With about 700.000 population, Riga is the capital of Latvia and the biggest city among the Baltic countries around it, Estonia in the North and Lithuania in the South.
Since it is not a city of big dimensions, it is perfect to visit it on foot. Walk calmly along the old town, enjoy the cobblestone roads and admire the multiple Art Nouveau buildings that makes it one of the most important cities (and maybe the most) of this architectural style.
Riga, also known as the Baltic Pearl, is a beautiful city and a place where history has left its mark.
Once part of the Soviet Union in 1940, it was occupied by the Nazi Germany in 1941, won back by the Soviets in 1944 and finally became independent from the URSS in 1991 (at the same time of the Soviet Union dissolution). Due to its closeness to the West, it became part of the European Union in 2004, (as its North and South neighbours had done before) and in 2014 adopted the Euro as the country official currency.
Even though it had good years of economic growth, especially after its incorporation to the European Union, in 2008 it suffered a strong financial crisis. Nowadays is still one the countries with the lowest GDP per capita in the Union.
You can appreciate it when you travel there. Even being the capital city, in general everything is quite cheap (although less and less every year). So there’s one more reason to visit Riga.
Tip: since taking a taxi in Riga is quite cheap, it is the most efficient means of transport to move around the city.
If you want to use this option, I highly recommend that you download the application that everyone uses in Latvia: Taxify.
With this application the journeys are cheaper than if you hail a regular taxi on the street, since the price is closed beforehand. Also, with this app you set your destination previously, so you don’t have to pronounce weird names to the driver (avoids the possible “lost in translation” situation) and you will make sure they charge the right amount for your trip.
Riga, unlike other European capitals such as Rome, Paris or London doesn’t get overcrowded with tourists, which I love in a city. The downside of Riga though, is the weather. For its location is cold most of the year so, if you have the chance go visit in the summer! Otherwise have a thick jacket handy because it might get chilly.
Showing up next, I have prepared a guide of the 15 best things to do in Riga, things that you can’t miss if you ever have the chance to visit this beautiful Baltic Pearl.
1. Riga’s Cathedral (Rīgas Doms)
Located in the centre of Riga, nearby the Daugava river, you’ll find the Lutheran Cathedral. It is the most important medieval church in the Baltic States and one of the most important monuments in the whole country.
Its biggest treasure is its organ, formed by 6.768 tubes, and it is well known for its dome’s weather-vane which has a golden cock in the upper end showing the direction of the wind and which is already a city icon.
Given that is located in the centre, also known as “Old town”, you can walk from here to most of the following spots I recommend in this guide, since most of them are also located in the old town of the city.
July – September: 9h-18h | October – June: 10h-17h
2. St. Peter’s Church
Saint Peter’s church is a Lutheran church that stands out for its large tower, originally built in the 15th Century. As you can expect though, it was later destroyed in 1666. And as almost every church in this world which has been destroyed, it was rebuilt again in 1690, in wood this time, so that it could catch fire and get destroyed later again! Somehow it seemed appropriate at the time, being even the tallest wooden construction in the world. After the fire, a bunch of optimistis rebuilt it again but the fate of the church was to be destroyed once again during World War II.
But they didn’t give up. Back in 1976 it started a new (and until today the last) reconstruction. This time they thought to build a metal structure. Currently the tower is 123m high and has an elevator that allows visitors to go up to the second gallery (which is at 72m high) to enjoy great views of the city.
Tip: if you want to enjoy the same views and save 9€ that costs going up the church tower, you can go up the Skyline Bar at the Radisson Blu Hotel, totally free.
As a curiosity: in this church, between the years 1767 and 1788, Johann Gottfried Müthel was the organ player, very well known to have been the last disciple of the famous composer Johann Sebastian Bach.
September – April: 10h-17h, Sunday: 12h-17h (Monday: Closed) | May – August: 10h-18h, Sunday: 12h-18h (Monday: Closed)
Adults: 9€ | Children up to 7 years old: Free | Students: 7€
3. House of the Blackheads (Melngalvju nam)
This beautiful house was built back in 1334, as a part of the Riga’s City Hall square architectural ensemble. Historically, the building’s function was to promote the economic activities in the city. It was a meeting point for sailors and traders for centuries.
But you can say that the soul of this house were, with no doubt, the “blackheads”. The Blackheads was a group of young and single merchants, known for the celebrations and events that use to organize in the house. Their enthusiasm, soon transformed the place into the main cultural venue in Riga. And it remain this way for centuries, as the “blackheads” and their successors always had the ability to gather the top of the crop of Riga’s social scene in their events.
Located in the historical centre of the city, this beautiful and peculiar house is a result of various reconstructions along the years. The last one in 1999 after being totally destroyed during World War II. It was precisely thanks to the “blackheads”, their successors and the events attendees (which in my mind I imagine they were like Gatsby’s parties) who with the interest and appreciation that felt for the house that succeeded in having it rebuilt every time.
We were told about the tragic end of the original boss of the Blackheads, who was tortured to death and later on canonized as “St. Mauritius”. He used to be a commander of the Roman legion and his image can still be seen today on the coat of arms on the front facade of the association.
It is definitely a “must” when coming to Riga.
Tuesdays to Sundays: 11:00h-18:00h
Adults: 9€ | Children: 3€ | Guided tour (1h): 15€
4. Three Brothers (Trīs brāļi)
Three Brothers is a building ensemble of 3 houses located in the historical centre of the city, one standing next to each other in the numbers 17, 19 and 21 at Maza Pils Street. They were built back in the 15th century and it is said that were 3 members of the same family who constructed them, therefore its name. If I had to guess I’d say that the three brothers had very different tastes since all 3 houses are built in 3 different styles.
The oldest house is in number 17 and it was built around the year 1490 (although is was remodeled in 1955). It stands out for its Gothic decorations and its first Renaissance details.
The middle house, in number 19, is the most beautiful of all three. It was built in 1646 and its architectural style has Dutch Mannerism influences.
The third house, in number 21, is a building of Baroque style which probably acquired this appearance by the late 1600’s.
If you like architecture you will definitely come and see them. Besides, they house the Latvian Museum of Architecture which has free access to the public. If you’re not much into architecture you need to see them anyway, they are beautiful from the outside and the area where they are located is very charming. You can find the most romantic coffee shop in Riga called Parunāsim Kafe’teeka which is very close from the houses.
Monday: 9:00h-18:00h | Tuesday-Thursday: 9:00h-17:00h | Friday: 9:00h-16:00h | Weekends: Closed
5. Cat House (Kaķu nams)
The Cat House is a very popular building located in the historical centre of Riga (10 Meistaru iela), built by the architect Friedrich Scheffel in 1909 with some elements of the Art Nouveau style.
At first sight, you can spot its most characteristic element, and this is a black cat located on the roof, at the top of the building.
The story behind the cat, and which is common knowledge among the locals, is about a merchant who wasn’t allowed into the Great Guild. This guy, offended, thought to put a black cat on the roof of the building as a gesture of contempt and protest for not having been accepted as a member of the association.
I guess the act of the merchant had its repercussion, since years went by the cat remained on the roof. Nowadays is one of the most iconic symbols in the city. As a matter of act is one of the most sold souvenirs which can be found in many forms (magnets, t-shirts, cups, etc.).
Currently, the building of the Great Guild houses the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra.
6. Walk along Pilsētas Kanāls
The Daugava river crosses the city of Riga and circles the old town. It has an artificial split called Pilsētas Kanāls or City Canal which was as a city defensive moat.
Nowadays, this canal is surrounded by green areas and parks very well maintained, in which I recommend take a walk if you are lucky enough to catch a nice sunny day.
Very close from these green areas you’ll find the popular Vērmanes Garden, a small but beautiful park where the locals often go to play with their children, gather with friends or take a walk.
7. Swedish Gate (Zviedru vārti)
It was built in 1698 as part of Riga’s Wall (which can still be seen today) and its construction took place when the Kingdom of Sweden took the city.
It granted access to the barraques located outside the Wall (it was one of the few entries the city had) and it was open from dawn until dusk.
The thing about this door is not the door itself, but walking on the streets around it which are lovely and have a special essence.
Tip: If you’re planning on visiting this area by night, very close from the Swedish Door there’s a good restaurant called: Balzambārs. It might be a little expensive compared to Riga’s standards, but it’s worth it! It’s important you call to book a table since it’s full sometimes.
8. Freedom Monument (Brīvības Piemineklis)
Considered one of the most important symbols of the Latvian sovereignty, it was built in 1935 to commemorate the death of the soldiers who fought in Latvia’s Independence War.
It is 42m high, which are impressing from the base, and it is located in a very wide avenue that crosses through the Bastejkalna parks, near the Pilsētas Kanāls, presiding the access to Riga’s old town. Since it is located in such a wide area, here is where people gather to celebrate public or official events.
On the top of the obelisc it stands out a copper figure of a woman holding 3 stars above her head, which represents the 3 historical regions of the country. Nowadays, there are still people, mostly old women, who bring flowers to this monument in memory of the fallen in the war.
The main sights of Riga can be seen in 1 or 2 days. Given this monument is at the entry of the old town it is a good starting point to make an itinerary of the top sights.
9. Nativity Cathedral
The Nativity of Christ Cathedral is the biggest Orthodox church in Riga and, to me, one of the most beautiful. It really is worth a visit. Built in 1876 in neo-byzantine style, it is so far, the most expensive building ever erected in the city (allow me to insist, it is really beautiful).
Even though it dodged the bullets (and bombs) from World War I and II, when the soviets took control of the city, they shut the church down (sawing the crosses and melting the bells) and decided to give it a new use. They turned it into a planetarium and a restaurant which they called “Republic House of Knowledge”. Finally, after Latvia won back the independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, is was church restored as a place of cult.
The access to the church is free, but you must pay if you want to take pictures from the inside. Together with the House of the Blackheads, is one of my favourites.
10. Enjoy the Art Nouveau architecture
Around 30% of the buildings in Riga are of Art Nouveau architecture. This fact makes Riga the city with most modernist buildings in the whole world! And of the main attractions when visiting Riga.
The large amount of modernist architecture makes walking around the city, a gift for the eyes. As a curiosity, the name of the style “Art Nouveau” comes from a movement that wanted to create new, young and free art.
I’m from Barcelona, a city very well known for the modernist architecture and most of all for the famous architect Antoni Gaudí, who dedicated his entire life to design and create dozens of these beautiful buildings. I was very surprised to learn that Riga has even more modernists building than my city! It’s been a total pleasure for my eyes to walk around this city.
There’s more than 700 Art Nouveau buildings around the city!!! There’s no way for you to see them all so I’m going to tell you where you can find the best. Go to the neighbourhood located in the upper area of the historical centre.
Start walking on Strēlnieku iela 4 and the streets around it Alberta iela (numbers: 1, 2, 4 6, 8, 9, 11, 12 and 13), Elizabetes iela (numbers: 10a & 10b, 13, 33 and 45) and streets Pulkveža Brieža iela, Rūpniecības iela and Vīlandes iela.
If you’re still want more, in the historical city centre you can also find a good representation. The two most outstanding are located at Audēju iela 7 and Kalēju iela 23.
11. Skyline bar
If you want a free alternative to have a 360º panoramic view from the city, you can go up to the Skyline bar on the 26th floor of the Radisson Blue Hotel. It is a 4-star hotel located at Elizabetes iela 55 (it is easily recognizable since is one of the highest buildings in the city).
The access is free and there’s no need for you to order anything. You just go up, act like a lost tourist, take a look around, take great pictures and go back down. And if a waiter wants to sit you on a table, at least ask for a window! The prices range from 5€ to 15€.
12. The Powder Tower (Pulvertornis) and Latvian War Museum
A powder tower was a building usually used by the military or mining companies to store gunpowder, as you can sense from its name. And that’s exactly what Riga’s Powder Tower was used for. It is a cylindrical construction of 25.6m high and a diameter of 3m dating from 1330.
In the beginning it was part of the city’s defense system and it protected the East side entry to the city. People first called it “The Sand Tower” because there were sand hills nearby, but later on, it was rebuilt to be used to store gunpowder, therefore people renamed it as “The Powder Tower”.
Its last reconstruction was between 1937 and 1939 when its structure was annexed to the Latvian War Museum. I didn’t have the chance to visit it, so I can’t truly tell you if it’s worth it. But if you’re interested in visiting, know that there is free access to everyone. Here I leave you more details.
April-October: 10h-18h | November-March: 10h-17h
13. Nightlife in Riga
If one night you feel like having a drink or going out party, Riga is the city. There’s plenty of bars and clubs of all kinds: from hipster bars to have a beer, to bars with live music and clubs where a certain “dress code” is required.
THere I leave you with a list of places in which have either a drink or party all night:
The clubs Coyote Fly and Studio 69 are two of the biggest, most popular and probably the most expensive in the city. In Coyote Fly for example, I’d say they take advantage of tourist making them buy a bottle of liquor to let them in. It can cost you between 120€ and 200€ depending on the kind of liquor you choose. So it’s better to go in a group and share the cost. Dress code is required so smarten up and party until late in the morning.
Just Bar is another well known club. Is least glamorous than the two I just mentioned, but at least you don’t have to pay anything to get in and you are allowed in with sneakers!
Another one is Rock Café (or Reiterna nams), which is both bar and club. The place is massive, there’s so many different rooms that you can get lost the first time yo go. The access free and you can listen to a lot of different stuff: from live concerts, to singing in a karaoke (just certain days) and dance to pop and electronic music until the sun comes out.
If you get hungry between drinks, a couple of streets down, in Peldu iela 21, there’s a little place called Late Night Munchies (hilarious). You’ll be able to satisfy your munchies with delicious burgers, pizzas and kebabs almost at any time since their opening hours are: Monday-Wednesday until 11:00pm, Thursday until 2:00am and Friday-Saturday until 5:00am and Sunday back to 11:00pm.
If you’re into rock and metal music your club is Depo. In here you’ll be able to enjoy a more alternative and less mainstream atmosphere and live concerts on weekends.
Last but not least, if you want a dinner+drink+dance pack all in the same place, you can go to the popular Folkklubs ALA pagrabs. It’s one of those place locals recommend you, so it’s a must. You have to go down to the basement to discover huge dining rooms. Here you can taste typical local gastronomy, a wide variety of drinks and if you’re lucky even live music, all at a very reasonable price. I recommend you book a table because it is usually full!
14. Alternative and hipster places in Riga
As in most big cities in the world, in Riga you can also find the hipster areas with cute little cafes, more alternative bars, decorations made out of recycled material and long, thick bearded guys in woodcutter’s shirts.
If you like the hipster vibes, I recommend you have a cup of coffee or grab a bite in any of the cafes you’ll find in Miera iela. Rocket Bean Roastery for instance, located in number 29 at Miera iela is a great place to have brunch. Yet another great spot for brunch is MiiT Coffee, located a little closer to the old town in Lāčplēša iela, 10.
If you are more a tea kind of person, you have to stop by Apsara Tea House, located in the middle of a park. The cool thing of this place is going upstairs, take off your shoes and lie down between the cushions. Once you’re comfortable, you’ll be able to observe the people walking on the park through the big windows, or read in a quiet atmosphere.
Spikeri Creative District located on the east side of the Old Town is also a really cool place. It is a cultural centre in which they make all kinds of activities, events and concerts. The surrounding area is as interesting as the centre itself.
Last recommendation, Kanepes Kulturas Centrs in Skilas iela 15. Is another cultural centre where one can have a beer in an artistic atmosphere.
15. One day trip to Jūrmala beach
Jūrmala is a city located 25 km west of Riga in the Gulf of Riga, known for being Latvian’s favourite summer destination. Some of them have second residences in this coastal city and come to spend their summer break.
One of the easiest ways to get there is by taxi, since they are a relatively cheap mean of transport. It is a 30-40 minute drive from the capital. You can also reach Jūrmala by train but, depending on the train it can take between 30 to 60 minutes to get there. On the bright side the price is really cheap, between 1,50 and 2€.
To be honest, Jūrmala has kind of a “resort” atmosphere since it’s a popular summer destination, but still, its 33 km of beaches and beautiful parks, makes it a great place to walk and relax surrounded by nature.
On a day trip to Jūrmala I recommend you go for a walk on the beach then later take a walk on the Dzintaru mežaparks, which is a nice park near the beach on the east side. In this park, you can enjoy a great panoramic view from the park itself and the city, from the top of the Jurmala Observation Tower. It is a 38 metres high open-air caged tower from which you’ll be able to see the green area and the city. If you go with children, there’s an Adventure Park “Jūrmalas tarzāns” where they’ll have a great time.
Later on, walk through the city centre and admire the wooden architecture. Jomas Street is the main vein in the centre, with lots of little streets on the sides.
If you have more than one day in Jurmala I highly recommend going to Kemeri National Park, 45 min to the west of Jurmala. It is the third biggest national park of the country, covering an area of 381.65 km² in which you’ll be able to enjoy from excellent nature, flora and fauna. Since the park is a huge bog, there are boardwalks (wooden paths) to walk on and observation towers along the way to enjoy the views.
If you need a break from the city, Jurmala is definitely the best destination to enjoy nature and a relaxed atmosphere.