Riga's Old Town & More
Riga, capital of Latvia and the largest city in the Baltic states, is a great destination for a weekend break. It's packed full of things to see and do, including a beautiful old centre with stunning architecture, plus loads of fascinating museums and pretty parks, and because it's so compact, you don't have to travel far between attractions.
The Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a perfect place to start your exploration. It's full of narrow cobbled streets, pretty squares, historic guild halls, and Medieval churches. Sadly, World War II bombs destroyed much of this historic area, but it was beautifully restored in the 1990s following Latvia's independence from the USSR. Today, the Old Town is a lively place with plenty of restaurants, bars, galleries, and museums.
Head to Ratslaukums, the square in which stands the rebuilt 18th-century City Hall, and you'll discover one of the most striking buildings in Riga, the House of the Blackheads. Originally built in the 14th century for the Brotherhood of Black Heads, an association of unmarried merchants, this guild hall is a symbol of the city's importance as a trading port during Hanseatic League times, and hosted many meetings, banquets, and celebrations. Behind the opulent facade, you can learn about the house's history, and see the collections of antique furniture, weapons, and armour, plus portraits of noblemen. The only original parts of the building remaining are the basement vaults.
Nearby is Dome Square, home to the Medieval Lutheran Riga Cathedral, which was started in the 13th century and features Romanesque, Baroque, and Gothic architectural styles. Inside, there's an organ with 6718 pipes. The cathedral's chapter house contains a museum with a collectio of many items relating to the city's history, including maps, navigational instruments, and clothing.
If you’re in Riga during the festive season, you’ll find one of the city's Christmas markets in Dome Square, while there are others that take place in Livu Square and Esplanade Park. You can pick up gifts such as hand-knitted socks, gloves, shawls, candles, and carved wooden spoons, as well as sample local delicacies like grey peas and bacon, and gingerbread, which you can wash down with mulled wine.
Walk east from Dome Square for a couple of minutes and you'll pass the Cat House, a Medieval-inspired Art Nouveau building that features copper statues of cats on its corner turrets. It's one of more than 800 Art Nouveau buildings in Riga that date from the early 20th century; you'll also find good examples in Elizabetes and Albert streets.
Continue past the Cat House and you'll soon reach Bastejkalna Park, an open space that's bisected by the City Canal, a former moat that was part of Riga's old fortifications. It's a great place for a stroll among the trees, statues, flowers, and old gas lamps. It's also home to the Freedom Monument, a 42-metre-high memorial to soldiers killed in the Latvian War of Independence, which took place from 1918 to 1920. It's topped by a copper statue depicting Liberty holding three golden stars aloft.
Surrounding the park are a number of important edifices, including the Latvian National Opera. This Neoclassical building dates from 1863 and hosts both opera and ballet performances. Its 2022 schedule includes productions of "La Tosca", "Swan Lake", and "La Bohème".
Also on the edge of the park is the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia, which covers the more than 50 years of occupation by the Nazis and then the USSR, before independence came in 1991. You can learn about Latvians who were sent to Siberian gulags as well as those deported to concentration camps during the Holocaust. There's a sister museum in Riga, the sobering Corner House, which is in a former KGB building. It details the activities of the Soviet secret service in Latvia, and you can see the prison cells, interrogation rooms, and execution chamber they used.
Situated between these two sites is the Latvian National Museum of Art, which displays Latvian art from the 19th and 20th centuries. The permanent collection includes 7000 paintings, 18,000 works of graphic art, and nearly 2000 sculptures from artists including the likes of Janis Rozentals, Arturs Baumanis, and Konrads Ubans. You can also go up to the museum's roof terrace for city views.
Another park to stroll through is the leafy Kronvalda Park. It's divided by a canal and offers lovely views from all angles. It's particularly picturesque in the autumn. Any time of year you visit, make sure you see Sam, the giant sculpture of a monkey in a spacesuit.
If you’re feeling hungry, head to Riga Central Market, which was built in the 1920s within former German Zeppelin hangars. This huge building has more than 72,000 square metres of space, housing over 3000 stalls that sell fresh fish, meat, fruit, vegetables, and dairy produce, plus there are delicatessen stalls where you can pick up ingredients for a picnic. Local delicacies you can try include smoked eels. Fans of sauerkraut will think they've died and gone to heaven. And keep an eye out for the tiny corner stall selling all kinds of dumplings. The warehouses surrounding the market have been repurposed as an arts and entertainment area, the Spikeri Quarter, where events including open-air cinema screenings, a flea market, and concerts take place. You can get to the market from the Old Town by walking south along the banks of the Daugava River — along the way you'll get a view of Riga Castle, the official residence of the President of Latvia.
Many of Riga's main attractions, including the Old Town, are on the right bank of the Daugava River, but head across the water to the Kalnciema Quarter and you’ll find a neighbourhood area of preserved 19th-century wooden buildings, and wide, tree-lined streets that's a great place to take a stroll. The area hosts a market every Saturday, with farmers' produce, and arts and crafts, plus live music and entertainment.
Riga is only a few miles from the sea, and if you're visiting in summer (although you can go any time of year), you can hit the beach at the seaside town of Jurmala. You'll be following in illustrious footsteps, with Soviet leaders such as Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev among those who regularly visited the resort. It takes about 30 minutes by train from the city to get to Jurmala Beach (alight at Majori station). Much of this long beach is in fact backed by woodland, and most of the buildings are set back quite a way from the shoreline in streets hidden by the trees, so the beach has a tranquil feel. Take a windswept walk outside of summer and you can go beachcombing in search of amber that has washed up on the sand.
Another day trip you can make if you have time is to the Ethnographic Open-Air Museum of Latvia, 30 minutes from the centre of Riga by bus. The museum is a great place to learn more about Latvian cultural history, and it features more than 100 traditional buildings relocated from across the country, dating from the between the 17th and early 20th centuries. You can discover the cultural differences between Latvia's four provinces, learn about traditional crafts like pottery and weaving, sample Latvian cooking, and discover the events most important to Latvians, such as summer solstice celebrations.
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See our top tips for a weekend in Amsterdam.
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Ready to go? Find deals to Riga in our city breaks collection.
Nick Elvin and Sara Kriegel contributed to this post.