Balsam & Cobblestone: Riga, Latvia

The inception of the idea to go to Latvia was the invitation of a friend to visit her in Lithuania and many days of research into Estonia when considering the country for grad school.

Not being allowed to visit Lithuania without my Lithuanian friend being present and flights to Tallinn being too expensive, a cheap escapade to a country I knew nothing about made sense. The next step was to convince my girlfriend that a weekend trip in a country “colder” than Germany, also made sense.

Riga, located in the Gulf of the same name, on the Baltic sea, is the capital of Latvia. Sandwiched between Lithuania and Estonia, it is a sovereign state since 1918. It is to celebrate its 100th year of independence this upcoming November. With borders to Belarus and Russia, its population is about 60% native Latvians and as high as 25% Russians. This affects the country’s culture and diaspora in many ways. Notably, the strong proportion of native Russians moving to Latvia through family reunion visas and creating entire villages speaking only Russian. The EU membership of Latvia has a thing or two to do with its attractiveness to Russian nationals.

With less than 2 million people living in Latvia, and more than half of them living in or around Riga, it is safe to say its a good place to experience Latvian culture. The hiccup, however, is that Latvia is known internationally for its endless Baltic northern beaches and its untouched forests. Both of which are utterly nonexistent in Riga. Also, the 25% proportion of Russian nationals rises to above 40% in Riga.

Riga is all about cobblestone streets, medieval and Art Nouveau buildings surrounded by soviet union architecture, run-down trams and restaurants serving potato-based dished with shooters of Balsams. All of this serves to put Riga in a category of its own.

*Disclaimer, during this trip many pictures were taken with my largely sub-par cell phone camera*


When I arrived in Riga, I opted to use Couchsurfing (yay!) the first night as my girlfriend would join me only the following day. Landing fairly late and navigating the public transport system (buses and trains with indications only in Latvian and Russian), I got to A‘s place close to midnight. She was very kind and we spent a good few hours chatting about everything and nothing. I went to bed with too much vodka & Latvian craft beer in my blood and newfound knowledge of Latvia.

The next morning she proceeded to feed me delicious burgers and we kept talking about her country.

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A

I left her Soviet-era block, with the shady looking elevator, and headed straight to meet my girlfriend in the city. Little did I knew I’d get to hang out with A again very soon. I found myself hosting her in Berlin only a few weeks later.

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View on very Soviet-style Dzelzavas iela (street)

I ended up arriving a bit in advance to the meeting point. Fortunately, a huge Church spire called me to visit, Riga St Peter’s Church. They had an exhibit on Latvian history as well as a concert going on. I snuck in and caught a glimpse of the action.

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Saint-Peter’s Church in Riga

We met up shortly after, checked in our microscopic hotel room in the reasonably priced, nautical-themed and very well located Hotel Monte Kristo. The exploration could then begin!

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All is cobblestone, every ground surface :O

While the city was very picturesque, we also picked a horrible time to visit. It was cold. Very cold. As such there weren’t so many other tourists outdoors.

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Evening snow

Over the few days during which we were discovering Riga, one of our main concern was where and most importantly what (Food is life!) were we going to be eating. Both quite interested in the perspective of eating “Real Latvian food” (whatever that is), I already had a few recommendations from A. The first on the list was Folkkclubs Ala Pagrabs. The place kept us coming back.

Seriously. If you find yourself hungry in Riga’s old town, you MUST stop by this place.

With a huge list of cheap dishes. Many of which are traditional Latvian foods, some are a twist on neighboring Estonian and Lithuanian dishes. What brings this to the top is the excellent service. The staff that does not speak great English goes above and beyond to help you out. They are happy to teach you some bits in Latvian or even provide recommendations on their swanky list of ciders (10+ tap and bottles! Mostly local) and tasty list of beers. I had a daily dish, some type of “Schnitzel” topped with an insane amount of local cheese. The delicious soup I had as a starter was only 1€.

We had a few drinks, alternating ciders, beers brewed with honey and then, Balsams. “Rīgas Melnais balzams” is a form of herbal drink made using a single-barrel herbal infusion technique. At roughly 40%+, it has a legendary status around the Baltic sea, a bit like German Kräuterlikör. Proudly brewed with 17 different botanicals it was originally developed as a medicine.

Deep jet black in color with a certain bittersweetness to it, Latvians put it in and on everything. In juice? Check. As a Shot? Check. Mixed with Vodka -go hard or go home style- check. On ice cream? You’ve got it!

We had the most common type, the black currant flavored one and shortly after called it a night. We would find ourselves again at Ala’s, it was that nice. Albeit a bit loud and crowded at times.


One of our days was spent at an outdoor market, Kalnciema Kvartals, where one could buy pretty much anything. Including fresh or cured meats and hand made iron pots.

Some singing and traditional dancing was also involved. We even stumbled on a political poster exhibit they had, which was a perfect opportunity to learn a bit more about Latvia’s history (especially of propaganda) all while sipping that relatively odd hot-spicy drink some dude sold us without telling use too much about it.

The market in itself was not the most interesting part, rather the fact that the neighborhood it was located in was not touristic at all. The whole event was very “local”. Being the only foreigners offered an interesting window but the location itself was very nice. Latvians do not all live in the old town of Riga, in their castles and Art Nouveau apartments. As A was explaining to me, Latvia is far from a rich country. Paying a rent over 300€ is beyond the reach of many Latvians.

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Walking around the neighborhood, we were amazed by the size of houses and their general look of neglect. Mostly, as we would find out later, because a lot of them are family inheritances but the people living in them simply can’t afford to maintain them.

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Fenced off towers
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Super legit looking local bars.

On our way back from the market, we decided to stop and see one of Latvia’s newest “monuments”, it’s a national library. Built to celebrate Latvia’s 100th anniversary, the building impressed in and out.

The Light Castle, Gaismas Pils, the library’s other name, sits prominently in the middle of a plain. Deployed as a way to democratize access to culture, information and communication technologies, it plays a vital role in the life of many “Rigans” (Rīdzinieki).

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Once inside, we truly understood the sheer size of it and what it represented in Latvia.

Our visit was short lived because we arrived only a few moments before closing time.

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View of Old Riga from the Library

After being ushered away from the library, we headed back towards Old Riga. Wincing and crackling trams went by on the bridge, being straight out of the Soviet 60s.

Making it back to Old Riga, we decided to check out the market halls on a recommendation from A.

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Public markets in old Zeppelin hangars. The largest in Europe.

While we did not find much to buy, it was interesting to walk around. The markets started to close slowly and we decided to head back to the hotel.

After a short nap, the sun was already down and it was time to decide what we were going to do during the evening. One thing led to another and we ended up at “Tim’s Mints”.

Probably one of the smallest “clubs” I have ever been to, Tim’s was located behind a church, well hidden through a network of courtyards and labyrinth-like small side streets in Old Riga.

The DJ was pretty cool, the music was nice, the drinks were extremely cheap and the people were pleasant.

After ingesting a few shots too many we made our way back to our home for the weekend.

The rest of our trip was spent getting lost further in Old Riga.

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House of the blackheads

Perhaps the most famous building from Riga, the house of the Blackheads was a 14th-century guild house for unmarried seafarers and traders that were unmarried. It was destroyed during the second world war and rebuilt in the late 1990s.

We also discovered the local coffee culture. I love to try to visit at least one or two good coffee places when traveling.

And further having more local food. Eating more potatoes and drinking more honey-flavored beer.

 

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Lido, a cafeteria type of traditional restaurant. No table service.

 

Disclaimer: One night we went to a mall and the weather was so poor we couldn’t be bothered to walk to a traditional place and ended up at KFC. Yes, they have KFC in Eastern Europe. And yes, it tastes better than in US / Canada.

That was that.

The next day we had to fly back. I to Berlin, and M to Bremen.

I usually don’t already plan my vacations while on vacation, but we both decided we needed to go back to Latvia. Perhaps in the summer this time.

The little country had charmed us in only a long weekend in the capital.

We still had yet to experience the pagan traditions and festivals, the 500km of Baltic coastline, the infinite forests as well as the neverending midsummer days.

Little did I know I’d spend a few days road tripping in neighboring Lithuania this very summer…

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