Arriving in Riga, I wasn’t sure what exactly to expect. But, what I found was a vibrant, sprawling city, jam-packed awesome activities and spectacular sights. In fact, knowing where to start your adventure in the city can be far from straight forward. So, I’ve compiled this quick-fire guide to the 13 best experiences the Latvian capital has to offer.
- Climb St Peter’s Church spire
Costing €11, the ascent to the top of St. Peter’s Church might be one of the most expensive things you’ll do in Riga. However, penny-counters and exercise-haters will be glad to know that the fee does include an elevator ride to the top. No spiral staircases here, my friend.
On the downside, the lift is about seventy years old and clangs and clutters its way up the church spire in the most terrifying manner. I’m not going to lie, it did inspire some elevator-related nightmares later that night.
But, with all that said, the damage to your pocket and nerves is completely worth it. The vistas up here are spectacular, stretching the length and breadth of the wonderful city.
2. See the Three Brothers
The Three Brothers are iconic in Riga. So, it’s only right to tick them off your list while you’re there. Aside from being rather romantic architecturally, the buildings’ represent three consecutive decades of housing styles in Riga.
The white building on the far right dates from the 15th century. The middle is from the 16th century. Meanwhile, the left was built in the 17th century. Each have been lovingly restored over the years to maintain their historical significance. Today, it’s possible to visit all three of the brothers, who team up to form the Latvian Museum of Architecture.
3. Stand in awe at the Nativity of Christ Cathedral
Although Riga has no shortage of impressive architecture, the Nativity of Christ Cathedral was my favourite building in the city. On the outside, the church stands out thanks to its golden domes and striped facade. Inside, the opulent theme continues with intricate frescoes and a gleaming iconostasis.
The cathedral has enjoyed a colourful past. The church was built between 1876 and 1883, when Riga – and the rest of Latvia – was still very much part of the Russian Empire. Back then, it was the largest Orthodox cathedral in the Baltic provinces. However, in the midst of First World War, German troops occupied Riga and decided the church should become Lutheran. In 1921, when Latvia was independent it was returned to the orthodox faith. However, in the 1960s, during Soviet rule – when religion was outlawed – the building served as a planetarium.
However, following Latvia’s independence in the 1990s, the church was restored and returned to its original function. It still serves Riga’s Russian Orthodox population today.
4 . Get to grips with Art Nouveau
I knew nothing about Art Nouveau when I arrived in Riga. But after a few days, I started to consider myself as somewhat of a connoisseur.
In case – like me – you’re a little rusty on your architectural styles, let me enlighten you. Art Nouveau is characterised by ornate exteriors which often include intricate sculptures of famous mythological figures.
In Riga, the style accounts for around 1/3 of the city’s architectural make-up. The reason it’s so prominent is because the Latvian capital boomed economically during the early 1900s – when these designs were at their most popular.
The best examples of the style can be found in Alberta Iela and Elizabetes Iela, which together form an easily-digestible Art Nouveau triangle. For those with a particular passion for architecture, there’s also a highly-recommended Art Nouveau Museum.
5. Chill out in Bastion Hill Park
Without its parks, Riga would simply be a vast, concrete playground. However, the swathes of green space in the city centre give the metropolis some much needed breathing space. For me, the most beguiling of the city’s parks is Bastion Hill.
With its manicured lawns, luscious trees and charming canals, there’s something unavoidably romantic about this chunk of parkland that sits just East of the city centre.
In the summer, Bastion Hill’s paths and waterways buzz with life. Couples enjoy evening strolls, families take their dogs for a walk and teenagers congregate to catch up with their daily goings on. Meanwhile, down at canal level, kayaks, pedalos and rowing boats seamlessly skim by each other. You really couldn’t wish for a nicer place to wile away the hours.
6. Take a chunk out of Stalin’s Birthday Cake
Another of Riga’s iconic buildings is the Latvian Academy of Sciences. The striking building is more commonly known as “Stalin’s Birthday Cake”. It was completed in 1961 and was originally intended to become the Kolkhoz Workers’ Building. In this capacity, it would have acted as a hotel for collective farm workers who came to the capital to trade.
However, the building never fulfilled its intended use. Stalin died before its completion and his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, was keen to make the Soviet Union a world-leader in science. So, the structure became an academy instead.
From a tourist perspective, the most interesting thing about the building is its viewing platform. Located on the 17th floor, the tower enjoys a beautiful panorama of the city and the Daugava river.
7. Waft your nostrils at Riga Central Market
A trip to any city’s central market can give tourists a pretty good insight into the natives’ collective stomach. A quick peruse through Riga’s will tell you it’s all about local fruit and veg, smoked fish and an outrageous amount of (delicious smelling) pickled goods.
As well as selling all manner of gastronomical wonders, Riga Central Market is pretty interesting from an architectural perspective. The structure consists of four pavilions. To save money, designers chose to reuse the metal frameworks of former German Zeppelin hangars from a nearby airbase. This is what gives the market its iconic shape.
8. Soak up the scene in Peace Street
Nowadays, every city has its own self-confessed hipster neighbourhood. While Tallinn has Telliskivi, Riga’s bohemian quarter is based around one road, Miera Iela – or “Peace Street”.
There are plenty of eating and drinking establishments along the thoroughfare and surrounding area. However, hedonists be warned! The street’s cheerful, hippy-esque name has a pretty dark origin. The street was once lined with mortuaries and funeral homes, which served the nearby cemeteries. In fact, some locals joke that a true Rigan will visit Miera Iela at least twice. When they are born at the street’s maternity hospital and when they are finally laid to rest.
Here, I’d like to give a special mention to Mr Page – a wonderful independent bookshop with the best selection of hand-picked titles I’ve ever seen.
9. Gawp at the biggest graffiti in the Baltics
Not far from Peace Street, at Tallinas 46, wanderers can find the Pērkons Saule Daugava street art. The biggest mural in the Baltic States, it is inspired by a 1938 poster for the Latvian Song Festival and is named after the event’s unofficial anthem, “Saule Pērkons Daugava”.
As in Estonia, singing is very important in Latvia. The period that won Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania their independence from the Soviet Union is known as the “Singing Revolution”. That’s because of the importance song festivals and singing had in raising patriotic feeling in all three countries. Moreover, it also refers to the largely peaceful nature of the separation.
10. Pay your respects at the Latvia Freedom Monument
In the U.K. it’s quite easy to take the fact we live in a free nation for granted. However, democracy is a pretty recent development in Latvia, given the fact the country only won its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
The nation first declared its independence in 1918 during the chaos of the First World War. But, the celebrations were short lived. In December that year the Latvians fought a hard-won battle against the newly formed Soviet Union to maintain its independence. The battle lasted 20 long months, ending in August 1920 with Latvian victory.
The Latvian Freedom Monument was constructed soon after to commemorate the 3,046 people who gave their life for the country’s independence. However, the Soviets almost demolished the monument when they invaded Latvia in 1940. Luckily, it survived and today stands as a proud symbol of Latvian sovereignty.
11. Channel your inner bookworm at the National Library of Latvia
The National Library of Latvia is one of those buildings you can’t decide if you love or hate. However, the story behind the design does lend some explanation to its rather fluid form.
The library – which was completed in 2014 – is nicknamed the “Castle of Light” and the name has a special place in Latvian folklore.
According to legend, the Castle of Light – a symbol of widsom– sank into a lake when the Latvian people were oppressed. However, it later rose up from the darkness to free the nation. The symbolism in the story is that of the wisdom lost to war and oppression only to be regained by the Latvian people alongside their freedom.
12. House of the Blackheads
The original House of the Blackheads was built way back in 1334 as a medieval event space for banquets and meetings. However, the building was destroyed by bombs during the Second World War and subsequently knocked down by the Soviets.
However, following Latvian independence, it was decided that the building should be rebuilt. So, the current House of the Blackheads was completed in 1999 and takes inspiration from various architectural styles and artistic styles. In short, it’s quite pretty look at.
13. Rattle through town on a Vintage Tram
While Riga’s streets are home to many newfangled turbo trams, one charming little cart stands out from the crowd. Riga’s Retro Tram service runs every weekend in the summer season. For just €2, riders can be transported back over 100 years to experience what life in the fast lane would have felt like in 1910. And, let me tell you, it’s quite exhilarating.
Perhaps it was the particular driver we had, but brave commuters can feel every cobble stone as it passes underneath them and face the terrifying prospect of being thrown from their bench at each and every turn. It’s not for the faint hearted, to say the least.
So, there you have it – my top 13 things to do in Riga. If all that reading’s left you feeling hungry, don’t forget to check out my guide to vegan eating in Riga.