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Visit Riga: Your Essential Tourist Guide to Latvia’s Capital

There are many great places in Europe, but if you want to try something different and go to a place your friends likely can’t place on a map, visit Riga. Latvia’s capital has all the charm, beauty and culture of centuries gone by that rivals other tourist-magnet cities in Europe with fewer crowds.

My trip to Riga exceeded all expectations and quickly became one of my favourite travel experiences. I didn’t know much about this enigmatic country. However, it all changed once I arrived. I found fairy-tale architecture, charming old towns, stunning castles and Latvians’ penchant for saunas. Just like that, I became totally hooked. Now, I can’t stop telling everyone about it. So, if you’re looking for a new destination to explore and want to learn more about Latvia, you’re in the right place.

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A little bit of history before you visit Riga

Riga is the capital of Latvia and the largest city in the Baltics (Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia make up the Baltic States.) Riga sits on the shores of the Daugava River that flows into the Gulf of Riga before ending in the Baltic Sea. Due to its position, Riga has always been an important trade centre. 

Riga has a rich history dating back to the 12th century when German merchants established a trading post around 1158. Not long after, Albert, the newly-proclaimed Bishop of Livonia, rolled into town with 23 ships and 1,500 crusaders. They were all on a mission to Christianize the pagans in the area. Albert later established the Order of Livonian Brothers of the Sword, which later became the Teutonic Knights. Riga officially became a key trading centre, attracting Viking and German traders, mercenaries and missionaries.

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Visit Riga Old Town

Over the next few centuries, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Swedish, Russian and German empires ruled Riga. Latvia finally gained brief independence between 1918 and 1940. After WWII, it became part of the Soviet Union until declaring independence once again in 1991.

With such an eclectic cast of characters throughout its past, you’re bound to find traces of them in the city. It’s a treasure trove of cultural gems from the past that is waiting for you to discover.

What to do in Riga

Riga is a place where you can get lost, spellbound by what’s around you. It’s also a place where you can come for a short stay or a few throughout the year. There is enough here to keep anyone happy while they are exploring Riga. While it’s one of those destinations that has something offer year-round, you might want to consider visiting during the off-season. Riga is bound to enchant you no matter when you visit.

Old Town Riga UNESCO World Heritage Site

Riga Old Town, recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997, is a great place to start your visit. With its cobbled-stone streets, charming squares, and beautifully preserved buildings, it’s easy to see the power that was amassed here during Riga’s time as a commercial powerhouse.

Exploring the Old Town is like stepping back in time. As I wandered through a maze of alleyways and courtyards, it was as if I was discovering hidden gems at every turn. I found Medieval city walls, defensive towers, ornate facades, Gothic churches and stunning doorways. I automatically felt at home.

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Town Hall Square, which dates back to the Middle Ages, is an iconic spot in Riga. Here you’ll find the gorgeous Dutch Renaissance-style House of the Blackheads (a fraternity for the guild of unmarried German merchants), the Town Hall and the statue of St. Roland, Riga’s patron saint. The square was home to an open-air market and was heavily bombed during WWII. What you see today is a careful restoration based on original plans dating back to the 14th century.

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Another great spot to visit in Riga is Livu Square. Sitting at the edge of Old Town, this pretty square is lined with an eclectic mix of colourful buildings. During summer, the square’s centre is filled with flower beds. Here you can also check out the Great and the Small Guild Halls that once catered to wealthy merchants and master craftsmen.

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The Dome Square is the largest square in Riga Old Town, surrounded by mostly 19th and early 20th-century buildings. Here you’ll also find the Riga Dome Cathedral,  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.

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The Swedish Gate gate, which looks more like an arch cutting under a townhouse, is also a place to check out when you visit Riga. It dates back to the 17th century and Swedish occupation and was where the city executioner used to live. Today many newlyweds pass through the gate for a 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.

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Swedish Gate – exploring Riga

A charming blend of three different architectural styles (hence the name Three Brothers) is a must-visit attraction in Riga. The three houses on Maza Pils Street form the oldest houses in Riga. The oldest building dates back to the late 15th century and features Gothic decorations and early Renaissance details. The neighbouring house, with an exterior from 1646, shows Dutch Mannerism influences. The narrow Baroque building is the youngest of the three, dating to the late 17th century.

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One of the oldest structures in the city, the cylindrical Powder Tower, with foundations dating back to 1330, was rebuilt in 1650 after damage from the Swedish invasion and today houses the Latvian War Museum. The Riga Cat House, built by a wealthy Latvian merchant during the early 20th century, became famous for the two black cats with their arched butts facing Riga’s Great Guild after the organization rejected the merchant’s application.

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Riga’s Art Nouveau District is a must-visit for architecture enthusiasts. With over 800 buildings concentrated along the Alberta and Elizabetes streets, you’ll find some of Europe’s best examples of Art Nouveau.
Designed by the renowned architect Mikhail Eisenstein, most of these buildings were constructed between 1904 and 1914.

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For those interested in shopping, the historical pedestrian quarter of Bergs Bazaar is a must-visit. Originally constructed between 1887 and 1900 by Kristaps Bergs, today, it’s a luxury shopping area with a hotel, offices, upscale shops, and restaurants. This is a great place to escape for retail therapy if you tire of exploring Riga.

Things to do in Riga – beer and culinary delights

I enjoyed the food while exploring 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. Latvians love their beer, and I can attest that it is indeed a great beer.

You can’t visit Riga 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 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.

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Riga’s Central Market

You can visit Riga all year long to sample the local culinary offerings, but if you’re planning to visit during the holidays, make sure to check out the Riga Christmas Market held in Dome Square each year. There are many Christmas activities in town, including some additional market stalls in Livu Square. Make sure to visit the official Riga Christmas Market website for the latest info.

Riga for outdoor enthusiasts

Latvia’s capital is a very green city. You can explore Riga by strolling along the Daugava River or through one of the city’s beautiful parks. 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 flower 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 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 Kronvalda Park. Here, on these former hunting grounds, you’ll find a roller-skating rink, a dancing fountain and a Chinese pagoda.

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Nativity of Christ Cathedral

In conclusion, is Riga worth visiting?

As I write this, I ponder 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 by Latvia. With lush wilderness, stunning architecture and lovely people, it felt like I’d discovered my own secret world. I’m planning on exploring Riga again and discovering more of this amazing place. 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.  

Visit Riga – 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.

Latvia uses the Euro.

The official language is Latvian. However, a lot of people speak Russian, English and German.

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 euros. 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 city, be careful with your belongings, especially in touristy areas where pickpockets are common.

Compared 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 a variety of colours and patterns make for great souvenirs and gifts. You can get them from a variety of vendors across the city. Latvia is also known for sweets and chocolate.

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