Even when explored in just one day, this Baltic beauty still packs a tremendous punch, and a new direct route makes it easy to visit
24 Hours in Riga, Latvia
The Latvian capital is a beautiful, fascinating, vibrant place – a Unesco World Heritage Site, with a long and illustrious history as a centre of trade in northern Europe. Its narrow, cobbled streets wind between squares filled with cafes, below a skyline pierced by slender church spires. Founded in 1201, Riga became a member of the Hanseatic League – a confederation of merchant guilds which between the 14th and the 17th centuries established a flourishing trade route across the Baltic. With the 100th anniversary of Latvian independence approaching next year, now is the perfect time to visit.
8am Freedom Monument
Given the centenary of Latvian independence will be celebrated next year, there is no more appropriate place to start your tour of the Latvian capital than beneath the Freedom Monument. This 42-metre-high memorial, topped with a sculpture of Liberty raising three gilded stars above her head, is one of Riga’s most iconic landmarks and one of the most important symbols of Latvian independence.
8.30am Green oasis
On either side of the Freedom Monument stretches Kronvalda Park, a beautiful swath of green which divides the medieval old town from the city’s late-19th-century boulevards. With its winding, serpentine canal, paddleboats and fountains, it is a favourite spot to while away any part of the day.
9am Art Nouveau capital
North-east of Kronvalda Park lies a series of broad avenues, lined with one of the finest ensembles of Art Nouveau architecture anywhere in the world. Head across Elizabetes Iela and you’ll find street after street of pastel-coloured façades encrusted with flamboyant sculpture. The Art Nouveau Museum, housed in a turreted building designed by one of the city’s most prolific Art Nouveau architects in the early 1900s, makes a worthwhile stop to learn more about the city’s heritage in relation to the style.
Of the many spots to stop for lunch in the old town, the chic but unstuffy Milda is a good bet, with its emphasis on dishes from neighbouring Lithuania, as well as Latvia. An entree of saffron marinated Baltic herring tartar, served with Latvian apples and rye bread, costs €6.70 (Dh29). For something earthier, you really can’t go wrong with Lido, a good-value, buffet-style restaurant with a folksy interior, serving hearty traditional Latvian fare.
2pm National Museum of Art
Riga has no shortage of museums, but if you see only one, it should be the Latvian National Museum of Art. Latvia’s greatest art collection is housed in an elegant building from the early 1900s (it was the first purpose-built museum in the Baltic states), which reopened in last year following a spectacular, two-year renovation. Chances are that many of the artists will be unfamiliar to non-Latvian viewers, but the quality of their work is hugely impressive, as is the magnificent gallery space.
3.30pm The old town
Riga’s old town centre is crammed with 800 years of history, with architecture running the gamut from medieval to modern. One of the most striking buildings is the House of the Blackheads, named after an association of unmarried merchants in Riga and Tallinn. Built in the 14th century (the stepped gable façade was added during the early 17th century), it was heavily damaged during the Second World War, then demolished by the Soviets, but it was painstakingly restored in 1999.
For a quintessential view of the old town, climb the 123-metre-high tiered steeple of St Peter’s Church – the tallest church spire in the city, and one of the defining landmarks of its skyline.
It is not only medieval architecture that the city does so well, however – head over the River Daugava to see one of Latvia’s greatest pieces of modern architecture, the new National Library, built by Latvian-born architect Gunnar Birkerts. If you are wondering about its curious shape, it is said to have been inspired by a local fairy tale about three brothers competing for the hand of a princess on a mountaintop.
7pm Dinner at Le Dome
Given its location on the Baltic, it is hardly surprising that the Latvian capital has a bit of a thing for seafood. Riga’s top table, and arguably one of the best seafood restaurants on the Baltic, is Le Dome – the small restaurant belonging to the Dome Hotel and Spa. Here you will find exquisitely tasty seafood and other regional dishes prepared with a well-judged dose of fusion. Entrees such as sea-trout confit with sorrel yogurt and fireweed-pickled vegetables cost about €10 (Dh43), while mains along the lines of soft-shell crab with crab tortellini and lemon-grass coconut sauce cost from about €22 (Dh94). There are also a variety of tapas dishes – think tuna tartare in crispy waffles with wasabi cream cheese, for example – or you can go all out with the six-course degustation menu at €60 (Dh257).
9pm Late-night view
The narrow, winding cobbled streets and alleys of Riga’s old town centre come alive with cafes and bars after sundown. While this all makes for a vibrant setting, the best spot in town for a late-evening coffee with a view is the 26th-floor Skyline Bar at Radisson Blu Latvija, which has unbeatable views down over the Freedom Monument and the bristling skyline of the old town.
Rest your head
The Grand Palace is a sumptuously decorated boutique hotel in the heart of the old town. It offers luxurious rooms, opulent decoration – marble staircase, Ottoman-style rugs – and impeccable service. Double rooms cost from €145 (Dh620).
AirBaltic in conjunction with Etihad operates a new direct route between Abu Dhabi and Riga, from €399 (Dh1,705) return, including taxes.
For more information, visit www.liveriga.com