The largest of the three Baltic capitals, Riga is a multifaceted city that reflects a long and diverse history. Strategically located on the Daugava River near the Gulf of Riga, the city has been an important trading post for centuries. First settled by the Germans, it was also ruled by Sweden and Russia before occupation by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. The country declared independence in 1991. We stopped in Riga for two days on our Baltic road trip, taking the time to explore the layers of Riga’s history—from the medieval to the modern.
What to See
The heart of Riga is the historic Old Town—a perfect place to explore on foot with its cobblestone streets, grand churches, and charming buildings (a few of which are particularly worth seeking out). The oldest dwelling in the city can be found on Mazā Pils iela, part of the pastel-colored Three Brothers trio (one of which also holds the Latvian Museum of Architecture today). Nearby is the Swedish Gate, the only remaining gate in what used to be the city’s medieval walls. Farther south are Blackheads House and the Town Hall, both reconstructions of historic buildings that were destroyed in World War II. You can also visit the city’s oldest house of worship, St. John’s Church, worth a quick stop for its unusually decorated arched ceiling.
In the center of Old Town is the Riga Cathedral, a towering brick building built in the 13th century. Today the church is the seat of the Archbishop of Riga and holds religious services in addition to serving as a concert venue (often utilizing the church’s historically significant 19th century pipe organ). Entrance to the cathedral also includes the adjacent gothic cloisters which hold a collection of artifacts from around the city like cannons, tomb plates, archaeological finds, and decorative stone elements from various city buildings.
The Old Town is also home to St. Peter’s Church, the tallest of Riga’s churches. Built in the 13th century, it’s one of the oldest medieval buildings in the Baltic and its spire dominates the city skyline. Visitors can pay to take an elevator up the spire for panoramic views of the city. The church itself was a little underwhelming, lacking in adornment and filled with a modern art exhibition, but we thought the views from the top were well worth the entry fee.
Heading out of the Old Town to the east you pass over the City Canal (once a protective moat) into Central Riga, and can walk up the main boulevard (Brīvības bulvāris) towards the Freedom Monument (also known as Milda). This 42m tall monument, topped with a Liberty statue holding three stars representing Latvia’s three regions, stands at the gateway between Old and Central Riga. Built in 1935, it survived Soviet occupation and is greatly symbolic even today. Just beyond the Freedom Monument is the 19th century Nativity of Christ Cathedral, a Russian Orthodox cathedral with gold domes making it highly visible around the city. The Soviets converted the building into a planetarium but it has since been reopened as a church with renovations ongoing (visitors are asked to remember the dress code for orthodox churches—no shorts, and women are asked to cover their heads).
Riga, somewhat surprisingly, has the largest collection of art nouveau buildings anywhere in Europe with a large concentration of these buildings being found in Central Riga. The late 19th and early 20th centuries (during Russian rule) were particularly prosperous times in the city, leading to a boom in new construction, much of which was in this ornate and decorative style. Over a third of the buildings in this part of the city are in art nouveau style. Although you’ll see these buildings all over Central Riga, some of the finest examples can be found on Alberta iela, Elizabetes iela, and Strēlnieku iela. There’s also the Riga Art Nouveau Museum at 12 Alberta iela, which gives you a glance inside one of these historic buildings.
Continuing into Central Riga on Brīvības iela you pass a number of other art nouveau buildings (most not as well maintained as those on the aforementioned streets), and it would be easy to walk past the fairly nondescript building on the corner of Brīvības and Stabu streets. Built in 1912 to hold apartments and shops, the building was requisitioned by the Soviets in 1940 to become the local KGB headquarters. Citizens arrested by the KGB were brought to this building (which was infamously nicknamed by locals “the Corner House”) and were held for questioning, deportation, and in some cases even execution on site. The Museum of the Occupation of Latvia has opened an exhibition in the building on the history of the KGB in Latvia. The ground floor of the building, still in a very raw state much as the KGB left it, contains displays sharing the history of KGB operations in the country. Guided tours take you through parts of the building used by the KGB including holding cells, interrogation rooms, and the execution room. A visit to the space is emotional and difficult—the history hasn’t been sugar-coated in any way and you confront the ugly realities of this period of Latvian history. When we visited in August 2018 the English-language tours filled quickly, so going early to secure a place on the limited guided tours is recommended. The exhibit is currently closed until summer 2019, but you can take a online tour of the space here.
Also in Central Riga, but closer to the Daugava River, is the historic Riga Central Market. A riverside market has existed in Riga since the 16th century, and the current market is housed in five massive zeppelin hangers that were moved to the site in the 1920’s. Each of the buildings holds stalls selling bread, dairy products, honey, fish, meat, and more, and outside the market halls vendors sell fresh fruits, vegetables, flowers, household items, and clothing. The scale of the market is massive—thousands of sellers inside and out—and it is a great place to watch locals go about their daily shopping. There are also small cafeteria-style restaurants tucked in and around the market, and we had a delicious and super inexpensive meal in one of the market halls. We also took advantage of all the fresh foods for sale to stock up on some snacks for our road trip.
Near the Central Market is one of Riga’s iconic buildings, the Latvian Academy of Science. The 107m building, constructed in the 1950’s, was Riga’s first high-rise building and was built in a Stalinesque style, similar to the seven sisters in Moscow. Today you can access an observation deck on the 17th floor of the building for a small fee (€5 at the time of our visit). The deck affords panoramic views of Riga, including great views of the Central Market just a few blocks away.
Where to Eat
Latvian cuisine shares many similarities to culinary traditions in other parts of Eastern Europe. Traditional dishes center around what can be found locally and in season, with an emphasis on things like roasted meats, smoked fish, potatoes, and dairy. In the summer there’s a plethora of fresh berries, and mushroom picking is a popular pastime in the fall. Dark rye bread is a staple in the region, and the Latvians have created a dessert, rupjmaizes kārtojums, that utilizes the bread, thick cream, and berries or jam to make a bread pudding-type dish. The local liquor, Latvijas balzāms, a mix of different herbals like wormwood, linden, and ginger, can be found at various bars and pubs—we tried the original and the currant version and liked both.
Looking for some of the traditional Latvian dishes, we discovered Milda, a restaurant not far from St. Peter’s in the Old Town. Milda offered modern takes on traditional dishes using local ingredients. The food was so fantastic we went twice during our stay in Riga.
Not far from Milda is the tavern Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs, a cave-like basement space with lots of cozy candle-lit rooms. It was so popular we had to grab a seat at the bar, but had a delicious meal which included perhaps the best fried garlic bread (Ķiploku grauzdiņi) we had in the region.
We also had a delicious and inexpensive lunch at a cafeteria-style restaurant in Riga Central Market. It reminded us of the milk bars in Poland, where a number of local dishes are readily available, and you can point to the ones you want to order. The cold beet soup was so good, we went back for seconds. We saw a number of these types of establishments in and around the Central Market, and unfortunately we didn’t see a name on the one we happened to stop in.
Where to Stay
For our time in Riga we wanted to stay in the Old Town, and we ended up choosing Hotel Gutenbergs, a hotel housed in historic buildings just a minute walk from Riga Cathedral. The buildings used to hold a printing house, and the hotel was named in honor of the famous printer Johannes Gutenberg. Our room was in an older part of the building—complete with charmingly slanted floors in our bedroom—and had a massive window overlooking the street below. A filling breakfast was served in the basement. The hotel also has a rooftop restaurant with spectacular views of the Riga Cathedral and neighboring rooftops.
Getting There and Away
We visited Riga as part of our Baltic road trip, so we arrived and departed by car. Despite the fact that our hotel verified they had parking available, we found it impossible to navigate the Old Town streets to actually get to the hotel (many streets in the area are closed to automobile traffic). After several frustrating attempts to get to the hotel (even with GPS), we cut our losses and looked for parking on the edge of the Old Town. We ended up the the Europark garage on Zigfrīda Annas Meierovica bulvāris, and from there it was a short walk to our hotel (and the rest of the Old Town).
Arriving by air can also be convenient as Riga is home to the busiest airport in the Baltic states. Riga International Airport is 13km from the city center. Riga’s central train station is just outside the Old Town (near Riga Central Market), but at the time of our visit there were no direct trains to the other Baltic capitals. Direct bus service is available however.
Riga was an enjoyable pit stop on our Baltic road trip. The Old Town has obvious charm and is a draw for many tourists, but we were also glad we ventured further into Central Riga to learn about the city’s more modern history. The city is walkable with interesting neighborhoods to explore and diverse architectural styles spanning centuries. We found delicious food, wonderful panoramic viewpoints, and friendly people—all of which made Riga a highlight of our time in the region!