Just like any other plugged-in 14-year-old, Riga is getting hipper by the minute. Breaking away from Russia’s control in 1991 and joining Europe in May 2004, the biggest of the Baltic capitals is sprucing up its staid Communist image at breathtaking speed.
Cafes, designer hotels and boutiques of all sorts are racing to claim space on Riga’s cobbled streets, lined with a mix of medieval architecture, wooded buildings and the highest percentage of Art Nouveau buildings in the world. The bustling nightlife, the architecture and the city’s location—tucked into the banks of the Daugava River and only 12 miles from the Baltic Sea’s endless stretches of white sand—is making Riga the new hot weekend destination for in-the-know Western European holidaymakers.
WHERE TO SHOP
East meets West is the best way to sum up the fashion scene, which has turned its attention to the prevailing purchasing power of the city’s Russian population. Brands like Armani (51 Elizabetes Street) and Max Mara (24/26 K. Barona Street) have settled into the fashionable Bergs Bazaar quarter located in the newer part of the city. High-end multibrand retailers are also settling into the neighborhood. Blow (16 K. Barona Street) and Skala (36 Terbatas Street) offer lines by Latvian designers such as Baiba Ripa, as well as high-end international labels like Miu Miu, Lanvin, Alexander McQueen, Marni and Prada, to name a few. High-end denim labels are a must for retailers, who stock shelves with brands like True Religion, Seven For All Mankind and Diamond Jeans. “The fashion scene here is very divided between extremely high-end and fast-fashion chains that are just opening doors here,” says Alexander Bibergal, a high-end knitwear designer who spends his time between Riga and his showroom in L.A. “Low-end labels are popular with the younger generations or for people with less income.”
Although Latvia has yet to jump into the fast-fashion race with its own labels, Scandinavian chains including Cubus and Bik Bok are already making waves here, capitalizing on close proximity to the Baltic states. Meanwhile, Zara and Mango have already snapped up valuable space in trendy shopping districts. Miss Sixty and Energie are adding the last touches to their soon-to-open stores, and H&M is slated to open here next year. Fashion, funky cell phones and cool jewelry aren’t always at the top of shopping lists for nature-loving Latvians, however. Flowers—yes, the real thing—are the must-have accessory. People of all ages walk through the streets with colorful bouquets bought at one of the many 24-hour flower markets that stay open all year.
WHERE TO GO OUT
When it comes to latte, leave it to the Latvians. The humming of house music from the I Love You bar at 9 Aldaru Street is countered by hammering from a nearby construction site where a new cafe is preparing to open. The number of cafes opening in Riga seems countless. In Bergs Bazaar, Light (84/1 Dzirnavu Street) and D’Artanjans (13 Marijas Street) offer contemporary lunch and dinner selections and buzz into the evening with an eclectic bar scene. For the bold, Balsam Shooters (local herbal liquor mixed with grapefruit juice) are a specialty. As for fine cuisine, the well-heeled should head across the river to the Factory, which offers caviar and catches from the Baltic Sea, as well as a panoramic view of Riga’s skyline. Riga’s thriving nightlife is also taking off. Hedonia 55, at 55 Dzirnavu Street; Sarkans, at 10 Stabu Street, and B-Bars, 2 Doma Laukums, are some of the newest additions. But for those who wish to kick up their heels into the early morning hours, nightclubs such as Essential and Fashion Club throb until dawn.
WHERE TO SLEEP
The rapidly increasing number of tourists has created an accommodations shortage in Riga. But hotels are popping up by the dozen—each trying to outdo the other with modern designs and added perks. For luxurious Latvian hospitality, one should look to Hotel Bergs, located at 83/85 Elizabetes Street, in the Bergs Bazaar, at the edge of the new town. Each room is decorated with only natural Latvian materials such as wood, stone and linen. The Bergs’ restaurant also serves up some of the best food in town. The old town also has a handful of boutique hotels. The Ainavas, at 23 Peldu Street, boasts 22 rooms, each decorated with a different color scheme, while the Centra Hotel on Audeju Street goes for a minimalist design look.