Ever since my Mum worked with a colleague from Latvia 15 years ago, I’ve wanted to visit the Baltic Capital Cities. Finally, in November 2018 I booked flights to Riga with a friend!
I visited this beautiful city in March (when the weather was still chilly) and was absolutely not disappointed. It is packed full of history and buildings so pretty it hurts! Although it may no longer be the hidden gem it once was, Riga is still not as touristy as destinations like Prague or Budapest. If you’re looking for good food, a cheap night out and a never ending list of gorgeou buildings then take a trip to Riga! Read on for 12 things you have to do in this fairytale capital city.
1. Wander the cobbled streets of Old Town Riga
It’s not hard to see why Old Riga is a UNESCO World Heritage site as you explore. The centre is small but with winding cobbled streets it is not hard to get lost. But with lovely pastel coloured buildings to admire you won’t complain about it! Keep your eyes peeled as you wander through the streets for the unusual buildings that are dotted through the Old Town.
Top Tip: Strolling the streets of Riga is hungry work so make a pit stop at Street Fries Kitchenfor delicious fries and waffles. Mine came smothered in caramel and nutella with a generous helping of M&M’s sprinkled over the top…
2. Learn about Latvia’s history
I have to admit I don’t usually take a walking tour on a city break. Mainly because I can’t pay attention for long enough! However, as my friend and I walked the streets of Old Riga we realised we didn’t know anything about the buildings we were passing or really much of Latvia’s history at all! We decided to take a walking tour to learn more and we were glad we did. We learnt so much about Latvia’s past and present as well as the unusual stories behind some of Riga’s iconic buildings!
We took a tour with Old Riga Free Tour which runs daily at 11am meeting outside the entrance to St Peter’s church. The tour lasts around 2 hours and is jam packed full of interesting information and anecdotes about Latvia and its capital city.
3. Admire the view from St Peter’s Tower
St Peter’s Church is located in the heart of Old Riga. You must buy a ticket and ride the elevator up to the top of the tower where you’ll be rewarded with breathtaking panoramic views across Riga.
The church has had a number of different towers over the centuries, the current tower is just over 123m high and is the highest in the city. It was freezing at the top but honestly this view was worth facing the biting wind!
4. Riga Central Market
A 5-10 minute walk to the South of Riga’s Old Town will bring you to Riga Central Market. The massive pavilions before you are German Zeppelin hangars that were transformed into a market place in the 1920s, completed in 1930. These buildings are so special that they were included in the UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998.
Arrive at the market hungry because inside one of the hangars you will find a food court filled with food stalls (think Camden Market style)! You can taste everything from traditional Latvian grey peas to Japenese tempura. We indulged in pasta cooked in a wheel of parmesan and drizzled in truffle oil. Oh my gosh the calories were worthwhile…
5. House of the Blackheads
This is a definite must see unusual building in Riga (although for some reason it took us a long time to find it!). The original House of the Blackheads was built in 1334 as the meeting place for the Brotherhood of Blackheads. This was a guild for unmarried merchants. They chose St Maurice as their patron who was portrayed as an Egyptian martyr, this is where the name of the guild came from. It has an interesting museum inside if you have time and want to learn more.
6. Spot the Cat House
Walking along Meistaru Iela you will see two buildings that look almost like castles. These are the Great Guild and the Small Guild and incredibly important sites in Riga over many centuries. Now, the Great Guild is home to the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra. Opposite the Great Guild, draw your eyes up to the top of the sunny yellow building and you will see a statue of a black cat sitting on top of the tower.
The black cat house is a famous sight in Riga and all because of the story behind why it sits there. It is alleged that the owner of the house was refused entry to the illusive Guild and so in response to this refusal he built a house right opposite. The black cat was originally pointing with its rear towards the Guild to show his offence but has since been turned round!
7. The Three Brothers
Riga has wide architectural variety and this is reflected in the Three Brothers. Built from R-L in the 15th century, mid 17th century and late 17th century they showcase architectural and historical styles. Legend says that the Brothers gained their name because they were owned by descendants of the same family throughout the centuries.
The oldest brother is one of the oldest dwelling places in Riga and was built when trading links were tightly bound with the Dutch and the crow-stepped gable facade displays this influence.
The middle brother has been painted a cheery yellow. Built in 1646 this house would have been home to the richest inhabitants and contains many intricate features. Look closely above the door and you will read the inscription Glory to God alone! in Latin.
Finally, the youngest brother is on the left. It is the smallest and the narrowest of all three brothers. The green ‘mask’ was alleged to have protected the inhabitants of this house from evil spirits.
8. Skyline Bar
For incredible views over the city and delicious cocktails then you must head to the Skyline Bar at the top of the Radisson Blu hotel. Sail up in the glass elevator and make sure to get a seat by the window to enjoy the view uninterrupted. The cocktails were expensive for Riga but reasonably priced (and beautiful) given the location!
9. Art Nouveau District
The Art Nouveau District is situated just a stone’s throw from Old Riga and is absolutely somewhere you must visit on a trip to Riga. It is chock a block full of buildings with intricately ornate designs and facades. Head down Alberta Iela for a street that is almost entirely Art Nouveau designed buildings!
The Art Nouveau style was popular from the end of the 19th century to the early 20th century and was inspired by natural forms and curves (think Gaudi style architecture). Around one third of the buildings in the centre of Riga were built in the Art Nouveau style meaning that it has the highest concentration of Art Nouveau buildings in the world!
10. Brunch at Mākonis
If you need to soak up all that Black Balsam (Latvian herbal liqueur) from the night before then head to Mākonis for brunch! At the weekend they serve an unlimited sweet / savoury waffle brunch. Unlimited. For 9Euro. What a bargain. I didn’t indulge in waffles but had the smoothie bowl instead which was delicious! It’s located 10-15 minutes out of Old Riga but the walk is definitely worth it.
11. Discover incredible Church & Cathedral Architecture
Riga is full of diverse and beautiful buildings spanning centuries of styles and architectures and the churches of Riga emulate this. In Old Riga alone there are 9 churches to discover.
From Gothic spires to a church that looks as though it could be the home of Frozen’s Elsa, Riga has it all. The gleaming golden dome of the Nativity of Christ Cathedral can be seen shimmering around the city!
12. See the Freedom Monument
The mighty Freedom Monument towers 43m above Freedom Boulevard and was built to commemorate the soldiers killed during Latvia’s War of Independence from 1918-1920. Liberty stands at the top of the monument holding three stars to represent the three regions of Latvia. Learn more about the War of Independence in the Latvian War Museum situated inside the Powder Tower.
Riga is so gorgeous with plenty to see and do with a super fun nightlife as well! What are you waiting for?!