Cycling into a big city is always a little stressful. After the nearly traffic-free country side, it feels frenetically busy. It was no different arriving in Riga. Thankfully, riding through the suburbs, there were bike paths and as we got closer to the centre and the location of our booked accommodation, cyclists were generally cycling on the very wide sidewalks, so, why flout convention?
We found the apartment, met the host and got settled in. After showering and putting up a load of laundry we headed out to explore our neighbourhood. We were tired from the day’s long ride but we needed to eat. Besides, we only had a couple of days in Riga and wanted to see as much of this old city as we could. We found a great local brewery not far away. Valmiermuiža offered local brews paired with a selection of seasonal country food. It was a great find. Afterwards, we ended up at small and quirky Walter’s Grappa for a night cap before going back to the apartment and a much-needed night’s rest.
Riga did not disappoint. Latvia’s capital is home to one-third of the country’s population and the largest city in the Baltics. It is a former member of the Hanseatic League, a loose confederation of merchant guilds and their towns. It grew from a few northern German members, eventually stretching from the Baltic Sea to the North Sea between the 14th and 17th centuries. Other member cities included, Lubeck, Hamburg, Tallinn, Bergen, Brügge and even London.
Riga has the largest collection of Art Nouveau architecture and it is spectacular, in particular on Alberta Iela where the buildings have been restored, but there are many others in the centre and some in the historic part of the city. Many of the buildings are in dire need of restoration and sit empty as the city’s population is steadily declining. In 1991, when Latvia won its independence from the failing Soviet Union, the city had 900,000 residents. That number has fallen to 639,000, mostly due to immigration and low birth rates.
The historic walled city of Riga is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s a big draw for tourists – more than 2 million per year – and pumps a lot of money into the city’s economy. The port of Riga has ferry services to Stockholm, Sweden, and Lubeck, Germany. Because the weather forecast for the region didn’t look so good, and our time remaining was limited, we decided to take the overnight ferry to Stockholm from Riga, rather than from Ventspils, 220 km and three days cycling to the west. This way, we had some time to explore Stockholm and the Åland Archipelago on our way back to Helsinki.
We also visited Riga’s famous market, Europe’s largest market constructed by reusing old German Zeppelin hangers. It’s a bustling place both inside the large market buildings and outside where stalls of produce and flowers are set up.
Sweden’s capital Stockholm is a buzzing metropolis, similar in size to Vancouver. The city is sprinkled over 14 islands and is the cultural, media, political and economic hub of Sweden. Arriving on the overnight ferry in Stockholm from Riga felt a bit like time travel. We docked at the city’s Värtahamnen port and, like a cyclist’s dream, followed a well-signed bicycle path into the centre of the city. From there, we continued on through Slussen, Gamla Stan and Södermalm to our rented apartment just across one of the many bridges in the southern part of the city.
We left the bicycles at the apartment, having decided to explore on foot instead, having the option of returning by metro with a convenient stop right outside our building. Södermalm is a dense, thriving neighbourhood of apartment blocks with no shortage of shops and restaurants, and is fun to explore.
Gamla is the city’s old town, dating back to the 13th century, with cobblestone streets and medieval buildings. It’s also home to the Stockholm Cathedral, the Royal Palace and the Nobel Museum. It’s crawling with tourists but you can still find quiet corners down its narrow alleyways.
We spent two full days wandering around the centre parts of Stockholm, finding places to eat and looking for interesting vantage points. We had lunch one afternoon at a place called A Bowl Poke Poke, tucked away at the top of a steep Blecktornsgränd, just around the corner of fictional character Mikael Blomkvist’s penthouse in Stieg Larsson’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy. Jan and I both had a Tuna bowl salad with a drink for a mere 300 SEK, or $48. Welcome to Stockholm pricing.
We booked our overnight ferry to Mariehamn in Åland and spent our third and final day in Stockholm cycling around the city’s vast parks and green spaces, all interconnected with bike paths. Stockholm is one of the greenest capitals in the world and is planning to be fossil fuel free by 2050.