Riga (map) is the capital city of Latvia, one of the three Baltic nations in northern Europe. Situated on the Gulf of Riga, at the mouth of the Daugava River, Riga can trace its roots back to the 2nd century A.D. when it was settled by the Livs, an ancient Finnish tribe. It quickly grew into an important trading centre due to its favourable location at the Gulf of Riga. As the settlement grew and became more wealthy, regional powerhouses fought for influence over Riga. Throughout the centuries, Riga was occupied by, amongst others, Sweden, Russia and Germany. These days, Riga is a bustling city with a historic centre that gained UNESCO World Heritage status in 1997. I spent three days exploring this gorgeous city and I was hooked as there are so many things to do in Riga! With its beautiful architecture, fascinating museums, leafy parks, cozy cafés and top-notch restaurants, Riga is perfect for a European city break!
Things to do in Riga
1. Stroll around the medieval Old Town
The medieval Old Town is a maze of picturesque cobble-stone streets filled with cozy restaurants, cafés and shops, punctuated by atmospheric squares. The best thing to do in Riga is simply to wander aimlessly around the streets between Riga Castle and the Freedom Monument. Don’t forget to look up and admire the architecture.
Places you shouldn’t miss include the House of Blackheads at the City Hall Square, the Riga Castle, St. Peter’s Church and the Cathedral. While on your stroll, try to spot the cat figures on the rooftop of the Cat House and the story behind them.
2. Discover the splendid Art Nouveau architecture
With its 800-odd Art Nouveau buildings, Riga is an important city for Art Nouveau architecture in Europe. This style is characterised by elaborate motifs with expressive faces, curvy figures and curly lines based on natural forms. Some of the most magnificent creations can be seen along the Elizabetes and Alberta Streets, and the Strēlnieku Street in the Embassy district.
Read about Art Nouveau architecture in Riga.
3. See Riga from above
A great way to admire Riga’s beautiful skyline is from above. Two observation spots I can recommend are from the tower of St. Peter’s Church – there’s a viewing platform at a height of 72m – and the Skyline Bar on the 26th floor of the Radisson Blu Hotel.
4. Check out the wine bars
Riga may not be the first place that comes to mind when one thinks of wine but I discovered several wine bars that are simply irresistible. While you’re in the Art Nouveau district, check out the buzzing Vina Studija or indulge yourself in some of Riga’s finest cocktails and finger food at the Art Nouveau-inspired Bar XIII.
In the Old Town, you have to drop by Easy Wine. With over 60 wines (you choose and dispense your own wine from the wall!) and fabulous food, Easy Wine is perfect for a spot of wine-tasting.
5. Indulge in contemporary Latvian cuisine
One of the biggest surprises that Riga had in store for me was the quality of its culinary scene. Young Latvian chefs are making their mark in the capital, mixing traditional Latvian ingredients with contemporary styles. Don’t miss the culinary magic at 3 Pavaru Restorans located in the historic Jacob’s Barracks in the Old Town – this was my personal highlight in Riga! Other restaurants serving gorgeous contemporary Latvian cuisine I can recommend include the cozy Muusu (in the Art Nouveau district), Valtera and the fabulous Le Dome Fish Restaurant (in the Dome Hotel), the last two are located in Miesnieku Street in the Old Town.
6. Learn about Latvia’s past
Latvia has a long and often tumultuous history, with regional powers fighting amongst each other for control of this strategically located country. The modern history of Latvia (1940-1991) comes to life in the Museum of Occupation, a must-visit in my book. Another museum that I can highly recommend is the KGB Museum. During a 1.5-hour tour (reservations required), visitors are led through the building where Latvians were imprisoned, tortured and murdered during the Soviet occupation. It’s a powerful experience that won’t easily be forgotten.
7. Cross the river to Kipsala
Cross the modern suspension bridge to Kipsala to admire this rustic part of Riga. Kipsala offers lovely views of Riga’s Old Town from across the river but stroll around and you’ll discover 150-year-old wooden mansions with classicist and national romantic styles.
8. Visit the Orthodox Cathedral
The Nativity of Christ Orthodox Cathedral is one of Riga’s most recognisable landmarks. Built in the 19th century when Latvia was part of the Russian Empire, the cathedral is especially famous for its stunning icons.
9. Wander around Europe’s largest market
Riga’s Central Market is composed of a series of hangar-like buildings and is reputedly Europe’s largest market. It’s a great experience to stroll around the myriad of stalls. Don’t miss the seafood section (and grab some caviar while you’re there!).
10. Spend a day at the seaside
One of the great things to do in Riga in the summer is to visit Jurmala, Riga’s seaside resort. Sandwiched between the Gulf of Riga and the Lielupe River about 25km from Riga, Jurmala is easy to reach via regular train services. Jurmala’s main draw is its 33km long beach, spas and beautiful Art Nouveau wooden mansions.
During the Soviet occupation, Jurmala was the favourite seaside resort for top Soviet officials such as Brezhnev and Kruschchev. Indulge yourself with a terrific spa treatment at the Amber Spa Hotel, stroll around the beautiful pine forests in Dzintari or simply admire the architecture of the gorgeous wooden houses (I recommend hiring a bicycle to get around). A great place for a meal is the riverside Laivas restaurant.
Tours and hotels in Riga
I advise staying in Riga’s Old Town as everything’s within walking distance. There are many accommodation options in the Old Town. For a luxurious stay, I can definitely recommend the Dome Boutique Hotel. With its spacious designer rooms, top-notch restaurant, friendly service and excellent location, the Dome is a real treat!
Latvia is a member of the European Union and the euro is the official currency. The main gateway to Latvia is the international airport in Riga. Air Baltic offers frequent flights that connect Riga with many cities in Europe. The airline offers a two-class layout (Economy and Business) – for those looking for more comfort, legroom and flexibility, I can recommend Air Baltic’s Business Class (which also includes Lounge access at Riga Airport).
Learn more about Latvia at Latvia Tourism.
Note: My trip to Latvia was made possible by iambassador and the Latvian Tourism Development Agency with the support of the European Union Regional Development Fund. As always, all opinions stated above are mine, and mine only.