Nestled halfway between Tallinn’s fairytale medieval Old Town and the quirky, hipster bars of Vilnius, Riga has slowly been making a name for itself as the perfect city break destination. Still, it was fairly low on my bucket list until the turbulent year of 2020, when most European countries closed their doors to tourists.
Once I started my travel research, I soon discovered that there was way more going on beneath the surface of Riga than it initially appears. Unfortunately, we had to put our plans on hold when Lithuania (where we were planning to go first) tightened their travel restrictions a few days before departure.
Fast forward to June 2022, when I was looking to get back on the road after a challenging first half of the year. With cheap flights and a ready itinerary still waiting for its turn, Riga seemed a logical choice. I feel like we managed to cover quite a lot of ground during the extended bank holiday weekend we spent in the capital of Latvia. Now, I want to share all the best things to do and see in Riga with you, so you can get a head start on planning your own trip!
Where we stayed in Riga
Wellton Riverside SPA Hotel
Booking our accommodation in Riga was definitely the easy part. We had this particular hotel bookmarked for nearly 2 years. So, given that we planned this trip just one week in advance, it was subject only to availability.
There are 3 Wellton hotels to choose from – all centrally located and within walking distance of each other. The main selling point for the Riverside location was its SPA facilities and the rooftop terrace directly overlooking the Daugava River. We’d booked the Standard room with breakfast, which cost us €276 for 3 nights.
The room had all the basic amenities we could have possibly needed, and I couldn’t fault a single thing about the breakfast buffet either. I think it was also the first breakfast buffet I’ve seen that had champagne, so I could already tell our trip was off to a great start. 😉 With an almost overwhelming choice of different breakfast foods, including some options that were freshly prepared on the spot, this was hands down one of the best hotel breakfasts I’ve had to date!
What are the SPA facilities like at Wellton Riverside SPA Hotel?
Also included in our room rate was one 1.5-hour visit to the SPA. When choosing a time slot, the receptionist informed us about the time when children were no longer allowed in the SPA zone, which we greatly appreciated! I believe it was after 6 pm, but I’m not entirely sure now, so you’d have to double-check yourself. If you’re seeking complete peace and quiet, there’s also an option to pay extra for a visit to the private SPA area, which includes a jacuzzi, a salt sauna, and a relaxation area. Last year, this cost €35 for 1 person and €40 for 2.
After contemplating this option, we finally decided to use that money for some SPA treatments instead. We booked massages for both of us, followed by a milk bath with Latvian flowers for me and a beer bath for Mac. Unfortunately, we couldn’t have the massages at the same time. So, I let Mac go first while the receptionist kindly allowed me to enter the SPA zone earlier at no extra cost.
As I soaked in the jacuzzi, I came to the conclusion that the children didn’t bother me nearly as much as the intoxicated stag night attendees. 😉 Still, it was one of the most delightful SPA experiences I’ve had to date. It’s just a shame that the Hammam was closed when we visited, as I would have loved to try it. A little fun fact is that the underground SPA contains a fragment of medieval city fortification walls which miraculously survived to this day!
If you’re planning to book a visit, I highly recommend checking the Wellton SPA Riverside website first. You can find different promo codes and special offers they have prepared, which can save you some money!
Best things to do in Riga
Riga Old Town
The best way to get a feel for Riga is to wander around the Old Town area. With more Art Nouveau buildings than any other city in the world, it’ll give you plenty of structures to feast your eyes on, whether you’re an architecture buff or simply an admirer.
In the city centre alone, around one-third of all buildings were constructed in the Art Nouveau style. One of my favourite things to do in Riga was allowing myself to get lost in the streets, not knowing what I would find around the corner.
You can also see the oldest complex of dwelling houses named the Three Brothers. According to legend, they were built by three men from the same family between the 15th and late 17th centuries. During medieval times, Maza Pils Street, where they’re located, was on the outskirts of Riga and was inhabited by craftsmen. Nowadays, it houses the Latvian Museum of Architecture.
Apart from the buildings, you can also encounter different statues around Riga Old Town, including a random bronze armadillo. Perhaps the most well-known, though, is the Bremen Town Musicians statue. It’s based on a famous fairytale by the Brothers Grimm about 4 farm animals: a cat, a dog, a donkey, and a rooster. No longer deemed useful and mistreated by their owners, they decide to escape to Bremen and become musicians. On their journey to independence and freedom, they manage to outsmart a group of robbers and find themselves a new home.
Although I have visited Bremen several times, I hadn’t heard this heartwarming story before. If you enjoyed it as well, you’ll be happy to know that it’s not Riga’s only animal tale…
If you know me, you’ll know I’m a complete sucker for anything related to cats. So, the moment I heard about this place, it went straight to the top of my Riga bucket list.
While there are no actual felines at that address, this 20th-century building holds a paw-some story. According to legend, the owner was a wealthy Latvian trader who was excluded from the German-controlled Riga Tradesmen Guild. This would likely have limited his ability to do business in Riga and was a massive insult at the time.
Turns out, our trader had quite a cattitude. Targeting the people responsible for his dismissal or starting a rival organisation would’ve been too simple. Instead, he decided to express his contempt in the most petty way imaginable. He placed 2 cat figures with arched backs and tails turned towards the guildhouse on the roof of his home.
As you may have imagined, the Guild wasn’t too happy about cat butts pointing at their building. What followed was a lengthy court battle. As a result, the cats were turned around to face the house of the Great Guild, and the merchant was eventually admitted.
Even though you can only view the Cat House from the outside, it’s an unmissable spot on your tour of Riga. If anything, it can serve as inspiration in case you need to plot some revenge 😉
House of the Blackheads
While we’re on the topic of guild houses, another place you shouldn’t miss in Riga is the House of the Blackheads. It was constructed in the 14th century for the Brotherhood of Blackheads, a guild for unmarried male merchants, ship owners, and foreigners. Interestingly enough, the association remained active in Livonia, aka present-day Latvia and Estonia, until 1940. Two decades later, it was registered in Hamburg, where it continues to be active to this day! The area outside the House of the Blackheads also happens to be the site where the first decorated Christmas tree was erected back in 1510, kickstarting the famous tradition we’ve come to know and love.
The original building was bombed by the Germans in 1941, shortly after the launch of Operation Barbarossa. After the war, the Soviets destroyed whatever remained of the guild house, and it took five whole decades to rebuild it.
Today, this place houses a museum dedicated to the history of the guild, as well as commerce in Riga. At the time of our visit, the entrance fee was €7. Depending on your preferences, you can pretend to be a royal or a local dignitary inside one of the grand ballrooms. Historically, these rooms hosted a variety of lavish events, from classical music concerts featuring the likes of Richard Wagner to welcoming ceremonies for royal families and presidents.
It also temporarily served as the presidential residence between 2012 and 2016, and it’s possible to tour the historic cabinet. However, perhaps the most interesting area is the historical cellar, which was the only part of the original building that survived World War II. It provides a unique opportunity to explore the underground of Riga with authentic 14th-century fragments still in place!
Museum of the Occupation of Latvia
Right next to the House of the Blackheads, you can find the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia. Latvia was under occupation for more than half of the 20th century – first by the USSR from 1940 to 1941, then by Nazi Germany between 1941 and 1944, and then by the USSR again from 1944 until 1991.
The new permanent exhibition finally opened on 1st June 2022 after undergoing reconstruction for 10 years, so we were glad we came to Riga just in time to see it! We paid €5 each, and it took us around an hour to explore the museum.
The exhibition begins by presenting the historical landscape in the years directly preceding Latvia’s occupation, and draws some parallels between that period and the events currently unfolding in the world. It then takes you on an interactive journey through the entire 51-year occupation period.
The best part is that you get to learn everything by following the adventures of a cuddly teddy bear named Miks. From the happy pre-occupation days to his capture, deportation, and even participation in the guerrilla war, I hurried through the stations as I was eager to find out if Miks would make a safe return home.
Click for a spoiler!
Yes, Miks returns home safe and sound!
It’s a fantastic way to capture the attention of children, as well as anyone (like me!) who absorbs information better through hands-on experiences than by reading dry facts.
The museum does a great job of honouring the victims of the occupation, reminding people of the atrocities committed by certain foreign powers, and proving that history truly does repeat itself. I’d highly recommend it to anyone!
St. Peter’s Church
For the best 360° unobstructed view of Riga, head to the city’s tallest church. From its tower, you can admire the red roofs of the Old Town’s buildings or watch as ships enter the port on the Daugava River.
The opportunity to do so comes with a steep price, with entrance tickets costing €9 per person. An interesting fact is that the tower has been destroyed and reconstructed 3 times over the years, which could possibly explain the high fee. 😉 On a more serious note, though, I’d say the views from the top made it more than worth it!
If you choose to go, there are two main things to take into account. First, we saw a sign indicating that the elevator runs every 10 minutes, so depending on the season, the wait may be longer. And second, it is really cold and windy up there, so be sure to layer up!
Modes Muzejs – Riga’s Fashion Museum
Fellow fashion enthusiasts will also be happy to know that Riga has its own private fashion museum! In addition to the permanent display, there are also temporary exhibitions that change twice a year. We visited the day after the new Masterpieces of Fashion exhibition opened, showcasing the evolution of fashion over the centuries. If you’d like to read more about our experience, check out the blog post about our visit to Riga’s Fashion Museum!
Art Nouveau Centre
If you want to see the finest examples of Art Nouveau architecture in Riga, head to Albert Street. It also houses the only museum in the Baltic States dedicated to the history of the Art Nouveau movement. It’s located in the building on Alberta iela 12, which was built as a private house of a noted Latvian architect, Konstantīns Pēkšēns, back in 1903. By recreating an authentic interior of an Art Nouveau flat, the museum paints a full picture of the everyday life of Riga’s inhabitants in the early 20th century and preserves the movement’s heritage.
The ticket price is currently €5 in the winter season and €9 in the summer season. You can also pay extra for a guided tour. However, you don’t actually have to pay the entrance fee to admire the building’s stunning ornamented spiral staircase. We just made sure to visit during the museum’s opening hours to make sure someone would let us in. Once inside the building, we had it pretty much to ourselves and spent at least 30 minutes taking in the views!
Riga Central Market
If you want to feel the city’s true spirit, head to Riga’s Central Market for a unique shopping experience. Housed inside 5 old German Zeppelin hangars, you can choose from over 3,000 market stands that are sure to satisfy your foodie needs. Each of the pavilions has its own category, from fresh produce, dairy, fish, and meat to local delicacies such as pickles, smoked eel, or lampreys in jelly. You’re truly able to find anything your heart desires.
When it was first constructed, it was actually the largest and most modern market in Europe. With supermarkets on the rise, its role has slightly changed over the years. It’s now mostly seen as a go-to place for affordable shopping, but it remains hugely popular, with some sources estimating the average number of daily visitors to be anywhere between 80,000 and 100,000!
National Library of Latvia
If you hang around the Old Town area, you might notice a big mountain-like structure on the other side of the river. It houses the National Library of Latvia, an absolute must-see place regardless of whether you’re a bookworm or not.
The library is free to enter – you just need to leave any bags in the lockers downstairs and ask for a visitor’s pass at reception. Right in the center of the building, there’s an open space where you can see the People’s Bookshelf spanning across several floors. It’s where they store all books that people have donated to the library. The collection currently includes nearly 7,000 books in 50 different languages!
Anyone can donate a book that holds a special place in their heart. If you choose to do so, you must add a personal note on the title page explaining why you selected that particular book. Without it, they won’t accept your donation. Apparently, you can access any of these books by ordering them through the library’s website. I can only imagine the stories contained within these walls! For the best view of the shelves, you should head to the 3rd floor.
We read that on Saturdays, there’s also an option to watch the panorama of Riga from the viewing platform on the top floors. Unfortunately, the lady at reception told us it was closed on the day of our visit, which was a real shame.
Holy Trinity Orthodox Church
Mac and I have a little tradition whenever we travel – I take him to fashion museums, and in return, he takes me to football games 😉 On our way to the stadium, we decided to make a little detour because I wanted to see this beautiful pink Orthodox Church. It’s slightly further away from the city centre, but you can combine it with a visit to the National Library of Latvia.
I highly recommend walking there, as you can spot some unique examples of Latvian architecture along the way. We also saw some cute cafés and restaurants in the area, so you can definitely make an afternoon trip out of it!
Where to eat in Riga
As I was doing my research ahead of our trip, I came across an article that called Lido Latvia’s most loved food chain – and I totally see why! It’s apparently as close to dining at a local’s house as it gets. Lido ended up being a regular spot for us too, and for good reason.
You can find Lido restaurants scattered throughout the city. They operate on a buffet concept where you select from a variety of hearty Latvian dishes and pay at the counter. The Aperitivo dispenser unlocked a new dream (Does anyone know where I can get one? Asking for a friend 😉 ), while their soljanka is something I still think about to this day.
As with all buffet-style restaurants that aren’t the all-you-can-eat type, there’s always the risk of getting a little carried away and paying the price (both literally and figuratively). But as long as you exercise moderation, it’s the best place for greasy comfort food at affordable prices!
After visiting Lido at least three times (and no, I’m not exaggerating), we decided it was time to try something new. It’s no secret that burgers are my go-to option, so Street Burgers immediately caught our attention. They offer more than 20 different types of burgers to choose from, including vegetarian and vegan options. They make all of their burgers using the highest-quality local ingredients, and there are plenty of craft beer and soft drink options to wash it all down with.
Mac went for their deer burger with sautéed mushrooms, spinach, caramelised onions, tomato, chives, and garlic sauce, all in their signature baked black burger bun. My burger of choice was their veggie burger with a breaded cheese patty, tomato, spinach, pesto, and garlic sauce. They had a promo offer, so my burger with a side of fries and a drink only cost €11.30. I dare say it was one of the best burgers I’ve tried. So, if you’re looking for a quick bite on a budget, this is the place to go in Riga!
We stumbled upon this place completely by accident. The café we had originally planned to visit turned out to be closed, despite Google saying it should be open. So, we decided to go right across the street instead, and we did not regret it one bit.
As we praised the cake on our way out, the barista responded with, “That’s because we use a special ingredient – love,” and I think that sums up the place perfectly. From the beautiful vintage-looking crockery and decor to the array of homemade cakes, it gives you that warm fuzzy feeling, like visiting your grandma. And with the most expensive cake costing €4.40 per slice and coffee prices ranging between €2.30 and €4.60, it won’t burn a hole in your pocket either.
In the evenings, you can also indulge in a selection of handcrafted spirits, countryside apple cider, and cocktails made with Latvian handcrafted gin. It’s true what they say about one person’s loss being another person’s gain, as Riga’s Crumble Cake gained two fans that morning 😉
That brings us to the end of my Riga guide! From the moment we arrived, the city kept surprising me in so many ways. At first, it had us wondering if we’d somehow got on the wrong plane and landed in Warsaw instead… until we spotted what looked like a replica of the Tokyo Tower on the horizon.
But what perhaps surprised me the most was how much I ended up liking the city. I’ve heard people say there isn’t much to do, but it was a great reminder that you don’t need a packed itinerary to have a great city break! We’ll definitely be back – it’s just a matter of when…
Would you consider Riga as your next city break destination?