A European capital where culture and color collide, Riga is looking to the past to pave the way for its future.
Of the three enchanting Baltic capitals, Riga surpasses its neighbors, Tallinn and Vilnius, in population density. Over 1/3 of Latvia’s population call Riga home and it’s easy to understand why. You can trace a timeline of historic art movements in every facade, from Hanseatic touches to the decorative architecture movement of Jugendstil, more popularly known as Art Nouveau. Tucked away down beguiling side streets are cozy coffee shops, welcoming watering holes, and stunning structures painted in fanciful shades of periwinkle, butterscotch, and salmon. In every corner of the city, you’ll find soulful vocalists channeling their inner Macy Gray and humble accordions sighing melancholic tunes, like the minstrels of yore carrying songs wherever they roamed. Riga’s youth are reviving centuries-old folk traditions, bringing new energy to tired choreography. The Riga I saw very much exemplifies the idea of “New Latvia,” or Latvia post-Soviet occupation. While the prominence of Cyrillic text on most signage might say otherwise, every effort to rid Riga of Russian influence begins with a return to Latvia’s roots.
Special thanks to my friend Martin Millers, a former resident of Riga who gave me all these great tips.
1. Catch Some Live Folk Music at Folkklubs Ala Pagrebs
For a crash course on Latvian culture, look no further than Folkklubs Ala Pagrebs , a restaurant cum bar cum live music venue. Locals rub shoulders with backpackers and exchange students at this lively nightlife destination spanning multiple rooms. Wine and dine amid a medieval setting of vaulted ceilings, exposed stone walls, and old wooden tables with dripping candles for centerpieces. On the menu, sample the rustic cuisine of Latvian with entrees such as gray peas with bacon bits and onion, served in a hollowed out slice of dark rye bread, and battered chicken filet topped with caramelized onion, mushroom, and rich goat cheese. They also have 28 beers on tap, like this Cannabis Honey Beer that’s probably on the top three list of best beers I’ve ever drank. Live performances happen nightly, but Wednesday Folk Night is a particular highlight for guests and amateur dancers wanting some floortime to try out fancy folk dance footwork. The atmosphere was so much fun, we ended up going twice in the three days we were in Riga!
Where? Peldu iela 19, Centra rajons
Tip: If you come a little later, you might have a hard time finding seating. Also, service is quite slow so get the attention of the servers as quickly as possible.
2. Wander Around Vecrīga, Riga’s Historical Center
For those travelers who just like to wander, Old Riga —known as Vecrīga in Latvian— is one of the most satisfying places to simply get lost. Featuring a motley crew of multicolored buildings from nearly every artistic era in the last century, it’s no surprise that Vecriga holds UNESCO World Heritage status. There are a number of plazas surrounded by restaurants in Vecriga, the sounds of foot traffic to accompany your al fresco meal. In my opinion, the prettiest streets can be found at Tirgoņu iela, Meistaru iela, and Šķūņu iela. Some places of interest to put on your itinerary:
- THE THREE BROTHERS – This trio of dwellings date back to the Medieval times, making them the oldest homesteads in all of Riga. Legend has it that three brothers from one family built their homes side by side, hence the name. (Mazā Pils iela 17, 19, and 21)
- ST PETER’S CHURCH – The oldest church in all of Riga and boasts great views of the city from its spire. (Skārņu iela 19)
- THE HOUSE OF THE BLACKHEADS – Built in 14th century for the Brotherhood of Blackheads, its facade undeniably the most sublime in all of Vecriga. (Kalku iela 1)
- THE CAT HOUSE – The story goes that when the former owner of building was refused entry into a guild, he added two black cats to the turrets of his residence, with their backsides facing the guild, as a way to insult those who scorned him. (10 Meistaru iela)
- RIGA CATHEDRAL (also known as DOMA CATHEDRAL) – Another cultural symbol of Riga but quite sparse inside, save for an impressive 6768-pipe organ. (Herdera laukums 6)
- 1221 RESTORANS – Behind this old-fashioned store front, reviews of the overpriced food are a mixed bag. (Jauniela 16)
- THE MUSEUM OF OCCUPATION IN LATVIA – It was closed for renovations when we visited in April 2018, but the solemn, black building next to Town Hall Square sticks out like a sore thumb compared to the more historic properties nearby. This museum is dedicated to Latvia’s history during the Nazi and Soviet occupations. (Raiņa bulvāris 7)
3. Tag Along on a Free Walking Tour
Almost every European country offers a “free” walking tour, operating on a system of pay-as-you-see-fit. Riga is no exception. My friend Martins suggested the Riga Free Tour, a 2.5-3 hour tour that commences promptly at 10am and 12pm daily from the front steps of St. Peter’s Church. Just look for the yellow suitcase. Along the way, you’ll see sights like The Bremen Town Musicians statue , believed to bestow a certain amount of luck to bypassers depending on which animals’ nose you touch; Riga Central Market , an indoor marketplace housed in a complex of refurbished World War I zeppelin hangars; The Latvian Academy of Sciences , also known as “Stalin’s Birthday Cake,” which features one of the very few untouched “sickle-and-hammer” communist symbols in Riga; and The Freedom Monument , a monument erected in 1935 featuring Mother Latvia carrying the three stars, representing the three provinces of Latvia. There’s a lot to learn and each tour guide brings their own unique experiences and insights on their hometown.
Where? The Riga Free Tour meets in front of St. Peter’s Church daily and is only closed on January 1st and June 24th.
4. Take in Riga From Above
Riga is already spectacular at ground-level, so imagine the sights when you go the extra [vertical] mile. The most well-known observatory point is the one housed in the St. Peter’s Spire . Ascend in the lift that runs to the top every 10 minutes. From 72 meters/236 feet in the air, you can look out onto Vecriga, with its red brick rooftops, the beautiful Daugava River, and the Central Market. Some downsides: the gallery area is quite small, so only a few people are allowed up at a time, and the view is obstructed by iron bars. Another thing to mention is that the admission fee to is €9 euros, which is a bit pricey for a view. Bring a jacket as it does get very windy up there.
Where? Skārņu iela 19
Hours of Operation: Tuesday through Saturday: 10am – 6pm, Sundays: 12 – 6pm, closed Mondays
Pro-Tip:The Latvian Academy of Sciences offers the same sprawling views of Riga from a circular terrace, called “Panorama Riga,” for only €5 euros, and there are no enclosures to ruin any photo opportunities.
5. Stand in Awe of all the Art Nouveau Architecture
There are over 800 Art Nouveau buildings in Riga, making it one of the largest concentrations of this architectural style on par with Berlin, St. Petersburg, Krakow, and Vienna. The Art Nouveau movement is defined by romance, geometry, and chimerical motifs like screaming maidens, magical beasts, and hoofed satyrs. The many visages on display has given Riga its nickname as “The City of Faces.” In the Art Nouveau District , you’ll find the prolific work of architect Mikhail Eisenstein, whose delicately flamboyent masterpieces dominate Alberta iela. For art aficionados, a walk through this open-air art gallery is a must.
Where? Find the most impressive Art Nouveau buildings at the intersection of Elizabetes iela and Brivibas bulvāris and on the corner of Alberta iela where it meets Strelnieku iela.
- Fast, convenient, and cheap, ŠEFPAVARS VILHELMS (Šķūņu iela 6) is a self-service cafeteria with savory and sweet Russian-style pancakes, called blinis, stuffed with everything from cheese and mushrooms to cherries and bananas. The waitstaff speak zero English but the menus are bilingual so you’ll know what to order.
- The rooftop of Galleria Riga is home to the botanist inspired HERBĀRIJS (Dzirnavu iela 67), a concept bar and cafe with epic sunsets.
- Directly across from the front of St. Peter’s Church, PIENENE (Kungu iela 7/9) is a concept store selling high quality Latvian products in the front of the shop, while the back is a lovely cafe serving up cheese and olive cookies—so good—and free shots of balsam, a great pick-me-up while waiting for the Riga Free Tour to start.
- Travel a little outside of the city to BRICK BAR (Ganibu dambis 30), a new outdoor alternative events venue built from the remaining bricks of the factory that once stood in its place .
- After 11pm, make a beeline to the basement at ROCK BAR (Mārstaļu iela 2/4) for some cellar-style karaoke with singing hosts who perform when singers get cold feet.
- Calling itself “the most romantic cafe in the city”, it’s hard not to fall in love with the homemade cakes, upholstered seating, and an intimate courtyard at PARUNASIM KAFE’TEEKA (Mazā Pils iela 4). Warning: your heart might break at the inflated prices compared to other cafes.
- Allow the dark alchemy of BLACK MAGIC BAR (Kaļķu iela 10) to cast its spell on your with balsam-filled chocolate truffles and specialty cocktails.
- If you want a quick sample of authentic Latvian food, look for the restaurant chain LIDO (in Vecriga, find LIDO ALUS SETA located at Tirgoņu iela 6) where the hearty portions and unbeatable prices win over both locals and tourists alike.
- Falsely calling itself a museum, COSMOS ILUZIJU MUZEJS (Doma laukums 1A) is more of an instagrammable “house of illusions”, where visitors can interact with the art all for €10 Euros worth of photos (€8 Euros with a Student ID).
- Mix and mingle with fellow artists at CAFE OSIRIS (Krišjāņa Barona iela 31), one of the oldest meeting points for those looking create and innovate over some food and wine, with a globally-inspired menu, running all day.
- The largest collection of Latvian works of art is housed within four branches of the LATVIAN NATIONAL ART MUSEUM (Jaņa Rozentāla laukums 1); buy a ticket to access the exhibitions and two rooftop terraces.
- Find lovebirds locking hands at Bastion Hill or whispering sweetnothings in each other’s ears on the footbridges situated inside of BASTEJKALNA PARK, a wide spread of greenery that separates Vecriga from the Art Nouveau District.
- Trendsettters can pick up new threads from independent Baltic designers at BOLD CONCEPT STORE (Terbatas iela 45A), a two-story women and men’s shop that also has a cafe selling coffee and tasty eclairs.
NOTICE: The KGB Building/Corner House has been closed as of September 2018. From what I read, locals found it too painful to keep the building open.
WHERE TO STAY
When it comes to lodging in Riga, Airbnb is the most affordable and convenient option. But I also learned that Riga is a growing wellness destination, and many Europeans flock to Riga for spa weekends. There are also a number of gorgeous boutique hotels that are not outrageously priced. For solo travelers on a budget, hostels are probably the smartest option but for groups of 2 or more, get an Airbnb.
Cozy Little Apartment in the Heart of Old Riga Out of all our Baltic stays, this is the only location we booked direct in the Old Town. Karlis’ apartment is located right in Vecriga and is a less than 10 minute walk from the local bus station. Karlis is highly responsive and give great tips; in the apartment itself, you will find a basket of travel brochures. The apartment itself is easy to find and is right on the first floor so no climbing up stairs is necessary. The house is right next to a Hookah and Tea Shop that stays open late, so you can easily find your place at any given time of the day. The apartment is very tiny, but the space is smartly used. The hallway converts into a bathroom and the bed pulls out from under the elevated living room. Granted, there is only one blanket and it gets a bit chilly at night, but Karlis has an electronic heater that you are free to use. It’s a great value for travelers coming in and out of the city. 2 guests max. Whole apartment starts at $36 per night.
Neiburgs Hotel (Jauniela 25/27) is a stunning 55-room, family-owned, boutique hotel in the heart of Vecriga. The suites are massive and every room is outfitted with a lounge and built-in kitchen. Stylish and sleek, the hotel’s guiding principle is all about mindfulness, and this is found in every detail—Latvian artist Katrīna Neiburga’s graphics hang on every wall in every room; the rooms are flooded with natural light, perfect for recalibrating the most jetlagged of travelers; and the smart bathrooms all have under-floor heating to warm up tired, aching feet. The building is also the only Art Nouveau building in Vecriga. Rooms begin at $130.
Radisson Blu Latvija Conference & Spa Hotel (Elizabetes iela 55) is fan-favorite when it comes to the “hotel spa” experience in Riga. Home to ESPA Riga Spa, visitors can take a lap in the 18m indoor pool or bathe in the outdoor vitality pool, as well as access exclusive relaxation facilities like saunas, an ice fountain, and lifestyle showers. They even have heated benches to warm you up after a swim. In-house, you can also treat yourself to a wide selection of body, facial and nail treatments. Also, the bar is well known for its Skyline Bar on the 26th floor offering a panoramic look at Vecriga from a distance. Rooms begin at $80.
Wellton Riga Hotel & Spa (Vaļņu iela 49) is one of the newer 4-star options in the city, right in Vecriga, with contemporary rooms painted in an alternating beige and peach color palette. Your access to the the spa center is dependent on what type of room you book but if you decide to make the upgrade, you can enjoy the indoor pool, open all year long, jacuzzi, and sauna. Massage or hammam bath bookings can be made for an additional fee. Rooms begin at $61.
… Or To Save?
The Naughty Squirrel Backpackers Hostel ( ) has been voted the #1 hostel in Riga 5 years in a row, bringing thrillseekers together with pub crawl excursions, bobsled tours in the winter, and cable car bungee jumping experiences in the summer. They also have a wealth of free amenities like lockers/locks, bedding, towels, and luggage storage. Dorm beds start at $16 a night/private rooms at $57 per night.
The Riga Old Town Hostel (Valnu Iela 43) is known for its legendary bar, but not much else. There is no common area and the sound carries from the bar to the rooms but if you’re a party animal, with drinks conveniently underneath your nose, there’s not much to complain about. Dorm beds start at $14 a night/private rooms at $45 per night.
WARNING: Do not expect a quiet night in at either properties and rooms book out fast so the minute you cement your Riga plans, the first thing you should book is your hostel room.