First time visiting Riga, I didn’t know what to expect from a former Soviet country and the third-largest city in the Baltics. What I found is a city mixed with communist history and modern advances but keeping its old city charm. There are so many activities and places to explore in Riga that it could be difficult to choose which one to do first. Here are the top ten things to do in Riga, Latvia.
Riga is an exciting city in the Baltics to visit. With it having the largest and busiest airport and convenient ferry services, this city sees a lot of visitors that start here but travel to other places in the Baltics. There are enough activities here, though, to keep you occupied for a while. The Old Town itself, you could spend days exploring all there is to see in this UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are beautiful old buildings for you to photograph, statues with intriguing stories and restaurants with wonderfully authentic Latvian dishes for you to try. And don’t forget the beautifully designed nature parks by the canals to walk through. You might even get serenaded by a man with an accordion.
I was able to go on a Classic Riga Walking Tour that took me through the entire city and showed me the best of Riga’s amazingly designed buildings. Architecture in Riga is so fascinating. You can see the Communist influence on some buildings, while others are beyond modern. But, my personal favorite is the Art Nouveau architecture. There is even a whole street, Alberts Street (named for the Founder of Riga city, that has several of these buildings all in a row. In the mid-1800s, parks and boulevards were designed around the old town. Between 1900 and 1907, many of the best-known art nouveau facades were designed by Mikhail Eisenstein. They had an Egyptian flair before the Egyptian motifs became popular 20-30 years later. You can see more of Riga’s architecture here.
Churches in Riga
Exploring on foot is one of my favorite things to do to learn how to navigate a new city. And when I happen upon a church, I am drawn to take its photo and see how they worship inside. I haven’t overthought about why I do this on all my travels, maybe that will be a future post. In the meantime, here is a photo walk of the churches I found in Riga. These are some amazing colorful churches.
The unassuming Corner House in Riga is the place where the KGB secret police held interrogations, tortured Latvians suspected of anti-Soviet behavior, and executed prisoners, Now, it holds the KGB Museum and displays all the documentation that was discovered. You can schedule a tour through the old cell blocks or walk through the exhibition for free. Visiting this museum is a fantastic way to see into the life of Latvians during the occupations of both the Soviets and the Nazis.
The Riga Central Market is the largest in Riga. This is where you can people watch the Latvian’s buying their produce for their meals, buy your souvenirs, and even sample the food yourself. When you get starving, head over to the food court to pick from several food choices from all over the world. The Riga Central Market is an absolute must for every tourist visiting this proud city.
The Riga Ghetto was a small 16-block area where 30,000 Latvian Jews were forced to move to and live for a short time. The grounds and museum are free, but there is a voluntary 5€ admission fee. It is open every day except Saturdays and is mostly outdoors so, make plans accordingly. This exhibit is not for the faint of heart. It is very moving, and there are tons of first-hand stories of the Jews that lived in the ghetto along with the very long wall listing each 70,000 Jew that died during the Holocaust. Did you know that Jews were prohibited from walking on sidewalks? If you are interested in learning about what the Latvians Jews had to deal with before and during the Holocaust, the Riga Ghetto and Latvian Holocaust Museum is the one to visit.
Salaspils is the location of a labor camp and currently a lovely memorial for all the people lost during the time of its operation. The total loss is between 2,000 to 3,000, including hundreds of children. The Salaspils Memorial Ensemble is incredibly moving, and you can get lost in the memories of what happened here thanks to the interactive museum and larger than life statues. Also, take a drive to the Rumbula Forest Memorial to remember the thousands of Jews that were marched to their deaths into their mass graves.
Stopping and seeing what the street vendors are selling is a must for tourists visiting the Riga’s old town. They have fuzzy socks, warm hats, Russian nesting dolls, magnets, and amber. Amber, the ‘substance of the sun,’ is widely available in Latvia. You can still find Amber fragments that are washed up along the Baltic Sea coast. Riga is THE place to buy Amber gifts. You can find home decor gifts made of amber and, of course, jewelry in all shades of color. The colors range from yellow, caramel, and red and are all beautiful. I picked up an amber bracelet and earrings. Although I could have easily bought a lot more. It’s a good thing. I didn’t have more room in my backpack.
Where to Eat in Riga
With so many choices of restaurants to eat in Riga, here is my list of favorites that we frequented while visiting.
Rockabilly was a fun night out with the girls. We picked the coolest place to sit and enjoyed a fantastic meal, all while listening to rock and roll music. The fun part was that our waiter spoke very little English so, we were in stitches laughing so much trying to order food and drinks. I think that we all got what we ordered eventually and it was delicious! What a great place for Instagram worthy photos!
Stopping in for a quick lunch at the Queens Pub and Restaraunt gave us a nice break from Latvian food. Sometimes you need some comfort food, and I was craving a pizza and a Coke. And the Queens Pub delivered. Although be prepared if it is busy to wait a while for the bill, but the food is worth it!
Folkklubs was THE restaurant that was frequented by the majority of the ladies at the WITS travel conference and the most often. Many of them went here more than two and three times during their stay in Riga. The wood decor and that the main dining room is in the basement that you get to after walking through a long hallway filled with large wooden chairs have a European flair. The food quantity is large, so bring your appetite. I ordered the Latvian Meatballs that were amazing!
We stopped at this restaurant to pick up a hot chocolate while walking around Old Town at night. They have a pleasant dining area and a lively bar area where customers were watching football. I’ll have to come back here to try the food next time.
Riga is a pretty safe city to walk around at night. The old town can get pretty quiet, which leads to some awesome night photos. The bars tend to be lively at night, where Latvians go to wind down after work. You do have to be mindful of your belongings from pickpockets. But other than that, it is an easily walkable town at any time of day or night.
Latvian Independence Day, Lāčplēsis Day, happens to be on November 11, and I was there to see the beginning of the festivities. The entire wall by the Riga Castle candles is lit for remembering the Latvian Army winning the battle that leads to their independence. I lit a candle myself. The whole night is quite the experience as the crowds get bigger and bigger as the night wears on. There are also memorials by the Freedom Monument with flowers left and guard marching and guarding the monument.
Day Trips from Riga
Looking for a day trip out of Riga, try the immaculately restored Rundāle Palace. This palace will amaze you with its renovations and attention paid to artistic details. The palace was treated so shabbily for years. The throne room was used as grain storage if you can believe it. You can schedule tours, and the costumed guides will bring you back to the 18th century. Definitely worth a visit!
Where to Stay in Riga
If you would like to have your own place, I know several friends that have stayed in Airbnbs around Riga. If you are new to Airbnb, you’ll get $55 off your first trip. Airbnbs are sometimes cheaper than hotels, and you can choose ones with a kitchen and laundry if needed.
My stay in Riga was at the Ibis Riga Centre. Conveniently located by the train station and walking distance to the Riga Central Market and Old Town. They have an excellent breakfast and dinner selections if you want to dine in. If you are interested, you can book your stay on Booking.com.
Where to Stay Outside of Riga
Mazmežotnes Manor is a 19th-century hotel and banquet hall set above a gorgeous river bank valley. The rooms are laid out perfectly to maximize the space and provide you with all the comforts. They have spa services on-site, and with the location, there are plenty of paths and nature trails. Rooms in the House of Lords go for 90€ to 210€ and rooms in the Great House of Servents go for 80€ to 130€. We were treated to a lunch buffet in the Event Shed that gave us a little of how an event would be like there. Mazmežotnes Manor has all the things needed to have your favorite celebration or for a getaway in the country.
Abgunste Manor is by far one of my favorite accommodations I have come across in my travels around the world. This is a creative mecca for individuals that paint outdoors as well as accommodations during the summertime. The manor holds weddings, celebrations, festivals, exhibitions, seminars, and craft workshops. I was able to try one of the craft workshops and made a flower garland headband. The owners put everything they earn back into the restoration of the Abgusnte Manor to exactly how it was in the 18th century. But the best part is if you are an artist, you can come and stay here for free if you leave something that you created. I’m so doing this!
I was told that Latvians were farmers who were used to making others prosperous. Which would make sense after being occupied for 50 years. But, it is wonderful to see them claiming their own and charting their future on their terms. There is so much to see and do in Riga from the stunning architecture to the authentic Latvian foods that you can’t go wrong in scheduling a visit to this wonderful city.
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If you are coming to Latvia for a visit, check out these posts for further travel inspiration:
- Exploring the Riga Central Market
- A Brief Visit to the KGB Museum in Riga – The Corner House
- A Somber Walk Through the Riga Ghetto and Latvian Holocaust Museum
- Remembering the Forgotten at Salaspils Memorial Ensemble and Rumbula Forest Memorial
- Rundāle Palace: Exploring the Versailles of the Baltics
- Learning the Secret Language of Fans