Updated: Mar 25, 2021
Where do I start? Riga has become a second home to me, as well as being one of the first places I ventured to. What attracted me to Riga in the first place is a long story, but the very short version is that involved an online casino. I Have good friends in Riga, and each time I visit I seem to befriend someone new. The people I know in Riga is my main reason for returning, along with the awesome nightlife. I think it's due to at least one of those friends that I have continued to travel the world and to live the life I do.
Riga is a charming little city, and it's quite easy to explore the old town in just a day, which is what most tourists in Riga spend time doing. There are museums, art galleries, shops selling handmade crafts and some really nice restaurants and bars.
So, what would I recommend for the average traveller in this city and in Latvia as a whole?
What to see and do in Riga
Most tourists will spend the majority of their time in Old Riga (or Old Town as it is also known). Here you can get lost in the many streets and alleyways, exploring the various small shops, restaurants and bars. As this is the more touristy area, expect higher prices here, but it is also more beautiful part of the city. Consider joining a free walking tour, or feel free to explore on your own. Most of the sights suggested following this will be in Old Riga.
The Freedom Monument
Just before entering Old Riga you'll come across The Freedom Monument. This is probably the most famous landmark and the most important symbol in Riga.
Completed in 1935, it was built as a memorial honouring soldiers killed in the Latvian War of Independence (1918–1920).
Around the base of the monument are bas-reliefs depicting Latvian history and culture, including Lāčplēsis, a popular Latvian folk hero famous for killing a bear.
Nearby you'll also see the grand Latvian National Opera House which is defintiely worth seeing.
Also close by is the Laima Clock (Laima is a confectionery company in Latvia). The clock has become a popular meeting point to meet friends and dates.
Bastion Hill can be seen from the base of the monument, as well as the City Canal, on which you can hire out a boat. This is a beautiful area to hang out in on a nice sunny day, and in the winter it's lit up with festive decorations and lights.
St. Peter's Church
Situated in the heart of Old Riga is St. Peter's Church, another of Riga's popular landmarks. The spire can be seen from quite a distance, and you can even climb to the top of the spire for a small fee to some some beautiful views.
Outside of the church you'll see a small statue of four animals "The Bremen Town Musicians" which is a famous Brothers Grimm fairy tale. It was gifted by the city of Bremen in Germany, the sister city of Riga.
Latvian National Museum of Art
Reconstructed in 2015, this is quite an impressive building inside and out. It is the largest art museum in Latvia and there are thousands of various types of artwork on sow here. During the summer months you can walk around the roof terrace from some beautiful views of the city.
On Mazā Pils iela (the street name) you will find three houses situated next to one another of varying sizes. These are the oldest houses in Old Riga. Moving from left to right, the first house dates back to 15th century, the middle house is from 1646, and the third house from the late 17th century.
Most walking tours in Old Riga will take you to the "Three Brothers" and give you a more detailed history into their history and influence on Old Riga.
Black Cat of Riga
There's a good chance you could miss this unless you know where to look for it.
The black cats can be found on top of a building in Old Riga.
There was a dispute amongst the owner of this house and the Guild House across the street. As he had been refused membership to the guild. So the owner ordered for the cats to be built with arched backs, tails up and their backsides facing the Guild House disrespectfully. The cats were later changed to be facing the Guild House.
You can find this building quite soon after entering Old Riga from the east side.
It is on Meistaru iela.
Riga Central Market
Known to be the largest market in Europe, Riga Central Market can be found to the south of Old Riga near to the bus station. Most of the stalls are located inside old German zeppelin hangers from the Second World War.
You can find all sorts of things for sale here, and an abundance of fresh food. If you're squeamish then avoid the fish stalls, as even for myself I found this to be something I'd rather have avoided seeing.
More recently they have added an area for street food which is very well priced, and a great addition to the market.
House of the Blackheads
One of the most outstanding buildings in Old Riga is the House of the Blackheads. It was originally built in 1334 and used for meetings and banquets. Destroyed during the Second World War it was rebuilt in 1999 and is now used as a museum. Outside this building is the marking where the very first Christmas Tree was. Yes Latvia did have the very first Christmas Tree, at least outside. Various countries claim they created the Christmas Tree, when it comes to Germany I think they were the first to bring the trees inside their homes.
The cathedral of Riga is one of the most dominating buildings in the old town. It dates back to 1211 and it's possible to explore the inside which has on the display one of the largest organs in Europe.
Not being much of a fan of cathedrals, I still consider it to be an impressive building, but one of my favourite things to see here is the armadillo statue which can be found on the steps outside.
A 20 minute walk north of the old town is this beautiful street. What makes this street so special? Although there are some nice cafes nearby, it's the architecture that really stands out here. The street is well known for it's Art Nouveau, and in my opinions it's well worth a trip outside of the old town to see.
Located south of the old town by the river is this statue dedicated to the giant who carried Jesus across the river. Most people would know this character as St Christopher. Many locals still leave flowers and wreaths by the statue in exchange for protection from Big Chris.
Latvian Academy of Sciences
This style of building was popular during soviet times, and seven of them still exist in Moscow. However as far as I'm aware this is the only one in Riga. It's impressive from the outside, but it's here you'll find the best view of the city. For a small fee you can enter and visit the top floor, which is now a viewing platform. You'll be able to see all of the old town from here, as well as the Daugava river and bridges passing over them.
National Library of Latvia
Also known as "The Castle of Light" is a relatively new building in Riga. Its modern architecture stands out amongst the rest of the Riga skyline. The interior is no different. There are several floors set out in a modern, if not futuristic way.
The library is obviously primarily as it's name suggests. However it's an interesting building to check out even if only from the outside. But if you have time to view the interior and have a wander around, it will be a very unique experience to the other sights in Riga.
The Skyline Bar can be found on the top floor of the tall Radisson Blu hotel at Elizabetes iela 55. Beware as there is more than one Radisson Blu on this road, you'll be looking for the tallest one which you can't miss! It stands out for miles!
The Skyline Bar is free to enter during the daytime even if you're not a guest at the hotel, but in the evening this does become a nightlife spot and you may have to pay for entry. This is one of the best views in Riga, I would say better than St. Peter's Church as you get to see all of Old Riga including the church. It's definitely worth a visit especially during sunset, although it does get busy at this time. So if you want a good seat by a window, get here early.
What to eat and drink in Riga
Pelmeni are traditional Russian dumplings. There is a restaurant in Old Riga named "Pelmeni XL" which sell these for a very cheap price. There are various types of meats inside them, as well as vegetarian and cheese pelmeni. I would not consider them the most delicious dish in the world, but if you're on a budget and need soem food to keep you going during the afternoon, this is a great place for a food stop.
Personally they are not something I have ever enjoyed, but the locals love them. They are a type of refrigerated cottage cheese (not like English cottage cheese) coated in chocolate. They have all types of flavours, vanilla, toffee, lime, the list goes on. And I've tried these several times but I've never quite understood the appeal. You'll find these in the refrigerated section of the local supermarkets "Rimi". Although not my cup of tea, they are worth trying if you want to experience something truly Latvian.
Riga Black Balsam is a traditional balsam. Originally used as a medicine, it's sold in most bars in Riga. Some people use it in their coffee, but others will drink it as a shot. There are different flavours, such as cherry and currant, but if you're in Riga for the first time I suggest trying the original. I can wholeheartedly say that the original is the worst shot I have had in my life, yet for some reason I have had this several times and always swear never to again. I feel that it's a rite of passage for anyone new to Latvia.
Lido is one of Latvias most popular restaurant chains. There are various Lido restaurants throguhout the city, although the biggest and best one is located a short drive south of Old Riga, they have a windmill and a huge ice rink here during the winter months. In Lido you will find all types of dishes, not just Latvian, but from various cuisines. The restaurants are set out a little like a canteen whereby you pick up what you want and then pay.
Another popular restaurant chain in Latvia. These are primarily sushi restaurants, although there is a huge choice when it comes to other dishes. The prices are very good value for money, although service can be somewhat slow. It usually costs me about 10 euros for a meal here. My personal favorite is the bacon sushi. Yes bacon sushi!
One of the reasons I always return to Riga, the nightlife. There are various bars and clubs in Old Riga to explore, and at weekends these are always pretty busy.
If you don't read anything else, read this! There are several bars which are best avoided due to scams. Tourists are often lured into bars and end up having to pay hundreds if not thousands of euros. If a pretty girl asks you to go to a bar with her, whether you meet her in the street or via a dating app, don't go! Always choose the bar yourself unless you know the girl well.
Avoid any of the bars on the left hand side as you enter Old Riga from the Freedom Monument. One is named Karaoke Klubs, avoid any of the bars on this side of the street until you get further into Old Riga. There's also a bar named Fly Bar which is a little further in, avoid this place too! If you're ever unsure make sure you know what you have to pay before you order or ask to pay before you receive the drink.
The Funny Fox
One of my regular haunts, but more of a tourist bar than anything else. They have karaoke every night, and friendly staff which is one of my main reasons for visiting. But you're sure to find tourists from all over the world. The only downside is that sometimes this place gets a little too busy and it's not the biggest bar in the world.
One of my new favourites. This place is a more chilled out bar which great cocktails. The staff are really helpful and friendly, and from time to time you come around with free drinks for you to try. If you're looking for a nice bar to sit and talk with friends, this is a great place for it.
A great cocktail bar full of all sorts of weapons displated. You can ask the staff to hold the weapons and get some interesting pictures. But beware, the rocket launcher is much heavier than you'd expect!
Underneath the tall Radisson Blu, this is primarily a Russian bar. I can;t say that I've ever seen any tourists in here. There are three sections, a bar, club and pub. The bar and pub often have karaoke, where by the club is usually only open weekends, but can get quite busy. It's probably better to visit here with a Russian speaking friend.
A sports bar and sister of The Funny Fox. If you want to watch sport while in Riga, there are various TV's situated around the bar which should show what you're after.
A Latvian beer bar and restaurant. In the evening they sometimes have live concerts. Although it may appear to be a traditional Latvian bar, there always seems to be a lot of tourists here.
A bar and club with several floors, which is great if you want a change of pace throughout the night. The cellar often has karaoke, the ground floor is more of a bar, and upstairs is a club.
This is a wonderful chilled out bar. They serve some really tasty cocktails, and the service is outstanding. You'll be made to feel very welcome whilst here, and it's not too expensive.