Shouldering Estonia to the north and Lithuania in the south, Latvia is one of the lesser travelled eastern European countries. Despite this, a modest 2-million travel to the capital of Riga each year. Known for its incredible art nouveau architecture, medieval Old Town and potent black balsam liqueur, Riga is one of the most fascinating cities I have ever had the pleasure to visit.
In keeping with our tradition of visiting eastern European cities over winter (see Tallinn, Prague and Gdańsk & Sopot) Kasha and I flew to the Latvian capital and discovered a city rich with culture and humour, where every stone tells a story. Take a peek at some of my favourite things to do in Riga, and inspire your own trip to this Latvian gem.
Get a Panoramic View from St Peter’s Church
As per tradition, the first place we visited gave us a bird-eye view of the city. This impressive church dates back to the early 13th century, yet its construction spans three distinct building styles: Romanesque, Baroque and Gothic. Inside the impressive vaulted ceilings will cause you to crank your neck up to the sky, but it’s at the top of the tower where you’ll really find the magic. A laborious, rickety elevator ride takes you to the observation platform where – if you can brave the winter cold – you’ll be treated to spectacular 360° views of Riga.
Join a Free Walking tour
Thankfully, Riga is a very compact city that’s easy to explore on foot. But if you want to delve a little deeper and hear some local stories, there are free walking tours (donations welcome) that start right outside St Peter’s Church; the perfect way to orientate yourself. The tour starts every day at 12pm and you’ll most likely be guided by a student.
Our guide Alexander shared with us some amusing local tales, shared some fascinating information about the city and gave us a great flavour of the Latvian sense of identity and humour. If you are new to Riga, this is a great activity to start with.
Warm Up With Laima Chocolate
When we arrived in Riga, the temperature was a reasonable 5°, which was balmy compared to the plummeting -21° two weeks previously. Despite this, the icy wind blowing in from the Baltic meant the opportunity to warm up with a deliciously rich hot chocolate was more than welcome. The biggest and best known chocolate maker in the Baltic, Laima’s confectionary history dates back to 1870. After drinking down one of the best hot chocolates I have ever enjoyed, we both stuffed our bags with boxes of chocolate to take home, and at a very reasonable price I might add.
Visit the Art Nouveau District
The startlingly beautiful architecture in Riga’s famous Art Nouveau district is a wonder to behold. Half naked waifs, noble figureheads and gargoyles are just some of the designs you’ll spot here. The buildings date back to the late 19th century, when the city was experiencing a boom and the elaborately decorated buildings are testament to Riga’s wealth. After exploring the facades on Albert Street, you can pop across the road into the Art Nouveau Museum, where you’ll discover a period apartment decorated almost exactly as it was 100 years ago.
Travel Back in Time at the Latvian Ethnographic Museum
On paper, this seemed like an attraction I might have skipped. Not only is this museum 30-minutes outside of the city, but it’s also an open-air attraction on the banks of Lake Jugla. Sometimes I am very wrong in my assumptions, this was one of those times. The Ethnographic Museum turned out to be one of my highlights of the trip.
Upon entering you’ll be handed a map and then you are free to explore one of the oldest and most incredible open-air museums in Europe. With the snow on the ground and great pine trees above you’ll stumble upon 118 historical buildings ranging from great windmills to tiny chapels and farming villages.
You’ll learn all about Latvian communities a hundred years ago, and even get the chance to step inside a number of authentically decorated houses where some charming actors tell you some details about what life would have been like for its residents. Not all of the buildings are open in the winter, but the blend of fresh air and few visitors gave it a serene and magical atmosphere. I strongly recommend this whatever the weather.
Marvel at a Russian Orthodox Church
The Russian residents in Riga accounts for around 45% of the city’s population, partly due to the mass migration here during the occupation. As such, the city has a number of Russian buildings which includes the Nativity Cathedral. This golden-capped masterpiece is a beauty inside and out, and entirely free to enter. The interior frescos and elaborate gold embellishments are well worth your time. Be aware though, this is a popular working church and no photographs are permitted inside.
Eat Drink and Be Merry
When it comes time to chow down to some good food, Riga doesn’t disappoint. Unbeknown to the rest of the world, Latvians adore Italian food (perhaps it’s their desire to be transported away to somewhere with slightly more agreeable weather!). Our fave spot was La Kanna Cafe, a charming restaurant and deli with an invitingly warm atmosphere and fantastic value meals. Full to the brim with locals, this Tērbatas Street restaurant was a mere 10 minutes walking distance from the Freedom Monument and the carbonara here was, in a word bellissimo.
For more rustic fare I wholeheartedly recommend the Amber Way Tavern. Billing itself as the place to go for authentic Latvian food, the menu is full of wild boar, smoked fish and honey beer – otherwise called mead. Located in the cellars of the pretty Jacob’s Barracks, this cosy subterranean eatery has a folksy atmosphere, only slightly offset by the fact it’s a little touristy. The top-notch food however, more than makes up for it.
As well as being a city of culture, Riga is a city of students so the bar scene here is lively with locals and international visitors enjoying beer, music and – of course – the infamous Riga Black Balsam. By a long way, our favourite place to kick back and drink was a venue called Folkklubs. This lively folk club had everything: the largest selection of draft and bottled local beer in the city, tasty Latvian wine, phenomenal food, traditional live music and the tastiest garlic bread on earth. I’m not ashamed to say we came here about three times.
For other drinking dens, I enjoyed the student atmosphere of I Love You (down the road from the Amber Way Tavern) which regularly has alternative DJs and bands perform (Sigur Ross once played here!). For a more unusual choice, head over to the retro Café Leningrad, where you can sample items from a vast drink & food menu next to a bust of Lenin; Nostrovia!
If you enjoyed this post, why not check out the most exciting things you can get up to in the neighbouring capital Tallinn?