From its founding in the 14th century, one of Riga’s landmarks, the House of the Blackheads, was a social club for unmarried merchants and foreigners in the city. Not surprisingly, things could get a little wild in the lavish reception areas that the organisation’s wealthy members gathered in.
One December, in 1510 to be exact, the Brotherhood of Blackheads constructed a replica of a tree and paraded it through the streets of Riga before ‘planting’ it in front of their headquarters.
Probably under the influence of quite a few mulled wines, they decorated the tree with flowers, fruits, and lights – and danced around it.
Why was this drunken celebration significant? Well, it’s said that this moment was the invention of the Christmas Tree – and you can even see a marker in the square at the House of the Blackheads commemorating it.
Putting aside the fact that the Estonians actually claim they held a similar ceremony about 70 years earlier in Tallinn, the tale of the Christmas tree flows into how you should see the Riga of today.
Many of the things you find here now may appear similar to elsewhere in Europe, but they each have their own origin story, and the best things to do in Riga are all unique.
The stunning Old Town, for instance, has Brick Gothic churches that are an ironic reminder that Latvia was one of the last parts of Europe to be Christianised, and these buildings weren’t really embraced until centuries after they were built when the population had been finally converted away from paganism.
The gorgeous collection of Art Nouveau buildings in Riga, one of the city’s highlights, is not just about a new style of architecture.
These beautiful facades are a representation of an economic boom at the start of the 20th century that saw Riga’s population boom and change the face of the capital.
And even Riga’s museums are often statements as much as celebrations, a way of defining a city (and country) that has been ruled over the centuries by the Swedes, Polish, Russians, and Germans.
The Museum of the Occupation about the Nazi and Soviet periods, for instance, is intentionally in a building constructed by the Soviets in 1971 to celebrate Lenin’s 100th birthday.
As you start to explore the city, you’ll discover that often the best things to do in Riga have a deeper story behind their facade.
Is Riga worth visiting?
Riga is certainly worth visiting. It’s often considered the prettiest of the Baltic capital cities, with a large historic centre full of impressive architecture. Riga is a very affordable city for visitors and has a vibrant dining and bar scene.
How many days do you need in Riga?
Although Riga can be done in a weekend, you’ll likely leave feeling like you’ve only scratched the surface. I think three days in Riga is a good length of time – you’ll be able to see the main landmarks, explore the streets, and relax at some of the restaurants.
What is Riga famous for?
One of the things that Riga is famous for is its stunning collection of Art Nouveau buildings, which still decorate many of the streets in the historic centre. Some of the original medieval buildings are still among the most important things to see in Riga, but the 20th century architecture was the main reason it was named as a World Heritage Site.
Like much of the Baltics (and Eastern Europe, for that matter), Riga has been seen for the past couple of decades as a cheap holiday destination, with low-cost airlines promoting it as a perfect boozy weekend away with the boys/girls.
And while it certainly is affordable, seeing Riga (and Latvia) as a party destination does a disservice to the treasures that are on display here.
Just walking the streets, you’ll see some of Europe’s most interesting architecture in Riga, particularly from the early 20th century.
The city has an impressive collection of museums covering a wide range of topics. And there are fascinating layers of history covering centuries of changing empires.
To help plan your visit, here are my tips for what to see in Riga.
On the eastern bank of the Daugava River, with easy access to the Baltic Sea for traders, you can see why Riga was founded in this location.
From a one-kilometre stretch along the riverbank, the Old Town only goes about 600 metres inland. But within this small urban area known as Vecriga is a dense collection of historical sights.
There are some attractions within Vecriga that I’ll mention in other sections but, for now, here are some of the top things to do in Riga’s Old Town.
Town Hall Square
As you would expect from its name, Town Hall Square is one of the most important parts of Riga’s Old Town, and it’s a good spot to start your exploration.
You’ll see some of the best examples of the city’s Hanseatic architecture here from as early as the 13th century (although most of them were rebuilt after WWII). The Town Hall is obviously here, as is the House of the Blackheads (more on that in a moment). Also take note of the Roland Statue, which has a connection to the famous one in Bremen, Germany.
As a popular place for tourists, there are quite a few bars and cafes in the square these days, with their tables spilling out into al fresco area. It’s a nice place to take a break.
House of the Blackheads
As one of the most popular things to do in Riga, I thought the House of the Blackheads deserved its own place in this list.
As I mentioned earlier, it was founded in the early 14th century for the guild of unmarried merchants and foreigners known as the Brotherhood of the Blackheads. However, the ornate orange building you see today with its two triangular sections is a 1990s reconstruction after it was destroyed in the Second World War.
You can go inside the House of the Blackheads to see the medieval cellars, the luxurious halls where important events are still held, and the precious silver collection (the largest in the Baltics). To save some hassle, you can book your ticket in advance here.
The House of the Blackheads is open daily from 10:00 – 17:00.
A standard ticket is €7.
The Three Brothers
The nickname ‘The Three Brothers’ has been given to three small adjoining buildings on Maza Pils Street that, together, are considered to be the oldest complex of houses in Riga.
What makes them particularly interesting is that each of them represents a different time period, so you can see the evolution in architectural styles.
Number 17 is from the late 15th century and has Gothic decorations. Number 19 is from the 17th century and shows aspects of the Dutch Mannerism style. And Number 21 is a narrow Baroque building from the late 17th century.
Luckily you can go inside the Three Brothers because these days they are home to the Latvian Museum of Architecture.
The Latvian Museum of Architecture is open at these times:
Monday: 09:00 – 18:00
Tuesday: 09:00 – 17:00
Wednesday: 09:00 – 19:00
Thursday: 09:00 – 17:00
Friday: 09:00 – 16:00
Closed on Saturday and Sunday.
Admission is free.
Art Nouveau architecture
The Art Nouveau movement swept through Riga at the start of the 1900s, arriving in Latvia around the same time that the country was industrialising and the population was moving from the capital to the countryside.
It meant that the huge construction boom taking place embraced this new style, which is why you find so many Art Nouveau buildings in Riga today. With bright colours, curves, and organic features, the architecture makes a street almost feel like an art gallery.
I’ve written a detailed story about Art Nouveau in Riga, but here are some of the highlights worth seeing.
Rupniecibas and Vilandes Street
These two streets are in a quiet part of the city and you won’t find the tourist crowds here. It makes it much easier to get a sense of how the buildings look in situ and how they fit into the neighbourhood. 11 Vilandes Street is a highlight.
While these may not be the most famous Art Nouveau buildings in Riga, they are some of the oldest examples and show you how the style has evolved.
Some of the most iconic Art Nouveau sites in Riga are found on Elizabetes Street, and this is one stop you’ll want to make on your walk through the city.
In particular, 10a & 10b Elizabetes Street are important buildings, where you’ll see faces, peacocks, and other images amongst the rich blue tiles. On the opposite side of the street, also take a look at number 33.
Although it’s relatively short, Alberta Street is probably the heart of the Art Nouveau scene in Riga, with almost every building decorated in the style. Each has its own characteristics and there’s a lot of variety in the one stretch.
You’ll find a lot of tourists here because it’s an easy way for visitors to see a lot of the architecture at the same time. If you can visit early in the morning or in the late afternoon, you should be able to avoid the group tours.
Art Nouveau Museum
On Alberta Street, you’ll also find the Art Nouveau Museum, housed in the former residence of a famous architect, who built it in 1903. The facade has ornamental reliefs of Latvian plants and animals – a theme that continues inside.
As well as seeing the interior design of the building and its architecture (the spiral staircase is a real highlight), there is a large collection of Art Nouveau objects here, including furniture, ceramics, paintings, and clothes.
The Art Nouveau Museum is open daily from 10:00 – 18:00.
Standard ticket prices are:
May to September (Summer): €9
October to April (Winter): €5
Free admission for children up to 7 years old.
Art Nouveau tour
One way to see all the Art Nouveau sights in Riga is to use a map (or just wander aimlessly). The other is to take a tour.
If you’re interested in art or architecture, I would highly recommend seeing this side of the city with a guide. Not only will they take you to all the highlights, but you’ll learn about the significant elements in each of the buildings and hear the stories behind them.
I think this is the best-guided tour to get a good overview of Art Nouveau and the architecture in Riga.
But there are some other good options here:
Regardless, make sure you see some of these buildings because I think it’s one of the best things to do in Riga.
Although the Art Nouveau style may be the most iconic here, there are plenty of other memorable sights in Riga.
As you explore, you’ll begin to uncover a city as sightly as any in Europe, with accoutrements of sparkling mosaics and ornate iron balconies.
Landmarks often tell the story of a city. In Riga, it’s no different.
Representing Latvia’s independence, statehood and national unity, Riga’s Freedom Monument is a poignant reminder of the past. The striking copper and granite tower stands in the heart of the city and memorialises those who passed away fighting for the country’s freedom.
The Freedom Monument soars to more than 42 metres in height. As it reaches towards the heavens, there are 56 sculptures spread across four levels. Each explores various eras of Latvian history and culture.
The highlight is the nine-metre statue of a young woman that stands at the very tip. She holds a trio of stars, each representing the original Latvian provinces.
If you’re like me and you love stumbling across alluring buildings, then you’ll quickly fall in love with Riga. In the Old Town and beyond, the city’s architecture stands alongside any in Europe.
One of my favourites is the Latvian National Opera and Ballet. The opera and ballet seasons run from September to June but even if you arrive outside of those dates, it’s worth a visit. The facade, beset with striking columns, is merely the beginning, with the breathtaking interior befitting of the high arts.
With such a resplendent history, the churches of Riga have become some of the city’s most enduring symbols. They spread throughout, popping their heads (or striking domes) up above the cityscape in what will become some of your favourite Riga neighbourhoods.
The Riga Cathedral, also known as Riga Doma, is a mix of Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque styles. It dates back to 1211, with an interior rich in historic art, an incredible organ, and beautiful decor.
Another highlight is St Peter’s Church, famous for its 123-metre tower. This now features an elevator to spectacular views.
And there’s also the Nativity of Christ Cathedral, which features an embellished golden dome within a memorable neo-Byzantine church.
Frozen in time, the Kalnciema Quarter is a portal straight back to the 19th century. The protected quarter remains as it was back then, a magnificent assortment of traditional wooden buildings.
The preservation of these buildings is just one part of a larger goal, which is to maintain the quarter’s historic atmosphere. To do so, you’ll discover classic Latvian fairs, art exhibitions and workshops around the neighbourhood.
These also include the Saturday Farmers’ Market, live music and traditional cuisine at Maja.
To help round out your experience, you can pick up an audio guide from the Wine Shop & Cafe. This explores the significance of each part of the quarter.
Riga isn’t just eye-catching buildings and charming public squares. You’ll find ample green space to lay down the picnic rug to enjoy some rye bread and Black Balsam.
Alongside the Freedom Monument, Bastejkalna Park presents a calm and serene location. Nature and ornaments combine, creating a wonderful space to explore on foot. The park is home to Bastion Hill, one of the best places in Riga to see the sunset.
Vermanes Garden is the second oldest in Riga. You’ll find live music in the summer, alongside statues, blooming plants, old-growth trees and locals in intense games of chess.
Spread across almost 12 hectares, Kronvalda Park is a sprawling public space with meandering paths through lush gardens and the rolling city canal.
One of the best ways to truly know a city is to go beyond the attractions, and the landmarks and visit a local museum. By peeling back these layers, more tales come to the foreground and with that comes a greater understanding.
National Museum of Art
The National Museum of Art explores Latvia’s creative heritage through a collection of permanent and temporary exhibitions. Housed in a grandiose neo-classical building, the museum is befitting of the art it holds.
Holding the country’s most significant repository of historic and contemporary art, the National Museum of Art is the best place in Riga to get in touch with Latvia’s most prominent artists. Here, you’ll find the likes of Johans Valters and Janis Rozentāls.
Even if you aren’t much of an art aficionado, the building itself is worth checking out. You’ll be met first with the opulent columns before wandering the interior with its sweeping stairs, glass cupola, and observation platform.
The National Museum of Art is open:
Tuesday to Thursday: 10:00 – 18:00
Friday: 10:00 – 20:00
Saturday and Sunday: 10:00 – 17:00
The museum is closed on Mondays and holidays.
A standard ticket is €8 and concession is €4.50.
Art Museum Riga Bourse
Spread across six floors, the Art Museum Riga Bourse takes a slightly different approach to the previous gallery. Rather, it celebrates art from its surrounding countries, having compiled one of the biggest collections of Baltic works.
The gallery is within a beautiful Venetian Renaissance palazzo. With its architecture, atmosphere and art, the Art Museum Riga Bourse has been commended as one of the best in Europe.
Beyond Baltic art, there are five other permanent exhibitions which help guide you across the globe. These include Chinese and South East Asian pieces, alongside ancient Greek and Roman artefacts and ceramics.
The Art Museum Riga Bourse is open:
Tuesday to Thursday: 10:00 – 18:00
Friday: 10:00 – 20:00
Saturday and Sunday: 10:00 – 18:00
The museum is closed on Mondays and holidays.
A standard ticket is €6 and concession is €3.
Museum of the History of Riga and Navigation
One of the oldest museums in the wider Baltic region, the Museum of the History of Riga and Navigation is a thorough look into the city’s past. With over 500,000 items on display, you could easily spend a day across its three branches.
Historic maps, traditional clothing, antiquities and navigational instruments take you through the many eras of Riga. The journey begins as far back as the 10th century and takes you through its time as a Hanseatic port, where you’ll uncover a 13th-century Riga ship.
The journey through the Museum of the History of Riga and Navigation then continues through the Middle Ages before going into life under Polish and Swedish rule.
The Museum of the History of Riga and Navigation is open at these times:
October to April: Wednesday to Sunday from 10:00 – 17:00, closed on Monday and Tuesday
May to September: daily from 10:00 – 17:00
On Fridays in June, July and August, from 12:00 – 19:00
A standard ticket is €5 and concession is €3.
Museum of the Occupation
From 1940 to 1991, Latvia was occupied first by the Nazis and then the Soviets. The 51-year rule is immortalised at the Museum of the Occupation.
This is the place to bear witness to the impact that both regimes had on Latvia. Each meticulous exhibit at the Museum of the Occupation explores each stage of occupation with the help of historic documents and photographs.
These slowly lead you to the ever-dwindling relationship between the countries and the inevitable resistance that led to Latvian’s independence.
Complement this experience by visiting the Corner House. This is the former headquarters of the KGB in Riga and a place where Latvians were interrogated and imprisoned.
The Museum of the Occupation is open Saturday to Wednesday from 10:00 – 18:00 and closed on Thursdays, Fridays, and public holidays.
A standard ticket is €5, or €3 for students.
Free admission for children up to 7 years old.
There are actually lots of museums in Riga – more than you’ll be able to see in a single visit, but I just want to mention a few more that you might find of interest.
- National History Museum: Founded in the 1890s, you can learn more about Latvia in Neolithic times and the Middle Ages.
- Riga Motor Museum: In a building resembling the front of a vehicle, this museum explores classic, Soviet-era and racing cars.
- Ethnographic Open Air Museum: On Lake Jugla, this museum is a collection of more than a hundred historic buildings that explore the lives of Latvians from the 17th century to now.
Food and drink
So you’ve seen the architecture and explored the museums and now you’ve worked up quite the appetite. You’re probably also thinking, it’s time to live a little.
Well, you’re in luck. Let’s take a look at the other side of Riga’s culture and enjoy some of the best food and drink it has to offer.
Did you know that Riga is home to the largest market and bazaar in Europe?
The Central Market is spread across five zeppelin hangars, each packed to the brim with fresh seasonal produce. Each holds in the noise of vendors and market-goers alike to create a vibrant atmosphere.
Since 1930, the Central Market has been at the heart of Riga’s daily life. As well as bursting with heritage, the market is the place to go to load up on all your picnic goodies, fill up the hostel pantry, or grab the best fresh catch in the city.
The Central Market is open daily from 07:30 – 18:00.
Entrance is free.
So now you’ve had a taste, what better way to dive a little deeper than with a food tour? These tours peel back the layers and allow you to eat and drink as the locals do while learning and garnering appreciation for the unique flavours along the way.
Many of the tours use the Central Market as their focus, and I would recommend any of these ones, which will let you try things like smoked fish, pickled vegetables, country bread, and more:
If you would prefer to focus on Latvian wine (yes, it exists, even though you don’t hear about it much), then this wine-tasting adventure might be more your style.
Considering its size, Latvia has outdone itself in producing so many quality beers. The only issue? None of them have reached the mainstream.
Whether you blame the lack of preservatives and short shelf life or the language on the bottle, none of them have really taken off. That makes exploring the Latvian beer scene in Riga all the more exciting.
There are two main kinds of beer in Latvia, pale lager and dark. The country’s biggest breweries are Cesu, Aldaris and Lacplešis.
Though it should be said, choosing a craft beer like Siu Abula, Piebalgas or Tervetes is a great way to strike up a conversation with locals at a bar in Riga.
If you’d like an expert to show you the best varieties, then there’s this beer-tasting tour of Riga.
If you’re short on time and want to take the stress out of your visit – or perhaps you have a specific interest – then a tour is a great way to see the city.
Exploring Riga with a local expert who can provide context, and amusing tales and help you discover some of the city’s hidden gems.
A city tour is a great option for travellers who may not have a lot of time to explore Riga. These options are usually highlight-packed, taking you to the best landmarks, sights and experiences (and will include some of those Art Nouveau buildings I raved about earlier).
I would recommend this two-hour walking tour that will really open a window into the life and times of Riga, in both the old and new town.
Or there are some other great tour options here:
Another suggestion if you’re in a group is this private city tour. With your own guide you can help shape the experience to your interests while learning about Riga’s highlights.
Do you have a specific interest here in Riga or something that you wish to explore thoroughly? Although a general city tour will show you the highlights, it can often be more rewarding to delve deeper into one specific topic.
One topic that I think is really interesting to learn more about is what Latvia was like behind the Iron Curtain. This Stories of Soviet Riga tour will take you to some of the main landmarks from that period. Alternatively, there’s this communism tour that focuses a bit more on daily life during that period.
If you’re interested in the history (and often tragic past) of Jews in Riga, then there’s this half-day tour of Jewish heritage. With your expert guide, you’ll be able to explore prominent monuments as you learn about Riga’s Jewish history.
Tours don’t always have to be on foot. In fact, one of the best ways to explore is to sit back and relax on a canal boat as you see some of Riga’s best sights.
There are some great tours, including this one, that will take you down the Riga City Canal and along the Daugava River.
Along the way, you’ll pass the Central Market, Kronvald’s Park, the Latvian National Theatre, the Freedom Monument and more!
So you’ve had a few days in Riga. It may be time to branch out and see what can be discovered a short drive away.
One of the best day trips from Riga, Sigulda, is on the precipice of Guaja National Park and is one of Latvia’s most scenic regions.
With hikes through dense forests, rocky cliffs, sandstone caves and the Guaja River, it’s a great place for outdoor enthusiasts. However, those looking for a different speed will find salvation in the Sigulda Medieval Museum and the Krimulda Manor House.
Tours to Sigulda don’t just explore the town and nature, either. Many like this interesting one will take you to other memorable destinations, such as Turaida Castle and Cesis.
Or there are some other fun options for activities in Sigulda here:
You probably didn’t have a day at the beach on your Riga bingo card. But what can I say? Latvia is full of surprises.
With 33 kilometres of bonnie seashore, Jūrmala has long been the place to be to enjoy some sunshine and silky quartz sand.
This half-day tour presents the best of Jūrmala, including its resplendent white sand.
Not only will you dip your toes in the Baltic Sea but also have the chance to explore the historic seaside town, with traditional wooden homes alongside its popular promenade.
Hill of Crosses
Although it’s just over the border in Lithuania, the Hill of Crosses is easy to reach as a day trip from Riga and definitely offers something very different!
The hill has more than 100,000 crucifixes covering it, creating an atmosphere that is both beautiful and eerie. Although the authorities sometimes try to remove them, the number just seems to keep growing.
How or why Kryžių Kalnas (the Hill of Crosses) came into existence remains a mystery, but it’s become a popular destination for tourists.
If you’re interested, I would recommend this tour from Riga that also includes visits to Bauska and Rundale.
Kemeri National Park
As one of Latvia’s biggest national parks, Kemeri National Park is a great opportunity to reconvene with nature outside of Riga. But this isn’t a place of towering mountains and epic cliffs. In fact, quite the opposite.
Here, you’ll find a celebrated bog, a marshy wetland that beckons you along the elevated wooden trails. You’ll find unique biological diversity in the park from its mineral waters to therapeutic muds.
This tour of Kemeri National Park sweeps you up from Riga and takes you on a seven-kilometre journey to discover the picturesque scenes and inspiring landscapes that the park has to offer.
Or there are some other good alternatives here:
Trust me, meandering through a world of bog pine trees, moss, and sprawling pools is much more enjoyable than it may sound!