Let me tell you a little about Riga first – but if you haven’t time for that today, you can jump straight down to the list below for 7 of the best things to do in Riga.
A man waited, then spoke.
“If you look this way, at the glittering chandelier and the gold edged frames, the beautiful corridor. You see what communism looked like.
“At street level. What it was supposed to do.
“And if you follow me beyond this door, you will come to learn the reality.”
We were standing in the former KGB Headquarters in Riga, Latvia, the pocket-sized country in the middle of the three Baltic States.
And already the place was surprising me.
Years ago, as you may or may not remember, I travelled from Istanbul to Berlin on the #IronRoute, zig-zagging across the former Iron Curtain in a bid to better understand what had happened in my childhood when the wall came down. I wanted to try to understand what the future would hold as well.
Yet my visit to Riga seemed to expand that dynamic range of memory and experience.
The lows seemed lower, as the blood-splattered prison cells grew smaller and darker and more and more terrifying the further into the building we went.
But the highs of Riga seemed brighter: through its food, its architecture, its music and the warm welcome of its people.
Where I come from (a small patchwork island floating off the edge of western France,) the word Riga has come to mean just one thing: the go to destination for cheap flesh and cheap beer, earning it the reputation as one of the stag do capitals of Europe.
This was not, to my ears, a ringing endorsement.
But, I was curious, fascinated even, to have my first taste of this corner of Europe. And if it meant I had to sidestep the odd bunch of overbearing British men, well, it wouldn’t be the first time.
I travelled mid-week, which may or may not explain my luck…because ’twere not a stag do in sight.
Riga’s medieval town centre glistened in the morning sunlight like a child’s box of treasure: cobbled streets with pale pink and blue facades, rough-slated spires and live music from stringed instruments played by lively arms in blooming blouses.
A twenty minute organ recital at Riga’s Dome Cathedral cemented the spirit of Riga’s heyday: first as part of the Hanseatic League and then as a prosperous port – and part – of Sweden. A stroll further out revealed Riga’s other high value card: its art nouveau.
The World Heritage Centre describes Riga as having the finest collection of art nouveau buildings in Europe, and indeed the whole historic centre of the city is an UNESCO World Heritage Site.
For those new to the subject (ahem, like me) you can visit a museum on the subject, complete with interior decoration to show what daily life was like and some period costumes so that you can’t take yourself too seriously:
But…the place for seriousness, when all is said and done, is back in the KGB museum or Corner House: a place where prisoners starved, were forced awake for days on end, and were executed as a result of meaningless accusations and overheard whispers from neighbours, all in “pursuit of a better cause.”
Riga is a city on the up, but it’s also a place where the past is not so far away.
And it’s a past that made me stop and think. More than I have written about today.
It made me feel grateful.
And it let me enjoy.
Cheers Riga! To your good health,
1 – Visit the Nativity of Christ Cathedral, known as “the Orthodox Church.”
3 – Visit the KGB museum: The Corner House between Brīvības Street and Stabu Street.
4 – Head back to the glamorous past at the Art Nouveau Museum (and follow that up with a tour afterwards.)
5 – Take in the city skyline from the aptly named Skyline Bar.
6 – Attend an organ recital at the Dome Cathedral
7 – Relish getting lost in the side streets of the old city centre and look out for the tradition of the cat on the roof…
My travel to Latvia came about as part of a collaboration between iAmbassador and Latvian Tourism Development Agency with the support of the European Union Regional Development Fund. As ever, as always, I keep the right to write what I like.
And, as a special shout-out, I’d love to highlight the Grand Palace Hotel. Beautiful place, wonderful service, highly recommended. Enjoy!