first cathedral we passed was a few minutes away from the bike shop. easy to get to and by this point we thought that it would be smooth sailing the rest of the day. little did we know that the latvian park board has no idea how to draw up maps or at least biking trails. we had an option to ride our bikes down a one-lane hill with no bike lanes or take a gondola across the river with our bikes but we opted to ride our way across the bridge as we saw a connecting road. the mistakes were compounding at this point.
had we done either of those two options we would have skipped the most memorable portions of the day. we could not get downhill to the bridge unless we rode our bike 20 minutes westwards to loop around to the waterfront road. so that’s what we attempted to do. we came up to a dead end with a hostel and hotel being built which did not feel right at all. there were no other tourists in the area though since it was a weekday we thought it could just be that it was a quiet day. in any case, we had our doubts. we did see a dirt pathway that somewhat resembled the path on the bike map so we ventured downwards. this pathway wasn’t as short as we had though. a 5 minute ride turned into over 20 minutes and involved navigating big puddles of mud and steep, rocky inclines on our nearly bald tires meant for paved roads.
after much toiling and apologizing, we ended up at the bridge to the other side. this was a bittersweet victory as we still had a fair distance to go eastwards to get back to any of the attractions that we wanted to get to.
at this point we had two options, to take the orange ‘easy’ bike path back or the blue ‘advanced/mountainbike’ path that curls along the waterfront. given the hell we just went through which was labeled a blue path, we opted for the orange one. we followed the dirt path upwards. yes. upwards.
what the hell. even coming downhill this would have been a sketch ride. riding up wasn’t even possible with our bikes. we pushed the whole way and we were rewarded for our troubles with an empty parking lot. from here we rode along a dirt road for maybe 20 minutes which brought us to an unmanned gondola station.
we had an option of waiting 30 minutes for the gondola or to ride our bikes down towards the famous cave with 16th century graffiti/inscriptions which is what we opted to do. a screaming ride down the serpentine path (a famous winding pathway great for ‘romantic’ walks) brought us to a fork in the road and we had a decision to ride potentially another 10 minutes to get to the caves or to turn back. we had 45 minutes until our train so we opted to turn around and head back to the train station. we finally found the elusive bike path that lead over the bridge however getting from the bridge back up to the town center left us with three options.
a) a ride back westwards in hopes of meeting up with the correct path to get back to the road we rode west on which meant 45 minutes at a minimum
b) a walk up an unknown number of stairs with our bikes which i wouldn’t exactly describe as light
c) a 1km long hill with single lane traffic in each direction and no bike lanes
option a) was out of the running due to time constraints. we attempted option b) and turned around after less than 10 steps. momentum wasn’t easy to keep and once the bike started downhill it would have been tragic to be behind it. we went with option c) and riding turned very quickly to pushing which turned to panting and gasping just as quickly. i don’t know how long this process took but we did eventually make it up the slog.
there was a historic museum, largest cave in the baltic region, ancient inscriptions/hieroglyphics in the caves, a manor built in the confines of the park. all in all, there were over 500 historical and cultural monuments within the park and we saw none. god how i wish that things went differently but i suppose it just wasn’t meant to be. riga did us wrong.
there is a cat cafe:
from my research, the city has been seeing a lot of change over the last 5-10 years and it’s very apparent with the types of shops and restaurants available. case in point would be the cat cafe that haha found. i mean, how many non-japanese speaking cities have cat cafes nowadays? and they’re generally in areas with relatively good levels of disposable income (as homeless people would probably just play with cats in the street. well, and female asian travelers in some cases). this place. minka cat cafe had three resident cats though all three were sleeping with the exception of one black one that was dozing in and out of sleep. seemed like everytime i turned around, he was staring at me with an evil glare. we only stopped in for a dessert but it was nothing short of droolicious.
the space was very nice and they had a menu large enough to accomodate those wanting an actual meal which was quite different from the previous cafes we’ve been to. they had been open about a year and a half when we visited. i know that single guys and stag parties have long had riga on their itinerary list but now there’s a reason for single women as well 😛
minka cat cafe
meža iela 4a
knowing what i know now…
-would i revisit riga? if i was already in the area (west russia, lithuania or scandinavia), i would come back for 2-3 days. i would be more inclined to visit liepaja on the west coast of latvia instead.
-would i recommend riga to friends? definitely. drive or walk the sigulda portion, skip on the bikes completely and most of all, hope for sunny weather everyday. the town is only so big and without daytrips to keep you busy, you’ll go stircrazy quickly. the town is beautiful and is much cheaper than neighbouring countries and the food alone will keep you happy.