I see my family quite rarely. Since moving to the US from Ukraine in 2014, I’ve only seen them twice. The first time was in the spring of 2018–we met in Istanbul, Turkey. This year, we picked Riga, Latvia as our “in-between” reunion spot. Except, wasn’t exactly in the middle, considering that their flight was only about 1hr 15 mins long, and I had to travel 15 goddamn hours to get there. But, family is about compromise, I gather.
A few weeks prior to our vacation I was so pumped. I was going around sharing how excited I was to go to Riga. Most people would reply, “Where?” I’d repeat, “Riga, Latvia”…”AAAAH, nice,” they’d reply, having let go of trying to figure out who or what I was talking about.
I don’t blame them. Latvia is a small country, also not to be confused with Lithuania, her twin sister. They’re quiet and introverted, which means these countries don’t make it into the newscycle much. Unlike my homeland of Ukraine… with Russia biting a piece off of it and a professional comedian becoming the new President – those are some nice tabloid headlines.
But back to Riga. It’s a history nerd’s dream. First of all, the city was founded in 1201. Think about that for a minute. You can literally see topographic layers of Riga rise 16 feet from their original level. Because of this, a lot of very old buildings have a basement level entrance, which in reality, was once a ground level aaaand had its own basement underneath, which feels more like a bunker at this point!
Riga’s residents preserve and nurture their history well. You can even get a taste of their medieval past at the restaurant Rozengrals, which serves food and drinks of that era. Full disclosure, we didn’t try it ourselves as half of our party was vegetarian and medieval folks weren’t known for their broccoli pursuit.
Instead, the first thing we did was go to the KGB museum. In fact, we went there twice during our trip. The museum has a free, permanent exhibit presented in three languages (Latvian, English and Russian). You can also buy a tour that will take you to actual rooms where people who were viewed as political criminals were checked in, interrogated, and sometimes executed. FUN, I know. But, my parents grew up in the Soviet era, and even despite being defeated in the 1990s, remains of that regime stretched into my childhood and adolescence. I’m forever fascinated with the USSR and its dirty deeds.
If stories of human rights violations are not your jam, there is plenty of art and architecture to admire in Riga. Damn, the whole city is a museum in itself! But, here are some very special places that are certainly worth checking out:
It’s located outside of the city, but it’s definitely 100% a must-see if you’re in Riga for more than a couple of days. The Palace was built in the 16th century by Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli, of all people. It’s hardcore late-baroque, with elements of rococo that made me want to burn all the information on minimalism and buy every Putti I can get my hands on, for my house and for yours. It’s a big fat chunk of excess that only tsars could ever taste–but it’s so eloquently and charmingly done that you can’t not love it. It has an amazing history too. Like, at one time, Rundale palace was turned into a village school, where kids made a total mess of it. I say it’s karma. Although restorers did an amazing job removing the marks left by the precocious children.
Latvian National Museum of Art
More of a traditional art museum. Right now, they also have an amazing exhibit on climate change!
Riga Art Nouveau Museum
Riga is known for their Art Nouveau, or Jugendstil as it is also called. Their collection not only tells a history of Art Nouveau in the region, but it is actually collected with the help of Riga’s residents, who shared some of the treasured items from their grandma’s closets.
As for food, we ate a lot of homemade meals. My mum and aunt bathed us in plates of borsh, vareniki (pierogi) and blini (crepes). Sourcream was running free and Ukrainian chocolates were in full bloom. My mum and aunt are those people who are terrified of how much food is in front of them when they see one, I repeat ONE, taco on their plate, but get irritated when a server forgets to bring out one of five pastries they just ordered…meaning, five pastries for one individual…
But, here are a few restaurant recommendations in case you happen to travel without my mum and aunt:
Makes you feel at home right away. It certainly feels like you’re visiting your babushka. And the food is great too.
Delicious food and a nice setting. It’s situated right inside one of the Old City’s many parks, by a lake, making it especially charming. Although as we were finishing up our meals, a DJ duo took the reigns whose music reminded me of Ross playing the keyboard … we had to leave.
Gimlet Nordic Cocktail Bar
Great place to grab a drink. They have a very unusual set of cocktails inspired by nordic nature and tradition.
If you decide to cook yourself a dinner, opt for Riga Central Market in a Moscow neighborhood of Riga. It’s the largest market in Europe, consisting of five huge warehouse buildings and an outdoor section where you can find all kinds of characters selling anything you could ever wish for.
Riga is certainly a place worth exploring. It might still be behind on some hot western trends, but that also means that it’s been able to preserve its authenticity and ingenuity. It has a mix of both western and eastern european mentalities. It has a little bit of Brighton Beach, NY, a little bit of posh Europe, and a little bit of neon lights and techno Europe.
For me, Riga will always be the memory of sitting at the outdoor bookstore/ cafe, drinking bad coffee with lots of sugar, and my parents smoking a lot. That bitter, but surprisingly comforting smell of smoke…