Latvia is a small country located on the eastern side of the Baltic Sea. What it lacks in size, it makes up with its fascinating history. Over the past century, Latvia has been occupied by Russia, then Germany, and then Russia again, before finally gaining independence in 1990. Today the country is made up of only 1.9 million inhabitants, and a declining birthrate and lack of opportunity threaten the ability of the country to survive and thrive. But they are incredibly proud of their culture and heritage.
You’ll love wandering through the cobblestone alleyways of the Old Town, admiring the architecture, and greeting the friendly locals. And if you’re feeling adventurous, you can get out into the country to spend the night in a medieval castle or escape to the beach for some rest and relaxation.
Check out our favorite things to see and do in the quaint little city of Riga, Latvia below!
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Riga Travel Basics
Know Before You Go
- The currency in Latvia is the Euro (€). At the time of writing, the exchange rate was €1 to $1.12 USD. Most bars and restaurants take credit cards and Tap-to-Pay so you likely won’t need much cash.
- Latvian is the predominant language used in Latvia, although most people also speak English. There is also a large population of Russians in Latvia, but the two groups (Russians and Latvians) tend to remain fairly segregated.
- Tipping is not expected at the bars or restaurants around Riga but is always appreciated.
Getting to Riga
The Riga International Airport (RIX) is just a 15-minute drive from the Old Town. Download the Yandex.Taxi app (iPhone | Android) so you can easily book your taxi without having to haggle over the price.
There are also several car rental companies at the airport if you plan to check out the various sites around Latvia. And, of course, if you would rather have someone else do the planning, there are plenty of affordable tours of Riga (and Latvia as a whole).
Best Time to Visit Riga
The country of Latvia is pretty far north so you can expect chilly temperatures, even during the summer. The month of July is the warmest, with average temperatures of around 63°F. The summer months also bring incredibly long days, with close to 18 hours of daylight during the solstice. This is a lovely time to visit Latvia if you can make friends with the locals and join their summer solstice celebration called Jāņi. The celebrations generally take place in the countryside and involve flower crowns and bonfires.
Winter months in Latvia are unbearably cold, with average temperatures below freezing in January and February. And the days are quite short as well, with just 6-7 hours of daylight in December. Best to avoid traveling to Latvia in the winter months unless you want to freeze your butt off.
Where to Stay in Riga
The Relais Le Chevalier is a gorgeous hotel in the best location in Riga Old Town – you can gaze out at the Cat House while enjoying your delectable breakfast every morning! The hotel is a great mix of old and new, with modern decor in a traditional building. You’ll never want to leave!
If you really want to treat yourself during a trip to Riga, book a room at the Grand Hotel Kempinski Riga. Offering a spa, sauna, and indoor swimming pool, it’s the perfect place to relax and unwind during your vacation. Rooms are large, beautifully decorated, and outfitted with every amenity.
18 Amazing Things to See and Do in Riga, Latvia
1. Go on a Free Walking Tour
The best way to get your bearings when you first arrive in Riga is to go on a Free Walking Tour. You can join one at 11 am in front of St. Peter’s Church every day of the week. You’ll walk around the Riga Old Town with your knowledgeable guide, learning a bit about the buildings and the history of Riga.
The tour lasts for around two hours and you’ll end at a pub right near where you started. This is an opportunity to ask your guide any additional questions and to give them a tip. You are not obligated to give anything, but €10 per person is a fairly standard tip if you enjoyed your tour.
2. Check out the View From St. Peter’s Church
St. Peter’s Church is the tallest church in Riga, with a tower that stands at over 400 feet. It is a Gothic-style parish church of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia and is thought to be around 800 years old. That makes it one of the oldest medieval buildings in the Baltic region and it is central to Riga’s beautiful skyline.
Not only can you visit the church, but you can also take the elevator up 236 feet where you’ll be rewarded with panoramic views of the Old Town below. It’s arguably the best view in town!
3. Shop in the Central Market
If you’ve been to any central markets in Asia, you are used to loads of pushy vendors hawking raw meat products while batting away flies. The Central Market in Riga isn’t anything like that. It is well organized by the various offerings, the bathrooms are tidy, and you’ll find all kinds of things you didn’t realize you needed. Such as yummy baked goods, cheap wine, knit socks, and floral arrangements.
The Central Market is also a great place to go if you want to enjoy a casual lunch or a mid-day beer. The shops are organized into different airplane hangers and one is almost entirely dedicated to prepared food and booze. Offering everything from Vietnamese soups, gourmet pizzas, Latvian classics, and everything in between, it’s the perfect place to grab a quick and inexpensive bite. Plus, you can choose from various draft beer, wine, and cocktail options. Expect to encounter a lively crowd here.
4. Eat, Drink, and Be Merry
Riga is full of delicious restaurants and rowdy bars where you’ll find both locals and tourists enjoying the yummy food and inexpensive booze. We’ve narrowed down the list to a few of our favorites:
Rozengrals is a medieval-themed restaurant with thick stone archways, dark lighting, and candles throughout. Servers are dressed in classic medieval attire and are all so friendly and attentive. You’ll feel like you are sitting in the middle of a movie set. The prices are quite reasonable and the food is delicious. Beware, the portions are huge!
Lido is a cafeteria-style chain restaurant that is incredibly popular with both locals and tourists. You can check out all of the food options and prices and just choose what options look best. It’s the best place in the city to get really delicious food for an amazing value.
Folkklubs ALA Pagrabs is the most popular bar in Riga for the young and hip. When you first walk in, you’ll think the bar is deserted. But as you continue down the stairs and towards the back you’ll start to hear the raucous energy. Drinks are reasonably priced and you should definitely sample the cheese platter. Saturday nights get insanely crowded so be sure to arrive early to secure a corner.
5. Snap a Shot of the Three Brothers
The “Three Brothers” is a 3-building complex in downtown Riga. They form the oldest complex of dwelling houses in the city. Located on Maza Pils Street, the addresses are 21, 19, and 17. Building 17 is the oldest of the three, built during the late 15th century. The style differs quite significantly from the other two, with Gothic influences and crow-stepped gables lining the roof.
The middle house, number 19, dates to 1646 as you’ll see from the large numbers on the front. The stone door frame was added in 1746, which has been carved into the top along with the Latin phrase“Soli Deo Gloria!” which translates to “Glory to God alone!”. This building is yellow and has more character than the other two, with interesting iron adornments on the front.
The last building, number 21, is the most narrow of the three. It was built near the end of the 17th century. It is the least inspiring in the complex but it houses the Latvian Museum of Architecture so you can actually venture inside.
6. Admire St. Jacobs Cathedral
After you’ve finished snapping photos of the Three Brothers, turn around and look up. You’ll see the impressive tower of the St. Jacobs Cathedral (also called St. James Cathedral). Construction on this Roman Catholic cathedral began in 1225 and was finished around 1330. It changed hands several times throughout the years, given to the Lutherans and the Jesuits, and it was even used for food storage. But in 1923, it was returned to the Catholics and has even been visited by two popes since.
You can enter the church to see the inside, but be aware that this is a busy church that usually has a few people praying inside. Be quiet and respectful.
7. Visit the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia
Latvia, as with many of the other Baltic countries, has a sad history involving both Russia and Germany, which you can learn all about at the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia. The country was originally occupied by Russia, then by Germany during World War II. At first, the German army was welcomed with open arms as Latvians believed that they would be freed from the stronghold of the Russians. But, of course, they were mistaken. Latvia was then occupied by the Soviet Union, only regaining its independence in the 1990s.
During those years, thousands of Latvians were forced to relocate to Germany or Russia, or they were sent to camps and executed. At one point only about 50% of the country was made up of Latvians. The videos in the museum do a good job of telling the story of all that the country, and its citizens, have had to endure. There is a lot of text to read but it mostly just restates the message from the movie that plays when you first enter the exhibit.
The building that the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia is generally housed in is under construction until 2020. Until then, the museum has a temporary home at Raina Bulvaris 7, near the Freedom Monument.
8. See the House of the Blackheads
Don’t mind the strange name, the House of the Blackheads is one of the most unique buildings in all of Latvia. Situated in the busy courtyard in the Old Town, right next to the Museum of Occupation (which was meant to be copper, not black), it’s impossible to miss. The bright orange bricks against the ornate white trim are absolutely stunning.
The House of the Blackheads was built in 1344 as a sort of fraternity house for merchant bachelors. It was meant for holding business meetings and events. Unfortunately, the house was demolished during the war but has been reconstructed with help from the original blueprints, and donations from the locals. It was completed in 2001 to celebrate Riga’s 800th birthday. The phrase “if I should fall, build me again” is inscribed upon the entrance.
Legend has it that the men at the House of the Blackheads created the Christmas Tree tradition right here. And you’ll see a small fake tree off to the right of the house to commemorate it.
Be sure to check out the golden set of feet in one of the tiles of the square. They are meant to honor the “Baltic Way”, otherwise known as the “Chain of Freedom”. This human chain involved two million people and stretched across Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in peaceful protest against the Soviet Union in 1989. And a year later, Latvia finally got its wish, independence.
9. Check out the Cat House
The cats that sit perched on the roof of the “Cat House” have become the unofficial mascots of Riga. Legend has it that the wealthy tradesman who commissioned the building was denied membership in the Riga Tradesman’s Guild which was right across the street. This was a prestigious association and to be denied membership was a humiliating snub.
In response, the tradesman added statues of angry-looking cats to the turret rooftops of his building, with their posterior regions facing the offending guild across the street. A fight ensued and he was forced to turn the cats in a less offensive direction.
10. Visit the Riga Nativity of Christ Cathedral
The Riga Nativity of Christ Cathedral is an impressive Orthodox church located at the east end of Esplanade Park. You can see its massive golden dome in the distance long before you actually arrive. Inside are elaborate golden relics and intricate wall paintings. Out of respect, be sure to dress conservatively here. There is even a sign requesting that women cover their heads, although it isn’t strictly enforced.
11. Wander Around the Architecture in the Art Nouveau District
The Art Nouveau District is a small area just north of the central downtown district of Riga. Here you can admire some incredible buildings that were constructed in the art nouveau style, with intricate stone carvings of figures gazing down at you.
If you have a keen interest in the art nouveau style of architecture and artwork, check out the Riga Art Nouveau Museum. Even if you aren’t, it’s worth venturing into the building to check out the gorgeous spiral staircase.
There are two museums in this building. One contains mostly paintings and is housed on the 5th floor of the building. It is open from Wednesday through Sunday from 11:00 until 18:00 and the entrance fee is €2 per person. The other museum is through the gift shop and then downstairs. It is open daily from 10:00 until 18:00 and the entrance fee is €9 for the full museum exposition. You’ll pay extra both for a guided tour and for permission to take photos.
12. See the View from the National Library of Latvia
The National Library of Latvia is located just across the Daugava River from the Old City. The structure is easy to spot from a distance, resembling a mountain made of glass. In fact, the design of the building is based on the trilogy The Glass Mountain by Vilis Inde, which chronicles Latvia’s oppression and fight for independence.
Inside you’ll find a modern library with an impressive 5-story bookshelf and panoramic views of the city across the river. Visitors can access the best views from the 11th and 12th floors on Sundays. If you come on any other day, the 7th-floor views are impressive as well.
Visitors will need to leave their bags in a locker on the ground floor before heading upstairs. There is a cafeteria-style cafe on the ground level that is an ideal spot if you need to get some work done.
13. Stroll Through the Kalnciema Quarter Farmer’s Market
Every Saturday from 10:00 until 16:00, Riga’s Kalnciema Quarter hosts a Farmer’s Market. Here you’ll find fresh produce, yummy local cheese and smoked meats, and traditional Latvian souvenirs such as amber jewelry and hand-knit socks. Even if you’re not in the market to buy anything, you can usually find some activities for the kids or live music so it’s worth strolling through regardless.
Pair your trip to the Farmer’s Market with your visit to the library as they are both outside of the Old Town, just across the river. The walk across the bridge will provide lovely views along the way.
14. Sample Riga Black Balsam
Black Balsam is the national drink of Latvia and a must-try during a trip to the country. It is made from 24 natural ingredients, including 17 botanicals (similar to Jagermeister), and tastes bitter, but sweet. The recipe was created by a pharmacist named Abraham Kunze in 1752 but because it was tradition for only the Head Liquor Master and two apprentices to know the secret recipe, the original was lost sometime during World War II. It was carefully restored from shreds and that recipe has remained unchanged ever since.
You can enjoy Black Balsam as a shot, on the rocks, or mixed with another liquor, such as schnapps or vodka. It is also often enjoyed warm, in tea or coffee. Some bars craft cocktails using the traditional beverage. Or you can buy a bottle of it to take home as a traditional Latvian souvenir!
15. Take a Boat Trip on the Canals
A boat trip on the canals is the best way to catch a glimpse of the historical landmarks of the city of Riga, all from the comfort of your boat, in just an hour. Your canal trip will start at Bastejkalna Park, near the Freedom Monument. Then you’ll cruise around the Old Town and the left bank of the Daugava River, admiring the sites from the water. It’s an amazing experience that you won’t want to miss!
Riga by Canal is a popular company for canal boat cruises. Adults will pay €18 per person for the one-hour tour, and kids are just €9 each.
Pro Tip: It’s actually a bit cheaper if you book your canal tour through GetYourGuide.
16. Hear the Organ at the Riga Cathedral
The Riga Cathedral may not be the most impressive of the churches in Riga from the outside, but it most certainly has a lot to offer on the inside. It is famous for its organ, which was built by E.F. Walcker & Sons in the late 1800s. The organ boasts over 6,700 pipes and produces the most immaculate sounds. You can enjoy a beautiful 20-minute organ concert, inside the cathedral, daily at noon.
17. Spend the Night in a Castle
Jaunpils Castle is just 50 miles west of Riga, in the tiny town of Jaunpils, and well worth making a trip to stay the night! The castle was built in 1301 as a fortress and was initially inhabited by knights. It has gone through several reconstructions since to make it more luxurious for noblemen and today, it is actually available for guests to stay in one of the medieval-style rooms.
During a stay at the Jaunpils Castle, guests can also enjoy the themed restaurant and the onsite museum. There are a variety of activities also available at an additional cost, including cannon firing, boat rides, medieval games, and costume rentals. If you are on a budget, there are several economy rooms that are reasonably priced, or you can spend a bit more for a luxury suite with a fireplace.
It was by far our favorite thing we did in all of Latvia!
18. Take a Day Trip to Jurmala
Jurmala is a quaint little beach town just 25 miles west of Riga. It’s where the locals go on sunny summer weekend days. It’s the ideal spot to lounge on the beach while sipping a refreshing cocktail and reading a good book. Plus, there are plenty of hotels, restaurants, and bars right nearby. If you don’t rent a car, stay near the pedestrian-friendly Jomas Iela street so you’re in the center of the action!
We hope you enjoy your trip to Riga!
Need more help planning your trip to Latvia? Check out our favorite travel guides!