Where: Riga, Latvia
When: December 2019
Hotel: Grand Palace Hotel
Why Riga: I was picking a place to go for my birthday trip and really wanted to go somewhere not super touristy but one that still had a great reputation for its Christmas markets (it was the season!) and was small enough to visit in a quick weekend trip. Riga ticked all those boxes, and I was excited to visit our second Baltic country.
The Trip: Air Baltic started flying directly from Stuttgart to Riga, and the prices are incredibly reasonable, so when I found a good price, I jumped immediately. The first impression for the weekend started on the plane. Air Baltic is awesome. The plane is clean, the seats are comfortable, there’s plenty of legroom and the staff is super friendly. That, coupled with a gin and tonic, was a really good way to start the weekend.
I’m a big fan of the pre-booked car waiting at the airport, and this time, I was super happy because the driver was great. As we drove along the city, he brought me up to speed on the history of Riga and finished with how much he liked the United States and Americans, who were helping keep their country independent. The quick background is, Riga suffered greatly under Soviet Union rule, and is worried about Russia coming back into their country. In his case, the driver’s grandmother has spent much of her childhood in Siberia because after World War II, when the Soviets came in, all of the educated workers (doctors, teachers, etc) and police officers were sent to Siberia. She wasn’t able to return to Latvia until she was 27, nearly 19 years after she was sent away.
I booked us a room at the Grand Palace Hotel – a bit of a splurge (it was my birthday!) as there are definitely nice hotels in the Old Town center, but this booking proved to be the right choice. The hotel was built in 1877, but is completely updated and in the best location – especially for visiting Christmas markets! One of the main squares is literally a 2-minute walk away, and as we pulled up, I could see a Christmas market in full swing. I was so, so excited!
What really sold me on Riga was the atmosphere at the Christmas market. I’ll do my best to describe it, but it was almost like a cozy, intimate setting where everyone was happy, the booths were all selling original goods, the food looked delicious, the gluhwein was tasty and there was a DJ playing Christmas songs and people were literally rocking around the Christmas tree. If that doesn’t adhere you to this place, nothing will. (Also, you might be a scrooge!)
One of my co-workers had spent a lot of time in Riga, and said Rozengrals for dinner was not to be missed. It was first mentioned in history books in 1293 as a wine cellar and party location for the Riga City Council and when you walk in, you feel like you have gone back to that time. It’s candlelit and adorable, with the staff walking around in period costumes and providing entertainment by each table. The wine was great, the food was filling and the atmosphere fantastic. Riga was hitting it out of the park.
In 2014, Riga welcomed around 2 million visitors. That number jumped to 3.5 million in 2019. (Which means get to Riga ASAP…it reminds me of an off-the-beaten path Prague!) But it felt anything but touristy on that first night. The driver also talked about how safe Riga was, and it was so true. A night walk around, even through some deserted streets was anything but scary. It was instead a nice change of pace because it felt like Riga was not open to anyone else to explore, and that was great. Riga is beautiful in the day, but stunning at night and night walks are a must.
The next day was full of site-seeing. First up was St. Peter’s Church, which is over 800 years old, complete with a tower that has amazing views over the city. Where possible, I always try to visit the spot with the best viewpoints, and this was it. Even better, there is an elevator to the top! 🙂
Right around the corner from here is one of my favorite squares, and the site of the Blackheads Society, built in the 14th century, destroyed in WWII and completely renovated in 1999. It is also apparently the site of the first-ever Christmas tree and has a little brass tree to mark the spot!
From there, we walked through the old town to the Central Market. From St. Peters, it takes about 15 minutes. The market is outside of the old towns and as you cross under in the pedestrian tunnel, the atmosphere definitely changes. It becomes even more authentic and I felt like we were the only tourists in the crowd that was doing their Saturday shopping.
We headed back through the old town, and even though it started misting a little bit, we continued on our tour through the windy, cobblestone streets to the Bastion Hill Park which straddles the Freedom Monument. I would have loved to run through this park, it was so cute and charming, even in the rainy weather!
I knew John needed a break at this point, so we went home to relax before our spa and massage appointments! Riga is full of spas, and is definitely a nice way to spend a couple of hours.
I booked us at ESPA, a 5-star spa, and kind of wished we’d had more time to enjoy the pool and sauna. I did get to enjoy a glass of champagne too! It was on the pricier side, and there are different, less expensive options. The rain had stopped at that point, so we walked back to the old town before deciding on dinner at Lido, a restaurant chain that serves yummy Latvian food. It was warm, the food was good, with plentiful options, and there was a band playing. I highly recommend it!
Restaurant chain Lido is known for serving delicious, affordable, Latvian food. They offer a great selection and good value for money. The ambiance is pleasant and family-friendly. Perhaps not the first choice if you’re going out for a romantic dinner for two but perfect for a good lunch or a more casual dinner out.
We were leaving for home the next day, and I was so sad we didn’t have more time – at least for a day trip to see other parts of Latvia.
Final Impressions: I love, love, love Riga and will definitely go back someday to see more of Latvia and relax again in Riga. I liked Tallinn when we went, but wasn’t as blown away as I had expected to be. So, with my second Baltic city, I was cautiously optimistic and it completely blew me away. The people, the food, the costs and the city itself – all wonderful. Such a good place to spend a weekend.