Riga is not Talinn. Meaning that unlike the Estonian capital, Riga is not as crowded, but not meaning that it isn’t every bit as charming. You could say that this Baltic capital is unfairly underrated. With less than a million people living there, it remains cozy, but it’s still very diverse, lively and young. And let’s not forget utterly gorgeous in architecture.
In fact, the entire historical centre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And then there are the plethora of awesome nightlife options, from dance-all-night kind of clubs to Soviet themed bars and everything in between.
Convinced already? Book a ticket and check out the top 9 things to do in Riga, Latvia. Or read the article first, like normal people do. That last one was just one of those things us, writers say to get you pumped up for the cool stuff we have to tell you.
Remember that UNESCO World Heritage thing? Well, they know their stuff. Riga’s center is stunning. The narrow cobbled streets, the unique mixture of architectural styles (you can find buildings from the Baroque, the Medieval-era, the Romanticism, the Modernism…), the silent courtyards… There is a certain spirit to Old Riga that can only be felt, not explained. Churches, tiny town squares, tales and urban myths and ghost stories and so much more. A few key places you should not miss are the Riga Castle, the Town Hall and the House of Blackheads, the Riga Dome Cathedral, St. Peter’s Church. Oh, and we can’t forget Rozena Street, which is the city’s narrowest street, where you can touch the opposite walls just by spreading your hands.
Not only is the 15th century basilica an architectural gem in it’s own right, but it also has the tallest tower in the city. And a viewing platform where you can enjoy a breathtaking view of the Old Town, the port, the Riga Bay etc. The original Gothic tower can no longer be seen, since it collapsed in the 17th century and it was rebuilt in a Baroque style. Then during World War II both the church and the tower suffered enormous damage, so what you see now (even though it appears much older) was what they built in the 60s.
Also, mind the rooster. The rooster weather vane on top of the tower is the seventh one it has had in its’ history. The other six were mostly victims of storms, except the sixth one that fell when the tower collapsed. The current one is an exact copy of that last rooster and it was placed there in 1970.
Lastly, you might wonder why there is only a hand for the hour on the clock. Latvian wonder, too. It’s a local tradition, basically. Clocks only get an hour hand. Go figure.
North of the Old Town you will find the Art Nouveau Quarter of Riga. Tall, bright buildings with intricate facades replace the red-brick houses of the Old Town. When Art Nouveau first became popular in the beginning of the 19th century, Riga was wealthier than ever, so naturally a lot of beautiful new buildings in this fascinating new style were erected. At the heart of the Art Nouveau District is the Alberta street, which is a good starting point for your walk. At Alberta 12 you will find the Art Nouveau Museum, a definite must, not only for the grand and gorgeous staircase, but also for the period furniture and artwork.
The Riga Central Market is one of the largest in Europe. Throughout its’ history, markets have always been at the heart of this Baltic capital and the current enormous central market is no different. The location is often referred to as the ‘belly of the city’. It is huge, colorful and always bursting with life. This is a great place to buy fresh produce, as well as milk, meat and fish and then give some Latvian recipe a try. You will also notice how many locals there are, even though it is a popular place for tourists, too. A few things you should definitely grab and taste are the kvass, the wonderfully wholesome rye bread and the pickles (as fresh and crunchy as they come).
Latvians suffered occupation from both Nazis and the Soviet Union (the Soviet occupied twice). The museum tells the chilling, yet incredibly important story of the terror, the atrocities, the opposition, the faith and finally, the regained freedom. Unlike other items on this list, the museum of the occupation is not a fun one, but it will be one to leave you with plenty of food for thought, as well as gratitude for every bit of freedom that you have. Located in the former US embassy, the museum has also opened an exhibition in the building where the KGB used to reside. This exhibition, dedicated to the operations conducted by the Russian secret service in Latvia between 1940 and 1991, has free admission and you can the KGB cellars as well.
Looking for even more grim and sobering exhibitions? The Holocaust Museum is yet another tale of the suffering of Latvians through the 20th century. Even the length of the list of victims is enough to make you feel and understand the pain. The Nazi camp territory remains in its’ original state. The cobble stone streets and wooden houses, where the Jewish once lived, also remain unchanged. This is a place where the sheer horror lingers even after all these years.You will see some family members of the victims — there are plenty who visit to pay their respects to the deceased. Too many, even. Yet another reminder of the sheer hugeness of the tragedy
This one is further away from the city center, but it is so worth the time you will spend getting there. Clusters of 19th-century wooden buildings are home to tiny wine shops, art galleries, artist studios, cozy restaurants, beautiful exhibition spaces and everything else your hipster soul desires. This is the artistic heart of the city and you will always find fun and unique events to attend around Kalanciema. It is particularly awesome during the warmer months, when there is a plethora of open-air events and the quarter buzzes with life day and night. Every Saturday you can visit the weekly market with produce from local farmers and artisans.
A bite at a funky medical-theme restaurant? This is not an experience you can have every day. With chefs and waiters in scrubs, kitsch, quirky and borderline fetishy atmosphere, the Hospitalis restaurant is an eatery like no other. You will not get regular cutlery either – meals are enjoyed in stainless steel dishes with surgical utensils. The waitresses (with signature orange wigs and dressed in nurse uniforms) can also tie you in a straitjacket and spoon feed you your meal. As for drinks — you get those in a beaker, not a glass. They even claim all accessories come from actual hospitals.
By day, Riga offers glorious architecture and rich history. By night, it is the party wild child of the Baltic countries. Start off the fun with a sip of the traditional Riga Black Balsam. It is a vodka-based drink, infused with various herbs. Legend says that Empress Catherine the Great of Russia was cured from an illness by this liqueur. Whether you believe in its’ healing properties or not, though, be warned that the Black Balsam is a 45% drink, so take it easy. As for nightclubs, there is a huge range of places, depending on your style.
For a good dance party, don’t miss La Rocca. Top 40 style music is the policy here but since it is popular with the Russian community you will get a lot of Russian pop as well. One of the biggest advantages of La Rocca is that in spite of its’ flashy interior admission and drinks are quite decently priced.
Nobody Writes to the Colonel (affectionately referred to as ‘the Colonel’ and also known as Pulkvedim Neviens Neraksta in Latvian) is the exact opposite of La Rocca. It takes its’ name from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel, which should already tell you a little about the crowd you will find there — Riga’s hip and cultured youth. Music is varied, almost unpredictably so, so make sure to check the programme first. You can find anything from retro hits to acid jazz and even punk. Go with an open mind and maybe a drink in your system. Not that I am saying that you can’t have fun without it. Stay sober, kids. If you want to.
Riga has it all, indeed. History, architecture, party, art, adventures, stories to be heard and lived and written.
PS: If you’re interested in meeting some Latvian girls before going, there are a lot of them on Russian Cupid.