Get The Best Of Riga In 48 Hours
Its red-brick facade adorned with carved saints, a lapiz-blue astronomical clock and gold weather vane, Blackheads House is the standout architecture of Riga’s Old Town. But the building isn’t actually old at all – dating back to 2001, it’s an extremely convincing replica, built using blueprints that survived the 1334 original destroyed by WWII bombs.
Once a fraternity house for unmarried German merchants, it was legendary for its raucous feasts, and it’s easy now to imagine fur-clad 14th-century party boys stumbling across the snow-dusted town hall square and disappearing into the cobbled lanes of the city’s Gothic core. Follow in their footsteps past Rozengrals, an ancient wine vault turned medieval-themed restaurant, and another restaurant named 1221, after its year of construction, but better known as The blue house with cows’. Painted in similarly pastel shades are Riga’s oldest dwellings, nicknamed the Three Brothers. One thin, one fat, one slightly receding, all the siblings look to be made from iced gingerbread, and are all slightly on the wonk.
The name of Latvian design store Riija translates in local language as ‘threshing barn’. Historically this building was at the heart of rural Latvian farmsteads; the place where precious edible wheat was sorted from the chuckable chaff. Here the word is cleverly reapplied – only the best local design makes it onto the shelves of this high-ceilinged, undeniably bam-like concept store.
Latvians are used to working with their hands, says co-owner Sarmite Stabulniece; she feels things made this way have more heart, more energy. Traditional examples of this culture of craftsmanship include the richly-patterned Lielvarde belt, and black or ‘bumt’ clay ceramics. Elsewhere well-dressed customers examine picture frames made using Latvian wood, boxes of clay dominoes inscribed with folk symbols, and skilfully drawn temporary tattoos showing Baltic wildlife from bear to lynx. Despite honouring local heritage, this collection remains resolutely contemporary, and never strays towards twee.
One of the appetisers at Restorans 3 is a small bowl of pine cones, picked in the summer while small and nutrient-rich, and cooked in sugar syrup. They taste like the trees smell, bringing to your mouth the sensation of walking among conifers. This one dish typifies the restaurant’s philosophy – it was the first in Latvia to serve wild food, much of it foraged from the forests.
Chef Juris Dukalskis, emerging from the kitchen with his sleeves rolled to reveal heavily tattooed arms, is happy to acknowledge the inspiration of New Nordic cuisine, particularly Copenhagen’s Noma. Restorans 3’s interior also draws from nature, its exposed brickwork and earthy paint shades offset with framed drawings of birds and lamps like oversized wicker baskets. This muted look allows the dishes to take centre stage, and some are presented with theatrical flair. Onion bread has the appearance of a parsnip just pulled from the earth, and a dish of smoked beaver with black garlic and Jerusalem artichoke arrives on a bed of juniper, set alight in crackling flames.
Etched into window glass and swirled into the restaurant’s 3 D ceiling is Hotel Bergs’ distinctive logo: the cabbage. Though the pale-brick Art Nouveau building is now surrounded by restaurants and shops, it was built on top of a cabbage field. First used as an apartment block, and comandeered by the Soviets during their occupation, the hotel’s style blends elements of historic and contemporary Latvia. Walls are hung with portraits of the hotel’s founders, the Bergs, plus monochrome works by modern Latvian artist Ilmârs Blumbergs.
Dotted along the corridors are imported African wood carvings, while bedrooms feature hand-woven local linens. The hotel’s communal spaces are alluring, too. The restaurant, where breakfast is served, is bathed with light in the morning, making it an inviting place to linger over the freshest of bread, dark rye and scattered with seeds. After dusk, order an aperitif and take up a fireside position in one of the lobby’s plush velvet armchairs.