Riga and the alternate hipster universe

The resistance I’ve felt writing about Riga, Latvia, is similar to that of Geneva: I didn’t want to be there. But unlike Geneva, Riga didn’t give me an uncomfortable vibe. Perhaps the timing was off and I wasn’t ready for city life after my quiet time on a farm. Then I chalked it up to lack of chemistry: a place I could admire from a distance, like someone I find attractive but don’t want to date: It’s not you, Riga, it’s me. Later I would realize something else about this resistance, but I’ll save that for the next post.

Why didn’t I adore Riga as much as Tallinn? After all, both are Baltic, former-Soviet-occupied cities with charm, medieval history and stunning architecture, and only 4 hours away from each other by car.

Early-morning Riga before the hoards of tourists ruin my shot

But that’s where the similarities end. While Estonia’s polished, clean beauty is strongly influenced by its Nordic neighbors, Riga evokes grit and roll-up-your-sleeves enthusiasm of an ambitious teenager’s first job. It’s a city that’s coming alive to itself after dwelling in the Soviet shadow. Perhaps this quality was made more evident as it was the 30 anniversary of the Baltic Way, the peaceful rebellion against the USSR in 1989, but it surfaced in other ways as well, including the OraculeTang co-working space (highly recommend) and the Art Hostel I stayed in, part of the FreeRiga project that seeks to bring life and community back to abandoned neighborhoods.

This youthful pride earned my admiration, along with an admittedly hypocritical appreciation of getting my soy latte fix at 7:30 am, easily 1.5 hours before nearly all of Europe. Thank you, thank you, for catering to Western travelers, I shamefully whispered to Riga one morning into my to-go cup — such a tourist thing to say, especially since I refuse to acknowledge that I have been, in fact, a tourist.

Riga’s old town courts Western tourists in a shamelessly promiscuous way, bordering on tragic. Restaurants broadcast Western pop music while smiling guides hold placards high – “Blue group, follow me!” — leading tourist armies who dutifully snap their cameras wherever their attentions are directed. Yes it was summer, and yes, Tallinn also had more than its share of camera-toting tourist armies, but at least Tallinn’s were cruise-shippers who mostly vanished at night and early mornings. Riga’s old-town tourist throngs only increase when the sun goes down. I soon started looking for my escape hatch.   

old town energy after dark

Escape hatch #1 for me is always nature. I was advised to avoid Jurmala, a charming little coastal town a short train ride from Riga, since it was “full of Russian tourists.” I went anyway. It turned out to be a lovely day and it didn’t feel overly touristy to me; simply a glimpse into the summertime vacation patterns of Russia.

Riga also has its share of green areas within the city. Around the northeastern perimeter of the old town I found a vast park where I basked nearly every day with a book or my computer watching the boats, paddle boarders and kayakers float by. But after a while all parks look alike, and my camera’s trigger finger was getting itchy. I needed something more interesting.

I should mention that just past the park is a collection of Art Nouveau architecture (not to be confused with Art Deco). Apparently this is a draw for many people, and if you’re an architecture history buff who’s into rooftop swirls and gargoyles, this might be for you. I just couldn’t do it. Next.

Keep walking northwest and with a bit of luck you’ll find Riga’s Meira district, recently voted one of the most hipster places in the world. Talk about high expectations — I couldn’t wait to see what all the fuss was about. I discovered Rocket Bean Roastery on Meira Street, complete with Edison bulbs and young entrepreneurs pounding away on their laptops, heads bobbing to beats within the bubble of their head-encompassing headphones. Yes, I’m in the right place. Or so I thought. As I roamed the area with my to-go cup of soy-infused rocket fuel, I spied a couple shops and a lone café valiantly carrying the weight of this hipster reputation amidst tired, broken buildings dark from dis-use. San Francisco or Berlin this is not.

Was I in the wrong place? After checking Google Maps a couple times, a suspicion began percolating in my mind — the street must transform itself at the stroke of midnight when all the hipsters come creeping out of their hidey-holes like shoemakers’ elves. Or perhaps it’s an alternate hipster reality, one that’s only visible if you have hipster blood running through your veins. Apparently I didn’t make the cut.

Later that night the chatty hostess of my hipster hostel informed me of a passageway across the street from Rocket Bean: the secret entrance to hipster nirvana. I returned the next day, late afternoon; yes indeed, this is the place to be if you enjoy food trucks, beer and groovy live DJ beat. Here I found myself standing on the sidelines behind my camera like I was at a wildlife preserve: don’t feed the hipsters! It occurred to me that the language gap gives me an excuse to not talk to anyone: maybe that’s why I’m so comfortable traveling solo. No, don’t be ridiculous. 

I never did find the rest of hipster nirvana. If you’d like a taste of it, “Tallinas Pagalms” on Google maps looks to be in the right place. I’m still not 100% sure that’s right; basically walk out the door of Rocket Bean, cross the street angling slightly left, and if you’re lucky the gate will be open and you’ll see a neon sign. Go through the gate. If you really do have hipster blood in your veins, you’ll be able to take it from there, meet the right people, and perhaps find what this Gen-X fart missed.

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