Rīga is a city of contradictions: it’s the Latvian capital, but the majority of its inhabitants are Russian. Beautiful cobblestones streets are being butchered by developers and their sci-fi-looking hotels. Candle-lit pubs situated next to nightclubs with neon lighting and lasers. UNESCO is planning to revoke Rīga’s World Heritage status because of bad urban planning and that hideous architecture. It feels as if their transition from the old to the new is a bit rushed. Nevertheless, Rīga is still a great place for a weekend retreat. There are tons of other activities if you’re feeling more adventurous. A relaxing boat cruise on the Daugava River, or a day trip to the seaside Jurmala, are just two examples. Rīga is also known as the “Paris of the East” I know at least three cities with that nickname, one of them is Szczecin, which looks nothing like Paris.
The New Town is a great place to start your journey throughout Rīga. Medieval cities usually have the well-known Old Town and the less-popular New Town, which often isn’t all that new. The one in Rīga is a special place where craftsmen practice their traditional trades like weaving linen or calligraphy. There are also those industrial style hipster restaurants and bars around. I like that trend but, ironically, it’s getting a bit common. The central market is an amazing spot to visit if you’re interested in local food and products. It’s enormous and the largest in Europe. As a part of UNESCO World Heritage, it couldn’t be just any market. What makes it unique is that it’s an adapted German zeppelin hangar, which is kind of cool. It’s also open 24/7. The Old Town is something that reminds people of “The Secret Garden” movie, straight out of a fairy tale. There is something special around every corner of these charming alleyways. You could base your whole stay around that area, exploring the Rīga Castle, the Dome Cathedral or just eating, drinking and sleeping.
Saint Peters Church is known as the symbol of Rīga. You can climb on top of its 123m tall bell tower for one of the best views of the Old Town and they have a lift if you’re too lazy to battle the stairs. It’s also a bit weird because you need to pay €3 to enter the church and €9 for the tower. Getting inside the Rīga Cathedral is at least free. It’s nothing spectacular by itself, but the real gem is inside: the organs. There’s something magical about church acoustics and the sound of organs and these are among the worlds’ best. The House of the Blackheads is another widely recognized landmark; it was decimated by World War 2 bombings and rebuilt in 1999. This eye-catching building was once hosting a society of very wealthy German merchants who choose St. Maurice of Africa as their patron. He was always depicted as a black knight in shining armour, which explains the name of the venue. It’s a kind of a museum now, hosting numerous exhibitions and events: probably a disappointment for those who were hoping for a museum of dermatological issues or something racist.
The old shipyard/harbour district, Andrejsala has become Rīga’s hub for the creative youngsters and local hipsters. Some go that far to say it’s the only place in Rīga when they can go all out with their imagination. It’s a modern-day playground or sandbox where they can express themselves via sculptures, murals and other forms of art. Old warehouses are getting adapted to accommodate galleries, workshops, and cosy bars. Rīga has a long tradition of brewing and its craft beers are something unique which you’ll not find anywhere else. Latvian beers are made with herbs and spices that add a lot of flavour. You can sample some of those in the self-proclaimed Beer Workshop Labietis (http://www.labietis.lv/) at Aristida Briāna iela 9a. If that wasn’t enough, you should definitely spend a few hours in a Beer Spa (http://www.beerspa.lv/) with all kinds of beer treatments, massages, baths, and saunas. Balta Pirts (http://www.baltapirts.lv/) is the more traditional kind of spa with huge furnaces that keep everything hot with real burning wood. They even hand out birch twigs and herbs you can whip yourself with. Good times.