Tired of too many tourists and escalating prices? Head north for a weekend break in one of Europe’s most captivating and under-explored capital cities
If it’s a weekend city break you’re looking for, Europe has a greater abundance and diversity of destinations than anywhere else on earth. And in recent years the focus of attention has left central and southern Europe in favour of the less-explored Baltic region, with its classical architecture, temperate climate and low prices.
The capital city of Latvia and the largest city in the Baltic States, Riga is located on the coastline of the Baltic Sea and has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in its entirety, thanks to the unrivalled proliferation of German Art Nouveau architecture. Benefiting from good travel links to the very modern Riga International Airport, it’s a two-hour flight from Stansted Airport with Ryanair and a short taxi ride into the city and our hotel.
As this was my first time to the Baltic states, I was interested and excited to see how tourists would be treated in comparison to the rest of Europe, and I didn’t have to wait long, as our minibus taxi was pulled over by a local policeman keen to check our credentials. A torchlight review of the passengers and brief chat with our local driver, and we were back underway, but not before the policeman had said he wanted to search our bags by the side of the road – a threat that thankfully didn’t materialise!
Even at night, driving through Riga is an extraordinary introduction to the city, often like taking a step back in time, with evidence of every one of its 800 years beautifully preserved in the architecture, the layout and the very essence of the city. We opted to stay at the three-star Hotel Konventa Seta. Located deep in the Old Town but close to New Town amenities, it's a gorgeous boutique-style building in the courtyard of a 15th-century convent that actually hides 141 rooms. And after a great night’s sleep in the clean, quiet and spacious rooms, the next morning dawned warm, bright and sunny – perfect weather for strolling the streets in exploration.
Concentrating on the northeast bank of the River Daugava, where the Old and New Towns dominate, what really struck me about Riga and in particular its residents was just how chic and sophisticated they were. Men and women alike were fashionably dressed, oozed style and carried themselves with a grace and confidence that reminded me of previous trips to Milan and Tallinn.
On our day’s stroll (admittedly with the odd tram ride), we took in the fantastic ancient Central Market, well worth a visit around lunchtime for its huge food market, let alone the endless stalls of curios and trinkets that’ll tempt the cash from your pockets. Next up was the Lutheran cathedral, another ‘largest in the Baltic states’ claimant, with an organ that beggars belief in scale and complexity, and finally the epic Riga Castle, housing the Museum of Latvian History and the Museum of Foreign Art.
It may sound like an overdose of culture – and indeed it almost was – but when you’re surrounded by the kind of architecture and history that Riga presents on every street corner, it’s impossible not to get a little inspired by the arts!
After a long day, dinner was taken care of at the excellent local eatery Zivju Restorans, where the city’s coastal locale came into its own with an extensive fresh fish menu, much of which is plucked direct from the restaurant’s own pond! Granted, it’s not exactly cheap, but with such a good deal had on our hotel rate, we felt the need to splurge.
Full but not finished, we headed for the popular Star Lounge atop the impressive Albert Hotel (named after Einstein, FYI), deep in the Art Nouveau district. It has modern interior design and unrivalled views across the city (nowhere does the Old Town look more crazed than from above), and strolling out onto the terrace bolted to the side of the building for an evening drink made for the perfect end to the day.
Keen to explore the surrounding region with its dense forests and miles of golden beaches, the next day we headed south on the train to Jurmala to abuse Mother Nature by exploring the miles of trails on quad bikes.
With the Gulf of Riga on one side and the dark Baltic forests on the other, it made for a spectacular backdrop against which to get the adrenaline pumping and the heart racing. And if you’re feeling peckish along the way, the beach is peppered with small cafés and restaurants easy to dip into and almost all selling well-cooked, well-priced local dishes alongside traditional café snack fare.
Caked in sand and mud, with leaden arms and a grin from ear to ear, I barely made it back to Riga International in time for my flight, but reflected as I sat cramped into my Ryanair seat that missing the plane and having to stay a little longer in this vibrant, cultured and pristine city and country would have been no bad thing at all.