I took a bus from Tallinn, Estonia to Riga and, after experiencing the delights of Tallinn, wasn’t sure Riga would live up to expectations. I semi-expected a city full of drunken Brits on stag parties. This guide on the best things to do in Riga isn’t focused on the party scene and more so on the cultural and worthwhile things to do in the city. After all, you can go for a party in any city!
While Riga certainly is a popular stag party destination, this doesn’t take away any of the enjoyment that should be had visiting this fascinating place. It’s a city steeped in history and has had plenty of hardships in the past century. This isn’t something we learn much about in history class with much of the focus being elsewhere. That’s why I recommend indulging yourself in the culture and history as much as you can so that a bit of Riga remains with you after your visit.
While the Russian influence is certainly still very apparent, Latvians have their own language and culture. The city is moving steadily towards being very similar to a modern western city and – if not already at that stage – it will be very soon. I was pleasantly surprised by the efficiency of the public transport and how clean the city was compared to other places I’ve visited.
Prices are on a par with neighbouring Baltic nation Estonia and, while not expensive by any means, they are steadily creeping up with a growing influx of tourism. I recommend getting there fast before prices are the same as any other standard European Capital City.
A Bit About Riga
- It’s the capital of Latvia and has a population of approximately 650,000.
- Riga has some of the fastest internet speeds in the world.
- Riga was founded in 1201.
- Latvia has the tallest average height of women in the world.
- The central market is one of the biggest in Europe.
- Over one-third of Latvia’s population (approx. 1 million) lives in Riga.
- The currency used to be the Latvian Lats which was replaced by the Euro on 1st January 2014.
- Both Lithuania and Estonia are just a few hours away by bus.
- Riga’s old town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- Latvia has one of the world’s oldest flags.
- The creator of jeans, Jacob Davis, was born in Riga.
- It has been claimed that the original inspiration for Crocodile Dundee was from the village off Dundaga in Latvia.
- The first human being to visit Angel Falls, the world’s tallest waterfall, was from Riga.
Best Things To Do In Riga
1. Get A Photo Of The Freedom Monument
This iconic monument is bang in the centre of Riga next to the park and symbolises, yes you guessed it, freedom and independence! It is a very impressive structure and it’s interesting to know that the monument’s construction was entirely paid for by local residents.
The monument stands just shy of 43 metres (141 ft) and has a total of 56 sculptures from the base to the top of the 3 stars. The words inscribed on the front translate to “For Fatherland and Freedom”. The monument was built in memory of those who fought in the fight for freedom from 1918 – 1920.
There is an honour guard at the foot of the monument and he has been there since Latvia regained independence in 1991 (not the same guard the entire time, I presume).
To learn more about the occupation (which you definitely should) then the Museum of Occupation is just around the corner. See number 9.
2. Visit At Least One Of The Many Churches
This is something you can’t avoid in Riga as you wander around the old town. The architecture of some of these churches is exquisite. The most popular churches/cathedrals are:
- St Peter’s Church – Riga’s highest observation point at 72 metres (236 ft).
- Nativity Of Christ Cathedral – Riga’s biggest Orthodox church, a very Russian design.
- St Jacob’s Catholic Cathedral – The smallest of the 4, construction took over 100 years and it is arguably the best-maintained church with Gothic architecture in Riga.
- Riga Cathedral – The most important and epic of these buildings. It has one of the most valuable organs in the world.
You may notice that Riga’s oldest churches have roosters on their spires instead of crosses. This rooster is historically supposed to scare away the devil and keep an eye out for the Lord.
3. Go Shopping At The Central Market
The central market is one of Europe’s largest and is where you get one of the most diverse selections of foods and assortments in Riga.
The marketplace is huge and has both an inside and outside section. Each has dozens of different stalls selling a variety of everything from fruits and vegetables to cakes and cheeses. There are also plenty locals selling handicrafts and clothes.
A lot of the food is seasonal so it may depend on what time of year you are visiting Riga.
You might want to hold your nose as you enter the fish market, it was fine for me but definitely won’t be if you don’t like the stench of raw fish!
4. House Of The Blackheads
The House Of The Blackheads holds many concerts, exhibitions and is arguably Riga’s most spectacular piece of architecture. It was built in 1334 primarily for the Brotherhood of Blackheads to meet and have social gatherings. The Brotherhood covers all unmarried German merchants in Latvia and Estonia back in the 14th century.
It has been rebuilt several times, most recently after it was demolished by bombs in World War 2. The house was used as the president’s temporary residence for a while and hosts many of Riga’s most important current events.
The public can go in from 11:00 am to 6:00 pm, with last entry at 5:00 pm. Entry cost is €6 at the time of writing. For some strange reason, when I was there it was closed only on Mondays. It’s well worth going in to learn a bit about the historical significance. Guides are available for around €15.
I just enjoyed marvelling at the intricate interior designs and the work that has been put into restoring the 19th century furniture.
You’ll also most certainly want to get a few snaps of the building’s exterior which is almost as impressive as the inside.
5. Riga Ghetto And Latvian Holocaust Museum
Latvia is probably not the first country that springs to mind when you think of the holocaust.
It was in fact strongly affected and there’s no better place to learn about this and pay your respects than the Latvian Holocaust Museum.
The museum is free and goes only by voluntary donations. It consists of an outdoor courtyard with a timeline and some doors leading to exhibits. The timeline and names of the deceased are on a huge wall which stretches the length of the courtyard. If you’re squeamish or easily upset then be warned – some of the images are gruesome.
Something that shocked and surprised me more than anything was the exhibit dedicated solely to the Armenian genocide. I’d never heard of this and it was a humbling history lesson I had never heard of, and one I recommend you visit. It’s right at the end of the Holocaust Museum and will probably be the last part you visit.
Out of respect, I decided not to take any photographs here.
6. Admire The Art Nouveau District
The Art Nouveau District is one of the few places worth visiting outside the old town.
Over a third of Riga’s buildings are examples of Art Nouveau architecture. The most impressive of these are located on Albert and Elizabeth Street, a 15-minute walk from the old town.
If you’re not already aware, Art Nouveau means ‘new art’ and follows a swirling, ornamental sort of pattern from one design to another. It’s a typical example of 19th-century architecture and you can read more about it here.
I’m no art geek, I just like interesting architecture and this didn’t disappoint. Free up some space on your itinerary and head to Albert and Elizabeth Street. It only requires around an hour.
7. Try Some Black Balsam
What do you think of when you hear the word ‘Balsam’? The first thing I thought of was balsamic vinegar!
Well, Riga Black Balsam isn’t vinegar. It’s an alcoholic drink, a traditional herbal liqueur made with pure vodka. You’ll find it in every corner of Riga so it would be foolish not to at least try it once!
In original form, Black Balsam is 24 natural ingredients with vodka (about 45% alcohol content). Some ingredients include ginger, birch bud, valerian root, and Peruvian balsamic oil to name a few.
Black Balsam is commonly taken ‘on the rocks’ but can be enjoyed in tea, coffee, juice and a variety of cocktails.
A place that offers free samples (before you decide to buy a bottle) is the tourist shop on the same square as the House Of The Blackheads. The young man inside was very informative and helpful as he provided our free samples.
Interestingly, it is still used as a remedy for various ailments such as the common cold and digestive problems.
8. Go On A Free Walking Tour
Ever so common in all of Europe’s major cities is the good old free walking tour.
While there are too many things in Riga to cover in a couple of hours, the walking tour does a good job of getting to the best of them. You also get to visit some less-known parts of town like below.
Several of the highlights are on this list and you’ll also get an informative history lesson about Riga. The tour starts every day from outside St Peter’s Church.
You’ll probably already know but ‘free’ means tip based, and in my experience, the tours are worth quite a generous tip.
9. Museum Of Occupation
The Museum of Occupation is an insight into the Latvian Occupation between 1940 – 1991. The museum focuses on both the Nazi and USSR occupations of Latvia. It has various exhibits which include posters, models, artefacts and videos.
If you have any interest in history then this museum is a must. What I found most intriguing was how it so realistically depicted the horrific lives of Latvia residents under foreign powers.
At the time of writing, the museum is located in the old US Embassy around the corner from the Freedom Monument. The original building next to the House Of The Blackheads is getting renovated. Entry is free but donations are appreciated.
10. Visit The Three Brothers
The Three Brothers are, quite literally, three houses next to one another.
What’s so special about that, you ask? Well, they hold a lot of significance to Riga’s history.
They are the oldest stone medieval houses in Riga and represent Riga’s architectural development over the years. One was built in the 15th century and the other two in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The oldest brother on the far right has a Gothic style, the middle brother is a typical 17th-century house while the youngest, and narrowest, had several apartments.
If you look closely, you’ll notice a mask on the youngest brother’s façade. This supposedly protected dwellers from evil spirits.
The houses used to be homes for craftsmen but nowadays you’ll find the Latvian Museum Of Architecture. They are on Maza Pils Street.
11. Eat Traditional Latvian Food
Latvian food is generally quite heavy and they love a good pork chop. This is the national meat and you’ll see it on almost every menu (probably even vegetarian ones).
Latvians also eat a lot of fish like their northern European counterparts. Pickled herring is a delicacy that you’ll find all year round. You’ll also get plenty of fresh fish through the summer months.
Accompanying the meat is usually potatoes, cottage cheese, sour cream, mushrooms and perhaps buckwheat which is actually a seed, not wheat.
You’ll probably notice the lack of vegetables. They aren’t big on their veg, apart from maybe cabbage.
12. Visit The Swedish Gate
These old walls are the last remaining part of the original Old Town. The rest has been destroyed over the years.
The Swedish Gate was built in 1698 after Sweden took over Riga. This initiated the era called the ‘Swedish Times’ which lasted between 1629 and 1721 in Riga.
A story you may hear on your walking tour is that the apartment above the gate used to be where the executioner lived. He would put a red nose outside his window the morning of an execution.
What I Didn’t Do
I was in Riga over winter so naturally, didn’t visit the beach.
Over summer, however, Jurmala beach is a hive of activity. You can do various watersports, sunbathe, and have a fresh fish dinner at one of the many restaurants.
It also has interesting architecture due to the mix of cultures settling here over the past 200 years.
It’s a 30-minute train ride from Riga which only costs €1 – 2.
Spas are not up my street but if this sort of thing interests you, Riga could be your place.
People, more so women, come here with the sole intention of spending several days indulging in wellness. There are many centres for facials, massages and so on.
One of the best-rated rated spas in Riga is the Wellton Centrum Hotel. Read what others had to say about it here.
I’m not a party animal but it’s no secret that Riga has become a huge party destination.
The Old Town is awash with bars and clubs so if you’re here for the party, you won’t be disappointed.
The comparably cheap drinking holes have made Riga a top choice for stag and hen parties.
Relax In Kronvalda Park
This is the pick of Riga’s several green areas.
The picturesque canal is a common hangout place for beavers. Through summer it’s a prime location for a run, picnic, boat ride and just general getaway from the hectic Old Town.
In winter it looked beautiful with the frozen canal and a frosting of snow.
Latvian National Museum Of Art
If you like art museums then look no further than the Latvian National Museum Of Art.
It’s an impressive building displaying Latvian art exhibitions in the 19th and 20th centuries.
You can download an app to your phone which acts as a guide. It’s called “Makslas Muzejs” and is available in English.
Open Air Ethnographic Museum
Half an hour from Riga is one of Europe’s largest open-air museums. It’s famed for the exhibitions being in excellent condition.
You’ll get a taster of the style and architecture of Latvia’s 4 provinces – Zemgale, Latgale, Kurzeme and Vidzeme. You experience the different farming cultures historically and how the people used to live their lives.
If you book ahead you can get a look at some artefacts and items not on display. You can also download the OpenEthnoLV App which will get you up to speed with the museum before you visit.
The only reason I didn’t go is because it was the middle of winter but I heard it’s well worth seeing. Consider it as all of Latvia’s provinces rolled into one.
Hikes Near Riga
The fact that Latvia’s highest point is 312 metres (1022 feet) above sea level means hiking options are limited.
If you’re looking for mountain climbing then Latvia isn’t the place. However, there are still an array of walks and day hikes on offer.
Most hikes are ideal in the summer months but because you’re never going too high and they can be done year round.
Gauja National Park
Latvia’s oldest and largest national park is a great option for hiking and is only 90 minutes from Riga.
The park has a huge network of trails and is famed for its wide biological diversity. Ravines, forests, caves and rivers are among the many highlights in Gauja.
It’s free to enter and is also popular for camping and biking, especially in summer.
There are several ways of getting to the park including bus and train. See here for more details.
Sigulda is in Gauja National Park but is possibly one of Latvia’s most beautiful hikes. It is commonly known as the ‘Switzerland of Latvia’. This is down to the mixture of caves, forests, cliffs, and rivers in the Gauja valley.
The hike is around 9.3 miles (15 km) and you can do it with a guide.
When To Go
The best weather in Riga is from late spring to summer. Expect some hot summer days but prepare yourself for potential evening chills.
Winter is when I visited and it was brutally cold. The city is beautiful with the snow but I’d only recommend it if you don’t mind wrapping up and can cope well with the cold.
Every season offers something a little different and it depends on your personal preferences. Below is how much snow gets can get piled up by ploughs in winter.
Eating In Riga
Riga has no shortage of decent restaurants and you are by no means restricted to Latvian cuisine. You’ll find an array of chain and international restaurants in the old town.
Here are some top picks:
- Lido Restaurant: This is a buffet style restaurant which does traditional Latvian food, there are several of them.
- Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs: Massive selection of local beers and a real traditional atmosphere make this cellar beerbar a must for the complete Latvian experience.
- Tokyo City, Kabuki: Sushi restaurants, great value considering it’s sushi.
- Big Bad Bagels: Huge, cheap and nutritious bagels. Try one of their delicious power smoothies.
- Al Capuchino: Small and cute cafe a 10 minute walk from the old town. Have a black coffee with their exquisite carrot cake.
Getting To Riga
Riga is easily accessible by land or air.
Regular buses operate from neighbouring countries such as Estonia, Russia, Lithuania and Poland. These are cheap and excellent quality. I travelled with Lux Express and would highly recommend,
Various airlines fly to Riga such as Ryanair, Wizzair, AirBaltic and Britsh Airways. Search for flights in the Skyscanner search bar.
Getting to/from the airport is easy and your options are the no.22 bus, Airbaltic taxi or minibus.
Accommodation In Riga
One of the things that makes Riga so appealing is the budget accommodation. Bear in mind that there are still plenty of high-class hotels for the those willing to spend a bit more.
High End: Grand Palace Hotel. Luxurious hotel on Pils Iela in the old town. Rooms are from £118 per night.
Mid-Range: St Peters Boutique Hotel. Quality 4-star hotel located on Peldu Iela. Prices start at around £32 per night.
Cheap and Cheerful: Tree House Hostel. Exceptional hostel in the heart of the old town. Dorms start at £10 per night with breakfast included.
If you’re interested in doing your own thing then I recommend checking out Couchsurfing. It can be cheap as chips to rent an entire apartment in Riga.
The old town and areas around it should be explored by foot. Wear decent shoes due to the cobbled streets.
The public transport system is excellent and very efficient. Buy an e-ticket card for €2 and top up whatever necessary. This covers trams, buses and trolleybuses. If you want to pay on board, it’s €2 and exact change is preferred. With the e-card it costs €1.15. You can get one of these at a Narvesen shop, or in most kiosks and ticket offices.
Download either Taxify or Clicktaxi, these are the ways to travel by taxi in Riga. You simply follow the in-app instructions and pay for your journey by card beforehand. Be wary of flagging down street-taxis. Although not unsafe, they may take you the ‘scenic route’ to build up the meter and overcharge the gullible tourist.
Safety & Security
With vigilance and common sense, you should have a trouble-free visit to Riga.
The two most common crimes are pick-pocketing and scams.
Pickpockets are at work more in the summer months and like to target tourists. The Old Town can be notorious for pickpockets but like in several major European cities – use common sense and don’t ask for trouble.
Scams are very common as well. Look out for:
- Girl inviting you into a bar or offering you a drink.
- Excessive cover charges in bars/clubs – it may be just because you’re foreign, check with your hotel first.
If you rent a car in Riga then make sure your valuables are kept out of sight and that it’s always locked – car break-ins aren’t unheard of.
You’ll see plenty of police all over Riga and if you’re in desperate need, head to Freedom Square where guards patrol 24/7.
Riga is a cheap and cheerful destination ideal for a weekend break. Flights are aplenty from several major cities and it can also be integrated into a trip through all three Baltic States.
As well as having beautiful architecture, there’s also a lot to learn about Riga’s turbulent past. You should definitely immerse yourself in the huge selection of museums, monuments and other historical sites Riga has to offer.
Latvia is generally a safe country. Crime tends to be petty and shouldn’t put you off visiting.
This review of the best things to do in Riga is, as always, based on my opinion and experience in the city. There are certainly more things than this list but here I’ve included what I feel are the “must-visits” for a few days in Riga!
As always, thanks a lot for reading and please leave any thoughts or things you wish to add in the comments box below.