“What do you want for your birthday?” I ask my girlfriend my traditional question before she celebrates another anniversary. I think gifts are meant to give the recipient something that will make him happy and he is reluctant to buy it for himself. Experiences such as concert tickets, a pedal boat ride or a skydive have been successful for me. This time I gave us both a five-day stay in Riga. I arranged the flights, accommodation and prepared a personalised Riga guide that included everything we could see, experience and taste in the Latvian city.
We flew from Prague on Ryanair at 6:10am and after a two hour flight we landed at Riga airport (Lidosta Riga). We took bus number 22 to the city centre. Tickets can be purchased at every corner, one unlimited unlimited ride costs 1.15 EUR. Multiple rides can be loaded on a paper card and are consumed one at a time by attaching it to the terminal in the vehicle. We got off at the train station and headed straight to the LIDO restaurant, hungry. There are several around town and they operate much like the cafeterias in the Czech Republic. We picked what we wanted on our tray and at the end we were cashiered by the cashier. We tasted the first local specialty - Maizes Zupa. A sweet dessert of bread, sugar and dried fruit, it wasn't bad.
The accommodation was unusual. Hotel Saida had nine rooms, each with a private bathroom and toilet, and no permanent staff. We were also able to use a shared and fully equipped kitchen. The building and rooms could only be accessed by a numerical code, eliminating the hassle of keys or a hotel card. The location was a big advantage as it was close to the town centre, shops and the selected businesses we wanted to visit.
In the early evening, we set off for our first exploration of the area. We walked along the Riga Canal, the Church of the Nativity and the Freedom Monument. We wandered further through the historic streets, passed St. Peter's Church, the House of the Blackheads until we reached the Three Brothers. On the way back to the hotel, we first stopped for a beer and iced coffee at O'Paps bar and dinner at Kozy Eats. The vegan restaurant wowed us with a great burger, roasted potatoes with veggies and a great - supposedly garlicky - dip. And since we were laughed at for asking about beer here, we ended our tour of the city at the Alus Muiza bar.
We started the second day with breakfast at Miit Coffee. We liked the cafe so much that we returned several times during our stay. Around noon we headed to the ethnographic open-air museum. Bus number 1 took us almost to the front entrance and we spent the next three hours absorbing Latvian historical architecture for €5 per person. Upon our return, we quenched our hunger at the Nice Asian Bistro across the street from the hotel and our thirst at nearby Alkimikis. Tired from wandering all day, we decided to buy a few local foods, including alcohol. I'd recommend a shot of Riga Black Balsam to spill on uninvited visitors or a small pack to buy as a gift for unpopular colleagues at work.
On the third day we went to the Baltic Sea. There is a train from the main station that runs twice an hour for 1.5 euros north to the sandy beaches. We got off at the Jaundubulti stop and since it was lunchtime, we were hungry. While we had been lucky to have great food the previous days, we didn't like the food in Jurmala. At Pankūkas un konditoreja, none of what we had on our plates was good. We must have been unlucky, because the place has a great rating on Google reviews. Jūrmala is a nice place, full of beautiful wooden houses with a long sandy beach and a park. However, the beach is very gradual and to dive into the water, you first have to walk a few dozen meters towards the sea. The water on the shore is also full of black and green algae. Jūrmala also has an interesting park with a lookout tower and a rope centre, where children and adults alike can have fun. In the evening, already back in Riga, we first went to see the biggest mural in the Baltics (Tallinas street 46) called Sun, Thunder, Daugava. According to the artists, it combines the old with the new and inspires thoughts on eternal values. Whatever it means, the mural is pretty.
We ended the evening at the Skyline Bar, which is on the 26th floor of the Radisson Hotel. The view of the Old Town from up there is spectacular, and at eleven o'clock, when it was just starting to get dark in Riga, it was gradually getting lighter.
We had the penultimate day of our sightseeing trip entirely dedicated to walking around the city. We started with the Latvian Academy of Sciences, aka Stalin's birthday cake. The building is built in the Soviet architectural style and for 6 EUR we were allowed to go up to the seventeenth floor to the Panorama Riga observation deck. We also went to the local markets, which are held daily in huge halls that used to be hangars for airships. From there we headed to the Riga Canal, where embarkation for a sightseeing cruise was underway. When the captain saw that we were studying their offer, he immediately jumped in and offered to sail with the group immediately. At first we asked the price, and when he asked for thirty euros for an hour's ride, we frowned and, saying that was too much, were ready to leave. He immediately discounted 6 euros, and we tried to negotiate another four, but the captain could not be persuaded. So for 24 EUR (for two people) we took a ride through the Riga Canal to Daugava, then past the Latvian National Library, Riga Castle and back through the old town to the artificial canal.
We went to the Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs to cool off in the sweltering heat. The pub is a floor below ground, so it offered the coolness we so much wanted. We were also pleased with the free second beer promotion. Refreshed, we set off again on our journey through the city centre to the statue of Christopher the Great, the hero of the legend of the city's founding.
On the last day we went to the opposite bank of the Daugava River, whose main landmark is the National Library of Latvia. The building is freely accessible and the view from the eleventh floor of the historic city centre is definitely worth it. The library can also be used as a storage facility, and for a refundable one euro we were able to store our backpacks in a locked locker. Beware of opening hours though, we almost didn't get to our stuff. Near the library, we chased away our hunger at Streetburger. The last thing we managed to see before our flight was the Monument to the Liberators of Soviet Latvia and Riga from the German fascist occupiers. The controversial monument was surrounded by barriers, guarded by local police and the Latvian government is considering removing it.
We walked 89,161 steps over five days in Latvia and saw everything I had prepared for our personal guidebook. Riga is a beautiful city with a historic center and mostly great food. However, Riga will always have another special meaning for my girlfriend and me. It became the city where I heard an emotional, “Yeah - sure” after asking for her hand in marriage.