Riga's Independence Square

Riga’s Independence Square

I think it won’t be an exaggeration to say that Expat Eye on Latvia’s Linda almost literally put Latvia on a map for a lot of “far abroad” foreigners with her very active Latvia PR campaign. However, she accomplished this with a rather unusual approach, often highlighting the gloomy and dysfunctional over the pretty and delicious.

What did I know about Latvia before Linda’s blog? That it’s one of the three countries referred to as The Baltics, a former USSR republic, changed German/Russian hands a few times, with a fair bit of animosity toward Russia, the capital is Riga and it’s very pretty and thus was used for many vaguely historical European settings in the Soviet era films when studios could not send their crews outside of the USSR.

This is what I learned in a year of reading Expat Eye on Latvia: all men are named Janis, women live in leopard-print clothing and are jealousy-possessed harpies, there are lots of potholes, customer service is horrible, Latvians have no sense of humor, Latvian washing machines will kill you, there are lots of trees and mushroom and everything is the fault of the Russians. Sounds like an all-around winner!

A slightly more positive view of Latvia, not sure how Linda managed to write this one.

Cat on a hot tin roof in Riga

Cat on a hot tin roof in Riga

Good or bad, a year ago The Baltics were not on my travel radar at all. I am now going to grossly generalize, but I think that many Russians like me, having finally gotten an opportunity to travel to the “far abroad,” prefer to use it to indeed go “far” – somewhere exotic and glamorous, and usually warm.  The older generations particularly does not view the former Soviet republics as truly foreign locales (think of an American going to Cancun or Niagara Falls – this hardly counts as international travel). Many places that seem exotic to foreigners and expats in Russia – Armenia, Kyrgyzstan and such – will raise a Russian’s eyebrow when mentioned as potential holiday destinations. So if you had asked me a year ago where I would go on vacation in the next 12 months and given me limitless options, I am not sure Latvia and Estonia would have cracked my top 100. And yet, in the first week of September and all thanks to a little Irish girl, there I was, on a 90-minute Air Baltic flight to Riga. I guess the PR campaign worked!

And now I get to report to you my own take on the place so skillfully badmouthed by Linda that she got me to spend my fast-devaluating rubles there 😉

In short: I loved it. Riga was lovely, with small-town charm yet cosmopolitan air befitting a larger international city. And the bit of anti-Russian nastiness aside, so were the Latvians (when they didn’t ask me where I was from). Food was good, prices – reasonable, architecture – beautiful, downtown crowd – diverse, transport – efficient, customer service – friendly, WiFi – fast (on a bus!!!) and the anti-Russian tour guide – knowledgeable about the city’s cultural legacy. Absolutely gorgeous weather made everything even better, and as a bonus Linda seemed to know every watering hole and barkeep in town.

Here are the highlights of my two-day Riga trip:

  1. The Balsams.

If there is one thing that I might forever associate with Riga, it’s that black, viscous, 45%-alcohol liquor made from 24 kinds of plants. I haven’t tasted anything like it before or since.  It is … interesting. And strong! Linda, a doll that she is, documented my facial contortions as I sipped the original, liquorish-ish version for the very first time, at the very aptly named Black Magic Balsams. The verdict? Hmmmm…not for me. However, I did take to the slightly milder – only 35%! – but very flavorful black currant iteration of this local specialty, which I subsequently repeatedly requested in bars around town. By the way, according to legend, Russian Empress Catherine II was cured by Riga’s Black Balsams when she fell ill on a visit to Latvia back in mid-1700s.

  1. Renaissance Old Town.

Riga 1-5 Old Town Main SquareRiga 2-3-horz Old TownI always like wandering the cobblestone streets of old cities. Riga did not disappoint, with houses, churches and great halls dating back to early 1600s. Here’s a fun bit of history, courtesy of our walking tour/Wikipedia “The first known Riga Cathedral organ was the largest in the world, but it was lost in 1547 during a fire. In the 16th century, the Cathedral Church built a new organ, which sounded for 280 years.” Riga really is a perfect place to shoot The Three Musketeers or any other kind of historic adventure, with little set decoration required.  I also liked little touches of whimsy throughout the town, like the cat topper on a roof (photo at the top) that was intended as an insult by the owner of the house to his neighbor and trade guild rival. The cat was originally positioned to “spray” the neighbor’s house, but the municipal court ordered the owner to turn it around. Just imagine Judge Judy presiding over this case!

For an extra touch of Old Europe I recommend the touristy-but-totally-worth-it Rozengrals, stylized like an authentic medieval tavern, from the all-candle lighting to the [very reasonably priced] menu that features local fare of the days of yore.

Riga 4-1 Old Town-horz

  1. Nature!

Riga 3-2-horz Old TownDid you know that Riga has 26 parks and 81 squares, despite being a home to only 700,000 people? I didn’t either. But it does! The city’s green spaces are very well-kept, especially the central park. I also got to take in a cornucopia of forest goods, from herbs to mushrooms to wild berries, that covered the stalls of Riga’s Central Market.Riga Nature

  1. Nightlife.

Riga 8-2  Bars and nightlifeThe choreographed folk dancing at Folk Klubs absolutely blew me away. I was dying to join in, even though I’d look like a fool. Why don’t we do this in Russia? Actually, per our tour guide, Latvians hold on to their folk songs and dances particularly strongly, as for centuries of being in either German or Russian sphere of influence, these forms of expression were the main ways of preserving Latvian national identity. As such, they are cultivated and widely practiced by the young and the old alike. But if this kind of scene is not for you, Riga has plenty more to offer, from cheap expat dives to eccentric (to the point of WTF?) bars.

  1. Linda’s quirky little neighborhood.

Avotu Iela has seen a lot of grief on Linda’s blog, but I found it a-okay. I was pretty surprised to see so many two-story wooden houses 10 minutes from the center of a rather modern city, and I was delighted by the “weddings quarter” that made its home there – just imagine a whole street of sparkles, pink signs and puffy dresses!   

  1. Public art.

Riga 5-3-horz sculptures and artRiga’s squares display fun and funky sculpture installations, including the famous Bremen musicians (that would be the tower of animals), and a statue of Russia’s most illustrious poet and writer, Alexander Pushkin.

  1. Odd Latvian food at Lido.

Riga Latvian FoodI am all about trying new foods when I travel. Knowing this, Linda took me to the fairgrounds / entertainment complex called Lido, which houses a huuuuuuuge buffet of local dishes. The cold beet and cream soup with egg was something interesting, and not at all like its Russian cousin borscht. The pickled herring came in a wide range of mustard-, sour cream- and mayo-based sauces. But my favorite dish was the crispy, crouton-crusted, bacon-stuffed chicken, which went perfectly with dill cream sauce (this combination is a surefire way to my heart) and awesome Latvian light beer. And the bill for this huge plate of stuff you see here didn’t even crack €13!

  1. Impressive display of Art Nouveau architecture – but that’s deserving of its own post, which will be coming up next!


  1. That gorgeous old town is enough to make me want to visit the city! Great pictures, I love the ones at #3. I’ve never had beet soup although it does seem interesting *googles a recipe*. Eating it cold sounds rather weird though.

    • I bet most search results directed you to borscht, right? This was nothing like it, beet component aside. Borscht it hot and hardy and usually has a meat broth base and no eggs. This was… funky.

      Re: architecture, Riga has a great mix of super-old (Renaissance), old (Art Nouveau) and new (modern), so it feels “complete,” diverse and interesting.

      • Actually I searched the recipe in Romanian because we do love cream soups, haha. Found a rather tasty one, I’ll try it after I’d gone food shopping. Also found the Latvian one, it sounds easy enough to make, but I still don’t know if I’d like it or not. Gotta try it when I have guests over. 😉

  2. Your version of Latvia certainly looks prettier than Linda’s! But why am I not surprised that she knew every watering hole in town? 😉

    That chicken!! I’ve just had brekafast and now I’m hungry again!

  3. Have you counted all of the 11 brides shops in those 50 meters of Avotu? 🙂 Have you seen the shop for plus sizes that has on display the same leopard print dress since March? 😀

    • OMG are you for real? HOW DID I MISS THIS???!!!
      If I had more time I totally would have gone in at least one of the stores. They were so over the top!

      • Have you tried the white cold soup? and now in Lido there is kārstvīns, mulled wine, which is amazing! and also the warm fruit juices (I’m not sure if you have something similar in Russia) and there’s one Lido, in front of where I live, that is open 24/7 and you can have an amazing all you can eat breakfast for 4euros 😀

        • You’re killing me. What is white cold soup? And what is kārstvīns?? I dont care what it is, I WANT IT ALL NOW!!!

          I actually felt really bad at Lido bc there was no way I could finish everything, and it just seemed so wasteful, and I wanted to try even more stuff.

          We dont do warm juice here (mulled wine – yes, in parks and restaurants). Here people walk down the street drinking cold beers in the middle of a snow storms 🙂

          • you guys have got compote which is similiar to fruit punch. plus Russians have a weird hatred against cold drinks in cafesand restaurants. its incredibly hard to explain to a waitress that you need a drink with ice… she will worry you may catch cold and bring you warm juice instead!
            that spread of food on the picture looks like typical Russian cuisine to me….

          • There was really nothing Russian about it, and trust me, I expected it to be. I thought the beet soup was gonna be just like borscht but cold (not AT ALL), and in Russia herring comes marinated, in olive oil and some herbs. Not mustard and such. It was fun to experiment.

  4. A very sweet tourist-orientated travelogue but I’m afraid I prefer(red) Linda’s more incisive but frequently tongue-in-cheek appraisal. (and I’m Latvian, but from the far abroad).

  5. Exposed, I don’t think so, a quick visit and you believe you know Riga. Go and live there for several years and then if you still believe, use the word exposed. Linda’s tounge in cheek view of Riga is spot on, from someone who has lived there several years.

    • I think to most people it was pretty obvious that my “expose” was also tongue in cheek, at least where it referenced Linda’s “negative” portrayal of Latvia. It was primarily a framing device. And yes, I understand there’s a difference between visiting somewhere and living there, which I concede to Linda in comments, but I saw and experienced a lot of great stuff while in Riga, and wanted to put the spotlight on that.

  6. Ha, this cracks me up after reading all of Linda’s posts. Living and visiting are obviously two different beasts, but I was honestly sold on the fast WIFI on buses.

  7. You are right about many things just wondering about a few:

    Food was good? I used fill my suitcases with food when I would come back to Latvia to get through the winter.

    prices – reasonable. True, but for the standard of living very high.

    architecture – beautiful, Yes, for sure.

    downtown crowd – diverse. Yes, some pale blond people wore hats, others did not
    transport – efficient. YES
    customer service – friendly, yeah maybe at TGIF
    WiFi – fast (on a bus!!!) – SUper fast wifi for sure

    • Food was indeed good, though the things I enjoyed the most were kind of an international fare – linga took me to this great burger place where I had avocado and I think pineapple on it (soooo good), and I had bacon, potatoes and bloody marys for breakfast – also a winner.

      Prices I compare to Moscow and other European cities. I thought they were definitely on the low end. Btw, I went to Tallinn right after (the next post) and OMG it’s SOOOO EXPENSIVE!

      Downtown seemed to have a good mix of locals and foreigners, young and old. That’s not always the case in these kinds of areas, which can often be dominated by tourists. Diversity can be of different stripes 🙂

  8. Right! I’ve got to go now. I think LInda made everything up so that we wouldn’t see the nice bits. I even tried to make her stay in Latvia so that I could visit her. She wasn’t having it and Ha! Now I know why….!

  9. Why do you feel you have to take on Linda? Why do you write so much about her? Do you fancy her? Is that really it? Why else would someone go on about someone else so much? Really, your piece is very humorous. Thank you for all the laughs. (At you not with you!)

    • The purple thing? It’s the cold beet soup! Definitely worth trying… with a small tea spoon 😉
      I know I am guilty of undoing two years of Linda’s fine work…

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  12. thank you for great post about my city and country. Despite some negative experiences, unfortunately we have them in any country, you did not see Latvia as the last place to go and Latvians as total monsters ( women) and fools (men, mainly because many of them has name Janis). For me it is the best place to live, despite all problems we have there and holes on the roads.


    • Hi Guna! I really did have so much fun in Riga, and it is SUCH a gorgeous city. It totally blew my mind! And (the whole Russian business aside) people were really pleasant and helpful. My only regret is that I didnt meet a single Janis 😦

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