15 Fun Things to Do in Riga, Latvia this Spring

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Spring in Latvia can feel a bit like chasing a unicorn. You want so desperately to catch it, but can’t be sure it even exists. Winter starts in November and by the time March rolls around, it can be hard to remember that there are in fact other seasons throughout the year. But slowly, surely, the days grow steadily longer and the snow melts away. April is the great awakening, when people once again venture outside and buds appear on the trees. Then after a few days of brilliant sunshine, spring rumbles forth like a runaway train. May is the best time to visit Latvia, when the skies are blue and flowers are plentiful, while June tends to be cool and rainy. But no matter the weather, there’s always something fun to do. Here’s my list of the top ways to make the most of the spring season in Riga!

Shake Off Winter’s Chill at Egle 

Egle can be found under the white tents in the bottom center of this photo.

Egle Riga

Egle Beer Garden is hands-down my favorite spot in Old Riga. In all my travels across Europe, I’ve yet to come across another venue that provides such quality musical entertainment for the price of a €3 beer. Local acts perform under the tents each night of the week; you’ll hear everything from Latvian folk tunes to 90s rock covers and 50s swing. There’s a large selection of Latvian beers on tap, and the food is surprisingly good. (Go for the pork belly.) And don’t be put off by cold temperatures – blankets and heat lamps will keep you warm even on the chilliest spring night!

Wade through a Sea of Blue in the Great Cemetery

small blue early spring flowers

Great Cemetery Riga

Spring’s first flush spreads across Riga’s Great Cemetery, where thousands of tiny blue flowers carpet the ground between gravestones. Internet research tells me these early spring flowers are Siberian Squill, which thrive in places with a cold winter. Latvia certainly fits that bill! The cemetery itself is a vast park dotted with the crumbling remains of 18th and 19th century tombs which survived the bulldozers of the Soviet era. In the morning and afternoon hours, you’ll find lots of locals wandering through the park, pushing baby strollers and walking dogs. But the piles of empty vodka bottles inside some of the crypts tell me this spot is best avoided after nightfall. To reach the Great Cemetery, take tram 11 which runs along trendy Miera iela. (Don’t miss Rocket Bean Roastery while you’re in the neighborhood.)

Go Cherry Blossom Peeping in Uzvaras Park

Riga cherry blossoms

Cherry blossoms in Riga's Uzvaras park

Riga cherry blossoms

Uzvaras parks riga

Riga Uzvaras Park

I was stunned when photos of pretty pink blossoms starting popping up in my Instagram feed. Could there be cherry trees in Riga? Sure enough, there’s a large cluster of them across the Daugava in Uzvaras Park. The beautiful trees were a gift from Japan in 2012 and have been delighting locals ever since. To get there, take tram 10 or any bus bound for Slokas iela.

Celebrate Freedom on Latvia’s Restoration of Independence Day

Latvian Independence Day

Latvia flower map

Celebrating Restoration of Independence Day in Riga, Latvia

On May 4, 1990, after five decades of occupation by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, Latvia declared that it was an independent nation once again. The holiday is celebrated in Riga with much pomp and circumstance on the grounds of the Freedom monument. Marching bands perform, speeches are given, and a good time is had by all. My favorite part of the day is the parade of people leaving flowers at the base of the Freedom Monument. It begins with the country’s top politicians and dignitaries, then finishes with locals and children. By the end, a map of Latvia has been created out of the blooms.

Tantalize your Taste buds during Riga Restaurant Week

Riga Restaurant Week Menu

Every spring (and autumn), Riga’s talented chefs work their magic with the seasonal bounty. Rhubarb, sorrel, and birch sap are a few of the ingredients you can expect to see on menus across town. Even better, the value pricing makes it possible to enjoy haute cuisine with a more limited budget. But don’t miss out – reservations are essential during Riga Restaurant Week.

Revel in Culture on Museum Night

Riga Art Nouveau Museum

Riga art nouveau museum

Costumed performers add to the museum’s fine ambiance.

Riga Pharmacy Museum

Don’t miss the sauna display in the back courtyard!

Riga medical museum

The Museum of Medical History occupies every floor of this grand old mansion.

Dioramas bring the museum to life.

For one night in May, many of Riga’s museums open their doors after hours for a night of culture. (You can find the schedule of events and locations for Riga Museum Night here.) The 2017 theme is “Wheel of Time” and sounds fascinating. My museums of choice are the Riga Art Nouveau Museum, the Pharmacy Museum, and the Paul Stradins Museum of the History of Medicine. Trust me, that last one is WAY more interesting than it sounds!

Find a New Favorite Ale at Latvia Beer Fest

Latvia Beer Fest

With more than 200 brews on tap, Latvia Beer Fest is the largest beer festival in the Baltics. The annual event takes place in Vermanes Park and lasts several days. All the major Latvian breweries are represented, including Valmiermuiza, Aldaris, Tervete, and Uzavas. You’ll also be able to sample some of Latvia’s finest craft beers, like those from Labietis. Classic Belgian and German brews are available, as is Guinness, though you’d do well to stick with the local varieties. Valmiermuiza is a top pick among foreign visitors.

Become a Beer Connoisseur at the Aldaris Brewery

Riga brewery tour

Riga beer tasting

Aldaris brewery Riga

If you’re not in town for the festival but still want to explore Latvia’s beer scene, head to the Aldaris Beer Museum in Riga’s Sarkandaugava neighborhood. The gleaming new museum was opened in 2015 inside one of the brewery’s historic buildings after a million euro renovation. Visitors can see original copper vats from the 1930s as well as other rare artifacts. Aldaris Brewery was founded in 1865, then known by its German name, Waldschlosschen. In Latvian, this word translates to Mezpils, or Forest Castle. Today, one of Aldaris’ most popular brands is Mezpils Alus, reportedly created to compete with the highly rated Valmiermuiza ales. To get the most out of the visit, sign up for the master class for beer connoisseurs. You’ll get to taste a variety of Aldaris brews along with expertly paired snacks. The class includes a guided tour of the museum and brewery.

Marvel at Mountainous Rhododendrons at the Botanical Garden

Riga rhododendron

Riga Botanical Garden

Thanks to my friend Jan for getting some shots of me in action!

riga rhododendron

Before coming face-to-face with a wall of blossoms at the Riga Botanical Garden, I had no idea rhododendrons could grow so big. The azaleas we have in North America are pretty but typically more petite. Apparently the cold, damp Latvian weather creates a hardier plant. The University of Latvia boasts the largest rhododendron collection in the Baltics, and maintains much of it at the Riga Botanical Garden. Several gigantic specimens welcome visitors near the main entrance, but the nursery area towards the back of the park is most impressive. Take tram 4 to reach the Botanical Garden, which is located across the Daugava.

Get Off the Beaten Path with a Walking Tour

This great mural maps out all the major sights in Riga’s Moscow neighborhood

Riga’s Old Jewish Cemetery

Riga Soviet architecture

The Latvian Academy of Sciences building, Riga’s most imposing Soviet structure

The Science building has a rooftop terrace with panoramic city views

While there are plenty of free walking tours of Riga’s Old Town, you’ll learn more about the city if you leave the medieval cobblestones behind. E.A.T. Riga Tours offers a variety of interesting options, such as the Soviet Riga Walking Tour and the Latvian Food Tasting Tour at Riga Central Market. Most tours last from 2 to 6 hours and all are led by a professional local guide. I took a tour of the Moscow District and former Riga Ghetto, and found the experience engaging and informative.

Indulge your Senses at the Opera Festival

Riga opera house

Latvian national opera

The stunning interior of the Latvian National Opera House in Riga.

Latvian opera performance Madama Butterfly

As I’ve mentioned once or twice before, I adore the Latvian National Opera and Ballet. The spring season culminates in June with the Riga Opera Festival, now in its 20th year. The highly-acclaimed festival showcases the best opera productions from the company’s repertoire, and often features award-winning singers from around the world. My favorite operas are La Traviata and Madama Butterfly, but all the performances are stellar.

Go Behind the Scenes with an Opera House Tour

Riga opera house tour

cafe opera riga

riga opera house

After Riga’s original opera house burned down in 1882, a new and improved version was erected on the banks of the canal just outside the Old Town. In order to prevent another fire, old-fashioned gas lighting was replaced with electricity that was generated by a ground-breaking power plant built directly beside the theater. Although that plant is no longer in use, its distinctive white tower remains. The Opera House’s lavish interior, with its red velvet curtains and abundance of gold paint, appears unchanged since the 19th century, but was fully refurbished in the early 1990s. For a peek behind the curtains, sign up for a Backstage Tour. Guides speak multiple languages and share a wealth of interesting information. My group was able to watch orchestra members and ballet dancers practice in their respective wings.

Enjoy the Cinema in Grand Style at Splendid Palace

splendid palace riga

splendid palace riga

Another Riga theater worth a look is the aptly-named Splendid Palace. The epitome of luxury, Splendid Palace was opened in 1923 when silent films were accompanied with a live orchestra sound track. Even after “talkies” eliminated the need for an orchestra, Splendid Palace remained the premier movie theater in the Baltics. When the Soviets took over, they didn’t wantonly destroy Riga’s beautiful structures, but did take pains to make them less ostentatious. Thus, in 1963, a large black rectangle of a building was put up directly in front Splendid Palace, renamed Cinema Riga. That Soviet contribution still obscures the theater’s entrance unfortunately, but it’s the interior you’re coming to see. (For current movie showtimes, click here.)

Stock up on Souvenirs at the Annual Latvian Craft Fair

Annual Latvian craft fair

Latvian arts and crafts fair

A Latvian woman in traditional national costume

Riga annual craft fair

One of the biggest events on Riga’s social calendar is the annual Latvian Arts and Crafts Fair. Now in its 47th year, the fair is typically held the first weekend of June on the grounds of the Latvian Ethnographic Open Air Museum. Artisans and crafts people from all over Latvia gather to show off their wares – everything from pottery and baskets to mittens and fresh cheese. It’s also a great place to watch traditional folk dances and sample local beer and snacks. Locals tend to spend the better part of a day browsing through all the treasures and soaking up the festive atmosphere. To reach the fair grounds from central Riga, take bus 1 to the Brivdabas muzejs stop. This is a popular event and buses fill up fast so go early! You can skip the line at the entrance by getting tickets in advance at the Opera House box office.

Greet the Midnight Sun during Ligo

Setting of the midnight sun in Riga, Latvia

Riga Summer Solstice Festival

By the time June 23 rolls around, the sun is barely setting in Latvia. Riga’s Midsummer Festival, which takes place on the eve of the Summer Solstice, is the party of the year. Traditionally, Latvians celebrate Ligo with friends out in the countryside, but more and more people are enjoying the festivities in Riga. Locals don their colorful ethnic costumes and perform folk dances on stages across town. In a nod to ancient pagan traditions, heads are crowned with garlands of wild flowers and oak leaves. A large farmer’s market takes over Riga’s Dome Square, while sprigs of birch branches decorate buildings and cars. Down on the November 11 Krastmala, stands sell beer, grilled meat, and special holiday cheese with caraway seeds. Though the event is often plagued by rain, a large bonfire helps chase away the chill. Expect the merrymaking to continue until the new day dawns – no one sleeps for Ligo!

How would YOU like to enjoy spring in Riga?

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An Extraordinary Hill of Crosses in Lithuania

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On a field in rural Lithuania, a Hill of Crosses rises on the horizon. Visible from a considerable distance in the flat landscape, it is an impressive sight to behold. I’ve read reports that the site contains 100,000 crosses, but I’m not sure how anyone could know that. Impenetrable walls surround the narrow walkways, with crosses crammed into every nook and cranny. Others have been stacked high in piles that have toppled over. Rosaries, meanwhile, are draped around wooden necks like Mardi Gras beads. Counting the crosses would be an insurmountable task.

hill of crosses

hill of crosses

Hill of Crosses in Lithuania

Stairs lead up the center of the hill and are flanked by towering crosses. A sculpture of Christ the Redeemer welcomes pilgrims near the entrance. Crosses of every conceivable size and denomination have been left by worshipers from around the world. I even saw a Jewish star in the mix.

hill of crosses

Hill of Crosses in Lithuania

hill of crosses

An Extraordinary Hill of Crosses in Lithuania

The hill first took shape in the 19th century, when Lithuanians erected crosses in protest of a ban imposed by their Tsarist overlords in the Russian Empire. More were added after an apparition of Mary holding the baby Jesus was reportedly seen. When the Soviets occupied Lithuania after World War II, they saw the Hill of Crosses as counter to Communist ideology and bulldozed it into oblivion. Devout Lithuanians were none too happy with this destructive act and fervently rebuilt the hill, secretly adding more crosses under the cover of night. Soviet forces demolished the site five times before conceding defeat. Today, the Hill of Crosses stands as a testament to the fortitude and resilience of the Lithuanian people. The site was made more famous in 1993 by a visit from Pope John Paul II.

hill of crosses

Hill of Crosses

hill of crosses

hill of crosses

hill of crosses

The Hill of Crosses is located near the town of small town of Siauliai, about 220 kilometers from Vilnius. I drove from Riga as part of a Lithuanian road trip, though it’s possible to visit using public transportation. Take the train from Vilnius to Siauliai, then continue by bus to the Hill of Crosses. The journey will take around 3 hours each way. Food options at the site are extremely limited so pack something or plan to eat in Siauliai. Religious souvenirs – including crosses! – are available, however.

hill of crosses

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My Favorite Places in Amsterdam

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I love Amsterdam for many of the reasons I love Paris: stunning architecture, a wealth of art, and an unpretentious food scene. Both cities are easy to explore on foot, or by public transport when you get tired. And both have enough quality attractions to keep even the discerning traveler occupied for at least a week. I’ve been to Amsterdam three times and still feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface. I dug a lot deeper on my most recent visit thanks to the Amsterdam Museum Card. As in Paris, the card helped me discover a few gems I might otherwise have missed, like Museum Van Loon and the Hermitage. It also helped alleviate the guilt for quickly leaving one if it wasn’t my cup of tea. But museums aren’t the only top attractions in Amsterdam! Read on to find out which spots make the cut.

Canal Ring

amsterdam canals

The best attraction in Amsterdam is arguably the city itself. Designed in the 17th century, Amsterdam’s UNESCO-listed Canal Ring is an engineering marvel. In order to expand the medieval city, it was necessary to drain the surrounding swamps. A network of canals were dug and the land in between filled in. Gabled townhouses were added once the project was completed, and the rest, as they say, is history. If I did nothing other than stroll along the canals and ogle the city’s distinctive gables, it would be a trip well spent.

amsterdam canal houses

amsterdam netherlands

amsterdam canal boat

amsterdam canal boat tour

A canal boat ride in Amsterdam

amsterdam sunset

amsterdam night shot

Museum Van Loon

van loon house amsterdam

Want to see inside one of those lovely buildings lining the canals? Head to Museum Van Loon, the only canal house in Amsterdam to retain both its garden and coach house. While the Van Loon family still resides on the upper floors, it’s possible to tour the rest of the home all the way down to the basement kitchen. Wandering from room to sumptuous room past the family’s private possessions, I felt like I was getting a glimpse of a secret world. It was delicious!

van loon house amsterdam

van loon museum amsterdam

I enjoyed the fashions and family portraits displayed in each room

van loon house museum amsterdam

van loon house museum amsterdam

The Van Loons’ Carriage House

Van Gogh Museum

van gogh museum amsterdam

Do you have a favorite artist? Mine is Vincent van Gogh. I’ve long been drawn to his use of bold, rich colors and thick brushstrokes. It fascinates me that someone with such a troubled mind could see and express such beauty. Largely unsuccessful during his lifetime, van Gogh’s paintings didn’t make waves in the art world until after his suicide at the age of 37. He had been painting for just 10 years. But what a legacy he left behind! The Van Gogh Museum does an excellent job of bringing the enigmatic artist to life. Many of his masterpieces are on display – including several self portraits – as well as works by those who inspired him. You’ll want to allow several hours to explore the collection and peruse the gift shop. Photos aren’t allowed inside the museum, presumably to encourage visitors to buy prints.

Almond Blossom, 1890, Vincent van Gogh. Image source

Rijksmuseum

rijksmuseum amsterdam

Delve further into Dutch art at the Rijksmuseum. Nearly 8,000 artworks are on display, including many paintings by Dutch Masters including Jan Steen, Frans Hals, and Johannes Vermeer. Pride of place goes to the Night Watch, Rembrandt’s monumental masterpiece. The biggest surprise was Cuypers Library, which was recently restored to its original grandeur. Tucked in a back corner of the museum, I stumbled upon the gorgeous room almost by accident. The Rijksmuseum Gardens, designed by the building’s architect Pierre Cuypers, are especially lovely when the spring flowers are in bloom. The gardens abut Museumplein, where you’ll find the famous “I amsterdam” sign from the tourism board’s genius marketing campaign. Good luck getting a photo!

night watch rijksmuseum

rijksmuseum treasures

The Rijksmuseum Cuypers Library in Amsterdam

rijksmuseum gardens

Anne Frank House

A statue of Anne Frank in Amsterdam

For all of Amsterdam’s beauty, it has a dark side, too. After Nazi Germany invaded the Netherlands during World War II, many Jews went into hiding. One family was Otto Frank’s, a German Jew who relocated to Amsterdam after Hitler came to power. Anne Frank, Otto’s daughter, kept a diary during the two years the family was in hiding. It provides an intimate look at their lives seen through the eyes of a teenage girl. Anne, a talented young writer, was also working on a novel about the family’s ordeal but never got to finish it. In 1944 the secret annex was discovered and the inhabitants were deported to Auschwitz. Only Otto Frank survived. He eventually published Anne’s diary, fulfilling her wish to become a writer. I encourage everyone to visit the Franks’ secret hiding place, which is now a part of the well-done Anne Frank House Museum, to learn about this tragedy and honor the memory of the victims.

anne frank house amsterdam

Original entrance to the building where Anne Frank and her family hid during WWII.

Royal Palace

royal palace amsterdam

Originally built to be Amsterdam’s Town Hall in the 17th century, the grand structure was converted into a Royal Palace by Louis Napoleon (Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother) in 1808. Louis’ reign was short lived, but his French Empire-style furnishings have endured. In fact, the Palace boasts one of the finest collections in the world! The fully furnished rooms, illuminated by heavy gilt chandeliers, are a feast for the eyes. The cavernous central hall is equally impressive. Gleaming marble floors are inlaid with two hemispheres which demonstrate Holland’s global importance during the Dutch Golden Age.

The Dutch Royal Palace of Amsterdam

amsterdam royal palace empire furniture

amsterdam royal palace tour

Hermitage Amsterdam

hermitage amsterdam museum

Interestingly, a branch of the famed Hermitage Museum of Saint Petersburg can be found in Amsterdam. Opened in 2009, the Hermitage Amsterdam was intended to highlight the long relationship between the Netherlands and Russia. Today, the permanent exhibition is entitled, “Portrait Gallery of the Golden Age,” and features group portraits of prominent 17th century Dutch citizens. At the time of my visit, another large exhibition held the works of Spanish Masters from the Hermitage Collection. Check the museum website to see the current schedule. The vast building, Amstelhof, served as a home for the elderly for over 300 years until it was converted into museum space.

hermitage amsterdam portrait gallery

dutch masters hermitage amsterdam

amsterdam tulip festival

Red Light District

amsterdam red light district

You don’t need the Museum Card to enter Amsterdam’s notorious Red Light District, but you do need an open mind and some discretion. Prostitution was legalized in the Netherlands in 1810, though it was quietly tolerated by the authorities at least a century before. De Wallen, Amsterdam’s largest red light district, is also its medieval Old Town. The Oude Kerk, or Old Church, was built in the early 1300s and is Amsterdam’s oldest surviving structure. The neighborhood is more sedate than one might expect since many of the brothels are tucked away in narrow alleys. Often, you can’t see the women until you are standing directly in front of their window. Most seemed bored and were checking their phones, perhaps a way of ignoring the leering crowds constantly passing by. But I was there during the early evening, so the atmosphere could liven up as the night progresses.

A brothel sits prominently next to the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam’s Red Light District

Amsterdam's historic Red Light District

amsterdam red light district

De Wallen, Amsterdam’s oldest neighborhood

Begijnhof

begijnhof amsterdam

Another historic Amsterdam neighborhood is Begijnhof. In the 14th century, almshouses were built around a quiet courtyard as a sanctuary for a group of Beguines – religious women who took a vow of chastity. Although the last official beguine died in 1971, community residence is still restricted to women. The charming brick homes, with their leaning frames and gabled roofs, mostly date to the 17th century. Only one wooden house from about 1520 remains. Spui, the large square outside Begijnhof’s entrance, hosts a weekend flea market that’s also worth a gander.

begijnhof amsterdam

Shopping

amsterdam cheese shop

While the city boasts many fabulous shops, two won my heart. The Amsterdam Cheese Company specializes in artisan Dutch cheeses and spreads. The friendly sales woman let me try as many samples as I wanted until I was sure of my choices. Of course I would have loved to load my suitcase with the entire contents of the store, but settled for two wheels of Dutch Gold Gouda (7 Months and Cumin) and a jar of Honey Thyme Mustard.

I also took home a few Delft Blue KLM Houses sold at Kramer Arts & Antiques. The family-owned shop may be best known for its stock of antique tiles, but I couldn’t resist snagging a few of the charming little houses as a souvenir of my trip. Originally filled with Dutch gin, or genever, the porcelain bottles are modeled after actual buildings in Amsterdam. Since the 1950s, KLM Airlines has given one to every passenger lucky enough to fly in World Business Class.

kramer antiques amsterdam

What are some of your favorite spots in Amsterdam?

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Crazy for Kyiv: My Four Days in Ukraine

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I was searching for flights for a last minute getaway from Riga, and the cheapest direct flight was to Kyiv. Until that moment, Ukraine wasn’t on my travel radar. Russia’s annexation of Crimea was big news in Latvia and the 2014 Euromaidan riots still seemed all too recent. Was it safe to visit Ukraine? Mr. Google said yes so I quickly booked flights and a hotel. What followed were four incredible days discovering a dynamic European capital keen to shake off its turbulent past and welcome tourists with open arms.

During my visit I found Ukrainian flags flying proudly against a backdrop of stunning architecture, UNESCO-listed monasteries glittering in the sun, vibrant street art, hipsters sipping lattes in stylish cafes, and kids on pony rides in leafy parks. It felt a lot like Budapest, but without the annoying crowds. There were so many interesting things to do in Kyiv that I could have spent a month there and still not have done it all. Four days simply weren’t enough.

Kyiv Ukraine

Kyiv Ukraine

Ukrainian Flag

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Kyiv Street Art

Kyiv Soviet Architecture

My first stop was Maidan Nezalezhnosti, or Independence Square, scene of the heaviest violence in 2014. Two years later few signs of destruction were visible. The burned-out Trade Unions Building was draped with white canvas sheets and two vehicles were left parked across the street. A memorial wall dedicated to the dozens of Euromaidan victims stretched up the hill towards Hotel Ukraine.

Kyiv Maidan Square

Kyiv Maidan Memorial

Kyiv Independence Monument

The square itself was completely rebuilt after World War II when Kyiv was all but obliterated by Soviet forces. The new buildings were constructed in the heavy “Stalinist Empire” style and now look wonderfully retro with their colorful block letter signs. All the Soviet monuments came crashing down along with the USSR itself in 1991 and were replaced by symbols of an independent Ukraine.

Kyiv Maidan Square

Kyiv Stalinist Empire Architecture

Many of Kyiv’s main attractions fan off from Maidan and it took me over two days to explore them. One of the most stunning is St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery. The cornflower blue cathedral is actually a modern reconstruction of a medieval church destroyed by the Soviets for having “no historical value.” Thankfully, many of the original mosaics were removed before demolition and have since been returned to their rightful place inside the cathedral.

Kyiv St Michaels Golden Domed Monastery

St Michaels Golden Domed Monastery Kyiv

The nearby Saint Sophia’s Cathedral fared much better under the Soviet regime and was saved from destruction by the efforts of scientists and historians. Constructed during the 11th century during the reign of Vladimir the Great, Saint Sophia’s Cathedral was meant to rival its namesake, the Hagia Sophia, in what was then Constantinople. After Vladimir’s baptism, Kyiv became ground zero for the spread of the Orthodox faith in the region. Saint Sophia’s breathtaking mosaics and frescoes, created with the help of Byzantine masters, remain largely intact. It’s no wonder this was the first site in Ukraine to be inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list.

Kyiv St Sophias Cathedral UNESCO

St Sophia Bell Tower Kyiv

Be sure to climb St. Sophia’s bell tower for terrific views of the city!

A little further north is Andrew’s Descent, a steep cobblestone street that winds between two of Kyiv’s historic neighborhoods. The descent is named after the landmark St. Andrew’s Church, a Baroque beauty designed by Bartolomeo Rastrelli, the same architect responsible for the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. About a quarter of the way down is Mikhail Bulgakov’s House, a museum dedicated to the Kyiv-born author. I took a tour given entirely in Ukrainian and understood not a whit, but am now eager to read his novel the White Guard.

St Andrews Church Kyiv

Kyiv Bulgakovs Museum

Kyiv Andrews Descent

Andrew’s Descent is perhaps most famous for the souvenir stands that line the street. Some true gems can be found in with the tourist tack, including vintage Ukrainian fabrics and hand-painted wooden eggs. The sellers were super friendly and happy to pose for photos and have a chat – one man even got an album out of his car to show off the huge fish his son had recently caught!

Kyiv Souvenir Shopping

The Podil neighborhood at the base of Andrew’s Descent is home to the Chernobyl Museum which provides an in-depth look at the world’s worst nuclear disaster. When a reactor at a power plant in Pripyat, Ukraine exploded in 1986, it released 400 times more radioactive material than the Hiroshima bomb. Informative headsets walk visitors through every stage of the cataclysmic event, from the initial explosion and aftermath to the continuing impact of radiation poisoning on humans and the environment. The museum calls out the Soviet regime for attempting to downplay the disaster and blame the reactor’s operators rather than admit to faulty design and inadequate training as the main causes. The whole situation is astounding, and you’ll want to allow several hours to fully absorb the details.

Kyiv Chernobyl Museum

Kyiv Chernobyl Museum

Kyiv Chernobyl Museum

South of Maidan you’ll find architectural landmarks including the Golden Gate, National Opera of Ukraine, and House with Chimeras. I had hoped to see Mariyinski Palace, but it was undergoing restoration at the time of my visit and completely hidden from view. The Museum of Western and Oriental Art was a very pleasant surprise, however. In 1918, at the “urging” of the new Soviet regime, Varvara Khanenko “donated” the private collection of her recently deceased husband, Bohdan, along with their beautiful home to the city of Kyiv. European paintings, Chinese porcelain, Roman sculptures, and Byzantine icons are displayed inside the rooms of the restored mansion. My mouth dropped open when I first entered and saw the grand wooden staircase – and it only got more impressive from there!

Kyiv Landmarks

Last but certainly not least is Pechersk Lavra, or Cave Monastery, a unique complex included in the UNESCO listing for Saint Sophia’s. Commanding center stage are the Dormition Cathedral and Great Bell Tower, which is absolutely worth climbing for its spectacular views. The cathedral was blown up during WWII and rebuilt in 2000, but you’d never know it. The reconstruction was meticulous!

Kyiv Pechersk Lavra UNESCO

Kyiv Dormition Cathedral

I may have snuck a photo of the interior. Shhh.

Kyiv Pechersk Lavra Great Bell Tower

Kyiv Pechersk Lavra

Kyiv Pechersk Lavra

What makes Pechersk Lavra unique is the labyrinth of caves hidden below ground. At one time, 1,200 monks lived in these subterranean cells. The narrow corridors are supposedly lined with the mummified remains of some of the monks, but I can’t confirm this. I didn’t have time to explore the caves because I spent too long gaping at all the pretty things in the Museum of Ukrainian Decorative Folk Art, housed in one of the monastery buildings. But seriously, look at these gorgeous fabrics! I’ll just have to go back to Kyiv to explore the rest of the complex.

Kyiv Ukranian Folk Art

Museum of Ukrainian Decorative Folk Art

Kyiv Folk Art Museum

I wasn’t able to get my hands on a guidebook in time for my trip, but it turns out that I didn’t need one. The tourist map I got from my hotel was so detailed that it even listed the hours and addresses of all the top sights. Super helpful and time saving on a short visit – kudos to the Kyiv tourism board!

I was also impressed with Kyiv’s extremely efficient metro system. Three lines make it easy to access nearly all parts of the city, and rides cost a mere four hryvnias (about 15 cents). Some stations are decorated with the standard Soviet motifs of wheat boughs, stars, hammers and sickles, while others feel more modern. The Arsenalna station – which you’ll pass through if you go to Pechersk Lavra – is the deepest metro station in the world!

Kyiv Metro

Stay tuned for my Kyiv restaurant recommendations in an upcoming post.

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Top things to do in Kyiv, Ukraine

Road Tripping Latvia: Daugavpils to Ludza

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Latgale, Latvia is a part of the Baltic region that many travelers miss. Well off the beaten path that links Riga with Vilnius and Tallinn, Latvia’s southeastern corner, Latgale, is a mysterious land of lakes, castle ruins, and onion domes. Lithuania, Belarus, and Russia share borders with this part of Latvia, first settled by the Latgalians in the 10th century and incorporated into the Livonian Order two hundred years later. This lively mix of cultures is evident in everything from the architecture and religion to the diversity of the population and the languages it speaks. With three days and my own set of wheels, I set off to try to gain a better understanding of the region.

Daugavpils is the largest city in Latgale and a great starting point for a road trip. The up-and-coming city has several worthwhile museums including the Mark Rothko Art Centre, an interactive exhibition space dedicated to the locally-born painter. Daugavpils also boasts the largest Orthodox cathedral in Latvia, which is perched on a hill next to three more churches of various denominations. You can find my in-depth recommendations for a weekend visit here.

Daugavpils Latvia

Driving northeast from Daugavpils on highway A13, you will want to make a slight detour to the Basilica of the Assumption in Aglona. Founded by Dominican monks in the 18th century, Aglona Basilica is Latvia’s most important Catholic church. Its historic icon, “Our Miraculous Lady of Aglona,” is believed to have healing powers and attracts thousands of pilgrims when it is unveiled every year on August 15. A spring near the lake behind the church is also thought to have special healing properties – so bring a bottle to fill up!

Aglona Basilica Latvia

Aglona Basilica interior

Latvia Aglona Basilica

Continuing northeast along the A13 you’ll come to Rezekne, Latgale’s second largest city. While there is much to explore, I only had time for one attraction this road trip: the Rezekne castle mound and Livonian castle ruins. In the 9th century, ancient Latgalians built a wooden castle on a hill next to a strategic river. The castle stood until the 13th century when the Knights of the Livonian Order came a-knockin’. The knights built their own two-story stone castle on the site which survived until the Swedish War of 1656. Unfortunately not much remains as locals were allowed to cart off the stones for use in building their homes, though the single archway that exists today is very photogenic.

Rezekne Castle Ruins

The reason I gave Rezekne somewhat short shrift on this trip was because I was keen to see Ludza, the oldest town in Latvia. Ludza was first mentioned by Russian chroniclers in 1173, nearly three decades before Riga was founded. Later, in 1399, the Livonian Order built a large castle in Ludza to protect its eastern trade routes. Located a mere 30km from the Russian border, Ludza was particularly vulnerable to attack. Although the castle was left in ruins by a series of medieval wars, an impressive wall remains overlooking the town and surrounding lakes.

Ludza Castle Ruins

Ludza Castle Ruins

Ludza Castle Ruins

The Ludza castle ruins sit next to the lovely Church of the Virgin Mary, a beacon of the town’s predominant Roman Catholic religion. A small blue-and-white Orthodox church has pride of place in the town’s main town square, which is also where you’ll find its best (only?) cafe: Kristine’s. Take some time to wander the quiet streets and admire Ludza’s quaint wooden homes.

Ludza Catholic Church

Ludza Latvia

Ludza Latvia

Blue Wooden House in Latvia

Latvian lake

One of the many lakes for which the Latgale region is known.

Over the course of its long history, Ludza has been incorporated (often forcibly) into Livonia, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Russian Empire, Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union. And yet, miraculously, the original Latgalian language clings on. You can find it on street signs and in bookshops, and hear it spoken on local television. Latgalian has been protected by law since Latvia regained independence in the 1990s.

Latgalian language

The Ludza Local History Museum is a small, open-air collection of historic buildings located on the outskirts of town. Structures of note include a Stone Age Dwelling, a Latgalian graveyard, and wooden windmill, though I had to content myself by peeking through the closed fence since I visited on a Sunday (the Catholic day of rest).

Ludza Local History Museum

No road trip to Latgale would be complete without a stop at Liepkalni Bakery, conveniently located on the A6 highway back to Riga. “Liepkalni” was the name of a farmstead owned by the Medzinu family in the 1920s, and the breads produced from their wheat and rye harvests were legendary. Jump ahead over a tumultuous half century and the grandson of the farm’s original owner has reclaimed the land and opened a bakery to carry on the family tradition. It’s a Latvian success story that warms my heart, and the aromatic breads (and piragi and apple cakes and chocolate eclairs) warm my belly.

Latvia Liepkalni bakery

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Unexpected Delights in Daugavpils, Latvia

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Daugavpils is Latvia’s second-largest city with a population around 90,000, fully half comprised of ethnic Russian speakers. During Soviet times, factories were set up in Daugavpils thanks to its strategic location near the borders of Belarus and Lithuania, and workers from other Soviet republics were brought in. Some factories closed with the collapse of the Soviet Union, but many workers and their families remained. The economy of the region has suffered with the decline in manufacturing, while more and more young people have relocated to the country’s dynamic capital, Riga.

Daugavpils Latvia

Driving through Daugavpils past its many red-brick buildings and smoke stacks, I was reminded of post-industrial “rust-belt” cities in the U.S. like Buffalo, New York and Cleveland, Ohio. And that gave me hope because both of those cities are experiencing a renaissance. Daugavpils isn’t there yet, but I saw a lot of potential. Crumbling apartment buildings rub shoulders with lovingly restored churches of various denominations. Chic cafes and thoughtfully curated museums are fronted by well-tended parks and immaculate, though often empty streets. Boutique shops and artist studios stand next to graffiti-covered ruins and liquor stores. I imagine the city can look rather bleak during the gray and wet winter months, but Daugavpils was in full bloom during my spring visit.

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Daugavpils Orthodox Chapel

St. Alexander Nevsky Russian Orthodox Chapel

Daugavpils Latvia

The Daugavpils Museum of Regional History and Art is housed in a grand Art Nouveau mansion overlooking leafy Dubrovin Park. The surprisingly robust collection includes archaeological finds from the nearby Jersika castle mound, gilded icons of the region’s predominant Orthodox religion, Art Nouveau artifacts, and remnants of Latvia’s Soviet occupation. At the time of my visit, the museum’s top floor was dedicated to local contemporary artists. The Latvian still life painting featuring Riga Black Balsam was my personal favorite. The museum’s only drawback was the lack of English translations.

Daugavpils History Museum

Daugavpils History Museum

Daugavpils Art Museum

A short drive from downtown Daugavpils, the fantastic Mark Rothko Art Centre capitalizes on the city’s claim to fame as the birthplace of the abstract expressionist painter. While not a huge fan of Rothko’s minimalist color fields, I was very impressed with this museum. Interactive digital displays illustrate the painter’s life and the history of the city, known by the Russian name Dvinsk (and part of the Russian Empire) at the time of Rothko’s birth. Several original masterpieces are on display, though are extremely well-guarded and photos strictly forbidden. The center’s upper floors are dedicated to showcasing the works of Latvian and international contemporary artists, many of whom drew inspiration from Rothko.

Daugavpils Mark Rothko Centre

Mark Rothko Daugavpils

The Rothko Centre is located on the grounds of Daugavpils Fortress, the only one of its kind remaining in Northern Europe. The vast military bastion was constructed in the early 1800s to repel an attack by Napoleon, but was already considered obsolete by the end of the century. Although subsequently used as a warehouse, WWII prisoner-of-war camp, and Soviet military school over the years, the layout of the fortifications was left unaltered. The buildings fell into ruin, however, and restoration works are ongoing.

Daugavpils Fortress

Daugavpils Fortress Latvia

Daugavpils Fortress

On your way back to town, stop in at the Daugavpils Clay Art Centre. Master potters from Latgale have set up studios in a unused factory where they turn out the beautiful ceramics for which the region is known. For a two euro entrance fee, I was shown gleaming new kilns and a demonstration of the pottery-making process (in Latvian). The center was established by the Daugavpils city government to promote a folk tradition that’s deeply embedded in local culture. Do your part by taking home a Latgalian pottery souvenir!

Latgale pottery center Daugavpils

Latgale ceramics

Ceramics from Latgale are renowned for their bright colors and glossy glaze.

Another post-industrial site that’s been given a new lease on life is the Daugavpils Lead Shot Factory. The historic 19th century building with its distinctive red-brick tower has been opened for tourists! Here’s the thing: this ammunition plant is still operational, making it the only place in Europe where you can see how bullets are made. Shots are cast by dropping molten lead inside the tower and then sorted by caliber. When I visited, some raw materials (don’t touch!) and spent casings were on display along with some cool Russian factory paraphernalia.

Daugavpils Lead Shot Factory

Daugavpils Lead Shot Factory tour

The factory is down the street from Saints Boriss and Gleb Russian Orthodox Cathedral, the largest of its kind in Latvia. The massive blue-and-white structure can hold 5,000 worshipers beneath its golden onion domes. The cathedral’s stunning interior – which I was allowed to photograph with a small donation – features a polished oak iconostasis that some believe to be a copy of the one in St.Vladimir’s Cathedral in Kiev.

Russian Orthodox Cathedral Daugavpils

Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Daugavpils, Latvia

Daugavpils Russian Orthodox Cathedral interior

The cathedral is the crown jewel of Baznicas Kalns, or Church Hill, upon which stand four churches of different denominations. In addition to the Russian Orthodox Cathedral there is the Martin Luther Lutheran Cathedral, the Roman Catholic Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the Church of the Community of Old Believers. Given the current state of the world, it’s refreshing to see different faiths coexisting peacefully side by side.

Daugavpils Church Hill

Daugavpils Martin Luther Cathedral

I spent two nights at Villa Ksenija, a charming guest house conveniently situated on Church Hill between the Orthodox cathedral and Lead Shot Factory. (I could see the factory’s tower from my balcony!) The small boutique hotel (six rooms) has been open since 2013, though the physical mansion dates to 1876 and is a registered architectural landmark. The interior is stately, yet comfortable, and the delicious breakfast spread is so filling you won’t need lunch. (The restaurant is also an excellent choice for dinner.)

Villa Ksenija

Another good option is Gubernators, Daugavpils’ top restaurant according to TripAdvisor. Gubernators serves up rich and hearty Eastern European comfort food in a rustic beer hall setting – and brews its own beer to boot. I opted for a bowl of tangy solanka and succulent roast ham with potatoes and sauerkraut, paired with a citrusy wheat ale. Prieka!

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16 Things to Do in Riga, Latvia this Autumn

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Autumn is a glorious time to visit Riga, Latvia. Golden leaves bedazzle the old city, which by this time has shed some of the flag-wielding tour groups and stag parties that clog the narrow alleys in summer. Early in the season, the weather is still fine enough to sip cider on sidewalk patios, albeit with a blanket wrapped around your shoulders. November turns dark and chilly in a hurry, although holiday celebrations still entice locals out of doors. Here are some of the fun ways I made the most of this annual crescendo.

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Scale the ramparts in Riga’s Bastejkalns park. Bastion Hill is a vast green space to the west of the Freedom Monument that was created in the 19th century after the old city fortifications were torn down. Traces of them remain, however. Follow the curving staircase up to the base of a tower, and you’ll find a vantage point ideal for surveying the realm.

Bastejkalns Riga

Riga Bastejkalns Park

Sit back and admire the leaves on a Riga Canal cruise. Wooden boats ply the Riga City Canal, the moat which once surrounded the medieval city and now runs through Bastejkalns park. The variety of trees lining the banks creates a kaleidoscopic effect for several weeks each fall. (Riga’s foliage generally peaks around the second week of October.) The cruise (€18 per person) lasts one hour and includes a scenic stretch along the Daugava River. If you’re lucky, you might even see one of the city’s elusive beavers!

Riga Canal Cruise

Riga Canal Cruise

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Head to the top of St Peter’s Church spire for a birds-eye view. I made frequent trips to the lofty observation platform and found that Riga’s Old Town looked positively ethereal in the soft autumn light. If you time your visit for the late afternoon sunset, you’ll be rewarded with a city bathed in rose gold. Tickets cost €9 and include entrance to the church (which doubles as an art gallery) in addition to a ride in the lift. Note that the ticket office closes at 5pm sharp during the fall and winter seasons. I once showed up at 5:04 and was turned away.

view of riga from st peters church

Beautiful Riga, Latvia

Return back down to Earth at Lielie Kapi, or the Great Cemetery. The final resting place of Latvia’s 18th and 19th century denizens, many of Baltic German extraction, was bulldozed by the Soviets in the 1960s and turned into a public park. But many tombstones and crumbling crypts still stand, some restored by local Latvians. I came across one small group tending the graves of Krisjanis Barons and Krisjanis Valdemars – two of Latvia’s most venerable national figures. They explained that they live near Lielie Kapi and view it as part of a cultural heritage worth preserving.

Riga Lielie Kapi

Riga Great Cemetery

Honor a hero at the Janis Lipke Memorial. This small but powerful museum is dedicated to someone who, with his family and a few close friends, saved over 50 Jews from the Riga Ghetto during World War II. Mr. Lipke was employed at the dock warehouses and responsible for transporting ghetto inmates to and from work each day. When the opportunity arose, either from lax security or by bribing the guards, he would help Jews escape. Some were hidden with trusted friends in Riga, while others were spirited away to farms in Dobele. The rest survived the war in a secret bunker Mr. Lipke created under the woodshed on his property on Kipsala, an island in the Daugava River. Amazingly, the Lipke family was never betrayed to the Nazis and continue to live on Kipsala to this day.

Janis Lipke Museum in Riga, Latvia.

The museum was built next to the Lipke home and designed by premier Latvian architect Zaiga Gaile. Ms. Gaile’s firm is responsible for rehabbing many of the island’s old wooden homes and revitalizing the area. It’s a lovely place to walk and reflect on a crisp fall afternoon.

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View of Riga from Kipsala Island

Lift your spirits with the friendly barkeeps of Labietis, Riga’s hippest craft brewery. The original pub is tucked inside a courtyard on Aristida Briana iela and has twelve experimental brews on tap. The knowledgeable staff will gladly explain the different flavors, which they’ve divided into five color families. The “yellow” beers were popular with my crowd, though I also enjoyed the Dumenis (Smoky) “red” beer. Want to know even more? Ask for a tour of the Labietis brewery!

Riga Labietis Brewery

Celebrate the Autumn harvest at a Saturday market in Kalnciema Kvartals. Country farmers show off their bounty of fall produce, along with all the jams, honeys, and breads you can eat. This is also a great spot to pick up local handicrafts and knitwear, like hats and scarves, which you will soon need. (I’m fond of the “Mice” brand of accessories.) While you’re in the neighborhood, take some time to appreciate the historic wooden Art Nouveau architecture which is gradually being restored to its former glory.

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Pay tribute to Latvia’s freedom fighters on Lacplesis Day. November 11 commemorates the day in 1919 when Latvia’s army defeated Russian forces and made Latvia a free and independent country. Locals lay flowers at the base of Riga’s Freedom Monument and light candles by the thousands to mark the special event. I was moved to witness parents and teachers explain the significance of the day to their children, ensuring the tradition continues for generations to come.

Riga November 11

Lighting Candles for Lacplesis Day in Riga, Latvia.

Lacplesis Day Riga

Get patriotic on November 18 for Latvian Independence Day. On this date in 1918, Latvia officially declared its independence from the Russian Empire, though it would take another year for this to be fully realized (see Lacplesis Day, above). This public holiday is one of the biggest events of the year, celebrated with a military parade and spectacular fireworks display. Locals participate by laying heaps of flowers at the Freedom Monument and making torchlight processions across the city. Many torches are left in Bastejkalns park, turning it into a fairy kingdom for the night.

Riga November 18 Torch Procession

Latvian Independence Day

Take a tour of Latvia’s parliament, or Saeima. The historic building was constructed in 1867 for the Livonian knights and transferred to the Latvian government in 1920. Guided tours can be prearranged for groups and take visitors through the beautifully restored entrance hall, library, meeting rooms, and voting chamber. If you want to experience the government in action, it’s possible to observe a plenary session, though the proceedings will be entirely in Latvian.

Latvian Parliament Building

Riga Saeima Building

Amuse the kids at two of Riga’s family-friendly museums. The Latvian Railway Museum has a large collection of historical photographs, maps, and train schedules, though it’s the “rolling stock” that’s of most interest. Vintage locomotives and train cars are parked on the tracks behind the museum, and some you can climb aboard! The Latvian Firefighting Museum is chockablock with antique vehicles and fire safety equipment, such as uniforms, pumps, and hoses. You can even test your fire-extinguishing capabilities in an interactive game!

Riga Railway Museum

Riga Firefighting Museum

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Say hello to the animals at the Riga Zoo. This sprawling park is home to dozens of animals, including lions, hippos, giraffes, bears, camels, and kangaroos. The zoo is well-tended and some of the enclosures have been newly renovated to give the large animals lots of space to roam. Picnic areas are available if you want to make a day of it – but heed the signs and don’t feed the animals! The Riga Zoo is open every day and adult tickets cost €6, though discounted family tickets are available.

Riga Zoo animals

Peruse the latest styles at Riga Fashion Week. Top designers from the Baltic countries show off their spring-summer collections in October, giving everyone something to look forward to at the end of those long winter months. Names to look out for include Dace Bahmann, Anna Led, and Narciss.

Riga Fashion Week

Light up the night with Staro Riga. For one weekend every November, Riga is transformed by art installations that illuminate the dark autumn sky. Creative and colorful displays timed to music dance across building facades and fountains around the city. Frigid temperatures can’t keep the crowds away from this much anticipated annual spectacle!

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Enjoy a performance of the Latvian National Opera and Ballet. I know I recommended this activity in my Winter edition, but the shows are so marvelous they deserve a another mention. My favorites include La Traviata, Madama Butterfly, Don Quixote, Swan Lake, and Giselle. I was continually impressed by the talent of the performers, the stunning set pieces and costumes, and the affordable ticket prices. Nights at the theater felt like such a treat, and now that I no longer live in Riga, it’s one of the things I miss most.

Riga Opera House

Latvian National Opera and Ballet

Give Autumn a proper sendoff with mulled wine at the Riga Christmas Market. The festivities open in Dome Square at the end of November, and last through the first week of January, giving you plenty of time to soak up the holiday atmosphere. At least a quarter of the stalls sell hot food and beverages, which you’ll definitely need to combat the chilly temps. (Latvian mittens also help.)

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48 Hours in Helsinki Finland

Falling in Love with Helsinki, Finland

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Have you ever visited a new destination and felt instantly at home, as if you could move there tomorrow and your life would fit in seamlessly? I’ve traveled through over 40 countries, but only felt that sort of serious connection to a handful of places, including RigaDublin, Budapest, Paris, and New York. Another city I’d be happy to move to is Helsinki, Finland. It’s quiet, unassuming, and a little quirky – like me! I only spent a weekend in Helsinki, but it left an imprint on my heart. Here’s how I made the most of my short time there, and why I’m so eager to return.

Helsinki Finland

Helsinki is a shopper’s paradise, with boutiques and designer stores at every turn. Famous names like marimekko and iittala might be the big draw, but Helsinki’s Design District boasts more than 200 venues where one can peruse the latest in fashion, jewelry, and home decor. I loved being surrounded by that level of creativity, even if I could only afford to window shop!

Helsinki iittala store

marimekko helsinki store

Vibrant marimekko fabric for sale at the brand’s flagship store in Helsinki.

Helsinki Design District

The distinctive Finnish aesthetic can be further appreciated at the Design Museum. The ground floor takes visitors on a walk down memory lane through showrooms filled with innovations by decade. Upstairs, it’s all about fashion. It’s really a shame some of the styles never caught on!

Helsinki Design Museum

During the warm summer months, artisans and farmers sell their wares in Market Square next to the harbor. This is a great place to pick up affordable souvenirs, seasonal produce, and fresh fish. Nearby in the Old Market Hall, you can find all manner of Finnish delicacies. My friends and I put together a picnic of cured reindeer meat, crusty rye bread, sea buckthorn jam, and cold pear cider.

Helsinki harbor market

Helsinki harbor market fresh fish

Old Market Hall Helsinki

We enjoyed our picnic on Suomenlinna, a UNESCO-listed island fortress not far from the city. Built by Sweden in the 1750s to protect against Russian expansion, the fortification changed hands several times over the centuries, as did Finland itself. No longer used for military purposes, Suomenlinna – which means “Castle of Finland” – is a grass-covered haven for tourists and locals alike. To get there, hop aboard the ferry which departs from Market Square harbor. Tickets cost €5 and are good for 12 hours.

Suomenlinna Island Fortress

Helsinki Suomenlinna Fortress

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Interestingly, around 800 people live on Suomenlinna year round.

Helsinki’s Uspenski Orthodox Cathedral is a striking visual reminder of the century Finland spent within the Russian Empire. The redbrick church topped with golden onion domes is perched on a hillside above the city where it captures the morning light.

Helsinki Uspenski Orthodox Cathedral

Helsinki Orthodox Church

It’s possible to visit Helsinki as a day-trip from Tallinn, Estonia, but I don’t recommend it. Helsinki deserves much more than a single day (as does Tallinn)! Plus, where else can you spend the night in jail and not have it show up as an offense on your permanent record? Hotel Katajanokka is located in a historic building that was used as a prison until 2002. Although tastefully updated into a modern boutique hotel, many of the prison’s interior features have been left intact. It was definitely one of my more memorable hotel stays!

Helsinki prison hotel

As ever, I ate well during my time in Helsinki. The Sea Horse restaurant has been serving up traditional Baltic fare since 1934. I feasted on pickled herring, Finnish meatballs, and pancakes sweetened with homemade strawberry jam in the homey bistro setting. At the other end of the dining spectrum, Restaurant Kuu puts a modern spin on those classic flavors. Reindeer steak is updated with barley risotto and a port wine reduction; the humble salmon is elevated with a delicately herbaceous broth. I regret not sampling one of Kuu’s innovative desserts, but I was saving room for salmiakki, or salty licorice, ice cream and all the Fazer chocolates.

Helsinki Sea Horse Restaurant

Helsinki Restaurant Kuu

Finnish Salmiakki Ice Cream

I think part of the reason I felt such a connection to Helsinki is that it reminded me of my beloved Riga, particularly the architecture. I had a constant crick in my neck from looking up at the unusually-shaped buildings decorated with unexpected details. Pear cider in a leafy park helped me recuperate.

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Helsinki train station

Helsinki architecture

Helsinki in summer

Like Riga, Helsinki comes alive during the summer months.

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48 Hours in Helsinki, Finland

Island Hopping in Stockholm, Sweden

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Summers in Northern Europe are short but oh so sweet. Endless daylight hours and cool breezes create an ideal climate for sightseeing, while the tourist crowds tend to be fewer than in the sunny South. One of the loveliest Nordic destinations is Stockholm, whose many attractions are spread across 14 different islands in the Baltic Sea. The best way to explore them all is, of course, by boat. Let’s sail away to some of Stockholm’s top sights!

Swedish Flag

To get the lay of the land – er, sea – I started with an “Under the Bridges of Stockholm” boat tour. We cruised under 15 of Stockholm’s 57 bridges and through one of the locks that regulates the surrounding water level. The two hour-and-15-minute journey was accompanied with highly informative factoids delivered via personal headsets, and I thought it was €25 well spent. Sit on the right side of the boat for the best view, and be sure to bundle up as the air blowing through the windows can be quite chilly – even in July!

Stockholm Sweden

grona lund amusement park stockholm

Grona Lund, Stockholm’s thrilling amusement park.

stockholm boat tours

For an even longer ride past some of the city’s more idyllic islands, hop aboard the ferry to Drottningholm Palace, a UNESCO-listed residence of the Swedish royal family. Although built in the 1660s, the palace’s most notable feature is the stunning 18th century French-inspired interior. I spent half a day wandering through the ornately furnished rooms and marveling at the fine details! Drottningholm is located on Lovon island and the journey takes one hour each way. I recommend purchasing a combination ticket that includes the boat ride and entrance to the palace.

Stockholm Drottningholm boat

Stockholm Drottningholm Palace

Drottningholm Palace tour

Drottningholm Palace garden

The Drottningholm Palace ferry departs from the pier next to Stockholm City Hall, which is worth visiting in its own right. The red brick building went up in 1923 and has hosted the Nobel Prize Banquet since 1930. After dining in the Blue Hall, guests ascend the stairs to dance the night away in the showstopping Golden Hall. Our tour guide demonstrated how the staircase was especially designed to accommodate women’s ball gowns and high heels. Talk about a grand entrance!

Stockholm City Hall

Stockholm City Hall Golden Room

The Golden Hall glitters with 18 million mosaic tiles.

Stockholm City Hall tour

Stockholm’s most famous island is home to the picturesque Gamla Stan, or Old Town. The colorful buildings have been wonderfully preserved, with many dating to the 13th century. The cobbled lanes, some so narrow that you can touch the houses on either side, are a photographer’s dream! Souvenir shops and restaurants line the main streets and squares, though quiet nooks can be found at every turn. You’ll definitely want to linger here!

Stockholm old town

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Stockholm old town

The Royal Palace of Stockholm is the official residence of the King of Sweden and a sumptuous setting for state functions. It is also a major tourist attraction, drawing in hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. Tickets include entrance to the Royal Apartments and the Treasury, where the crown jewels are on (well-guarded) display. I watched the Changing of the Guards ceremony before heading inside the palace; to be honest, it was a little anticlimactic. I wish I’d spent those precious extra minutes in the gorgeously appointed rooms!

Stockholm Palace

Stockholm Palace throne room

The Swedish throne is made of solid silver!

Stockholm palace tour

Stockholm palace church

The breathtaking Royal Chapel is free to visit during the summer months.

Skansen, a vast open-air ethnographic museum and zoo, is my favorite Stockholm attraction. Founded in 1891, Skansen uses actual historical buildings and costumed performers to recreate centuries of rural Swedish life. I love these types of museums because they give you a real taste of a place’s culture and its development over time. Plus, this one has animals! The Skansen zoo showcases Scandinavian species such as moose, elk, bears, and wolverines, alongside more exotic breeds. Fun fact: the European bison was brought back from near-extinction thanks in part to a herd living in Skansen!

Stockholm Skansen open-air museum

Skansen Stockholm

Skansen animals

Swedes today may be known for their prowess on the water, but this wasn’t always the case. In 1625, the Swedish king and a Dutch master shipbuilder set out to forge Vasa, the most powerful warship in the Baltic. Three years later, and a mere 1,300 meters from shore, Vasa toppled over and sank to the bottom of the sea. There it remained until the 1950s when the colossal wreck was discovered and eventually raised. 98% of the original vessel, including masts and sails, remains frozen in time. Sweden’s greatest boondoggle has given the world its only preserved 17th century ship. It is on display at the Vasa Museum along with the the bones and personal effects of some of the men and women who perished in the disaster. The whole thing is tragically fascinating.

Stockholm vasa museum photos

The Vasa Museum and Skansen are both located on Djurgarden island. I rode the “Hop On Hop Off” boat over from the ferry terminal near the entrance to the Gamla Stan, but had to take the tram back as the boats stop running at 4:30pm. Tickets are valid for 24 hours, so I could have used mine to explore even more of Stockholm’s islands – if only I’d had the time!

top things to do in Stockholm Sweden

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Essential Riga: A One Day Walking Tour

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While I always recommend spending as much time as you can in a new destination, often that’s simply not possible. Many cruise ships that dock in Riga give their passengers just one day to explore the city. So how can you make the most of that precious time? I’ve put together a one-day walking tour that combines the must-see attractions with a few of my own favorite spots. So skip that boring cruise ship tour and see Riga through the eyes of a local!

8:00 am*  From the ferry terminal exit, walk to the main road (Eksporta Iela) and cross at the light. Head east down residential Citadeles iela, away from the river, then turn right on Kronvalda bulvaris and follow the tram tracks towards Old Town. Leafy Kronvalda Park, one of Riga’s many green spaces, will be on your left. At the end of the boulevard, walk around the elegant Latvian National Theater on the left corner to the crosswalk next to the bridge. Cross over busy Krisjana Valdemara iela at the light and enjoy a peaceful stroll along Riga’s City Canal, once a moat that flowed outside the Old Town walls. Those medieval fortifications were torn down in the 19th century to allow for geographical expansion, and some of the stones were used to create lovely Bastejkalns Park.

Riga City Canal

Riga Bastejkalns Park

8:45 am  At the end of the park you’ll arrive at the Freedom Monument, a beacon of Latvian independence since 1935. (Amazingly, the Nazi and Soviet regimes both chose to reinterpret the statue rather than tear it down.) Important holidays are celebrated here, often with music and always with flowers. The Latvians love flowers more than any people I know on Earth.

Riga Freedom Monument

9:00 am  Part of Riga’s charm lies in its sophisticated cafe culture, so I’d be remiss not to suggest starting your day with a cappuccino and pastry. My current go-to cafe, BakeBerry, is located in a pretty red building on Audeju iela, or Weavers’ street. To reach it, cross the tram tracks next to the Opera House and enter Old Town by way of Teatre iela, or Theater street. Turn on left on Kaleju iela, or Blacksmiths’ street, right onto Audeju iela, and the cafe will be on your left.

Riga Opera House

Riga Pastries

9:30 am  Sufficiently fueled, you’ll be ready to tackle Riga’s Central Market, one of the largest and busiest in Europe. To get there from BakeBerry, turn right onto Audeju iela, then right again onto Valnu iela, or Ramparts street. Once at the end, go down the stairs in front of you to cross under the busy road. Keep going straight through the tunnel towards the autoosta, or bus terminal, and go up the staircase at the opposite end. The market is housed in five WWI-era zeppelin hangars, each dedicated to a particular food group (i.e. fish, meat, dairy). This is a good place to find souvenirs, such as Latvian honey and woven linens, and to sample local delicacies, like salted herring or smoked chicken. Don’t miss the pickled vegetable area!

Central Market in Riga Latvia

Riga Central Market

10:30 am**  Go back the way you came (under 13 Janvara iela) and head to St. Peter’s Church. Originally built in 1209 and oft damaged due to lightning and war, restoration works remain ongoing. Inside, you’ll find a gorgeous reproduction of the 19th century wooden altar, intricate royal coats of arms, and a bronze 16th century candlestick that survived WWII in Wloclawek, Poland, and was returned to its original home in Riga in 2012. Take the lift to the observation deck in the church’s spire – the birds-eye view of Old Town is worth every penny of the €9 ticket price!

Riga St Peter's Church

Riga Latvia

11:15 am  Exit St. Peter’s Church and walk straight to Town Hall Square. This is where you’ll find arguably Riga’s prettiest attraction – the House of the Blackheads. Originally built in the 1300s but demolished during WWII, this stunning building is a testament to Latvian craftsmanship and patriotism. Locals are proud of the meticulous work that went into its post-Soviet reconstruction, and rightly so. Look for the spot outside the building which marks where the world’s first decorated Christmas tree stood centuries ago.

Riga Town Hall Square

12:00 pm  OPTION A  If you’re like me, you’ll be starving for lunch at this point. I like to take my guests to “Key to Riga” in Dome Square, opposite the Cathedral. It may seem a bit touristy and overpriced at first glance, but this medieval-themed restaurant is a great option for lunch if you know what to order. I recommend the pretty-in-pink cold beet soup and potato pancakes with sour cream and lingonberry jam, washed down with a Latvian beer. (Valmiermuiza and Mezpils are good choices.) I’ve found the service at “Key to Riga” to be friendly and efficient. Just make sure to ask for the check when the plates are being cleared away to speed up the process.

Latvian Food

12:00 pm  OPTION B  Got enough to eat at the Central Market? Then skip lunch and check out two of the city’s top attractions. Dome Cathedral has been the ceremonial heart of Riga for 800 years. While religious services were suspended during the Soviet Occupation, the church remained in use as a concert hall and its organ is renowned for its beautiful sound. Across the square, the Riga Bourse Museum boasts a large collection of 17th- to 18th-century fine arts as well as a sweeping view of Dome Square from the top floor window.

Riga Dome Cathedral

Riga Dome Square

12:00 pm  OPTION C  Museums not your thing? Then use this time to shop ’til you drop! Latvia produces some of the finest handicrafts in the world and it would be a shame to return home without a souvenir of your travels. Exceptional products include pottery, linen scarves and tablecloths, wooden children’s toys, and traditional Latvian mittens. The large craft market in Egle Square is a convenient place to find all of the above at a fair price. Just look for the stands next to the beer garden, where you can celebrate your purchases with a refreshing glass of pear cider.

Riga Craft Market

1:00 pm  Depending on which option you choose, you’ll have about 45 minutes to wander through the rest of Old Town and admire the varied architecture of this UNESCO World Heritage Site. Make your way past the Three Brothers (some of the oldest buildings in the city) to Riga Castle, the newly restored home of Latvia’s president. Head down Torna iela, or Tower street, to find the Swedish Gate and the Powder Tower, two of Riga’s most iconic structures. Around the corner, the Black Cat House faces off against the Large and Small Guilds in Livu Square. (To learn more about these fascinating buildings, read this.)

Riga Castle

2:00 pm  OPTION A  Old Riga is so charming that it can be easy to forget Latvia’s difficult history. That’s why I think visiting the Occupation Museum is so important. Currently housed in the former U.S. Embassy building on Raina bulvaris (one block from the Freedom Monument), the museum explains in detail the dark days of Latvia’s Soviet and Nazi occupations during and after WWII. Knowledgeable guides give 45-minute tours (€3 per person) in English everyday at 14:00, and the personal tidbits they share will give you a fuller picture of the damage done.

Riga Occupation Museum

2:00 pm  OPTION B  If you already know a bit about the Soviet Occupation, or would rather spend your afternoon looking at pretty things (no judgment!), then maybe the Latvian National Museum of Art should be your next stop. The historic building only recently reopened after a multi-year restoration and is truly extraordinary to behold. The permanent exhibit on the top floor showcases the best Latvian painters and sculptors, including Janis Rozentals, Johans Walters, and Vilhelms Purvitis, to name a few. I thought it was interesting to see the progression of these artists’ styles during their careers, as well as Latvian art as a whole throughout its oft-turbulent history.

Latvian Museum of Art

Latvian Museum of Art Staircase

3:00 pm  No visit to Riga would be complete without stopping to gape at the impressively detailed buildings of the Art Nouveau district. From 1900-1913, Riga experienced unprecedented economic and geographic growth. The old city walls were demolished and hundreds of new buildings constructed, many of them in the Art Nouveau style. Jugendstil, as it’s also known, is characterized by the use of fanciful decorations that celebrate womanly beauty, nature, and mythology. While over one-third of Riga’s buildings are Art Nouveau, the largest concentration can be found along Elizabetes and Alberta ielas.

Riga Art Nouveau Architecture

If you have time, check out the Art Nouveau Museum to get an idea of how these sumptuously decorated apartment buildings looked when they were first built. The ground floor of Albert iela 12 has been beautifully restored and lavishly decorated to recreate early 20th century Riga life, while staff in period costume complete the effect. Even if you don’t have time to go through the whole museum, at least go inside the lobby and look up at the wondrous spiral staircase!

Riga Art Nouveau Museum

3:30 pm  Sadly, your day in Riga has come to an end and you must rejoin your fellow passengers on the boat. Walk to the end of Elizabetes iela, carefully cross the street, and make your way to your ship’s embarkation point. Then immediately start planning your return visit. There’s so much of Riga left to explore! Have a bit more time before departure? Art Cafe Sienna on Strelnieku iela is a perfect place to wait!

Riga Art Cafe Sienna

* The cruises that stop in Riga have wildly different schedules, so please adjust this according to your trip’s timetable to ensure you’re back on the boat before it leaves!

** Most museums and attractions don’t open until 10:00 am and are closed on Mondays.

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