Riga is the capital of Latvia and such a charming city. Latvia is the protestant brother of neighbouring Lithuania and mostly atheistic Estonia. Riga is the perfect representation of Latvia. It is a relatively small city and fast competing for stag and hen-dos (bachelor parties for my North American friends). it is definitely an up and coming spot and fast embracing the LGBT rights. Riga is also famous for its Art Nouveau district which is unique in the world. Another point that makes Riga so attractive is the value of money which goes a long way here.
Check out my country guide for Latvia for all your Travel questions.
You will find a lot of reference to Germans here. In fact, they used to rule the Latvians in the past. The elite and aristocratic class came from Germans and the serfs were Latvians. Germans were eventually kicked out and Latvia became independent but there is a huge influence of Germans on Latvian life including food, architecture and government structure.
Fun Fact: Riga is the largest city in the entire Baltic area and yes that means it is bigger than Vilnius and Tallinn.
Getting to Riga
Riga has multiple international connections and can be reached by air, ferry or bus. Most people hit Riga as part of the Baltics tour which means you will be heading to Riga from Vilnius or Tallinn. I found the most amazing tour that runs between these cities and you get to see some spots in a day outside the capitals. It was a very pleasant experience and you can read about my tour from Riga to Tallinn here. The tour runs in both directions, by the way, it is just the stops that reverse in order.
Riga International Airport (RIX) is quite close to the city and it is quite easy to get from the airport to the old town. The airport itself is not very big but it is the busiest in the Baltic region and a hub for AirBaltic. I landed quite late in the night and didn’t want to wait for the bus soI called a taxi using Bolt Taxi app which works very well here. Uber is also available.
If you want to use public transport, you can take bus 22 (bus schedule here) or express bus which is also available from the airport.
You can also take a ferry from Stockholm to Riga, schedule and details here.
Getting Around in Riga
The old town of Riga is very small and most of it is car-free and very walkable. For other places like Art Neauvou district, I still preferred to walk than use public transport because Riga has a lot of green space and it was great to walk around. For everything else, I used Bolt which was really cheap. Uber also works very well here.
For public transport, you can use this link to find schedules and routes. There is no subway here, Riga only has buses, trams and trolleybuses.
Food in Riga
Food was perhaps the most disappointing part of Riga travel. Food in Riga is pretty basic and despite trying many restaurants, I realised, it just isn’t a thing for Latvians. I sincerely hope it gets better because Estonians have really improved on this.
Check out my Instagram stories from Riga including food and restaurants.
While you are in Riga, you must eat at Lido, it is a chain where you get a huge variety of Latvians meals. It runs on a weigh and pay system, not as a buffet. The best one is actually called Lido Leisure Centre and it is surrounded by a mini amusement park of sorts, it was a great place to try a huge variety of Latvian foods.
I also enjoyed the Crumble Cake which was made the Latvian way and it is another must-try. Another restaurant worth trying is 1221 restaurant which was in the old town.
Booze is also very cheap here especially beer but beware of the bar scams and always ask for a menu with prices. With increased tourism, the scams have also crept up. The most typical thing to try is Black Balsam. It is a delicacy of sorts but I must warn you, it is STRONG. I had one shot and that was enough for the night.
Where to Stay in Riga
The old town is the best spot to stay in. I stayed near the Riga Cathedral (also called Dom Cathedral) on Smilsu Iela. It was very easy to walk around and it was also a safe neighbourhood.
Best Time to Visit Riga
Riga has pretty harsh and cold winters and unpredictable springs so summer is the best time to visit. The city is very green and pleasant during summers.
How Many Days for Riga
I stayed in Riga for 2 and a half days which was the perfect time to explore most tourist attractions.
Riga isn’t exactly a very LGBT friendly city and PDA is still a big no-no. You have to be careful because homosexuality is still a taboo topic and people are quite conservative here. There is only one gay bar here called Top Club. It used to be two but the other one closed. While LGBT discrimination is illegal by law, it isn’t exactly the norm here. You can find an up to date list of bars from Riga here.
The guys on Grindr were also quite shy and face pics were pretty rare. Guys, on the other hand, were pretty sweet and I met 2 during my visit who were very nice. I ended up spending most of my time with one of them and went to Lido with him as well, which made the food experience somewhat better.
Free Walking Tour Riga
The Free Walking Tour was another great thing about Riga. I used a local group which was a great idea because the guide was very friendly and knowledgeable and took us to a lot of spots, I would never have found on my own. She also told me about the restaurants and Lido. You can find more about the schedule, stops and other details on the Riga Free Tours Website.
How to Explore Riga
Most of the tourist attractions lie in or very close to the old town which is very walkable. The only place that requires a little bit of a detour is the Art Neauvou district which was about 15 minutes walk from the old town and a pretty beautiful walk with lots of green space. I have listed the places based on proximity to each other and if you follow them you will be able to do Riga at a nice pace in 2 days.
Top Things To Do In Riga
Art Neauvou District
On my very first morning, I decided to head to the Art Neavou district to see the much-hyped area with amazing architecture. It was a pleasant day and the walk was great, passing through the parks. It took me about 15 minutes from the old town through Kornvalda Park.
The area is part of the new town centre now and is quite busy. The district starts from the Alberta and Elizabetas iela(s) (streets). Elizabeth Street is the outer streets won the main road and as you go deeper the buildings become grander. The iconic blue building is also located on this street. The building at the corner of Elizabeta and Antoiajas streets was my favourite. I went further down on the Antoniajas street and then turned into Alberta street which is the best place to actually enjoy the beauty of this loud architecture style. The buildings are so beautiful. I spent almost the whole morning here and had some lunch nearby as well.
There are some more buildings on Strenieku street and Raina Boulevard which weren’t as impressive but still good to explore around.
After lunch, I headed to give my feet some rest and relax with ice cream in Kornvalda Park. It is quite a peaceful place and after a little rest when I got up to head to my next spot, I saw the Latvian National Theatre on the right-hand side on the way to the Russian Orthodox Cathedral.
Nativity of Christ Orthodox Cathedral
The cathedral is relatively new and it was built for the Russian population which mainly follows the Russian Orthodox version of Christianity. It has an onion-shaped dome like most orthodox cathedrals. The exterior is simple and elegant with a beautiful and colourful interior. I absolutely love the Russian orthodox church for their bright and bold choice of colours, this one was no different.
The cathedral is located inside the Esplanade park, which is another pleasant spot for a summer afternoon.
Freedom Monument & Bastekjalna Parks
Freedom monument is the national symbol of Latvia. It has a woman’s statue holding three stars which represent three regions of Latvia. The day I arrived there was a special Baltic unity festival and there were Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian bands and music all around the place with lots of excited kids. It was great fun. You can check it in my Instagram stories.
The monument is surrounded by another gorgeous park with the beautiful Pilsetas canal running through it, it is called Bastekjalna park. There is also a small bridge of love which has the same olf Parisian obsession with locks on the railings. I sometimes wonder if anyone finds it as tacky as I do? It is a gorgeous spot though.
The Old Town of Riga
The old town of Riga is a UNESCO World Heritage site and despite its small size, it has a ton of very interesting places, building and things to not let you get bored. It really comes alive in the evenings with so many bars open and people so happily going around. The squares next to Dome cathedral and guilds are the most amazing places for a great fun evening. The area around Swedish gate and St Peters has the best architecture and who hasn’t seen a picture of House of Blackheads?
My first formal intro was through the Freedom monument into the Old town and arriving at the Livu Square.
It is one of the bustling social life centres in the old town with lots of families, locals and tourists alike enjoying their times. The square has quite a few buildings in one spot.
The Big Guild has a gorgeous exterior but it has been turned into Latvian Philharmonic so entry is restricted and it is pretty much the same with Little Guild. The guilds were divided on the trade type and the wealthy German merchants liked to keep their distance. The square also houses the Russian theatre which only hosts plays in Russian.
Perhaps the most interesting is the building with two cats on top. The story behind is that the merchant who built the house couldn’t get into the Guild so he erected two cat statues on top of the houses with their backsides towards the guild with their tails lifted. How creative is that, I am impressed!
St Peter’s Church
Website – http://peterbaznica.riga.lv/en/serviceshours/
Entrance – €9
St Peter’s church is a few minutes walk from the square and it took me to another world. the world of grand cathedrals and churches and this one is no less impressive. It is the oldest church in Riga from the early 13th century. It has a towering presence which seems even more powerful because of its place in the old city, everything else seems small and pointless.
I was sadly there, on a Monday and on Mondays, there is no lift service to get to the top of the tower to catch the bird’s eye view of Riga, totally my loss!
At the back of the church is a famous statue of the Bremen Town Musicians. These four animals are looking out of the iron curtain pointing to the Soviet rule. The statue was gifted by the sister city of Riga; Bremen. It is a legend if you rub the nose of the animals your luck improves, the higher you go the luckier you get. It was no surprise that I didn’t feel like touching the extra polished noses of these cuties.
The square is also very cute and a great place for green tea and some crumble cake. On the other side of the Bremen Musicians statue is the smaller church of St. John. It is free to enter and has a beautiful Renaissance period with the Gothic ceiling. It is small and less impressive but worth a visit. The stained glass windows were also gorgeous.
That was the last stop for me for the day and I headed to Top club for a drink, Riga was exceeding all expectations so far.
House of Blackheads and Townhall of Riga
Website – https://melngalvjunams.lv/en
Entrance – €4
It was day 2 of my Riga visit and I was fresh after sleeping like a log after that black balsam shot. I had waited long enough for it but it was time to see the famous House of Black Heads. On the way, I passed through the Townhouse of Riga which is another beautiful building not open to visitors. I finally arrived in front of the buildings in a small square with scores of people some tourists and some locals with a few musicians playing as well. The atmosphere was already buzzing and I joined in.
The fact I found most interesting was that you could not be a Black Head if you were married so this was a place for rich, single mostly German merchants. There were ballrooms and fancy parties. You know where I am going with this right? It seems like the perfect gay reality tv show idea.
Jokes aside, it is a gorgeous building with a precise and beautiful facade. It is not old in any way and was recently entirely rebuilt because it was heavily bombarded and then a fire ruined whatever was left.
It is very beautifully decorated and used to be the office of the president of Latvia at one point.
Soviet Sherlock and Baker Street
Our guide from Free Walking Tour told us about the Soviet obsession with Sherlock. They didn’t want to import Western movies though so Russian Sherlock was filed in the old town of Riga. Juniela street from number 22 used to serve as the Baker street and that famous abode of Sherlock. It looks nothing like baker Street but it is a cute street and further down the old town really takes over, a very nice spot to hang out indeed.
Dom Cathedral and Square
Website – https://doms.lv/en
The street ends in the Dom Square which is another social spot in Riga, a little less busy and much more spacious. This is the second church in the old town which has a towering presence. The red bricks and golden decoration with a gorgeous tower give it a special status in the city. It is a Lutheran church with an architectural mix of early Gothic, Baroque and romanesque. The cloistered courtyard reminded me of the Spanish monasteries but the interior was nothing special. I would probably skip it if I knew about it especially when it is not free.
The Three Brothers
The three brothers are the stars of the old town of Riga. these three houses on Maza Pils street on 17, 19 and 21 are the best depiction of how the architecture changed around the city with time. The houses have been nicely finished and there’s a lot of people outside taking photos but I waited around until the tourists’ groups had passed. They are fascinating though and I have never seen the time shift so vividly anywhere as much as in a space of few metres. It is like time travel.
Right next to the houses, is the Catholic church of Latvia with a rooster on top, I didn’t bother going in but the tower was beautiful nevertheless.
The Swedish Gate
Riga, like most medieval cities, used to have a city wall and gates and while not much of the city walls remain, Swedish gate is the best spot to see the only remaining gate in the old city. It is quite small but it is fascinating not only because of the gate but also because of the buildings around it. It gives a feel of what life and housing could be like in those times. You absolutely cannot miss this spot.
It is the tower of the Latvian War Museum and while the museum was of no interest to me the tower was definitely interesting. it has a red brick round exterior with a tapering roof like most buildings. It used to be a store for gunpowder hence the name powder gate. It was literally at the corner of the street I was staying at.
Walk on the banks of the River Daugava
My last evening of the trip was rather romantic. I met a guy and after going through an intense Lido food experience we came back to the town for a beautiful sunset and the best spot to see that in Riga is the bank of Daugava river. We walked quite a lot and then got to the other side to see the rather ugly Latvian National library on the other side through the Akmens bridge.
The views of Riga was stunning, the library was not. It was a beautiful sunset and compared to everyone else I have had great luck with beautiful sunsets in both Riga and Tallinn. It was a great day with lots of food, walking around, exploring and I was really happy to have spent my last evening in such great company.
Jurmala is a beach town not far from Riga and it is quite easy to get there by train or bus. I neither knew much about it, not had time for it sadly so I put a little reminder to see it when I return to Baltics to see the hILL OF crosses in Lithuania. If the weather is good, do check it out, apparently, it is quite beautiful and it looks great in the photos as well.
Riga might not be the LGBT friendly yet but things are changing, people are opening up more to marriage equality and these topics are less of a taboo with the younger generation. I definitely think Riga has great potential and deserves a visit.