Riga is one of the Baltic’s great cities with a rich mercantile history dating back to early medieval times. It’s a fantastic tourist destination, mainly because its scenic Old Town is squeezed into a walkable area, buzzing with life… but with no cars!
I love losing myself down its maze of winding streets, then stumbling upon a hidden square with old gabled houses and merchants’ warehouses.
Once you’ve walked till your feet hurt, the reward is a relaxing break at one of the city’s large number of charming cafés and bars. What could be more perfect?
Recently a good friend who loves to travel confessed to me that Riga was low on his list of places to see, below Warsaw and Minsk at the foot of his travel league table.
This is a great pity because Riga is a fascinating and often surprising place, partly because of its Russian and German connections.
The fact that many people can’t name the country Riga lies in doesn’t help its profile either. It’s Latvia, by the way…
Riga has been dubbed by some travel experts as the new Prague, hastily adding “but smaller”. It’s a tag that does this fascinating city an injustice.
True – they are both magnets for stag and hen parties, although Riga is more restrained and classy.
Riga also boasts a picturesque medieval Old Town like Prague, but there’s more to this city than its cobbled lanes, multi-coloured buildings and night life. Look beyond the obvious and you’ll discover a city with a distinctive style and vibe which has very strong Baltic roots.
As a result of its relationship with the sea, the city has soaked up influences from Russia, Scandinavia and further afield.
Riga has been fought over for centuries because of its strategic importance on the Baltic and River Daugava. This has made it susceptible to invasion, first by foreign armies and then by traders.
Riga has an incredible range of architectural styles from Romanticism and Gothic to Baroque and Flemish. It also boasts a magnificent Orthodox cathedral in Neo-Byzantine style.
Eclecticism is the word!
Art Nouveau in Riga
Riga is ‘Art Nouveau central’ with one of the biggest collections of buildings in this architectural style anywhere in Europe. A walking tour of these streets takes you back to the turn of the 19th Century when Riga was a wealthy and stylish city.
You can walk most everywhere in Riga, often through the city’s scenic network of parks and canals.
The Art Nouveau Quarter is concentrated around a few main streets where there’s a chilled-out feel, once the coach parties disappear.
Don’t forget to look up because much of the swirling decoration and florid Art Nouveau style motifs can be seen above doorways, upper floors and even on roof tops.
Invaders and Traders
The breadth of history in Riga is pretty awesome. It’s fascinating to learn that Lativa, like its close neighbour Lithuania, was once a largely pagan country.
In the 1200s invading German Teutonic knights saw a chance to establish a power base in Latvia and convert the country’s pagan population.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, Riga became an important trade route and Latvia was taken over by Poland, Sweden and then Russian invaders. Today you can see the many buildings which sprung up when the city was a member of the Hanseatic League.
In the 1940s, Germany invaded Latvia once again and Riga experienced a terrible period during which 1/4 million people died. This was followed by five decades of Soviet rule which only ended in 1991.
Rich Medieval History
The House of the Blackheads is one of the city’s most striking tourist attractions with its Dutch style gabled façade.
Originally built in 1334 but destroyed during World War Two, the house has been painstakingly reconstructed to gives a sense of Riga’s golden age.
The Blackheads were a guild of unmarried foreign merchants, known for their riotous parties. Their patron was St Maurice, a Moor, whose image appears everywhere inside and outside the building.
I almost didn’t go inside the house, but can strongly recommend a trip down into the original cellar basement and to the rebuilt ballroom.
There are many other brilliant buildings to admire on a walking tour of the Old Town as you leave the Town Hall Square.
Virtually the whole of the old city streets are pedestrianised so you can stand back and admire the views without fear of being taken out by a car.
The 17th Century Mentzendorff House was once the house of a glass cutter and gives a sense of what life was like during that era. Today it houses a small but atmospheric museum.
The Cat’s House, a bright yellow Art Nouveau stunner, has strange feline figures arching their backs on its roof. These were added by the merchant who owned it as a rebuff to the Riga Guild who refused to let him join their ranks.
The cats’ bottoms originally faced the Guildhall – a deliberate affront – but the merchant eventually relented and switched them around when he was finally accepted into the guild.
The Jewish Ghetto
Riga was once the hub for a large Jewish community but any trace of the Jews has been almost completely obliterated.
Before World War Two, around 40,000 Jews lived in Riga but the community was destroyed after the Nazis occupied the city in 1941.
About 90,000 Jews and 16,000 foreign Jews were killed during the Nazi occupation of Latvia… and some Latvians collaborated with the Germans.
One of the worst massacres of the Latvian Holocaust took place in Bikernieki Forest where thousands were send to their deaths and were dumped in mass graves.
It’s a moving experience to walk through the forest to the memorial and the pits which are marked with stones and guide posts.
Many Latvians still conflicted about this shameful period of their history, and this Jewish site is low-key and hard to find without a local map.
The old Riga ghetto is hard to find today because so many of its original buildings have been lost. The Jewish Ghetto Museum tries to bring back to life its stories and people in photographs… and provides a glimpse of life before WW2.
Another memorable site the Zanis Lipke Memorial, a striking museum which houses a beautifully presented display about the Jews in Riga.
Zanis Lipke was an Oskar Schindler style figure – he and his wife Johanna created an underground bunker to save Jews from Nazis.. and smuggled many to safety.
It’s great example of how some Latvians did not collaborate with the Nazis and tried to help their own community. There are many moving stories and great interpretation which makes this a ‘must see’ visit for anyone interest in the Holocaust.
After so much conflict and repression during its history, it’s no surprise that Riga is extremely proud of its Latvian heritage and independence.
The biggest symbol of this, literally, is the Freedom Monument which dominates the centre of the ‘modern’ city. It was built in 1935 on the site of a previous statue of Peter The Great, the Russian ruler.
Needless to say, the Russians were not keen on it when they took over Riga after the Second World War – and they built a statue of Lenin next to it. They also banned Latvians from placing flowers on the monument.
Today, it’s a potent symbol of Latvia’s independence with statues and friezes representing Latvian heroes and the importance of the fatherland.
On top of the tower is the female figure of Milda holding three golden stars which represent the main cultural regions of Latvia.
Not far from my hotel, I found another interesting monument called ‘The Town Musicians of Bremen’ which is based on a story by the Brothers Grimm in which four animals – a donkey, dog, cat and rooster – look through the window of a cottage and save it from thieves.
The Riga sculpture reversions the story with the trio of animals looking through the Iron Curtain – it was made in 1990 when Latvia was on the verge of splitting from the Soviet Union.
Water is never far away from where you’re walking in Riga. As well as the waterfront, you can take a relaxing tour of the city along Riga’s canal network on a boat trip.
The canal tour takes you on a gentle journey through the city’s parks and onto the Daugava river – it costs £18 for the hour long journey. It’s a good way of putting your feet up after a long day’s sightseeing.
Sporty types can hire a paddle board or canoe which looks a lot more precarious than I thought it would be on such calm waters.
What else can you see?
Riga isn’t renowned for its world class museums so don’t expect the British Museum or The Louvre. Instead you can dip into some of its small but interesting galleries and museums including the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia and the former KGB Building cells and offices.
For once in my life, I picked two attractions rather than trying to complete everything. The family had issued me with a strict warning about “museum overload”, whatever that means”!
I’d recommend the excellent Riga Motor Museum which is a 20 minute bus ride from the city centre. Not only does it have a fantastic collection of Soviet and KGB cars, it’s brilliantly presented and has some classy early motors.
You can even get your photo taken in a Soviet style official car which made my day!
Riga by Night
Riga comes alive in the evening and boasts plenty of nightlife, live music, bars and restaurants which make it a fun destination for a long weekend break.
Latvian food draws on Russian as well as Baltic influences with a smattering of Scandinavian and Eastern European styles thrown in for good measure.
Restaurants are plentiful and there’s a good range to meet everyone’s budget, but prices are now similar to the UK, given the poor state of the Euro exchange rate.
I was surprised how much ‘high end’ cuisine was on offer – at places such as Domini Canes by St Peter’s Church which has an excellent menu and affordable prices.
Every Latvian dinner comes with berries – cranberries, chokeberries, red berries – it is a national obsession!
The Key to Riga in the Old Town has a strongly Latvian influenced menu with everything from giant kebabs to oddities such as bull’s testicles in a green peppercorn sauce… plus berries.
It boasts a “feast for a lord” and we weren’t disappointed. The slightly cheesy entertainment – a duo of lute players straight out of “Game of Thrones” – was good fun.
Wine is expensive as so little is grown in the Baltic states. I did attempt to order a glass of Latvian wine but was told off by the waitress. “It’s vile” she said, pointing to their list of Chianti and Italian reds!
Beer is a better option as there is a big craft brewing scene in Latvia. Prices are reasonable so it’s worth sticking to the grain rather than the grape.
Many larger restaurants have outdoor sitting areas and live music which is fun.
The Biblioteka looks great and comes highly recommended with a beautiful parkland setting. Sadly we could never get a table even when it looked empty – perhaps we looked too downmarket for them?
Where to Stay
Riga has a big variety of hotels but you’ll have to decide whether to stay in the Old Town or outside the historic centre. Personally I’d choose the Old Town because you can fall out onto the street and be at the heart of the city’s vibrant cultural life
As ever, there are many European and American chains like The Hilton and The Ramada to choose from but my preference is usually for a boutique hotel which offers something more personal and distinctive.
For this trip, I chose the Redstone Hotel opposite St Peter’s in the Old Town which has the most fantastic location. The rooms are also lovely especially if you book the top floor lagoon suite which has stunning views across the plaza below. I’m also a sucker for its fluffy dressing gowns and breakfast in bed!
Foodies will love the expensive Petrus restaurant on its ground floor – or the many local eateries along the same street.
Don’t expect quick service. Things seem to move at snail’s pace so it’s no good being in a hurry in a Riga restaurant.
I found that there isn’t a huge ‘service with a smile’ philosophy in Latvia… although we did find some notable exceptions among younger staff who are more ‘tourist savvy’.
This may partly be a throwback to the Soviet period of Latvia’s history when people were ‘servile’ rather than service providers. It’s a far cry from the US ‘hey, how are you guys?’ style of restaurant service.
Riga is gradually catching on to what makes a good party vibe so it’s easy to find outdoor bars with seating and live bands singing everything from blues to rockabilly and standard rock classics.
One of the best hang-outs is Folkklubs ALA on the edge of the Old Town down in a subterranean basement which is immense when you stagger down the stairs.
It translates as ‘The Folk Club’ but in reality this bar and restaurant has a wide mix of music from traditional to punk and dance DJs. It gets busy, hot and noisy – just the thing for a top night out, but I’d recommend booking a table at weekends.
Don’t miss an evening stroll around the Old Town – it’s atmospheric and fun with a chilled atmosphere compared with most British city centres on a weekend,
Here are my top five recommendations for sightseeing in Riga…
- House of the Blackheads – Old Town Square
- Riga Motor Museum
- The Old Town
- Art Nouveau Quarter
- Jewish Riga -Lipke Memorial Mueum
What The Guide Books Don’t Tell You…
Travel and transport
The good news is that Riga is a short, cheap flight from the UK. RyanAir flies from Leeds and Edinburgh. It’s a short hop from the airport to the city.
Thinking of driving a hire car in Riga?
My advice is don’t… take my word for it! The Old Town is pedestrianised and there are traffic wardens everywhere ready to slap a ticket on your car, if you leave it even for a few minutes.
The roads around the city centre are like a race track with cars changing lanes and cutting you up at every twist and turn.
And then there’s the parking or lack of it, another reason to avoid hiring a car. There is little car parking near the Old Town except for a couple of expensive multi-storey facilities.
We parked on the large free parking area along the riverfront on 11 November street.
When we came back, our car was completely blocked in by a haphazardly parked sea of vehicles. We managed to escape the next day!
This is quite a thing in Latvia… people often park chaotically. Some drivers leave their phone numbers on their car dashboards in case you want them to move. Others don’t!
If you have a mobile home or camper van, I’d suggest parking over the river near one of the parks.
Walking is the way to go in Riga. There are no buses running through the Old Town and trams only run around the perimeter, and over the bridges to out of town locations.
Wear your most comfortable trainers or shoes because Riga is famous for its cobbles.
Small electric scooters are a popular and can be hired – but I’m not sure about riding them across the cobbled streets!
Take it easy and move at snail’s pace. You’ll enjoy Riga much more this way.