Are you looking for the best things to do in Riga while only spending a short time in the Latvian capital? During our recent visit to the Baltic states, we enjoyed an action-packed 24 hours exploring the very best of Riga and hopefully after reading this post you will have a few ideas of the top spots you cannot afford to miss when you venture to this part of Eastern Europe.
Riga may not be the first city you think about visiting when considering a European adventure but we have a suspicion that you may reconsider this after seeing some of the inherent beauty throughout Latvia’s capital city!
Riga is the largest city in the Baltic states, home to one third of Latvia’s population. When I started researching how to best spend 24 hour in Latvia’s capital, I soon realized that this city was a distinctive blend of modern urban life combined with a historic, traditional community that the city is proud of.
The biggest metropolis in the Baltics, Riga perfectly blends timeless tradition and cutting edge cool. (Latvia Travel)
How to Get to Riga
Our journey to Riga started out following an adventure around the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius. Lithuania was our first introduction to the Baltic states and it’s fair to say, we had an absolute blast there exploring the historic city and enjoying everything in the “Old Town”.
The cost-effective way to get from Vilnius or any other Baltic state to Latvia is to use Lux Express. This efficient and ultra-modern coach service offers locals and visitors alike the opportunity to explore the Baltic nations while also venturing further afield to countries like Russia, Poland and Finland.
Cost – 5 Euros!!
It’s almost unbelievable that for ONLY 5 Euros (no typos at all here folks!) you can travel from one country to another in a gorgeous luxury coach, fully equipped with touchscreen TV’s, onboard wi-fi service and many other amenities. Can you think of any better, cost-efficient way to get around?
Where to Stay in Riga?
Riga is just like any other European city in terms of having a myriad of accommodation options. The best part of the Latvian capital though is that the majority of these options are incredibly affordable. You can really enjoy a “luxury” hotel experience for a rate that in many other places in the world would not get you very much in terms of a high-quality hotel.
If you are looking for a recommendation in a convenient location next to the coach station in the heart of Riga, consider the Opera Hotel & Spa. For only 45 Euros, we enjoyed a one-night stay with breakfast and had the option of using the spa that is part of the hotel. Our room was spacious, clean and everything we needed to make our stay enjoyable and relaxing.
Best Things to Do in Riga
Ok, so you have arrived in Riga, settled into your hotel and are ready to explore the Latvian capital! That’s exactly what happened to us when we arrived and we knew that we only had a short window to explore the very best of Riga.
Our adventure was a self-guided tour and we hope that you will be inspired to visit some of these historic landmarks on your journey around Riga.
After grabbing our map of Riga (available in most hotels), we noticed that a walking route was already in place highlighting over 30 different attractions and landmarks scattered throughout the city. It’s feasible to see all of these because many of them are located close together but depending on how much time you want to spend at each one will likely determine how many you actually want to explore in more detail.
Here are our top 10 recommended landmarks that you have to see while visiting Riga, all of which are on this self-guided walking tour:
- Riga Castle
- House of Blackheads
- St. Peter’s Church
- Freedom Monument
- Three Brothers
- Bastion Hill
- Livu Square
- Jacob’s Barracks
- St. James Cathedral
The Gothic spires that dominate Riga’s cityscape might suggest austerity, but it is the flamboyant art nouveau that forms the flesh and the spirit of this vibrant cosmopolitan city (Lonely Planet)
The history throughout the Latvian capital is epitomized inside the ancient walls of Riga Castle, located along the banks of the River Daugava. Dating back to the initial construction in 1330, this iconic fortress has played an integral role throughout recent centuries.
However, it was only in 1938 when the Latvian government declared this as its official residence. Today, Riga Castle is the official residence of the President of Latvia in conjunction with being home to various museums portraying Latvian history and culture.
House of Blackheads
If you are looking for the iconic building in Latvia, head over to the colorful House of Blackheads which has been “delighting locals and visitors” for over 700 years with the rich history and heritage present inside those walls.
Originally built in 1334, this historic structure possesses a unique historical legacy regarding the legendary brotherhood of the Blackheads.
You may be wondering what the “Blackheads” are? Young and unmarried traders would congregate inside this house and it’s no surprise to hear that the House of Blackheads was known as an enthusiastic household that was always at the forefront of hosting celebrations and events throughout Riga.
This building, located in the heart of Old Town Riga, is one of the city’s calling cards and central representational venues. (Live Riga)
Another interesting fact that continues to emphasize the importance of this building is that this was the temporary residence for the president while Riga Castle was undergoing renovation.
St. Peter’s Church
Towering above the city of Riga is the gorgeous sight of St. Peter’s Church. The history of this Lutheran church dates back to the year 1209 though the architectural design of this structure has three distinctive periods associated with it. A Gothic and Romanesque style followed by early Baroque period architecture. Various parts of the church can be attributed to each of these periods.
Standing at just over 123 meters in height (originally it was around 130 meters but reconstruction led to this being reduced slightly), the tower of St. Peter’s Church offers breathtaking panoramic views across Riga. Visitors can climb to the second gallery at 72 meters that still offers gorgeous scenes across the city.
One of Riga’s proudest moments was in 1997 when St. Peter’s Church was officially added to UNESCO’s World Heritage list.
For the Latvian locals that consider Riga to be home, perhaps the most iconic landmark throughout the city is the Freedom Monument, a tribute to honoring soldiers that lost their lives during the Latvian War of Independence (1918-1920). This towering structure comprising of granite and copper symbolizes Latvian statehood, national unity, independence and freedom.
Unveiled in 1935, this representation of independence stands at 42.7 meters in height and is made up of 56 sculptures, divided into 13 sculptural groups across four levels, each depicting a different component of Latvian culture and history. At the summit of the Freedom Tower’s obelisk is a young woman holding three stars above her head, each symbolizing the three historic provinces of Latvia.
Today, visitors passing by the Freedom Monument will see a two-man honor guard standing at the base indicating Latvia’s sovereignty.
The Three Brothers are the oldest medieval dwelling houses in Riga. According to legend, these three homes were built by three different men but all within the same family. The oldest house was built in 1490, the middle brother built his in 1646 and the youngest was built in the second half of the 17th century.
The youngest is the narrowest of the three dwellings, though the facade is perhaps the most intriguing of all three houses. A mask is depicted and rumor has it this was done to prevent evil spirits from entering. Today, visitors to the Three Brothers can experience the Latvian Museum of Architecture.
Located on Maza Pils Street, during medieval times this area was outside of Riga’s central district and instead was home to local craftsmen.
The Esplanade is a central focal point of the city because of its location in close proximity to many other landmarks. The park is almost 9 hectares in size but it’s the surrounding landmarks including the Nativity of Christ Orthodox Cathedral, the Latvian National Museum of Art and the Art Academy of Latvia that make this a popular spot for visitors.
The cathedral is particularly impressive with this majestic structure towering above the Esplanade and anyone needing a little time away from the hustle and bustle of city life should spend a few moments inside this place of worship.
Take a stroll through the Esplanade and admire the various monuments that relate to iconic Latvian figures. For those of you tired of stereotypical sightseeing, this area of Riga is definitely the best way to “get away” from city life before heading back to experiencing the rich history throughout this city.
If you are looking for a quiet place while visiting Riga, look no further than the gorgeous Bastion Hill as it features a myriad of narrow paths, water features, towering trees and places to relax.
For those that decide to visit the Freedom Monument, take a moment to glance over to the nearby park and you will quickly realize why Bastion Hill is such a popular spot to visit.
The quirky, small bridges offer a charming stereotype for Bastion Hill while swans and other wildlife can be found enjoying the solitude in this part of Riga. I have to admit that this was one of our favorite spots around the city and the views across the park were breathtaking as we looked down from “Freedom Street.”
As you wander around Riga, just like many of the other cities across the Baltic states, you will likely stumble across a number of old squares that are typified by cobblestones, gorgeous architecture and a friendly, local atmosphere that welcomes you.
Livu Square is one of these in the heart of Riga and during our recent visit, this was transformed into a festive wonderland with a variety of Christmas markets hosting local vendors selling their local produce and crafts.
Livu Square is actually relatively new in the context of other parts of Riga as it was built in the mid-20th century following World War II. The square is not only home to these charming Christmas festivities during the winter months but also in the summer plays host to a variety of restaurants, bars and outdoor cafes where you can sample your favorite Latvian cuisine and drinks.
The “Cat House” is one of the iconic buildings surrounding Livu Square as you can see a black cat peering over the city from the top corner of this structure.
The journey around Old Town Riga continues and whether you choose to stay to your intended walking route or simply wander down spontaneous streets, you will never be too far away from another iconic landmark.
A stretch of red-roofed buildings along Torņa Street on one side of Old Town Riga is known as Jacob’s Barracks and today, this is where you can find an eclectic blend of restaurants and cafes.
The history of Jacob’s Barracks dates back to the 18th century when these were built around the city fortifications and up until the 1990s, a variety of armies used these buildings.
It’s interesting to note that this street is renowned as being the dividing line between “Old Town Riga” and the “modern, contemporary” city.
St. James Cathedral
The history of St. James Cathedral dates back to 1225 when it was first referenced in sources but it’s during the 16th century when this became the first church in Latvia to hold a Lutheran service that makes this such a historic landmark.
The irony is that in 1582 St. James Cathedral was returned to Catholic rule and to this day it has remained under that affiliation.
St. James Cathedral was one of the first three churches built in Riga alongside St. Peter’s and Riga Cathedral but unlike its counterparts that held mass in German, it held services in Latvian until the Reformation. The architectural design of this structure is typical of the medieval era when it was constructed.
If you are only spending a day in Riga, hopefully this guide will give you a few ideas of the best spots that you cannot afford to miss. The beauty of Riga, similar to many other European cities, is that it is a very walkable city, so you can easily visit many of these attractions among others in a short amount of time.
Riga, Tallinn and Vilnius are the three cities that we experienced during our quick-fire adventure around the Baltic states and we have to admit we fell in love with each of them for very different reasons.
The unique, distinctive attributes of each meant that we could appreciate the local culture and learn about the rich history, despite frequently remembering the stereotype associated with this part of Europe that it is “behind” the times. Based on our experiences, it is anything but this!
Riga is a perfect example of a city that has been transformed from a medieval, historic city to a modern urban area. The distinctive blend of “old vs new” is apparent yet it is something that works well in this city and offers a nice contrast for visitors looking to appreciate the very best of both eras. We certainly look forward to returning to Riga in the not too distant future!
Have you visited the Latvian capital of Riga?