After visiting on our honeymoon, Riga became one of David and my favorite cities. Compared to the other Baltic capitals, Riga seemed more lived-in than Tallinn, and more lively than Vilnius. Despite visiting in the pouring rain, we made the most of our two days and three nights in the city, exploring Old Town, the Central Market, and the opposite Art Nouveau and Agenskalns districts. We left Riga, headed west towards Kuldiga and the Kurzeme coast, excited to return at some undecided point in the future.
In the nearly two years we spent away from Riga, we made some grand pipe dreams. Riga remained etched in our memories alongside other favorite cities like Tbilisi, Georgia and Sarajevo, Bosnia. The plan was to find a cute wooden house across the Daugava from Old Town, either in Agenskalns or Kipsala, renovate it (too much HGTV, clearly), and open a guesthouse where our friends’ children could come and work in the summers.*
While our future plans may have become more realistic recently (dog shelters around the world are obviously more practical than guesthouses, right?), the allure of the city remained. So when scouting flights for our May trip in Ukraine, it was a no-brainer to fly into Riga for a couple days at the beginning before getting into uncharted Ukrainian territory.
Cut to the week or so before we leave – and it’s Murphy’s Law in this hippie homo household. I’ve got a viral infection, one of the senior dogs is sick (per usual), and we’re worried in general about leaving home with our affairs in such a sad state. By sheer will or wishful thinking, our dog recovered quickly, and my fever broke enough for us to get on a plane for twenty four hours, stopping in Chicago and Frankfurt before finally arriving in Riga, Latvia.
By the time we cabbed it to our airbnb (because we don’t usually have the fortitude for public transportation after traveling for a day), we were exhausted. We had the same host and stayed in the same building as on our honeymoon, but in a larger apartment to accommodate us and our friend, Gloria, who was arriving the next day. When our host told us of the neighborhood’s new Maxima (a Baltic and randomly also Bulgarian supermarket chain), I knew things in Riga had changed. David took a nap while I went out to get supplies and marvel at the new supermarket – the same retailer that I predicted would eventually drive local markets out of business – located directly across from the shabby and lovely Agenskalns market. I bought cheese, vegetables, and fruit from the latter, but resorted to the ultimate convenience of dehydrated vegetable broth and minute rice from the Maxima. We made a quick meal of veggies and rice in broth and reveled in ambien-induced sleep, panacea for the thirty-something jet lag-sufferer.
The main reason we were in Riga was for the Riga Marathon. We woke early the day after our arrival to pick up bibs at the Expo before Gloria arrived, but neither one of us were really feeling it. I was just over my vicious bug, and David was debilitated from our long day of travel, so we weren’t excited to run. Actually, that’s an understatement. As it would happen, neither one of us would run the next day, so going to the marathon expo was basically an excursion to pick up our free t-shirts.
We spent another two days in Riga. Gloria, our esteemed travel companion, fell in love with the outside of the modern National Library of Latvia, but it was closed and we couldn’t enter. We wandered through Old Town looking for a place to eat food not laden with cream sauces or based around game meat to remarkably little avail. The food in Riga, save that which we made in our apartment, was unilaterally swimming in butter and dill, even when masquerading as a margherita pizza.
Compared to when we visited in 2015, the Old Town and the Art Nouveau Districts were swimming with tourists. Encountering a place that is actually busy with tourists is not something we’re accustomed to – we rather prefer to be the only tourists in the village, as in Osh, Kyrgyzstan or Paramaribo, Suriname. But the crowds don’t bother me as much when I feel like the place has retained some of its local flavor despite the crashing tsunami of mass tourist Disneylandification.
But I didn’t feel that rawness in Riga this time that I had felt back in 2015. Old Town Riga felt like Old Town Tallinn, but with more stag parties and less polish. The tourists were there, albeit perfunctorily to get shitfaced and make asses of themselves. They got in the way of how I like to enjoy a place, by surrounding myself with its natural smells, sounds, and sights (even though that typically involves a lot of exhaust fumes and second hand smoke).
Our time in Riga this year is the first time we’ve returned to a place. I won’t say it didn’t live up to my expectations, because we had an absolutely lovely time there (Old Riga from the Latvian Academy of Sciences remains one of my favorite city views in the world) but Riga was markedly different since we first visited. We happened to revisit Tbilisi, Georgia on this trip as well, but found that despite the incredible increase in tourism, we still loved it every bit as much as we did in 2014.
I think the reason behind the differences in our Riga experiences is in part situational and in part due to our recent travel experiences. Riga in 2015 was still novel – since then we’ve visited places much farther off the tourist trail, and developed a somewhat misanthropic travel style. Riga was also experiencing a rare September Baltic monsoon when we first visited, and allowed us to traipse around the city without having to deal with other building gawkers. We didn’t mentally prepare ourselves for a changed Riga, and thus expected something different. In fact, I think seeing how Riga had changed allowed us to alter our expectations for Tbilisi, where we had an unequivocally wonderful time.
This is the trouble in returning to places. I have a tendency to tie experiences to places way past their expiration dates. If the place I live in is changing dramatically, then why shouldn’t I expect other places to change as well? It’s romantic to think about places we’ve been and hope for them not to change, thereby forever preserving whatever memories we have of it as permanent. Truth is, though, it is by being witness to a place’s evolution that allows us to truly know its character behind the tourist gloss. So despite my relative disappointment in our time in Riga, I can’t wait to go back again in the future to see what else happens in Riga, the pearl of the Baltic.
If you haven’t visited Riga, please don’t take this post as a reason not to go. Riga is a wonderful city with plenty to offer both mainstream tourists and those who stray a bit off the path. For the latter type, I recommend staying outside of Old Town – I particularly like Agenskalns and the Moscow neighborhoods. Iveta, our host in Riga in both 2015 and 2017, has some amazing flats in Agenskalns – you can see her listings here.
As for some things to do in Riga, I think the view from the top of the Latvian Academy of Sciences is incomparable (see L). Granted, I did not go up any of the church towers in Old Town because I could not be bothered (also boo to elevators up medieval church towers). Shop for produce and souvenirs and eat great street food (Uzbek bakeries for the win) at the Centraltirgus, and try to not get shivved at the Latgales Market. There are some great examples of Soviet Modernist architecture in the city, and though I didn’t go see it personally, the former diesel engine factory in Sarkandaugava looks amazing.
*Applications for summer study abroad with the hippie homos in Riga (or, free help and NO we will not provide health benefits) will be open around Summer 2025.