As I set on exploring Riga, Latvia’s capital city, I discovered a new place to love. I didn’t know much about this enigmatic country. However, it all changed once I arrived. I discovered fairy-tale architecture, charming old towns, stunning castles and Latvians’ penchant for saunas. Just like that, I became totally hooked.
I never imagined loving my trip to Latvia. In fact, I didn’t really have any expectation coming here. I wanted to dive in and explore everything without doing any research. Turned out, it became one of my favourite trips.
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As Latvia’s capital, Riga is the largest city in Latvia and the Baltics. (Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia make up the Baltic States.) Riga sits on the shores of Daugava River that flows into the Gulf of Riga. It then meets the Baltic Sea. Due to its position, Riga has always been an important trade centre. Attracting Viking and then German traders, mercenaries and missionaries.
German merchants established a trading post here around 1158. Then the newly-proclaimed Bishop of Livonia, Albert, arrived in 1201. With 23 ships, 1,500 crusaders and on a mission to Christianize the pagans. Albert established the Order of Livonian Brothers of the Sword (later the Teutonic Knights) and officially established Riga as a city.
Over the next few centuries, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Swedish, Russian and German empires ruled Riga. Latvia finally gained a brief independence between 1918-1940. After WWII, it became part of the Soviet Union, until declaring independence once again in 1991.
Things to do in Riga
Riga is a place where you can get lost, spellbound by what’s around you. It’s also a place that you can come for a short stay or few, throughout the year. There is enough here to keep anyone happy.
I came to Riga in November. While it’s a great time to travel off season, it’s also a time when the weather isn’t the best. Despite the fact that we barely saw sun, Riga still managed to enchant us.
There are so many amazing things to do in Riga. I’ve separated them into different themes. You can use them to create your own self-guided discovery walks. Or, you can just wander around and enjoy the beauty on every corner.
Exploring Riga – squares and markets
Riga has a number of attractive squares. Here you’ll find interesting building with quirky features, numerous bars and cafes, and specialty shops.
Town Hall Square
During the Middle Ages, the Town Hall Square served as an open-air market. It was completely destroyed during WWII. The square and the buildings around it have been restored over time. Here you’ll find the House of the Blackheads, Town Hall and the statue of St. Roland, Riga’s patron saint.
Although the Livu Square was created after WWII, it blends nicely with the rest of the city. Lined by 18th century residential buildings, it’s a great spot to admire the colourful buildings. Here you’ll also find the Great Guild Hall and the Small Guild Hall. During summers, there are concerts and patios for people watching.
During the 1930s, a number of medieval buildings were torn down to create the Dome Square we see today. Here you’ll also find the Riga Cathedral, built originally by Bishop Albert, Riga’s founder, in 1211.
This historical pedestrian quarter was originally constructed between 1887and 1900 by Kristaps Bergs. It’s hard to believe that it was once a cabbage field. Today, it’s a luxury shopping area with a hotel, offices, upscale shops and restaurants. Bergs Bazaar was restored after Latvia’s independence by Bergs’ descendants.
For a throwback to 19th century wooden architecture, head over to the Kalnciems Quarter. Here you’ll find six restored wooden houses, surrounding an apple orchard. Today, the restored houses are home to numerous cafes, restaurants and shops selling arts and crafts.
Originally constructed as barracks for the troops during the 18th century. Today the yellow buildings along Torna Street are home to bars, restaurants, service shops and stores. This is also a great place to explore the old city gates and the pretty streets.
Riga for architecture lovers
If you love architecture, you’re going to love exploring Riga. To me, it was an unexpected bonus about this place. Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect, but the charming Art Nouveau buildings with their intricate ornamentation totally knocked my socks off. Then, there were all these other stunning places almost around every corner.
Riga Art Nouveau District
Art Nouveau style comprises about one third of the architecture in the city. There are over 800 buildings in this style all over Latvia’s capital, making it a perfect destination for architecture lovers. For some of the best Art Nouveau examples head over to the Alberta and Elizabetes streets. Here you’ll find buildings designed by the well-known architect Mikhail Eisenstein. The street, named after the Bishop Albert, founder of Riga, was Eisenstein’s gift to the city on its 700th anniversary. Most of Art Nouveau buildings here were constructed between 1904 and 1914.
Art Nouveau Museum
When looking at the hypnotizing Art Nouveau buildings just isn’t’ enough, head over the Art Nouveau Museum, located at 12 Alberta Street ( Alberta iela 12 in Lativian). The museum is located in a house that once belonged to a famous Latvian architect, Konstantīns Pēkšēns. Inside you can see an authentic interior of an Art Nouveau apartment and a stunning staircase. The museum’s website offers a number of suggested walking tours for spotting the architectural gems.
The castle’s foundations were laid in 1330. Over the centuries, the castle was a silent witness to changing rulers, wars and elements. During Latvia’s independence between the two World Wars, Riga Castle became home to Latvia’s president. Once Latvia re-gained its independence in 1991, the castle once again became a presidential home. You can’t miss the white-washed exterior on the riverbank of Daugava that are one of the symbols of Latvia’s capital.
The Powder Tower
The cylindrical Powder Tower’s foundations date back to 1330. Built as one of 18 towers that formed Riga’s early fortifications, it was rebuilt in 1650 after damage from the Swedish invasion. Originally called the Sand Tower, this is one of the oldest structures in the city. It was renamed the Powder Tower during the 17th century, when it was used to store gunpowder. Today it houses the Latvian War Museum.
As you stroll along Jackob’s Barracks, don’t miss the somewhat simple arch that seems as if cut underneath a three-story townhouse. The gate dates back to the Swedish rule during late 17th century. In those days, the city executioner lived in the apartment above the gate. However, today many newlyweds pass through the gate for fortune after marriage. I am not sure how that makes sense as far as luck goes. Make sure to check out the remnants of the old defensive wall once you pass the gate.
House of Blackheads
The House of Blackheads was originally built in 1344 as a fraternity for guild of unmarried German merchants. This Dutch Renaissance style building was a venue for meetings, banquets and parties. Bombed heavily during WWII, it was finished off by the Soviets few years later. The house was fully restored using original plans, for Riga’s 800th birthday in 2001.
Riga Cat House
While exploring Riga you’ll definitely come across imagery of the famed Riga Cat House. While this pretty Art Nouveau building in yellow is worth admiration for architecture alone, it also has a quirky story. You’re also very likely to see the image of the cat as you wander around Latvia’s capital.
A wealthy Latvian merchant built it during the early 20th century, hoping to be accepted into Riga’s Great Guild. However, the Guild, a body that oversaw the city’s business interests, rejected his application. In response he installed two black cats with their arched butts facing the Guild. After lengthy court battles, the cats were repositioned and the merchant joined the organization.
A charming blend of three different architectural style, the Three Brothers buildings are an architectural gem. While you’re exploring Riga, make sure to make a stop here. These old medieval dwellings were built by three different male relatives at different times. Today, one of buildings is home to the Latvian Museum of Architecture.
Latvian Academy of Sciences
Soaring above Riga in somewhat awkward style, is the Latvian Academy of Science. Much like the Pałac Kultury i Nauki in Warsaw, this was a ‘gift’ from Stalin. Sporting the Soviet Socialist Realism style, this is the home to various researchers, historians, scientists and companies spread across its 23 floors. Make sure to check out the viewing platform on the top for 360 degree view of Riga.
National Library of Latvia
Across the river Daugava sits the National Library of Latvia. Opened in 2014 to mixed reviews, the building, shaped like mountain is also known as the Castle of Light. Check it out for views of the Old Town and to admire its unique architecture across all 12 levels.
The Great Guild and the Small Guild Halls
As Riga was a trade centre, the guilds were the power brokers of the day. The Great Guild, catered to wealth merchants, while the Small Guild catered to master craftsmen and artisans. Prior to late 14th century, the two guilds were one entity known as the Guild of the Holy Spirit. Today, the former quarters sit across each other on Amatu iela (street). The Great Guild is now home to the Latvian Symphony Orchestra. Both buildings are worth checking out while exploring Riga.
Exploring Riga churches
Latvia’s capital has a number of different churches in various styles. You don’t have to be religious to admire the architectural details or even check out the inside.
St. Peter’s church
The tallest of Riga’s churches, the church in red brick is located in the heart of the Old Town. Head up the tower to a viewing platform for great views of the city. Originally, the church was a wooden structure built by the Lavonians, an indigenous group of northern Latvians. Before turning Lutheran in 1523, St. Peter’s was a Catholic church.
Located in the Dome Square, the Riga Cathedral was originally built for Bishop Albert when he made Riga an official city. The church, a mix of late Romanesque, early Gothic and Baroque styles, is famous for its organ with 6,768 pipes. It’s also used as a music venue.
Nativity of Christ Cathedral
Constructed in a Neo-Byzantine style, this is the largest Orthodox church in the Baltics. It was constructed in late 19th century under the Russian rule. It was part of an attempt to convert Latvians to everything Russian. Ironically, during the Soviet era, it was used as a planetarium and a restaurant since Communists weren’t too big on religion.
The outside of the church is beautiful. The yellow sandstone, organized in a striped pattern, nicely complements the opulent cupolas that sit atop. I’ve watched the church from my hotel room at sunset, in the fog and in the rain. It really looks magical.
Riga for museums and culture lovers
Latvia’s capital city does culture like any other major European city – with style and variety. Between the museums, galleries and theatres, the choices for culture lovers are abundant. In addition to the ones already mentioned above, here are few more suggestions for exploring Riga’s cultural spots.
Art Museum Riga Bourse
The museum is located inside a building that looks more like an ornate Venetian villa. It houses a collection of artworks by European masters. There are also extensive collections or art from the Orient and India. Created in Italian Renaissance style during mid-19th century, it was once home to the stock exchange. The building was renovated in 2011 after extensive repairs. Don’t miss the beautiful ceramics collection from China and Japan.
Latvian National Museum of Art
Housing Latvia’s most significant artworks, Latvian National Museum of Art provides insight into the Latvian identity. The “Latvian Art. 19th–20th Century” exhibition covers history of the country over the two centuries. Don’t miss the 18th to mid-20th century paintings, graphic art and sculpture. They are from 18th to mid-20th century by Latvian artists. Over 40,000 additional works of art are stored in the basement. You can see the storage area that is visible to visitors.
Latvian National Opera
Resembling a Greek Temple, the Latvian National Opera was built originally in 1863 as German theatre. After some renovations and reconstructions, it’s now the place for classic and modern opera performances, and ballet. If you can’t stay for one of the performances, opt for a tour of this magnificent property. It truly is incredible.
To see what a merchant’s house looked like during the 17th and 18th centuries, head over to the Mentzendorff House. Constructed in 1695 for a wealthy glass-cutter, it was restored during the 1980s and 1990s. With each room decorated in grand style, it’s one of its kinds in the Baltics.
National History Museum of Latvia
Built in 1875, the three-story building was home of the Transehe-Rosenecks, a prominent German family. A fourth floor was added in 1912 in the Neo-Renaissance style. During the Soviet times and until 2009, it was a home for the University of Latvia. Today, it is a museum dedicated to the collection, research and preservation of Latvian culture. It seems fitting that the museum in located in Latvia’s capital, where foreign domination was always strong.
Things to do in Riga – beer and culinary delights
I really enjoyed the food in Riga. Finding vegetarian food was easy and varied in options. There are also plenty of choices for traditional meat dishes in the many restaurants across Riga. As the Latvians are all about naturally sourced ingredients, all the food tastes delicious.
Riga Central Market
Exploring Riga wouldn’t be complete without a stop at the Central Market. Located at the Daugava waterfront, it’s one of Europe’s largest and oldest markets. It’s housed in five, once popular, Zeppelin hangers. Each hanger is about the size of a football field. There are over 3,000 vendors inside and outside. Each hanger has different specialties from seafood, meat, dairy and vegetables. There are also plenty of places to sit down for a quick bite.
Latvia Beer Festival
Latvians love their beer and I can attest that it is indeed great beer. If you’re planning on visiting Riga in May, check out the annual Latvia Beer Fest. With over 200 beers, including local favourites and specialty craft beer from around the world, it’s a must for all beer lovers. Each year, a different gets the honour to open the festival with specialty brew. Not only is it fun, the festival is also environmentally friendly and socially responsible. Even more of a reason to visit Latvia’s capita.
Riga for outdoor enthusiasts
Latvia’s capital is a very green city. You can stroll along the Daugava River or through one of the beautiful parks in the city. Make sure to check out the Bastejkalna park (Bastion Hill) along the canal. It marks where the location of the Old Town. There you’ll find romantic flowers banks, water features and tall trees that provide shade and add to the atmosphere. It was here that they shot an episode of the television show The Bachelor.
Similarly, you can also stroll the Esplanade Park a little further north. You can admire the nearby Nativity Cathedral, the National Art Museum and the Latvian Art Academy. After checking out the Art Nouveau district, stop by the Kronvalda Park. Here, on these former hunting grounds, you’ll find a roller skating ring, a dancing fountain and a Chinese pagoda.
Exploring Riga, Latvia’s capital – FAQ
Riga is Latvia’s capital and the largest city in the Baltic States. The Baltics are made up of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. All three were part of the Soviet Union after WWII till the fall of Communism. Latvia declared its independence in 1991.
The official language is Latvian. However, a lot of people speak Russian, English and German.
Latvia uses the Euro.
Riga has direct flights from more than 85 cities in Europe, Asia, Africa and America. Riga International Airport is only 10 km southwest of the Riga city centre.
Taxi to Riga’s centre takes about 10-20 minutes depending on traffic. It costs around 12-15 Euro. You can also take the number 22 bus for 2 Euro to the city centre. Busses depart the airport every 10-20 minutes.
Yes, Riga is a safe city. We had no issues getting around even at night. As with any other large cities, be careful with your belongings, especially in touristy areas where pickpockets are common.
Comparing to other European cities, Riga isn’t that expensive, but it’s also not the cheapest. As it uses the Euro, it will also depend on how your currency stacks against it.
Latvia is home to amber. You can buy different jewellery pieces and decorative artworks with amber. The Black Balsam, a fruity liquor popular in Latvia is the country’s national elixir. Latvian wool mittens in variety of colours and patters make for great souvenir and gifts. You can get them from a variety of vendors across the city. Latvia is also known for sweets and chocolate.
Additional thoughts about Latvia’s capital
As I write this, I ponder at how strong of an impression Riga left on me. It is an undeniably beautiful city. However, I think it’s the history that drew me in. Latvia as a country is a complex tapestry of cultures, domination and resilience. Even more astoundingly, the Latvian people were able to maintain their culture. Not an easy feat after centuries of foreign domination.
Seemingly, Latvia isn’t that much different than everything I’ve ever known. However, for some reason it seems wild, enigmatic and alluring. I felt very inspired in Latvia. With lush wilderness, stunning architecture and lovely people, it felt like I’ve discovered my own secret world.
Riga’s Old Town, designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a lovely city. Latvia’s capital is definitely my kind of place. Because of that, I plan on returning to Riga soon. So, if you’re wondering if Riga is worth visiting, my answer is an astounding yes.