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The flight to Riga Latvia from St. Petersburg was a painless 55 minutes on regional low-cost carrier, Air Baltic. After a quick taxi ride into the city, we arrived at the Opera Hotel just on the edge of Old Town. It was a lovely little hotel and the location was perfect, central to everything we wanted to see in our limited time in the city.
The Latvian capital has been on my travel wish list since falling in love with nearby Tallinn, Estonia years ago. Rumor had it Riga was even better. Nicknamed the “City of Inspiration by the Baltic Sea” Riga’s colorful Old Town occupies a well-deserved spot on the UNESCO World Heritage List. With soaring gothic spires and architectural styles from Renaissance to Art Deco to Baroque, the historic center is a spirited blend of classical European history…without the typical hefty European price tag. In fact, Riga is widely considered one of the top value destinations on the continent.
Not surprisingly on this whirlwind adventure, we had just one night in Riga and hoped to make the most of it. Unfortunately, the weather forecast called for lots of rain moving in later in the day and throughout the night so we knew we had to work fast to see as much of Riga as possible before the imminent deluge. So we decided to kick-off our day by getting to higher ground to get a birds-eye view of the city from the spire of St. Peter’s Church. Clouds were already overtaking the sun by the time we emerged from the hotel and walked toward the Old Town.
A speed-walk through Old Town Riga
We reached St. Peter’s in less than 10 minutes but it wasn’t fast enough to beat the overcast skies. Yet even against a backdrop of clouds, the 360-degree views of Riga’s magnificent Old Town were spectacular and the perfect way to get our bearings before venturing further out. After taking in the view from every conceivable angle, we got out our map and quickly plotted out the most efficient route around the town.
From the church, we headed right next door to Rātslaukums Square, home to the town hall building and the Dutch Renaissance façade of the House of Blackheads. In the Middle Ages, the square served as an open-air market. It was completely destroyed during World War II but has since been completely restored to its former glory. Built in the 14th century, the House of Blackheads belonged to the Guild of Unmarried Merchants and was the most prestigious building in the entire city. Its post-WWII restoration was completed in 1999 and today is an exact replica of the former landmark.
From Rātslaukums Square, we wound our way down the narrow cobbled streets to the heart of Old Riga, Dome Square. The largest of Riga’s many squares, Dome Square is anchored by the Gothic spire of Dome Cathedral and lined with some of the city’s best outdoor restaurants and cafes. And since the rain had held off so far, there were lots of people out and about enjoying the warmth of late spring.
Guided by our excellent map of the tourist sites and buildings of interest in the Old Town (the Riga tourism bureau does an excellent job with detailed visitor information) we followed one of the square’s arteries in search of the residential homes known as the “Three Brothers.” Each of the pastel-colored homes represents a different century with the oldest dating back to the 15th century. One of them currently houses the Latvian Museum of Architecture.
We snapped a few pictures of the “Brothers” and then realized we were starving. Excited to try a little Latvian cuisine, we headed back toward Rātslaukums Square where we’d seen a lovely little Latvian restaurant when we passed through earlier. The weather was still a welcome mix of clouds and sun so we figured we could allow ourselves a little sightseeing break to enjoy a good meal.
And it did turn out to be a great meal, certainly better than anything we’d had in Russia! We even tried a sampling of Latvian liquors which quickly made us realize we should stick to Latvian beers.
With our hunger satisfied, we tried to do a bit of shopping on the way to the next stop on our self-guided Old Town tour, Livu Square. Built in the 20th century after World War II, Livu is a relatively new square by comparison. Like Dome Square, it was lined with lively restaurants and cafés and even had live music emanating from a few.
During our shopping we’d noticed tons of cat souvenirs but didn’t get the connection with Riga and nothing was listed on our maps with a cat reference. A quick Google search revealed that the “Cat House” was located just off Livu Square.
With an architectural style that’s a blend of medieval and Art Nouveau, the Cat House was built in 1909 by a wealthy tradesman who was denied membership in the Riga Tradesman Guild. Legend has it the tradesman had the two copper statues of angry-looking cats added to the turret rooftops with their backs arched and tails turned up toward the nearby Guild building in retribution. I guess he showed them! It’s an interesting story and the black cat souvenirs make a fun gift from any visit to Riga.
Here comes the rain…
Just as we finished checking out the Cat House our luck ran out with the weather and the rain began to fall. We decided to head back toward the hotel and sort out our bus tickets to Vilnius for the next day. The hope was that we might be able to wait it out for a bit and resume our exploration of Riga for dinner. No luck on that one but we decided to put our rain jackets on and strike out into the streets of Old Town for dinner. It was raining so hard that we gave up on a Latvian restaurant after a few blocks and ducked into a nearby Irish bar for dinner. Thanks to the weather the town was nearly deserted so after dinner we returned to the hotel to rest up for our big travel day (Riga-Vilnius-Rome-Sardinia) ahead.
Unfortunately, the rain continued unabated until we left on the bus the next morning but the few hours we were lucky enough to get in Old Town the day before were a real treat. Riga is a terrific little town and one I’d love to visit again someday. And there’s no doubt it’s one of Europe’s greatest values these days.
Next stop…Vilnius, Lithuania!