This is a world of delectable dairy products, tart berries, homemade rye bread, flavorful smoked meat and sausages, tangy pickles, and fresh Baltic seafood.
This is a cuisine rooted in foraging, fermenting, and preserving, as well as celebrating the seasonal and the local. Add to these the centuries-old traditions of chocolate making and beer brewing, and you have a recipe for a world-class cuisine.
Latvia’s elegant capital, Riga is leading the country in a dynamic culinary renaissance. As traditional recipes and cooking methods are rediscovered and revived, Riga’s chefs are reinterpreting both to the delight of gourmands. Whether you prefer noshing at the Gastro Market or savoring a five-star meal in one of the city’s elegant restaurants, the Riga food scene has much to savor.
Kick off Your Exploration of Riga’s Gastronomy at the Legendary Central Market
Riga’s Central Market is just the latest iteration of a tradition dating back to the medieval era when Riga’s Hansa merchants plied a brisk trade on the shores of the Daugava. Today, the Central Market is housed in Zeppelin hangers left by the Kaiser’s army after World War I, then cannily repurposed into an impressive UNESCO World Heritage Site. This is one of Europe’s largest covered food markets, and the fulcrum of a dynamic urban renewal of the neighborhood.
Inside the cavernous market pavilions, you’ll find classic Latvian staples such as dense rye bread spiked with caraway and coriander; luscious cottage cheese, sour cream, and hard and soft cheeses; all manner of smoked fish, blood sausage; quince syrup, and Latvia’s famous sardines in oil. Don’t be shy about accepting samples from the merchants!
INSIDER TIPWhile at the Central Market, enjoy the newly-opened Gastro Market which features international fare, fresh shellfish, craft beer, and lively vibes.
A Riga Rite of Passage: a Shot of Riga Black Balsam
Every country needs a national drink, and every national drink needs a legend. Riga Black Balsam, a syrupy botanical bitter first brewed in 1752 by a pharmacist called Kunze, is Latvia’s national drink. It’s national legend is thanks to Russia’s Catherine the Great fell ill in Riga but made a speedy recovery after Black Balsam was administered.
The original flavor of Riga Black Balsam has a bitter taste that many liken to cough syrup, but magical things start to happen to Black Balsam’s flavor profile when it is mixed and tempered with other flavors. Cherry and Black Current Balsam are popular drinks as are craft cocktails made from all three Balsam flavors. Or, try Hot Balsam which is infused with spices.
At Balzambars, talented mixologists have invented a range of original cocktails using the national elixir as a base for unforgettable cocktails like Balsam Cobbler!
INSIDER TIPFor curious culinary historians, a visit to the Riga Black Balsam factory, which also distills Stolichnaya vodka, could well be a highlight of your trip. Tour the factory and visit the tasting room. Reservations required.
Stroll Through the Laid-Back Weekend Market in Riga’s Picturesque Kalnciema Neighborhood
Try a bowl of Latvia’s national dish of grey peas with bacon, blood sausages, tart pickles, and tangy sauerkraut, all washed down with a mug of Hot Balsam as you wander through cozy, intimate Kalnciema Market in Riga’s charming nineteenth-century wooden house district. Since 2005, careful restoration of these eclectic houses — some dating back to the eighteenth century — has made this left bank district one of the most-visited places in Riga.
While there, sample artisanal honey, home-baked rye bread, small batch jams, and honey, and browse for handicrafts such as hand-carved wooden cutting boards and textiles.
INSIDER TIPHemp merchants have become a fixture at the market, selling a range of oils, creams, and tinctures.
Indulge Your Sweet Tooth With Coffee and Chocolates in the Old Town at V. Ķuze
No visit to Riga is complete without a visit to the elegant, art deco V. Ķuze Cafe, one of Riga’s oldest coffee shops. Especially welcoming on one of Riga’s spectacularly windy days, the cozy armchairs, lacquered wood, and Bakelite furnishings, combined with the hiss of the coffee machine envelop you in a warm embrace as soon as you cross the storied threshold.
The interior of the cafe harkens back to 1930s when Riga chocolatier Vilhams Ķuze was making a name for himself in Riga’s hyper-competitive chocolate industry. His passion for sweets lives on in the extensive beverage menu, which includes all manner of spiked coffees, herbal teas, hot Balsams, and some of Ķuze’s signature hot chocolate.
INSIDER TIPTry several of Ķuze’s chocolate truffles, which rival those of that other Riga chocolate titan, Laima.
Tackle the Latvian Beer Challenge
The Latvian thirst for beer is legendary! In many of the country’s “daninas” or folksongs, beer is affectionately known as “the elder brother.”
Latvians are also raging beer snobs: very picky when it comes to sourcing ingredients and especially finicky about using preservatives. This selective sourcing means that genuinely great Latvian beer is best sampled as close as you can get to its source.
With that in mind, set yourself the challenge of sampling some of the 40 beer varieties of Latvia’s popular Labietis Craft Beer at the company’s first brewpub, adjacent to the brewery, or in their newly-opened Gastro Market outlet in Riga’s Central Market. Let the bartenders guide you through the five color-coded families from the light greys (5% alcohol) through the heady purples (over 10% alcohol). In true Latvian fashion, many of the beers are flavored with herbs such as meadowsweet, caraway seeds, elderflower, hemp, as well as berries and honey.
Discover 'Nouvelle Latvian' Cuisine at FOREST
Classic “Latvian cuisine” is difficult to pinpoint, but one of its characteristics is a commitment to using what is local, seasonal, and available either in the Soviet era when food was scarce or in more prosperous periods of Latvia’s history. Foraging, preserving, and living off the land are central tenants. As Riga takes her rightful place amongst the gastronomic capitals of Europe, chefs are reinterpreting Latvian classics in ways that are creative and innovative, while still adhering to these essential first principles. FOREST, in the heart of the Art Nouveau district, is an excellent example of this new trend in Latvian cooking. Here, traditional hearty soups are spiked with unusual ingredients such as wakame seaweed or topped with cucumber foam., while the beloved rye bread dessert, normally paired with whipped cream and berries, gets an exotic makeover with mascarpone and mango.
Vegans and Vegetarians Rejoice at Mr. Fox
It’s worth the wait for a seat at trendy Mr. Fox, located in the heart of the Art Nouveau district, particularly if Riga’s grey peas and bacon are beginning to wreak havoc on your digestive system. Mr. Fox is open for breakfast through lunch and late afternoon, offering a range of delicious, healthy options. Fortify yourself with oat pancakes, frittatas, create-your-own grain or noodle bowls with optional toppings, homemade soups, avocado toast, and some of Riga’s best coffee. The cafe also offers takeaway if you are pressed for time, but if you stay, you’re more than likely to meet some of Latvia’s young entrepreneurs and creatives, who flock to Mr. Fox in droves.
INSIDER TIPTry the filling Buddha Bowl with quinoa and hummus.
Relax Riverside and Enjoy Riga’s Fresh Seafood
The shy Latvian spirit embodied in the rueful national hashtag, #Iamanintrovert is nowhere to be found at Muusu Terese! There is a palpable buzz as parties mingle on the riverfront restaurant’s cozy sofas overlooking Riga’s small yacht mooring. With a menu that changes to reflect what’s in season and a daily fish special, you can return time and again to Muusu Terase to enjoy innovative food, rich desserts, the excellent wine list, and lovely views across the Daugava of Kipsala’s historic wooden houses.
INSIDER TIPIn the summertime, bring a sweater and your camera—both will come in handy.
Knuckle Down to a Time-Honored Riga Tradition: Meat on a Skewer!
Tackle Riga’s renowned knuckle of pork on a skewer at kitschy Key to Riga, named for an eighteenth-century attempt by the Swedes to capture Riga, which was repelled by the ingenuity and cleverness of the town’s citizens. Key to Riga offers classic, unadulterated Latvian fare: grey peas and bacon, grilled meats, smoked sausage, smoked fish, delectable dairy, and the famed pork knuckle on a skewer, which arrives at the table with a dramatic flourish. Though the interior and staff costumes are a tad cheesy, the food itself is authentic and an excellent value for money.
INSIDER TIPThe Key to Riga’s outdoor cafe is one of the best spots for relaxing and people-watch in bustling Dome Square, the venue for many festivals, concerts, and holiday markets.
Treat Yourself to the High Life With Craft Cocktails and a Spectacular View of the Riga Skyline
Round off your trip to Riga with craft cocktails high in the sky at the Radisson Hotel’s Skyline Bar, and enjoy unrivaled views of Riga’s illuminated towers, domes, and steeples. The Skyline Bar is elegant but not too fussy: the perfect place to enjoy the sunset and one of the Skyline’s signature cocktails—try the Baltic Winter or Ligo Spritz, both part of the “Four Seasons” drinks menu. Many an alternative evening plan has been jettisoned in favor of staying put at the Skyline to watch the stars come out and, inevitability, turn to the bar’s excellent food menu.
INSIDER TIPAsk the hostess directions to the best location for taking fantastic pictures of the Riga skyline.