Riga will amaze you with its top 21 attractions in its beautiful old town UNESCO World heritage monuments and beyond in a 2 to 3 days trip
It shouldn’t be a surprise as Riga has been nicknamed as the “Paris of the North”, the main difference is that you can visit it in less days and it will be substantially cheaper. The main reason for having such beautiful attractions is that it was part of the once commercial powerful alliance of Northern European cities known as the Hanseatic League, founded in the far away year of 1201!
After that independency period, it was conquered by several great empires, until it was enriched in the 19th century by many Art Nouveau/Jugendstil architecture during the Russian Empire golden years as one of the most important harbors. So it was no suprise that it got its a UNESCO World Heritage Site back in the 1990’s.
In comparison to the other 2 Baltics capitals of Vilnius and Tallinn, it can be considered quite big as it’s located where the river Daugava connects with the Baltic Sea, so it stretches across the river’s margins. Still all the top attractions are within walking distance as they are almost all concentrated on the right side of the river. Still its a big city to exploit, so consider 2 days as minimum, a 3rd day could be also very useful.
WHEN TO GO
Like with other Baltic cities, the best period to go is during Summer from June to September, but don’t expect much warmer than 20 degrees and count always with cooler nights down to 10 degrees due to the Baltic Sea breeze. March to May and October – November can be quite nice as shoulder seasons with less tourists even it will be cold with temperatures between 5 to 15 degrees celsius in average.
HOW TO GET THERE & MOVE AROUND:
The best way to get to Riga is by air. Air Baltic has their main hub precisely in Riga, operating plenty of flights to most European countries and the other Baltic capitals for attractive prices. The airport is located 30 minutes away Riga city center and will cost by taxi circa 15-20€. A cheaper option is the public bus #22 that for 1.15€ will take 40 minutes to reach Riga bus terminal.
By ferry there is only one main international connection from Riga to Stockholm once a week with Tallink & Silja Line that takes 18 hours to make the journey. There are no ferry connections to other Baltics countries
Bus connections can time consuming , but are much cheaper than a flight, Riga connecting to both Tallinn and Vilnius with several departures daily. Count with 4h-4h30 minutesm with Ecolines providing a good service , so check their schedules here.
Getting around Riga should be done on foot. The city center of Riga can be considered big in comparison with Tallinn or Vilnius, but the Old town is a pedestrian zone so get ready to walk with comfortable shoes over the many cobbled streets. The good news is that there are no steep hills like in Tallinn or Vilnius. Find below a map of the main city center of Riga, on the right of River Daugava (red marker)
WHERE TO STAY:
The best area to stay overnight in Riga is anywhere in the Old Town, near the Town Hall or Dome Square. A good alternative is to be staying in a hotel close to the River Daugava, between the 2 main bridges of Vansu and Railway bridge. A 3-star hotel will cost around 60-70€ for a room, a hostel will be 30-40€.
TOP 21 THINGS TO DO IN RIGA:
Here below you can see the description and visuals of the top 21 things you should do when visiting Riga, according to my selection of what is the most interesting to do here. These attractions that can be done in 2 days or at a slower pace on a long weekend. Do read about to my 5 best travel tips for Riga at the end of the post
VISIT THE HOUSE OF THE BLACKHEADS
The House of the Blackheads is one of the most beautiful buildings in Riga, from the outside and from the inside as it mixes a mannerist style with baroque and some classical elements. The original building was built on the 14th century and after its destruction on World War 2, it was fully rebuilt in the 1990’s. Since then it has served as the office of the Latvian president and now as the main reception house for foreign guests. The interiors have essentially 3 floors to visit: a basement with the origins of the house and history , a ground floor with exhibitions and a 1st floor with the amazing reception halls, a small museum with many artifacts and a great staircase with classical artists. Really worth a visit.
I also would like to describe the fascinating history of the House of the Blackheads. It’ss about the local guild of craftsmen and merchants, that were then joined by a special group called the brotherhood of the Blackheads. Their naming was inspired by their patron saint St Maurice, depicted as black knight soldier. These were mainly young men, almost all of German descent that pledged to protect their trade of ships and caravans mutually as well as protect the cities were they were based – Riga and Tallinn. On the 17th century they became the sole owners of the house until they lost it to the Soviet troops after the war. Those who fled, actually re-assembled in Hamburg, Germany and re-founded the brotherhood there.
SEE THE RIGA TOWN HALL SQUARE
The House of the Blackheads, is already reason enough to see the Town hall square from Riga, but on the opposite side you also have the rebuilt Riga Town hall, a statue of one of the most famous medieval knights called Roland and also the place where the Latvian claim that the 1st Christmas tree was decorated 500 years ago. Like many sites in Riga it was rebuilt in the 1990’s after independence, so its surely worth seeing it. I really enjoyed visiting it a night, the buildings are beautifully lit up, giving it a very charming style.
CONTEMPLATE ST JOHN‘s CHURCH
Quite close to the Town Hall square, you can see St.John’s Church, that is the oldest religious building in Riga, dating from the 13th century as a monastery and around 1500 becoming a Gothic style church. What I mostly liked here is the animal statues you can see on the side of the church – one the most famous fables of the Grimm brothers, called the “Town Musicians of Bremen”, that represent a donkey, a rooster, a dog and a cat. However the representation here is satyrical as the animals actually are looking through the “iron curtain” that the Soviet Union had imposed for decades before independence came to Latvia in the 1990’s. You can do the analogies, I find it very inspiring!
BE AMAZED BY THE PANORAMA VIEWS OF ST. PETER’S CHURCH TOWER
At 130 meters high, St Peter’s church tower is the tallest in Riga and offers amazing views of the Old Town, the modern part of the city, Riga Bay and the Daugava River, The central market halls and Academy of Sciences, besides the other side of the river with the National library. Its location is excellent as it sits on the edge of the old town, so you can take all in. For just 3€ you can climb the church tower via lift. Its for me the best place for viewing the city of Riga. The interior of the 15th century is also very interesting as it has many of the historical noble families crests and a wonderful gothic style interior.
EXPLORE RIGA CATHEDRAL SQUARE
The Riga cathedral is already a great sight, as it’s one of the biggest cathedrals in the Baltic region but the square around it is also quite exciting with museums, historical houses and cafés and restaurants. The Riga Dome cathedral is the crown jewel of the square, having been built on the 13th century and serving not only for religious services but also for concerts. Both during the day and the night its an amazing attraction to see, I was amazed by the sheer size of it.
ADMIRE THE ART MUSEUM RIGA BOURSE
The Art Museum Riga Bourse location in cathedral square is already ideal to visit it when in the old town, so there are no excuses to miss it. The architecture style is also wonderful, following Venetian Renaissance style forms that symbolize wealth and abundance. The collection of foreign art inside the museum is spread across several floors, mostly covering 17th to 20th century art pieces. These were collected by Riga’s richest families in the 19th century and is the largest art collection of all Baltic states. And there are some more ancient treasures from Asia or even an Egyptian mummy and its sarcophagus. The rooms are richly decorated giving you the impression of being a true Italian palace, so definitely a must see in Riga.
TAKE A LOOK AT THE RIGA CASTLE
The Riga Castle is one the most important icons of Riga, as it was almost always the residence of those holding the power in Riga. Its history goes back to 1330, but the castle was destroyed several times. The last major reconstruction took place in 1515 and that’s the main part how it looks like today. It’s now the residence of the President of the Republic of Latvia after the independence in the 90’s, So you can’t visit it inside unfortunately, but you can admire its lovely structure style from all corners, in special from the area of River Daugava and the bridge where you see the best perspectives of the whole castle.
FIND A PASSAGE THROUGH THE SWEDISH GATE
The swedish Gate is unique in Riga as its the only gate that remains standing of the original eight that composed Riga’s old town defense walls in the 17th century as a way to access the barracks from the city. It was built during the time the Swedes dominated the city, until the Russian empire conquered Riga. So goin through it is like a time tunnel as it separates the newest part of Riga from Old Riga. The pictures here are great too!
DISCOVER THE POWDER TOWER
The Powder Tower is one of the old Riga city fortress towers, originally built in 1330 and reconstructed again in the 17th century. It was originally called Sand but it renamed as it was precisely were gunpowder was stored. After some new restoration works in the 20th century, it now makes part of the Latvian War museum. Just a few meters from the Swedish gate on Torna street, where you can also see Jacob’s Barracks, a former troops house and now a place for cafés, restaurants and several shops.
SEE THE THREE BROTHERS HOUSES
The three brothers houses are the oldest houses in Riga, having being initially built on the 15th century and rebuilt some times again. The legend says that they belonged to the same family members, but not brothers as the houses were built on different centuries – 15th, 17th and 18th centuries, They are worth seeing as they really the only set of surviving old Town houses and in this unique styles. No.21 on the left of the picture below is the oldest by the way. I really liked them, they reminded of a Dutch or Flemish old city in the middle of the Baltics!
VISIT THE RIGA SMALL GUILD
The Riga Small Guild is one of those buildings that will leave you impressed from the outside and inside as it gathers many styles. Riga Samll Guild was initially built on the 14th century as a fraternity of master craftsmen that existed until 1936, when the Chamber of Crafts was founded. Nowaday is used for festive events, concerts, balls and banquets. It’s very hard to get a ticket to see concerts as they are quickly sold out but perhaps you can be lucky if you contact a local agency.
Just next to it you have the Great Guild, also a historical 14tth century place but that was destroyed by fire in 1963, being later on reconstructed to serve as a concert hall and as home of the Riga Philarmonic Orchestra.
HAVE FUN AT LIVU SQUARE
Livu square is the best place to enjoy a nice drink in Summer in one of many terrasses or stroll around in Winter to admire the architecture, its definitely the most lively quarter in Riga. Its great location next to the Small Guild, Cats House and Russian Theatre, so it makes it impossible to miss and a must stop in Riga to enjoy a nice meal, drink or just admire the beauty of the square. Interesting enough its a brand new square after the previous one was completely destroyed in World War 2 and before the 16th century it was where the Riga river was running. I just find the building architecture and colors incredibly gorgeous.
SPOT THE BLACK CATS ON THE CATS HOUSE
The Cats House in Riga is one of those picturesque buildings that characterize the unexpected beauty of Riga. The 2 scared black cats stnd on the medieval turrets of an art nouveau and classic styled building, making this a top attraction of Riga. It’s incredible that you can’t stop staring up to see them. They became so popular that the black cat perched on the small turret became the unofficial symbol of Riga! Get ready to look up when near Livu square and you will see them way up.
LOOK AT THE LATVIAN NATIONAL OPERA
The Latvian national opera is most likely the most beautiful classical building in Riga, that seems taken from any dream play from Richard Wagner. This amazing building it was inaugurated in 1923 and has a significant average of shows, that you could see, between opera and ballet. I found it to be very beautiful illuminated at night. You can buy tickets directly here or then at their website, where you can see the shows currently on stage, just click here
CELEBRATE THE FREEDOM MONUMENT SQUARE
The Freedom Monument in Riga is the most impressive statue across Riga with 42.7 meters high, celebrating the fallen soldiers fighting for the independence in the war of 1918-20. Interesting enough it was built in 1935 and the Soviet regime never destroyed it during the 50 years that they dominated the region until 1990. It stood as beacon of hope and was one of the most important places where the Latvians claimed and celebrated independence. The woman represents the virtuous Republic of Latvia and is holding 3 stars symbolsing the Latvia’s historical regions of Kurzeme, Vidzeme, and Latgale.
EXPLORE THE LATVIAN NATIONAL MUSEUM OF ART
The Latvian national museum of art is probably the most wonderful museum of Riga, not only bit its broad collection but also by its lovely building architecture. It was built in 1905 and has survived most conflictts, now hosting over 50,000 art works. You can check exhibitions and tickets in their official website here. I found it illuminated at night to be extremely beautiful and even more picture perfect than during the day.
SEE RIGA NATIVITY OF CHRIST CATHEDRAL
The largest orthodox cathedral in Riga is one of the most beautiful churches in Riga. Built in 1876, it contained some of the most beautiful religious art in Riga. The Soviets damaged part of this art and transformed the church into what they called a science House of knowledge. Luckily after the independence of Latvia in the 1990’s most of the ancient works could be recovered and the cathedral is again one of the most amazing places to visit in Riga. You can enter for free until late, but no photos are allowed inside the main hall. Women must wear a head scarf and have shoulders and knees covered.
TAKE A PICTURE OF THE NATIONAL LIBRARY OF LATVIA
The National Library of Latvia is one of the most modern buildings in Riga, located on the opposite side of old Riga, across River Daugava. Also known as the Castle of light given the many windows allowing the sunlight to enter, its a masterpiece worth seeing even from afar.
DISCOVER RIGA’s ART NOUVEAU BUILDINGS
You might be surprised to know that Riga is the city in the world with the biggest number of Art Nouveau buildings, they are pretty much everywhere across Riga told town and the new part of Riga. The most important street to admire the Art Nouveau style is Elizabeth street where buildings will be simply jaw dropping in terms of details and you also have a marvelous museum called Jugendstils that you can visit – see details on their official website here
HAVE A LOOK TO RAILWAY BRIDGE BY DAY & NIGHT
The Riga Railway bridge is unique in Riga as its the only bridge in Riga served by train. The original iron bridge was built in 1872, only to be destroyed in both World Wars and then rebuilt both times. I think that even if during the day is a nice sight, at night it does get much more magical. The best spot to take a picture is to the left of the Town Hall square, then stop near the independence monument near the river Daugava, also worth seeing as it has this dramatic feeling that only the Soviets could imprint.
RIGA CENTRAL MARKET
Once the central warehouse of German Zeppelins, the huge central market in Riga is the largest in Europe with an amazing food court with all types of food offered here. and a big bazaar offered outside with dozens of tents. Even if you don’t buy anything, it is worth a small tour inside. Interesting enough that the best way to see its majestic dimensions is from the St Peter’s Church Tower. And to its left you can see the monumental Soviet tower called now Academy of Sciences, that is still not very appreciated by Latvians as it symbolizes the times of Soviet occupation. Still a sight to see!
TRAVEL ITINERARY RIGA:
If you need a more personalized itinerary for Riga or you want to combine Riga with other Baltic cities, contact me for a personal guidance service!
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My name is Renato Azambujo. I live currently in Hamburg, but was born and raised in sunny capital of Portugal, Lisbon. I also lived in Switzerland for some years, before settling in Germany for the last years.
I am huge passionate about travel, photographer and a global explorer, always looking to the next destination.
I have so far visited over 70 countries across the 5 continents, because I really love knowing about new places, interact with different cultures and get to know myself better after each journey.