Where on Earth is Riga?
Riga is the capital city of Latvia and is the biggest city in the Baltic States. Latvia shares its borders with Lithuania, Russia, Belarus and Estonia. Riga itself is located at the mouth of the Daugava River and its historical centre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
A Quick History Lesson
To fully understand Latvia you need to delve into the depths of it’s incredibly dark and harrowing past. Latvia was occupied by the Soviet Union in 1940 and then subsequently by Nazi Germany from 1941 to 1944. Riga’s Jewish community were forced into the Riga Ghetto or the Nazi concentration camp Kaiserwald. Many never returned home. At the end of the war, the Soviets regained control of Latvia, leading to decades of fear, torment, deportation, starvation and killings, right up until 1991, when Latvia (and the other Baltic states) regained their independence.
The Baltic Way
This was one of the most incredible and powerful events in post-war human history (in my opinion). On the 23 August 1989 around two million people, across three countries, came together in a peaceful protest, forming a human chain some 600km long from Lithuania, through Latvia and up to Estonia. This moment of human unity is just incredible and shows that no matter how adverse a situation may seem, the human spirit is incredible, and can result in amazing changes when we are united in peace. It was this moment that triggered the events that eventually lead to the Baltic states regaining independence 2 years later, in 1991.
How Do You Get to Riga?
You can easily access Riga from all over Europe. I flew from Manchester, direct, with Ryanair. It was around £50 each way and took 2 hours 50 minutes (or there about). You can also get direct flights from Belfast, London Luton, London Gatwick and Glasgow. Riga airport is about 20 minutes from Riga itself.
Riga is easily accessible on foot, especially when exploring the old town, where everything is within easy reach. The longest walk we did, from one end of the old town to the other, was 20 minutes maximum. Taxis are also cheap and reliable (and in the festive season have Santa hat’s on the chairs!). There is also an efficient tram, trolley and bus service which you can buy one ticket for and then use on all three modes of transport. One ride costs €1 or a 24 hour ticket costs €5.
Where to Stay?
I highly recommend basing yourself in the old town. This will mean you are at the hub of everything with bars, restaurants, shops and tourist attractions right on your doorstep.
If you want to blow the budget though, the Dome Hotel and SPA will be quite the treat. Rooms are around £240 per night!
If you are on more of a budget, you really cannot go wrong with the Naughty Squirrel Hostel. At less than £30 per night and with an awesome name and great location, you will be perfectly set for a weekend exploring this fascinating city.
Where to Eat?
Folkklubs, Folkklubs, Folkklubs. The best place in Riga. FACT. I literally fell head over heels in love with this place! It had epic food, including the crazy delicious Latvian Garlic Bread (I still dream about it), an excellent selection of local Latvian beers and an electric atmosphere. You can read my full review here but just take my word for it; you have NOT done Riga justice if you do not spend at least one evening here!!
A quirky eatery that’s good for a quick lunch break. The décor is full on frog themed and it is just awesome. The food is delicious and very satisfying to fuel you for the rest of the day sightseeing. You can read my review here.
Black Magic Café (or maybe it’s a bar?)
Stepping into this inconspicuous café is like stepping back in time. The décor, the staff outfits and even the lighting creates an unusual dining (or drinking) experience. This is THE place to go to try some chocolate delights, whether you want to try one of the amazing cakes or take a selection of their homemade chocolates home with you, you must make a pit stop here. Plus, pretty much everything is flavoured with the local liquor, Black Balsams. You can check out my review here but I highly recommend the Eclipse Cake. Yum.
Another quirky eatery, this time cockerel themed! This cute restaurant is located right next door to St Peters Church and would make a fine dining option for either lunch or dinner but without the price tag. The service is impeccable, the food is presented like something out of a magazine and no matter what you choose to eat, from the soup to a full roast chicken dish, you are guaranteed to enjoy it! You can read more about my visit here.
This is a tourist experience. I am just going to put that out there before I get into it. You can have a taster menu for around €40 with 5/6 courses of local, Latvian cuisine. It is a fun experience to try some local dishes, including the famous grey peas and bacon and you even get a souvenir picture emailed to you after your trip! You can read more here.
If you are a after a ‘fancy’ meal, you really can’t go wrong with Vincents. It is culinary fare at its finest but it is also at its most expensive, especially in such a cheap city like Riga. They do a 5 course taster menu for €105.
If you are a seafood fan, this is a must for you. The portions are generous, the seafood is fresh and perfectly cooked and you are looking at around €10 for a main, which really isn’t bad at all!
This is a restaurant more for the experience than anything else. Here you step back in time into a Medieval environment. The food, the costumes, the décor, everything is medieval themed and it makes for a fun, unique night.
This restaurant is possibly the prettiest restaurant I have ever stumbled upon (and located directly opposite Hotel Neiburgs!). They serve local Latvian fare but is a little bit on the pricey side, however, you are paying to eat in one of the oldest and most stunning buildings in Riga’s old town.
Yes, this is just an emergency option ok. Many of the flights, annoyingly, don’t get into Riga until 9/10 at night! So when it is late, you are in a new city and starving, this place will be open and will provide warmth and sustenance after your journey!
For those midnight munchies or drink induced hunger, this is the place to go! You pay for the food by weight and it serves delicious dumplings at all hours of the day (24/7 to be precise!) and you will be paying between €2 and €4 for an epic midnight feast!
An awesome stop for breakfast or lunch and unsurprisingly they serve bagels. They have a huge selection of fillings to satisfy even the most fussy of eaters. Call in, fuel up and then venture out for your full day of sightseeing.
Funnily enough, Riga is one of the best places (aside from Japan, obviously) to enjoy some sushi! They are so many sushi restaurants to choose from, possibly more than the local Latvian options!! I walked past this place every day in Riga and it was always packed to the rafters with people enjoying some fresh, delicious sushi.
Where to Drink?
Again, no need to add anything here, just go, ok?!
This is the bar located at the top of the Radisson Blu Hotel. It offers amazing cocktails and even more amazing views across Riga. Definitely try to time it when the sun is setting!
If you are after a more sophisticated evening, head to B Bars right by the Cathedral. If you get a seat in the window you can look out across the square at the cathedral and watch the world go by. There is a good selection of cocktails here and on the weekends a DJ ‘spins some tunes’.
To get here requires a quick hop on the tram to the Labietis brewery. Here you can sample some of the best beer’s Latvia has to offer and all for around 2.50€ a pint!!
Here you can pour your own wine from the tap. There isn’t a great selection but the novelty of pouring your own wine and the snacks you can have to accompany your tipple are enough to make it worth the trip!
Getting ready for a night out? Head to this place to get the party started with over 50 shot offerings, music and crowds this is a good way to start the night off.
This pub is spread across three floors with cheap, local beers a plenty (as well as Aussie options). The most awesome bit, the bar is an old VW combi van! Happy hour is from 5pm to 7pm every day.
It has leopard pattern booths – what’s not to like?! On a more serious note, it is famous for it’s very cheap micro-brew and also shows the sport.
What is a trip to a city in Europe without a visit to an Irish pub? Aside from the usual Guinness offering, try some of the Samogon (local grain alcohol), fair warning though, you will be seeing double for days after!
Daft name but awesome venue. Enjoy some cheap drinks and listen to an upcoming Baltic indie rock band! What more could you want?
A throwback to student times with cheap drink pitchers and 90s tunes.
It does what it says on the tin. You can play pool or darts, watch football and drink Guinness.
Cocktails and salsa, bring on the Mojitos!
If you are a wine lover, this is the place to be! Huge selection of wine to satisfy every preference and maybe even discover something new!
What to See and Do
Learn about Riga’s History
Take a guided tour of the KGB House and learn about the Soviet regime. They run tours throughout the day, in various languages, starting at 10am. Have a look on the website here for your language and time. The tour costs €5 and is worth every penny. It was one of the most fascinating, but at the same time harrowing, tours I have been on.
Take a journey through Latvia’s past as you learn about the Soviet and Nazi occupation from the people who lived through it. There are some incredible video accounts of personal experiences that are not to be missed. Entry is by donation and there is a small gift shop selling a selection of translated memoirs. Double check the location of this, as when I visited it was in a temporary location, along Embassy Row.
This is a small, outdoor museum but wow, it is powerful. You only need an hour or so here but you may need some time afterwards to reflect as the museum will have quite a profound impact on you. Entry again is by donation. Wrap up warm if visiting in winter as about 90% is outdoors.
Visit the monument after you have visited the above, so that you can fully appreciate what it stands for. The monument is made of granite at the base and copper at the top. It features a woman holding up three stars which symbolise the three historic provinces of Latvia and national unity. There is an honour guard and a row of flowers at the base of the monument. During the Soviet occupation it was strictly forbidden to gather at the monument and would often result in your arrest.
Explore The Old Town
Riga’s old town is stunning. Every corner you turn will reveal another beautiful building that you will want to photograph. Spend a good few hours meandering along cobbled streets, taking in some gorgeous architecture and soaking up the atmosphere of the bustling squares. Even better, most of it is free!
The Cat House (Kaku Nams)
This building is best known for the two cats that adorn the turrets. It is famously thought that the owner of the building asked for the cats to be positioned so there bums (on display due to the raised tails) faced the House of the Great Guild due to the grudge he held against its members, as they refused him membership. The cats no longer face that way as it was later ordered for them to be turned around so they face the House of the Great Guild.
The Swedish Gate (Zviedru Varti)
This was erected as part of the Riga Wall, allowing for access to the barracks that were positioned outside of the wall. The gate was built in 1698 and is located near to the Latvian War Museum and leads off of a really cute street lined with amber shops and taverns.
The Three Brothers (Tris Brali)
One fat brother, one thin brother and one receding brother. This is how these buildings are lovingly nicknamed and when you see them, you will know why! These are the oldest buildings in Riga and make for an awesome photo stop!
The House of the Blackheads
Possibly the most stunning building in Riga. With the beautiful square, town hall and the church spire of St Peters surrounding this building, it is just stunning. I spent ages here taking pictures, listening to the street busker playing his guitar and admiring the beauty of the setting. The House of the Blackheads was actually were German bachelors used to gather for nights of debauchery! The House was closed when I visited for renovations but once it is reopened, definitely venture inside!
This is the most famous street in Riga for Art Nouveau architecture. You don’t need to allocate much time here but it is on the way back to the centre of the Old Town from the KGB corner house, so it is worth a slight detour here to take a few pictures and admire the detailed sculptures that adorn the buildings.
St Peters Church
If it is a clear day, this is the place to go for awesome views across Riga. For €9 you can take the rickety lift to the observation platform at the top of the spire. (NOTE: this is closed on Mondays).
From both the outside and the inside, the Cathedral is stunning! Given its location you will probably walk past the cathedral many times on your trip, so try and take the opportunity to pop inside!
This is the largest Market in Europe and fills 4 German Zeppelin hangers. You could spend a good few hours wandering around the many stalls, trying local food and drink and soaking up local life. This market is packed with locals every day of the week!
You can get a train to Jurmala Beach in 40 minutes and it is a very popular destination for locals and tourists alike, especially in the summer season. The beach stretches for 33KM and is lined with around 4000 beautiful, historic, wooden houses. There are also lots of restaurants, bars and cafes lining the beach to really make a day out of it.
A stunningly beautiful palace that could rival many of the more well known palaces around the globe. You can explore the extensive gardens and many of the palace’s rooms. You can either hire a car to get here or go on an organised tour.
Kemeri National Park
If you fancy a day out of the city exploring deep forests this is the place for you. There are a variety of walks available to you, with some well laid out including a board walk over the bog. There are also some local shacks serving smoked fish to satisfy your hunger pangs after a long walk!
If you are an adrenaline junkie, or just after some activity, this is the place for you. You can do anything from here from hiking to bobsledding and even take part in a bungy-jump. You can easily get here via public bus from Riga.
Latvian Ethnographic Open-Air Museum
Just a 30 minute drive from Riga (bus/taxi/hire car) and you arrive at one of the oldest open-air museums Europe has to offer. Here you can step back in time and learn about the traditional Latvian way of life with hands on experiences.
There are loads of souvenir shops dotted around the old town. There is a really good one (over two floors) right near to the Freedom Monument. There are also quite a few near the Cathedral. They sell everything from pins, keyrings and postcards to Black Balzam, t-shirts and cute, mini, bearded gnome things.
The Baltics are well known for their amber and there are numerous shops all over Riga selling amber jewellery and decorations. Wander around a few as prices vary, especially if you go into one near the main tourist sites.
Not only is this a really pretty courtyard of shops but it alos offers some of the fanciest retailers, restaurants and cafes. Every second and fourth Saturday of the month it also plays host to a food and antiques bazaar.
If you want to do some serious shopping, this is the place to be. It it a massive shopping mall with all the brands, high street to designer, you could want. It even has a rooftop terrace and an entire floor dedicated to food with a huge selection of places to eat and refuel for even more shopping!
You cannot visit Riga without sampling some Laima chocolate! There are a few shops and a chocolate factory in Riga. I visited the Laima shop by the Freedom Monument, where you will also find the famous Laima clock.
The Boring but Important Stuff
Cash: ATM’s are everywhere in Riga. Most places accept both cash and card
Language: Latvian, although pretty much everyone speaks English and restaurants offer English menu’s and many tourist spots offer tours and information brochures in various languages.
Weather: Winter is cold! Wrap up and wear layers. Summer is similar to a British summer, rainy and occasionally warm!
Dial Code: +371
Internet: Free WiFi is available in most hotels and some bars and restaurants.
Electricity: You will likely need an adaptor! 220V/50H (European plug).
Lone Travellers: Latvians are super friendly and many speak very good English. I felt very safe there but as with all places when travelling, use common sense!
Opening Times: Monday is the day where pretty much everywhere in Riga is closed. So check your itinerary plans in advance if you will be in Riga on a Monday!
Navigation: Riga’s old town is a warren of cobbled streets that look very similar, however, they all come back on themselves so no matter where you wander to, you will eventually find your way back!
Airport: Considerably larger than I expected! So give yourself enough time to find your way to your gate! There are lots of food and drink options throughout the airport and a good duty free if you fancy some shopping before you leave!
Festivals and Events: Try and be there for the summer or winter solstice events, as it will give you a snapshot into traditional Latvian life. In winter they take part in the rolling of the yule log across the town!
There you have it, my complete beginners guide to Riga! I hope you liked it and find it useful! Please let me know if you visit and/or if you have any suggestions that I could add to this guide!
If you want to read more about my trip to Riga you can access my posts here.
You can check out my itinerary for a 48 hour trip to Riga here or if you want even more, why not check out my Riga Vlogs?
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