I can’t exactly tell you why, but I keep coming back to visit the Ex-Soviet satellites. I have yet to discover all of them, but among those I’ve already been to, the Baltics definitely rank high. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania (from North to South) are three of the cutest, and yet nearly undiscovered countries the former Soviet Union (and Europe) has to offer. While the Baltics make for a great trip in combination, if you only have a few days or a weekend to spend, picking one of the three capitals and exploring them and their surroundings might be your best bet.
This year, the choice between Tallinn, Riga, and Vilnius has been made a little easier – the Riga-Gauja Region is a European Region of Gastronomy 2017. Reason enough to travel to Latvia and surprise your taste buds with some Latvian cuisine, right?
Right! So here’s a few culinary experiences not to miss in and around Riga – as well as cultural activities that should definitely be on your itinerary, for when you need a little break from eating your way through Latvia…
1 – Riga Central Market
You wouldn’t really guess it from the size of the city, but Riga hosts Europe’s largest market. As if this fact alone weren’t enough to convince you to go there (at least it is for me!), it’s also been included in the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites. The coolness of this place doesn’t just stop here: the market halls are actually old German Zeppelin hangars! It’s definitely a sight to see – and to taste. Walk around the different stalls, chat with the marketers, and try the delicacies on display. My favorite ones are the pickled vegetables and the dark rye bread. If you’re not a veggie like me, have a go at the smoked chicken – it’s supposed to be delicious (and very traditional).
2 – The Bergs Bazaar and Restaurant
Much of Riga is organized in big boulevards, very much alike to those so typical for Paris or Vienna. Right in the middle of some of the biggest avenues, Bergs Bazaar offers a calm and quiet refuge from the bustling life around – like a city within a city, it’s a small pedestrian area hosting shops, cafes, and gourmand restaurants.
For a special evening, try the Bergs Restaurant – it is a part of the luxurious Bergs Hotel and offers some of the finest dishes you can find in town. The chef, Janis Zvirbulis, has spent many years in France and brings a little je ne sais quoi into the Bergs kitchen. If you love French food, you’ll be delighted at finding little treasures like a cafe gourmand on the menu, albeit with a distinctly Latvian twist.
3 – The Latvian National Museum of Art
I usually opt for the museums of contemporary art whenever visiting a new city, but in Riga, I had the chance to walk a little through the Latvian National Museum of Art and was instantly smitten. The building itself is gorgeous, perfectly setting the scene for Latvia’s biggest national art collection. The art itself is impressive as well, with one of the most interesting things being the possibility to see how art unfolded and existed even in times of Soviet occupancy.
4 – Zilver winery
I am not certain if the label “wine” is really the one to use (I certainly know a few French people who would wholeheartedly disagree), but essentially, the Zilver Winery in Sigulda, 50km outside of Riga, does produce fermented alcoholic drinks very much like wine. The only difference to conventional wine is that no grapes are used in the process – instead, the family business chooses to turn locally grown berries and fruits into alcohol.
In what looks exactly like a traditional wine tasting – wine glasses, salty snacks, and spitting bowl included – you can try the many different fruit wines on offer here. Some are quite easy to identify (like the very fragrant raspberry wine), others are made from fruit that I didn’t even know existed (quince, anyone?) – and all of them are deliciously sweet.
5 – Sigulda Castles
Since you came all the way out to Sigulda to try the unconventional fruit wines of Zilver winery, you should definitely take a little time to check out the local castle complex, as well. It actually consists of the New Castle, as well as the older Livonian Order Sigulda Castle. Both sit on top of a hill, overlooking the vast forest that surrounds Sigulda and seems to cover almost all of Latvia (actually, it’s 56%, but still – that’s a lot of forest!). Climb the crumbling tower or try your hand at shooting the crossbow before heading over to the old workshop buildings to buy some handmade souvenirs.
6 – Ars Tela Textile Studio
Speaking of souvenirs, here’s an idea – why not take a little something made out of Latvian linen to enjoy back home? The Baltics are known for their high-quality, beautifully woven linen, and the Ars Tela textile studio certainly lives up to that standard. The shop/studio is located in the very center of Riga, where a lot of the products are also produced. In the back of the little store, you can actually see the power looms being worked, which adds to the handmade and quality feel of the place. Many of the textiles or scarves on display are inspired by Latvian nature – just ask the shopkeeper to find out the little stories behind the products.
7 – Riga’s Old Town
Alright, I don’t really think that anyone would go to Riga without visiting the cute little center anyway, but just in case – Riga’s Old Town is definitely worth a few walks. The winding streets, cobblestones, and many churches make it a charming place to stroll and enjoy the soft Nordic sun, and the many little cafes are practically begging you to stop for a cup of coffee or a pint of beer in the afternoon.
8 – Valmiermuiza Craft Brewery and Beer Kitchen
If you do one thing in Latvia, let it be this one: Visit the Craft Brewery Valmiermuiza and then head for one of the most unconventional meals of your life at the adjacent Beer Kitchen. I didn’t even try a single sip of beer (or any alcohol, for that matter), and was still beyond excited about this place. Trust me, just go.
Brewery Taste Master and Owner Aigars Rungis, as well as chef Dzintars Kristovskis, share a very special mission: Think Local. The beer (and the many anti-alcoholic beverages, well worth a try!) are made from the best-tasting freshwater in Latvia they could find, while the dishes in the restaurant are made from ingredients growing in the forests within a 30km-radius (that’s not even 19 miles). A starter made with pine wood, a risotto made out of tiny pieces of potato instead of rice, and the potato ice cream on caramelized onions with parsnip chips were just a few of the inventive dishes we got to try. Rungis believes in Beer Pairing, so each dish comes with its own variety of the craft beer – it’s really an inspiring (and mouthwatering) experience.
If you cannot make it all the way out to the brewery, try Valmiermuiza’s Embassy in Riga and get a small slice of Latvia’s beer magic.
9 – Riga’s Jugendstil District
The number one sight that Riga is famous for throughout the world is its Jugendstil architecture. Around a third of all buildings in Latvia’s capital are designed in the style of Art Nouveau or Jugendstil, easily recognizable by the many embellishments, ornaments, and little statues adorning the buildings. No visit to Riga is complete without having seen the impressive details on residential buildings, so just grab a cup of coffee to go and leisurely stroll through this massive display of fanciful architecture.
10 – Restaurant 3 Pavaru
The name of this restaurant means “three chefs”, which is basically the entire concept: A restaurant made by three prominent Latvian chefs to work creatively, and offer some of Latvia’s best cuisine. From the playful interior to the way the starters are served (on paper, made in front of your own eyes, like a piece of art that you can eat), everything here screams creativity. There are regular cooking classes being offered, usually for groups – but four times a year, the class is open to individuals, as well.
11 – The Museum of the Occupation of Latvia
If you feel the need to complement your deepening knowledge about Latvian food with something a little more historical, head to the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia. Here, you can learn about a piece of little-known European history: how Latvia was occupied first by Stalin, then by the Nazis, only to come under Soviet control once again. The museum is very small, but worth a visit, if only to understand the fate of this Ex-Soviet satellite a bit better.
Have you ever been to Riga or surroundings? If yes – where did you go? Let me know in the comments, I’m curious to add a few items to my to-see list. There is sure to be a next time…
*I was invited on this trip by LIVE Riga, all opinions stated are my own.