The Latvian capital has come very far since its Soviet days and the inception of its tourism boom. Riga is nowadays one of the most beautiful and flourishing cities in Eastern Europe and the most visited city in the Baltics. Apart from being a party hotspot, Riga benefits from a wide range of cultural and architectural sights that should not be missed.
History and overview:
The territory of modern day Riga has been inhabited by tribes since as early as the 2nd century. During the early Middle Ages, the settlement continuously served as a harbour on the Daugava river, a major Viking trade route. The city itself was founded in 1201 and has been occupied and ruled by numerous foreign powers, notably the Swedish Empire, the Russian Empire, the German Empire and the Soviet Union.
Pre-Soviet Latvia has in fact only been an independent country for 32 years, from 1918 to 1940. The country was occupied by the German Empire during the First World War and Nazi Germany during the Second World War. After Germany lost the war, the Red Army liberated Latvia from the occupation only to incorporate the small Baltic nation into the Soviet Union.
Latvia made headlines in 1989 when the three Baltic nations created a human chain symbolizing their struggle against communism and occupation.
Latvia became independent after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and adopted a pro European stance, edging closer towards EU membership.
The Republic of Latvia eventually joined the European Union in 2004 and adopted the Euro as its currency in 2014.
Riga is nowadays the most important city in the Baltics, its 725k inhabitants live in Latvia’s cultural, economic and political centre, which has, unlike many other cities in the Baltics, been growing in population and economic importance over the last few years.
The city boasts a pleasant mix of modern and classic architecture, the historical centre of Riga is a UNESCO World Heritage site, which is mostly due to its well maintained art-nouveau and 19th century wooden architecture.
Note that Latvia is a multi-ethnic country, 25% op the population are Russians and 75% are Latvians, in Riga the proportion of Russians is higher but declining.
The two main languages spoken in Riga are Latvian and Russian. English proficiency is high among the younger generation while older generations usually have a better command of Russian.
The best area to stay in Riga is in and around the Old Town where you will be in walking distance to all the major sights and you will also be very close to most of the nightlife.
Monika Centrum Hotel: A great mid-range hotel in a good location with all the usual amenities, a small gym and a sauna. Not the most modern hotel but with an unbeatable price – quality ratio.
Grand Palace Hotel: One of the best hotels in the city in a fantastic art-nouveau building. If you are looking for a place to spend the night in style in Riga, look no further.
The budget option: Tree House Hostel: A great option for travellers who are on a budget or who just want to stay in a cozy and friendly hostel with other wandering souls. The location and the kind staff make this one of the best hostels in Riga.
Cultural offer and activities:
Old Riga: Riga’s Old Town is without a doubt the most charming part of the city with lots of beautiful art-nouveau buildings, cobbled alleys, medieval taverns and small shops and restaurants. In the Old Town, you will also find Lady Liberty Statue, a large monument to Latvian independance and a symbol for the long-lasting struggle of the Latvian nation.
Central Market: (Nēģu iela 7) Riga’s main market is one of the largest in Europe and consists of 5 former Zeppelin hangars which have been converted into a large market hall. In addition to its historical appeal, the market is the ideal place to buy some local products and delicacies.
Latvian War Museum: (Smilšu iela 20) One of the best museums in Riga which documents the many episodes of war, battle and conquest that have marked Latvia’s history throughout the centuries.
Occupation Museum: (Raiņa bulvāris 7) Another interesting museum where you can learn about the numerous rulers that have occupied Latvia throughout its complicated history.
Natural History Museum of Latvia: (K Barona 4) An instructive museum holding several nature exhibitions related to natural phenomena and animals, mainly focused on Latvia and the Baltics but also other regions around the world.
Latvian National Art Museum: (Janis Rozentals Square 1) Latvia’s largest art collection reflecting the development of professional art craftsmanship throughout the Baltics.
Daugava river cruise: A nice activity in the summer and spring months which will enable you to discover the various landmarks and buildings located on the banks of the river Daugava.
St Peter’s Church: The highest church in the city has been rebuilt various times and is nowadays the most important Latvian Lutheran church. It is moreover possible to take an elevator to the observation platform at the top of the tower where you will be rewarded with stunning views over the city.
Riga Motor Museum: (S. Eizenšteina iela 6) Outside of the city’s main core in suburban Riga, the Motor Museum is the excellent place for anyone interested in cars or other historical vehicles. The museum is moreover located in a very appealing car-shaped building on a racetrack.
Wine & Dine:
Latvian food is hearty and tasty and often consists of meat and potato-based dishes, served with some alus (beer). The best places to eat in order to have an authentic experience are the medieval taverns which are a common sight in the Baltics. Her are some suggestions.
Istaba: (Krišjāņa Barona iela 31) A great restaurant located in an art gallery where you can try an extensive assortment of local delicacies.
Folkklubs Ala: (Peldu iela 19) Another fantastic local restaurant with a very wide range of beers and Latvian cuisine’s finest platters on the menu.
Riga has evolved into a full on nightlife hub. Tourists from all over the world flock in to experience Riga’s party scene, the city has furthermore become one of the main destinations for British stag parties.
Kalku Varti (Kaļķu iela 11) One of the top nightclubs in the city centre. A great location with international DJs and a wide selection of drinks. One of the best places to party until dawn in Riga.
Alus Arsenals (Pils iela 4) One of the many medieval beer taverns located in old basements that should definitely not be missed when visiting the Latvian capital.
Skyline Bar Radisson Blu Latvija Hotel (Elizabetes iela 55) The Sky Bar on the last floor of Radisson Blu Hotel will enable you to enjoy a drink in a chic environment while relishing the breathtaking views over the city.
Rock Café Riga (Mārstaļu iela 2/4) A nice bar that offers pool tables, karaoke sessions and a wide variety of reasonably priced drinks.
Paddy Whelan’s Pub (Grecinieku street 4) The first pub ever opened in the Latvian capital with great drinks and fantastic food that’s diverse and very reasonably priced.
Cuba Café: (Jauniela 15) Probably the coolest latino bar in Riga with all the elements that you expect from a Cuban/ Latin American nightlife spot.
Piens: (Aristida Briāna iela 11) One of the locals’ favourite bars. A living room-like setting with a cozy atmosphere and a hip young crowd.
Final tips & verdict:
The city centre is not too large and all the most important sights are within walking distance from one other. The official red taxis are inexpensive and a great way to get to places further out, there is also a well developed tram system.
Riga moreover has a bad reputation for scamming, some of it may be overrated but considering how many stag parties are held in the city, there are enough potential targets. Using common sense will prevent you from getting ripped off in Riga, just like in any other touristy city and this should therefore in no way impair the quality of your enjoyment of this fantastic city.