Riga is a best-kept travel secret itself. The city is full of hidden gems and not full of tourists (yet). Latvia has a rich history which reflects in the historical and monumental buildings and the many nationalities. Furthermore, Riga is a heaven for food lovers. The local specialties are tasteful and also vegans have many options.
Enjoy the fairy-tale center of Riga
Riga is a small city, you can do everything on foot. But Riga is also a comfortable city to explore by bike. Latvia has approximately 1.8 million inhabitants, a third of whom live in the capital. It is quiet on the street and not yet fully discovered by tourists. Wander around the fairy-tale city center where you can enjoy beautiful buildings, pastel-colored houses, beautiful churches, gates and other vistas for free. Be sure not to miss the beautiful Raadhuisplein. Here you will find the town hall and House of the Blackheads. This building was rebuilt 20 years ago by 20 German single men.
A nice way to get to know Riga and it’s rich history is to book a free walking tour. Daily at the 10 am start the Old Riga tour and the alternative tour, where you get to know a less touristy side of Riga, starts daily at 12 pm. The tour is free, but it is, of course, nice to tip the guides afterward. Both tours leave in front of St Peter’s Church. You can also climb the church, well climbing, there is a lift that takes you all the way up to a breathtaking view of the city.
Riga has many churches. Just outside the old center is the Nativity of Christ Cathedral. A Russian Orthodox gem of a church. The neo-Byzantine church was built in 1876 in the period of Russian rule. Other beautiful churches are St. James’s Cathedral, St. Gertrude Old Church, Our Lady of Sorrows Church, Tserkov ‘Ioanna Predtechi, St. Francis Roman Catholic Church, All Saints Church and Church of Mary Magdalene. The special thing is that the technical drawings are kept in all the balls of the churches at the top. The churches in Riga are not only used for religious purposes, but there are also mainly many parties and exhibitions organized.
What impressed me most is that only the Peitav synagogue survived the Holocaust. The Germans used this synagogue as storage in the Second World War, because it was too close to other buildings. A priest has hidden all the papers and documents from the synagogue in the Dutch church next to it.
Learn more about the rich history of Riga
For decades, Latvians lived under the rules of others. Riga has been occupied by the Soviet Union and later by the Nazi’s. The free-to-visit Occupation Museum is dedicated to the history of more than fifty years of this domination. Another special museum is the KGB museum. This building was the headquarters of the KGB in Riga for many years. Behind an iron door lies the part of the building where you were only allowed to go after an extra strict screening or if you were arrested of course. Other impressive museums are the Latvian War Museum and the Riga Ghetto and Latvian Holocaust Museum.
Not to miss: the Moscow District
The Moscow district is one of the least explored parts of Riga. The district is very multi-ethnic which has everything to do with the history, from Russian barge haulers that settled here (hence the name Moscow district and also because of the proximity of the road leading to Moscow), to the Nazis that made it into a Jewish ghetto during WWII.
Enjoy the more laid back Riga
In the neighborhood northeast of Kronvalda park, you can admire one beautiful Jugendstil building after the other. In the Alberta Iela and Elizabeths Iela (iela means street), you will find Art Nouveau houses that are richly decorated with lions, sphinxes and masks.
In addition to the beautiful buildings, Riga is a green city. Along the city canals, you will find various parks through which you can walk or have a picnic. When the weather is nice you can rent a bike and visit the island of Kipsala. After a train ride of 40 minutes away you can even visit the beach in Jurmula. In the Radisson Blu hotel, you can enjoy a drink and a beautiful view of Riga in the skyline bar. Do you want to do something really special? Buy a ticket for the opera which will only cost you around 6 to 7 euro per ticket.
Explore and taste the Latvian kitchen
At the crossroads between Scandinavia and Eastern Europe, the Baltic state of Latvia has an intriguing food scene that is influenced by neighboring countries but shaped by strong traditions and native ingredients. Food in Latvia is tasteful and affordable. Riga has many great restaurants and also enough vega(n) options. And when in Riga, you have to try Black Balsam, a vodka-based liqueur made with a range of herbs including pepper, ginger, linden flower, raspberry, and bilberry.
If you like organic food, pay a visit to the Straupe market which is full of pickled vegetables, fresh vegetables and meat, bread from a 100-year-old oven and all kinds of other handmade products, sold directly by the farmers.
Miit coffee & bikes is a nice spot to grab a coffee. If you want to grab a quick and tasteful lunch, Big Bad Bagels is your place to go. Some nice options to have dinner are Domini Canes, 3 Chefs and Fat Pumpkin. Between churches St. Johns and St. Peters, right in the heart of Old Town on Skarnu street, since 1978, lies the cozy family restaurant Pētergailis.
A nice and accessible way to get to know the Latvian kitchen is to have lunch in the Riga central market. Taste-test a quick-pickled cucumber, buy vegetables straight from the farm or nursery, treat yourself to a freshly-smoked meal, or just wander around in the Riga Central Market.
Other hotspots to check out
Riga has so many hotspots to check out. My favorite restaurant is Folk klub ALA Pagrabs. Latvian folk and world music come together with traditional and contemporary Latvian cuisine, Latvian dance evenings and live music. The club is located in a former wine cellar. Folk club ALA offers the widest available range of Latvian draught beers – 27 in all.
If you walk past it doesn’t seem like a best-kept secret, but from the inside, this is for sure: Easy Wine. Easy Win is a wine bar with a unique wine tasting system. You get a wine card with 50 euro deposit. Insert the card in the wine dispenser and choose one of the 60 wines. You can choose from three options: 50 ml, 100 ml and 150 ml. When you leave, you just pay what you head. More a beer lover? Pay a visit to Easy Wine’s brother, Easy Beer.
Where to stay
Riga has many options for hotels in the old town. The hotels are comfortable, are well located and affordable. We choose to stay in Rixwell Old Palace Hotel in the old town of Riga. This hotel is very centrally located. The rooms are small but the breakfast makes up for everything. You can taste delicious Latvian cuisine here and wine lovers can enjoy a glass of wine here during breakfast. Yes, for free.
More and more travelers are uncovering Riga as a new exciting destination in Northern Europe. Visit Riga before it’s getting too crowded and popular by tourists. Enjoy!