Wondering how to spend 3 days in Riga? We have the perfect itinerary for you, blending Art Nouveau architecture and gastronomy with traditional music, food and charm. Welcome to Latvia's capital city.
How to Spend 3 Days in Riga, Latvia
Where is Riga?
Riga is the capital of Latvia, the pocket-sized country in the middle of the three Baltic States in north-east Europe.
Day One in Riga, Latvia
For this 3 days in Riga itinerary, I'm assuming that you'll probably be arriving on a Friday evening and have to head home on Sunday. For that reason, day one is quite short. It allows you to settle into your hotel, unpack, freshen up, take a wonderful walk through the streets and then enjoy dinner and some great drinks.
Get your walking shoes on for day two, though. That's when the pace picks up!
Meet for Drinks at the Skyline Bar
Claiming the best view in the whole city, this is where you come when you want to take in the city skyline. It's also the place for a cocktail or two.
Each tempting creation arrives with a little tale about Latvia, so it's as much about education as anything else. Ahem.
You can also grab a bite to eat too. The menu includes seafood, two pages of meat dishes and a few token vegetarian choices.
Where to find it: Elizabetes iela 55, Centra rajons, Rīga, LV-1010
Day Two in Riga, Latvia
The Medieval Town Centre
Riga’s medieval town centre glistens in the morning sun. Think cobbled streets with pale pink and blue facades, rough-slated spires and live music from stringed instruments played by lively arms in blooming blouses.
Riga made its fortune during the 13th-15th centuries as one of the major centres of the Hanseatic League. And while many buildings have been destroyed over the years, many others remain.
Riga's Town Hall Square is a great place to start, with the stately Blackheads house and cosy atmosphere, especially at Christmas. The Powder Tower, now part of the Latvian war museum, showcases the defensive structure of the 1330s: squat and sturdy.
Where? Town Hall Square, Rīga, LV-1050
- Relish getting lost in the side streets of the old city centre and look out for the tradition of the cat on the roof...
- Look out for the Swedish Gate, an opening in the stony old walls of Riga and featuring in the Kurt Wallander novel Dogs of Riga.
The KGB Headquarters
Whichever way you look at it, Riga had a difficult 20th century, from the world wars and beyond. The KGB Headquarters museum gives a sobering insight into how things used to work.
“If you look this way, at the glittering chandelier and the gold edged frames, the beautiful corridor. You see what communism looked like. What it was supposed to look like at street level.
“And if you follow me beyond this door, you will come to learn the reality.”
The blood-splattered prison cells grow smaller and darker and more and more terrifying the further into the building we went.
Where to find it: The Corner House between Brīvības Street and Stabu Street.
- For an unflinching look at Riga's past under communism, visit the KGB museum.
DRAWING WITH FOOD AT TAM LABAM BUS AUGT
Sitting at the table at Tam labam būs augt was an exercise in creativity. As I sat chatting to my friend, the waiter reached over my shoulder and squirted passionfruit syrup all across my placemat. Then mango, a sprinkling of nuts, and some oil infused with herbs.
I was hooked. Now this was the way to nibble on bread while waiting for the meal to begin!
Attend an Organ Recital
A twenty minute organ recital at the Riga Dome Cathedral is a great way to relive Riga’s heydays: first as part of the Hanseatic League and then as a prosperous port - and part - of Sweden
It's a calming, contemplative atmosphere and a great way to encourage local musicians.
Another way of getting a musical fix is to visit the grander Latvian National Opera.
Where to find it: Herdera laukums 6, Centra rajons, Rīga, LV-1050
Insider Tip: Buy tickets in advance or at the door for a soothing recital in one of Riga's landmarks.
Day Three in Riga, Latvia
For your final day in Riga, we'll travel from the medieval past to the rollercoaster of the 20th century. Admire Art Nouveau and shudder at the horrors of life under the USSR. Plus, as ever, enjoy some great food and drink!
Did you know?
Architects call Riga the Art Nouveau Capital of Europe. The whole historic centre is an UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Riga's Art Nouveau
Riga is widely known as the Art Nouveau capital of Europe, making a lot of money just as funky gargoyles and naked maidens came into fashion, decoratively speaking.
When it comes to Art Nouveau buildings, Mikhail Eisenstein’s work grabs the headlines but there's much more to see beyond that.
The Art Nouveau Museum focuses on local architect Konstantīns Pēkšēns and introduces newbies to the concept (as well as providing a chance to dress up in period costume and go instagram-tastic with the spiral staircase at the entrance.)
Even if you're not convinced that Art Nouveau architecture is for you, I'd urge you to reconsider and at least to have a walk around the area.
Where to find it: Alberta iela 12, Centra rajons, Rīga, LV-1010
Insider Tip: Book a guided tour or let the Art Nouveau Museum introduce you to this fascinating period of history.
RigA Central Market
Not only is this Riga's Central Market, it's also the largest market in Europe and part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site Complex. It's housed beneath five pavilions made from repurposed German Zeppelin hangars in a 72 300 square metre zone dedicated to food. You won't have time to visit every one of the 3000 separate stalls but look out for the blend of Art Deco and Neoclassicism punctuated by hanging gourds, fresh fish and spicy treats.
Where to find it: Nēģu iela 7, Latgales priekšpilsēta, Rīga, LV-1050
Insider Tip: as with most markets, visit early to see it at its best!
See The Three Brothers
Since my dad is one of three brothers, this setup always made me chuckle. But, don't worry, it's not a gang of Anglo-Irish troublemakers.
Instead, it's a complex of three houses that make up the oldest dwelling place in Riga. Even better, they're interesting houses, showcasing different periods of construction. The oldest, on 17 Maza Pils Street, dates back to the 15th century, with stepped gables and Gothic and Renaissance features.
After that is no 19, awash with Dutch influence. And finally, no 21 is a unfeasibly narrow Baroque building in gentle, pastel green.
Together, all three house the Museum of Latvian Architecture and have received a European Heritage Label from the European Commission. If you have 3 days in Riga and aren't in a rush, it's worth having a look around. If you only have 2 days in Riga, or worse, only one day in Riga, then skip this part.
The Orthodox Church
Known as "the Orthodox Church", the Nativity of Christ Cathedral has quite an unusual background. In the early 1960s, Soviet authorities closed the cathedral, removed the crucifixes, and melted the bells to convert it into a planetarium. It was known as the Republic House of Knowledge.
However, since the late 1990s the beautiful building has been restored as a church and holds regular Orthodox services. Like many historical buildings the renovation project is ongoing. It's financed by public donations through the project 'Svet'.
Where to find it: Brīvības bulvāris 23, Centra rajons, Rīga, LV-1050
The Freedom Monument
Unveiled in 1935, the 42 metre high Freedom Monument serves as a meeting point for people across the city. But it's meaning runs deeper than that.
Originally constructed to honour soldiers killed in the Latvian War of Independence between 1918 - 1920, it somehow survived the Soviet era to become a symbol of freedom for the modern era as well.
You won't need long for a visit, but it is worth gazing up at the coppery-green figure holding her hands stretched out to the sky. And its symbolism is what makes it an essential part of any Riga itinerary.
Travel Tips for Riga
Walk along the banks of the Daugava River or through the Old Town at sunrise for a truly magnificent view.
COCKTAILS AND CANAPES AT BAR XIII
If cocktails could be called an art form (and let's face it, why couldn't they be?) then the black velvet hideaway box of Bar XIII would rival the National Gallery.
It's a place whose owners have clearly fallen in love with their craft, preparing vanilla and lavender syrups by hand and serving canapes that would make many a restaurant blush. I opted for a "Lavanda Collins" with Beefeater gin, homemade lavender syrup and earl grey soda.
Drink Riga's Black Balsam
If the words single-barrel infusion technology and herbal liqueur don't frighten you off, perhaps the words Rīgas Melnais balzams will.
Yes, Riga has its own signature drink, a potent one called Riga Black Balsam and served in ceramic bottles.
As with so many of these things, you'll find it's an acquired taste. But it's a fun way to end your 3 days in Riga and a memorable way to wave goodbye to your Riga itinerary!
Where to Stay in Riga
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The Grand Palace Hotel in the Old Town has the perfect location for exploring the city and enjoying the best things to do in Riga.
As the name suggests it's a chic, luxurious hotel. It was built in 1877 and transformed into a 5 star (now 5 star-superior) boutique hotel in 2000. It's been named as Latvia's Leading Hotel for the past 13 years, so it really is the place to go if you want a memorable, classy experience.
Where to find it: Pils street 12, Riga, LV-1050
What if you Don't Have 3 days in Riga?
While I designed this Riga itinerary for those arriving on a Friday and leaving on a Sunday, I want to give a few tips if you only have 2 days in Riga (or even one day in Riga.)
When you're short on time, it's a good idea to make the most of the walkable nature of the city and skip some of the museums. It's also useful to join a walking tour to maximise your time - and a food tour also makes sure you get to eat!
I've gathered together some walking tours in Riga for you here:
More About Travel in Latvia
Many visitors limit themselves to Riga - but that's a mistake. Latvia may be small but she's also beautiful.
Wondering what Latvia is famous for? Hire a car and spend a few days exploring the coast and national parks of this remarkably friendly country. Even with only three days in Riga, you can condense some of the activities above and zip out to the coast and back in a day if you're organised.
Disclosure : My travel to Latvia came about as part of a collaboration between iAmbassador and Latvian Tourism Development Agency with the support of the European Union Regional Development Fund. As ever, as always, I keep the right to write what I like.