Riga is the capital of Latvia, the center of the three Baltic States in Europe. It might seem like an off-beat choice, but there are plenty of things to do in Riga and around, whether you are interested in history, architecture, or nature. From the biggest Art Nouveau district in Europe to an 8000 year old bog, here are some of the top things to do in Riga
A short history of Riga
Latvia has historically been fought over and never truly independent. Over the course of it history it was occupied by Germany, Sweden, Poland, and Russia. It was one of the last corners of Europe to remain pagan, with its people living as farmers.
The city of Riga was found by Bishop Albert, who was the nephew of a North German archbishop, in 1201. Although historically, Riga has been an important trade stop for the Vikings who travel down the river to reach Bryzantine.
It was incorporated into the Hanseatic League, trade and commerce organisation in Europe, falling under the Holy Roman Emperor as Bishop Albert converted them from pagans. However, the city accepted the Reformation in the 16th century and became a free city for a while before it became under the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. It was taken by the Swedes in the 17th century, then the Russian in the 18th century, until it finally became its own country after the Independence War during WWI period.
After that comes its most recent and well-known era: Soviet Occupation interrupted by a brief Nazi period. The country remained behind the Iron Curtain until the 1990s, when it finally gained its freedom back. It is now a member of the EU, uses Euro as a currency, and the city was the capital of culture in 2014.
House of the Blackheads
Riga’s most long standing landmark is House of the Blackheads. the curious name is of a merchant’s guild founded in mid-14th century. The name comes from their patron saint Maurice who is an Egyptian martyr soldier, hence black head.
The original building dates back to its founding, however, it was destroyed during WWII and had to be rebuilt. The red brick facade is trimmed with white borders and adorned with statues both on the edge and below the 17th century astrological clock in the center.
The guild is still operational now but in Bremen now, having ceased in Riga in 1939 and repatriate by the Baltic Germans. The guild was founded by single, young male merchants who often don’t marry and travel long distances.
Don’t miss the two pillars at the front that is guarded by two lions, with decoration of Mother Mary to the left and St Maurice to the right.
While the door is shut, you can visit the interior, where reconstructed rooms, old foundations, and various artefacts that have survived are inside. They often rent out their rooms for functions, which is now also possible.
You can also find out more about the facade and the history of the Brotherhood of the Blackheads. There is even a copy of their ethnic codes inside dating back to 1416.
Opening times: daily 10:00 – 18:00 (best to check official website for seasonal opening times)
Admission fee: Adult 6 euros, concession 3. Guided tour available for 15 euros (lasts 1 hour)
A row of three narrow houses in pastel shades in the Riga Old Town, they each represent a different phrase of dwell house buildings and is the oldest in Riga. the oldest is to the right facing the buildings, built in the 15th century, the other two in the 17th century. Nowadays, they are home to the Museum of Architecture as well as the State Inspection for Heritage Protection.
Basically, they are great for photos and an architectural gem.
Riga Nativity of Christ Cathedral
The Neo-Bryzantine Church with golden dome was built in the 19th century and one of the few Orthodox Churches in Riga. During that time, Riga was part of the Russia Empire and it was used as a planetarium during the Soviet Occupation.
It is free to enter the church and I highly recommend it. The interior is painted with icons in beautiful blue colour, however, photos are not allowed inside and ladies should cover their head when visiting.
Opening times: 7:00 –18:30
As previously mentioned in the short history of Riga, Latvia, historically, hadn’t really existed as a country until the 20th century. Hence, the castle was not one for the royalties, but built by the Livonian Order, a branch of the Teutonic Order, in the 15th century after the original castle inside the city was destroyed during a revolt. It was then occupied Lithuania-Polish commonwealth, then by Swedes who expanded it in the 17th century to its current layout with round towers. It was briefly the seat of the government of Latvia before the Russian Occupation.
Nowadays, its southern quarter houses the Museum of Natural History and Latvian Art Museum, with the northern part being the residence of the President of Latvia.
St Peter’s Church
The most eye catching church in Riga, St Peter’s Church is best known for its 123m high tower. The church had existed since the 13th century, though it was rebuilt and renovated in the successive centuries. The Baroque tower being added on in the 17th century by architect Ruperd Bindenschu, along with the western facade with the three portals.
It was damaged in WWII and reconstructed in the 70s. Visitors can not only visit the Lutheran church but also take the elevator up to 73m on the tower for a panoramic of the city.
Opening times: Tues – Sat 10:00 – 19:00; Sun 12:00 – 19:00
Admission fee (for the observation deck): Adult 9 euros, student 7 euros, children (and under 18 pupils) 3 euros, under 7 free.
Art Nouveau district in Riga
Riga is home to the largest Art Nouveau district in Europe, which is on the northeast side of the old town. Built around the mid-19th century, it is the result of city planning and the dismantling of the old bastion walls to form a ring road. The 1880s was a time of industrialisation and the wealthy began to commissioned buildings from architects, one of the leading ones being Mikhail Eisenstein. There are over 500 art nouveau buildings in Riga, and here’s where you can find some of the best:
The majority of the best Art Nouveau buildings are on Alberta Street. It is named after the founder of Riga city. Most buildings are designed by Mikhail Eisenstein with inspiration from ancient Egypt and Greek even before it became popular in the 20s.
All of the designs here are individually commissioned by rich merchants or even retired army general as private rental apartments. Most of them remain as that, much more generous and spacious than the current standard at 1800 square feet. There are 2 apartments per floor with hardwood and stucco ceilings and tiled furnaces. But any refurbishment must be approved by the conservation board, since the entire old town and art nouveau district and boulevard are on protected list since 1997.
There are 120 buildings in the area have assigned protective sign, and the biggest yellow building at the end of the street has now been converted into the Art Nouveau Museum. It was built in 1903, but not by Mikhail Eisenstein, for a German family.
The blue and white building on Elizabetes Street
Another design by Mikhail Eisenstein, this is another iconic Art Nouveau building that’s worth going out of the way for to see.
A rectangular park on the eastern end of the heart of the old town, Bastejkalna Park makes for a great picnic or strolling point. It sits either side of the City Canal, created in the late 19th century after the Riga Fortress is demolished. It expanded over the years as the canal is filled in.
A small hill in the Bastejkalna Park, the Bastion Hill is another relic of the Riga Fortress and now serves as a good viewpoint in the park. It offers a good vantage point for the building with the Coats of arms of Municipalities.
A man-made canal that connects to the River Daugava on both sides, it was once used for three-times as wide and accommodate much bigger vessels. Nowadays, it serves as pick up and drop off point for river cruises in the summer months. The canal was dug in the 17th century and act as the divide between old and new town.
A national monument built in 1935, the 42 m high sculpture commemorates the Latvian soldiers killed during the Latvia Independence War between 1918-1920. The top of the obelisk stands Liberty holding Latvia in her hands. The three golden star representing the three provinces of Latvia. The base of the structure are depiction of scenes of Latvian culture and life.
It is set in the center of Bastejkalna park on the road, at the end of the main road Brīvības bulvāris. It survived Soviet Occupation and is the center of the Remembrance Day.
Powder Tower and Latvian War Museum
The Latvian War Museum is housed in the Powder Tower in the old town, which is the only surviving war tower in Riga. It is free to visit the museum, which was founded in the early 20th century, and guided tours (for 15 euros) is available.
Address: Smilšu iela 20, Centra rajons, Rīga, LV-1050, Latvia
Opening times: 10:00 – 18:00
Coats of arms of Municipalities
Pretty much as the name says, this consists of the coats of arms of Latvia’s municipalities all on the facade of a charming yellow building across the road from the Bastejkalna Park. It is just down the street from the Powder Tower and visible from the Bastion Hill.
Address: Smilšu iela, Centra rajons, Rīga, LV-1050, Latvia
Towards the northern end of the old town a little distance from the Powder Tower is Jacob’s Barracks. This refers to a row of neat yellow buildings with red roofs that was built by the fortification wall in the 18th century. Nowadays, it’s full of adorable restaurants and boutiques.
Museum of the Occupation of Latvia
As one of the Baltic States that was under Soivet Occupation, Riga tells Latvia’s story in the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia. It has a chronological series of education boards and supporting media and items over three rooms that tells the history of Latvia’s occupation. It starts from the 1940s up until liberation, and it is free to visit, although donations are welcome.
Address: Raiņa bulvāris 7, Centra rajons, Rīga, LV-1050, Latvia
Opening times: 11:00 – 18:00
The Corner House (KGB Building)
The former KGB Building (Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti – committee for state security) in Riga, it is located on a corner house, hence its nickname. The division here is also known as Cheka for short, who took over the building on their arrival in Riga in 1940. The building was refitted for their needs such as basement holding cells and iron gates. In fact, the entrance is so unassuming that we almost missed it.
The building remained in use until liberation. Their permanent exhibition is free to visit, which gives a good history on the corner house and the Cheka operation. However, the cell blocks can only be visited on guided tours (in Latvian or English). I didn’t manage to join one, but you can find out more about the experience on this blog post by Travel with Winny.
Address: Brīvības iela 61, Rīga, LV 1010, Latvia
Opening times: 10.30 – 17.30
Admission fee: free to enter, with English guided tours of the cell block: 11.00, 12.00, 13.00, 15.00 and 16.00 – you can prebook tickets here
Latvian Academy of Sciences Observation deck
After visiting Warsaw, the Latvian Academy of Science looks awfully familiar. That is because it is one of the seven buildings that Stalin commissioned and the only two in the Baltics as a research institute. It is much smaller than its Polish counterpart, sitting on the outskirts of the Old Town near the markets.
It gives a sweeping view of the Riga old town to one side and across the River Daugava. It is one of the highest buildings in Riga, hence it’s worth going up if the weather is nice.
Address: Akademijas laukums 1, Rīga, LV-1050, Latvia
Opening times: 8:00 – 22:00
Admission fee: 6 euros
Riga Central Market
Right by the train station, the Riga Central Market is not only a great place to get a glimpse of local life, but also unique in the fact that they are housed inside four former military airship hangars.
It is one of the largest markets in Europe with each hanger dedicated to a different market – vegetables, meat, fish, dairy, and even a food court by the dairy section.
Some of the must try and local speciality includes smoked chicken, rye bread, and hemp seed butter. And don’t miss the huge pickle stalls with cabbages of various colours.
Opening times: Mon – Sat: 8:00 – 18:00; Sun 8:00 – 17:00
Try the local drink Balsam at Black Magic
The name might give you the idea that the shop deals in magic, but it is both correct and incorrect. Black Magic is a cafe in the old town of Riga that is known for serving Balsam. Balsam is a local drink with 250 years of history made with 24 different herbs.
Did I mention that it’s alcoholic? It’s been used as a medicine and Latvians believe that it can cure sickness and prevent cold if you take a shot. Be prepared since it is some strong stuff!
Address: Kaļķu iela 10, Centra rajons, Rīga, LV-1050, Latvia
Opening times: 10:00 – 22:00
Kemeri National Park
Under an hour from the capital is the Kemeri National Park. It consists of 381.65 km² of grounds and is home to an 8000 year old Bog. If you want to experience something different, then I highly recommend going bog shoeing in the wilderness of Kemeri.
To do so you’d need bog shoes (which is a lot like snow shoes) and a guide, as stepping on the wrong patch might mean that you’ll sink right in!
If that is a little too adventurous for you, the park also have two broadwalks – one small and one big, as well as a cycling path for visitors.
If you’d like to go bog shoeing, this is the company we visited with
For more information on the national park, see the official website here
Gauja National Park
An hour east of Riga in the other direction of Kemeri is the Gauja National Park. It is named after the river that had eroded a valley between the mountains and the area is home to many historic castles and manors as well as beautiful nature.
The biggest cities there are Sigulda and Cesis, though there are also smaller towns like Turaida and Krimulda. For more information on visiting Gauja National Park or spending more time there, check my blog post here (coming soon).
Where to stay in Riga
Riga is a very walkable city, its historic center is concentrated by the shore of the River Daugava. There are several areas you can stay in, most within 30 minutes walk of each other:
Budget: Next Generation Hostel is near the train station and a great budget hostel choice as the bunk beds are well built. Do note that it is on the 4th or 3rd floor with no elevator and the facilities are a little dated. An alternative is the Tree House, which includes free breakfast.
Mid-range: Rixwell Old Riga Palace Hotel is a little dated but a good choice in the old town not too far from the bus and train station as well. The breakfast review is good however sound proofing is not said to be the best. For a bit more, Wellton Riverside SPA Hotel is a new hotel with, yes you guessed it, spa facilities.
Splurge: treat yourself and stay at a former Baron’s converted horse stable at Pullman Riga Old Town. It is complemented by a modern interior with parking space available, too.
Art Nouveau District
East of Old Town
Budget: Amalienhof Hostel Riga has both private rooms, dorm, and even a loft! However, the bathroom cleanliness might not be the best, although they do have a terrace.Mid-range: Radisson Blu Latvija Conference & Spa Hotel is one of the few high rises near Riga, consequently, it has a great view of the old town and surrounding.