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The Many Gems (and Grey Peas) in Riga, Latvia

With a merry-go-round of centuries of different occupiers (German, Swedish, Russian), Riga has had an eclectic history yet emits a cosmopolitan vibe as a cultural destination. It’s known for its Art Nouveau architectural flourishes on stately buildings from the turn of the 20th century; a compact, still cobblestone-lined Old Town; gorgeous parks, canals, and public art/sculpture to wander; and many other impressive attractions. We continued to luck out with generally good weather in Riga, if a bit temperamental with the occasional rainstorm rolling in when you least expect it.

I loved the sophisticated yet accessible area we stayed in just north of the Old Town off of Skolas Street, with the cutest cafes to stop in for your daily coffee and pastry (the cardamom cinnamon rolls at Mīkla @mikla_bakery were out of this world). We enjoyed exploring the Esplanāde Park (near the National Art Museum and Orthodox Cathedral) and Bastejkalna Park (with canals, green spaces, bridges, and public art). And the Art Nouveau Quarter, also known as the Quiet Quarter, was particularly meaningful as my dad was a fan of this style of art and architecture and would have delighted for hours in touring with us and pointing out the motifs like intricate flora, goblins, and goddesses on the buildings. A little Art Nouveau-themed gift shop that I visited would have been right up his alley; I picked up a set of beautiful Art Nouveau coasters to remember our time here with him in mind.

A few of the worthwhile, kid-friendly excursions in Riga include:

  • Latvia Railway Museum – indoor interactive exhibits (including an active model train) and exploring the retired trains outdoors makes this an attractive stop for any train-loving kid.
  • chocolate-making class at Laima Chocolate Museum – Laima, the Hershey’s of Latvia, offers a chocolate-making class for kids and parents (you can also add on admission to the museum if desired; you need to call in advance to reserve a spot in the class). To be fair you’re not actually “making” the chocolate from raw ingredients but assembling poured chocolate with toppings into individual decorative chocolates. Regardless, the chocolate-obsessed kid and parent in our family had a fun time here.
  • This is actually for parents’ mental health so it IS kid-friendly: we treated ourselves to an excellent Thai massage at @Asia_Spa_Riga on a night out with babysitting, which was truly sublime.

Riga’s playground gem is this place, at the Central Sports District, which we never would have learned about but for a lovely babysitter, Lena, who took Jacob there on the first day. Otherwise it’s a short bus ride outside of the Old Town.

If you’re able to get a night out without kids, follow the recommendation from our Latvian masseuse in Valencia and head down to Folkklubs Ala Palgrabs @folkklubs_ala for traditional Latvian food and live music nearly every night of the week. It’s in a large, underground, maze-like cellar which makes you feel like you’re stepping back in time to a pub hall from Game of Thrones. The night we went, we got to watch some Latvian folk dancing while sampling dishes like Grey Peas (a creamy stew with peas resembling black-eyed peas or large chick peas, onion, and bacon served in the traditional dark brown rye bread) and a loaded baked potato dish, both with mountains of fresh pickled carrots. We chatted with some locals and learned that we should return to Latvia in October for their favorite season, fall.

Other notable sites to visit in Riga:

  • Central Market – with several buildings’ worth of food stalls for a delicious Latvian lunch or picking up picnic provisions.
  • Corner House – Dave visited this KGB, Nazi, then KGB detention and torture center from the occupation years. It’s not a museum and is similar to visiting a place like Alcatraz as a former prison. He thought the guided tour (which is mandatory to book with a visit) was valuable and quite sobering.
  • Holocaust Museum – Dave also took some time to visit this small but moving and thoughtful museum about the extermination of Latvian Jews (similarly to Lithuania, over 90% were killed), with a good combination of factual presentation and personal accounts. Similarly to the story in Lithuania, over 90% of Latvian Jews were killed, with a lot of local complicity, willful ignorance, and participation in public humiliation, deprivation of property and rights, and eventually outright massacres along with the Nazi occupiers. We understood the narrative again to be one of total domination and subjugation, oppressive conditions, and difficult choices.

Finally, we enjoyed a daytrip to Jurmala Beach, a popular resort town southwest of Riga; it’s most easily accessible by train which drops you off right across from the start of the pedestrian promenade, Jomas Iela. We ended up driving because we had our rental car and although the parking in Jurmala was quite easy (a 2 euro flat rate for the entire day, as part of your “entrance fee” into the town), the traffic back into Riga was horrendous: should’ve taken the train. The Jomas Street promenade hosts more than the necessary number of ice cream carts as well as some family-friendly restaurants like House of Light Grillbars @houseoflightgrillbars with a really well-stocked play area and healthy, more elevated food that pleases grownups as well. The beach is on a concave-shaped bay so the water is very calm and mild, and there are numerous beach cafes, free bathrooms, etc. for visitors. This is a great daytrip but is also a popular weekend getaway for Riga city-dwellers in the summer.

Riga is a very interesting and worthwhile city to visit, with much to do for the whole family that filled up the nearly six days we were there. We continue to be pleasantly surprised with the very comfortable summer weather and low volume of tourists in the Baltic States and wonder why more people aren’t traveling here; Riga was no exception.