Arriving in Riga just before 12, we waited at one of the group’s hotels, Hotel Justus, for our guide, the characterful Toms, bedecked in his trademark green bodywarmer. We’d asked him to extend the usual 3 hour old town & market tour to also include Riga’s unique Art Nouveau quarter and for many this was the highlight of the day. Reconstructed old towns are all very nice but there aren’t many cities with such a rich and concentrated collection of Art Nouveau buildings as Riga.
Lunch was in a popular year-old pay-by-weight canteen in the Old Town. It nearly won the prize for cheapest meal of the trip, coming in at €45 for 9 people.
The market halls – all 5 of them, each with a different specialty, didn’t seem too different to my first visit back in October 2013 but there are signs of a creeping gentrification, in the form of the week-old Pumpkin Cafe (which served just one pumpkin based item, a tart which I still can’t decide is sweet or savoury). A long way to go before it rivals Barcelona’s Boqueria but Rome wasn’t built in a day. We still managed to have a few tastings of pickles and cheeses.
That night was the gastronomic highlight of the Riga portion of the trip, with dinner at the Neiburgs Restaurant, hosted by the hotel of the same name. I’ve been known to be wary of hotel restaurants but this was superb. I’ll let the photos of the two pork dishes I chose (pork belly confit and braised pork cheek followed by a pork chop with purple potato mash) speak for themselves on this one. I couldn’t manage dessert but the chocolate fondant was a hands-down favourite among our bloggers.
With so much packed into day 1, and this being a Saturday, everyone was free to go and explore independently, with a few entrances arranged at various places for us by the Riga Tourist Board the group made their own plans, not meeting up till 10pm, for night kayaking.
I took the opportunity of a free day to explore the city. The expedition began with stroll through the flea market in the newly renovated warehouse district close to the central market. From there a short walk then up in the elevator to the top of the Soviet-style academy of sciences for a from-a-distance view over old Riga and beyond to the new National Library. After that, a visit the Art Nouveau museum, the street market in the Kalnciems creative quarter, and finally ascend the tower of St Peter’s Church (sore point there, the Riga TB arranged free entry but the dragon at the ticket desk refused to accept these until several phone calls were made).
The night kayaking was great fun and highly recommended to anyone visiting Riga, unless it’s cold or raining, then definitely don’t do it. We were lucky with the weather and fortunate to be able to admire the massive fireworks display put on by Latvia’s ethnic-Russian population to celebrate ‘their’ WWII liberation day, at 11pm, while we floated in a small harbour.