The capital of Latvia is the largest city in the three Baltic states and is home to one third of Latvia’s total population.
There’s a youthful vitality to Riga that shines through in its thumping nightlife, trendy dining spots and thriving alternative scene.
Riga has an absorbing history to uncover, as a Medieval Hanseatic League member, and a city that has lived under Swedish, Polish, Russian Empire, Soviet and Nazi rule.
The old centre, Vecrīga, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with labyrinthine streets, Medieval churches and guild halls.
And when Riga outgrew its Medieval walls at the turn of the 20th century there was a spectacular burst of creativity that left the city with more than 800 Art Nouveau buildings, more than any other city in the world.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Riga:
The old centre of Riga on the right bank of the Daugava River is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
On these scurrying cobblestone streets and sociable squares are Riga’s oldest houses and churches.
Vecrīga is stacked with restaurants, nightspots, art galleries and museums.
At a cafe you have to order the dessert named after Vecrīga , made from choux pastry filled with curd and vanilla cream and dusted with icing sugar.
Rozena iela is such a narrow street that you can touch both sides as you walk, while the venerable Skārņu Street has an arts and crafts market where you can get a tasteful souvenir.
The Great and Small Guild Halls hark back to when Riga was a thriving Hanseatic City, trading across the Baltic and Northwest Europe.
Vecrīga lost a third of its historic monuments in the Second World War, but many were rebuilt after Independence in 1990.
2. Art Nouveau Architecture
Riga is an Art Nouveau wonderland, with more than 800 buildings, a third of the city’s stock, dating from the prime years of the movement at the start of the 20th century.
This is the world’s largest collection of Art Nouveau architecture, easy to identify for its curved doorways and windows, abundant floral reliefs, female sculptures, whimsical gargoyles or Romantic nationalist imagery.
The reason for this proliferation of Art Nouveau is that Riga had a financial boom and needed fashionable homes for a growing bourgeoisie when the movement was flourishing.
So most of these residences lie in the newer “Centrs” district, to the north and east of Vecrīga, beyond the former walls.
We have a few examples on this list, but one of the masterpieces is at 10a and 10b on Elizabetes street, by “Riga’s Gaudí”, Mikhail Eisenstein.
3. Town Hall Square
Standing on Riga’s Town Hall Square and gazing at the Town Hall and House of the Blackheads, it’s mind-boggling to think that these monuments are little more than 20 years old.
The reconstruction is seamless, and the plaza has a grandeur fit for a capital.
Sticking out like a sore thumb next to the House of the Blackheads is a dark and squat 1970s Soviet building that until recently contained the Occupation Museum.
The Roland Statue, depicting a mythological knight, is a signature of historic German towns, symbolising the city’s Medieval privileges.
Also keep your eyes peeled for a modest stone marker in the ground, recording the location for what is believed to be the world’s first decorated Christmas tree, erected by the Brotherhood of Blackheads in 1510.
4. House of the Blackheads
The pièce de résistance on Town Hall Square is undoubtedly the magnificent House of the Blackheads, first built for an association of unmarried merchants and ship-owners in the 1330s.
This exuberantly adorned brick building was a nexus point for business and trade in Riga during the Hanseatic years.
And as they were bachelors, the Blackheads were known for bringing life to Riga society, organising parties and celebrations.
The building was modified in the 16th and 19th centuries, before being wrecked during a German bombing raid in 1941. The reconstruction didn’t take place until after the Soviet period, and was finished in 1999. You can go in from Tuesday to Sunday to learn about the Blackheads and the history of the building.
The vaults in the basement are original and date from the 14th century, while the stupendous Celebration Hall and the collection of antique silver are must-sees.
5. Albert Street
If you have limited time to hunt down Riga’s Art Nouveau marvels there are many clustered together on Albert Street, which is like an outdoor gallery for architecture.
One of the many surprising things about Albert Street is just how quickly these buildings went up.
The artery took on its inimitable appearance within just seven years, from 1901 to 1908, and eight of the buildings are listed as Latvian state monuments.
Much of the street is the work of Russian architect Mikhail Eisenstein, with special mention for Konstantīns Pēkšēns and his protégé Eižens Laube.
The must-sees are the listed monuments at 2, 2a, 4, 6, 8, 11, 12 and 13. Take as long as you can to appreciate the reliefs and sculptures on the facades, bearing the Romantic Nationalist motifs and mythological figures that were a hallmark of Art Nouveau.
6. Three Brothers
At 17, 19 and 21 Mazā Pils Street stand the oldest complex of houses in Riga, dating from the 15th century.
The oldest facade is no. 17, which has a mix of Gothic and Renaissance in its crow-stepped gable and the pointed arch on its doorway.
Painted pale yellow, No. 19 dates to the middle of the 17th century and blends Renaissance with Dutch Mannerist design.
The distinguished Classical portal here is newer and was built in 1746. This building houses the Latvian Architecture Museum if you’re curious.
Lastly, the slender no. 21 is a Baroque dwelling from the end of the 17th century, with a flowing curved gable.
7. Freedom Monument
East of Vecrīga this solemn landmark remembers the soldiers killed fighting Soviet forces during the Latvian War of Independence (1918-20). Standing 42 metres high, the Freedom Monument (1935) is built from red granite and travertine, and crested by a copper sculpture of Liberty holding three golden stars.
This monument remains the centrepiece for official remembrance ceremonies in the city.
If you approach the base you’ll find 13 groups of reliefs recording national heroes, allegories, images from Latvian culture and pivotal moments in the nation’s history like the Russian Revolution of 1905 and the War of Independence.
8. Bastejkalna Parks
The park around the Freedom Monument reaches across both sides of the Pilsētas Kanāls (canal), which meanders along the course of Riga’s old moat.
Until 1856 this elevated area was the site of Riga’s eastern fortifications, and its name translates to “Bastion Hill”. Over the course of the 19th century a dignified boulevard, gaslights, sculptures, formal flowerbeds and a manmade waterfall were laid out on the hill, while cute wrought iron bridges traversed the canal.
The resplendent buildings neighbouring the park, like the Latvian National Opera and University of Latvia, all add to the sense of ceremony.
Watch the sun go down from the hill and amble beside the canal to see the ducks, swans and beavers.
9. Riga Central Market
Included in Riga’s UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Riga Central Market is one of the largest and most visited markets in Eastern Europe.
Up to 100,000 shoppers enter its pavilions every day.
The building is a wonder in its own right, constructed in the second half of the 1920s and repurposing German zeppelin hangars into pavilions.
These titanic buildings are right on the Daugava, just south of Vecrīga, and each one has its own speciality, be it gastronomic specialities, fish, meat, dairy or vegetables.
There are also stalls to browse outside, while the former warehouses (Spikeri), have been turned into a trendy arts and entertainment zone.
Some goodies that may take you out of your comfort zone are smoked eels, Rupjmaizes kārtojums (a layered dessert made from rye bread) and hemp paste.
10. Riga Cathedral
An enduring symbol for Riga, the “Dome Cathedral” is the seat of the Archbishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia.
The building has been altered many times since it was first built by the right bank of the Daugava River at the start of the 13th century.
Like all of the churches in Vecrīga the cathedral has a cockerel atop its spire, weighting 86 kg and functioning as a weather vane.
There’s an older version on show in the cathedral’s delightful Romanesque cloister, one of the oldest parts of the building.
In the 16th century the Dome Pipe Organ inside was the largest in the world, but was destroyed in a fire in 1547. The current instrument has a marvellous carved wooden case and was installed by the Walcker Orgelbau company at the start of the 1880s with 6718 pipes.
11. Swedish Gate
In Medieval times Riga was protected by a mighty wall with 20 towers and a 90-metre-wide moat that would later be turned into the Pilsētas Kanāls.
Of the eight gates that used to control entry to the city the sole survivor is the Swedish Gate.
The reason this fragment has lasted to the 21st century is that it was turned into an apartment after becoming obsolete when the city’s bastions were built in the 17th century.
Its tenant was the city executioner, who according to tradition would lay a red rose on the window sill on the morning of an execution.
The stretch of wall along Torņa Street was restored during the Soviet occupation.
12. St Peter’s Church
The 123-metre tower of this Lutheran church is an integral part of Vecrīga’s silhouette.
St Peter’s Church was begun at the start of the 13th century, but had two more phases of construction in the 15th and 17th centuries, leaving it with a melange of architectural styles, from Romanesque to Baroque.
There isn’t much remaining of the earliest building, but you can find traces in the outer nave and on a few of the pillars.
Safe to say that the church’s tower had a difficult past: The initial 15th-century Gothic tower collapsed in 1660. Its replacement from 1690 was then brought down by lightning in 1721. And later the tower burnt down in the Second World War to be renovated in the 1960s.
During the last reconstruction an elevator was installed, taking you up to the second gallery at a height of 72 metres for the best view of Vecrīga.
13. Latvian National Opera and Ballet
Best experienced when the autditorium fills up for evening performances, the Latvian National Opera and Ballet is a Neoclassical theatre from 1863. The venue is older than the Latvian National Opera, which was founded as in situation in 1912 and had to wait until after the First World War to give its first performance, which was Wagner’s Flying Dutchman in 1919. The resplendent interiors were produced by the studio of August Volz, who also designed the Roland Statue and allegorical sculptures on the facade of the House of the Blackheads.
Culture-lovers can’t turn down a night of Faust, Die Fledermaus or Madame Butterfly, so check the listings when you’re in town and join the impeccably dressed throng.
A neat piece of trivia is that Wagner was the music director of the Deutsches Theater, the forerunner to the National Opera, for a couple of years in the late 1830s.
14. Art Nouveau Museum
Konstantīns Pēkšēns, one of the stars of Riga’s Art Nouveau movement, designed and lived in this building on Albert Street at the turn of the 20th century.
In 2009 his apartment’s interior was returned to its 1903 layout and decoration.
On the building’s facade look for the quirky motifs inspired by local wildlife, like pine cones, needles and squirrels.
The spiral stairway is a delight, with enthralling ceiling paintings composed by Latvia’s eminent painter of the day, Janis Rozentāls.
In the apartment you can step through the plush drawing room, decorated with floral patterns, and the dining room, lined with wooden panels.
There’s masterful furniture with flowing lines, dainty stained glass windows and beautiful tile-work, best seen on the kitchen floor.
15. Riga Motor Museum
The state-owned Riga Motor Museum reopened for business in 2016 after a three-year makeover.
If you have a thing for classic cars or are intrigued by Soviet artefact the museum is sure to hold your attention for an hour or two.
From the Soviet occupation you can see models by Volga, Moskvich and Zigouli, as well as a ZIS-115 armoured car designed for Josef Stalin, and a Lincoln Continental 53A Town Car gifted to Leonid Brezhnev by Nixon in the early 70s.
Look out for the replica of the Auto Union Racing Car Type D, built by the company that would later evolve into Audi.
Also from the West you can admire a Jaguar Mk. 2, a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith and a Mercedes-Benz 220 SE, all in tip-top condition.
16. Cat House
A building to be seen from the outside while you navigate Vecrīga, the Cat House is a Medieval-inspired Art Nouveau house on Meistaru Street.
It was drawn up by the architect Friedrich Scheffel for a wealthy Latvian merchant, and is named for the copper cats that stand on the corner turrets.
The story goes that these cats were designed with their backsides turned towards Riga’s House of the Great Guild because of a grudge held by the Latvian owner for not being allowed in the mostly German Great Guild.
After a court case cats were turned back the right way and the owner was admitted to the guild.
17. Vērmanes Garden
East of the Bastejkalna Parks and fronting the main building for the University of Latvia, the Vērmanes Garden is the second public garden in Riga.
It takes its name from Anna Gertrud Wöhrmann, a Prussian widow who contributed the land and funds for the park in the 1810s.
Previously this part of the city had been torched by the city in preparation for an attack by Napoleon that never came.
One of a few solemn monuments in the park is an obelisk in her honour, and this is accompanied by an elegant fountain representing the four seasons and a set of stone lions.
The park has formal gardens and exotic trees, playground for little ones, season cafes, people playing chess and an outdoor stage for music and dance performances in summer.
18. Nativity of Christ Cathedral
The cathedral for Riga’s Orthodox community is a stirring neo-Byzantine building begun in 1876 when Latvia was part of the Russian Empire.
You can’t miss that ostentatious golden central dome.
Tsar Alexander II donated the cathedral 12 bells, which required a separate belfry to be constructed.
These bells were melted down at the start of the 1960s under Soviet occupation when the cathedral became the Republic House of Knowledge.
At that time the dome was used as a planetarium, while the crucifixes were pulled down and invaluable iconostasis was destroyed.
Restoration work started at the end of the 1990s and continues today, helping the iconostasis and interior regain their previous splendour.
19. Museum of the Occupation
When this post was written the Museum of the Occupation, one of Riga’s top cultural attractions, was temporarily relocated to the former US Embassy building on Raiņa Bulvāris.
Drawing on a huge audiovisual archive and reserve of artefacts, the museum documents the often grim period from 1940-1991, when Latvia came under the yoke of the USSR, then the Nazis in the Second World War and then the USSR once more.
There are poignant but informative accounts of the hardships of Siberian gulags, purges of Latvian Nationalists after the Second World War and the deportation and murder of Jews in the Holocaust.
On Brīvības Street the sister attraction is devoted to the history of KGB Operations in Latvia, in a former KGB building with prison cells intact.
20. Latvian National Museum of Art
For an edifying introduction to 19th and 20th-century Latvian art head for the newly refurbished Latvian National Art Museum.
This striking Historicist hall was the work of the Baltic German architect Wilhelm Neumann and completed in 1905. At the time it was the first purpose-built museum venue in all of the Baltic States.
The museum was closed for most of this decade, becoming cultural touchstone for Riga since it reopened.
On two floors you can acquaint yourself with the stars of Latvian art, like the Expressionist Johans Valters, Art Nouveau artist Janis Rozentāls and the landscape painter Janis Rozentāls.
There are temporary exhibitions in the basement and you can go up to the roof terrace to survey the city.
21. Museum of the History of Riga and Navigation
The Dome Cathedral chapter house is the venue for Latvia’s oldest museum.
The collection was started in the mid-18th century by the Riga doctor Nikolaus von Himsel.
After he passed away at a young age, his possessions were given to the city by his mother in 1773, and found a permanent home in the chapter house.
This monument’s architecture goes back to the 13th-century in the groin-vaulted gallery, while the regal Column Hall dates to 1778. The collection has been enriched down the years, and recalls each stage of Riga’s lifespan, like its time as a Hanseatic port in Middle Ages and the Polish and Swedish occupations of the 16th and 17th centuries.
Among the many fascinating objects are historic maps, navigational instruments, clothing, all kinds of everyday utensils, porcelain silver and antique engravings depicting the city.
22. Ethnographic Open Air Museum
This skansen-style museum is on the east bank of Lake Jugla, 30 minutes by car from the city centre.
It’s an attraction not to be missed if you want to learn more about Latvian culture.
Here, 118 traditional buildings from the four Latvian provinces have been transported to this site and carefully rebuilt.
The oldest dates back to the 1600s and the most recent is from the 1930s.
The museum is the only place in the country where you can contrast the cultural differences between the provinces of Kurzeme, Latgale, Vidzeme and Zemgale.
In these buildings you’ll get to know old-time methods of self-care at saunas, see example of traditional weaving, peruse an arsenal of tools for historic trades, make your own pottery, forge coins, taste classic Latvian cuisine and find out about Latvian seasonal celebrations.
Established back in 1824, the museum is in 87 hectares of pine forest and has cross-country ski trails in winter.
23. Town Musicians of Bremen
A fun diversion on Skārņu Street is the sculpture for the Brothers Grimm fairytale, the “Town Musicians of Bremen”. The story is about four ageing domestic animals, a donkey, dog, cat and cockerel, who fear that they’re about to be put down, so run away to Bremen to become musicians.
They never make it that far though, as on the way these cheeky critters scam a band of robbers and take over their house.
The monument in Riga, gifted by Bremen in 1990, is also believed to carry political undertones as a nod to Gorbachev’s Perestroika.
It’s supposed to be good luck to touch each animal’s face in sequence, and you can see where the bronze has been buffed up by millions of hands over the last 28 years.
In summer you can catch a suburban train from Riga Central Station to the seaside resort of Jūrmala.
Services depart every 30 minutes on the Riga-Tukums line and take 30 minutes or so to reach their destination.
You’ll know why you made the trip when you arrive.
Jūrmala’s beach is 33 kilometres long and has pristine white quartzite sand, occasionally fronted by wooden Art Nouveau buildings.
Six of the bathing areas at Jūrmala are awarded the Blue Flag each year, and traced by mixed birch and pine forest.
It’s worth coming down outside the summer season, as you can hunt for pieces of amber washed up on the beach in spring and autumn.
Jūrmala was a getaway of choice for the Communist elite in the mid-20th century, and both Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev were regulars.
25. Riga Black Balsam
If there’s a souvenir that is Latvian through and through, it’s Black Balsam, a bitter but slightly sweet liqueur made in oak barrels.
Two million bottles are produced every year and exported to 30 countries.
The drink was formulated back in 1752 by the pharmacist Abraham Kunze, as a kind of restorative tonic.
A total of 24 berries, roots, herbs, flowers and essential oils go into each ceramic bottle of Black Balsam, and if you want to try it there’s a crazy amount of concoctions available.
Most of the time you’ll see it in cocktails, or as a mixer with vodka, schnapps or akvavit.
But people will also drink Black Balsam with coffee, tea, cold soft drinks, and even use it as a topping for ice cream.