• Danik Bates

Latvia travel guide: Riga

Updated: May 7

One of the most beautiful cities I have come across is one I know very well, Riga, located on the Baltic Sea in Latvia and is the largest city in the Baltic countries (Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia). A city which has many different faces due to invasions and previous owners such as the Germans, the Swedish, the Russians, and even for a while, the English (nah, that didn’t happen), there are so many structures in parts of the city which show certain periods of time. Latvia itself claimed independence in 1918 before the Nazi Germans and the Soviet Union stole the show and made Latvia part of their countries before claiming independence again in 1991. So it is here that certain parts of the city I can see the past from Swedish times, Soviet times and German times. On my discovery of the Old Town, I get to see something different and something new in every single city I visit. Here are my top things to do and see for first timers visiting this amazing city. Also to note, Olga, my wife, comes from Latvia being born in Sigulda to the north-east of the capital but was brought up here in the city before moving to England.

The Churches of Riga


There are many beautiful churches and cathedrals in the old town. The main cathedral is known as Dome (named after the German influence) and is the biggest place of worship in the Baltic. Inside the cathedral, there is one of the biggest organs in Europe to check out which has over 6700 pipes. The Dome is in the heart of the Old Town and is located on Doma Laukums (Cathedral Square) where there are some fantastic bars and restaurants to check out.

However near the Town Hall the most popular church to visit is St Peter’s Church. Built in the 11th century by the local folk and not by outsiders (known as the Livs), the church is worth visiting as it is one of the places to get a fantastic viewpoint overlooking the rooftops of the Old Town. However don’t go on a cloudy or even a windy day! It gets very cold up there! The church dates back to 1209 and once had the highest wooden tower in Europe. However the tower has been destroyed several times since, mainly due to fire breaking out.

Near the Freedom Monument is the amazing Russian Orthodox Cathedral, also known as the Cathedral of Christ’s Nativity. Built in the late 19th century and its main feature from the outside is the five golden domes, the inside is just truly amazing. The paint work on the walls and ceilings of Orthodox saints. In the 20th century during the Soviet occupation, the cathedral was turned into a planetarium. The Soviet’s also destroyed many of the ornate works of art including wall and ceiling art. Thankfully since returning to the congregation in 1990, most of the cathedral has now been restored. For me this is better than the nearby art museum, truly bedazzling and one of my favourite Orthodox Cathedrals I have come across on my travels.

One of the most colourful churches in Riga (which looks like it has been taken out of a fairytale book), is located on Pils Iela. Our Lady of Sorrows church has a beautiful blue and white facade and has a depressing name but the way it was built was very positive. The Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II was on a trip to Russia when he saw the wooden chapel located here and decided to fund the construction into a Catholic church. More funds were provided by Catherine the Great’s son and the King of Poland-Lithuania Empire and after a few years, it was completed.

Riga’s Town Hall Square


One of the top sights to hit up is the beautiful Town Hall Square which has stood here since the 14th century and was the city's administrative centre (alongside the nearby castle and Dome cathedral) which represented the interests of the residents of Riga. From being a marketplace as well as the main site of festivals to being a place where executions were carried out, this place is full of history. To the eastern side of the square is the impressive step-gabled House of Blackheads (which had to be completely rebuilt in the late 1990s after being destroyed in the Second World War) which was originally built for the city’s guilds before the place became a home for unmarried foreign merchants. Above the entrance is the medieval saying ‘if I should fall, build me again’, to which the locals did.

Next to it is the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia which is interesting for people who love studying about the Second World War and what happened to the country whilst in Soviet hands. There are plenty of photographs to show what happened during the era and there is even a replica of a Gulag barracks which gives visitors an insight of the hardship experienced by deportees.

On the northern side of the square inside the white building with a clock on top is Riga's City Hall, where all the decisions on the city are made here by the council. I was fortunate once to go inside and have a 'peek' around. Usually not open for tourists but there are some occasions where they are allowed in.


In the middle of the square is the Statue of Roland, a legendary medieval figure and one of Charlemagne’s knights (not going into the full story of Charlemagne here guys!) named Roland to which he also became a symbol of the independence of cities from the local nobility. Not sure what that means but he sounds like he does great things for the city of Riga. I just love the medieval armour he wears and the sword pointing skywards. Gives the square an even more historic look with the House of Blackheads behind it.


Did you know the first ever Christmas Tree in the world was placed out the House of Blackheads back in 1510. This is also accounted for in a medieval document. The guildsmen based here placed a tree on the square, decorated it on Christmas Day and then set it on fire around twelve days afterwards. This is one of the earliest accounts of a Christmas Tree in the world and was certainly the first in Riga. Today there is a monument which marks the spot where the Christmas Tree was placed.

Just south of the square is the Latvian Riflemen Monument which is a little bit controversial as the red granite statue is dedicated to the Latvian Red Riflemen, to which some of the people in this group were Lenin’s personal bodyguards. Locals see this monument as a symbol of the old communist system and just want to wrap a rope around their necks, tie it to a truck and pull down the statue. Other locals believe it's a tribute to Latvians who fought in the early years of the World War. Officially it honours all Latvian riflemen from both sides of the conflicts and systems.


Along the riverfront


To the western end of 11.Novembra Krastmala (which is the main road which runs alongside the northern shores of the Daugava river) has a couple of sights to see. For starters there is Riga Castle which has stood here since 1330, which has been either burnt down or destroyed by the locals many times over the centuries after being rebuilt and was recently caught on fire a few years ago (insurance job? Mafia? Someone dropped a cigarette - who knows?). However the castle not only has the president of Latvia living here, there is also the Museum of Foreign Art to check out but my favourite is the History Museum of Latvia where there are exhibits of religious sculpture, traditional regional costumes and consumer goods from the first period of independence.


Another one of my favourite viewpoints is on the bridge located next to Riga Castle. Walk a few hundred meters towards the centre of the bridge and look back at the castle and there is the perfect view of Riga’s Old Town skyline. With its castle in the foreground and spires of the churches behind it, what else could anyone ask for?

Other sights in the Old Town


Of course, no visit to the Old Town would be complete without checking out the Houses of Three Brothers. Located on Maza Pils Iela (17-21), this row of buildings covers three distinct architectural styles. Number 17 has a stepped gable and Gothic niches dating back from the 15th century and is Riga’s oldest stone residential building. On the stones next to the door is the symbol of ears of wheat which indicate that the building was owned by the baker. Number 19 with its wooden interior was built in the 17th century and now houses the museum of architecture whilst number 21 (which is the green building) was built in the 18th century. The buildings didn’t get damaged in the Second World War whilst all the surrounding buildings got destroyed.

The Swedish Gate which is located between Torna iela and Aldaru iela is the only remaining gate of the eight which were built during Swedish times back in the late 17th century. Myth has it that the gate was created illegally by a wealthy merchant who wanted a more direct access to his warehouse on the other side of the wall. These days, newly married couples pass through the gate because it is supposed to give them good luck. Opposite the Swedish Gate are three yellow buildings with orange tiled roofs which are known as James Barracks or Jacob’s Barracks. These were built in the 18th century as barracks for the local army and served as this function until the late 20th century. These days they have been converted into shops, restaurants and cafes.



Another favourite place of mine is the House of Black Cats which is a beautiful yellow Art Nouveau building located on the corner of Meistaru and Amatu Iela which has two black feline cats statues perched on the points of the towers. When the building was being built, the sculptor fell to his death whilst putting the cats up. Then before the First World War a merchant who owned the building was barred from entering the Great Guild building across the street because he was Latvian and membership was reserved for Germans only. So to piss the Germans off (back then it was a popular thing to do), he put two feline cats on the roof (which both had their tails up) and positioned them so that their backsides faced the guildhall. A long court battle followed but he somehow won, gained entry into the guildhall and turned the cats backsides away.

Opposite the Black Cat House is the Great and Small Guild Halls which were built when the German dominated the economics along the Baltic Sea. The Great Guild was built in 1384 and housed the merchants whilst the Small Guild was built much later and housed the city’s artisans. These days the Great Guild has the Latvian Symphony Orchestra based here whilst the Small Guild hosts conferences. Only the Small Guild is open to the public.

Checking out the Art Nouveau Architecture - Right, I am not going into what is Art Nouveau etc...I am not an art person. However, walking around Elizabetes Iela (around the western end of the street) and Alberta Iela is a huge collection of Art Nouveau Architecture plastered everywhere on buildings and has been recognised by UNESCO as the best Art Nouveau seen anywhere in the world. Here are a few examples I have come across. It's great to walk around this part of the city plus other areas of the Old Town and come across great pieces of art. Just keep looking up!


Back in the heart of the Old Town, The Freedom Monument is one of Riga’s top landmarks, towering 42 meters (138ft) up towards the sky. At the top is a female figure known as Milda who holds three golden stars, which represent the three cultural regions of the country, Latgale, Vidzeme and Kurzeme. At the bottom the granite base is decorated with statues representing four virtues, work, family, spiritual life and protection of the fatherland as well as Latvia’s number one superhero, Lacplesis (which has a great beer named after him!) The words ‘Tevzemei un brivibai’ means for Fatherland and Freedom. Usually there are boys training up for the army standing here at the base during daylight hours throughout the year so that they are taught how to discipline themselves and honour their country. However, don’t go up to them or try and take a photo of them so closely, you will get the Latvian treatment (not saying what that is!). Also for stag parties visiting the city (mainly British), do not PISS against the statue, you will love the local hospitality in a prison cell for a few days.

Nearby is Bastion Hill which is a man-made hill created in the mid 1800s to replace the old defensive bulwark (a defensive wall). On the hill there are memorial stones to five people who were killed by the Soviets during disturbances in January 1991 (before the collapse of the USSR and Latvia regained its independence). A couple of the people who died were camera operators who were trying to film the awful events.


Satiekamies pie Laimas pulksteņa - let's meet at the Laima clock! This clock is located just south of the Freedom Monument and is a fantastic meeting place with locals since it was erected in the 1920s. The clock has advertised chocolates but I am pretty sure a lot of ‘sweet’ romances have kindled here.

Along the Pilsētas Kanāls (the canal which goes along the northern outskirts of the Old Town), there are some beautiful sights to check out like the Opera House, walking through the park but what I love about this area is the statues dotted about. One of them is the George Armistead statue. As I am British (with a Latvian heart) this statue kinda represents the good bond between the United Kingdom and Latvia which still exists to this very day (with many Latvians living in the UK since European Union membership was given in 2004). A lot of locals think that the British are a bunch of pissheads who come over for weekends for drinking weekends and ‘stag’ do’s and get completely wasted well before midnight (I know, I have been there, done that and got the T-Shirt). However one British person left a great impression on the locals of the city. George Armitstead was born in Riga in 1847, studied in Switzerland and Oxford, UK before returning to Riga where his family owned properties and businesses. Eventually he was elected mayor of the city in 1901 and did this role until his death in 1912. Back in 2006 on the grounds of the Opera House, Queen Elizabeth the Second unveiled the statue of George with his wife Cecile and their dog to honour this great British man.


To the east of the centre


Just east of the Old Town visitors will find the international coach and train stations, the Orgio shopping centre (which has a clock tower with the word RIGA on top), as well as the huge department store Stockmann and the Forums Cinema. Behind these buildings is the Central Market which has stood here since 1930 and is one of the largest marketplaces in Europe. During the First World War, four of the five pavilions were used as zeppelin hangers. These days visitors and locals can buy meat, fish, dairy and produce as well as clothes and souvenirs. Haggling doesn’t go one much anymore compared to the good ‘old’ days.


On Akadēmijas laukums is the Academy of Sciences. This type of building which was built in Soviet Union times can be found in cities like Warsaw and Moscow and is known for its ugliness. The locals even have nicknames for this place ‘The Empire State Building’ or ‘Kremlin’ or ‘Stalin’s Birthday Cake’. On the facade there are several hammer and sickle logos up near the top. Visitors can go inside and head up to the seventeenth floor where there is a balcony. This is a great viewpoint to see the old town’s skyline. However this is only open from April to November.

One of my favourite places to eat for a cheap, nice meal which is all Latvian foods (mostly) is at the chain restaurant of Lido but the best one to eat at is a tram journey away on lines 3, 7, or 9 (or it's quicker to do the five minute taxi ride from the international train station) on Krasta Iela. Visitors can’t miss it as there is a huge windmill on top of the entrance. Here there are plenty of tables as there are three levels to this building. The basement has the main bar where Lido brews its own beer and on the first floor is where all the food can be found. Lido is open most of the day serving breakfast, lunch and dinner here as well as other Lido’s in the city and the airport (on the top level at the airport above the check-in desks). In the winter months there is an outdoor ice skating rink and a beautiful Christmas tree and display to check out.


Salaspils, not far to the east of Riga and on the outskirts of the small town of Salaspils is the German concentration camp which has stood since the Second World War. Exact figures on how many people were killed here is not known (as the Soviet Union liked to lie about the numbers and used it as a propaganda in the media) but lots of Jews were killed here by the Nazi’s or by the harsh conditions of the winter months. Walking through the entrance to the camp by a long, sloping concrete black which is placed at an angle to the ground to symbolise the boundary between death and life is an emotional affair, as I looked at the Latvian words inscribed on the wall - ‘Behind this gate the earth groans’. This was taken from a line of a poem by local Eizens Veveris who was also a prisoner in the camp here.


Inside the concrete block is a small museum with many amazing images of the camp from the war. Around the site there are huge sculptures showing people who were at the camp and in the centre of the camp is a metronome which ticks inside a stone, like a heartbeat which seems to be coming in from the depths of the Earth. Scared me at first! It can be an emotional place to walk out and I left here like I did in Auschwitz in Poland, somber and sad. To get there take the train to Dome from Central Station.



To the north of the centre


Another place to learn some dark history of Latvia when it was under the occupation of the Soviet Union is the ‘House on the Corner’, which is the former KGB building and now houses a museum. This nickname for a building on the outskirts of the centre of Riga was the most chilling and scary building in the whole of Latvia during the occupation of the Soviet Union from the 1940’s until 1991. This building used to be the home of the KGB who were the state security for the Soviets. Locals used to make a joke about this infamous building which is located on the corner of Stabu iela and Brivibas iela, that the balconies on the building were the only ones in Latvia that offered a view of Siberia. This was because thousands of Latvians entered this building and were exported to Siberia. I looked at the sign outside the main entrance. It states ‘During the Soviet occupation the state security agency / KGB / imprisoned, tortured, killed and morally humiliated its victims in this building’.

I was about to enter the building which has only been open to visitors since 2014 and is managed by the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia 1940-1991. I had a strange feeling that I was about to learn and see ‘the real, dark history of Latvia’ and was fortunate to get one of the last places of an English-speaking tour of the day (there are Latvian speaking tours but my advice is to book online for tickets which are not expensive to afford disappointment). There is an exhibition about the building in the room next to the ticket office which is free of charge and worth checking out but it's the guided tour of the dreaded cellars where locals were tortured which is the highlight.


The tour started in a small room, the tour group was locked in by the tour guide. The bunch of keys rattling and the slamming of the door sends chills down my back. The tour starts off about the history of the building and then moves on into the corridor where there was a huge door of which used to be the main entrance to the building. My tour guide (I have forgotten his name so we shall call him Sergi), explained that he was in the army during the Soviet Union in the 1980s and was stationed in the building to which he saw many things happening but would not tell the group what he saw.


The jail cells which were cold, gloomy and no natural light seeping in. The conditions were horrible and were told that these cells sometimes had up to thirty people shoved inside them. Sometimes disease would follow because of these conditions. I also saw the strolling areas (the only time inmates would get to exercise), dungeons, office workspace and the interesting interrogation room.


Since the building reopened for tourism, it has been a sign or a revelation for young people and visitors to visit this building, which is basically a memorial for those who have suffered within the walls. It is the most vivid symbol of the totalitarian regime for over five decades when the Soviets occupied. It remains as a reminder of the last century, the crap which went one inside the building, the mass repression and the genocide, which was not just happening in Latvia but all over the Soviet Union. Opening the doors to visitors is a great way to learn about their lives and finding out the experiences within the walls and give younger people a greater understanding (and also acknowledging) what happened in the past and hopefully will never ever happen again. I don’t want to give away too much information on the former secretive place but I can honestly say I came away with a better understanding on how the KGB worked and were all ears when I was hearing about the harrowing experiences which happened here.


Located: Brivibas 61 (on the corner with Stabu iela). For prices and information go to their website.


Nearby is the Laima Chocolate Museum, to which Latvia’s largest chocolate producer has opened up some of the building to visitors. Here on Miera Iela there is a fantastic interactive museum which also has a great history section on the company. I also loved producing my own chocolate video and having a personalised message printed on a chocolate bar.

One of my favourite parks to check out in the city is Mežaparks at the end of the tram line 11. The park came about when the rich people of the city had enough of the noise, grime, basically the hustle and bustle of the city in the early 20th century so they all got together to build a massive park area so they could enjoy the nature, the trees, lakes, the simple things in life. Inside the park ground is the zoo, whilst people can enjoy the lake for water sports and the wide paths for in-line skating. The park is also the home to lielā estrade, otherwise known as the Song Festival grounds. I love enjoying the scenery here, going for a run or even having a beer at a cafe. This is truly the most relaxing place in the city and has something for everyone.


At the very northern tip of the city (further north than the suburb of Jugla) is the Ethnographic Open-Air Museum of Latvia (it takes about thirty minutes to drive there from Riga’s Old Town). Located in a pine forest on the shores of Lake Jugla, this is one of Europe’s oldest and largest outdoor museums and has stood here since 1924. The museum has 118 historical buildings from all over the country. Buildings from the regions of Zemgale, Vidzeme, Kurzeme and Latgale are all represented.


The museum is a great way to give visitors of what Latvia’s rural landscape is like and how the way of life was like for the local folk over the centuries. Whilst walking around I found people who were dressed up as farmers, fishermen and craftsmen and inside a lot of the buildings there were displays showing items like tools, crafts, furniture. It is best to come here in the summer months as there are usually blacksmiths, weavers, teachers showing off their skills and there maybe the odd-band playing instruments and singing traditional Latvian folk songs.

One of my favourite viewpoints of the city is located on the 26th floor of the Radisson Blu Hotel Latvija on Elizabetes Iela at the Skyline Bar. The best views of course are to the south where the spires of church buildings overlooking Riga’s Old Town & this is where visitors should sit. The view to the north is OK I guess but I find it boring looking at the grey Soviet type buildings. The staff here are fantastic and very organised as well as the bar men serving the best cocktails in town. I also love the lounge music here during the evenings, however this place is packed at weekends and evenings. Also in the hotel is EPSA, a five star spa where hotel guests and visitors to the city can enjoy a relaxing massage, manicure and pedicure treatments, sauna and swim. I can definitely recommend this to our readers.


Vecāķi, Did you know Riga has some of Europe’s best beaches? You do know so go and check them out. Ok, Latvia is a cold country most of the year but when the heat is on, most locals go to the beach. The beaches in the Gulf of Riga are huge and long so even if every local went to the beach at once in Riga and Jurmala, there will still be lots of places to lay that towel down and get a suntan! There are usually bars on the beach as well which I really do like. The best beach to hit up and is in easy reach of the centre is Vecāķi about 15 km away and bus 24a and the train from central station is the easiest options.

To the south of the centre


I have to admit, I found there is not much to see and do on the southern side of the Daugava River but one place I did find is the Latvia Botanical Garden which is at a university located on Kandavas Iela. This is the oldest botanical garden in the country (but started off in a different location in 1922 until the government gave the gardens a bit of land in 1926 to which the gardens have flourished until this very day). Here are many rare flowers, trees and plants as well as a palm house, butterfly house and a pond. Inside the Palm house is a specimen of the wollemia nobilis, which is an ancient tree which experts thought was extinct for millions of years until it was found in a very remote location in Australia in the 1990s.

Day trips or weekend break ideas from Riga


Latvia has so much to offer. One of my favourite day trips is going to the heart of the Gauja National Park for cable car rides, hiking, checking out the caves and castles as well as taking in the beautiful folk song park of Turaida. Also the city of Cesis should be checked out.


Other places to check out is Jurmala, one of the main beach resorts in the Baltics. There are also the other coastal towns of Liepaja (also known as Latvia’s music city) and Ventspils. Further afield weekend trips to Tallinn and Vilnius can also be done.

How to get to Riga


Riga is the easiest city to get to in Latvia as well as the Baltic region. The international airport has many airlines here and is also on many airlines transfer routes, connecting Russia and Central Asia to the rest of Europe. The main airlines are Air Baltic, Ryanair, WizzAir, Aeroflot, just to name a few. There are also international coach routes to Tallinn, Vilnius, Warsaw, Minsk, St Petersburg and Moscow with EcoLines and LuxExpress as well as international train services to Moscow.

Accomodation recommendation


There are loads of places to stay in Central Riga and are all reasonable priced. However our top recommendation has to be the Welton Centrum Hotel and Spa. Located at 33, Kalēju iela (iela means street in English) and opposite the Galleria Shopping Centre, the hotel is in the ideal location. A few minutes walk from the international train and coach station, near the bus stop for Riga international airport and a few minutes walk from all the main sites in Vecriga (Old town of Riga), for first time visitors to this Baltic city.

On Arrival


Don’t let the small lobby disheartened you. Usually when we are on the road, hotels with a small lobby means small rooms and the service is not usually great. However, here we were greeted warmly by the front of house staff who checked me in very swiftly. They did try to give information on the city but when we told them we were ‘local’ and had been here since 2005, it was like ok, you want to stay in a hotel? Why? We just said ‘Independence Day - Latvia's 100th birthday’ and their thoughts must be ‘oh god, you're gonna be very drunk tonight!’. However, we did behave myself but got the munchies when we returned back to our room later by raiding the mini-bar. Back to the lobby (sorry guys, was drifting away there), modern, love the colour and the decor of the place and the fish tank in the waiting area. Here is also the entrance to the restaurant and spa. we will mention this now, we didn’t have time to go to the spa so there will be no mention of this in our review.


The room


We went for the standard double room in which we had the double size bed (other rooms in this category offer two separate beds). We actually found the bed to be very comfortable and once we were snuggled into the warmth of the quilt and shutting out the thoughts of the cold Autumn temperatures outside, we had the perfect night's sleep. The room is also equipped with a desk, plenty of storage space for clothes and luggage, ironing board and iron plus tea/coffee making facilities as well as a mini-bar (remember to pay the bill at the end of the stay). The WIFI which is free was great in our room with a strong signal.


There is also a private bathroom with all the toilet, sink and shower, where there is plenty of space to store toiletries. What we love about the bathroom the most is the heated floor.

Breakfast


Another reason when a hotel gets a good mention from me is down to the food. We don’t want to be disappointed after a good night's sleep to find the food wasn’t great. Well that didn’t happen here at the Wellton Centrum Hotel & Spa. The breakfast can be found in the Melnā Bite restaurant located on the ground floor where staff showed us our table which was in the corner of the room. The breakfast is buffet style with continental and cooked breakfast on offer with a wide range of hot drinks and juices. We could not fault the food or the service to which we came away full and ready to hit the city again before flying back to London. The restaurant also serves lunch and dinner.


Overall


On our short stay at this amazing hotel, I received warm Latvian hospitality, a comfortable and cozy sleep and had great food here. Click here to make a booking.

Afterthought


There you have it guys, these are my recommendations of places to hit up with the odd bar and restaurant to eat out off. Riga is my second home and I have been living here, coming here, exploring the country since 2005 and even got married here to a local. There is always something new to see and do every time I come here and I can tell my readers now, you will get a warm Latvian reception from the locals. They are amazing, nice and helpful. I am very proud of Riga and Latvia, it’s still developing, find it’s feet since the collapse of the Soviet Union but now a member of the European Union, NATO, Schengen, plus with the help of Nordic banks and the ideas from the locals, Latvia has come along way in a short space of time. I fell in love from the moment I first arrived and will always have a special place in my heart. I am so happy to write you this blog post and can’t wait to show many more experiences from this country as well as the two Baltic neighbours, Estonia and Lithuania.


Please note that while I was not working with any of the companies mentioned on this page and that all my trips back to my second home and family in Riga were all paid for by myself. I love Riga and Latvia so much and want to show you the city through my eyes and give you the best advice possible. My reviews and experiences written about in this post are 100% genuine. I value my readers too much to lie to you. My blog would be nothing without you and your continued support!





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