Riga is one of the most underrated cities in Europe. The capital of Latvia (and largest city in the Baltic region) has acquired something of a reputation as a party destination in recent years. It’s true, the drink is cheap, and the parties can be wild. But there are so many other things to do in Riga, it’s a fantastic city to visit whether you’re partying or not.
The city is clean, safe, walkable, and packed full of interesting sights and experiences.
Riga is a perfect destination for an alternative European city break. It’s a vibrant, youthful place, with a long and fascinating history, unique architecture, lush green parks, an amazing food and drink scene, and a general quirkiness that I love.
Still a relatively undiscovered destination, Riga is much less crowded than many other European cities. As a result, you can explore and enjoy this amazing medieval city almost entirely to yourself.
In short, you should visit Riga – it’s awesome.
* If you’re looking for other alternative city break destinations, check out some of my other posts, including:
- Naples, Italy
- Tallinn, Estonia
- Split, Croatia
- Almaty, Kazakhstan (& Day Trips from Almaty)
- Kolkata, India *
** Latvia is in the Schengen Area. Many nationalities can visit visa-free for up to 90 days. If you require a visa, I recommend using iVisa.com. Their online visa processing service is quick, secure, and easy to use. **
Best Things To Do In Riga
Whether you’re in Riga for a long weekend, a week, or longer, you’ll find no shortage of interesting sights, sounds and tastes.
Here are my top 13 things to do in Riga.
Go On A Free Walking Tour
One of the best ways to get a feel for a new city is to take a walking tour, and Riga is no exception.
Riga Free Tours and Free Tours Riga each offer English-language walking tours of the city’s main sights. These are organised and led by locals who are passionate about their city, its history, architecture and culture. You can ask questions and learn a lot more about the city than you would from simply reading a guidebook. Highly recommended!
There are daytime and evening tours. Some focus more on the Old City, others on the famous Art Nouveau architecture, others on food and drink.
Most walking tours start from outside St. Peter’s Church, near the Town Hall Square. Check out the above websites for up-to-date departure times and further info.
The tours are free, but tips are always greatly appreciated at the end.
Old City Riga (Vecrīga)
The historic centre of Riga (Vecrīga) has been recognised as a World Heritage site by UNESCO, which describes it as “a living illustration of European history“. Much of it is pedestrianised and easily explorable on foot.
The Old City is full of different styles of architecture. Immaculately preserved wooden buildings are nestled between colourful medieval houses, narrow cobbled streets, grand gothic and modernist civic buildings, and some of the best examples of Art Nouveau architecture in the world.
- the medieval Swedish Gate – one of the main entrances to Riga through the historical city walls.
- the Three Brothers – these three colourful buildings are the oldest houses still standing in Riga, the oldest of which was built in 1490. Today, they house the Latvian Museum of Architecture.
- the Cat House – a large yellow Art Nouveau building with statues of cats sitting on its rooftops. A famous landmark and one of the (slightly bizarre) symbols of the city.
You’ll find many restaurants, bars and cafes lining the streets and squares of the Old Town, as well as art galleries and independent shops.
It’s true, parts of Vecrīga are becoming a little touristy, but the overall lack of visitor numbers mean it doesn’t feel spoiled or overrun. (For now.)
House Of The Blackheads & Riga Town Hall Square
In the heart of the Old City, the iconic House of the Blackheads (Melngalvju Nams) stands proudly overlooking Riga’s Town Hall Square (Rātslaukums).
The original House was built to be a public meeting place. Later on, it became home to the Brotherhood of Blackheads, an association of foreign (mostly German) merchants and traders. Meetings, banquets, and other celebrations have been held here for hundreds of years.
This is one of Latvia’s most famous historical monuments. However the current building is actually a reconstruction that was only finished in the 1990s. Riga was bombed heavily in the Second World War, and the original building, which dated back to 1334, was sadly destroyed. The basement vaults are the only original parts that survived.
The building’s original entrance contained a carving, saying: “Should I ever crumble to dust, rebuild my walls you must…”. Amazingly, this actually happened, the House was restored to its former glory and re-opened in 1999.
You can visit the building’s ornate interior, as well as the original medieval cellars, on a guided tour.
Random trivia: Riga claims to be the home of the first ever Christmas tree, which was supposedly decorated by the Brotherhood of Blackheads on this spot in 1510. Though Tallinn, in neighbouring Estonia, also stakes a similar claim… (See my guide to Tallinn here!)
Central Market (Centrāltirgus)
The Central Market (Centrāltirgus) is one of the most unique and iconic places in the city.
Five old German zeppelin hangers (originally built in the 1920s) today house the largest market and bazaar in Europe. It’s really huge, spreading over 72,000 square metres, with more than 3,000 traders.
Up to 100,000 people come here every day to shop for their groceries, fresh produce, hardware, even clothes.
There are a few cafes and little eateries inside the market, where you can grab a coffee, fresh juice, or sample some local delicacies, including fish (try it cured, smoked and fresh), meats, cheeses, and Latvia’s famous rye bread.
Exploring this place is one of my favourite things to do in Riga. Don’t miss it!
Panorama Riga Observation Deck
To enjoy one of the best views in Riga, head to the Latvian Academy of Sciences.
For a few Euros, you can visit the open-air balcony (called “Panorama Riga“) on the 17th floor. The observation deck offers fantastic 360-degree panoramic views over the whole city.
This skyscraper was built between 1953-61, and stands at a proud height of 107 metres. Locally known as “Stalin’s birthday cake”, it’s one of the best examples of Stalinist architecture outside Russia.
The tower has over 700 rooms, today many of which are used by scientists, researchers and historians. There’s even a concert hall on the ground floor.
Although the majority of the building is not open to the public, it’s worth having a little nose around between the 15th floor (where the elevator stops) and the 17th floor (where you access the viewing balcony). The building feels like a time-warp, with old Soviet-era memorabilia, furniture, posters, noticeboards, hammer and sickle decorations, and that indescribable “old” musty smell that I’ve only ever experienced in old buildings in the former USSR. It’s really cool.
In the very centre of Riga, the Freedom Monument is an important national memorial dedicated to the Latvians who died fighting for their country’s independence between 1918-20.
It features a statue of a woman holding three golden stars above her head, symbolising Latvian independence, national unity, and freedom. The granite base is decorated with images and representations celebrating Latvian culture and history.
Latvia has been occupied by several different foreign powers throughout history – including by Sweden, Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union. It suffered considerably throughout these periods, especially during the twentieth century. As a result, the celebration of freedom and independence is particularly important here.
Albert Street & Art Nouveau Architecture
Riga has one of the highest concentrations of Art Nouveau architecture of any city in the world. By some counts, up to a third of all of the buildings in the city centre feature this distinct style.
Art Nouveau is an elaborate artistic style, common between 1890 and 1910, that is characterised by the blending of images of nature, mythology, curves and flowing lines.
Some of the best examples can be found on Albert Street (Alberta iela) – north of the Old Town, a short walk from Kronvalda Park.
Here you’ll also find the Riga Art Nouveau Museum (Riga Jugendstila Centrs). Housed inside the former apartment of Konstantīns Pēkšēns – one of the most famous Latvian architects – this museum showcases a range of furniture, artwork, clothing and interior design all in the Art Nouveau style. The building’s beautiful grand staircase is seriously stunning.
Parks & Gardens
There are many lush green parks and gardens in Riga. These are great places to stop and relax during a long day of sightseeing. Bring a book, nap under a tree, or just sit in the sunshine and watch the world go by.
Bastejkalna Park borders the eastern edge of the Old Town. The Riga city canal (Pilsētas kanāls) snakes its way through the park, under ornamental bridges, and past the towering Freedom Monument. Its banks are beautifully landscaped and decorated with flowers, shrubs, trees, and little man-made waterfalls.
The canal itself is actually part of the city’s old moat. Bastejkalna Park’s highest point – called Bastion Hill – used to be the site of Riga’s medieval fortifications.
Nearby Kronvalda Park is the oldest park in the city. The canal also runs through this park, and here you’ll find various species of rare, exotic and local plants and trees. Several sculptures commemorate important Latvian historical figures and famous former residents.
The park regularly hosts open air art exhibitions and showcases. Some of these can be a bit strange…
Across the river
Head over to the other side of the river to visit Victory Park (Uzvaras parks), in the quieter Āgenskalns district. This enormous green space is full of wild flowers, has a couple of small lakes, and various areas for outdoor activities. There’s even an area for cross-country skiing in the wintertime. During the warmer months, it’s a perfect place for a picnic.
In the centre of the park is the Victory Memorial (AKA, the “Monument to the Liberators of Soviet Latvia and Riga from the German Fascist Invaders“). Built in 1985, it’s dedicated to the soldiers of the Soviet Army who liberated Riga from the Nazis. This impressive structure features a 79 metre tall obelisk with five Soviet stars and various sculptures.
Museum Of The Occupation Of Latvia
Latvia was occupied for more than half of the 20th century, from 1940 until 1991. During this dark period, the country suffered greatly at the hands of both the Nazis and the Soviets.
Located next to the House of the Blackheads, the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia is a sobering memorial to the victims of the Holocaust in Latvia and the subsequent Soviet repression.
Housed inside a large modern black building, this excellent museum educates visitors about Latvia’s painful recent history, and the terrible crimes which were inflicted upon vast numbers of people in this little corner of Europe. It has a large collection of witness testimonials, audio recordings, videos, and thousands of objects collected during the long periods of occupation.
It’s shocking and at times disturbing, but I think everybody should visit this museum.
Inside an attractive Art Nouveau building called the Corner House (Stura Maja), on Brivibas Street, is the Latvian former headquarters of the KGB, the feared Soviet secret police.
On the ground floor, there is a museum detailing the (oppressive and brutal) history and activities of the KGB in Latvia. You can also take guided tours of the chilling basement prison cells, which are grim to say the least.
It’s another very sobering place, but important to visit to get a deeper understanding of Latvia’s difficult recent history.
Churches & Cathedrals
There are several beautiful churches and cathedrals in Riga, both Lutheran and Eastern Orthodox. You’ll notice that many of them have roosters at the top of their spires, rather than crosses. According to Latvian tradition, roosters were placed there to scare away the devil.
Riga Cathedral, in the heart of the Old Town, is one of the oldest religious buildings in the Baltic region. Built in 1211, it is the seat of the Archbishop of the Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church. It’s been modified and renovated several times over the past 800 years, and today is made up of an interesting mixture of Baroque, Gothic, Romanesque and Art Nouveau architecture.
The cathedral’s elaborate organ is stunning – and massive – with 6,718 pipes. It was the most advanced piece of technology in the world at the time it was completed in 1883.
The nearby St. Peter’s Church, built in 1209, has an observation deck built into its tower. From here, you get great views out over the city, especially of the winding cobbled streets of the Old Town. Relatively easy accessibility – an elevator runs up the centre of the tower – plus its central location makes a trip to the top one of the most popular things to do in Riga. (Although I personally prefer the view from (and lack of people at) the “Panorama Riga” Observation Deck – see above.)
Just north-east of the Old Town, the Nativity of Christ Cathedral is the largest Orthodox church in Riga. With sparkling golden domes and a colourful ornate interior, this lavishly designed Neo-Byzantine cathedral is very different in look and feel to the other churches in the city.
During the Soviet era, the cathedral was forced to close, and was converted into planetarium, called the Republic House of Knowledge. In the years following Latvian independence, it was restored and is now once again an Orthodox church.
An easy 30 minute train ride from Riga takes you to the sandy beaches of Jūrmala.
Latvia’s most famous seaside resort has over 30 kilometres of golden sandy beaches, with clear waters, lush pine forests, and beautifully fresh Baltic air.
Jūrmala feels like a world away from the buzz of Riga. You can swim in the sea (in summer), tackle one of the cross-country skiing trails (in winter), hire a bike and cycle along the stunning coastline, explore the Dzintari Forest Park, indulge in a spa treatment surrounded by nature, or visit one of the many restaurants and wine bars.
It’s a fantastic spot, popular with people from Riga and further afield. If you have the time, I’d definitely recommend checking it out during your stay in Riga.
It’s no secret that Riga has a lively nightlife scene. Don’t worry though, it’s fairly easy to avoid the delightful people having a stag do (/bachelor party, for our North American friends). There are great bars all over the city.
The area around the Old Town has loads of places to drink. The atmosphere is lively and fun, and in the summertime most bars and restaurants have outdoor seating with tables on the pavements.
If you want to go clubbing where the locals go (i.e. not surrounded by a bunch of drunken Brits), check out Aqua Luna, in the Andrejsala district. Smart restaurant by day, tasteful club by night, with a beautiful waterfront terrace. It’s a great place to catch the sunset.
Next door you’ll find FIRST MIR (FIRST МИР). This Russian-style club is run by the famous Moscow club promoters FIRST. They’ve got a large dance floor, several open air terraces, an outdoor pool, and even yacht parking. It’s pretty intense, though fun if you’re in the mood!
Finally, be sure to try Riga Black Balsam. This is almost compulsory when visiting Latvia. (Ask any Latvian!)
This traditional bitter-sweet liqueur is made from vodka infused with a mixture of herbs, roots and spices, and is an important national drink. It can be sipped neat, combined with mixers, or added to cocktails. Many people even claim it to be a remedy for colds and digestive issues!
Balzambārs (on Torņa iela 4) is a bar on the edge of the Old Town that specialises in cocktails made using this unique black liqueur. They’ve got an extensive list of Balzam cocktails – it’d be rude not to try at least one…
Things To Do In Riga - Practical Information & Tips
Best time to visit Riga
Riga is an amazing city to visit at any time of year.
Summer (June-August) is when the weather is most pleasant – expect daytime temperatures between 20-30°C. These are also the busiest months, especially at the weekends, although it’s still nowhere near as crowded as other better-known European cities.
Spring and Autumn (April-May / September-October) are also great times to visit, with fewer tourists, although the evenings can get quite cold.
Winters in the Baltic region can be very cold. Warm clothes are a must. On the upside, you’ll be one of the only tourists in the city, and accommodation is often cheaper. You can also ski!
How to get to Riga
For most people, the easiest and fastest way to get to Riga is to fly.
Riga airport is a regional hub, and several major airlines fly here, including Air Baltic, Ryanair and British Airways. Due to the competition, you can often get cheap flights to Riga from all over Europe (especially from cities like London).
To get from the airport into the centre of the city, I recommend taking a Bolt taxi. (Similar to Uber, but cheaper and better.)
If you’re already in the Baltic region, Riga is connected to the other major cities (e.g. Tallinn and Tartu in Estonia, or Vilnius and Klaipeda in Lithuania) by regular bus services. There are also trains, although these tend to be slower and often require you to change trains mid-journey.
You can also reach Riga from Russia and/or Belarus, either by coach or train. However, if you’re pressed for time, it’s much quicker to fly.
Getting around Riga
Riga is a fairly compact city and the Old Town is largely pedestrianised. Many of the best things to do in Riga are within easy walking distance of each other. This makes it a perfect place to explore on foot.
The city has a network of Soviet-era trams if you feel like venturing further afield (or just fancy a ride on one). There are also various different buses and trolleybuses.
For timetables and further info, see here.
If you’re interested in bike rental, head over here.