Latvia is the forgotten middle child of the Baltic countries, but its capital Riga is by far, the most beautiful. With lovely sights, good food and awesome bars to have a drink, the city makes for a perfect place to enjoy day and night. Here are some of the top sights and activities not to miss when you visit Riga.
Take a free walking tour
Riga is one of these wonderful places where locals want to welcome visitors and teach them about their city and way of life. There are a couple of free walking tours available daily that will show you around. The Old Riga walking tour, which is at 11 am and 3 pm, includes the highlights and history of the Old Town part of the city.
An even more popular tour takes you to the “real” Riga, like the Moscow district outside of Old Town. This one departs daily at noon from St. Peter’s Church. It takes you through the suburbs around Riga and includes a lot of information about life in Latvia, or as they call it “misery.” This is a great way to see the less-traveled places in town, though by virtue of a fact that there’s now a daily tour there, I suppose that’s no longer the case.
Tour the House of the Blackheads
One of the highlights of the Riga Old Town is the House of the Blackheads, a 14th century building that was built for the Brotherhood of Blackheads, an association of ship owners and merchants that’s still active in Latvia and Estonia. In fact, Tallinn also has a House of the Blackheads, though it’s not nearly as impressive.
Riga’s House of the Blackheads was actually bombed by the Germans during World War II, so the building’s reconstruction is only a couple of decades old. Visitors can tour the inside of the building, which is just as pristine and ornate as the intricate exterior. The historical basements are original and include a large collection of silver. But the House is best known for its riotous parties and feasts back in the day, so there’s nothing more magnificent than the Celebration Hall.
Visit the Nativity of Christ Cathedral
There are many great churches in Riga, including St. Peter’s Church and the Riga Cathedral. But if you have to choose just one to visit, I recommend the Riga Nativity of Christ Cathedral. It’s the largest Orthodox cathedral in the Baltics, and its gold-domed exterior is somehow not as magnificent as the beautiful and bright interior. The elaborate altars are surrounded by brightly-colored paintings that adorn the arched walls and ceiling. The way light beams enter the room will make you a believer.
Learn some history at a museum
To get a more in-depth look at Latvia’s place in history, you can swing by one of Riga’s free museums, like the Latvian War Museum and the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia. The war museum is located in the Gunpowder Tower and gives you a some insight into the country’s military history including the nation’s fights for its own independence. The Occupation museum details the occupation of Latvia by Soviet and Nazi forces and the oppression of the Latvian people.
Wander around the Riga Central Market
Riga Central Market is the largest market in Europe, and for anyone that enjoys fresh food, it’s a dream come true. The market sprawls inside and outside five pavilion buildings that used to be zeppelin hangars, so they are huge. Each one is actually divided up by food, so there’s one for vegetables, one for dairy products, one for fish, etc. There are a lot of cafes to stop and get some snacks, like pastries and coffee. You can also buy some handicrafts and household items, so it can be a good place to pick up a unique souvenir. Maybe some Latvian honey or spices.
Eat some traditional food
For a really delicious, local-recommended traditional Latvian meal, check out Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs in Old Town. This underground tavern is not just a meal, it’s an experience, with live music almost every night of the week. You won’t be able to leave without having the fragrant garlic bread that you can smell the second you walk in. You can get a beer platter to share with friends or some Latvian meatballs all to yourself. Make sure you enjoy the local brews. I recommend the honey ginger beer.
See Riga from above
Just outside city center, you can get a panoramic view of Riga from the Latvian Academy of Sciences building. It’s not terribly touristy and gives you a 360-degree view that includes the market, Old Town and the bridges on the River Daugava. Unlike most viewpoints in any European Old Town, this one has an elevator!
Enjoy the nightlife
The nightlife in Riga is awesome. It’s lively but relaxed, and offers a variety of options for a good time. There’s none of that bougie Vilnius shit with dress codes and bouncers. So grab some couch space in a funky dive and have some beer, which is the favored drink in Riga. If you’re feeling adventurous, have some Black Balsam, a Latvian herbal liquor. It’s weird, it’s different, and it’s not bad in a modified mojito. The DJs might even get you dancing a little bit.
Get the GPS-guided version of this and other Riga guides on GPSmyCity here.