There are some pretty amazing things to do in Riga, Latvia, which is what you'd expect from a city that's also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But you might not expect them all. From respectable architecture to innovative cuisine, let me show you the highlights of Riga. It's a city on the up, but it’s also a place where the past is not so far away.
Recommended reading: Day Trips from Riga: Three Reasons to Fall in Love with 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.
Riga’s medieval town centre glistened in the morning sunlight like a child's box of treasure: cobbled streets with pale pink and blue facades, rough-slated spires and live music from stringed instruments played by lively arms in blooming blouses.
Relish getting lost in the side streets of the old city centre and look out for the tradition of the cat on the roof...
Where? Rīga, LV-1050
“If you look this way, at the glittering chandelier and the gold edged frames, the beautiful corridor. You see what communism looked like.
“At street level. What it was supposed to do.
“And if you follow me beyond this door, you will come to learn the reality.”
The blood-splattered prison cells grew smaller and darker and more and more terrifying the further into the building we went.
For an unflinching look at Riga's past under communism, visit the KGB museum.
Did you know?
Architects call Riga the Art Nouveau Capital of Europe. The whole historic centre is an UNESCO World Heritage Site.
As it happens, Riga made a lot of money just as funky gargoyles and naked maidens came into fashion (in stone wall terms, anyway.)
As the Art Nouveau capital of Europe, Mikhail Eisenstein’s work grabs the headlines and even if you don't think you're interested in it, I'd highly recommend a walk around the Art Nouveau area.
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.)
Insider Tip: Book a guided tour or let the Art Nouveau Museum introduce you to this fascinating (and unashamed) period of history.
Where to find it: Alberta iela 12, Centra rajons, Rīga, LV-1010
A twenty minute organ recital at Riga’s Dome Cathedral cemented the spirit of Riga’s heyday: 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.
Insider Tip: Buy tickets in advance or at the door for a soothing recital in one of Riga's landmarks.
Where to find it: Herdera laukums 6, Centra rajons, Rīga, LV-1050
Recommended reading: Where to Eat in Riga: The Best Restaurants and Beyond, Latvia
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
Known as "the Orthodox Church", the Nativity of Christ Cathedral has quite an unusual background. It survived both world wars, which is impressive in itself. More so though, I found it fascinating that 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
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!
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.
Riga Central Market (which translates to the delicious phrase Rīgas Centrāltirgus) lays claim to being Europe’s largest market. A stroll inside reveals plenty of insight as to what’s popular in these parts: fish. Fish, fish, fish, fish, fish and more fish. Small fish, large fish, smoked fish and vacuum-packed fish.
Yet, what kept catching my eye was the selection of bouncy, perky, orange pumpkins. Sliced and diced or hanging on a string, they were a cheery introduction to the tastes of food in Latvia.
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Grand Palace Hotel is in what is known as the Old Town, so it's a 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
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.
And, as a special shout-out, I’d love to highlight the Grand Palace Hotel. Beautiful place, wonderful service, highly recommended. Enjoy!
Hi, I'm Abi, a doctor turned writer who's worked with Lonely Planet, the BBC, UNESCO and more. Let's travel more and think more. Find out more.
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