After spending three nights in stunning Tallinn, we hopped on a bus and four hours later we arrived in Riga, the capital of Latvia. Riga is a great city to explore if you love architecture because apart from its medieval Old Town, Riga also has a huge amount of Art Nouveau architecture. In fact, Riga is the Art Nouveau capital of Europe.
Riga is also a university city and its atmosphere feels young and fun. At the end of the day, it doesn’t take long to find a nice bar to hang out and have a few well deserved Latvian beers! Although it has had a fair bit of exposure on Instagram recently, Riga is still much less touristy than its neighbour Tallinn. How long will Riga remain a hidden gem of the Baltics? Who knows, so you better get there soon!
What to do in Riga?
1 – Explore the Old Town
The Old Town is the heart of Riga and its main attraction. This World Heritage Site has had rougher days than Tallinn’s but it still has many pretty and well-preserved buildings. Its cobblestone streets are packed with pastel coloured buildings, old medieval churches, restaurants, cafes and bars. Get lost in its ancient alleyways, take lots of photos and imagine you are back in medieval times.
Unfortunately, the Old Town walls were destroyed a long time ago and all that remains is one gate, known as the Swedish Gate. It’s a popular attraction in the Old Town. Who knew back then that town walls would eventually become huge tourist magnets?
2 – Take a free walking tour
Like many other places in the world, Riga offers free walking tours of the city. With Riga Free Tours, you can choose between three different tours.
The old town tour (which takes you around the old town) starts at 10 am every day from the St Peters Church entrance.
The Alternative tour (which takes you to the less visited parts of Riga such as the market and the Jewish quarter) starts at 12 pm every day from the St Peters Church entrance.
The Art Nouveau tour (which takes you to the Art Nouveau district) starts at 3 pm every day in summer from the Latvian National Opera.
These free tours are a great way to learn more about the city, including some of its history. They are designed to give you a taste of the city so that you can then explore some of the areas that interest you further. They don’t cost anything upfront but you should tip your guide appropriately depending on how much you enjoyed the tour.
3 – Head up St Peter’s Church for a great view
While in Tallinn, we climbed so many towers to get views over the city. In Riga it’s a little different, there aren’t many towers to climb. However, you can take the elevator up to the top of St Peter’s Church, the most famous church in Riga. It gives you the best view of the city, although it costs 9 Euros which is quite steep. I personally would have preferred to climb the steep stairs!
4 – Check out the House of Blackheads
Possibly the most photographed sight in Riga, the House of Blackheads is situated just at the border of the Old Town and right across from the Town Hall. This breathtaking building was built in 1334 and was used as a venue for meetings and banquets. Unfortunately, like many other buildings in Riga, it was destroyed during the Second World War. Restored to its former glory in 1999, it is now one of the prettiest buildings in the city.
5 – Marvel at the Art Nouveau architecture
As mentioned above, Riga is home to the best preserved and largest collections of Art Nouveau buildings in the world. So you can’t leave the city without checking them out. This kind of architecture became extremely popular from the end of the 19th century until the early 20th century. There were four main reasons for its popularity, the economic boom, the industrial revolution, the ample space the city had and the availability of cheap manual labour.
The best example of Art Nouveau can be found on Alberta Street and Elizabetes Street. You can also take the free Art Nouveau walking tour to discover some of the less popular buildings and to learn a lot more about Art Nouveau in Riga.
6 – Visit the central market
Riga’s Central Market is just a short walk from the Old Town. It is one of the largest markets in Eastern Europe and attracts more than eighty thousands of shoppers every day!
The market’s imposing buildings were built in the 1920s and were originally used as airship hangers by the military. Nowadays, you will find hundreds of stalls selling fresh vegetables, smoked meat, cheeses, cheap clothes, and everything in between.
7 – The Freedom monument
It would be hard to miss Riga’s Freedom Monument, it stands tall in the middle of the city. This monument is a symbol of Latvia’s freedom and honours soldiers who lost their lives during the Latvian War of Independence (1918 – 1920).
Be sure to check out the park in front of the monument. It’s a lovely place to hang out and enjoy the sunshine on a nice day.
8 – Visit some of Riga’s best museums
The Museum of Occupation
This museum will help you understand more about Riga and Latvia’s’ history and especially to learn more about the three separate occupations that they had to endure in the past.
The Art Nouveau Museum
Riga’s Art Nouveau Museum is home to an amazing Art Nouveau Staircase which is one of the most impressive in Europe. You can see the staircase for free but if you want to visit the rest of the museum it will cost you 5 Euros.
9 – Cross the Akmens Bridge
Take a walk across the Akmens Bridge for some beautiful views of the Daugava River and Riga’s skyline. Right off the coast, you will find the island of Kipsala which is worth a few hours of your time. In particular, there are two attractions worth visiting, its beautifully restored wooden houses and the museum of Janis Lipke. Janis Lipke was an amazing Latvian who put himself and his own family at risk to save at least 60 Jews during the Nazi occupation of the Second World War.
On the other side of the river, we also recommend visiting the National Library of Latvia. You can admire its modern architecture and head up to the 12th floor for a gorgeous view across the water.
10 – Head to the beach
If you are visiting in the summer and need to escape the heat, head to Jurmala, the nearest seaside town. A little over half an hour away by train, this popular beach resort town is also known as Riga Beach.
Jurmala’s white sandy beach is long and stunning and the town centre is great for walking, shopping and people watching. When you’re tired of the beach, you can hire a bike and spent a couple of hours exploring the old seaside town with its quiet residential areas, ornate architecture, parks and tree-lined avenues.
Best places to eat and drink in Riga
This little wine bar is fantastic. They serve nice food but what we liked the most was how you selected your wine. You get a smart card loaded up with 50 Euros and you help yourself to a selection of wine from different regions around the world. You insert the card into the wine vending machine and select the size of pour you want (50ml, 100ml or 150ml). Don’t worry, you only pay for what you drink. It’s a great way to taste different wines from around the world. They have a similar bar called Beer Easy, just a few metres down the road, that offers self-service beer tasting.
Folkklubs is a popular place to visit in Riga for traditional food and drinks. It’s located in a huge basement and from the outside, you can’t appreciate just how large its interior is. Although it’s quite touristy, their traditional Latvian food was very good and reasonably priced. It also has a great vibe and on some nights they have Latvian folk dancing.
This small and cosy restaurant is a stone’s throw from St Marks Church. It also serves local specialities at a reasonable price with good service.
The Skyline Bar
Cocktails with a view? You’ve got it! Try visiting at sunset.
How to get to Riga?
There are daily flights to Riga from many major cities in Europe.
If you are traveling from one of the other Baltic states, you can get to Riga by bus. It’s only 4 hours from Tallinn and Vilnius by bus. LuxExpress is a good company to use. They have toilets on board, free coffee and comfortable seats. They also offer in-seat entertainment, just like on an airplane. I was even able to watch a couple of episodes of Friends during the ride!
By sightseeing bus
Alternatively, if you want to see some sights along the way, we recommend using Traveller Tours and Day Trips sightseeing tours. They run tours from Tallinn to Riga or from Vilnius to Riga (in both directions). It takes a whole day to do the transfer but doing sightseeing along the way makes it a lot more fun than just sitting on a bus for four hours.
How to get around?
Riga is a great city for walking. Many sights are really close to each other. If you want to explore further out of the Old Town, Riga also has a good network of cheap trams, buses and trolley buses.
Where to stay?
Where we stayed: Wellton Riga Hotel & SPA. This hotel has a great location in the old town, not far from the bus station and close to lots of bars and restaurants. It has clean and comfortable rooms for an affordable price.
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