Riga, the Scandic Moscow on the Baltic, has a sexy ring about it, a whiff of long-legged Latvian girls, slick oil traders, and northern sensuality.
Outsiders often say ‘Riga’ with a certain emphasis, a pause that accentuates its appeal to adventurers and romantics alike. Fortunately, today’s Riga, buzzing with festivals of all stripes, raffish nightclubs, Art Nouveau buildings and stylish residents, doesn’t disappoint. Slower to develop than Tallinn, the city only seems to have found its own stride in the last three years, as the economy boomed from EU accession and a more confident generation came of age.
Blessed, or cursed (depending on your point of view) with excellent flight connections, the city has turned into one of Eastern Europe’s hotspots, a Prague or Krakow of the North. Too hot, some might say, as the gaudy strip bars, sizeable ‘working girl’ scene, and trashy meatmarket discos are turning it into the ‘Bangkok’ of the North. Summertime is certainly a chance to see a particular expat mating frenzy at its peak! so go in the fall when the locals come back from holidays, and the testosterone levels are back to normal.
This bi-level hi-tech glam club seems to be another mainstream dance space on the surface, but start exploring the rooms behind the 2nd floor bar after a few drinks, and it turns into a more intimate space. Some Rigans even refer to the particular room in the club they hang out in at the club when talking of going out on the town. Packed with smacky babes, most of them freshly-tarted college girls, it’s best on Thursday nights, when our man, DJ Ai-va spins drummy hip-hop, mixing Lady Miss Sovereign’s ‘Love Me or Hate Me’ with Prodigy.
Nyets. Too mainstream on the weekends. Thuggish feel about the place that can be Godfather charming, but also scary. Boo.
Skolas 2 , Open: Thurs-Sat www.essential.lv
[CLOSED DOWN UNFORTUNATELY]
Pulkvedim Neviens Neraksta
Literally translated as ‘Nobody Writes the Colonel’ this underground-ish club is a Riga institution, and a beacon for the alternative scene since the mid 90s. The dark, industrial-style interior seems passe now, but the place can still rock! Especially Wednesdays, when it packs up with students and the DJs spin indie classics. Downstairs bar with its ‘love’ sofas and intimate dance floor tends to get wilder though.
Peldu 26/28. Open daily except for Sundays
Riga’s dockside bohemian district Andrejsala is the Berlin of the north, and Space:Garage is the gritty little jewel in its trashy tiara. It’s a garage, it’s small, it’s cramped and full of sexy sweaty people doing sexy sweaty things while DJs spin mad beats. Space:Garage has the air of an eternal afterparty. It’s where the night takes you after scoring from some guy in Andrejsala, where you dance until you exhaust yourself and end up sprawled out on some cheap bed with a newly acquired friend.
Nyets: Only open on Fridays.
Andrejostas Str 6
Open 22-06 Fridays, and sometimes Saturdays.
Talk about dive bars! This is a dive club: sleazy, sweaty, weird and yet friendly. Popular among very young and drunk Russians, with a Gorbachev room blasting Russian pop, and toughs in heavy jackets and shaved heads, this Wild East club recalls Riga in the early 90s, before the mall and fashion invasion. Still, your best bet for finding that ‘special someone’ late, late at night after all the other places have shut down.
Nyets. Prowling pros who might slip you a mickey later. Filthy toilets, and bad pop music soundtrack.
This is how most punters imagine Russia to be like: cages above the dance floor, waitresses in mini skirts and T-shirts that read “F*** Off”, and tough, bald guys drinking champagne with total babes. Two big dance floors, pumping techno music, E-ed out clubbers reclining on big leather couches, and you get the general picture. The club even has its own magazine, cheesy as it is. Next door to the club is 69, an upscale strip club in the New Russian style. Let your imagination run wild.
Nyets. Too many jealous boyfriends eager for a fight; too many speedy dancing girls; and bad techno beats that’ll harsh your mellow.
Riga’s dilapidated central tennis court clubhouse has been revived as the chic Meta Kafé. The interior is minimalist with a black-and-white chessboard theme, while the kitchen offers a tight menu of breads, salads and soups. The small space fills up on weekends, with DJs and bands playing dub, afro-beat, hip-hop and pop. The crowd are savvy artistic types, a spill-over from the nearby Andrejsala district.
Kronvalda Blv 2b
Open 10-22 Mon-Thurs, 10-05 Fri-Sat.
This place is carbon copy of Fidel’s bar in St Petersburg… but then again, there’s only so much you can do with a Cuban theme. You know what you’re gonna get before you enter – average-priced cocktails, Mexican beer, sexy bar staff, the top end of the boho crowd and the bottom end of the glam set. That said, it’s one of the better bars in the Old Town to chill in.
Nyets: A little overpriced. The theme is a bit dated.
Open 12-02 weekdays, 12-04 Fri & Sat.
It’s close to Andrejsala so this American eatery has become a de facto local when the munchies strike. Its walls adorned with American kitsch, this two-floor restaurant serves up filling omelettes (sometimes a bit too squishy!), burgers, crunchy fries and delicious tuna melts. Prices are reasonable and the atmosphere is quite chilled. You could easily spend an afternoon here doing pretty much nothing, and not be bothered.
Pulkveza Brieza 2. Open 8 am – midnight
Chain of sleek, minimalist Japanese restaurants in Riga that are on the vanguard of the city’s sushi craze. One of their restaurants even has a conveyor belt from which you can grab platters. The choice of sushi is not as varied as in Moscow but the quality is reasonable, and some of the noodle soups are excellent. So is the tempura.
It’s fun to switch gears while in the somewhat sterile Galerija Centrs in Old Riga, and head into quirky Dada for a meal, with its crooked furniture hanging from the ceiling and wacky Art Nouveau pieces tacked to the wall. The Mongolian Barbecue, where chefs grill your meat in minutes, is excellent though, and so is the service.
Audeju 16. Tel. +371 71043333
Massive yet cosy restaurant in the trendy Albert Hotel, that’s in Riga’s famous Art Nouveau district. It serves a great selection of international food—including an excellent breakfast buffet for just 5Ls—in a stylish, business atmosphere softened somewhat by warm fall tones and fluffy cushions.
Art Nouveau District
While Barcelona’s Art Nouveau buildings are all the rage, Riga’s collection of sensual, turn-of-the-century architecture is little known outside the Baltics. That’s partly because most were in complete disrepair until recently, and they hadn’t been developed like Barcelona’s, with cafes, rooftop restaurants and boutique hotels. Recently, the area has been spruced up, and some buildings have been converted into hotels and academic faculties like the Riga Law School, so it is well worth a walk around.
p.s. Some of the houses were built by Mikhail Eisenstein, father of director Sergei Eisenstein.
Around Elizabetes, Alberta and Strelnieku Streets
Local designers hang their wares at Istaba, a two-level boutique shop/gallery/café. The collection features jewellery, home art, unique souvenirs, local music and clothing. Artists are invited to participate in regular themed exhibitions, which are displayed on the back wall. The upstairs café serves a great late.
Kr.Barona iela 31a
Ph. +371 7281141
We’re not sure what’s better – Goija’s enormous tea menu, or its exotic opium den atmosphere. This cosy low-lit hideaway is the perfect spot to chill after a day of architecture tourism in the Art Nouveau district. Inspect your tea leaves under a magnifying glass before selecting, then relax in a couch and play board games while it brews.
Open 14-24. Closed Sundays.
Open Air Ethnographic Museum
You might not sense it if you spend your weekend pubcrawling, but Latvia’s got a strong and colorful peasant culture that survived almost five decades of Soviet occupation. The drindl skirts, headscarves, silver bracelets and other folk costumes are now only saved for special occasions, for the annual Song Festival, or midsummer night. This 100 hectares of land recreates Latvian life as it once was with its tiny fishing village, handicrafts, windmills, beer taverns and craftsmen of all stripes. It might sound corny, but it isn’t! It’s actually quite life-affirming, especially if you visit on a hangover.
Brivibas Gatve 440. www.virmus.lv
This historic beach area, 32 km long, is only a 45 minute train ride from Riga’s Central Station, or a half hour drive. Once the favored destination of the Soviet elite (Kruschev and Brezhnev had dachas there, and there was even a resthouse for cosmonauts!) it still retains a whiff of its erstwhile glamor. Riga’s beaumonde stroll down its main drag on sunny summer afternoons, while the charming, Art Nouveau wooden houses near the beach, lend it a romantic air. The place really comes alive during the New Wave festival in July, when Moscow’s flamboyant pop stars descend on the place for a weekend of campy glam.
MORE HOT PLACES TO BE…