Autumn is the best time to visit the delightful capital of Latvia for its colourful parks, Art Nouveau buildings and culture
For a weekend, the streets were surprisingly deserted in Riga’s historic centre. There was a sense of mixed beauty, abandon and tranquillity drifting among the old buildings in the narrow cobbled streets that made me like the city straight away. Autumn had just begun and its lavish colours enriched an already vibrant and colourful place, named by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
Riga's Old Town is best explored aimlessly, but if you had to pick a place to start, it would be Cathedral Square. At its centre lays the enormous red-brick medieval church, with its typically austere Lutheran interior. Heading south, you will arrive at the Town Hall Square, whose Houses of the Black Heads - twin late-Gothic buildings largely destroyed in the Second World War and rebuilt in 1999 - have become the favourite spot for tourists to smile at their cameras. In the nearby Saint Peter’s Church, there is a lift to take you to the 123 meter (403 feet) high tower, where the views are simply amazing. The area is also a good place to buy amber jewellery and other local crafts. After the recent tourism boom, the trade in amber ornaments has grown, so it is sensible to have a sharp eye when buying it, as amber can easily be mistaken by plastic. Look out for a white pearling and sediment within the resin, to buy the right stuff.
Walking a few meters towards the River Daugava, you reach the Latvian Riflemen’s Square, which still bears its heroic communist name, reminding every visitor of the country’s Soviet past. It is one of the last examples of ideological sculpture left in the city, depicting three serious figures in enormous coats. The usual gathering point for pro-communist, anti-independence protesters in 1991, the square is nowadays just a bus stop. The imposing Academy of Sciences, also known as Stalin's Birthday Cake, is a much more in-your-face Soviet building, which dominates the skyline, even being further away from the historic centre. Built after the Second World War to mark the borders of the Stalinist Empire, it still keeps the original decoration. Looking closely enough you can spot several hammers and sickles, as well as Latvian folk ornaments.
Latvia was a part of the USSR from 1940 to 1991 and 50 percent of Riga’s population is Russian. The majority of ethnic Latvians living in the city, especially those old enough to have attended school during Soviet times, can also speak and understand Russian. The two communities get on peaceably enough, but tend to have separate lives, reading their own newspapers and often showing a staggering lack of interest in each others’ culture.
Riga is one of the European cities with the biggest concentration of Art Nouveau architecture, which can especially be found in Alberta and Elizabetes Streets, in the north-western corner of the city. It is the best place to see Mikhail Eisenstein’s unique creations and splendid style. Unfortunately, while most of these buildings are well-kept, others are quite run down.
Plaster flourishes, gargoyles and two huge heads make one of Eisenstein’s most famous creations, located at numbers 10A and 10B, Elizabetes Street. The richness of detail can be noticed elsewhere, but if you don’t want to miss anything, it is advisable not to forget to look up. The number of faces, nymphs and other mythological creatures already gazing down may give you a strange ghostly sensation.
Continuing southeast, you soon come to a sequence of parks and a long canal, which mark the boundary between the modernist and the medieval parts of the town. The whole green-belt is a much loved and well-tended area, where locals and visitors stop to watch the time passing-by. During the autumn, it makes for a live painting of lush bright colours, where children and old ladies search for kaleidoscopic leaves to add to their seasonal collections.
Strolling around, you might come across the footbridge padlocks. It is part of a very interesting custom, where newly-married couples declare their bond by fixing a padlock to the bridge and throwing the keys into the waters below.
However, when the fading daylight announces the approaching evening, it is time to indulge in the local cuisine, especially designed for meat and seafood lovers (go to the excellent Gastronome, Brivibas 31; www.mc2.lv/en/gastronome). Wherever you order, your dish will come with dark rye bread, for which the Baltic region is famed. The most popular drink is beer, followed by vodka, but you should definitely try Riga’s traditional black balsam (Rigas melnais balsams), a bitter-tasting spirit that combines various herbs and roots, normally served with juice.
The two very contrasting faces of the Latvian capital will not be missed even by short-stay visitors. Contemporary Riga is a bustling city looking to the west, but its past of Soviet domination is vividly present beyond its buildings and monuments. Away from the touristy areas, you can have an idea of how the vast majority of the people live. The local economy still struggles, but Riga’s splendid culture and striking nature definitely put the city among the richer in Europe.
Restaurant Hospitalis. If you fancy something unconventional, like being served by a waitress in a nurse dress and using a scalpel to cut your meal (www.hospitalis.lv)
Gallery Makslas Darzs. if you want to know about local contemporary art (www.artgarden.lv)
Bar Rigas Balzams. The best place to try the black balsam (www.balzambars.lv)
Riga Hotel (Aspazijas Boulevard 22) It is a very comfortable hotel, ideal for a romantic weekend. (www.hotelriga.lv)
Grand Palace Hotel (Pils Iela 12) Located in a quiet cobble-stoned street at Riga's Old Town, this luxurious hotel is surrounded by ancient monuments.(www.schlossle-hotels.com/grandpalace)
Toss Hotel (Kengaraga Street 6). In 1859 it was a flax factory and some feature of that period can still be found in some rooms. Sauna and swiming pool available. (www.hoteltoss.lv)