Surprises in Riga

I am thrilled to report that I am posting this from the road, as I travel through the Baltics. It has been nearly two years since my first trip to Lithuania to see my in-laws and this time it was great to be able to get out and see more of this part of the world. The first stop on my journey was Riga, the capital of Latvia. Riga is the largest city in the Baltic states (Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia).

Located in the west of Latvia with access to a large port and situated on the Daugava River, it has been an important trading city over the centuries. Initially settled by the Baltic tribes (pagans), they were later forced into Christianity by German crusaders (little known fact, the Crusades extended to the Baltics) and taken over intermittently by the Polish-Lithuanian Empire, the Swedish Empire, Imperial Russia and finally the Soviet Union before gaining independence in 1991.

Like Vilnius, Riga’s Old Town is a designated UNESCO heritage site due to it’s beautifully preserved architecture. Neo-classical, baroque and gothic buildings line winding cobblestoned streets in this part of the city. Walking through this bit of Riga gives the impression of traveling back in time. But, then you turn a corner and see a T.G.I. Fridays and that illusion is quickly destroyed. Yes, there is a T.G.I. Fridays in Old Town along with a Tokyo Sushi, Charley Pizza and a Japanese owned Texas-style steak house called Steiku Haoss (you read that right). These chain restaurants are a reminder that Riga is a popular tourist destination. In spite of the modern distrction, the Old City is well worth a visit.

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Live music seems to come from every corner, something Riga is known for. You can hear everything from classical musicians performing on the streets to modern country music ballads being sung in the bars.  On a side note, Damien Rice was also in town to play a sold out show while we were there. We nearly bumped into him on the street and I regret not running after him to see if there was a chance to get extra tickets.  Sadly we missed out on seeing Damience Rice, but we did manage to pay a visit to Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs, one of the most accessible places in Old Town for live music and a great place to go for local Latvian beer.

The Baltics have a proud beer culture and finding the best local brew is not only an obligation for travelers, but a point of pride for many bars and restaurants. “Alus” means beer in Latvian (and Lithuanian). This term is how you can quickly identify the bars and taverns in Riga.  Sadly, we only had two days in Riga and didn’t manage to get to some of the breweries and local pubs we wanted to visit.

However, we were happy to find that Riga has a growing craft coffee scene. Rocket Bean, a local coffee roaster and cafe is one of the influential coffee companies that have opened up in Riga over the last few years. After accepting that the best we could hope for in terms of coffee was the typical Lavazza — it was a pleasant surprise to walk into Rocket Bean and get a fantastic pour over with our own choice of beans. In a country of just under 2 million, it’s easier to change how people view coffee —which is exactly what Rocket Bean is striving to do. By showcasing their quality of beans, offering everything from flat-whites to Aeropress they are already converting many locals.

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While Riga is a big city in a very small country, two days is not nearly enough time to spend there. I already have a laundry list of things I want to do the next time I go back. Until then.

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