Stopping off at Riga Central Market
The next stop on our Baltic trip was Riga. We arrived in the capital of Latvia suitably relaxed and refreshed and got off at the main coach station to start our Latvian travel adventure. We had to walk through the Central Market to reach our accommodation and it was bustling!
Riga is the largest city by population in the Baltics and the Riga Central Market is not only the biggest market in Europe but also listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The raw hustle and bustle of daily life at the market was a marked difference in atmosphere to the picturesque Tallinn. The energy that hit us immediately after stepping off the coach widened our eyes and only increased our excitement for things to do in Riga during our 3 day stay in the characterful city.
Riga has a beautiful Old Town filled with Art Nouveau buildings, but unlike Tallinn it feels as though the Riga Old Town is for locals as much as tourists. It is abound with fashionable boutiques, galleries, hip restaurants and bars. After a relaxed day of discovering the Riga’s old town, we hit a few of these bars.
I’m a sucker for foxes, so Funny Fox Bar had me with their sign that we kept walking past. It is more a pub than a bar, serving food and karaoke if you’re keen! It gets packed so if you want a seat get there early to enjoy the fun vibes and someone belting out some Arctic Monkeys.
Next, with a great selection of shots was the aptly named Shot Cafe. It’s situated in a basement and has a great range at cheap prices (all around 2.50 – 3.50€) so it can be dangerous. They also have happy hours – even more dangerous. If the name doesn’t put you off I’m sure you’d like a Sperm Shot as much as I did!
Beautiful History in Sigulda and Turaida
Sigulda has being described by many as having the most beautiful green landscapes in all of Latvia. Located in the Gauja National Park and the region of Vidzeme we found these claims to be completely true and also found amazing castles dotted around the area.
We used Discover Latvia who had a guide pick us up and the first stop was to the luge and bobsleigh track. This is a training venue for the Latvian Olympic team and tourists can take a ride for 60€ pp. We were disappointed it was closed the day we were there. It was still interesting to look around, but would have been better to have taken a ride!
We made our way to Gutmanis Cave (my favourite part of the tour). It is the highest cave in Latvia and the flow of the spring was considered sacred and healing. The name translated is Good Man’s Cave and its origin is based on a local healer who would use the water to treat the towns’ people. The best things about the cave are the Story of Rose of Turaida and the many inscriptions of love on the cave, some dating back to the 17th century. Don’t put your own on there; it’s illegal!
We next went to Sigulda New Castle; a neo style gothic building. It was beautiful to take in, currently used by the council it was originally built as a grand lodging for the important aristocracy of Vidzeme as well as many artists.
Right next to the Sigulda New Castle is the Medieval Sigulda Castle, we walked through the ruins and castle walls and played around with Livonian weapons and armour. In the summer you can catch the open-air opera festival within the medieval ruins.
Next we moved on to our final stop, Turaida Castle. The 13th century castle is set within never ending woodlands giving it a fairytale feel. The meaning of Turaida translates to God’s Garden; an accurate description when you see the red brick castle pop up among the beautiful hills. There are various towers you can explore, and an excellent museum taking you through the history, reformation, and wars experienced by the region.
The castle and museum is set within the Turaida Museum Reserve covering over 40 hectares. We took a walk around the reserve and you can easily spend hours here. There was Dainas Hill which had sculptures of characters from Latvian folklore, built to commemorate a notable Latvian folklore collector. Further along there was a preserved village with old houses to get a feel of historic life and a sweet little Lutheran wooden church. Whilst we aren’t history buffs, the overall experience of the reserve was excellent and really brought alive the history of Latvia and the indigenous people of Livonia.
A city tour in Riga by kayak (Fishermen’s tales)
In the evening we took a different kind of tour and boarded a kayak and paddled around for a fun 3 hours on the water taking in the sights. Our guide was very nice and talked us through the history of the Freedom Monument, National Opera House and many other highlights as we made our way through the calm waters.
One of the best things about the Riga by Night Kayak Tour was going from the open waters into the canal, kayaking under lit up bridges; it truly is stunning. If you’re lucky, you may see beavers; we didn’t, but apparently they’re there, so keep your eyes peeled!
It is quite a leisurely ride, although Steve and I were a bit rubbish at it, we managed to get ourselves tangled up in some fishing lines and were yelled at by a group of Latvian fishermen.
We got a language lesson that evening: stupid in Latvian is stulbs!!!
Cost is 25€ pp. TIP: The guide takes photos and sends them to you (which in theory is a great idea) so you can concentrate on the tour itself, only problem is we never received ours, even when I emailed him, so if you’re super keen on keeping a memento of the evening; best to take your own, or be persistent when requesting them.
Latvian Horror Story
If you scare easily, are afraid of the dark, don’t like to be touched, or have a dislike for clowns; don’t do this! Psaiho.LV is a horror themed activity where you are thrust into an old warehouse and led room to room by a freaky psychotic clown.
There are various little tasks along the way to give you a respite from the darkness and chaos going on around you whilst you walk through this horror playhouse. I don’t want to say too much and give it all away, but it’s fun, the actors are brilliant (they speak English too), you’ll have a laugh and it will get your adrenaline pumping.
If you have been to the London Dungeon or on any ghost ride at a theme park, they are all child’s play compared to this. Psaiho is properly scary, and for that reason it’s brilliant fun and a must do if you are in Riga and a fan of horror.
They have a bar where you can grab a drink either before or after (or both) to calm the nerves. I’m not sure if Steve has ever drunk so quickly as he did after our session and he is normally pretty blase about this kind of stuff. You can do this day or night, Thursday – Sunday, for between 2pm and 8pm. To avoid disappointment book beforehand.
TIP: Wear appropriate footwear! We saw someone with heels on; don’t know how she did it, or if she made it out alive.
Find your inner child at Kronvalda Park
To calm our nerves a bit we went to Kronvalda Park, we loved this park! Not only is it well manicured, it was a hub for things to do. It probably changes seasonally but we did some trampolining (why don’t they have this in all parks?!), went for a walk by the canal (still no beavers), checked out the fountains and chilled out with an ice cream in the sun.
You can’t miss it; it’s in the centre of town, it’s worth going for a stroll, or a sit down depending how you’re feeling. If you’re feeling peckish there’s a Lido bistro nearby which serves good quality Latvian food at nice prices. You can mix and match foods from various counters which is always a bonus if you can’t read the menu or you are just plain greedy for local cuisine.
Riga was definitely a stop we made gladly. Yes we got tangled up in fishing lines like idiots but the city is alive where history stands alongside the contemporary.
Unlike some cities, Riga really has character and isn’t just a city with a central shopping centre or an old town, it has a bit of everything, is quite walkable, and has plenty of things to do. It is a popular place for stag and hen parties but they are easily avoided if you want and the amazing architecture alone will provide ample distraction for a great city break.