Coming from London, Paris or New York, you’re quite likely to start with the expectation that Riga will feel like a small city: after all, it’s of similar population to Sheffield or Detroit.

Latvia National Opera House © Daiga Macpane
Latvia National Opera House
© Daiga Macpane
But one look at the Riga Opera House will dispel you of that idea: its shining white classical columns and sheer size have more in common with the Bolshoi than with any provincial theatre, and its setting on the edge of generous city centre parkland makes it clear that here is a city where music and culture are some of the biggest landmarks.

Go inside and, when you’ve enjoyed the interior, you’ll realise that the quality of performance and staging is up there with the best: the youthful exuberance in the Fledermaus that I saw there last winter was one of my highlights of the year. They’re basically a rep company with a few performances each of many operas through the season, but they also do their fair share of new productions each year: September will see a new Faust, whose director Aik Karapetian promises late-gothic aesthetics and German expressionist silent movie techniques, while December’s Eugene Onegin will mark movie actress Rēzija Kalniņa’s first foray into opera direction. At the ballet in October, proving the general pan-Europeanism of the place, Slovenian choreographer Edward Clug recreates the tale of Grieg and Ibsen’s Norwegian hero Peer Gynt.

Great Guild Hall
Great Guild Hall
The most distinctive of Riga’s concert venues is the Great Guild Hall, whose imposing external medieval architecture has been complemented on the inside by some artful design and clever acoustic work to make it a lovely concert venue – albeit with a lively sound that needs an intelligent conductor to tame it. Sinfonietta Riga’s season-closer on 26 May looks particularly eye-catching, with Haydn and Bach framing James McMillan’s concerto Veni, Veni, Emmanuel, with renowned percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie as the soloist.

Across the broad Daugava River in the old wharves, the Spīķeri Concert Hall is a superbly converted warehouse providing a funky space for more contemporary music. In common with several of the Nordic countries, Latvia has a strong choral tradition, and lovers of choral music will find plenty to entertain them at the main Riga Cathedral as well as various other churches around the city. Top Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks often features prominently.

Although Riga isn’t in any way short of concert venues, none of them have particularly high seating capacity, so when the biggest orchestras come to visit, they tend to perform in the opera house: this year’s Riga Festival will be opened there, again in May, by Antonio Pappano and the LSO.

For the biggest concert space, wait for the summer and drive half an hour from the city centre to Jūrmala, a seaside resort and spa which has been popular since Tsarist times and boasts some eye-watering real estate set between the pine forests and the Baltic. In particular, go there in June, when the modern, semi-outdoor Dzintari Concert Hall will host a trio of choirs and a suitably extended Latvian National Symphony Orchestra for Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand. The same complex has an attractive chamber music hall, which is fully indoor.

July’s Early Music Festival gives the opportunity for a glorious day trip out of town: an hour or so’s drive will get you to the Baroque extravagance of Rundāle Palace, with its spectacular state rooms and extensive park, which is still laid out on its 1740 design and includes a substantial rose garden. (If you’re not renting a car, by the way, the agency Skaisto skatu aģentūra organise buses during the festival).

Rundale Palace
Rundale Palace

Back in Riga, and hungry after all that concentrating on music, you’ll discover that the place is a haven for foodies. A whole generation of young Latvian chefs have gone to Western Europe to train and returned home to set up their own restaurants: I had some seriously top end food to be had at distinctly mid-market prices. My personal favourite was the Kolonāde (Colonnade) restaurant, perfectly situated a stone’s throw away from the Opera House in the surrounding parkland, where excellent food was complemented by an equally good wine list. By the way, although Latvia is too far north for the locals to grow their own grapes, they make superb high end cider.

Riga's food market in converted Zeppelin hangers © Davd Karlin
Riga's food market in converted Zeppelin hangers
© Davd Karlin

A trip to the giant food market in a set of former Zeppelin hangars by the Daugava (which you will pass if you’re heading from the centre of town to Spīķeri Concert Hall) will reveal more local apple varieties than you could imagine possible, as well as a bewildering array of other foodstuffs - as you might expect from a northern climate, they’re particularly strong on smoked and pickled goodies.

2016 will be an interesting year for art lovers here. The Latvian National Museum of Art has just undergone a complete refurbishment: when we visited in December, they had just opened the building to the public for a few days, without any of the artworks on the walls, so that Rigans could see what their money had been spent on. They had hundreds of thousands of visits, prompting the gag in tourism circles that obviously, the best way to get people to visit museums was to take out all the artworks. Having arrived for the huge queue at opening time, I can vouch for the fact that several parts of the building are spectacular, so it should be quite an event when it reopens – with artworks in place – on 4 May.

From the narrow streets around the Cathedral to the Art Nouveau exuberance in Alberta Iela, Riga is a lovely city to walk around. A top class opera house and fine local musicians make it a great destination for a cultural trip.

Plasterwork at National Museum of Art © David Karlin
Plasterwork at National Museum of Art
© David Karlin

 

This article was sponsored by the Riga Tourism Development Board
David's trip was sponsored by Latvia Concerts