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Riga, the capital of Latvia and largest city in the Baltic states, is a unique and exciting mix of gothic churches, art nouveau architecture and a pedestrian-only medieval Old Town, combined with a modern cosmopolitan vibe with an abundance of hip bars, cool restaurants and a buzzing creative scene.
Riga was probably one of the biggest surprises out of all of the European capitals I’ve visited, even in the freezing February temperatures during my trip (the snow just added to the Fairytale-esque beauty).
For me, Riga had everything you could possibly want from a European city break; stunning architecture, plenty of history, great food, fun bars and so many exciting and unusual activities.
Below are just a few of the many reasons why you need to add Riga to your European bucket list…
Things to See in Riga
One of the best things to do in Latvia’s capital is wandering around the city and exploring the unique architecture built up over hundreds of years of European influence. The various architectural styles represent the numerous stages of development of Riga. And best of all… it’s free!
The Fairytale-Esque Streets Old Town
The colourful facades of many of the buildings in Old Town can make you feel like you’re in a real life Disney film.
The two buildings below are restaurants which can be found on Meistaru iela (iela = street), whilst on the right is the entrance to St Peters Church.
Below on the left is one of the Three Brothers, a building complex consisting of three houses which form the oldest complex of dwelling houses in Riga, and on the right is 1221 Restaurant on Jauniela iela.
The Famous Art Nouveau District
One of Riga’s claims to fame is as the Art Nouveau capital of Europe. More than a third of the buildings in its central district are built in this style, and they’re insanely beautiful!
Head to Alberta iela and Strēlnieku iela for the centre of the Art Nouveau District or opt for an organised tour of the area instead.
House of the Blackheads
Located on Rātslaukums (Town Hall Square), the House of the Blackheads was built in the 14th century for the Brotherhood of Blackheads, a guild for young unmarried German merchants in Riga, and is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful buildings in Riga.
And the building is just as impressive on the inside, with grand halls filled with glistening chandeliers and royal portraits, as well as its mysterious medieval cellars.
The Nativity of Christ Cathedral
The Nativity of Christ Cathedral (Latvian – Kristus Piedzimšanas pareizticīgo katedrāle) is a magnificent Orthodox Cathedral built when Latvia was still a part of the Russian empire. The elaborate golden exterior and interior are well worth a visit.
Riga from Above
Climb the city’s peaks and find one of the best vantage points in Riga.
Things to do in Riga
There are plenty of fun and unique activities to do in Riga, so make sure you make the most of them…
Visit Central Market
Riga Central Market was opened in 1930 as the largest and most advanced marketplace in Europe. The market is still located close to Old Town on the bank of the river inside a series of old military airship hangars.
The majority of the produce in the market is grown in Latvia and homemade, with five main areas; vegetables, dairy, meat, fish and gastronomy products. There is also an outdoor area where you can pick up clothes and souvenirs.
Even if you’re not planning on doing your weekly shop, like the majority of locals you will see there, it’s still worth popping by to grab some sweet and savoury homemade pastries to eat on the go, or even stop for a local beer at one of the small bars located inside the market.
And for the real foodies, you can also take a food tour of the Central Market which includes plenty of delicious tastings!
Take a Free Walking Tour of the Suburbs
Riga Free Tour is a fantastic locally guided tour which takes you into the suburbs of the city to experience the ‘real’ Riga. You can meet the guide, who will be carrying a yellow suitcase, at 12:00 (7 days a week) in front of the entrance of St. Peters Church.
Our tour lasted for just under 3 hours and included a coffee/toilet break in the middle. Our guide Kaspas was extremely knowledgeable and funny, keeping the large group entertained throughout the entire afternoon.
Starting with a short history of Old Town we headed out to the Central Market, on through the suburbs and finally back past the Academy of Sciences and central train station.
Don’t Just Leave the Fun Stuff for the Stag Do’s
As you may already know, Riga is extremely popular with English stag do’s, and this isn’t just for the great beers. There are a wide selection of fun activities to do in and around the city, and plenty of companies who will offer these to you.
After finding Red Fox Tours online, we booked with them to spend the day trying our hand at Riga’s Mystery House (an escape room) followed by off-road Quad Biking.
They also offer plenty of other activities such as paintballing, go-carting, shooting, zorb football, curling, snowmobiling, city tours and organised pub crawls.
Our guide Krista picked us up from our hotel lobby after breakfast and took us to the Mystery House where we had to solve a series of puzzles and clues in order to escape. The game was really quite challenging but a lot of fun at the same time.
Next, we were driven to the outskirts of the city where we jumped on our Quad Biking adventure through a gorgeous snowy forest. With just the 2 of us and one member of staff, we were able to build up some serious speed and make the most of our time on the bikes.
Krista, our private guide for the day from Red Fox Tours, was lovely and more than willing to give us advice for the rest of our trip. She even took a detour on the way back to the city centre to show us the Art Nouveau district. At just €130 for both activities, a guide and transfers for 2 people this day was great value for money and one of the most fun parts of our trip.
Take a Day Trip from Riga to Sigulda
If you have the time during your trip, try to take some day trips from Riga. Just an hour outside of Riga you can find the exciting town of Sigulda where you can go bobsledding, skiing or just enjoy some long snowy walks in the countryside.
Have a Snowball Fight (in winter of course!)
If you visit Riga in winter as we did, make the most of the snow – there can be a lot of it!
Where to eat in Riga
As long as you stick to local eateries rather than the tourist traps (which there are many of in Old Town), food in Latvia is both cheap and delicious!
Here are a few of my favourite places to eat in Riga…
Folkklubs ALA Pagrabs for Dinner and Live Music
If I had to recommend one place which you must visit for Latvian food in Riga it would have to be Folkklubs ALA, an underground tavern in Riga’s Old Town with the widest range of Latvian beers in the city, contemporary Latvian food and live local music.
It’s extremely popular with locals and tourists alike and is a great place to spend the entire night from dinner into late-night drinks (the venue stays open until 6am).
Make sure you try the traditional garlic rye-bread, a particular favourite with locals to accompany a few beers. Folkklubs ALA does a ‘Beer platter’ which comes with garlic rye-bread, local cheeses, cured meats and pickles. At just €4 for 2 people the dish is extremely filling and great value for money.
The most famous dish on the menu is the 1kg of pork hock – oven roasted with a honey-mustard glaze, served with sauteed sauerkraut and baked potatoes. Any meat lovers dream!
The traditional battered chicken fillet Folk Club style with mushroom, caramelized onion, pickled cucumber and goats cheese topping, served with green pea-potato mash and brown onion cream sauce, was also unbelievably delicious. Plus all dishes are only around €10.
Accompanied by a fair few local beers, a couple of glasses of Riga Sparkling Wine and a live local folk band, the evening we spent at Folkklub ALA was definitely one of the highlights of my trip.
LIDO for Canteen-Style Latvian Food
For a spot of lunch whilst wandering around the city, it’s worth popping into one of the many canteen style eateries also popular with locals.
LIDO has several locations in the capital and has a wide selection of Latvian dishes which you can pick and choose from yourself. For just €22 we started with meat pancakes, followed by breaded chicken and giant couscous for me and beef stew for Damien, strawberry mousse for dessert and fruit smoothies to drink.
Also, try Pipars Bistro for a similar, but slightly smaller, canteen-style experience.
Black Magic for Liquor and Chocolate
This one’s a bit more of a novelty but for some traditional Latvian liquor and a few chocolate truffles in a quirky cafe and bar, Black Magic is a fun little place to stop for a mid-afternoon break.
Street Food for a Midday Snack
I mean, it’s cooked in cauldrons…
If you’re looking for somewhere quick to eat in Riga, look no further than the many street food stands.
Much of the Latvian food in Riga descends from its German influence so expect a lot of warming and hearty ingredients such as sausage, potatoes and sauerkraut.
Speķa Pīrāgi (Bacon Turnovers)
One of the most common snacks you will find all over Latvia is Speķa Pīrāgi, or small bacon and onion rolls. They are cheap, delicious and well worth a try! Most cafes, street food stalls and the Central Market will have them so make sure to pick one up during your stay in Riga.
Where to stay in Riga
Wellton Riga Hotel and Spa – With prices as low as £40 per night, this hotel is a great option for a long weekend in Riga. It’s conveniently located in the heart of Old Town, a short walking distance from all of the main attractions. The rooms are large and welcoming, breakfast is fantastic (there’s prosecco!) and the spa is an added bonus for a relaxing end to a long day exploring the city (especially during Winter).
Take an organised tour in Riga
Flying from London to Riga
Ryanair flies from London Stansted to Riga, while Wizz Air flies Luton to Riga. Both British Airways and Air Baltics fly directly from London Gatwick to Riga. Return flights can be as little as £35 and take just 2h30m each way.
If you’ve visited Riga before and think I’ve left something out please let me know in the comments below. I’d love some more recommendations for my next visit!
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