Things to do in Riga: Our Countdown for a Weekend in Riga

Things to do in Riga: Our Countdown for a Weekend in Riga

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When it comes to traveling around Europe, there are plenty of old standbys. Paris, London, Rome, Barcelona – those are the places everyone dreams of going and eventually makes it to. We’re lucky to call Copenhagen home. It’s one of the often overlooked European capitals, but many people eventually reach it on business, by searching cheap fares or maybe even a cruise. One much lesser traveled-to country is Latvia, but its capital city, Riga is fantastic. We spent a weekend in Riga and discovered a hidden gem in Northern Europe. We didn’t know what to expect before the trip but we found a lot more things to do in Riga than we anticipated.

Riga is a wonderous city with stunning art nouveau architecture, a well-preserved medieval old town, and quirky wooden houses. In Riga, we found delicious food, cool bars, cheap places to stay and filled our Instagram story with stunning backdrops. Here’s what we found in Riga and our tips for planning your own adventure in Latvia before it becomes the next victim of over-tourism.

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Riga is the capital of Latvia, one of the Baltic nations of northern Europe. It’s situated on both banks of the Daugava River on the Baltic Sea. Latvia is sandwiched between Estonia to the North and Lithuania to the South. There is also an eastern border with Russia and Belarus.

If you’re doing a road trip through the Baltic countries, you can travel between Vilnius, Lithuania, and Riga in about 3.5 hours. There are also buses and trains available. Reaching Tallinn, Estonia is only possible by road and takes about 4 hours. We loved visiting Tallin and did a separate trip to Tallinn, Helsinki, Finland and Saint Petersburg, Russia. We TOTALLY recommend extending your travels to include some of these other cities!

Riga is the capital of Latvia, one of the Baltic nations of northern Europe. It’s situated on both banks of the Daugava River on the Baltic Sea. Latvia is sandwiched between Estonia to the North and Lithuania to the South. There is also an eastern border with Russia and Belarus.

If you’re doing a road trip through the Baltic countries, you can travel between Vilnius, Lithuania, and Riga in about 3.5 hours. There are also buses and trains available. Reaching Tallinn, Estonia is only possible by road and takes about 4 hours. We loved visiting Tallin and did a separate trip to Tallinn, Helsinki, Finland and Saint Petersburg, Russia. We TOTALLY recommend extending your travels to include some of these other cities!

Why Should You Visit Riga?

what to do in Riga - house of the blackheads

Latvia is a symbol of the new Europe. With Riga as its political, business and cultural capital, Latvia has survived two devastating World Wars and 50 years under Soviet occupation. The history of Latvia is a tough one to grapple with for tourists, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows in Riga. Despite the difficult past, I couldn’t help but feel inspired by Riga. The energy of the city, the vibrant culture of which Latvian people are so proud, and the people themselves left me so hopeful for the future of Europe and the world.

I talked to a lot of locals (because I’m like that when I travel) and so many of them were genuinely happy to have tourists in their city. It was remarkable for them to welcome us and tell us about their city and their lives. Many times I was reminded that for a large portion of my life, Latvia was closed off from the rest of the Western World. Until the 1990s, no Americans would have been touring Riga for a weekend. I met a couple who told me, “make sure you tell your American friends you are here – they may need to google us – but they should come to Latvia too”. If you googled this and are going to Riga, please let them know I did my part.

5 Things to Do in Riga

It’s not something we realized until we reflected on the trip, but we did so much in Riga! It was a short weekend city break, and we planned it somewhat last minute. We didn’t look too much into things to do in Riga before the trip but found a lot once we arrived. Even thought we wondered what to do in Riga before we went, we were never bored and left pleasantly surprised. Here are the greatest hits from our weekend in Riga and how to book them for yourself.

Walking Tour of Riga

what to do in Riga the Swedish Gate

Meeting Point: Saint Peter’s Church
Reformācijas Laukums 1, Centra rajons
Hours: 10:00 and 12:00 (90 minutes)

Every city we visit, we start with a guided tour. There is a free walking tour that meets Riga old town, a world heritage site, and gives a decent tour at 10 am and 12 noon each day. We enjoyed the brief 90-minute walk around the city and loved seeing the art nouveau district and neoclassical architecture in the city. Albert Street in Riga is the most impressive example of art nouveau architecture. Riga is known as the art nouveau capital of the world and from banks to apartment buildings, the ornate art nouveau buildings are everywhere. There’s even an art nouveau museum in Riga.

Another highlight was visiting the Freedom Monument, a Latvian National monument that honors soldiers killed in the Latvian War for Independence. It’s an important symbol for the people of Lavia. We also got to see the medieval walls that enclosed Riga for centuries. Restoration efforts have rebuilt large portions of the walls but the most intact section is the wall surrounding the Swedish Gate. It was a gate used for trade and connecting troop barracks to the city which is largely in the original condition.

The history of the city and the Latvian people was fascinating to learn about from our guide. Latvian culture is rich, bold and enchanting. One of the coolest things to learn is that many parts of Latvia still practice paganism. The traces of their ancient religion are evident in a lot of the symbols around the city and in ceremonies held in Riga. It’s something I want to learn more about when we return, but it was a nugget I took away from the tour.

Head to the Central Market of Riga

Nēģu iela 7, Rīga, LV-1050
Hours: Monday – Saturday 08:00 – 18:00 and Sunday 08:00 – 17:00

The Central Market of Riga is massive is massive – in fact, it’s Europe’s largest open air market and bazaar. When it opened in 1930 it was considered the most modern marketplace in all of Europe. Besides the size, it’s a great place to catch a glimpse into Latvian culture and traditions by trying (or at least observing) new and unique foods. If traditional is more your thing they’ve got pizza or you can get something fancy like champagne and oysters.

The market can suit anyone’s tastes and there are delicious food tours and walking tours that include a tasting experience at Riga’s Central Market. However you decide to get there, it’s worth your time and your tastebuds will thank you for the visit.

If you’re looking for a walking tour that brings you to all of the foodie sites in Riga, including the Central Market, check out the Riga Culture and Food Tasting Tour.

Riga food tour

Visit a Traditional Latvian Sauna

Baltā pirts
Tallinas iela 71, Latgales priekšpilsēta
Hours: Sunday, Wednesday and Thursday 8:00 – 20:00 and Friday and Saturday 8:00 – 21:00

A sauna experience is essential for anyone visiting the Baltic countries. Their popularity in Finland and Scandinavia is well-known, but sauna culture is strong for Latvians as well. Therefore, visiting the sauna is just one of the things to do in Riga that’s basically mandatory. We visited the Baltā pirts sauna (15€) and it was refreshing and a cool (pun intended) cultural experience. There is a traditional rock sauna, steam room, wet room, shower, and cold pool.

How to Visit a Latvian Sauna

Here’s how you use the sauna. First, you strip and put your belongings in a locker, you can rent a towel and slippers (4€) but you won’t wear them because you’ll be wet most of the time. Then you begin in the steam room. You can purchase a salt rub for your skin for a few euros if you want. 

Next, you move to the rock sauna – there were two different levels of heat. It was hard to breathe in the hottest one without being used to it. 

After you’re sick of the heat, you rinse in a bucket of chillingly cold water – it refills and you pull a string to dump it on your own head. It reminded me of a cartoon or comic book, but it was too cold to laugh at before jumping into the cold water pool. 

You’re intended to repeat this process several times and by the second time, I was realizing that it was very relaxing and calming. Many people also purchase boughs of birch, oak, maple, linden, juniper or other brushes (3€ each). You can also purchase honey and lavender rubs for your skin.

Once I got used to it, the sauna was really nice. You just have to warm up to it (pun intended again).

Check out Riga Castle

Pils laukums 3, Centra rajons

In Riga’s Old City you’ll find one of the oldest medieval castles in Latvia on the banks of the Daugava River. It’s appropriately called Riga Castle and it has a long history stretching over 700 years. Today it’s the residence of the Latvian president and houses multiple museums and is a charming sight to see from both sides of the river. We did not have time to tour the castle, but tickets will cost you about 15€.

See the House of the Black Heads

what to do in Riga - house of the blackheads

Rātslaukums 7
Hours: Daily 10:00 – 18:00

This building with the weird name is one of the stand-out beautiful pile of bricks in the old town of Riga. It was built almost 700 years ago as a residence for the unmarried members of the Brotherhood of the Blackheads. As someone who has always enjoyed the company of unmarried men, this makes sense to me. Essentially it was a palace for the wealthy merchants of the Hanseatic League to display their culture and opulence (you own everything).

Entry is about 5€ and skip-the-line tickets are the best way to book your tour.

<<< CLICK HERE for online ticket reservations (highly recommended during peak season and weekends)

Check out our complete list of the Top 25 Riga Attractions. It’s a great guide to assist your trip planing and make sure you get in everything that Riga gas to offer!

4 Things to Eat and Drink in Riga

The food in Latvia was pretty good. We tried a few nicer restaurants and grabbed quick eats for lunch like at the previously mentioned Central Market. Dinners were a lot of meat and potato type dishes – pork, root veggies, and duck. The bars were very cool, lots of craft beer and many had entertainment. People mostly sat at tables in small groups and there wasn’t a lot of mingling or dancing at the places we went to but the crowds were super friendly.

Besides the restaurants we went to and Riga Central Market being a must-see foodie experience, there are some food tours you should look into.

<<< LEARN MORE ABOUT RIGA FOOD TOURS

Restaurant Petergailis

Skārņu iela 25, Centra rajons
Hours: 10:00 – 22:00

Restaurant Petergailis was our “nice meal out” in Riga and it was great! Their menu was traditional Latvian, but they also had some more international items and could adjust the menu items to suit your tastes. Our server was extremely accommodating and explained each dish to make sure that we were having it prepared to our liking and tastes. He made sure that we were comfortable with our dishes being prepared traditionally and even did a shot of Riga black balsam, a national liquor, with us at the end of the meal. It was an exquisite meal and an overall great dining experience. I highly recommend eating at Petergailis and making a reservation.

Restaurant Rozengrals

things to do in Riga restaurant

Rozena iela, Centra rajons
Hours: 12:00 – 23:00

Our first night in Riga we went to Rozengrals and it was a fantastic way to kick off our city break. The history of the building is that it was the 13th-century wine vault of Riga’s city council.  While you’re there, you can feel that – total wine cellar vibes. The staff is also dressed in medieval costumes and there are actors performing throughout the meal. It walks right up to the line of being a corny Medieval Times or Renaissance Faire sideshow, but it never crosses that line. They also get a pass because you can play that part if you have a document from the 1200s that states your role in Riga’s medieval history.

Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs

Peldu iela 19, Centra rajons
Hours: 12:00 pm – 7:00 am

This was definitely my favorite spot. Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs has a ton of craft beers and serves food as well. It’s in a huge medieval basement with arched ceilings and a cozy vibe. We started our night there one evening after dinner and ended up hanging out for almost hours. We even ordered a few plates of munchies to soak up the beer later in the evening. The pub food they served was good and familiar to my American palate. We returned the following night and they had a traditional Latvian folk group performing – totally random but fun experience to see the group and have locals singing along in their language.

Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs

Peldu iela 24, Centra rajons
Hours: 12:00 pm – 2:00 am

Restaurant Trompete is a cool bar with live jazz music in Riga’s old town. It was pretty full when we stopped in around 20:00 but the crowd died down by midnight. It seemed like a place where people start their evening before moving on to other bars. They had a great selection of beer and also served pub food so it’s a great option if you want an informal bite to eat and some live music.

3 Places to Stay in Riga

When it comes to finding lodging in Riga, you’ll be happy to know it’s easy to find a good-value property in the heart of Riga’s old town. It’s the best place to stay for anyone interested in seeing the sites and finding the best restaurants and nightlife. 

You can possibly save some money by staying on the side of the Daugava River but you’ll probably spend more money on trams and taxis than you would save from a cheaper room rate. 

Dome - 5-Star Boutique Hotel

Miesnieku iela 4

The Dome Hotel is an affordable luxury boutique hotel and spa located in Riga’s historic old town. It occupies a 400-year old building on a quiet pedestrian street that is only steps from some of Riga’s main attractions. Guests love the comfortable beds and friendly staff. It’s the perfect place to stay for guests who want a lot of luxury for a little price tag in a great part of Riga.

Rixwell Hotel Konventa Seta

Kaleju Str 9/11

The Rixwell is another great hotel located in Riga’s old town. It’s a great no-frills option to stay in a well-appointed room close to all the things to do in Riga. The 3-star rooms are larger than average and the price is super favorable. It’s a great value in a tremendous location.

 

Monte Kristo Hotel

56 Kaleju street

Also located in Riga’s old town, The Monte Kristo is a gorgeous 4-star boutique hotel with plenty of amenities and a lot of value. There are 2 bars and a restaurant on the property and once again, it’s located near all the best Riga attractions. 

2 Must-Click Instagram Spots in Riga

Saint Peter's Church

Reformation Square 1
On almost every postcard from Riga, you see the gorgeous tower of Saint Peter’s Church – so it completely belongs on your Instagram. You can get wonderful images of the church and tower from street level around Riga’s old town. The best shots are taken from Riga Town Hall Square. There you can capture the church tower with the House of the Black Heads in the same photo.

The bonus is that you can also climb the tower and snap photos or panoramic Instastory footage of the city from the observation deck. The cost to climb the tower is 11€ and there’s an elevator/lift to take you to the top. It runs every 10 minutes and gets pretty crowded. It’s best to head there early in the morning. They open at 10:00 and run people to the top until 17:00 Tuesdays through Sundays.

Three Brothers of Riga

what to do in Riga Riga Three Brothers

Mazā Pils iela 17
The Three Brothers are the name for a complex of houses in Riga. They’re visually unique and make a stunning backdrop for your Instagram, but they have a cool history to make your caption interesting and informative. Your followers will be smashing likes all over the place when you drop this knowledge.

The three brothers are the oldest complex of dwellings in Riga and they each represent a different period of building and home construction. The oldest is number 17, which dates back to the 1400s. It has crow-stepped gables and early Renaissance Gothic facade. Number 19 has an exterior that dates to the 1600s and shows details of Dutch Mannerism, characteristic of the High Renaissance period. The last house, Number 21, is a narrow, Baroque period home from the late 17th century. Each of these buildings is charming alone, but the contract of the three side-by-side is a visual treat and you have to share it on the gram!

1 Insider tip for Visiting Riga

Riga is a safe and modern city. You don’t have to worry or be on guard while you’re visiting Riga, but there are scams in every city and we encountered one. During one night out we took a cab about 10 minutes away. We had used uber and cabs the night before and we knew that the fare was about 8€. While we were in the taxi, we noticed that there was a cell phone mounted where the taximeter should have been. It had an app displaying a fare with Cyrillic numbers and all of a sudden it began accumulating charges at a very fast rate.

When we arrived at the destination it was over 50€. We, of course, argued with the driver when we got out of the taxi and told him we would give him 10€ and he could leave or call the police and they could sort it out. We called him out for the fake meter and he agreed to take the 10€ and leave.

If we were not a group of 4 assertive men, the driver may have acted differently and it could have been a more difficult situation.

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Derek Hartman

Derek Hartman is an American expat from Philadelphia, currently living in Copenhagen, Denmark. His blog, Robe Trotting focuses on travel, expatriation and lifestyle topics.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Riga has a 700-year old history? WOW! I would love to visit there not only because of its rich history but because of the museums in there. I loooove museums!It will also be a real treat to dine at Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs although, I’m not a big beer person, I’m sure the ambience and the food will be a wonderful experience. 🙂

  2. Really enjoyed reading your post, specially the insider tip is going to be helpful to many who are planning to visit Riga. Dome – 5-Star Boutique Hotel looks like a great place to stay, I checked them out on google and I will definitely like to stay there when I visit Riga.

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