White Baltic beaches, dense evergreen forests, magnificent art nouveau buildings: Riga’s reputation as the “Baltic pearl” is well-earned. Latvia’s capital of only 700,000 people is still a hidden gem, and its best feature is that it’s a great city to explore on foot. Here’s our list of unmissable things to do in Riga — and to discover outside of it as well.
Sveiki Riga! (Hello, Riga!)
For a spectacular view, the Academy of Sciences is well worth a visit. This old Soviet-style building is located in the south of the city, and for a small fee of five euros, an elevator will take you to the top. With only a couple more steps, you’ll reach the wooden observation deck on the 16th floor.
From the observation deck, you’ll have an amazing view of the city. Near the pointed TV tower, you’ll see the wave-shaped National Library sitting on the bank of the Daugava river, the great hangars of the Central Market, and the church spires of the Old Town. All of these places are worth a visit if you can spare the time.
Latgales priekšpilsēta (Latgale Suburb)
Once you’re back on solid ground, I recommend that you leave the Academy of Sciences and turn on Maskavas iela (Moscow Street). This street actually gives this part of the city its informal name: Maskachka (Moscow District), even if it’s officially named Latgales priekšpilsēta. Here you’ll discover a slightly rougher side of Riga, far from the tourist hubbub of the Old Town.
A walk around this area will show you something most tourists will miss: small, simple wooden houses lining the streets, almost like huts. Arguably, the influence of the Soviet occupation of Latvia (from 1944 to 1990) is most evident here, since this is home to a large part of Riga’s Russian minority. In fact, Russian is spoken much more widely here than the official Latvian. Overall, around a third of the population has Russian roots, so any Russian language skills would be a definite bonus on your trip.
Sadly, this area doesn’t have the best reputation among the locals. If you ask, they’ll most likely tell you not to wander here at night, especially with an expensive-looking camera.
The Central Market
The next thing to do in Riga is take a trip to the Central Market, located right next to the Moscow District. The sheer size of these imposing market halls is a reminder that they once served as Zeppelin hangars. Today they house local produce specialties like blueberries, mushrooms and caraway, but also reasonably priced, locally made products. Every single day.
This place draws in locals doing their weekly shopping, as well as foreign visitors just looking for a bite to eat. If that wasn’t enough, alongside all the food options there are masses of flower stalls. The selection both inside and outside the sprawling halls is truly vast. Whether as gifts or decorations, flowers are a traditional part of Latvian culture, and in June the country celebrates Jāņi (the Summer Solstice) with floral wreaths, singing and dancing.
Vecrīga – Historic Town Center
The historic center is where, tucked away between the tourist groups and souvenir shops, you’ll spot Riga’s picture-perfect motifs: church spires, marketplaces, inviting cafes and restaurants. As the historical heart of the town — and center of Riga’s food scene — Vecrīga is not something to miss. Here you can also see the Brīvības piemineklis, the Freedom Monument. From there, the road will take you to Saint Peter’s Church, which has a tower you can also climb for a view of Old Town.
Next, it’s time for a walk along the canal, which twists its way around the Old Town like a blue serpent. If you find yourself a little hungry or thirsty, be sure to stop by one of the tea houses or restaurants for a rest. Warm drink in hand, you can watch the ducks swim up and down the canal through the large glass windows of the wooden buildings.
The Berlin Of The Baltics
Had enough of walking? Then it’s time to discover Riga’s artistic and cultural scene. Look out for Vernissagen in both the big art museums and in the smaller, hidden-away galleries too. Plus, the National Library always has an exhibition or two on the ground floor.
These exhibition halls are filled with famous artists as well as students of the Latvian Academy of Arts. And installations, photography and paintings are not the only things on offer — there’s music too. Latvia is known as a “Nation of Singers” and traditional songs are still very popular today. This is primarily because nearly every Latvian was once part of a choir as a child. Singing is deeply rooted in the country’s history, often as an expression of protest against occupation.
The musical inclination of the Latvian people is reflected today in Riga’s music scene: classical music, rock, jazz, or perhaps even EDM? You’ll find a bit of everything in Riga’s halls, bars and clubs.
City, Forest, Sea
For a glimpse of the white Baltic beaches or the Latvian forests, you’ll need to get on a train. After about an hour’s journey northwest from the central station (a ticket will cost you around three euros), you’ll be running your fingers through the sand with the sea beside you. Jūrmala, Riga’s nearby seaside resort and spa, boasts a 12-kilometer beach with the best conditions for building sandcastles.
Another good day trip (again only a short train ride away) is the Ķemeri bog. Take a stroll along the boardwalk through the moor, where you can pick mushrooms from the surrounding woods — assuming no one beats you to it. Perhaps you already picked up a basket at the Central Market, but you can never have too many mushrooms in Latvian cuisine.
A Quick Goodbye
Had enough nature and culture? Back in the city you’ll find a colorful and bustling crowd in the bars of the historical town center. In almost any of these, you can try Riga’s traditional drink, Rīgas Melnais balzams, a liqueur flavored with spices and berries. Or pick a nice Latvian lager to enjoy before you leave. Cheers!