The perfect budget-friendly destination
In December 2015, we visited Riga and the Baltic States for the first time. We got cheap flights from London (around £120 for two people) and stayed in a lovely four star hotel that cost the same for two nights as a hotel in Lyon, France had cost for one night.
My first impression of Riga was that it was a city rich with creativity and forward-thinking.
On local bus 22 from the airport to the city centre, I could see a multitude of modern sculptures and buildings through the dark. Later, as we strolled through Old Riga, we discovered more modern sculptures and buzzing night klubs sprinkled among the old buildings and Christmas markets.
It seemed as if there was something for everyone in Riga, whether you were part of a rowdy stag party, a budget-conscious backpacker, a posh tourist, or a visiting family. We booked flights to Riga because we hadn’t been to the Baltics before and the region always interested me. But, I thoroughly enjoyed visiting Riga for its rich modern history, its imagination and its delicious local cuisine (because fish and potatoes)… and not just because I had the chance to wear my furry hat!
A brief history of Riga
Nestled in the middle of the Baltic States, and home to more than 640,000 people, Riga boasts UNESCO World Heritage Site membership and a fascinating modern history like no other. Since its foundation in 1201, Latvia’s capital city has been involved in many foreign military, political, religious and economic changes in power. And, due to its strategic location between Germany and Russia, Riga also played a big part in World War II. Latvia was occupied by both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, swapping between them twice before finally reclaiming independence in 1991.
Riga’s official language is now Latvian, but German, Russian and English are frequently spoken throughout the city. This, with the arrival of low-cost airlines linking Riga to large European cities and the adoption of the euro as its national currency in 2014, has resulted in a substantial increase in the number of tourists visiting the city.
Nonetheless, Riga remains a relatively inexpensive destination that can be easily accessed from cities such as London or Berlin, and explored in a weekend.
Fifteen things to see and do in Riga
Get your bearings with a tour
The Riga Free Walking Tour leaves every day (rain or shine) from St Peter’s Church in Old Riga at midday. For free (or a small donation at the end) the friendly guide will take you outside of the Old Town and give you an informative brief history of the city.
Other walking tours allow you to explore the small old town (Old Riga), and a City Sightseeing bus tour will provide you with a general overview of the whole city sheltered from the harsh weather.
Mingle with the locals and pick up some lunch at the Central Market
The Riga Central Market is less than a 15 minute walk South East from St Peter’s Church in Old Riga. This was where traders, farmers and new immigrants to the city lived and shopped when they were refused entry inside the city walls. In 1930, after seven years of construction, metal frameworks from five World War I German Zeppelin hangars became home to the largest and most progressive marketplace on earth.
The market’s pavilions are five of nine Zeppelin hangars remaining in the world and store a wide and cheap array of local produce that is sold by locals to locals. It’s a great place for people watching, but also to pick up a few items for a picnic in Riga’s Central Park or snacking later on.
Visit the KBG Building
Located in the Central District, the KGB Building, also known as the “Corner House”, was in use by the KGB throughout the Soviet military occupation of Latvia from June 1940 to 1941, and again from 1944 to 1991. The exhibition in the front room is free, but a tour with a guide through the cells, interrogation rooms and kitchens will give you a unique glimpse of the brutal treatment of around 48,000 people by the KGB. It’s an incredible, but sobering experience.
(Located: on the corner of Brīvības and Stabu iela. Open: 10.00 – 17.00 Sunday – Friday. Admission: free. Tour: €5 per adult)
Sample the local fare
Riga Black Balsam is Latvia’s most characteristic alcoholic drink and something you must try when you visit. It’s a traditional Latvian herbal liqueur and usually added to classic cocktails to give them a local twist.
Latvian cuisine is high in butter and fat while low on spices, and features plenty of meat from around the region. Smoked fish and black bread is a common dish, as is anything using potatoes, cabbage and pickled products.
Explore Old Riga
Located on the east side of Daugava River, Vecrīga (Old Riga) is the historical centre of Riga and famous for its old churches and architecture that have somehow survived several occupations and heavy bombing through World War II.
You will see the 13th century Riga Dome Cathedral, Gothic style St. Peter’s Church (1209), St. Jacob’s Cathedral which houses the Seat of the Roman Catholic Church, The White Stone Palace, the beautiful Synagogue of Old Riga, the yard of the Convent of the Holy Spirit, the Dannenstern House, the complex of residential houses “The Three Brothers”, Riga Castle, and several town squares featuring local markets.
Enjoy an opera or ballet show at the National Opera House
The National Opera House was first constructed in 1863 but has been refurbished several times. Tickets to top-class concerts range from €9 to €70 and allow you a glimpse into the beautiful world of classical opera and ballet performances. It is claimed that the National Opera House is where Riga-born ballet superstar Mikhail Baryshnikov danced professionally for the first time.
Visit the Riga Ghetto and Latvian Holocaust Museum
The Riga Ghetto and Latvian Holocaust Museum is more of an outdoor memorial with exhibits than a museum. But it is worth a visit if you are interested in Jewish or World War II history. Informative guides can answer questions and walk visitors through the outdoor exhibits, Nazi propaganda, horrifying photos and stills of ghetto life. It’s located in the Maskavas Vorstadt (Moscow Suburbs) district and is less than a 20 minute walk from Old Riga.
(Open: 10.00 – 18.00 Sunday – Friday. Admission: donation)
Visit the Latvian War Museum
The Latvian War Museum located in the Powder Tower in Old Riga and features an extensive and impressive collection in chronological order from the 9th Century to Latvia’s independence in 1991. English guides can be found in each room.
(Open: Monday – Sunday 10:00-17:00. Admission: free.)
Enjoy the view from above
In the centre of Old Riga, St. Peter’s Church (1209) offers breathtaking view of the red roofs of Old Riga, the modern part of the city, Riga Bay and the Daugava River with its large port from 72m high gallery in the tower.
(Open: Tuesday – Saturday 10:00-18:00, Sunday 12:00-18:00. Admission: church, exhibitions & tower €9.)
Great views can also be enjoyed from the Radisson Blue Sky Bar (dress nicely and order cocktails) and from the top of the monumental Latvian Academy of Sciences building (for €4) in the Maskavas Vorstadt (Moscow Suburbs) district .
Picnic in Riga’s Bastejkalns Park
Bastejkalns Park (Bastion Hill) connects Old Riga with the Central District. Even in the winter its many benches are inviting for a rest with a warm cup of tea, and in the summer you can lay out in the sun with a good book or picnic from the Riga Central Market, or enjoy a paddle boat ride down the central canal.
Observe the Freedom Monument in Bastejkalns Park
Located in the central park and at the start of aptly named Freedom Street, the Freedom Monument is a memorial honouring soldiers killed during the Latvian War of Independence. It is considered an important symbol of the freedom, independence, and sovereignty of Latvia.
See stunning architecture of the Art Nouveau District
A slightly older form of expression than 1930’s art deco, art nouveau architecture gained popularity at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. It is known as is one of Riga’s claims to fame and features on many façades of the city’s buildings and became a part of everyday life and was present in well-to-do homes in furniture, flatware and fashion and was commercially used in graphic design, most famously in advertisement posters.
Nearly every building on Alberta iela (Albert Street) near the Central District is an art nouveau masterpiece. Roughly half of the houses on this street, including the buildings at 2, 4, 6, 8 and 13, were designed by Mikhail Eisenstein (1867 – 1921), one of the city’s most prolific art nouveau architects.
Christmas Markets in Riga
Drink warm Black Balsams cocktails and mulled wine at the Christmas Market(s)
Doma laukums (Dome Square) hosts the Cathedral Square Christmas market every day in December until early January from 10:00 – 20:00. It’s the most authentic market in Riga and offers dozens of crafts and food stalls, with traditional Latvian gifts such as linen tablecloths, wool sweaters, socks and mittens, furry hats, ceramics, wooden toys, jewellery and other souvenirs. You can sample local warm drinks and delicious food such as grey peas with bacon and sausages with sauerkraut and gingerbread cookies. Secret tip: the Coco Loco stand staff will happily add a free shot of rum to your drink for a little extra warmth!
Līvu laukums (Livu Square) is also filled with red, white and blue striped stalls selling all of the usual Latvian Christmas gifts as well as mulled wine, grog and other hot drinks to enjoy before a roaring fire.
Outside Old Riga, next to the Orthodox Cathedral on the Esplanāde, a similar Christmas market features a special rabbit village where you can get up close and personal with dozens of the furry creatures living in a scale model of a castle and town.
Day trips from Riga by train
Day trip to the beautiful Jurmala beach resort
Situated on 25km and a short 30 minute train ride (for about €2) away from Riga, Jurmala has a 33 km (21 miles) stretch of white-sand beach and is much loved by locals and tourists during the summer season (1 April – 30 September). The town has an official list of 414 historical buildings under protection, as well as over 4,000 wooden structures. The areas of Majori and Bulduri are safe for swimming, and it is also possible to rent water bicycles, relax in the beach cafe or participate in other water sports such as rowing, sailing, and volleyball.
Day trip to the picturesque forests and historic town of Sigulda
Regular trains run from Riga to Sigulda on the Riga – Valga line and cost less than €4 . The journey is about 1hr 15mins and is a great way to reach the castles, river valley and forests of Sigulda, especially if you are taking a bicycle with you. From Sigulda you can also visit the Gutmanis Cave, Sigulda Castle and Turaida Castle.
Each summer, a traditional Opera Festival takes place in an open-air music hall in the castle ruins. A Town Festival is held when the cherry trees blossom in May, but many visitors also go to Sigulda in autumn to see the magnificent colours of the trees. During winter months, visitors can enjoy such winter sports as skiing, bobsledding, and the luge.
Looking for more travel inspiration or destination guides?
Check out my recommendations on what to do in: Amsterdam, Bali, Berlin, Brisbane, Bristol, Budapest, Cambridge, Canberra, Cappadocia, Chamonix, Copenhagen, Dubrovnik, Istanbul, Kotor, Kyoto, London, Madrid, New York City, Paris, Riga, Scotland, Tokyo, and Washington D.C.