Are you looking for the best things to do in Riga?
When travelling to Riga, you can expect a stunning medieval Old Town, cobblestone streets, lots of history and delicious food. And the best part? Latvia’s capital hasn’t made it onto the radar of everyone yet, which means that you’ll find fewer crowds than in many Western European cities.
As Riga has a lot to offer, it can be challenging to choose what to do. We have tried and tested the highlights of Riga, so you don’t have to spend hours researching for yourself. Keep on reading, and you’ll learn everything about what to do in this fantastic city.
Our favourite things to do in Riga
#1 Walk through the Old Town
One of the best things to do in Riga is to enjoy the Old Town. Keep your eyes open and enjoy the different styles of architecture. The Old Town of Riga is so rich in history that Unesco declared it a world heritage site.
You can spend hours walking through the Old Town, discovering cobblestone streets, cafes, restaurants and old houses. It shows that Riga was a member of the Hanseatic League and you can see a lot of typical architecture from that time.
One of the highlights of the Old Town is the Cat House. The building shows some elements of Art Nouveau architecture, but it is more famous for its cat statues. Look for them on the rooftops. The cats have gotten so well-known throughout the city, that they are now one of the symbols of Riga and you can even see them printed on souvenirs.
Besides the Cat House, we also suggest that you visit the Swedish Gate. The legend goes that it dates back to the days when you had to pay taxes to bring goods into the city. A smart merchant decided to build a gate through his house to avoid paying those taxes.
The true story is a bit more realistic. The Swedish Gate was once part of the city wall and connected the town with the barracks outside the walls. These days, the gate is one of the famous landmarks in Riga where you should stop by.
#2 Enjoy the view from St Peter’s Church
One of the best places to enjoy the view of Riga from above is St Peter’s Church. You can take an elevator to the top of its tower, from where you’ll see the whole city. The building is more than 130 metres high, so you’re guaranteed to get an overview of the layout of Riga.
Look down, and you’ll see the Old Town stretching out below you. From here, you can clearly recognise the maze of cobblestone streets and the boundaries of the city centre. One of the best times to go is just before sunset so that you can enjoy the soft light of the golden hour.
While here, make sure to also look at the interior of St Peter’s Church. The church dates back to 1209, but only a few pillars and walls remain from that time. It burned down multiple times over the past centuries. Nevertheless, this still makes it one of the oldest buildings in Riga.
#3 Visit the House of the Blackheads
If you can only visit one museum while in Riga, make it the House of the Blackheads.
The House of the Blackheads is Riga’s most famous landmark, and you’ll find it close to St Peter’s Church. It dates back to 1334 when the Brotherhood of the Blackheads built it for meetings and celebrations.
If you travel around Latvia and Estonia, you will keep hearing about this guild. The Brotherhood of the Blackheads was an organisation of unmarried merchants, ship owners and craftsmen. Most of them were foreigners, mostly German, who had joined together to protect their ships and caravans from attacks while trading exotic goods.
In Riga, they came together in the House of the Blackheads, to hold meetings but also to celebrate. Judging by the written records (which include the house rules stating that nobody is allowed to leave before all of the alcohol is gone), those parties must have been wild!The Brotherhood of the Blackheads erected the first Christmas tree in the world. Riga and Tallinn both claim that this tree has been set up in their city, a dispute that will likely never be solved. If you visit in December, don’t miss the Christmas tree in Town Hall Square, right in front of the House of the Blackheads.
Germany bombed the House of the Blackheads during World War II, and the Soviets demolished the remaining structure afterwards. Fortunately, the basement remained buried underground, almost untouched. The rest of the house got rebuilt in the 90s. Therefore, during your visit, you’ll get to experience the difference between more modern upper floors and the medieval basement.
#4 See the Three Brothers
While walking through the Old Town of Riga, you will sooner or later come across the Three Brothers. Those three houses are amongst the oldest in the city and a popular photo spot.
The legend goes that they were built by three men from the same family, although these men definitely were not brothers since the buildings go back to different time periods.
The oldest Brother dates back to 1490, and its appearance remains unchanged since then. If you’ve been to the Netherlands, you might recognise a Dutch influence in the architecture. That’s because back then, Latvia traded heavily with Dutch merchants.
The middle brother was built in 1646 when the family had made a lot of money. That’s why this one is the wealthiest of all three houses. And finally, the youngest brother dates back to the second half of the 17th century. This house is so narrow that it almost makes you wonder how you could fit a room inside.
These days, you can find the Latvian Museum of Architecture in the Three Brothers, as well as the Inspectorate for Heritage Protection.
#5 Visit the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia
If you are interested in learning more about the history of Latvia, you should visit the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia. During the past century, this tiny country was occupied three times – twice by the Soviets and also by Germany.
In this museum, you can learn about all of those occupations and what they meant for the people living here. You can also listen to audio recordings of witnesses from that time, to better understand what the country went through.
If you then want to know more, you should visit the Corner House, a former KGB building that will give you more insights into the terrors of the Soviet regime during the first years of occupation.The museum’s main building is currently under renovation, which is why you can find the exhibition on Rainis Boulevard, in the former US embassy.
#6 See the Nativity of Christ Cathedral
If you leave the Old Town and go north, past the Freedom Monument, you will get to the Nativity of Christ Cathedral. You might have noticed that building from the top of St Peter’s already – with its golden domes it is hard to miss.
This cathedral is the biggest one in all the Baltic states. Go inside to take a look at the lavishly decorated interior, but remember that taking pictures is not allowed.
In the 1960s, the Soviet government closed the cathedral, destroyed the bells and crucifixes and turned the building into a planetarium. Back then, they called it the Republic House of Knowledge. Fortunately, the Soviets never tore down the church. After the fall of the Soviet Union, it got restored and is now once again a magnificent Orthodox Cathedral.
#7 Visit the Riga Ghetto Museum
If you leave the Old Town and walk towards the west, you can find the Riga Ghetto and Holocaust in Latvia Museum in the Maskavas Vorstadt district. While this was not the original location of the Jewish ghetto, the cobblestones you can see on the ground came from the main street in the original ghetto.
In this museum, you can find outdoor exhibits where you’ll learn more about the Holocaust in Latvia. The heart of it is a wall with more than 70,000 names, to remember the people who died during that time.
You can also enter a house, which once stood in the ghetto. At its worst, up to 13 people lived in each of the tiny rooms. Many of the inhabitants got either shot in the woods of Rumbula or were relocated into concentration camps.
Entrance to the museum works on a donation system, so make sure to donate money into the boxes you can find on the grounds.
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#8 Have lunch at the Riga Central Market
Halfway in between the Riga Ghetto Museum and the Old Town, you can find the Riga Central Market. This is not just one of the biggest markets in Eastern Europe but also one of the busiest ones. Up to 100,000 people shop here every day.
If you want to buy fresh produce from Latvia, the Central Market should be your first stop. This is also a great place to get smoked fish, fresh from the Baltic Sea, or to stock up on sandthorn syrup. The market consists of five hangars, each of them dedicated to their own category.
If you’re hungry, you’re in luck. Riga’s Central Market has a Central Gastro Market, where you can sit down and sample either traditional Latvian food or exotic dishes from all over the world.
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#9 Riga Cathedral
Riga Cathedral is another great church to visit. Just like St Peter’s, it dates back to the 13th century and has been rebuilt and renovated many times since then.
After stepping inside, make sure to turn around and admire the magnificent organ with its 6718 pipes. We also highly recommend that you visit the cloister, which is one of the oldest parts of the Cathedral.
During the Soviet reign, Riga Cathedral suffered the same fate as the Nativity of Christ Cathedral. The government forbade religious services and turned the building into a concert hall. Fortunately, it re-opened in 1991 and is now home to the Archbishop of the Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church.
#10 Walk around the Ethnographic Open-Air Museum of Latvia
The Ethnographic Open-Air Museum of Latvia is a fantastic place to learn more about the history of Latvia and life in the countryside. Out here, on the outskirts of Riga, you can find historic farmhouses from all over the country.
In total, the museum has collected 118 traditional houses and sorted them by regions. Upon your arrival, you will receive a map where you can see which area the different buildings come from. Some are open for visitors, so make sure to go inside and learn more about life back then.
If you want to see everything the museum has to offer, you’ll need to spend at least a few hours here. If you’re short on time, we recommend that you at least go down to the shore to visit the fishermen’s houses. And make sure to check out the giant windmill, which sits in the middle of the complex.
If you visit in summer, you’ll see artisans like blacksmiths or weavers perform their crafts at the museum.
To get here, you need to take bus 1, 28 or 29 and get off at Brīvdabas muzejs. Check out the time table online.
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#11 Try traditional Latvian food
You shouldn’t leave Riga without sampling traditional Latvian food. While Latvian cuisine might not be well-known outside the country, it offers many distinct and delicious dishes that you won’t find anywhere else.
Latvians love their rye bread, so you can expect to find dark bread all over the country. In fact, they like the rye bread so much that they even use it in desserts. Toasted and then crumbled, it offers a nice contrast when combined with cream and jam. Or maybe you prefer the bread fried with garlic and topped with a cheese sauce?
You can find many restaurants in the Old Town serving traditional Latvian food. We tried multiple of them and always enjoyed fantastic meals. If you’re unsure of what to order, ask the waiter, and they can point out the most traditional dishes to you.
Oh, and while here, make sure also to try the Riga Black Balsam. You can find this herbal bitter all across the city. The original recipe dates back to 1752, and even today, only the master distiller and his apprentices know the exact formula.
#12 Go on a day trip
Riga is a fantastic city to use as a base for exploring Latvia. We went on multiple day trips from here and highly recommend you to do the same.
From Riga, you can easily visit the Gauja National Park in the north. If you go to Sigulda, you can enjoy a day of hiking and exploring castles. Or you could travel to Cesis, a cute medieval town with two castles just next to each other.
To get to any of those destinations, you have the choice between taking a bus or a train. Since buses leave more frequently, you’ll likely find them more convenient. The tourist information has the schedules available, and the staff there can hand you a copy that will help you plan your trip.
Another popular day trip from Riga is to Jūrmala. This seaside resort becomes wildly popular in summer when residents and tourists flock to the beaches. And since it only takes about half an hour to get here, it makes a great day tour. Or you could go a bit further, to Kemeri National Park, where you can enjoy the Latvian wetlands.
Best time to visit Riga
You can visit Riga all year long, and there’s no wrong season. We went in February and loved it. As winter is off-season, you’ll only run into a handful of tourists, and you’re going to have most places almost to yourself. If you’re lucky, you’ll even see Riga covered with snow.
The disadvantage of going in winter is that it’ll be cold. If you want warm weather, you should go in summer. Unfortunately, this is high season so expect to see lots of crowds in the city. A good compromise is to go in spring or autumn when the temperatures are mild, and you won’t run into as many tourists.
How to get to Riga
If you’re coming from outside the Baltics, the fastest way to get to Riga is by plane. The Riga airport serves as a hub for Air Baltic, so you’ll find direct flights from many European cities. You can take bus 22 to get from the airport to the city centre.
If you’re already in the region, you can get to Riga by bus. You’ll find regular bus connections from Vilnius and Klaipeda in Lithuania or from Tallinn and Tartu in Estonia. You can also go by train, but connections usually involve a transfer and are therefore less comfortable than the bus rides.
Getting around Riga
As long as you stay in Riga Old Town, you can easily walk. It’s the best way to enjoy the cobblestone streets and to take in the atmosphere of the Medieval Town.
If you want to go further away, for example, to get to the Open Air Museum, you can take local buses, trams or trolleybuses. Fortunately, you can look up all connections online, and if you need any further help, ask at the tourist information.
We hope you enjoy your time in Riga. If you’re looking for more inspiration on what to do in the Baltics, we have lots of articles about this great region. Check out the following posts to get started:
- How to visit Cesis on a day trip from Riga
- The best things to do in Tartu, Estonia
- Travel onwards to Lithuania’s coast – fun things to do in Klaipeda
- Our favourite things to do in Vilnius
- What to see in Tallinn
- Budget for the Baltics – How much should you expect to spend?
If you have any questions, please leave us a comment below. We’d love to hear from you.
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