Riga is the capital of Latvia, which is one of three Baltic nations between Russia and the Baltic Sea. Like its fellow Baltic nations it is small in size, but Latvia has a vast history and has had a multitude of different rulers throughout history. During the early 1900s Latvia was occupied by the Russian Empire, then the German Empire, back to the Soviet Union, then to Nazi Germany, and finally back to Soviet Union until 1991, when they finally were declared an independent nation.
These days things are much calmer, even with the sight of drunk British stag and hen parties.
Riga has been an established city since the early 12th century, however, is highly underrated as a travel destination. Receiving under 2 million tourists a year, this hidden gem in Europe really does offer up a great deal of history, culture and experiences for any traveller.
Riga has been on my to-do list since I was a teenager. I don’t know why, but I have always had a fascination with the Baltic city. The city itself Is relatively small so it is a great place to walk around.
Riga is such a historic city that it is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Old town sits on the east side of the river and is likely where you will spend most of your time.
A great starting point is the House of the Blackheads. This building has quite a lot of history behind it and was built in the mid-14th century for a group known as the Brotherhood of Blackheads. This was a group of unmarried merchants, ship owners and foreigners which was originally founded as a military organisation.
It was destroyed in World War II and for fifty years did not exist, until it was rebuilt in 1999 and is now home to the President. It was rebuilt to replicate the original style, and it is one of my favourite building designs (Gothic) in the world. The unique façade is something that is common across the city of Riga.
Within the same area you will also see the Latvian Riflemen monument, which is a Soviet style monument built in dedication to the Latvian Riflemen that protected the Baltic region the Germans in World War I.
If you make your way to the Daugava River, this is a great spot to go for a stroll. The walking path is very wide and if you walk north you have views of the Vanšu Bridge. If you want to go for a longer walk, I suggest you go south, towards Vanšu Bridge, where you will come across Riga Castle.
The castle was originally founded in 1330 and completed in 1515, and was the residence of past rulers until the early 1900s. It is now used as an alternative residence for the Latvian president. Aside from this it also contains the national museum, which is worth a visit and will cost you €13.
Further to the west you will reach the Swedish Gate. This was built in the 17th century when the Swedish Empire ruled the area, as part of the outer wall to the city.
Another stop you should visit that is a part of the original wall is the Powder Tower. Rebuilt in the 1930s-40s it showcases the Latvian War Museum.
It is free so for budget travellers like me, so this is a great way to understand another side of Latvian history as it not only covers the military history of Latvia but the political struggles the Baltics have gone through too.
As you dart throughout the old town in Riga you will come across quite a few cafes, bars and restaurants that cater for all. Riga is on a cruise ship route, so every couple of days a load of tourists will suddenly appear.
One thing I enjoyed was sitting at a bar in a square and watching the locals live their day-to-day lives. Local beers are usually dark or light larger, but what they are really known for is Black Balsam. This is usually done as a shot that apparently aids digestion (double win)! It’s certainly worth it 😉
Food is generally quite cheap in Latvia, so eating out won’t break the bank unless you choose to go fine dining (which is an option as well).
Back to the sights!
Now when some people (my boyfriend being one of them) hear the phrase “The Three Brothers”, they think of Harry Potter (even google goes straight to this!). However, when in Riga it is the name of the three oldest dwellings in the country. Dating back to the 15th century each represents a different style of architecture. One is Gothic (A very prominent style throughout the city), the second is in the Dutch Mannerism style, and the final one was built in the Baroque style.
You’ll notice that all three are unique, different colours. I found this throughout the entire city – randomly coloured buildings which really makes the old town quite lively.
This makes Riga as a post-Soviet city really stand out from others – fewer standard grey, tall cinderblock towers.
Like in most European cities, churches are prominent. If you like churches, I strongly suggest visiting St Peter’s.
Located right behind the House of the Blackheads, you can get some great views of Riga and the Daugava River right in the central of town. The views are beautiful, and it will cost you €9 (Not the cheapest thing to do but I believe it’s well worth it).
Some other places of worship you can visit within Riga include;
· Riga Cathedral
· St. Saviour’s Anglican Church
· Our Lady of Sorrows Church
· St Mary Magdalene Roman Catholic Church
· St Jacob Catholic Cathedral
· St John’s Church
Now even if you aren’t a museum fan, this next one you must visit. The Museum of Occupation is an educational experience that was created in 1993, exhibiting documents, artefacts, and archives covering the 51-year period during the 20th century that Latvia and the other Baltic nations were occupied by Soviet and Nazi Germany rule.
This museum shows an important part of Latvian history, including mass killings, poverty and the struggles faced by citizens in their day-to-day lives. It also covers the ‘Baltic Way’ in 1989, where citizens of all three Baltic nations formed an unbroken chain of roughly two million people in protest to Soviet Rule.
The Daugava River diverts off slightly through the old town of Riga and part of this creates Bastejkalna Park, which is another great spot to relax and enjoy a beautiful Spring or Summer day. In the middle of this park is The Freedom Monument. This statue is in remembrance to those who fought for the independence of Latvia in 1918 and 1920, when Latvia first became an independent republic (lasting until 1940).
Slightly north of this park is the Esplanade, which is another park area containing several monuments and artworks, as well as the Latvian National Museum of Art and Riga Nativity of Christ Cathedral.
One place I did not get a chance to visit is the Victory Memorial to the Soviet Army. I somehow only stayed to the east of the river, but if you cross it you come to Victory Park, which contains this monument that is dedicated to the Soviet soldiers that liberated the region from Nazi Germany in World War II.
This statue is still controversial as some Latvians believe it should be removed, due to the negative actions of the Soviets have in Latvia in the decades after WWII.
A final point of interest is Riga Central Market. This central hub for shopping for locals is massive! From St Peter’s Church viewing platform it stood out in the distance. The food pavilions will give you a chance to try local produce and be fully immersed in local Riga life.
My brief visit to the city of Riga was just what I’d hoped for. It’s great for a short European weekend trip away, or you could spend a week travelling through all three Baltic countries to see all the beauty they have to offer.