It is almost 11pm, but there’s still enough light to read a map and take photographs here in downtown Riga. This is northern Europe in midsummer in the capital of Latvia, which joined the European Union in 2004 and adopted the euro last year.
Although Germany and Russia occupied this Baltic state for long periods, Latvia retained its own distinct culture and language. The 800-year-old capital is modern, prosperous, and a delight to wander around. Only independent from Russia since 1991, the country has embraced consumerism with prestigious fashion brands from Armani to Zara seen around the city centre.
As a starting point, and for a scenic look at the city from above, I buy a roughly USD9 ticket to the 72-metre spire of St Peter's Church. The elevator carries me to the small open area at the top, where I get a 360-degree view of the old town of Vecriga, the park, the Daugava River, and the Art Nouveau district. Just across the tracks stand the five Zeppelin hangars of the expansive Central Market, set out like orderly loaves of bread on a vast table.
I start my exploration of Riga wandering around the historical centre, which has its contemporary, quirky side. A UNESCO World Heritage Site set between the river and the moat-turned-canal, it’s a treasure trove of a great variety of ancient architecture and cobbled streets. Here, I pass fragments of sturdy medieval walls and towers, squares, church steeples, red-brick Gothic or Romanesque-style churches, Baroque townhouses and even stolid Soviet-style buildings.
An impressive collection of public art and sculpture is displayed throughout the area, from the sacred and profane to modern realist or comical. In Livu Square, popular for its outdoor restaurants, massive contemporary stone sculptures of animals and people larger than steamer trunks are for sale.
Even my hotel, the Astor Riga, is an example of the old and new blending seamlessly. Set on the edge of Vecriga, opposite the Powder Tower and across the street from Bastion Hill Park, it is an ideal base for sightseeing. Built in 1876 in what the hotel describes as an ‘eclectic style’, the two striking buildings were renovated and opened as a four-star hotel in 2013.
Breakfast in the elegant dining room includes cold cuts and cheeses, several types of bread, pastries, fruit yoghurt drinks, and local specialties. Smoked salmon, herring and dill pickles make up a typical northern European breakfast.
Bastion Hill, a lush green belt across the street from the Astor, divides the old city from the Art Nouveau and modern areas. Numerous walking paths lead through the well-groomed grounds, past a rock garden, a waterfall, a colourful swan house and bridges crossing the narrow canal. Tour boats cruise the canal and river encircling the old town, while courting couples rent small private rowboats.
This far north, the short summer means long days, and locals come out to savour the sunshine with great enthusiasm. They stroll the paths, rest on the park benches to soak up the sun, and admire the bright flowerbeds.
Beyond the park lies the world’s largest collection of flamboyant Art Nouveau buildings. An architecture, interior design and decorative arts style that flourished from about 1890 to almost the start of the First World War, Art Nouveau thrived in Riga, one of Europe’s wealthiest cities at the time. Rows of attractive, ornate building facades display great details, with bas-reliefs, floral patterns, wedding cake sculptures, faces and other elaborate embellishments. The buildings are works of art with no two alike, giving an evocative sense of times past.
The Art Nouveau Museum in the former home of a prominent local architect provides an enchanting representation of a time when luxuries like electricity and plumbing were just being introduced. Here, visitors can don period hats and pose for photos.
Just across the street, the Art Nouveau Riga souvenir shop sells period postcards, handmade façade replicas, jewellery, trinkets, and other memorabilia.
In this cold climate, popular souvenirs found in other shops include hand-knitted socks, scarves, caps and other practical clothing. Amber, the precious stone found along the Baltic coast, is sold as stones, beads, jewellery and ornaments. Stylish, modern scarves made of natural materials such as Baltic linen combined with silk, mohair, and wool are also available.
In the pienene (dandelion) shop on Kungu iela (street) near the tourist office, I find attractive hand-made linen tablecloths and table runners. Here, an enthusiastic saleswoman introduces a unique product – amber fabric. A new technology of intertwining amber with linen creates a unique fabric that supposedly has healing properties. An amber fiber shawl is USD155.
Crossing the railway tracks by an underpass, I reach the five cavernous German WWI Zeppelin hangars that house Riga’s large, impressive Central Market. In this UNESCO World Heritage Site near the train and bus stations, more than 3,000 stalls sell a remarkable collection of local and imported products.
Vendors display endless varieties of meats, seafood, cheeses, fresh vegetables and fruit, pickles, local and exotic speciality food, clothes, crafts and souvenirs. One hangar is all fresh and cured meat, another is a fish pavilion, with an incredible assortment of fresh, raw, smoked, dried and canned seafood. In one pavilion, locals line up at an Uzbek bakery making naan bread, cooked on the walls of a big traditional open oven.
The sweet fragrance of fresh strawberries, smoky aroma of sausages, appealing whiff of fresh dill and garlic from the pickling section, and salty scent of fish are too tempting. I buy two dill pickles, and they’re delicious.
Appetite whetted, I head back to the old city for lunch. For ambience and atmosphere, a local directs me to Ambiente (ambiente.lv/en) in the old city, with its delightfully dated feeling. The restaurant claims to serve Art Nouveau cuisine – although no one can say quite what that is. But with its distinct period rooms – the office, library, living room, kitchen and dining room – Ambiente excels in both ambience and cuisine. For lunch, I choose a superb duck breast smoked in juniper berries with celery root puree and rhubarb balsamic sauce.
They like the nightlife in this lively city, and in summer, locals and tourists pack the restaurants and bars until late. I start one evening with a view from the 26th floor of the Radisson Blu Hotel Skyline Bar. Arriving fortuitously at Happy Hour, I savour another great vista of the old city with its verdigris roofs, spires and steeples, the golden domes of the Orthodox Cathedral, and the large, new glass National Library or the ‘Castle of Light’ across the river.
Riga is very much a party town, a destination for stag and hen parties from across Europe. The city centre buzzes with life as groups of young people, including a party of women in outfits of ballerina skirts, shiny red hair and bunny ears, roam the streets at night. For them, the party starts well before dark and continues until long into the night.