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Latvia’s capital has many things to do and lots to offer the seasoned traveller. From the cobbled streets of its well preserved medieval old town to the cool cafes and epic Central Market (Europe’s biggest), here is our ‘Riga- rously’ tested (sorry, not sorry!) guide to getting the most out of a weekend in this Baltic beauty:
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How to get to Riga old town from the airport
Riga Airport is approximately 13 km from the old town and can be reached in several ways:
Taxis are available 24 hours a day at the exit of the arrivals terminal, and will cost you around €15-20 for the journey, taking 15 minutes to reach the old town. Alternatively you can book a private transfer in advance online for around €30 – check out the Riga Airport to hotel transfer on GetYourGuide. If you want some cheaper competitive taxi fares download the Bolt ride sharing app (a bit like Uber or Grab).
Public bus number 22 takes 30 minutes to reach the edge of the old town (bus stop: 11.Novembra Krastmala). The bus fare costs €1.15 if you buy your ticket from either the airport office, the ticket machine at the bus stop, or at the Narvesen Kiosk shop (it will cost you €2 if you buy your ticket from the bus driver – cash only). Buses only operate from 5.45am until midnight and depart every 10-20 minutes.
Top things to do in Riga Old Town
1. Wander around the old town
Likely the start for most overseas visitors to Latvia and a major highlight of any Baltic itinerary, Riga’s old town is an absolute medieval gem, with incredible architecture, cobbled streets and numerous squares lined with all manner of restaurants and cafes. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the old town in Riga is easily walkable by foot and is relatively compact – we’d suggest ditching your map / phone and just wandering around (you’ll likely always find your way back to the main square by accident).
There are also lots of walking tours available (and annoying, lots of e-scooter type tours that sneak up on you quietly) so there are plenty of ways to explore the old town.
2. Views of Riga from St Peter’s Church
There are some great spots in the old town to check out some panoramic views from up high. St Peter’s Church is the most popular place to go and entry to the viewing tower will cost you €9. Alternative viewing spots include the observation deck at the Latvian Academy of Sciences and the Riga Skyline Bar.
3. Art Nouveau buildings on Alberta Street
We’d read that Riga has the highest concentration of Art Nouveau architecture anywhere in the world so we knew we didn’t have to look far to find fine examples. With most of the famed Art Nouveau buildings dating from around 1904 to 1910, your best bet is to head to Alberta Street, around a 20-minute walk from Riga’s old town and chock full of the most amazingly detailed buildings and edifices. The street is superb but note that at the time of our visit (September 2019), many of the buildings were covered in scaffolding and netting, for what looked to be major restoration work.
4. Riga Blackheads
One of Riga’s most magnificent old buildings is now home to various events including exhibitions and classical concerts. Built in 1334, the edifice suffered terrible damage and was bombed during the Second World War, but fully rebuilt again and reopened at the turn of the last century (1999).
5. Riga Central Market
The ‘father’ of all food markets (as it supposedly the largest one in Europe), Riga Central Market ranks highly for bountiful food and drink options (and used to be used during the war to store massive zeppelins / air balloons hence the massive size of all the food halls). With fresh food stalls, pop-up restaurants and micro-breweries and bars to choose from, we recommend you head here with an empty stomach and give your taste-buds a treat.
Riga Central Market also features in our Riga Cheap Eats blog – check out our Riga food recommendations here.
6. Riga Dome Cathedral
The largest medieval church in the Baltic States and built in 1211, it now also houses one of the biggest organs in Europe (almost 7,000 pipes!) As such, you may want to check out one of the classical concerts that are now regularly held here (although a bit like Prague, the quality can vary so do your research beforehand to ensure you aren’t fobbed off with some tourist fodder).
7. Freedom Monument
Located in between Riga’s old and new town on the periphery of one of the main parks, Riga’s Freedom Monument (known as ‘Milda’ by the locals) was put up in 1935 and is just over 40 metres high, meaning it can be seen from all over the city. The woman on the statue holds loft three golden stars (each representing a local region) and the monument is a permanent reminder of Latvia’s struggle in recent years for independence and freedom.
8. Three Brothers
Representing various historic periods and architectural types from Riga’s past, the Three Brothers consists of three houses, forming the ‘oldest complex of dwelling houses’ in the region (legend also has it they were built by three men from the same family…hmmmmmm). We visited a couple of times as when we first viewed them late one afternoon, the Three Brothers were all in shade so choose your visit time carefully.
9. Cat house
Not a cat house in the American Midwest way, but an old town house found in the centre of Riga’s old town, built in 1909. Although the eponymous cats are quite high up, you’ll know you’ve reached your port of call when you see large groups of tourists looking up, craning their necks, struggling to see the two black cats. The angry-looking cats are said to have been placed there by local tradespeople in a dispute with Riga City Hall, who were not happy with the building’s construction.
10. Bastejlalna Park
After visiting the Freedom Monument, take a stroll along the river in Bastejlalna Park – home to heaps of sculptures plus one of the most elaborate birdboxes you will ever see, this is a nice way to escape the hustle and hubris of Riga’s new town. There is also a sedate boat-ride you can take along the river or for the lovers, take a padlock and add it to the Riga’s love-lock bridge, situated in the ‘heart’ of the park.
11. Riga Nativity of Christ Cathedral
The largest (and dare we say it the most beautiful) Orthodox church in Riga, this cherished Neo-Byzantine monument was constructed in 1884 during the period when Latvia was part of the Soviet Empire. It is accessible to tourists and around a 20-minute walk from the old town but photography inside is prohibited and women must adorn headscarves.
12. National Library
No need to ‘book’ into the National Library of Riga as it is free to visit, but is arguably better viewed from afar, across from the river near to the old town. Known to the locals as the ‘Castle of Light’ – its shape is symbolic of the Hill of Glass and the Castle of Light found in Latvian folklore. Guided tours are available on select days, which include access to the top floor viewing gallery
13. Eat at Lido restaurant
This Latvian chain restaurant is one of the most popular cheap eats in Riga. It is a help yourself buffet comprising of local food which you pay for by weight and is the perfect opportunity to try local specialities at a very low price such as cabbage and beef mince roll, grey peas and dressed herring.
14. Enjoy a night out at Folkshub
We went to several bars during our time in Riga but this cavernous inn was our highlight, so much so that we went back every day. Beer prices are cheaper than most of the old town bars (5 Euros for two large dark beers) and the interiors are very atmospheric. With live music most nights, Folkklubs is always busy so visit early if you want to get a table.
15. Try Black Balsam
No visit to Riga is complete with trying the local drink Black Balsam (45% proof) – the taste is hard to describe (paint-thinner perhaps) and it can be had by itself (the most common way) or mixed with the likes of schnapps, vodka, coffee (!) or soft drinks. It is even used by some locals as medicine, so you have been warned – this was also one of the most popular drinks we saw being served in Folkkslubs.
Where to stay in Riga
We stayed at Rixwell Old Riga Palace Hotel, which was affordable and in a great location right in the old town (just 4 minutes walk from Folkshub bar). However the rooms were very small and tired looking (we had a pokey corner room), and the shower was so tiny that if you tried to turn around you would accidentally turn the taps off! We would only rate it for its great location. Check out prices and availability for Rixwell Old Riga Palace Hotel.
Budget options for Riga
Highly rated hostel with outdoor terrace – offers a variety of tours for it’s guests. Check out prices and availability for Wicked Weasel.
Hostel for independent travellers who wish to experience relaxing and healthy holidays – offers yoga, free vegetarian breakfasts and a reading area with library and book exchange. Check out prices and availability for Tree House.
Mid range Riga hotels
Monika Centrum Hotel
4 star hotel set in the Neo-Gothic building with on-site sauna and fitness centre. Check out prices and availability for Monika Centrum Hotel.
Wellton Centrum Hotel & Spa
Elegant hotel with some rooms offering free spa centre access, including a hot tub, swimming pool and a sauna. Check out prices and availability for Wellton Centrum Hotel & Spa.
Boutique style rooms located in 17th and 19th century connected buildings with a rooftop terrace. Check out prices and availability for Hotel Gutenbergs.
Luxury Riga hotels
Grand Poet Hotel by Semarah
Hotel with wellness centre including a pool, sauna, hot tub and a hammam. Check out prices and availability for Grand Poet Hotel by Semarah.
Luxury apartments in an Art-Nouveau-style building in the heart of the old town. Check out prices and availability for Neiburgs Hotel.
Other Europe blog posts
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- Things to do in Kiev, Ukraine
- Madrid on a budget, Spain
- A weekend in Seville, Spain
- Travel guide: Budapest, Hungary
- How to spend a weekend in Vienna on a budget
- Sofia: budget travel guide, Bulgaria
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