Latvia’s little-known capital is a whirlwind tour of UNESCO World Heritage-listed history, Art Nouveau architecture, and captivating Baltic cuisine. Situated on the beautiful banks of the River Daugava, we think that Riga should be your next European destination!
You’re going to love the compact size of Riga, where you can spend the morning strolling through medieval streets and the afternoon battling the bracing winds of the Baltic Sea at nearby beaches. This is the largest city in the Baltic states, but despite being home to a large percentage of the Latvian population, Riga somehow manages to captivate with its small-town charm.
With a history stretching back to 1201 AD, you’ll find this is a place where the old mingles with the new. You can explore the restored Old Town, where colorful merchant houses and guildhalls harken back to bygone medieval days when Riga was a powerhouse of the Hanseatic League. After that, you can then visit the Occupation Museum of Latvia to learn how the nation spent decades under the communist yoke of the Soviet Union.
This is Latvia in a microcosm, and with so many things to do in Riga, we know you’re going to love visiting this under-the-radar city when you’re traveling through the Baltics. But with so much to see, you might not know where to begin.
That’s why we’ve compiled our comprehensive list of the absolute best things to do in Riga. Stick to these fun and unique Riga bucket list recommendations, and you’re going to have an incredible time exploring the Latvian capital!
- 15 Top Things to do in Riga
- 1. Take a Walking Tour of Riga’s Old Town
- 2. Marvel at the Historic House of the Blackheads
- 3. Admire the View from the Top of St. Peter’s Church
- 4. Join an Art Nouveau Tour of Riga
- 5. Enjoy a Cultured Evening at the Latvian National Opera
- 6. Delve into the Past at the Museum of the History of Riga & Navigation
- 7. Explore Riga’s Socialist Past at the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia
- 8. Cruise Along the Scenic River & Canal
- 9. Embrace Urban Nature at Bastejkalns Park
- 10. Admire Endless Works at the Latvian National Museum of Art
- 11. Indulge in a Foodie Tour of the Central Market
- 12. Discover Antique Automobiles at Riga Motor Museum
- 13. Escape to the White Sands of Jurmala Beach
- 14. Explore the Ruins of Daugavgrivas Fortress
- 15. Experience the Regal Lifestyle at Rundale Palace
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15 Top Things to do in Riga
1. Take a Walking Tour of Riga’s Old Town
When you first arrive in the city, one of the best things to do in Riga is a walking tour of the Old Town. This is the historic center of the Latvian capital, but with so many dizzying alleyways and cobblestone streets to navigate, you’re going to need a guide to see everything!
The Old Town, or Old Riga as it’s also called, is beloved for its colorful medieval buildings and imposing churches and cathedrals. Located on the eastern side of the River Daugava, you’ll find that this is the perfect place to begin your Riga sightseeing adventure.
Riga itself dates back to 1201 AD. Much of the medieval architecture in the Old Town was built on the extravagant profits gained from the city’s prominent position in the Hanseatic League, a trading bloc that stretched across the Baltic Sea. That’s why many of the most impressive buildings, including the famous House of the Blackheads, were originally built by rich merchants to be guildhalls and townhouses.
The Old Town’s importance is recognized through its listing as a World Heritage Site. However, much of the area was destroyed during World War II before being rebuilt and restored in later years.
There’s a lot of history waiting to be uncovered here. If you’re on a budget, you can even join a free walking tour with Riga Free Tours that depart from St. Peter’s Church to learn more.
2. Marvel at the Historic House of the Blackheads
The House of the Blackheads is one of the most famous Old Riga attractions, so much so that we think it deserves its own entry on our list of the best things to do in Riga!
You’ll have seen this impressive building on your walking tour of the Old Town. It’s an unmissable sight overlooking one of Riga’s oldest squares. The building was originally built in 1334 to be the guild house of the Brotherhood of the Blackheads, a group of wealthy and powerful Latvian merchants.
You can find out more about the history by visiting the museum, where you’ll discover that this historic medieval building was shamefully destroyed during World War II. The entire building was gutted by German bombs. After the war, the Soviets decided to simply bulldoze the ruins rather than attempt to rebuild.
The House of the Blackheads lingered on in Latvian memory. And, when the country regained independence in 1991, work began in earnest to rebuild the historic monument from scratch.
It took several years, but in 1999, the House of the Blackheads was once again unveiled and opened to the public, this time as a museum and events space in the heart of the Old Town.
3. Admire the View from the Top of St. Peter’s Church
St. Peter’s Church is one of Riga’s most recognizable buildings, and you can spot the tall Gothic spire from almost anywhere in the Old Town. St. Peter’s Church dates back to 1209, but like most of Riga, it’s gone through many renovations and rebuilds since.
The Gothic spire is the church’s most unique element, and at 403 feet (123 meters) in height, it’s the tallest spire in Riga. The spire dates back to the 15th century, but despite its age, you can safely climb the winding steps to the viewing platform at the top, where you’ll be awed by one of the most captivating views in Riga!
From the top of St. Peter’s Church, you’ll have uninterrupted views across the entirety of the Old Town. You’ll see colorful townhouses and guildhalls arrayed in front of you, as well as the equally impressive (yet slightly shorter) spire of the nearby Riga Cathedral.
4. Join an Art Nouveau Tour of Riga
As you leave the clustered central squares of Old Riga behind, you’ll quickly find yourself surrounded by elegant Art Nouveau architecture. This distinct style of architecture, artwork, and design became incredibly popular around the start of the 20th century, and Riga became a hub for this elegant and fashionable new style.
Art Nouveau architecture became so popular, in fact, that today you’ll find up to one-third of all buildings in Riga’s center were built in the style. That means that Riga has the highest proportion of Art Nouveau buildings anywhere in the world!
You’ll notice the unique architecture as soon as you arrive in Riga, but it helps to join a walking tour in order to locate the most impressive buildings and find out more about the stories behind them. You can even join one of the many free walking tours of Riga’s most impressive Art Nouveau architecture.
The style in Riga is characterized by elaborate facades, stained glass windows, and sculptures. Plus, one of the most famous Art Nouveau buildings is the Cat House.
The grand Cat House building has tall romantic turrets jutting from its rooftops. On top of one of the turrets, you’ll find a funky sculpture of a jumping cat!
5. Enjoy a Cultured Evening at the Latvian National Opera
If you’re a serious culture vulture, then spending an evening at the Latvian National Opera is one of the top things to do in Riga. The Latvian National Opera has an impressive history. The renowned cultural institution dates back to 1782, when the first operatic performances were held in the city.
You can find the grand building that houses the modern Latvian National Opera on the edge of the Old Town, right on the banks of the city canal. This building was constructed in 1863, and you’ll definitely be inspired by the elegant yet formidable Imperial architecture that greets you upon arrival.
The Latvian National Opera hosts hundreds of performances throughout the year, including both opera and ballet performances. It’s a wonderful place to spend an evening. Plus, many of the surrounding restaurants offer special opera dinner menus to enjoy before the show!
6. Delve into the Past at the Museum of the History of Riga & Navigation
It’s got a bit of a long-winded title, but rest assured, a visit to the Museum of the History of Riga and Navigation is one of the best things to do in Riga. If you love a bit of history, then this is the stop for you because the museum itself is as old as many of the artifacts on display inside.
This is one of Europe’s oldest museums, with a history dating back to 1773 when a local doctor began collecting and curating objects associated with Riga’s past. The first part of the museum focuses on exploring the story of Riga, from its earliest beginnings in 1201 AD to its role as a leading city in the medieval Hanseatic League, and then onto its modern struggles as part of Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union.
The second part of the museum tells the story of navigation. This is sure to intrigue the travelers among you, as the museum delves into the history of Riga’s involvement in trade and navigation, with a fine collection of maps, compasses, and navigation devices on display.
7. Explore Riga’s Socialist Past at the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia
Riga has moved on from its days as a communist state within the Soviet Union, and many in the city would rather forget the socialist era. Most Latvians view the Soviet Union – and Russia – as an occupier and are happy to have become independent in 1991.
But rather than simply forgetting, Latvia remembers its darker modern history at the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia, where excellent, if harrowing, exhibitions aim to educate the new generation and remember those who suffered and died under communism.
The museum first opened in 1993, as newly surfaced documents went on display after the fall of the Soviet Union. The museum has expanded greatly, and today you can visit the main exhibition outside the Old Town, as well as a second exhibition housed in the former KGB, or secret police building in Riga.
As a small, Baltic nation, Latvia has been caught between competing European powers for centuries. At the museum, you’ll also learn how Latvia was occupied during World War II and suffered under the rule of Nazi Germany. The 20th-century history of Latvia hasn’t always been kind, but you’ll leave the museum with a newfound appreciation for the freedoms that you can enjoy in Riga today.
8. Cruise Along the Scenic River & Canal
You’ll love how Riga is built on the beautiful banks of the River Daugava, but the best way to really experience the city’s riverside scenery is on a cruise!
You’ll be impressed to learn that the River Daugava starts its long journey many, many miles away in Russia before flowing through Belarus and then into Latvia. By the time the river reaches Riga, it’s almost at the end of its journey, and a short cruise from the city will quickly bring you to the Baltic Sea.
A river cruise is a peaceful way to see the city from a new angle, but best of all, the smaller boats cruising on the Daugava River can also take a detour onto the city’s canal.
Riga’s Old Town is situated on the eastern bank of the river, but it’s been almost completely encircled by the addition of the city canal, which runs along its western sides. As you cruise along the canal, you’ll have glorious views of Riga Castle, the Old Town, the Latvian National Opera House, and many more of the best sights in Riga.
9. Embrace Urban Nature at Bastejkalns Park
Riga is very much a green city, and you’ll love how there are beautiful, landscaped parks outside of the Old Town’s historic walls. One of the most popular outdoor spaces is Bastejkalns Park, which you’ll find overlooking the city’s canal.
Bastejkalns Park was designed to fill the void that was left when much of Riga’s defensive walls were torn down in the 19th century, which is why it’s just outside of the Old Town. There are as many as 100 plus different species of plants and trees throughout the park, as well as several memorials and statues commemorating Latvians and historical events.
After exploring the confined streets of the Old Town, Bastejkalns Park is a beautiful place to escape the city and surround yourself with glorious urban nature.
10. Admire Endless Works at the Latvian National Museum of Art
If you’re an art lover, then you’re going to love visiting the Latvian National Museum of Art. This is Latvia’s largest art gallery, and you’ll be amazed by the thousands of works that are on display here.
To be precise, there are at least 52,000 works of art in the collection. The collection is so large, there’s not nearly enough display space for everything to be exhibited! Pride of place in the museum are works by modernist Latvian artists, including famous painters like Janis Rozentals, Jekabs Kazaks, and Janis Valters.
You’ll find the museum itself is just as beautiful as the artwork inside. This grand museum first opened its doors in 1905. If you’ve been on the Art Nouveau tour of Riga, you’ll instantly recognize the elegant Art Nouveau style in the architecture and design of the building.
11. Indulge in a Foodie Tour of the Central Market
By now, we expect you might be starting to feel hungry! Luckily for your taste buds and rumbling stomach, Riga is home to the largest marketplace in Europe. Riga Central Market has been feeding hungry Latvians since it was founded on the site of old Zeppelin hangars in the 1920s, and it’s now become one of the best places to visit in the city!
Riga Central Market is a behemoth. You’ll spot the distinctive hangar-like domes that cover hundreds of market stalls and shops from a mile away, and once you’re inside, you’re bound to get lost. That’s why we recommend joining a guided tour of the marketplace, so you can spend more time eating and less time finding your way to the best foodie spots!
There are five major foodie “pavilions” in the market, comprising fish, vegetables, bread, milk, and meat sections. You’ll have the chance to try and buy local Latvian produce, including the famous dark rye bread, sourdough bread, beetroot soup, potato pancakes, and plenty of smoked fish and cured meats.
If you’re lucky, you might get to try a little kvass – a fermented but non-alcoholic beverage – as well as a few shots of Black Balsam, a traditional herbal liqueur that’s long been a Latvian favorite.
Once you’ve fueled up, you can explore the rest of Riga Central Market’s thousands of different stalls and purchase all of those great souvenirs you’ve been searching for!
12. Discover Antique Automobiles at Riga Motor Museum
A visit to the Riga Motor Museum is one of the most unique things to do in Riga. Even if you’re not a huge fan of cars, we’re sure you’ll be fascinated by all of the antique automobiles as you take a journey through the history of transportation.
The Riga Motor Museum is home to a huge collection of antique vehicles, and you’ll be able to see some of the oldest and best-preserved racing cars in Europe! There are luxury cars, military vehicles, and best of all, you’ll be able to see firsthand the old Soviet-style cars that your average Latvian drove around for decades.
The museum is spread across three floors that are absolutely packed with exhibits. Peruse the museum, and you’ll learn how the earliest automobiles evolved through the 20th century into the modern cars we drive today.
13. Escape to the White Sands of Jurmala Beach
One of the things we love most about Riga is just how close you are to the beach. Latvia might not be the world’s number one beach holiday destination, but trust us when we say that you don’t want to miss out on a trip to the Baltic Sea!
Jurmala Beach is one of Latvia’s longest and most popular stretches of sand. The best part is it’s just a half-hour drive from Riga’s Old Town. The beach stretches for some 20 miles along the coast, and you’ll instantly be impressed by the beautiful views and the wonderful scenery.
Jurmala Beach is impressive enough that it was a favorite holiday destination for many of the Soviet Union’s leaders, including the likes of Brezhnev and Khrushchev. You can follow in their footsteps and spend your day lounging on the beach and basking in the sun (assuming you’re visiting the best Riga attractions in summer!).
Jurmala Beach is lined by long promenades and boardwalks, and they are perfect for a bit of walking or cycling. Looking out over the beach is the resort town of Jurmala, where you can stay in fancy five-star resorts (at a fraction of the cost of a hotel in the Mediterranean) or stay in a traditional wooden beach chalet for the ultimate escape from Riga.
14. Explore the Ruins of Daugavgrivas Fortress
Where the River Daugava meets the Baltic Sea, you can find the ruins of one of Latvia’s most important historic fortifications. This strategic location is where various European powers and empires have built castles and forts to control the Baltics. Many of the ruins you see today date back to the 17th century when the Swedes attempted to impose their rule in the region.
You’ll learn all about this and the many battles and sieges that took place here over the centuries (the most recent being in World War II) when you join a tour of the ruins. These are run on weekends by a local preservation group. Visit in the summer, and you’ll find that much of the grounds are taken over by a unique cultural festival that’s popular with the local crowds from Riga.
While you’re visiting the ruins, you can also explore the wider Daugavgriva neighborhood, where you’ll find long stretches of sand overlooking the Baltic Sea. Much of the nature here is protected as part of Piejura National Park, and you’ll have ample opportunities for hiking on your excursion away from central Riga.
15. Experience the Regal Lifestyle at Rundale Palace
Drive one hour south of Riga, and you’ll find yourself in the glorious Latvian countryside. Nestled away in this rural European setting is Rundale Palace, one of the most beautiful places to visit in Latvia!
A trip to Rundale Palace makes for an excellent (and easy) day trip from Riga. Plus, you’ll love delving into the palatial history of this grand, romantic, and regal 18th-century mansion. Rundale Palace was originally built for the Dukes of Courland, and the expensive work was completed in 1768.
The palace suffered during World War II, but the Soviets decided to preserve it as a museum and restored much of the building to its former glory. You can walk through elaborate and lavish hallways, peer into stately royal rooms, and, best of all, explore the magnificent landscaped gardens that surround Rundale Palace.
There you have it! The 15 best things to do in Riga. What’s your favorite thing to do in the Latvian capital?
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