Latvia

RIGA is a great place for a short break – perhaps surprisingly so for first-time visitors who, like me, don’t know too much about the place. I went in January and the city was beautifully crowned in snow: temperatures were cold, but very bearable (they can be much colder – average when I was there hovering just a around zero, lower at night, but it can get down to -10 or even a bone-chilling -20, so pack your thermals for a winter visit!).

Where to stay

I can’t recommend Hotel Neibergs enough – perfectly located in the old city just behind the Dome Square, the spacious rooms are converted apartments in a beautiful art noveau building. Sensitively refurbished in 2010, it’s stylish, clean and well-equipped. There’s a sauna and steam room which are a great way to warm up after a day’s sightseeing in the winter. Standard buffet breakfast is included in the B&B rates.

Where to eat

You can’t go wrong with the restaurant in the Hotel Neibergs (see above). Inventive dishes, combining international style with local specialities and ingredients and at a very reasonable price. Don’t miss the exceptionally creative desserts, which are like something off Masterchef!

Domini Canes is also in the heart of the old city and is small and cosy – apparently booking is advisable, although on a Sunday night in mid-January we were lucky enough to walk up and get a table. More top quality food at a low price. all served by helpful, knowledgeable staff. A must.

Foodys – predominantly Italian-style menu and a wide range of wines on the edge of the old city, just opposite the Opera. Fine, with the feel of a decent local restaurant, though not as good value for money as the two above. Try the beer food plate for tasty nibbles with your aperitif.

Sweetday Cafe – comfortable, cosy pitstop in the old town for coffee, soup, sandwiches etc

Cadets de Gascoigne – this is a chain of French coffee/pastry shops. We tried the one in Bergs Bazaar, just behind Bergs Hotel, but they are scattered throughout the city: modern, clean and cheap.

Where to drink

All the cafes (kafejnica) seem to be licensed so you can pretty much pick up a drink anywhere.

Double Coffee is a small local coffee chain – think Starbucks, but more comfortable and with a bigger range of food and drink served (including alcohol). Friendly service, free wifi. They are all variations on a similar theme: we dipped into the Manhattan branch just behind the Freedom Monument.

Skyline Bar, 26th Floor of the Radisson Blu, Elizabetes Street – fabulous views, wide range of cocktails, fun atmosphere. DJ on Friday and Saturday nights. Grab a window seat to drink in the rooftop vista along with your drink of choice.

Black Magic Balsam Bar – a touristy venue made to look like a medieval banqueting hall to reflect the old-style origins of this medicinal tasting drink, which is the local speciality. Nice atmosphere and some interesting balsam flavoured treats such as almonds dusted in balsam candy and chocolate coloured balsam-drenched plums – but you can drink balsam more cheaply elsewhere. And if you want to buy some to take home, try the supermarkets in Central Market.

S. Brevinga alus un Virkija – good beer and whisky pub. Serves beer food, plus there’s a restaurant upstairs and a shop attached where you can buy locally brewed craft beer.

Alus Seta is a huge, wooden, cavern-like place to try local beers and ‘beer food’ (which includes such delicacies as grey beans with bacon fat – I didn’t try it).

What to do

Wander around the Old City, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Get a local guide to take you on a walking tour or just follow your guidebook – or your nose.

Check out the Art Nouveau district around Albert Street.

Pick off any of the museums that interest you.

MezaParks just outside the city (a half hour tram ride on the number 11) are worth a trip for a walk in the forest. In the winter, check out the dates of the Ziemas Parks where you can rent cross country skis and skates for a bit of winter snow fun. The setting itself is magical. There is also a zoo in the park.

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