There is a good reason why Riga is becoming an increasingly popular destination lately: so much to see, so many things to do. Since 1991, when Latvia regained its independence, Riga has flourished like no other city in the Baltic region.
The vibrant and cosmopolitan city that that you see today has little to no resemblance to Latvia’s old capital during the Soviet occupation. If you have ever visited Riga before the 90s, you will most likely not recognize it today: great museums, fashionable restaurants and a very rich cultural life.
There is so much to see and do in Riga to keep you entertained! The city’s medieval Old Town is filled with winding alleyways and charming squares. Wherever you turn, you are greeted by the fantastic architecture, fancy restaurants and elegant shops. And if you are interested, there is also a more unusual side of Riga to experience. But in this post we are going to explore the top things to do in Riga.
- Top Things to do in Riga
- 1. Explore Riga’s Central District
- 2. Visit the Museum of the History and Navigation
- 3. Sip Some of Riga’s Famous Black Balsam
- 4. Indulge Your Taste Buds at Riga’s Central Market
- 5. Relax in the Bastejkalns Park
- 6. Take a Guided Tour of the Latvian National Opera
- 7. Stroll Through the Art Nouveau District
- 8. Visit the Nativity of Christ Cathedral
- 9. Enjoy Beautiful Artworks at the Latvian National Museum of Art
- 10. Visit the Former Headquarters of the KGB
- 11. Take a Boat Tour of the River Daugava
- 12. Hop Aboard the Beer Bike
Top Things to do in Riga
1. Explore Riga’s Central District
Almost all tourist attractions, historic buildings and hotels are contained within the borders of Centra rajons (the Central District), which includes the Old Town as well.
The area is relatively small and easy to walk. Old Town is the historical and geographical center of Riga and is by far the most attractive part of the city. Walking through its narrow alleys cobbled streets is like traveling back in time. Young girls dressed in traditional Latvian costumes playing different instruments, or dancing will make you feel like you are in the Medieval Era.
The best place to start your visit is the Town Hall Square (Ratslaukums), flanked by the ornate House of the Blackheads and the Town Hall. Riga’s amazing architecture is a testament to its tumultuous history.
Some of city’s oldest buildings and cathedrals –like the famous Three Brothers, or the Dome Cathedral– are in the Old Town. Also in the Old Town there are some of the best cafes and restaurants in the city, with plenty of outdoor seating in the summer.
Located in the Old Town in the Dome complex –a 13th–20th century architectural monument– the Museum of the History of Riga and Navigation is the oldest public museum in Latvia and in the Baltic. The museum has an impressive collection of artifacts that follow up the development of Riga from the earliest times through the Art Nouveau period.
3. Sip Some of Riga’s Famous Black Balsam
Riga Black Balsam is the famous national brand name of the dark and astringent liqueur made of 24 herbs. The recipe remains unchanged after 250 years since it was invented and is still a carefully guarded secret. The Black Balsam was originally created as a medicine.
The ledgend says that it helped cure the Empress Catherine the Great of a sickness that she developed while visiting Riga. With its 45% alcohol content, no wonder this bitter concoction helps people feel better! The Black Balsam is by far one of the strangest alcoholic spirits that you will ever come across, but it’s worth trying. However, beware that it’s not to everyone’s taste!
4. Indulge Your Taste Buds at Riga’s Central Market
While in Riga you should pay a visit to the Baltics’s largest market housed in five converted Zeppelin hangars. These strange looking semi-cylindrical buildings became Riga’s Central Market in 1930.
Each pavilion has a different specialty, from meat and fish, to fresh produce and diary products. The market is an absolute delight for all your senses. The area around the buildings is also crammed with stalls selling fruits, flowers and other goods.
5. Relax in the Bastejkalns Park
Just on the outside of the Old Town you have one of Riga’s most beautiful parks where you can take a canal cruise or just sit and watching life go by. Bastejkalns Park was formed in the 19th century after tearing down Riga’s old ramparts. The park is small but full of pretty statues and charming bridges.
One of these is Riga’s Bridge of Love which is covered in ‘love locks’. Attaching locks to bridges is one of the most popular traditions among newly wedded couples in Latvia, symbolizing the stability of their marriage. The Bridge of Love has probably the most extensive collection of locks in Riga.
6. Take a Guided Tour of the Latvian National Opera
Close to the Central District and bordering the Bastejkalns Park (Bastion Hill Park)is the beautifully restored Riga Opera House, a unique architectural masterpiece of the 19th century with guided tours and fantastic performances. Riga’s Opera House was one of the first buildings to get a full make-over after the Soviets left in 1991.
Check out the building and go to an actual show. Either way, the Opera House is one of Riga’s biggest attractions.
7. Stroll Through the Art Nouveau District
From the Bastejkalns Park there are several picturesque bridges that allow you to cross over to the Central District. Elizabetes Ilea is one of the main streets of Riga’s art nouveau district that displays elaborate facades, mostly freshly restored. In the area you’ll also find many restaurants and cafes where you could enjoy some of the best Latvian dishes, usually at a lesser price than in the Old Town.
8. Visit the Nativity of Christ Cathedral
Built at the end of the 19th century in Neo-Byzantine style, the Nativity of Christ Cathedral is the largest Russian Orthodox cathedral in the Baltics. During the Soviet time the cathedral was turned into a planetarium, but after 1991 it returned to its original function.
9. Enjoy Beautiful Artworks at the Latvian National Museum of Art
Just North of the Old Town is one of Riga’s most impressive museums: the National Museum of Art. The building recently underwent an extensive restoration. The old classical structure had been converted into a modern and accessible structure, with a beautiful interior design.
The museum displays a permanent exhibition of Latvian art from the 19th and 20th century, as well as some art from of the period of the Russian occupation. This is an absolute must see for art lovers.
10. Visit the Former Headquarters of the KGB
One of the most memorable and at the same time disturbing experiences in Riga is visiting the Corner House. The imposing structure on the corner of Brivibas and Stabu streets seems just like any other building in the neighborhood. But once you step inside you discover a world of horror!
Thousands of Latvians have been imprisoned, interrogated and tortured here. They were morally humiliated and even executed within the depths of this building until 1991.
It’s astonishing to realize that all these things were happening while we were living a safe life in other parts of the world.
11. Take a Boat Tour of the River Daugava
Cruising along the Daugava is a lovely way to see a different side of Riga. The boat tour takes an hour and costs around 15 Euros. Sit back and relax while the boat passes by the Riga Castle, the Old Town and the Central Market. The boat glides gently under three bridges after which it turnis around at the TV Tower.
12. Hop Aboard the Beer Bike
Beer biking seems to be catching up with the tourism industry and is now very popular all over the world. However, I’ll have to admit it may not be for everyone. The Beer Bike is powered by people peddling and it has a barrel filled with beer. So you basically ride a bike, drink beer, have fun.
Beer biking is especially entertaining if you are in a big group of friends, or with your family. Rather than having a beer in a restaurant, you can drink, drive and admire Riga all at the same time.
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