Riga, the capital of Latvia, is a city with a complex history and a burgeoning hipster scene. All set against a surprising architectural mix of post-Soviet style, and Art Nouveau flamboyance. Riga attractions go well beyond the outdated view that some Brits might have of the place: that Riga’s mainly a stag-do destination. It’s an exciting, vibrant city, with bags of green space on its doorstep. If you’re looking to visit Riga, here are some top tips on things to do.
Take a tram to Mežaparks
From central Riga, Mežaparks is a 20-minute ride north, on the no. 11 tram line. A ‘vintage’ tram serves this route, but if you miss it, the regular tram is just as interesting, with rounded features and a very retro feel to its interior.
Literally translating as ‘Forest Park‘, Mežaparks is just under 12 square km of woodland nestled along the edge of Kišezers Lake. At the crest of the park lie an exclusive golf club and a gated village of millionaire’s mansions. The Mežaparks area used to be known as the Forest of Kings, and it attracts wealthy Baltic families, who set up summer houses there. But since 1949 the main part of the park has been a public recreation area, with picnic areas on the sandy shores of the lake, asphalt paths for go-karting and mountain bike tracks through the trees.
Families crunch through pine needles on their way to Mežaparks’ playgrounds. There’s even a zoo. In the summer, the Grand Stage of the Song Festival hosts musicians, and visitors can watch performances at the Green Theatre.
There’s a handful of places to eat and drink in Mežaparks, including Cabo Cafe, which is a short walk through the forest. It gets very busy in the summer, but if you manage to get a seat you’ll be rewarded with beautiful views across the Kišezers Lake. In the summer Cabo Cafe is open from 11am to 10pm.
Cabo Cafe address: Roberta Felmana iela 8A
Find a spot where you can look out over the city
There are a few places that give you a panoramic view over Riga. In the summer, Galerija Riga Rooftop Terrace opens, at the top of Galerija Riga shopping mall. The cafes and restaurants on the terrace offer a splendid view of the city, although they can be overpriced. St Peter’s Church in the Old Town is considered by many to give the best views over the city. The 123m-high church is the tallest in Riga, and tickets to the viewing gallery at 72m are 9 Euros. The Academy of Sciences is the first high-rise building in Riga. Visitors can go up to the 17th floor of the 107m high building, to see the city from a 65m vantage point. The circular terrace with 360 degree views of the Old Town and Daugava River is open daily from April to November, and costs 6 Euros (free for under-12s).
Galerija Riga shopping mall address: Dzirnavu iela 67
St Peter’s Church address: Reformacijas Laukums 1
Academy of Sciences address: Akademijas Laukums 1
Dine in style in the Old Town
Riga Old Town bars and restuarants have a reputation for being overpriced, with service that isn’t always up to the high standard you’ll find elsewhere in Riga. But we managed to find an exceptionally good eaterie. Although Restaurant 3 was pricey by Riga standards, it was worth spending a bit extra there. When we ate at Restaurant 3 it seemed that most of our fellow diners were Latvian. The small establishment had an ethos that was ecologically aware, using responsibly sourced local ingredients wherever possible.
We ordered the 7-course taster menu. D’s was vegetarian, and both mine and my friend’s included meat and fish. Each course had the theme of a different tree, and a card accompanied the dish to explain what that particular tree meant in Latvian culture and folklore.
The flow of birch sap is a sign that the Baltic winter is departing. Our first course was asparagus sprinkled with birch sap snow, which arrived in a steaming pan. Pine trees were traditionally used to make Latvian ship masts. The chef torched pine needles in front of us, to infuse our grilled duck with smoke. Each course came with a theatrical flourish, and although a couple of dishes were so-so, most were exquisite and on the whole it was a spectacular meal.
Restuarant 3 address: Kaleju street 3, Riga LV-1050
Explore Latvian history
The House of the Blackheads is a reconstruction of a 14th Century guild for unmarried merchants, shipowners, and foreigners in Riga. Its pretty facade is one of the many interesting sights that you should try and see on a walk around the Old Town. If you have more time than we did, you can take a tour inside the building.
Other notable stops are the Powder Tower and Riga’s Freedom Monument, built in 1935 to honour soldiers killed in the Latvian War of Independence. The 42-metre high monument of granite, travertine, and copper somehow miraculously remained standing through occupations in the 20th Century by both the Soviets and Nazi Germany.
For a sense of what it might have been like in Riga during the Soviet era, you can visit the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia. The museum, part of which is housed in the city’s former KGB building, was closed the weekend we visited, but with the occasional exception, it’s open daily from 11am to 5pm.
Museum of the Occupation of Latvia address: Raiņa bulvāris 7 and (KGB building) Brīvības iela 61
Try herring Latvian style
I’m usually a fan of herring, so I decided to try the local incarnation of this fishy dish. I have to admit, this one beat me, and I wasn’t able to finish the hefty slabs of herring that were layered on top of salty roast potatoes. The dish came with a side order of cottage cheese, which is also traditional. Although herring Latvian style was by far the least favourite dish I ate in Riga, I’m glad I tried it. For what’s the point of travelling somewhere new, if you don’t have a crack at the local dishes?
We ate at Lidojoša Varde (Flying Frog). The pub-like, cosy restaurant was decorated with wooden carvings of frogs, and blankets were laid out for people to wrap over their shoulders if they chose to sit outside. It was set in Riga’s ‘silent centre’, in the very middle of the Art Nouveau district. The street was indeed very quiet, especially considering it was a Friday night in June.
Lidojoša Varde address: Elizabetes iela 31A
Hang out with hipsters in the craft beer district
Latvia is renowned for its beer, with low-priced world-class beer attracting stag dos in their droves. We encountered three large groups of men on our morning flight to Riga, who immediately went to the airport cafe to buy bottles of Latvian beer. People on a Riga stag do tend to do their drinking in the beer gardens of the Old Town, so if you want to avoid them (and find a better value beer for your buck, as well as a more authentic taste of Riga nightlife), head to Riga’s official Beer District.
Riga’s Beer District is a 2.5 km route with ten pubs, gastropubs and microbreweries, serving over 100 varieties of Latvian craft beer. Just over 1 km away from the Old Town, the best bars in Riga sit along streets radiating from Brivibas Iela and Miera Iela. This Beer District has a very different vibe to the tourist-focused Old Town. When we visited, the streets were calm and hushed, with locals and a smattering of visitors tasting the latest experiments in Latvian brewing in dark bars like Taka, or doing a spot of lively socialising at hipster bar/restaurant/nightclub Vest.
For aficionados, good draft Latvian beers to start with are Valmiermuiža, Užavas and Tervetes.
Vest address: Stabu Iela 1
Taka address: Miera Iela 10
Explore the Art Nouveau quarter
Riga has over 700 Art Nouveau buildings. That’s more than any other European city. This decorative style of architecture, most popular at the turn of the 20th Century, features curves, pillars, and ornate features, like flowers, noblemen and goddesses. These embellishments are all carved into the building facades, making an eye-catching display. Some of the architecture in Riga was so ornamental that you could go back to the buildings several times, and still spot new details.
The most spectacular buildings are in the “silent centre”, or Art Nouveau quarter. Walking around this district felt like a stroll through some parts of Paris, or Brussels. But when we visited, in June, the streets were much quieter than those cities.
For a quick tour of the most stunning buildings, take a ten-minute stroll from Alberta Iela, down Strelnieku Iela, then Elizabetes Iela and Antonijas Iela, before heading back onto Alberta Iela.
Shop in Riga Central Market
Riga Central Market is the largest in Europe, and sprawls over five separate aircraft hangar-like pavilions. The UNESCO World Heritage site is divided into categories. Vegetarians can skirt round the pavilion filled with vast array of meats, including large trays of tongues and offal. People looking for a snack to accompany their morning coffee can queue at one of the bakeries selling deliciously flakey, honey-drenched Latvian pastries.
I particularly liked the fish pavilion, with its piles of jewel-like roe, which the stallholder would scoop into paper bags for customers. Stalls in what we termed the ‘bakery and treats’ pavilion were heaped with different types of local honey, with stallholders entreating us to try them. Riga Central Market is a good place to stock up on the local tipple, Black Balsams. When we visited, the last pavilion was empty apart from an interesting display of modern art by local Latvian artists.
Eat vegetarian brunch
We discovered a great spot for vegetarians in Riga. Not everything on the menu at Miit was meat-free, but most of it was. On Saturdays and Sundays they offered brunch from 11am to 4pm. The centrepiece of the brunch was small, round pancakes made from spinach, carrot, beet, rye, blueberry, chocolate and poppy. But it wasn’t just pancakes. For around 10 Euros we ate salads made from black quinoa, potatoes, green leaves, peppers… as well as the more traditional breakfast goods of pastries, granola and freshly baked breads. It was a colourful feast, and could have set us up until bedtime.
In the evening Miit exchanges coffees for beers. The cafe/bar is also a cycle repair shop.
Miit address: Lacpleša Iela 10
Other things to do in Riga
A weekend was too short a time to properly explore the best things to do in Latvia, or even just in Riga. We didn’t have time to see inside the Opera House or the National Museum of Art, which both looked impressive from the outside. We did manage to pop into the Orthodox Cathedral Riga, otherwise known as the Nativity of Christ Orthodox Cathedral. The stunning white 19th Century neo-Byzantine style building is filled with ornate frescos, restored in the 1990s after the end of the Soviet occupation.
Kalnciema Quarter, on the left bank of the Daugava River, hosts a farmer’s market every Saturday, selling local crafts and cooking ingredients. The area is a bright and lively spot, which regularly holds events for families and children, concerts, open-air theatre performances and art exhibitions.
For a trip outside of the city, Jurmala is a beach resort an hour’s journey away by train. Sigulda is also less than an hour away from Riga. This region of stunning scenery, ancient castles and deep forest is particularly popular in Autumn (Fall), when the leaves turn vibrant shades of gold and red.
Where is Riga Latvia?
Riga is the capital city of Latvia. It sits broadly in the middle of the country, near the coast of the Baltic Sea.
How to get to Riga
It’s easy to find a flight to Riga from the UK. Direct services run from London to Riga. We flew on a budget airline from Stansted Airport, but there are other options, including direct Gatwick to Riga flights, and flights from different cities in the UK.
What else do I need to know when visiting Riga?
Riga currency is the Euro. Even with the GBP Sterling’s poor exchange rate, we found Riga prices to be lower than those we’re used to in London. Riga temperature varies from an average high of 24°C in July, to an average low of -6°C in January and February. Riga Latvia weather is fairly typical of a northern European, Baltic country.
For more information on Riga Tourism, visit Magnetic Latvia, the official Latvia Tourism site.
Do you have any more tips on what to do in Riga? Let me know in the comments below.
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