Things to see & do in Riga, Latvia

The largest of the three Baltic capitals and perhaps the most reserved, Riga lacks the untouched fairy-tale charm of Tallinn in Estonia and the small-town cosiness of Vilnius in Lithuania, but dig deeper and you’ll find a cool, cosmopolitan and contemporary city that is often considered to be architecturally wealthier than its two Baltic siblings.

It is the city which gave us the first ever decorated Christmas tree – although the tradition of burning it down thankfully didn’t catch on – and after years of obscurity under the Iron Curtain, it is a city that is lighting up again, this time with a host of cool new restaurants, lively street cafes and beautifully refurbished Art Nouveau architecture.

Riga highlights

Old Town

Riga Old Town may be lacking its medieval walls, but its cobbled alleyways and ornately painted wooden houses more than make up for its missing fortifications, and have earned it a UNESCO World Heritage listing. For a great view of the Old Town’s red-tiled roofs head up the dizzying spire of St Peter’s Church, Riga’s gothic masterpiece, which can be seen across the city. Alternatively, take in the ornate facades of the 14th Century House of the Blackheads. It’s the site of the first decorated Christmas tree and has been carefully restored after destruction at the hands of the Germans then Soviets.

Art Nouveau architecture

Riga’s proliferation of Art Nouveau architecture has earned the city the moniker, the ‘Paris of the East’, and has made it one of the most significant cities for Art Nouveau aficionados in the world. Over 800 buildings around the city have been renovated since the end of Soviet rule. Striking sculptural figures, woven garlands and floral designs can be seen once again winding their way around facades all over the city.

Riga Central Market

Riga Central Market’s five distinctive pavilions made from repurposed German Zeppelin hangars in the late 1920s, with an Art Deco, neoclassical twist – make this a UNESCO World Heritage Site in its own right. Step inside and you’ll find the perfect opportunity to try some local specialties, with street food and fresh food jostling for place alongside bric-a-brac stalls and clothing. Tempting treats include smoked sausage or fish, cheese and meat-filled pastries, pickled garlic, caraway cheese and a variety of local berries.

Holocaust history

In 1941, Riga’s Jewish community was forced into a small area in the Maskavas Forštate neighbourhood on the right bank of the River Daugava and the Riga Ghetto was born. Later that year around 24,000 Latvian Jews living in the ghetto would be marched over two days into the Rumbula forest, just outside Riga, and systematically shot – the biggest Holocaust atrocity of the Second World War until the Nazi death camps came into operation. A visit to the largely outdoor Riga Ghetto and Latvian Holocaust Museum – on the site of the original ghetto in Riga – tells some of the many human stories still haunting these streets, all of unbearable sadness, but some also of survival against crushing odds.

Jurmala

Often included as an optional day trip from Riga in longer tours through the Baltic states, this pretty stretch of coastline, just half an hour from the city, offers gorgeously long pine-backed sandy beaches and ornate, eclectic architecture. Originally a string of small fishing villages, this seaside resort has blossomed over the last 200 years into Riga’s go-to spa retreat. Wander streets lined with ornate wooden houses and hulking soviet sanitoria, or simply kick back and relax on its blue-flag beaches.

Latvian beer

Sold across the city by the jar, jug or even bucket, Latvian beer deserves its own special mention. Think Belgian in terms of its quality and variety, but little discovered outside Latvia and very little exported outside the country. No visit to Riga is complete without a local pasty, served with a berry preserve and washed down with a chilled glass of beer made from the ubiquitous Baltic rye bread.

Knitted handicrafts

Latvians have a passion for knitting and markets sell a huge range of hand-knitted mittens. And with good reason; the winters here get well below freezing, with snow a regular occurrence between December and March. What tartan is to the Scots, the intricate decorations on knitted gloves are to the Latvians, with different geometric patterns and symbols holding significant cultural importance. Young Latvians in Riga are now creating a surge in demand for these traditionally knitted scarves, mittens and hats, which can be found across the city.

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Practicalities

Small group tours of two weeks take in Riga as part of a wider exploration of the Baltic states. Given Riga’s relatively recent succession from Soviet rule, in 1991, there are understandably a few tensions still remaining between Latvians and Russians living in the city. Get your visit off on the right foot by learning a few simple phrases in Latvian – rather than relying on Russian to get you by – and you’ll find that Riga’s reserved, yet friendly, inhabitants will be more than happy to crack a smile.

Despite being a city of 640,000 people and the largest of the three Baltic capitals, most of Riga’s biggest draws are tucked away in its pretty, pedestrianised Old Town, which takes around 20 minutes to cross on foot. Most small group tours include a guided walking tour to flag up the highlights. Pack a pair of comfy trainers and you’ll be well equipped to wander. St Peter’s Church, for example is just a 10 minute walk from the Central Market, or a 15 minute walk to the old ghetto, home of the Holocaust Museum.

Best time to visit Riga

Like its Baltic capital siblings, Tallinn and Vilnius, Riga enjoys seriously cold winters, but glorious – if short – summers where temperatures hit the low 20 degrees Celsius. If you’re on a tour of all three Baltic countries, and you’ll be spending time on a Baltic beach, then July to August offers a good chance of perfect toe-dipping sunshine. Alternatively, consider the May to June spring when migratory ducks and geese line waterways, or the September autumn when Latvia’s plethora of forests turn spectacular shades of red and orange. At any time of year, you’ll need to pack a raincoat and a warm jumper – the Baltic weather is an unpredictable beast.
Written by Sarah Faith
Photo credits: [Page banner: Vivid_Cafe] [Intro: Diego Delso] [Old Town : mini444] [Riga Central Market: TomasEE] [Latvian beer: Bernt Rostad] [Best time to visit Riga: Romans Kolduns]
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