What makes an underrated European destination the next big thing? After retiring from the gastronomical feasts in Western Europe, backpacking through the islands in Eastern and Southern Europe and exploring the design capitals of Scandinavia, you're left with that lesser-known sweet spot: The Baltics. Characterised by lush forests and cradled by the Baltic sea, the region's quiet renaissance in recent years has attracted discerning travellers who shy away from crowds while still enjoying typically European experiences around old towns, rich cuisine and romantic landscapes.
Latvia celebrates its centenary in 2018, which gives the country a well-deserved tick on bucket lists for the year ahead. Bordering Estonia to the north, Lithuania and Belarus to the south and Russia to the east, little is known about this Republic and its capital city, Riga, but that's about to change. 'I AM LATVIA', the central message of the centenary celebrations, is a bold move to introduce the country through cuisine, culture, and its most cherished asset, its people. If you're a travel bragger who's looking for the next Berlin, or a modern nomad setting your sights on a hidden gem, look no further than this Baltic beauty. Here are 10 ways you can experience Latvia.
1. Get intimate with Latvia's design scene through an&angel
The last thing you'd expect to bring home from a trip to Latvia is a glass dildo. But that's exactly what the forward-thinking element of the country's design scene is encapsulated in: A sleek, modern instrument of pleasure that also doubles as a conversational piece. Creative director Artis Nimanis is out to shift the perception of glass as a fragile material with an&angel, a homegrown brand that supplies crystal and glassware to restaurants and hotels in Latvia. A glass bicycle at Maison&Objet in Paris is just an example of their attempts at pushing the boundaries of glass.
2. Pick up foraged ingredients from Riga Central market
To understand a country's cuisine from the grassroots level, make a beeline for their main market. Latvia's grand dame was opened in the '30s and is now made up of five pavilions. The sprawling beast is home to wholesalers, farmers and regular folk who set up stalls by 8am to supply the 70,000 people who visit it daily. Items are priced roughly 20 to 30 percent cheaper than the supermarkets. Essential buys: Chanterelle mushrooms, rowan berries, cottage cheese with caraway seeds, pickled vegetables and smoked fish. Apart from Latvian specialties, you can also find spices from Central Asia as well as an Uzbek bakery.
3. Leaf through Latvia's literary scene
You know a bookstore takes its goods seriously when you're asked to put on gloves before touching anything. Located at the start of Miera iela street, Mr Page is akin to Singapore's BooksActually. Here, paper cranes hang in a stark white space of books, zines, magazines and "elegant amusements", as they call it. You can sip on tea by the window as Catullus' quotes grip your heart, or drop in on a day where a book reading or discussion is held.
For a literary institution that collects everything and anything that has been written about Latvia, the National Library doesn't disappoint. While this distinctly modern building by Latvian-American architect Gunārs Birkerts sticks out like a sore thumb among Riga's baroque skyline, its roots lie in a fairytale of a princess sleeping atop a glass mountain. What results is a castle of light rising from the river, a 12-storey cultural behemoth that houses exhibition halls, a concert hall and a conference centre. Indoors, its striking, sloped wall feature consists of books donated by Latvians, each one holding sentimental weight.
4. Tour through the highest concentration of Art Nouveau architecture in the world
Known as the Art Nouveau capital of Northern Europe, there are about 800 such buildings in Riga, rivaling those in other European cities like Paris, Brussels and Vienna. The highest concentration of buildings is spread out in Alberta street, Elizabetes street, Smilšu street and Strēlnieku street, where a guided walking tour is recommended. The Russian-born engineer and architect Mikhail Eisenstein (fun fact: He's the father of renowned Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein) and Latvian architect Konstantīns Pēkšēns are the main culprits. This architectural style reached its peak at the end of the 19th and 20th century, which saw characters topping the facades of buildings like a well-decorated cake. But instead of happy-clappy images, symbols of sorrow or grief are opted to reflect either the state of the architect's private life or society at the time. A bleak but beautiful example is that of a peacock, a symbol of prosperity — except this time, its feathers are down.
Return to the district at night to check out underground craft cocktail and shisha bar CLOUD NINE, an industrial grunge-meets-high society watering hole favoured by yuppies.
5. Wander through history in Riga's Old town
The words "old town" conjure up images of cobblestone streets, medieval architecture and buskers. Riga doesn't disappoint. In fact, it makes the UNESCO World Heritage Site even better with lesser tourists. Named as the European Capital of Culture in 2014, Riga's medieval core on the right bank of the Daugava river is where you'd love to get lost in. With a skyline dominated by church and cathedral towers, head to the top of St. Peter's Church for a bird-eye view of the capital. It's also a lesson in architectural styles — while it followed the style of Gothic architecture during the Middle Ages, it has since been remodeled twice to reflect Romanesque and Baroque features. Maza Pils street is home to the oldest medieval houses in Riga, affectionately known as The Three Brothers, standing since 1490. Photo opportunities are abound at the Swedish Gate, the only remaining entrance to Old Riga, as well as the Bremen Town Musicians, where you can rub the structures of the Brothers Grimm fairytale characters for good luck.
Locals spill onto the streets in cafes within two main areas: Dome square with the imposing medieval Riga Cathedral, as well as Līvu square, where you can spot the wrought-copper cat that stands playfully atop a building. Street art and graffiti hunters can look out for the 800sqm-large 'Pērkons Saule Daugava' by Latvian street artists, Rudens Stencil and Kiwie, as well as anecdotes such as "Modern love sucks" scrawled onto walls.
6. Eat your way out of the capital city
Destination dining in Latvia has two addresses: Bērzciems and Tērvete. While the former fringes the Baltic Sea in the north, the latter is closer to Lithuania. Bordering the Baltic sea, fish is a staple in Latvian cuisine, made even better when smoked. Yvette, a fisherman's wife from Dieninas — a cottage and restaurant located in the oldest fisherman's village in Latvia — will make sure you're fed to your heart's content, but not before you work for your meals by playing some child-like games. The 1890 cottage is a homely retreat, with Latvian poems hung on walls and scriptures promoting love, peace, respect and truth. After a meal of assorted fish soup, smoked bass and flounder and preserved sprat, lie on the large netted hammock in their garden.
Named after the co-owner's great-great-grandfather, Zoltners in Tērvete reinvents the bed-and-breakfast category into a countryside escape. Nestled in the middle of nowhere and close to farms and parks, you pull up into a paved, landscaped walkway where you might even encounter a fox. But a visual and gastronomic feast awaits. Surrounded by birch, oak, acorn and willow trees as well as a natural lawn, the restaurant, boutique hotel and event space is responsible for bringing down blood pressures with its relaxed vibe, thanks to its folky playlist which features the likes of Erin Rae and the Meanwhiles. This kid-friendly establishment also houses a microbrewery.
7. Join Riga's movement to collect Latvian contemporary art
If Miera iela is London's Brick Lane of Riga, then Āgenskalns on the left bank is the younger, underrated sister, like London's Dalston or Walthamstow. It's where you'll meet the likes of Eliza Aboltina after a stroll through Kalnciema market, which breeds a hotbed of artisanal purveyors. Showing off Riga's wooden architecture, the houses at Melnsila iela and Kalnciema iela have been restored, as with the Art Needs Space summer pop-up, which used to house a Soviet recording factory. Aboltina is part of the Art Needs Space initiative which collects and exhibits Latvian contemporary art. The chairman of its board, Jānis Zuzāns, has already started converting a 1910 cork factory into Zuzeum, which will house exhibition, creative and office spaces in less than two years' time. They've kicked things off by hosting an exhibition of Israeli art, as well as a Baltic design fair.
8. Indulge in contemporary Latvian cuisine
Little is known about Latvian cuisine. For a good introduction, head to Kolonade, an airy, contemporary respite in the gardens of the Latvian National Opera and close to the Freedom Monument and the Laima Clock. Start with dark rye bread — a staple of the Baltics —that's been jazzed up with cornflower, gooseberries and cranberries, best enjoyed with herbed butter. Ostrich is favoured in Latvia for its tender and juicy meat, with numerous ostrich farms dotted around the country. Kolonade has theirs chopped into tartare and topped with a slowly boiled egg and pearl onions.
In a small lane off a bustling street in the Old Town is where you'll find Restorãns 3, where Latvian cuisine comes to play in molecular gastronomy. Here, chefs embrace smoking, using juniper, birch and hay to enhance the flavour of locally-farmed meats and fish. Latvian childhood flavours are also deconstructed in a dessert of strawberries and condensed milk.
9. Shop at Riga's best concept stores
Riga's glam squad love BOLD, a year-old multi-label store that showcases the best of Latvian fashion. The two-storey shop also houses a café, where you chow on eclairs by pastry chef Anna Panna between trying on the latest frocks from denim darlings Deeply Personal or embroidered sportswear from KULT, BOLD's in-house brand. Pick up something pretty from Anna Fanigina, the brainchild behind jewellery brand Verba, which bears a Latin inscription in each piece. As multi-concept stores go, BOLD actively contributes to the community by holding fashion photography and art exhibitions as well as partnering with Riga Fashion Week.
For all things homeware, head to Riija, where you'll find uniquely Latvian items such as hand-woven linen, lampshades made out of dried seaside grass and candles incorporated with local wild flowers. Mugs from The Piebalga Porcelain Factory are must-have souvenirs with their quirky, crumpled paper-like form.
10. Go underground (literally) with Latvian DJs
Latvia's discerning music and arts lovers — or for the lack of a better word, 'hipsters' — consume culture at two main spots: One One and Fon Stricka Villa. One One and the club's new, less accessible offshoot, the underground One (think: Psy-trance raves), are home to electronic music lovers who enjoy the stripped down, unfussy spaces where Latvian DJs and producers Mr. Myster and Kodek roam. Fon Stricka Villa is a historical mansion that hosts music festivals, experimental performances and art markets where you can dig through crates of vinyl and support homegrown jewellery-makers. The regenerated building is a nod to the Free Riga movement, which was started to create urban value from neglected or unused buildings and factories.