Feel the former Eastern Bloc shrug off its dour image in the Latvian capital city, where a demure facade gives way to a place of surprising life and energy. Riga's exquisite World Heritage-listed old town is as pretty as any in Eastern Europe, but the city is also home to a young population that keeps the bars and music lit and loud well into the night. Wander among Europe's finest collection of art nouveau buildings, and get a sobering glimpse of Soviet times before washing it all down with a beer or three.
Riga's historic centre is a chessboard of city squares, the most striking of which is Town Hall Square. On one side of the square is the city's most ornate, and arguably prettiest, building: the curiously named House of the Blackheads. Once home to the hard-partying Blackheads brotherhood, it's been rebuilt seven times, most recently in 2001 after being destroyed in World War II. A few steps from the house is St Peter's Church, with Riga's tallest spire. Take the glass lift to the top of the spire and you'll find the city's finest view.
For something very different to the old town's tourist restaurants, head north of the emblematic Freedom Monument to Miera Street. This grim-looking strip of faded buildings and faded grandeur is also now home to an emerging string of hip little cafes such as Miera and Vina Telpa. At the old town's edge, beside the remnants of the city wall, dine in style among the clean, minimalist decor of 3 Pavaru (3pavari.lv), run by three Latvian celebrity chefs.
The Corner House (okupacijasmuzejs.lv/en/kgb-building) looks much like any other building on busy Brivibas Street, but it once filled Latvians with terror. The former base of the Cheka (the Soviet security organisation) opened to visitors in 2014 and is a literal journey into the hell of humanity. Tours take you through an interrogation room to a cramped cell, the cage-like exercise yard, and finally a one-time execution room. It's an emotional hour – my young Corner House guide was fighting back tears at one point.
Riga is Europe's art nouveau showpiece, with one-third of its buildings said to be of art nouveau design. Short Alberta Street is the finest example, with wall-to-wall art nouveau structures – all turrets, towers and frills, with gargoyles peering down from wedding-cake facades. See behind the facades at the corner Art Nouveau Museum (jugendstils.riga.lv/eng/muzejs), a beautifully renovated apartment furnished in full art nouveau style.
Neiburgs and Konventa Seta offer utter contrasts, but are both attractions as much as hotels. Neiburgs (neiburgs.com) is all style, and fills one of the most magnificent art nouveau buildings in the old town – you almost want to sleep outside just to wake up looking at the facade. Nearby Konventa Seta (hotelkolonna.com/hotels/riga/konventa-seta/en) is a sleep inside history, with rooms spread across seven buildings of a 15th-century convent. It's not fancy, but like all good convents it has a day spa, with offerings that include a sensual massage for two – the nuns most certainly wouldn't approve.
For a grand Rigan sunset, head to the rooftop bar of the Albert Hotel (alberthotel.lv), peering across the tips of the old town. Add local flavour to the experience with a shot of black balsam, a uniquely Latvian concoction. Containing 24 herbs, it's been distilled in Riga since the 1750s and is suitably medicinal in taste. Try it straight, or with rum or blackcurrant juice.
Andrew Bain travelled courtesy of UTracks.