24 Feb Riga: A winter weekend
I have to admit that I knew very little about Latvia before booking flights there a couple of months ago.
I’d been on the hunt for a destination for a February mini-break (cleverly combining S’s Christmas present with our anniversary celebrations – smart, huh?) so had my eyes peeled for somewhere we could get to moderately cheaply on a direct flight from Turin or Milan, preferably somewhere neither of us had been before, which wouldn’t bankrupt us, and where the weather wouldn’t be totally dreadful.
And in Europe in late winter, it’s that last one that’s the kicker.
I researched a couple of destinations on our existing list, but all sources told me that this was the absolute worst time to visit most of them – so windy Lisbon and drizzly Sofia were already out, along with a fair number of other options.
I finally came to the conclusion that if the weather was bound to be unpredictable everywhere, we’d be better off just going somewhere which would be prepared for a cold winter, with more probability of snow than rain, and plenty of things to do which wouldn’t depend too much on the sun being out. Finland was too expensive, Sweden was even worse, and the Russian visa process sounded like a bore, so my search finally drifted towards the Baltic states, in the ultimate example of process-of-elimination holiday planning.
Riga had only ever been on my peripheral radar until this point, but the more research I did, the more Latvia started to look like a great idea after all; Ryanair flights were affordable, the flight times were doable (despite needing to get from Turin to Bergamo… grumble grumble…), Airbnb apartments were cheap, and the city looked easily explorable in a weekend. It’d definitely be very cold up there, but at least I was sure that the Latvians would know how to cope with sub-zero temperatures, meaning there’d be plenty of warm places to retreat to, and hopefully some fun winter activities to get stuck into as well.
So Riga it was.
I’d decided that it’d be more entertaining to keep the destination a secret from S, only telling him where we were going when we arrived at Orio al Serio airport on Saturday morning, having given him a few clues in the weeks leading up to the trip, amongst them the fact that it’d be very cold (mainly so that he’d pack the right clothes).
He had more or less guessed the latitude of our destination, but did seem a bit underwhelmed when I finally told him that we were off to Latvia, because, well, it doesn’t exactly sound glamorous, does it?
But once we arrived, S already started to seem a bit more enthusiastic.
Riga, you see, is a cool little place.
When you first search for photos of Latvia’s capital city, you’ll see a little chocolate box historical centre; all pastel-toned houses, pointy church towers, sloping roofs and UNESCO World Heritage architecture. While that’s all well and good, what a 30 second browse of Instagram won’t show you is what the rest of Riga is like.
If you too are a fan of pretty, colourful places, check out this post from Digital Travel Guru for more inspiration!
As you walk around, you can clearly see – and sense – that this little nation has had a turbulent past, but Riga feels 100% safe, and quite up-and-coming in parts. It’s pretty and ugly and strange and entirely normal all at the same time, and if you’ve never been to the Baltics before, this country will certainly feel quite unique. The pretty parts of the historical centre will remind you a little bit of a few other cute European cities – somewhere between Prague, Brussels, and Budapest, perhaps – but the grey, soviet apartment blocks and dirty brick buildings punctuated with stylishly decorated hipster cafés give the rest of Riga more of a Berlin-type vibe, and you can feel the Russian influence all over, too (particularly in the driving style – prepare to witness fearless high speed cornering on sheet ice).
It’s a weird little melting pot, this city, and you can’t help but be intrigued to discover more.
We stayed in a teeny tiny but totally adorable Airbnb on Lacplesa Iela – a long, quiet, residential street about a 15 minute walk from the heart of the Old Town. The location was a deliberate choice – I imagined that the historical centre would be full of tourists, noisy, and more expensive than elsewhere, so opted for somewhere still fairly central, but that would feel a little more authentic.
It turns out that my fear of tourists and noise was totally unwarranted, however – Riga in winter was one of the emptiest, quietest places I’ve ever visited, with much of the city feeling almost totally deserted – but I still stand by the decision to stay in a more “local” area, which was also conveniently close to a lot of great cafés and restaurants (but more on that in another post, stay tuned!).
We arrived at our accommodation mid-afternoon on Saturday, after a 4am alarm, an extremely long bus ride to the airport, a mooch around in Duty Free, a couple of hours of flight, and a public bus journey from Riga Airport to the city centre. Suffice to say, we were knackered, so we decided to take it easy, heading out for a yummy pancake brunch (at 4pm on a Saturday – what a civilised city!) before a little afternoon nap and a delicious dinner at a stylish restaurant approximately 4 minutes’ walk from our front door.
The next morning, we were finally rested and finally ready to explore. After sourcing our morning coffee – Italians will be Italians – we decided to join an alternative walking tour; a free/tips only initiative run by a group of young locals, which takes 2 and a half hours and departs from the main entrance of St Peter’s Church at 12pm every single day (yup, they even run their tours when it’s -20°C out – apparently last time this happened the only person to show up was a Norwegian mountain of a man, who didn’t even feel the need to wear gloves. But moving on…).
As you know, I’m not usually one for organised group activities like this, but had decided to make an exception in this case simply because nothing feels like a worse idea than wandering aimlessly around neighbourhoods you don’t have a clue about when it’s well below freezing. I was confident that these locals would show us more interesting parts of Riga than we’d manage to see if left to our own devices under the snow, and was proved totally correct. Our guide – an outgoing young Latvian by the name of Edvards – was fun, friendly, and full of fascinating nuggets. He took us out of the city centre right away, towards the famous Central Market, which is located inside some old zeppelin hangars and is, incidentally, the most silent market I’ve ever experienced.
Inside one of the market pavilions we also discovered that the Latvians would pickle their own grandmothers given half a chance. It’s a national obsession, and I’ve honestly never seen so many different varieties of foods floating around in vinegar (pickled bulb of garlic, anyone?). Not appealing in the slightest, but quite impressive nonetheless.
After witnessing these, ahem, local delicacies, we went onwards towards the entirely tourist-free Moscow District – a neighbourhood also used as the Jewish ghetto in WWII and now home to the local holocaust museum. We walked past old brick warehouses and retro wooden homes, before making our way down the road to see the Academy of Sciences – a.k.a. Stalin’s Birthday Cake; an imposing, soviet-era skyscraper originally intended to be an 80th birthday gift to good ole Joseph, before he inconveniently died before its completion.
Finally, we wandered back towards the centre, with a couple of stops along the way allowing Edvards to point out a few final quirky features of the city and tell us a couple of tales of Latvian life.
S and I warmed up over another delicious brunch (with real bacon and baked beans – the dream!) before making our way to the recently refurbished Latvian National Museum of Art, to check out some Baltic paintings and sculptures. At only €3 for tickets for the permanent collection, the national gallery is a steal, and a great opportunity to check out some artwork styles which you may not have seen much of elsewhere. Even if Latvian painters don’t much tickle your fancy, it’s actually worth going even for the building itself – it’s honestly one of the nicest galleries I’ve ever seen, with glass floors, lovely high ceilings, and a stunningly minimal, all-white 5th floor.
Museum visit over, it was already 5pm – also known as the time when Latvia packs it all in for the day. This, in all honesty, was the only frustrating thing about Riga; we would’ve managed to see a lot more if it was possible to do literally anything at all between mid-afternoon and dinner time. But, alas, it is not.
And so, we gave up and went for cocktails, followed by dinner, followed by local beer and an early night. What’s a cold weather holiday for if not eating, drinking, and sleeping, anyway?
Monday morning was what I’d really been looking forward to since booking our Latvian weekend. Running with the sub-zero theme, I’d booked us in for a husky sledding experience with a company called Discover Latvia.
During our time in Riga, temperatures were sitting at a balmy -5°C – much less cold than can often be expected at this time of year, but still pretty nippy for two people used to the mild Mediterranean. So we put on enough layers of clothing to pass as Mr and Mrs Michelin, and waited to be picked up and taken to our destination, about 30 minutes outside Riga by car.
Once we arrived, we pretty much forgot about the cold altogether, because we were far too distracted by the furry little beasts waiting for us.
I don’t know about you, but I’d always been under the impression that huskies were very wolf-like, very much working dogs, and certainly not especially friendly. My oh my, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Obviously these guys are used to being around tourists, so perhaps they’re not “real” huskies, but they were the fluffiest, fuzziest, friendliest creatures, and I obviously fell particularly in love with the fattest, laziest one, who rolled over to have her tummy tickled more or less as soon as she saw our car pulling up.
Husky sledding is fun, especially when you get to do it through the picturesque Baltic woodland. We took turns to be the musher, shouting vaguely Latvian noises to make the dogs go faster, and only had to be rescued once when one dog started to relieve himself and the others took the opportunity to try to drag us away from the clearing and off into the trees.
My lens cap did fall victim to the dog sled, slipping out of my pocket halfway through, into the snow and never to be seen again. But hey, it wasn’t a bad way to go (RIP, little guy).
After the run with the dogs, our friendly local instructor, Rihards, took us off for a relaxing walk in the woods, before letting us climb a tall treehouse-for-grown-ups for an awesome view of the never-ending Latvian forests. There may be hardly any people living in Latvia (only around 2 million in the whole country, apparently), but I can confirm that there’s no shortage of Christmas trees.
Soon enough, we were back in the city centre once more and ready to finally check out the historic part, which we’d somehow managed to avoid entirely for the first almost-two days of our long weekend.
We’d wanted to explore the KGB Museum on our way to the Old Town, thinking this would give us a bit of interesting insight into Latvian history, but when we got there, we found a tumbledown old building, with what seemed like pages of extra large history books printed out and hung from the ceiling, and very little else. It wasn’t great, so we gave up, resigned ourselves to having to learn more about the country’s past from Wikipedia, and decided to wander around and drink coffee instead.
With only the last morning left to explore the city, we decided it’d be fun to see Riga from above, so we headed back to the Academy of Sciences.
The majority of tourists opt to get a view of the capital from the tower of St Peter’s Church, but Edvards (remember him?) had told us that the view from the Academy was much better. When we found out that the entry cost half as much as that of the church, and that the viewing deck didn’t have bars obscuring the view – unlike St Peter’s – we were sold. According to the locals, the main advantage of the view from up here is that you can’t see the ugliest building in the city, because you’re on top of if, but even if you – like me – don’t find the Academy of Sciences all that dreadful (it’s just like a sawn-off, soviet Empire State Building, isn’t it?) the view is still pretty spectacular.
Oh, so, spoiler alert: I only managed to take rubbish photos because it was chucking it down with snow when we went up to the observation deck. Better than nothing though… right?
With the clock ticking before our bus back to the airport, there was just time to walk over to the Art Nouveau district. This neighbourhood, and particularly Alberta Iela, is home to some of the buildings Riga is most famous for. Whether you’d personally have chosen to decorate the facade of your home with sculptures of mythical creatures or not, there’s no denying that these buildings are eye-catching, and it is worth wandering over to see this area if you’re in the city.
I’d have liked to check out the Art Nouveau museum near here too – an old apartment where you can really get a feel for the style of the period – but sadly had to give it a miss in favour of grabbing a bite to eat before returning to the airport.
Nevertheless, a quick stroll around was enough to satisfy my curiosity for the time being, and seeing the architecture that Riga is arguably most famous for was a fitting way to finish our short trip.
Time was almost up, so we had our last Latvian lunch and headed back to the bus stop to begin the long journey back to positively tropical Torino (and let me tell you, 7°C has never felt so dreamy).
In the end, although Riga may have been chosen as a kind of “compromise” destination for our winter weekend away, I don’t think we could’ve done much better than this tiny Baltic state this February, and I’m so glad we ended up there.
Sure, travelling to the frozen north requires some preparation, a bit of flexibility, and more than a few pairs of woolly socks, but finding such a unique and underrated city – and having it practically all to ourselves to explore – made the mild frostbite more than worthwhile.
COMING SOON to The Gap Life Diaries: What to pack for your Baltic winter trip, and the best places to eat in Riga…