The Laima Clock
Want to meet a friend in Riga? Chances are they’ll suggesting meeting at the Laima Clock. This distinctive timepiece was erected in 1924 with the aim of ensuring that Riga’s residents got to work on time. Until that time they would have relied on clocks on the many church towers which might not all have told the same time.
The clock originally carried the name of the city council member who had initiated the project, Veckalns, and was on a simple metal stand. Its association with the country’s biggest manufacturer of chocolate started in 1936, and although under Soviet rule it was used to display political information (ideology?) it was renovated and restored to its 1930s appearance in 1999. Its position on an open square between the Freedom Monument and the old town and next to many tram routes has no doubt contributed to its popularity as a meeting point, as has local tradition. When we arranged to meet local friends Inguna and Janis for a day out of Riga, this was the spot they proposed – perfect for our location in an old town hotel and their need to be able to pick us up in their car.
The Laima chocolate company, by the way, took its name from the feminine deity of fate in Latvian mythology and was established in 1870. From time to time the company arranges meetings record attempts, such as on the 3rd of May 2010 when a so-called “Love Minute” saw 2,500 people gathered here. People released red balloons, kissed each other and shared good wishes, setting a new meeting record for the Laima Clock.
Next tip: The Freedom Monument
Drink Riga Black Balzams
This traditional drink from Riga is presented to tourists as a must-try and found in many bars as a shot or part of a cocktail. Yes, it is part of your Riga experience but no, you are most likely not going to love it from the very first moment. People have to acquire the taste for this stuff which is consistency and taste somewhere between Jagermeister and engine oil (closer to engine oil in my opinion...). Surely a good ingredient for food and cocktails, but it's not going to become my favourite shot.
The official place to try it is Balzambars in the former barracks building at Torna Iela (see separate tip for that). There, you will also get some suggestions like a softer blackcurrant/balzams schnapps or cocktails containing the black stuff. What you will surely not get there is the secret recipe which has been passed on from generation to generation and only two people at the same time really know it.
Labietis Craft Beers
As a Real Ale drinker, I have become resigned over the years to drinking Pilsner-style lagers during my visits to eastern Europe. I don't mind them, some of them are quite good, but it would be nice to have some variety.
So, before our trip to Riga in December 2014, I was heartened to read in "Riga In Your Pocket" that Latvia is now home to a growing number of microbreweries producing a wide range of craft beers.
One of these breweries is Labietis; a Riga-based microbrewery with the tagline of Alus Ar Raksturu ("Beer with Character").
I stumbled across Labietis' beer stall while wandering around the Vegetable Pavilion at Riga's Central Market. Although I was unable to sample the beers at the stall, the helpful girl behind the counter talked me through the range of beers (which is pretty extensive!) and furnished me with a pocket guide that listed and described each of the beers in English.
She also showed me the location of Labietis' brewery/pub on the map and explained how to get there. It is located on Aristīda Briāna and can easily be reached by catching tram #11 which heads in the direction of Riga Zoo. Alas, we didn't have time to visit the pub during this trip.
Instead, I purchased 3 bottles of their beer to drink in the hotel room during our stay. I opted for:
Mežs (Forest) - described to me as being one of the brewery's most popular beers and flavoured with juniper berries. This 5.5% reddish coloured beer (made from wild eastern European Kazbeg hops according to the beer guidebook) was my least favourite of the three. It was ok, but not as refreshing as I expected it to be.
Baltais Zvirbulis (White Sparrow) – the girl on the stall described this as being similar to Belgian Leffe Blonde. That's a fair description, although it reminded me more of Hoegaarden. A very refreshing 4.8% wheat beer, flavoured with lemongrass and coriander, and produced from Wakatu hops. It was very easy-drinking and I enjoyed it a lot.
Lielais Kristaps (Legendary Ferryman of Riga) – the girl on the stall described this 7.2% porter as tasting like a strong espresso coffee. The guidebook described it as having a roasted taste and a chocolate aroma. I couldn't describe it any better myself. This was a delicious, strong, coffee-tasting beer, ideal on a cold winter's evening.
I didn't have time to purchase or sample any more of Labietis' beers on this trip, but I have flicked through the guidebook to learn more about their range. There are several beers with interesting names and ingredients, such as:
Dravnieka Atraitne (Bee Keeper's Widow) – a 12% braggot-style beer with honey and black plums;
Pipars (Pepper) – a 5.5% red coloured beer produced with Cayenne pepper;
Lenteņu Kāvējs (Tapeworm Slayer) – a 7.2% Black IPA;
Labietis produce a wide range of interesting craft beers. Be sure to visit their market stall in Central Market or their brewery/pub at Aristīda Briāna to sample their produce during your stay in Riga!!
Riga Black Balsam
Riga's Black Balsam is considered the Latvian National drink although I didn't notice any of the locals drinking it. I personally gave it a miss whilst I was there, having focused my altruistic support of the local economy by drinking their beers.
We did all get a sample though from our wonderful hostesses, Rita and Inguna. This was the blackcurrant version which is sweeter, and less alcoholic, than the original concoction. It made for a pleasant nightcap one evening as I was writing up this page.
- Arts and Culture
- Budget Travel
- Beer Tasting
Live Riga Tourist Offices
I found Riga a very welcoming city and one where I got the impression that cultural tourism is actively encouraged. To that end there are three "Live Riga" tourist information offices around the Old City, and a fourth "Welcome to Riga" office in the arrivals hall at the airport.
The main office is on the ground floor of the House of Blackheads (in the Town Hall Square) with the other two being at Kalku 16 (in the Old City centre) and at Pragus 1 (at the bus station).
We were fortunate in having our very own local guides but if you do need to use the Live Riga offices they offer a comprehensive range of tourist services including; hotel booking, public transport information and tickets, advice on things to do and see, local event tickets and much, much more.
As well as the freebie maps and leaflets they also sell guidebooks, postcards (and stamps) and souvenirs. The main languages spoken are Latvian, Russian, English and German and the useful website below has options in all four of these.
- Hiking and Walking
- Budget Travel
- Arts and Culture
A Very Useful Freebie Map
The city map pictured is a freebie produced by an innovative company called "Like A Local". As well as the street maps, a large one on one side and an Old City one on the other, it also has loads of useful practical information covering transportation, local customs and a short language guide. There are sections on nightlife, restaurants, shopping, tours and museums, all of which have been written-up from a local point of view.
The map is available from most hotels and from the Live Riga tourist offices.
There's also a smartphone app and the website below is pretty comprehensive too.
- Hiking and Walking
- Budget Travel
- Beer Tasting
Applied folk art and craft fair
The Applied folk art and craft fair in the Ethnographic Open-Air museum of Latvia is held every year on the first weekend of June when here comes more than 500 craftsmen. You can see and buy here very different art objects and things which are made by locals, knitted gloves and mittens, clay dishes, pottery, wicker baskets, decorations from wood and more.
If you decide to go there, bring with you cash, as many of local traders who're selling their stuff don't have post-terminals.
Notice for those who coming there by car:
if you're coming by car, leave it only at place where it's allowed. Usually when the fair is held everyone leave car on the road side and gets notice by police.
Usually the entrance fee is applied.
Read my tip about the museum and how to get there.
I've made more photos from the fair.
- Museum Visits
- Arts and Culture
One thing I like to do wherever I travel is to try the local spirit, however potent and unusual it may be, so when I read about Riga’s famous Black Balsam I was determined to sample it as soon as possible. I had my first on our very first evening in the city and also ended my time there with one in the pub where we had our farewell meal. I also had one at the Pharmacy Museum, where a shot was included in our tour price (see previous tip). And on all three occasions I liked it! So you can imagine that a small bottle also accompanied me home (it would have been larger had I not been travelling on to Tallinn first).
Black Balsam is a herbal liqueur made with a number of natural ingredients that are combined with vodka. It is pretty strong stuff - 45% abv. To me the taste was something like Jaegermeister or the Austrian Rossbacher, but with a hint of chilli perhaps. Very warming on a cold evening, and apparently considered good for colds and for digestive problems. There is also a blackcurrant version. Rita, our VT host in Riga, gave us all a small bottle of that to bring home and I enjoyed it too, though maybe slightly less than the original as it is a little sweeter. And there is Black Balsam Element, based on rum, which I also brought home in a small sample but am yet to taste.
Next tip: a good gift shop
So many snails!
On my first afternoon in Riga, as I sat with a coffee in the Livu Laukums, my eye was naturally drawn to the large bright yellow snail in one corner. Later that day I spotted a green one in the Ratslaukums and I was to come across several more during the course of my stay (apparently there were 14 in total). What is more, these snails were on the move – slowly (as is normal for snails) they made their way around the city, each day a little further from their original starting place.
These snails, I learned, were installed around Riga as a form of artists' protest, by an organisation known as “Art Needs Space”. Many of the city's artists feel that not enough attention is given to contemporary art and it has no place in the city's galleries. There has been talk of a dedicated contemporary art museum but little or no progress made on this – in fact, you could say that discussions have moved at snails’ pace! These colourful snails are the artists’ way of drawing attention to this fact. They certainly drew my attention, but it is a somewhat subtle form of protest and I wonder if it will have the desired effect? However, it was certainly true that the general public engaged with the project, posing for photos with the snails, stroking and hugging them, and even trying to speed up their progress with a shove.
Next tip: the so-called Cat House
- Arts and Culture
So many cats!
With the Cat House such a prominent and popular landmark in the city, perhaps it is not surprising that cats have become something of an emblem for Riga. You see them everywhere, and especially on souvenirs! Tea towels with cats, fridge magnets, sweets – I even spotted a giant cat outside one souvenir shop (see photo two).
We came across another “cat house” in the Art Nouveau district in Antonijas iela (see photo five). And of course, there are even some real cats! So if like me you are a cat lover, you will be happy in Riga.
Next tip: the Powder Tower
After visiting the castles of Sigulda and Turaida it was time for us to enjoy together what Rita described to us as a very typical Latvian form of entertainment – a barbeque and sauna (optional) near the coast.
We drove to Lilaste, north of the city, where a local family rents out space for such an activity. There was a log cabin which held the sauna, space to change if needed and a sitting area which was later to become a cosy refuge from the cool night air and the rather pesky midges (tiny biting flies). There was a barbeque, of course, a table and benches, and even a grown-up sized swing. I thoroughly enjoyed my brief go on the latter – a recaptured joy from my childhood, swinging high and seemingly leaving the world below!
The host family provide the meat (pork and chicken) which had been marinating for some time judging by the great flavours, but everything else must be brought by the visiting party. So an essential stop was made at the supermarket where we bought beer, wine, juice, water, more beer, salad vegetables, cheese, more beer, bread, tea and coffee – and more beer! On arrival some of us helped with washing and cutting the vegetables and a few others with table rearrangement and assisting at the barbeque, while others unpacked and set out the drinks. Most though helped simply by getting stuck into the beer – we had a lot to get through!
After enjoying the food we relaxed in the summer evening light, while a few ventured into the sauna. The sun sets very late here in May (it was still light well after 10.00 PM) and although cool enough by now to need a thin jumper, it was very pleasant. But as dusk fell those biting insects arrived and as always seemed to target some individuals more than others, myself among them. So we beat a hasty retreat to the little cabin, and while some set off on a walk to the beach the rest of us settled in for a cosy chat by the stove and a few more beers.
At midnight we set off back to the city after a very pleasant evening with friends, giving a big “thumbs up” to this traditional Latvian entertainment. But next time I will bring the insect repellent!
Next tip: leaving Riga for Tallinn
Have purely farmers lunch - Rye Bread
If you are starving and can not wait anymore for diner, thats would be for you. Try Latvian rye bread with smoked gammon!!! Usualy when i leave Latvia for a longer time i take one with me. Once i didn't and that was too bad - i never thought that one can miss bread as I did and my friends. It can last fresh for a weeks, but that doesnt mean that there is some preservatives in it. Try "Laca" bakery's bread and you will understand what I mean. You will find it shops or in bazaars.
- School Holidays
- Family Travel
- Food and Dining
Some Soviet relicts left
Not much soviet relicts left in Riga till this time. Even pavement from Soviet Union times is removed and new put in the central part of the city. But some things left and it is because (I guess) that Latvia was a part of Soviet Union and you can’t change it, it is a part of history. Near the Daugava river you can see old sculpture from Soviet Era.
Thing about Orthodox churches
It is as interesting to me as in other towns I see much different religion churches in old town. In Riga old town there are mostly Lutheran and some Catholic churches. The main Orthodox Russian Cathedral is in centre, Brivibas iela.
Surely, in Riga much Russians by percents live (about 35%), but I haven’t had that feeling as I heard mostly Latvian language around, only in old town some English, German...
Dragging the Yule log
I was at the Ethnographic Open Air Museum during the celebrations of the Winter Solstice. An old Latvian tradition on this day is to drag around the Yule log, which represents all problems and bad things of the previous year. I followed the crowd around for the two hours the celebrations took place. The Yule log was two small log of woods dragged around in a long rope. People were holding on to the rope as we moved on. At several occasions we stopped and there songs, dances and other rituals were taking place. In the end we stopped near the entrance to the museum and there the Yule log was burned. We all got a small stick (our bad things) to throw in the fire. It was very interesting to see this tradition, which I didn’t know anything before coming here.
Coming back to Old Town in Riga I saw a procession dragging around the Yule log as well but it was a bit different.
- Arts and Culture