BALTICS OR BUST! We finally made it to Latvia! On our whirlwind ladies’ roadtrip through the Baltics we visited Helsinki (see Finland blog here), Tallinn (see Estonia blog here), Riga, and finally Vilnius (see blog here). It is tough to compare these places, as each has such charm, fascinating history, and iconic treasures. I thought Tallinn was my favorite until we visited Riga – then I was wooed all over again! There truly is so much to enjoy about each of these places and although we just scratched the surface in our brief visits, I grew to love and appreciate each one.
I want to take a moment to give a proper shoutout to my friend Ashlyn (of Middle World Adventures) who was my travel buddy for this trip! First of all, she had a great deal of patience and restraint as I know she would have wanted to spend a week at each place but settled for a day or two with me, busting through the Baltics at a leisurely break neck pace. We logged ridiculous steps, took oodles of pictures (thanks for being a great subject!), ate some of the besssst food, and immersed ourselves in the culture and history of each place. The experience of full historical immersion was thanks to her! Ashlyn studied Russian (and former Soviet) history in school and even speaks some Russian so it was really fun to visit all of the historic places she insisted we see – and I’m so glad she did! I really didn’t learn much about this part of the world growing up, so it was about time I did. Riga is the first place things started to feel heavy (this region has been through so much), and I was so grateful to have Ashlyn with me as I learned, witnessed, and paid respects. Read on to learn more…
Riga is situated on the Gulf of Riga on the Baltic sea, straddling the Daugava River. Several prominent bridges cross the river connecting the quiet Torņakalns suburb and the Center District, where most of the businesses, historic buildings, and tourist areas are located. Riga’s population is just over 600,000 people – making it the largest city in the Baltic states. The Historic Center of Riga is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site – with buildings dating back to the 1300’s! As you can see (chart right), Latvia has been under various country’s occupation over the last 800 years; this includes Poland, Sweden, Russia, Germany, and finally their own sovereign nation again for the last 31 years. Due to this overlap of cultures, it is plain to see Soviet influence on the Latvian culture in their statues, architecture, religion and food. Riga is well known for tourism, but also wood products, IT, pharmaceuticals and metallurgy. Because of its location, it is one of the most prominent ports in the region. What I noticed is a nice balance between natural spaces and businesses, fun restaurants, and historic spots. After our delicious breakfast at the Boutique Hotel Kristofs (so cute!), we began our walking tour of Riga across the river at one of those very spots.
A brisk walk across the Akmens Tilts (Stone Bridge) took us past the beautiful National Library of Latvia and onto Victory Park. The trees were on fire with foliage, welcoming us. It is a huge park, at around 90 acres (36 hectares) and was named Victory Park in 1919 in honor of the victory of Latvians against Germany and Russia in their independence. Of course we know this independence only lasted 22 years, as the Latvians were once again occupied by the Soviet Union briefly, then Nazi Germany for several years, before being “liberated” by the Soviets and once again occupied from 1944-1990. This liberation is commemorated by a striking series of statues and obelisk type monument entitled, “Monument to the liberators of Soviet Latvia and Riga from the German fascist invaders.” Keep in mind, the Soviets had already claimed Latvia a year prior to Nazi Germany’s invasion, so when the Soviets conquered the Nazis in 1944, they re-claimed Latvia as their own. Thus is the modern game of thrones. For some Latvians these monuments are a symbol of oppression, as they endured a brutal Soviet occupation for 46 years. Still, they remain today as a reminder of the past and as a beautiful example of Soviet design. This area may one day become a museum of occupation to show what life was like for Latvians during those difficult times. It is also worth mentioning that when I shared some of these things on Instagram, I was immediately trolled by very angry Russians who wanted to “set me straight” on history. There is no question this was a painful time for many, but I can’t help but empathize with the Latvian people, and observe this history objectively from the outside, celebrating the sovereignty and beauty of this small country that deserves freedom.
National Library of Latvia: Riga
One of the few moments of radical acceptance we had to muster on our trip was just after the disappointment in learning the amazing National Library of Latvia was closed – it was Sunday! It didn’t even occur to me to check opening hours, and there we were, on a tight schedule with only one full day in Riga (two nights) so we were pretty bummed about it. It is obviously gorgeous to see from the outside, but Ashlyn is a librarian and wouldn’t dream of missing a good library on our travels, so we’ll just have to be back to visit this one! We had fun with the Divi Raini sculpture in the park nearby – it shows a giant Raini on the elevated side of a long bench, and his tiny replica on the lower side of the bench. This sculpture, made in 2018, is a monument to the greatness of the Latvian people and their dedication to perseverance. Rainis is the nickname for Jānis Pliekšāns, a hero of Latvian history and independence. It is a beautiful tribute and begs onlookers to sit, ponder, and then go learn a thing or two inside the library!
Riga Central Market
From there we crossed back over the bridge and walked to the famous Riga Central Market, another must-see spot as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Here, five enormous pavilions were built using old zeppelin hangar materials. The prominent location right next to the river Daugava made this area perfect for selling products like fresh produce as early as the 1500’s. Today the market continues to thrive, but of course we were there during a global pandemic so we didn’t see the bustling, crowded marketplace as usual. It is difficult to say how many vendors have been affected by Covid. This market is huge and extends to long outdoor market stalls as well. I loved the fresh veggie juice we found for €1.25 (about 18oz!), 25 cent donuts and delicious hand pies at. It’s fair to say we ate our way through Riga!
Riga Ghetto and Latvian Holocaust Museum
From the market we walked through the Spīķeri historic creative district to the Riga Ghetto and Latvian Holocaust Museum. We had heard this is must-see in the city for anyone interested in history, but we weren’t prepared for how extensive it was. The entire museum is free to enter and wander – it is just open air and open to the public – but a donation can be offered and should be, as it is the only way this moving and important place can stay afloat in such prime real estate in Riga. Upon entering the gates you will notice a small wooden house to the left that can be entered and shows what life was like in the ghetto, and in a courtyard paved with bricks there are several beautiful sculptural monuments. Straight ahead is a cattle car used for transporting Jews to and from the Ghetto here to the Nazi concentration and death camps; enter it to view a moving mirrored exhibit. Additionally, there is a set of barbed wire gates illustrating what it was like 75 years ago with a big wall of informational panels and maps that runs along the entire street. A large indoor museum area is to the right, with lanterns and large panels describing various experiences of Baltic jews. Among other things, I learned of Nazis using bone crushing contraptions to dispose of the piles and piles of bones that became a “problem.” In the informative panels I also learned that a great deal of the horror Latvian Jews experienced was due to their neighbors, who quickly turned against them, often becoming violent in the streets. It wasn’t just the Nazis who committed atrocities. Over 75% of the Latvian Jewish population was murdered during the Holocaust: 70,000 people. Go, learn, grieve, and never forget.
Latvian Academy of Sciences
We walked with heavy hearts nearby to the Latvian Academy of Sciences. This is another distinctly Soviet-era building, built in 1961. For a small fee you can go up the elevator to the 17th floor observation deck for a great view over the city. I was so proud of Ashlyn for doing this even though she’s terrified of heights! This observation deck feels a bit more safe and secure than others even though it is open air. It was pretty windy up there in early October, but the view was fantastic!
By then we were getting hungry again, so we made our way across town (via uber cheap Uber) to one of the vegetarian restaurants that we were looking forward to most: Mazā Terapija (it means Small Therapy!). I ordered the most delicious bowl of ramen I have ever had – the crispy tofu was positively perfect! I highly recommend this place. I would go back just for the ramen! But they also had a delicious display fridge full of desserts, all of which looked amazing. As if that wasn’t enough, we walked across the street to Big Bad Bagels to pick up a bagel sandwich for future snacks (because you just never know…) and around the corner to MiiT Coffee shop for a pick-me-up and the most out of this world homemade Snickers bar! I wish I could describe it – just know it was way better than the original! Later in the day we had drinks at B Bar right across from Riga Cathedral, and had the place all to ourselves. Late night snacks for us on our progressive Latvian food day concluded at LIDO (everyone was talking about it, and although we appreciated the funky atmosphere and fairly cheap eats, it wasn’t our favorite) and Rigensis Bakery for more hand pies and savory baked treats!
Also famous in Riga is the Art Nouveau District. Don’t know what Art Nouveau is? It will be quite apparent when you wander the streets here! Every single building is decked out in classic, intricate Art Nouveau detailing, including lots of faces, sculptures and filigree! Can you spot the faces on the buildings? They’re so fun!
In the center of the city lies a big, beautiful canal that is surounded by the Bastejkalna Park. It, too, was alive with color! This is one of the best places in the city to view fall foliage. We also loved the tree with hundreds of bird houses just outside the Riga Nativity of Christ Orthodox Cathedral – a church with quite a fascinating history as well! The gold dome is iconic and also a symbol of Latvian independence, as the building was converted into a planetarium during Soviet occupation, and then refurbished into the church we see today in 1991. Also near the park is the great Freedom Monument, a memorial to the war of Latvian independence in the early 20th century.
In the park you can take a little boat ride or watch the artists painting along the water near the bridge. It is a picturesque place, and one of the highlights for me in Riga for sure.
Old Town Riga
We walked through the park and through the old Swedish Gate dating back to the 1600’s, past St. Jacob Catholic Cathedral to the famous Three Brothers buildings. Each of these buildings were built at different times, showcasing how architecture changed in the city over the centuries. We continued through Dome Square, wandering the streets and appreciating the beauty around every turn.
Finally we made it to Riga Town Hall Square to see the infamous House of the Blackheads. This building has come to symbolize Riga but what we see was actually rebuilt and finished in 1999 after being bombed by the Nazis and the remains demolished by the Soviets in 1948. The original building that looked exactly the same was built in the early 1300’s – so it is a true testament to the endurance of this place to rebuild it in its entirety! Why is it called House of the Blackheads? Well, it turns out, this is not the only House of the Blackheads – we also saw one in Tallinn, Estonia! These buildings were gathering places for the Brotherhood of the Blackheads – a group for unmarried men, mostly merchants and ship owners in Livonia (what is now Latvia and Estonia) – who were founded as a military organization in the mid 1300’s. Gradually, over time, the brotherhood became more of a social organization, and still exists now in Hamburg. Also visible from the square is the steeple of St. Peter’s Church. I would’ve liked to climb into the steeple but unfortunately the church was closed when we were there. I understand the library being closed on a Sunday, but I was surprised by the church! It is possible this was due to covid.
Since I couldn’t climb the tower of St. Peter’s Church, I decided to tour Riga Cathedral instead. I arrived very late in the day and they were almost closed, but the gracious lady made sure I saw all the important parts of the cathedral, including the cloister that was full of artifacts. There is a fee to visit the church as it is set up as a museum now. I just wish I had more time! Don’t expect to climb the tower here; that is only at St. Peter’s Church. Another great place for a bird’s eye view of Riga is at the Radisson Blu Latvija Conference & Spa Hotel – we were told there is a nice bar on the top floor too!
I got a kick out of the huge armadillo in the back of the cathedral. I have no idea what that was for – but it was cute to see it near the children’s playground. Maybe it is a symbol of innocence and childhood like the hedgehog is in Hungary? Anyway, the streets were beautiful as the sun was setting, and Ashlyn and I decided to have a nice drink at B Bar near the Riga Cathedral. It wasn’t busy, but it was getting colder, so less people were dining outside.
It was a lovely evening, and we were both so happy with what we were able to squeeze into the day. There is no doubt our feet were aching when we made it back to our cute little Boutique Hotel Kristofs (yummy breakfast included – see pic!), but it was all so worth it! I want to be sure to note that the people in Riga were all very friendly. We talked to our waitress at B Bar the whole night! And, of course we gauge locals by how friendly they are when we stop to say hi to their dogs, and there’s no doubt this is a very welcoming, happy place! Our hotel concierge man was so generous, showing us all the places he recommended in the city by circling them on a map, and all of the shops and restaurants were especially gracious. We wished we didn’t have to leave so soon because the city really did deserve more than the time we had, but we both agreed this is a place we want to return to someday!
On the way out of town the next day towards Vilnius, Lithuania, we wanted to be sure to see one more historic memorial spot nearby. The Salaspils Memoriāls is a somber place. We were the only ones there as the sun was rising, and the enormous looming sculptures came into view as we approached the open field. Here, during Nazi occupation between 1941-1944, a repressive prison and punishment camp was erected to house political prisoners and locals, as well as people moving through to concentration camps. As many as 23,000 people may have been imprisoned here. Over 3,000 people died in the horrific conditions of the camp. This memorial was built in 1967 during Soviet occupation, and therefore many soviet graves surround the property. The Soviet creators of the monuments were awarded the Lenin Award, the highest Soviet honor. The sculptures of the people look like they’re standing strong, protecting each other and persevering against violence and oppression. It is ironic, really, to think the Soviets erected these statues about breaking free from Fascist Nazi Germany…while they were occupying (often brutally) the Baltic states.
It was a somber way for us to start our journey south to Lithuania, but it turns out this was only the beginning of moving moments that day. I will write all about it in my next post – coming soon!