Riga is the capital of Latvia, and the biggest city in the Baltic States, home to almost 700,000 people.
Riga was the first Eastern European country I visited, back in 2009 for my sixteenth birthday. If Ryanair hadn’t been offering really cheap flights (£20 return each!), then we may never even have gone; but I’m glad we did, as it inspired me to explore even more of Eastern Europe (and I got to complete the Baltic States at the age of 21!).
There are so many things to see and experience in this charming city, and it should definitely be on your radar. In fact, I ended up going back 8 years later, in September 2017, just so I could see it again. Here are my top ten things to do in Riga…
St Peter’s Church
At 120m high, St Peter’s Church is the tallest church in Riga, which makes it a great place to start your sightseeing.
Pay a few Euros and climb to the top of the spire for views of both the Old Town and the mixture of modern and Soviet architecture of the New Town.
I visited at the end of May and September, and was lucky enough for bright sunshine both times, which made the city look extra pretty… although I’m sure it’s just as lovely in winter too! It’s definitely one of the top things to do in Riga.
House of the Blackheads
Straight opposite St Peter’s Church, it’s possibly the most impressive looking building in the city, which makes it worthy of a place on my list of things to do in Riga!
The House of the Blackheads was built way back in the 1300s, and it was originally used as a meeting venue and banquet hall. Sadly, the building was destroyed by bombs in World War II, but it’s since been restored. I got to see this building in all of it’s glory back in May 2009… unfortunately this September it was covered in scaffolding, but with any luck it’ll be off soon.
You can go inside and see the antiques and weaponry that are on display, but as we were on limited time, we didn’t get a chance to explore further. It’s still definitely worth a few pictures though… you don’t get buildings like that in the UK!
This was a personal favourite of mine (and I’m sure if my cat had seen it too, she would have appreciated it!).
The Cat House is located on Livu Square, and the yellow building looks quite modest and unassuming… until you look up and see the cats perched on each of the two spires right at the top.
The story goes that the owner of the building was denied entry to the Great Guild, which was at the opposite side of the square. As an act of revenge, the owner had the two cat statues built, to turn away from the Guild.
It’s iconic and should definitely be on your list of things to do in Riga!
Day Trip to Jūrmala
The most time I’ve ever spent in Riga at one time was two full days, so unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to visit Jūrmala. It is however, top of my list of things to do in Riga if I’m ever there again.
Jūrmala is a beach resort, approximately fifteen miles west of Riga. During the summer months, the locals go flocking to sunbathe on the sandy beach and swim in the Baltic Sea.
There are several spas located here too, as well as a range of restaurants, making it the perfect place for a day trip.
I went to Pirita beach when I went to Tallinn (despite the temperatures being in the minus figures); and that was beautiful, so I’d imagine that Jūrmala is just as nice.
If you’re staying in the city for any length of time, and are looking for alternative things to do in Riga, then visiting Jūrmala is a good place to start!
Visit Black Magic
Located on Kalku iela, one of the main streets in the Old Town is Black Magic; an amazing chocolate and Balsam shop. It’s so cosy and cute, you could easily spend all afternoon (and night) lying in one of their sumptuous armchairs, guzzling hot chocolate.
Look out for the “bookcase” which is actually hiding a secret staircase, leading down to a room where more chocolate awaits.
The fact that I found deer, bunny, and dove shaped chocolate made up for the fact that I couldn’t find any marzipan (whereas it was literally everywhere when I went in 2009… and I love marzipan SO much!).
Also, as we’re on a subject of food, you NEED to give black bread a go whilst you’re in Latvia. It was on the menu of every single restaurant in Riga. Just remember to bring some gum with you, cause your breath is gonna stink of garlic!
No trip abroad is complete without checking out the shopping (come on, you should know me by now!).
Despite only having had two short visits, who was I to deny myself of looking at the fashions? My favourite place for shopping was Gallerijas Centrs on Audēju iela; which looked very ornate on the inside (the building itself was actually built during Soviet times).
It’s got a range of high street and designer brands, and a supermarket on the ground floor. I was so excited when I visited Riga in 2009, as I came across the CUTEST duck-shaped marzipan here (yay, marzipan!)… except when I took a big bite into it, it tasted like candle wax. Sad times.
Love shopping too? Add Gallerijas Centrs to your list of things to do in Riga.
You’ll find the Freedom Monument right in the heart of Bastejkalna Park; and it’s a touching tribute to the soldiers who died whilst fighting in the Latvian War of Independence in 1918 – 20.
The statue depicts a lady holding three stars above her head, which represent the historical regions of Latvia: Kurzeme, Vidzeme and Latgale.
Coincidentally, three of Riga’s districts are named after these areas (there are six in total: the other three are Zemgale, Northern, and of course, Central).
With so much history behind it, you should definitely put it on your list of things to do in Riga.
I may forgive you just this once for thinking that Riga only caters to tacky stag dos. Sure, if you stay in the Old Town, then you’re only going to find the really touristy pubs and clubs. However, if you head over to the New Town instead (also known as the Art Deco district), then you’ll find some nice bars.
My personal favourite was the Left Door Bar – I had a ginger and thyme concoction, which tasted delicious, plus, the staff were lovely too.
We then headed over to Bar XIII, supposedly the best cocktail bar in Riga. Whilst the drinks may have been good (of course I had the drink with the sprig of lavender in!), I’m going be honest and say that the service was rubbish, and the staff were so rude.
The other place to head to (purely for the views) is the Sky Bar at the Radisson Hotel, 24 storeys up in the air.
Riga felt like a very green city. Even though there weren’t any huge parks, there were lots of small green spaces that you just kind of ended up in.
The first time I visited Riga, I stayed at the Revel Hotel Elizabete (which is now Radisson Blu Elizabete Hotel and it’s an AMAZING hotel, I’d definitely recommend booking there); and Vērmanes Gardens was directly opposite us, complete with fountains and a tea house.
As we walked towards the Old Town, we then reached Bastejkalna Park, with the Pilsētas canal which runs along the width. Next to here is the Kronvalda Park, and a bit further away is Viesturdārz. See? Lots of green spaces!
Cross Over to the Other Side…
Like lots of Eastern European cities, Riga has a beautiful mediaeval Old Town, but when you step outside that bubble, the general feel is a whole lot different.
We crossed over to the “other side” to pay a visit Riga’s central market (essentially, it’s nickname is “Little Moscow”, and I really wanted to go to Moscow at the time, so it seemed like the next best thing…!).
We walked through the train station and shopping centre; and as we stepped out the other end we were greeted with grey, Communist-style buildings.
The market was crammed full of people haggling, and it felt a little unsafe. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend the market as such as a place to go; but if you’re interested in Soviet architecture; or just want to see what “proper” Riga is really like (because realistically, no one lives in those pretty pastel buildings!); then it’s worth taking a look.
Both of my trips to the Latvian capital were short but sweet, and I’d recommend it to anyone who’s thinking of a weekend away. There are lots of things to do in Riga, and it’s somewhere that I’m sure I’ll go back to at some point.