Riga, the self-proclaimed capital of the Baltics oozes with charm, sights, and breathtaking architecture. Riga is our second favorite destination in the Baltics (Oh Vilnius, you’re just so special!). Jacky and I were in Riga for a second time recently and had an even better experience than our last trip. We are offering our lowdown on the best things to do in Riga. Whether you have one day in Riga or are on a weekend break in Riga, let us help you make the most of it!
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Why You Should Visit Riga
Officially founded in 1201 on the Daugava river, Riga’s fortunes have ebbed and flowed throughout its storied history as an influential member of the mighty Hanseatic League and as a city under Swedish, Polish, Russian, Nazi and Soviet rule. Today the city is the largest city in the three Baltic states and is home to one-third of Latvia’s total population. Riga has a thriving nightlife, burgeoning alternative scene, and a rich gastronomic scene. On top of this Riga’s charming Old Town is home to some magnificent churches and guild halls. Riga is also the best place to see examples of Art Nouveau architecture. The city is also home to many fascinating museums and pristine parks. With so much going for it, it’s not hard to see why Riga frequently features in best places to visit lists.
Due to cheap flights and its affordability, Riga has gained popularity as a stag and hen destination, much like Prague. In recent years though, the city authorities have come down hard on this type of bacchanalia. You may see the odd stag party every now and then but the situation has certainly improved.
19 Best Things to Do in Riga
The best way to experience Riga is on foot as it enables you to marvel at all the amazing architecture. Most of the major sights lie within the Old Town or in the vicinity. Alternatively, you can also use public transport as it is cheap and efficient. You can get more information about public transport here.
1. Explore Art Nouveau Architecture
Art Nouveau is mine and Jacky’s favorite architectural style and is the main reason we love Riga. Riga is the undisputed Art Nouveau capital of the world. The city is home to more than 800 Art Nouveau buildings! This admirable number is due to the economic and demographic upswing Riga experienced at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, at the same time Art Nouveau peaked in its popularity. Various sub-styles can be distinguished in these structures such as eclectic Art Nouveau, perpendicular Art Nouveau and National Romanticism. The majority of the buildings were built in the central part of the city, with a few being built in the Old Town of Riga.
You’ll find beautiful female motifs, exotic flowers, masks of smiling or menacing faces, reliefs of peacocks, reptiles, cats, wolves, and dragons on the facades of some of these buildings, all of which were a hallmark of Art Nouveau. You could easily spend hours on end gazing at the more intricate details! The most eccentric and regal examples of Art Nouveau are found in the so-called Art Nouveau Quarter along Albert street, Elizabetes street, and Strelnieku street.
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2. Hit the Old Town (Vecrīga)
The Old Town is the oldest section of Riga and with its narrow cobblestone, labyrinthine streets features fabulous buildings from the Late Middle Ages as well as distinctive sacral structures. In 1997, UNESCO added Riga’s historic center to the World Heritage Sites List. The Old Town has highly varied architecture, and many of the buildings there have the status of a cultural monument. The medieval quarter offers an interesting mix of architectural styles and eras – Romanticism, Gothic, Baroque, Classicism, Modernism, and Art Nouveau.
The Old Town is home to countless churches and buildings of historical significance. Riga’s Hanseatic past can be seen through buildings like the Great Guild Hall and the Small Guild Hall. The Great Guild Hall dates back to the 14th century when the Guild of German merchants held its meetings there. The Small Guild Hall, which was constructed in the 19th century (in its present form) has a richly decorated interior and on certain occasions is open to the public.
Riga’s Old Town also has a lively café culture, with a wide range of cafés, restaurants, and bars that serve local beers and traditional Latvian cuisine.
3. St. Peter’s Church
Towering high above the Riga Old Town at a height of 123 meters, with a picturesque spire, St. Peter’s Church is one of the most impressive structures in the city. The church has a storied history of destruction and conflagration making it a must-see for visitors to Riga. St. Peter’s used to be a Catholic church until 1523 when it turned Lutheran. It has been altered on numerous occasions to represent various architectural styles, leaving the building with a unique mixture of Romanesque and Baroque styles. To get some of the finest and breathtaking views of Riga, you can take the 70-meter elevator to the viewing platform.
St. Peter’s Church is open Tuesday-Saturday from 10:00-18:00 and Sunday from 12:00-18:00. Cost of admission is 3 EUR for the church and an additional 6 EUR for the tower.
4. Riga Dome Cathedral
The Riga Dome Cathedral was founded in 1211 as the seat of the Riga diocese and is the largest medieval church in the Baltics. Like the St. Peter’s Church the Riga Cathedral was once Catholic and is now Evangelical Lutheran. The architecture is a blend of styles from the 13th to the 18th centuries: the eastern end, has Romanesque features; the tower is 18th-century Baroque; much of the rest is a 15th-century Gothic rebuilding. One of the highlights of the cathedral is its famous 6718 pipe organ that was made in 1884 from materials such as fir, birch, maple, pine, and different metal alloys. The cathedral is open daily from 10-17 and price of admission is 3 EUR.
5. House of the Blackheads
The House of Blackheads sits in the Town Hall Square and was built in 1334 as a meeting and celebration hall. However, a mostly German brotherhood of foreign merchants called the Blackheads bought the building in the 17th century. The original house was decimated in 1941 but luckily the original blueprints survived and an exact replica of this stunning ornate structure was completed in 2001 for Rīga’s 800th birthday. The first floor of the building was used for shops and businesses, the guildhall occupied the second floor while the upper floors were used for warehousing.
We really loved the building’s intricate and colorful facade. The House of Blackheads is also apparently the most photographed building in Riga.
You can visit the museum’s cellar and see its many treasures that lie within. The House of Blackheads is open Tuesday-Sunday from 11:00-18:00 and cost of admission is 6 EUR.
6. Three Brothers
The Three Brothers is a building complex consisting of three houses, situated in the Old Town. The houses together form the oldest complex of dwellings in Riga and represent several architectural styles such as Gothic, Renaissance, Classical, Baroque and Dutch Mannerist. The oldest is the one on the right side with the Germanic step-gable and dates back to the 15th century. Legend has it that the Three Brothers were named such because they were built by three men from the same family when this street used to be inhabited by craftsmen during medieval times.
Today, the complex is home to the State Inspection for Heritage Protection and the Latvian Museum of Architecture.
7. Swedish Gate & Old City Wall
The Swedish Gate and the Old City Wall are the remnants of the once mighty fortification system that surrounded Riga in the Middle Ages. The Swedish Gate was constructed in 1698 after the end of the Polish-Swedish War when the Swedish Kingdom took over Riga. There’s an intriguing anecdote regarding the apartment above the gate, which supposedly belonged to the city executioner, and how he would place a red rose on the ledge of the window the morning before an execution. The Swedish Gate is popular among tourists as a backdrop for pictures.
8. Cat House
No tour of Riga is complete without seeing the Cat House, one of Riga’s most popular and interesting attractions. This custard yellow colored building, constructed in the Art Nouveau style in 1909, is easily distinguished due to the black cat statue situated on its turret.
As beautiful as the building is, it has an even more fascinating backstory. The story goes that the proprietor of the building was a wealthy tradesman who yearned to be a member of Riga’s Tradesmen’s Guild. The guild denied him a membership, which made the tradesman irate, so he decided to exact revenge by ordering a black cat statue be placed on the building’s roof, with its tail facing the Tradesmen’s Guild building! The matter ended up in court and eventually, it was decreed that the cat would have to be turned in a different direction and that the tradesman would become a member of the guild.
The main reason why Jacky and I love the Cat House is that it reminds us of our beloved mini panthers, Buster and Shoo-shoo.
9. Powder Tower
The Powder Tower was one of the vital defensive structures of Riga since it protected the main overland road approaching Riga. It was initially called Sand Tower and was later named Powder Tower due to a large amount of gunpowder being stored there. There is no precise information on the exact date of the construction, but the first tower in this place was built in the 13th century. Since then, it has been destroyed and later restored. Today it houses the Latvian War Museum.
10. Town Musicians of Bremen
Standing just beside the St. Peter’s Church in the Old Town is one the quirkier attractions in Riga, the Town Musicians of Bremen monument. It is based on the famous fairytale ‘The Bremen Town Musicians’ by the Brothers Grimm. The monument was gifted to the citizens of Riga in 1990 by the city of Bremen (another Hanseatic city) and marks the historic association between the two cities. This one is slightly smaller than the original one in Bremen. It is considered good luck to rub the faces of each animal in sequence, so you should give it a try.
11. Riga Castle
The Riga Castle is the largest and best preserved medieval castle in northern Europe. It has stood on the banks of the Daugava river for more than 700 years and has seen its share of wars, rulers, and demolition. It is not much to look at from the outside except the white corner tower, which is impressive. Today it houses the residence of the Latvian President.
12. Riga Central Market
Rīga’s Central Market is Europe’s largest market and definitely a must-see! The market is in five old Zeppelin hangars from the First World War and has been around since 1920. Each of these has its own specialty, be it gastronomic specialties, fish, meat, dairy or vegetables. The market receives a staggering 80,000 to 100,000 visitors a day, who come to buy anything from seafood to contraband cigarettes. More than 3000 vendors set shop here and you can find bargains among second-hand items, flowers, food and delicacies, electronics, fashion, and garden accessories.
We also saw an astonishing variety of sauerkraut and huge jars of pickles. I really loved the atmosphere here. Riga Central Market is conveniently located next to the Riga International Bus Terminal and Central Railway Station.
13. Visit Some of Riga’s Great Museums
For a city of its size, Riga has a surprisingly rich array of great museums. Make sure to swing by some of the museums in the city depending on your interests.
Latvian National Museum of Art
The Latvian National Museum of Art is the nation’s most significant depository for works of art. Spanning over two floors is a comprehensive exposé on Latvian art in both the 19th and 20th centuries, with emphasis on the various stylistic periods and the artists who were instrumental. It was very interesting to note the contrast between Soviet realism and the more independent Latvian styles. As pleasing as the art exhibits were, Jacky and I were infatuated with the gorgeous interior, with imposing marble staircases linking the several large halls.
Entrance to the museum is a paltry 3 EUR. You can check the opening hours here.
Riga Art Nouveau Museum
The Riga Art Nouveau Museum is housed in the former apartment of the renowned Latvian artist and engineer Konstantīns Pēkšēns. It is a must-see for anyone with an interest in Art Nouveau and design. The apartment has been tastefully restored to its original state, from its plush furniture to exquisite period pieces. At first, I thought the 5 EUR price tag was too much, but I felt satisfied after going downstairs. This area showcases a couple of videos and a number of good interactives including ones that give information about the Art Nouveau edifices in Riga, We really liked how you get to design your own Art Nouveau facade and print it out.
You can also take photos in Art Nouveau hats for an extra charge. Don’t forget to check out the elaborate spiral staircase when you enter the building! The museum is open Tuesday-Sunday from 10:00-18:00.
Riga Motor Museum
The Riga Motor Museum lies outside the city center and is definitely well worth the trek. It is the largest antique vehicle museum in the Baltics. On display are cars, lorries, buses, scooters, and bikes used by some of the Latvian population. There’s also a fascinating collection of vintage cars and limousines that were used by the Soviet hierarchy. I’m not big on cars in general but I do love vintage pieces and the so-called ‘Kremlin collection’ here didn’t disappoint.
The exposition recounts fascinating stories about unique vehicles, prominent individuals and vital milestones that helped to shape the world’s automotive history. The whole museum is spread over three stories and is extremely family friendly with interactive activities for youngsters. The museum makes use of innovative virtual reality technology. For example, you can experience a bus trip video to a wedding party in former times at the press of a button.
The museum is open daily from 10:00-18:00 and price of admission is 10 EUR.
Riga Ghetto and Latvian Holocaust Museum
The Riga Ghetto and Latvian Holocaust Museum is more of an outdoor courtyard with exhibits rather than an actual museum. It is a very moving exhibit devoted to the history of Jews in Latvia, through the emerging discrimination in the 19th and 20th centuries, and the terrible sufferings imposed by the Nazis. It has extensive lists of the names of those who endured that horror. The train carriage by the entrance is particularly poignant.
Entrance is free but donations are encouraged. The museum is open Sunday-Friday from 10:00-18:00.
14. Freedom Monument
Standing at a height of 42 meters, Rīga’s Freedom Monument towers above the city between Old and Central Rīga. It is affectionately called ‘Milda’ and was built in 1935 where a statue of Russian ruler Peter the Great once stood. It was built to commemorate the soldiers that perished during the Latvian War of Independence of 1918-1920, during which Latvians overthrew their Russian occupiers.
The monument is guarded by two soldiers throughout the day and a modest changing of the guards takes place every hour from 9:00-18:00.
15. Laima Clock
The Laima Clock is a well-known Riga landmark that lies close to the Freedom Monument. Laima is the name of a prominent Latvian chocolate manufacturer and means happiness in Latvian. The clock was set up in 1924 to enable citizens to arrive at work on time. It is now a popular rendezvous point among the locals.
16. Nativity of Christ Cathedral
The Nativity of Christ Cathedral is the largest Orthodox cathedral in the Baltics. It was constructed in a Neo-Byzantine manner between 1876-1884 when Latvia was part of the Russian Empire. At the time, the cathedral was one of the most expensive buildings ever to be constructed in Riga. During the Soviet era, it was functioned as a planetarium and was used for scientific lectures.
The cathedral stands out because of its yellow sandstone exterior with its striped tiling pattern and five domes. The richly decorated interior consists of some decorative frescoes and portraits of religious figures. Unfortunately, being an Orthodox cathedral photography is strictly prohibited.
Opening hours are 7:00-18:30. Free entrance.
17. City Parks
Riga has some of the most attractive and pristine parks that I’ve seen. So if you want to take a break from sightseeing and unwind or have a picnic, it’s easy to find a peaceful spot in a lush park. The closest parks to the Old Town are Bastejkalns Park (Bastion Hill) and Esplanade Park which sit on either side of the Freedom Monument. There’s also Kronvalda Park near the Art Nouveau quarter and the Vermanes Garden.
We took a stroll through Bastejkalns Park. It is home to romantic water features, a winding canal, sculptures, some lovely flower beds, and bridges. There are also plenty of benches to sit. It is possible to even hire a small boat for a ride across the canal.
18. Searching for Wooden Houses in Riga
Riga’s wooden areas were one of the reasons that UNESCO included the city in the World Heritage Sites list. However, the wooden architecture has often been unappreciated and while many of Riga’s masonry buildings have been glorified, a lot of the wooden houses have been overlooked.
Āgenskalns is one such neighborhood where a lot of our city’s wooden architecture has survived up to this day. Some of the wooden houses here date back to the 18th century, though most of the wooden houses that have survived were built in the late 19th and early 20th century. The Kalnciema Quarter is one of Āgenskalns’ hubs, where several wooden houses have been converted into cafes, restaurants, and shops selling arts and crafts.
It was really amazing to see the wooden architecture as they exude a different charm than the architecture in the Old Town and the Art Nouveau Quarter. These areas are seldom frequented by tourists so you should definitely go!
19. Try Some Black Balsam
If there’s one item that is Latvian to the core, it has got to be Riga Black Balsam, a herbal liqueur so astringent and bitter it makes schnapps taste like lemon water. Riga Black Balsam is made from 24 all natural ingredients such as Valerian, Wormwood, Gentian, and Peruvian Balsamic Oil. The drink itself dates back to 1752 and was originally created as a medicine. Suffice to say, I was barely able to finish my shot, but hey, at least I tried it. Jacky balked at the thought of even trying.
Where to stay in Riga
It’s handy to stay in the Old Town in the Riga or in the center as they are a good base for sightseeing. There are plenty of good options in or in the vicinity of the Old Town for all budgets.
Hostel: The Naughty Squirrel Backpackers Hostel, a great choice right in the heart of the Old Town.
Budget: Boutique Hotel Monte Kristo, solid option in the Old Town.
Mid-range: Mercure Riga Centre, within 2 minutes of the main train and bus stations.
Splurge: Grand Hotel Kempinski Riga, sumptuous top-choice pick in the Old Town.
Now, what do you think? What are some of the best things to do in Riga? And is Riga on your bucket list? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below!