Why visit Riga?
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In 2017, we booked a mystery weekend trip and ended up in Milan. We loved the excitement of a mystery getaway so much, we decided to book another one. This time we went to Riga. There was no particular reason to go to Riga, but after visiting, we think more people should experience the lovely capital of Latvia. I hope you’ll enjoy our guide of things to do in Riga.
The date of our visit was 17-19 April 2018 and we hope to get back to Riga on a road trip in our converted van in 2020.
Where is Riga?
When we found out we were heading to Riga, we didn’t even know where Riga was, what to do or even which currency they use (Latvia uses Euros € and it has been the official currency there since 2014).
Riga is the capital city of Latvia, which is in north east Europe. Latvia was previously part of Soviet Russia. Latvia gained independence in 1918 and joined the European Union in 2004.
Rebecca and I spent 48 hours in Riga. We explored and found lots to do in this magical city. So much so, we will be going back in our van on a European tour.
Getting around Riga
We landed at Riga International Airport (Starptautiskā lidosta Rīga) and used Google Maps to find a bus into the main city of Riga. Catching the bus was easy and only cost about €2 each to get into town. Once we arrived there were plenty of local buses and even a sightseeing city tour bus, which is a great way to get around when you are new to any city.
Top things to do in Riga – 8 things not to miss
Here are our eight things not to miss when you visit Riga:
Black Cat House
A black cat with its back arched has become the unofficial symbol of Riga because of an unusual house with two black cats perched on its turreted roof. It’s worth a visit when you’re in town because of its location and its story, if not for its beauty.
The Black Cat House as it is sometimes called was built in 1909 and is the subject of local legend. One version is that the man that built the house was refused entry to the local tradesmen’s guild and showed his annoyance by placing two angry cats on the roof of his house with their bums facing the offending guild on the other side of the square. Another version is that he had their bums facing the town hall following a dispute with the local council about planning permission to build the house.
St. Peter’s Church
At over 800 years old, St Peter’s Church is one of the oldest buildings in Riga. During our visit we didn’t get to see inside as there was an event on but from the sneak peek I was able to get, it needed to be on the list.
It’s €9 to go to the top and the views from what I have seen are breathtaking. (Wikipedia page)
The Museum of the Occupation
We both felt very welcome in Riga while exploring and have fallen in love with a new city. Before visiting, we knew very little of the history of Riga but by visiting the Museum of the Occupation, we learned a lot about the history of Riga and the trauma that the people of Latvia have been through in the past.
I’m unsure about visiting museums sometimes but the Museum of the Occupation is a reminder to the world of what happened in Latvia during occupation regimes.
Riga Central Market
If there is a local market in a city we are visiting, it will be on our must-see list. Living in London and now in a small market town in the UK, we love the vibe in any market area. It’s where you can normally find very fresh and high-quality local food. The Riga Central Market is no exception. The size of five zeppelin hangars, this 1930s-built market is a place where real locals hang out.
As with any market or busy area, beware of pick-pockets and keep your valuables safe. But as markets go… wow.
Sightseeing Bus Tour
City Sightseeing red bus tours are a great way to get around and see the city you are visiting. I’ve used them in many cities I’ve visited and being able to hop on and off when I want to allows me to get around to see the city’s main sights.
We chose a two-day pass to get around and see the main sights of Riga. Bus tours are also a great way to see a city when it’s cold or wet as you can sit downstairs inside the bus and do a full tour without setting foot outside. The route in Riga takes about 90 minutes to do a full loop.
House of the Black Heads
The House of the Black Heads is a breathtaking building that was built in 1334 as a local place for merchants to meet up. A lot of the building was destroyed during WWII but has since been rebuilt. It costs €6 to get in and it is worth exploring this historical site. We found the outside stunning and the inside is full of surprises. The walls the ceilings and décor are beyond what we expected to see.
Freedom Monument and Gardens
The Freedom Monument is a memorial in honour of all the soldiers who lost their lives during the War of Independence. The monument stands at 42m high and is located in Bastejkalna Park. While in the park you can relax in the tranquil atmosphere or even take in a boat ride. I’d love to come back here in autumn and see all the leaves on the trees changing colour.
Apsara Tea House (Best Chill Out Tea House Ever)
Located in the Vērmanes Dārzs Park, serving a wide variety of tea and confectionery, this is a great place to go on cooler days. (We went three times during our April visit.) After choosing our tea (and some cake), we headed upstairs. The structure is circular with cushions on the floor facing out. We took our shoes off and made ourselves comfortable on the floor. It’s a great place to visit with a very relaxed vibe. We spent a couple of hours watching the world go by and relaxing after a day’s exploring.
Other things we wanted to do:
We wanted to visit the Nativity of Christ Cathedral, which is the largest Orthodox cathedral in the Baltics. In the 1960s it was converted into a planetarium but has since been restored back into a cathedral. We passed this on the bus tour and unfortunately didn’t have time to stop. With its golden domed roofs, I can only imagine how amazing the inside is.
Day trips from Riga to other areas in Latvia
When we were looking for other things to do, see and explore outside of Riga, we visited GetYourGuide online. It’s a great place to book your tours before you go and create a detailed itinerary. You can also find things to do that are further afield if you are planning a longer visit to Latvia. We really liked the look of Wild Nature Hiking at Gražutės Regional Park.
If you book an activity through our link, we receive commission. There is no additional cost to you and we only recommend activities we have done or have on our to-do list when visiting a city.
Unusual things to do in Riga
Drink Birch Sap
This wasn’t our favourite but birch sap is a local drink that’s drunk in spring to detoxify the body after the rich food of winter. This unusual drink tastes a little bit like salty water to me but contains 17 amino acids, as well as minerals and vitamins B & C.
Try Maple Juice
This has been a Latvian tradition for many centuries. The maple juice flows each year when winter starts to recede and spring arrives with the first birds. The juice comes from the Legatney district from a very special maple tree. A wine makers’ family has taken care of the tree for over 100 years. To me it tasted a little but like watered down maple syrup with wheat grass.
Take a Segway or Bike Tour
We love to explore on foot mostly but for something a little different a great way to get around Riga is on a Segway or bike tour. A Segway tour is a fun and unusual way to see a city but we like to use our own power and cycle. On a nice warm day, it would be fun to do this two- to three-hour bike tour to explore the regions surrounding the old town of Riga. You’ll get everything you need included (bike, helmet and tour guide).
Or, if you’re feeling a bit more adventurous you could try the Swamps and Bogs Fat-Bike Tour through GetYourGuide.
Explore with a Local
Since returning from our trip I’ve been looking at other ways to explore Riga and I came across this private three-hour tour that gives you a taste of what life was like under Soviet occupation. Learn about daily life and learn more about Latvia’s past. This is a tour we have on our to-do list for when we return to Riga.
Visit Dome Square and see if you can find the brass armadillo. There are other statues to be found while exploring this lovely city, so keep your eyes peeled.
Eating and drinking in Riga
Riga has many bars, cafes and restaurants. A couple of places that we really enjoyed and were a little different are:
Colonel Brew Pub & Kitchen
Located in the Līvu Laukums area, we enjoyed a lovely meal and beer tasting. We also found ourselves back here for some delicious cake and to unwind on the patio area outside.
This is where we tried Black Balsam, which is a traditional Latvian spirit. This cosy bar kind of felt like I was visiting my grandma’s house from the 1970s and we really enjoyed it but maybe that was after having tried a few Black Balsam cocktails! (Black Mojitos are the best way to drink it in Rebecca’s opinion.)
The old town of Riga has lovely cafes and restaurants that are great to grab a bite to eat while you are exploring or to spend time in at the end of the day to enjoy a relaxing drink.
Flights to Riga
Getting to Riga is really simple. We flew from Luton airport, but you can fly from most London airports. We normally use Skyscanner to check the best flight options.
Have you been to Riga or are you looking to go? I’d love to hear what you enjoyed when you were there or what you are most looking forward to when you go.
You can also see what we got up to on our YouTube channel and watch our video called 48 hours in Riga.