Wondering what to see in Riga? This guide is going to help you out!
During my latest visit to the Baltic countries the beautiful Latvian capital of Riga was one of the stops that I had.
After having spent quite a bit of time exploring northern Europe I was finally happy to reach a more budget-friendly destination where I could finally start enjoying some great value for my hard-earned cash.
Riga itself is a wonderful place to visit with an Old Town that’s designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site as well as plenty of other cool areas to check out.
The city seemed full of parks and relaxing green spaces so even during the winter I was still able to enjoy some nice natural areas.
In the Old Town you’re going to be able to wander through narrow cobblestone streets, explore hidden alleyways, admire beautiful architecture, spend some time in museums, and be able to relax at quaint cafes and affordable restaurants.
On my own I spent four days doing some Riga sightseeing but if you’re in a hurry you could definitely get away with just one or two days to check out the basics and the main tourist sites in the city.
The Old Town itself is quite small so it’s very easy to walk around everywhere and unless you’re planning on heading out of the city center then you really don’t need to use any public transportation.
I was there in the peak of winter but there was still plenty of things to do and interesting areas to check out so it’s a great destination to visit year round.
In this post I want to share with you some of the best Riga points of interest that you’re going to want to check out during your visit to this lovely Latvian capital.
What to Do in Riga
The House of the Blackheads
Located right at the edge of the Old Town, surprisingly not in the heart of it, is where you’ll find one of main squares in the city.
And it’s in this square where you’ll find the House of the Blackheads.
The House of the Blackheads was originally built in 1334 and over the years it has been rebuilt and reconstructed quite a few times.
I think it’s one of the most photographed buildings in the entire city and I can’t argue with that because it’s quite beautiful and picturesque.
The building was used at first by various public organizations in Riga as a meeting point and party venue.
During the 17th century it was occupied by German traders, members of the Blackheads society, and used as their main office where most of their business was conducted.
Unfortunately it did end up getting destroyed during World War II but today it stands as one of the most beautiful buildings in Riga.
This is definitely one of the more popular attractions in the city so you’re definitely going to want to head here and admire the beautiful architecture and design of the building before venturing off to explore the rest of the Old Town.
Make sure to avoid the people offering to give you a guided tour here because they’re overpriced compared to what else you can find.
You can also stop by the Riga tourist office located on the ground floor of the building if you want to get some maps or more information about what to do.
The Three Brothers
Another interesting set of buildings you’re going to want to check out when you’re wandering through the Old Town are the houses known as the Three Brothers.
What you’ll find is a set of three medieval houses that were supposedly built by brothers from the same family.
The structures were built between the 15th and 17th century with the oldest house being more than 550 years old.
These houses definitely stand out from the surrounding architecture, given their age and architectural style, and you’re definitely going to want to take some photos and admire the overall design for a few moments.
These are the oldest medieval dwelling houses in the city and back when they were built this location would have been on the outskirts of the Old Town rather than as central as it is today.
Owning these buildings is actually quite tough because they are under the protection of the State Inspectorate for Heritage Protection and also the Latvian Museum of Architecture can be found on the ground level.
All throughout the Old Town are quite a few different churches and religious monuments.
Personally, I’ve seen so many churches over the years that they all start blending together but but the impressive architecture definitely makes them worth taking a look at and also suitable to use for great Instagram photos.
In just about every square you’re going to see a church steeple dominating the skyline around you and many of them offer free entry so you can check out the interior and escape the busy crowds of tourists for a few moments.
During the summer the interior of these churches is all so much cooler than the outside so if you’re looking for a break from walking around it’s a good idea to stop by and just rest your feet for a while.
One interesting thing that you’re going to want to keep an eye out for is that the oldest churches in Riga actually have roosters sitting at the top of their spires instead of just your typical crosses.
The reason for this is that during the medieval time period when the churches were built there was a tradition that said that roosters scare away the devil and they also keep an eye out for God but eventually they started using crosses anyways.
The Riga Cathedral is one of the more popular churches in the city and inside you’ll find an impressive organ which is said to be one of the most historical organs in Europe.
The St. Jacobs Catholic Cathedral is another popular church and it’s said that the Reformation in Latvia begin here before spreading to the rest of the country.
You’re going to want to check out St. Peters Church for one of the best views of the Old Town because there is an observation tower that stands at 72 meters in height, although there is a €9 fee to enter.
When you’re outside of St. Peter’s don’t forget to look for the sculpture of the donkey, dog, cat, and rooster.
This sculpture is actually based on The Brothers Grimm fairytale and is meant to represent the town musicians of Bremen.
As for the Orthodox Churches, the Nativity of Christ Cathedral is the biggest and most popular Church for Orthodox Christians living in the city.
The Nativity of Christ Cathedral
Like I just mentioned, the Nativity of Christ Cathedral is the biggest Orthodox church in Riga and an important cultural building for the country.
During the Soviet Era the cathedral was used as a restaurant and a planetarium but since Latvia gained its independence it has once again been turned into a place of worship.
Compared to some of the other buildings in the city, the cathedral wasn’t in use until 1884 and construction started during the summer of 1876.
It was built to support a growing Russian population and even to this day there are still quite a few Orthodox Russians living in Riga and visiting the Cathedral on a regular basis.
When it was built it was one of the most expensive buildings that could be found in the city and on the inside was a valuable collection of ancient icons and beautiful paintings.
The structure mostly survived World War II but in the 1960s during the Soviet occupation the cathedral was closed and the bells and crucifixes were removed and used for other purposes.
Finally it reopened in the nineties and all the renovation is still going on the cathedral is a very beautiful religious building in Riga and definitely worth checking out.
Admire the Beautiful Architecture
When you’re walking around Riga it’s hard not to notice all of the beautiful examples of architecture from across the different ages both inside the city center and in the outer areas.
Most notably is the Art Nouveau style and interestingly enough Riga has the highest concentration of this type of architecture compared to anywhere else in the world.
It’s safe to say that nearly one-third of the buildings in the city center take on an Art Nouveau appearance and this is due to the rapid growth of the city from the end of the 19th century and well into the 20th century.
These days don’t have to walk very far before the architecture is going to start to impress you and this isn’t only the case in the very city center because even in the surrounding neighborhoods are plenty of beautiful buildings design using a wide range of other architectural styles.
Just a short 10-minute walk away from the very center you’ll be able to find some of the older residential neighborhoods in Riga and it’s here that you’re going to start to see the traditional wooden houses that have been built over the last century as the city expanded and there was a need for more residential properties.
Don’t forget to bring your camera and keep your eyes peeled because a lot of the best architecture in Riga is easy to walk by unless you’re actually keeping an eye out for it.
If you really want to get a better look at the Art Nouveau architecture then you’re going to want to head to the district where many of the buildings were built.
You can find these about 15 to 25 minutes away from the old town near Albert Street and Elizabeth Street.
Despite being more than 800 buildings designed with an art nouveau style in the city, many of them are located in this neighborhood and you will have to walk very far before you start taking tons of photos of the incredible architecture around you.
Explore the Parks
Surrounding the city center are quite a few different large and expansive parks.
During the summer these natural green spaces make for a very beautiful place to visit, relax in the shade, and beat the summer heat.
The reason for so many parks is that at the end of the 19th century, when the city was expanding, all of the old fortifications were torn down and parks were built in their place.
One of the main parks near the city center features a lock bridge where you and a loved one can go put a lock on as a sign of affection for one another.
The parks are also full of plenty of options for seating so you can come here if you want to relax or just have a nice picnic if the weather is nice.
It’s possible to rent a boat and just paddle along the canal while avoiding all of the people walking along the many paths that cover the green spaces.
Another thing that you’ll find during the summer is a variety of different vendors selling a wide range of things such as ice cream, cold drinks, and snacks.
About 10 minutes away from the very city center you should go check out the huge statue of the monkey wearing a spacesuit, arguably one of the most impressive and interesting statues I’ve ever seen.
Head to Jurmala
During the summer you might want to consider going on a day trip to Jurmala. This popular seaside resort town is 30 minutes away from Riga.
People from all across Eastern Europe visit Jurmala for the beautiful beach. The 33 kilometer long white sand beach looks out of place here in Latvi!
In the summer Jurmala is packed with both tourists and locals. In July and August, when the temperature regularly hits the 30s, there’s nowhere else you’re going to want to be.
It’s very easy to reach Jurmala. Trains and buses regularly leave from the main bus and train station in downtown Riga.
Jurmala makes for the perfect Riga day trip if you’re looking to beat the heat and relax by the sea.
As for accommodation, there’s no shortage of places to stay Jurmala. Visitors will also find a number restaurants, cafes, and other things to do apart from hanging by the beach.
It’s worth checking out if you’re looking for a quick city break.
The Swedish Gate and Fortification Remains
At the end of Aldaru Street, right in the old town, you’ll find the medieval Swedish gate as well as some remnants of the old city walls.
While most of the fortifications and city walls were torn down to make room for the growing city, the Swedish gate, which was built in 1698, remains to this day and it’s one of the best remaining fortifications that still exists.
It takes on a very obvious defensive fortification design with for archers or for muskets and even the remnants of a moat can be seen right outside the tower and subsequent walls.
Interestingly enough, the apartment that you can see right above the gate used to actually belong to the executioner and at night he would put a red rose in the window before an execution was bound to happen.
Surrounding the gate are a wide range of small shops, restaurants, and cafes so it’s a good area to check out if you’re looking for a quick bite to eat while exploring the historical city center.
Try Some Riga Black Balsam
You won’t have to walk very far in Riga to see an advertisement or a sign about the popular Black Balsam drink.
This is actually a very traditional drink and it’s made from a combination of vodka and liqueur that has been made with a variety of different plants.
A lot of people that try it claims that it has both of medicinal taste and medicinal properties and there’s even a legend where Catherine II, the Russian Empress of the time, got sick when she was in Latvia and the only thing that cured her was the Black Balsam.
Although I’m not really sure about the authenticity of the story it’s still a unique drink that you’re going to want to try out the next time that you’re in Riga.
Because it’s quite popular it’s very readily available in different bars and restaurants across the city and you can even grab your own bottle at just about every small shop in the old town area.
It’s very strong on its own so it’s typically served in cocktails although you can do shots of it, but you’re going to want to be very careful about how much you drink.
The Central Market
Right behind the main bus station is the bustling Riga Central Market and this is said to be one of the largest markets across all of Europe.
I’ll admit it, it’s pretty huge, and the market itself is housed in an enormous building that used to be the old German Zeppelin hangars.
Here you’ll be able to find a wide range of options if you’re looking for something to eat or drink and you can choose from cold options so you can prepare your own meal at home or grab something that’s hot and ready made to eat on the go.
The prices here are much better than what you would pay in the city center so if you’re traveling on a budget or just looking to explore something unique then the Central Market is definitely where you going to want to check out.
A lot of the locals visit this Market every day to do their grocery shopping because the prices here are much better than at the surrounding grocery stores and it’s a much more personable and traditional experience.
The place is huge so give yourself about an hour or so of walking around and it’s especially great during the summer because you can get amazing prices on local fresh fruits and freshly squeezed juices.
One thing I want to mention is that you should be careful when you’re visiting and wary of pickpockets as well as anyone talking to you trying to sell you something who isn’t a market vendor.
Walk Along the River
Running along the outskirts of the city center is the Daugava River.
On both sides of the river is a beautiful walking path and although there isn’t much to see or do along the river itself it’s still a nice place to walk free from traffic and away from the bustling tourist areas.
During the summer there are local river cruises departing from the walkway at the edge of the river so if you want to relax while cruising along the Daugava then you’ll want to come check these out.
There’s also a very interesting monument that was built as a dedication to one of the original founders of Riga so try to keep a look out for that and don’t forget to read the interesting story on the plaque right out front of it.
Learn More About the Soviet Occupation
You might not be aware but for a period of time during the 20th century Latvia was completely under Soviet occupation.
Right next to one of the main squares you might notice the huge and imposing black square building and not only is this a famous architectural landmark in the city but it’s also the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia.
Inside this Museum you can learn more about the Soviet occupation that happened between 1940 and 1991 until Latvia gained its independence.
Not only does the museum cover the occupation by the Russians but they also go into some detail about when the German Army occupied the city at the beginning of World War II as well.
This is definitely a great place to visit if you’re into history, especially when it comes to Soviet history in Eastern Europe, and the museum offers great insight about what the city had to endure over the years until it gained its independence from the Russians.
For those of you interested in World War II history you can also check out the Riga Ghetto and Latvian Holocaust Museum for a more in-depth look of what happened during the second World War to the Jewish individuals living in Riga and the rest of the country.