Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Laure's Mystery Birthday Trip Continued

Q booked bus transportation to the second half of my Mystery Birthday Weekend. Q had hoped I would board the bus without knowing where we were headed - but I just couldn't do that. After some desperate pleading to learn our destination before setting foot on the bus, Q finally conceded and informed me that we're heading to Riga.

Riga? Where the hell is Riga? Ugh, I'm embarrassed of my limited knowledge of Eastern Europe. Thankfully the bus had free WiFi, allowing to learn a little bit about where we were headed during the three hour journey.
Taking a three hour ride south to Riga, Latvia

Riga is the capital of Latvia and the largest city in the Baltic States. It is famous for holding the highest concentration of German Art Nouveau architecture in the world. Just like Tallinn, Riga is another up and coming European destination. Much of Riga was bombed in WW2 but since its independence from the Soviet Unions the city has been rebuilt and restored. Today it has one of the most complete town centers in Europe. Similar to Estonia, it joined the EU in 2004 and joined the Euro Zone earlier this year. Darn - I was hoping to add a new currency to my collection jar.

Our bus stopped a short walk to the old town center, where our modest 15th century hotel was located. Our stay in Riga was short but Q had a packed 48 hours lined up.

Main Tourist Attractions

City Center Walking Tour
We started off our time in Riga with a free walking tour provided by Old Riga Free Tour through the old town. The guide was excellent. He was engaging, very knowledgeable and enthusiastic about sharing his city with the tour group. The tour lasted one and a half hours, hitting the highlights of the old town. I would definitely recommend this tour for someone's first visit to the city.
One of the better free walking tour we have taken.
At Līvu Square

Food Scene
Just like Tallinn, we were pleasantly surprised with the food in Riga -good quality at an affordable price. We were also easily able to find good eats outside of the city center. A short walk outside the city center is the food market, where venders spilled outside the large hall and onto the streets with fresh fruits, flowers, and other basic goods. Compared to Tallinn, we found that the food scene wasn't as varied in cuisines but I could imagine this changing as tourism grows.
Trying out Riga Black Balsam - a traditional Latvian herbal liqueur made with many different natural ingredients mixed in pure vodka
Conveniently some of the best Italian food was right next to our hotel at Domini Canes.
Soaking in the dusk sunlight during a late night dinner at Domini Canes
We satisfied our sweet teeth with a large variety of small pastries outside the city center at Kanela Konditoreja.
We're not the only tourists infiltrating the food market...

Art Nouveau Architecture and Museum
With a few free hours to spare we were able to explore the Art Nouveau buildings located just outside the city center. Many of the well preserved buildings are focused around Albert Street. Both of us enjoyed walking around the streets in search for the most impressive building. Right off Albert Street is the Art Nouveau Museum, which is more like a well preserved apartment fully furnished from the turn of the century, than a traditional museum. The museum is self guided with information sheets explaining each room. In our opinion, the museum is worth the visit if you're already in the area.
Elizabetes 10a & 10b, one of the most photographed buildings in the city.
Looking upward at the spiraling staircase before one enters the museum.
Transported back to the turn of the century inside the Art Nouveau Museum.

Getting Off the Main Tourist Path

Neighborhood Bike Tour
After learning about the history of the city center, it was time to learn about the rest of Riga via a bike tour. We took a three hour guided tour with the newly established company Riga Tour riding through Moscow district, Central Riga, past wooden traditional houses, the former Jewish ghetto, and past old cemeteries. The tour was a nice opportunity to increase our heart rate. But since we were on bikes much of the time, asking questions outside of the stops was difficult. Even still, it was a great excuse to get us comfortable with roaming around outside of the city center.
Biking through the Great Cemetery that been destroyed during the Soviet Era.
Caught sight of some interesting art promoting Latvia's culture.

Night Kayak Ride
After dinner we went on a night kayak tour from the main river to the former moat around the old town with Riga At Night Kayak Tour. We were the only ones scheduled for the evening so it ended up being a private tour. The tour began at 10 at night, which was still fairly bright outside in the summer. By the time we paddled toward the city center the sky was dark enough to enjoy the beautiful illuminated buildings and bridges. A bonus to our evening was spotting four river beavers along the river bed. According to our guide, we would have considered ourselves lucky to see three river beavers. As the tour ended shortly after midnight, it was a memorable way to enter my birthday as the highlight of our time in Riga.
Moving through the former city moat.

Just past midnight and officially one year older.

My overall impression of Riga was positive. I felt the city was safe, its people were polite, and getting around as independent travelers was simple in part because almost everyone spoke excellent English. The tourist industry seemed young and up-and-coming with enough established tours and sights to keep us busy for the weekend.

I couldn't have asked for a better birthday present. Q did a great job and really set a high bar. Now it's my turn to start planning his birthday.

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