Riga Travel Guide – Top 10 Vacation Highlights

Riga, the capital of Latvia, has a character all of its own. Having survived two world wars and fifty years behind the Iron Curtain, Riga is today a vibrant metropolis full of energy and citizens who know how to live a good life. A true Baltic beauty, Riga offers great examples of Art Nouveau architecture everywhere you look, as well as plenty of style and charm in the many touristic attractions you come across.
Riga Travel Guide
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Ratslaukums is Riga’s Town Hall Square which features in its center a replica of the statue of Roland, Riga’s patron saint. The reconstructed Town Hall also stands in place here, although the most striking building on the square is the House of Blackheads which was rebuilt following the Second World War and is one of the main symbols of Riga today.

Vecriga is Riga’s old town which boasts several interesting historical sites worth a visit. A great place to wander, this area is filled with small squares where you can enjoy a good local beer in the open summer air or huddle over a hot snack in winter.

The Three Brothers stand side by side and represent the three architectural styles in Vecriga. Built during the 15th, 17th and 18th centuries, the Three Brothers served as residences for the townspeople. Today, one houses the Museum of Architecture.

The Swedish Gate in old town Riga dates from the latter part of the 17th century. Although the majority of Riga’s gates, walls and defense systems have long since been torn town, the Swedish Gate remains standing, surrounded by legends. Some tell of ghosts that haunt the gates, while others tell of a merchant who saved money on taxes by building the gate through his house.

Besides Vecriga, the Art Nouveau area is another popular section in Riga. Mostly centered on Alberta Street, this Art Nouveau area is a prime location for elaborate designs dating from the late 19th century. The streets of this section of the city offer a mix of neglect and sparkling buildings with ladies, lions and dragons decorating the facades.

For more examples of Art Nouveau take a stroll along Elizabetes Street, which is also famous for this architectural style. The grand façades you encounter here sport fanciful and ornate designs in elegant color schemes.

Riga is quite an interesting place to visit that’s great for an affordable weekend destination, and which is easy to explore due to its compact size. A marvel in itself, Riga is best experienced on a stroll that will take you past Art Nouveau architecture, great restaurants, amazing spas, diverse bars and cafes and historical landmarks. What more do you need for a perfect vacation?

1. Ratslaukums

Ratslaukums or Riga’s Town Hall Square is the city’s historic center that’s played a pivotal role in the history of the city since the early 1200s when Riga was founded. The Town Hall Square is surrounded by a number of interesting buildings, museums and public buildings.

Riga’s Town Hall Square was formed from a market square and up to the 19th century served as the administrative and economic center of Riga. Many diverse dances, processions, competitions and tournaments have been organized on the square, which was also the site for public executions to which the citizens of Riga were summoned by the sound of a cathedral bell.

Most of the medieval Square was destroyed during the Second World War, but has since been rebuilt with mixed results. On the northern side of the Ratslaukums is the reconstructed Town Hall with its Baroque tower and Post-Modern roof. The Town Hall is one of the major structures of the Town Hall Square which features a 3-storeyed building with a tower and clock on it.

The next major building on the Town Hall Square is the Blackheads House, which is the central element in the Town Hall Square. One of Riga’s architectural treasures, the building is first mentioned in sources dating from 1334 as the new house of the Big Guild.

It was originally rented by merchants of the Big Guild, and later by unmarried merchants of the Blackheads brotherhood. The Blackheads were an association formed by young, unmarried merchants and ship captains. The building was destroyed during the Second World War but restored in 1999. The Blackheads House is at present a home to the President’s Administration.

The middle of Ratslaukums is also graced by a statue of Riga’s patron saint, Roland. Positioned adjacent to the well, the granite statue was erected in 1897. A replica of the statue was erected following the original’s destruction during the Second World War.

2. Jauniela

Stretching between the Ratslaukums and the Dome Square, Jauniela is one of the most beautiful streets in old town Riga. The street is lined with colorful old buildings in the very heart of the city and paved with cobblestone. There is also a rainbow of Art Nouveau buildings worth a peek.

Many films have been shot in Jauniela as the picturesque street is very cinematographic. In the Soviet film Seventeen Moments of Spring Jauniela was called ‘the Flower Street,’ a fictitious name that actually corresponds to the street’s appearance: there are flowers everywhere, in the windows and balconies of almost every house.

Also located on Jauniela Street are the hotels “Alex” and “Justas”, so named after the Soviet special agents in the film Seventeen Moments of Spring. Visitors can also see the house with a flower in the window from which the professor Pleishner came out of.

Popular with visitors and locals alike, Jauniela offers a variety of dining, nightlife and shopping options. There is an abundance of open air restaurants all along this street, which are always full of patrons. The street is also one of the busiest streets for nightlife in Riga.

Be sure to include this street in your route heading from the Town Hall Square to the Dome Square or back. Go for a pleasant walk here during the day and then have a meal at one of its many restaurants at night.

In the immediate vicinity of Jauniela Street are other Riga monuments such as St. Peter’s Church, the Dome Cathedral and the House of the Blackheads. Stop by the Riga Kino Museum which showcases the history of Latvian and word cinema.

Jauniela was built during the 16th century on the northern section of the Dome Cathedral, after the stone wall was erected to separate the church stone graveyard from the territory of the city. Some houses adjoining the Dome Cloister were built on the old graveyard where during digs there was found burial stock partially dating from the 12th century.

The street was named Jauna or New and in 1923 it was renamed Jauniela or New Street. Between 1936 and 1937, the structures on the northern part of the Dome Cathedral were demolished and the present Dome Square took form, so Jauniela ran from this square as it does today.

3. Alberta Iela

There are many reasons for which Riga prides itself as a city of culture and good looks: one is the fact that it boasts one of the best-preserved and most charming of European historic centers with numerous majestic medieval buildings, romantic streets and alleyways, beautiful parks and a general atmosphere that makes visitors fall in love with it.

Still, what really sets Riga aside from many other cities in the Baltics is a district famous for an architectural style that somehow became synonymous with the Latvian capital. The neighborhood in question is Riga’s Art Nouveau district which is mainly concentrated around 2 thoroughfares: Alberta Iela, a street hidden from the general city buzz, and a stretch of the longer and busier Elizabetes Iela.

At the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, the Art Nouveau architectural style was spread out in many European cities. It is believed that this style had the greatest influence on the appearance of two European cities: Barcelona and Riga.

Houses built in this architectural style feature extremely rich and sometimes pompous décor. The key feature of Art Nouveau houses is their asymmetry. The fronts, windows and balconies were designed without symmetry to emphasize forms of natural ornaments. The windows were of all shapes imaginable: triangular, round, oval and some even took on the shape of mushrooms.

Art Nouveau dominates in Riga’s architecture today. About 40% of the 19th and 20th century buildings are representations of Art Nouveau and the pearl of Art Nouveau in Riga is Alberta Iela. Alberta Iela is a popular street in Riga that’s famous for its Art Nouveau-style apartment buildings, 8 of which have been designated architectural monuments of national significance.

The buildings on Alberta Iela are regarded by many as one of the greatest surviving architectural legacies of the Art Nouveau movement. Most of the buildings on this street were erected between 1901 and 1908 and feature columns, sculptures, balconies and other architectural elements of the Art Nouveau style. Highlights include the buildings at Numbers 2, 2A, 4, 6 and 8, as well as Number 10 and 12.

Each house on this street is different. The A. Lebedinsky building was constructed in 1904 in accordance with the building plans of German income houses. The windows of its representative rooms are on the side of the street, while the bedroom and service room windows are on the yard side. The B. Boguslovskys building on 2A was built in 1906. Number 11 is a great example of National Romantic architecture.

One of Riga’s most prestigious streets during the early 1900s, Alberta Iela was the site of the sense of modernity and the new age that came with the turn of the century, characterized by the first private cars and fully electrified houses. Today, private houses, cafés and shops fill the street, right next to the original buildings.

Alberta Iela stretches between Antonijas Iela and Strelnieku Iela in central Riga. You can reach the street on foot from Vecriga in about 15-20 minutes. Many of the buildings here were designed by the same architect and give the street a sense of continuity. There is an Art Nouveau Museum situated at the bottom of the street at Number 12.

4. Rigas Motormuzejs

Founded in 1989, Rigas Motormuzejs is Riga’s car museum and the largest vintage car museum in the Baltic countries. Filled with unique and alluring exhibits, the museum is situated in the Mezciems neighborhood, outside of central Riga, and also features a cafe and sports club. The building housing the museum was regarded as one of the best new buildings of Latvia following the Second World War.

Rigas Motormuzejs collects, preserves, researches and restores antique vehicles as part of Latvia’s industrial heritage and material culture, while also making them known to the public. The museum exhibits are regularly rotated, expanded and restored. Over 240 vintage cars can be viewed inside the 2-storey hall of the museum at any one time.

Go here to enjoy the beauty and romantic appeal of unique vintage cars. Some of the museum’s main collections and most valuable exhibits include: Cars Manufactured in Latvia; Bicycles and Mopeds Manufactured in Latvia; Global Car Building in the 20s and 30s; the Kremlin Collection; Soviet Era Vehicles; and Racing and Record Breaking Cars.

Rigas Motormuzejs is included in the 30 best technical museums in the world and in the top 5 in Europe. The primary exhibition of the museum is dedicated to the history of cars, motorcycles and bicycles dating from the end of the 19th century to the end of the 20th century.

Displays include cars from the pre-war era including a Ford Model T from 1919, as well as a French Panhard Levasor that was driven around Latvia as early as 1896. One of the museum’s most significant exhibits is the 1938 Auto Union Racing Car Type D that was saved from being cut into scraps.

The Rigas Motormuzejs also has a display of military vehicles from the Second World War, cars and motorcycles produced in the former Soviet Union, a collection of racing cars, and a collection of buses and micro-buses produced by the Riga Bus Factory during the second half of the 20th century.

The car museum participates in antique vehicle exhibitions with the public’s favorite events being the antique car rallies. The antique vehicles of the car museum often enrich city festivals and events all over Latvia. Plan your visit around the middle of August to attend the Riga Retro, which is the biggest antique vehicle of the year show. The Melngalvju Rally is also quite popular.

5. Melngalvju Nams

Situated in Vecriga, Melngalvju Nams or the House of the Blackheads dates from the year 1334 and has been named one of the city’s grandest buildings. Widely considered as the most beautiful building in Riga, the House of the Blackheads has a Baroque façade with many sculptures that makes it quite a decorative sight within the Town Hall Square.

The Gothic building with a Dutch Renaissance façade was originally built for the Brotherhood of Blackheads, a guild for unmarried German merchants in Riga. The Melngalvju Nams was the venue for trading transactions by day and merry parties by night. Its location at the center of the city and the unmarried status of its hosts made it one of Riga’s centers of public life.

One of the city’s most impressive architectural monuments, the building has been rebuilt severally, including during the 16th century when lion figures were added above the entrance. Major works were carried out on the building in 1580 and in 1886, during which time most of the ornaments were added.

A landmark of old town Riga and the most magnificent edifice in the Latvian capital, the Melngalvju Nams building was completely destroyed during the Second World War but rebuilt during the 1990s in fulfillment of the words engraved above the entrance: “should I ever crumble to dust, rebuild my walls you must.”

The structure was bombed to ruins during World War II, and its remains demolished in 1948 by the Soviets. The current building was reconstructed between 1995 and 1999. Riga again takes pride in the reborn edifice which serves as a testament to the craftsmanship and affection of Rigans. Today, the House serves as a venue for museum exhibitions and a concert hall.

Begin your tour of old town Riga from the Melngalvju Nams. Visitors can marvel at the opulent façade of the building which features a variety of artistic trends and architectural styles from different eras.

Excellent acoustics inside the main hall of the Melngalvju Nams made it possible to hold not only parties there, but also many concerts. Tour the Conference Hall that once held concerts and receptions during the time of the Blackheads. It is noteworthy that the building previously served as an excellent concert hall with both Wagner and Liszt visiting here.

Have a peek at the works of craftsmen, artisans and antique restorers. You can marvel at the crystal chandeliers, the Conference Hall’s painted ceiling; exact replicas of sofas and chairs from the 19th century; armor and weaponry sets; gilded framed portraits of the nobility; colorfully ornamented stained glass; the Coat of Arms of the Blackheads and more.

Also take a peek at the museum’s treasures inside the Medieval cellar. You can view items once owned by the Brotherhood of Blackheads which include pottery, paintings, silverware and snuffboxes.

Here you can explore the oldest historical exhibits as well as those of more recent periods. Visitors can also attend some festive events that feature a special aura and truly festive atmosphere in the interiors of the House.

For their patron saint, the Blackheads selected Saint Maurice, who was depicted traditionally as a black soldier in knight’s armor. The black head of St. Maurice was depicted on the coat of arms of the brotherhood, and its members called ‘Blackheads’. The house occupied by the Brotherhood was thereby called the ‘House of the Blackheads’.

Melngalvju Nams is within walking distance of several other sites within Vecriga including Jauniela Street, the Dome Cathedral, St. Peter’s Church and the Riga City Walls.

6. Latvijas Nacionala Opera

Located inside a beautiful park next to Riga’s picturesque canal, filled with colorful flowerbeds and a beautiful fountain, Latvijas Nacionala Opera is the palace of art, music and culture in Riga. Home to the Latvian National Opera, the structure was originally built in 1863 in a neo-Classical style.

The façade of the Latvijas Nacionala Opera House is in the Classical style with 6 columns reminiscent of a Greek temple. At the top of the building are sculptures of Apollo and other deities, while lower down is a lyre with 2 women on either side to symbolize tragedy and comedy.

The Latvijas Nacionala Opera is home to both the Latvian National Opera and the Latvian National Ballet. The performances held here include modern operatic and ballet masterpieces, children’s performances and original Latvian works. In a typical season, over 200 opera and ballet performances are held here, with an average of 6 new productions is held here every year.

Open to the world, the opera company has an active touring schedule with numerous superb guest singers, directors, conductors and choreographers frequently gracing its stage.

The Great Hall of the Opera has 946 seats, while the New Opera Hall has between 250 and 300 seats. The Opera employs over 600 staff including 28 soloists, 105 orchestra musicians, 62 choir artists and 70 ballet troupe members.

The origins of operatic traditions in Latvia can be traced back to the 18th century when the first musical productions were staged and the first traveling opera troupes appeared in Riga, which was the music center of the Baltic region at the time. In 1782, the city’s German Theater was opened and offered productions of dramatic theater, opera and ballet.

But the official history of Latvian opera began in 1912, when the Latvian Opera was established in Riga. In 1919, the Latvian national opera staged its debut performance of Richard Wagner’s opera The Flying Dutchman. In fact, Wagner was the musical director of the German Theatre between 1837 and 1839.

The Opera House was one of the first buildings in Riga to get a full make-over after the end of the Soviet era, owing largely to the population’s love for art and music.

Visit the Opera House for top-class classical opera, modern opera and ballet performances, children’s operas, as well as original Latvian productions. Especially exciting are the world-famous Latvian opera stars who return to perform here while at home.

Visitors can also enjoy a splendid tour of this unique 19th century architectural pearl. A guided tour will take you through the building, during which you will learn about its everyday operations and vibrant history, as well as have a behind-the-scenes look.

7. Elizabetes Iela

Art Nouveau is a distinct architectural style that dominated the end of the 19th and the early 20th centuries as the “father of modern architecture.” The style features characteristic elements such as undulating, dynamic and flowing lines, as well as geometrical ornaments.

Riga is a well-known Art Nouveau Mecca. One of the largest centers of Art Nouveau in the world, Riga has over one third of the buildings in its Central District built in this style. In particular, Vecriga is full of wonderful Art Nouveau buildings, structures that bring color and romance to the medieval city.

A gorgeous feature among the city’s historic facades, Art Nouveau plays a pivotal role in Riga’s historic architecture and is mostly concentrated within the neighborhood referred to as the “Quiet Center” which is a 10 minute walk from Vecriga. Each edifice found here is a unique masterpiece of design and construction.

Riga’s historic center boasts Europe’s largest collection of Art Nouveau buildings. All in all, there are more than eight hundred buildings in Riga in the Art Nouveau style. But the most notable ones are found on a handful of streets such as Elizabetes Iela, which is the main street of Riga’s Art Nouveau district.

One of the most impressive examples of early Art Nouveau can be found at 10B Elizabetes Iela. Built in 1903, the building features an extraordinarily colorful façade. Visitors can admire its splendid staircase, the composition of masks, geometrical figures, sculptural elements and the bright blue tile that covers the building’s upper levels. Number 10A is also worth a peek.

“Jugendstil” is Riga’s term for the movement which is derived from the German and Scandinavian movement named after the avant-garde periodical “Jugend”. Unlike the stiffer sensibilities of the Victorian style, Art Nouveau stressed complete freedom in creativity, encouraging a mix of fantastical elements with a tendency towards showing all elements of utilitarian construction as artistic value.

Between the years 1896 and 1913, the city expanded and a housing boom followed. As Riga’s population swelled, so did the demand for new apartment houses. As such, more than 100 high-rise brick and stone buildings went up, thereby creating the distinct look of the city. The architectural style that developed in Riga at this time was mainly influenced by German, Finnish and Austrian architects.

Following the 1905 Revolution, a distinctively Latvian variation of the Art Nouveau style developed, which was known as National Romanticism. Architects began to use traditional Latvian folk elements, along with natural building materials. Typical elements included steep roofs, heavy structures and the utilization of ethnographic ornamental motifs.

8. Bastejkalns

Bastejkalns or Bastion Hill is a nice and quiet park situated at the very center of Riga. The landscaped manmade hill was formed after city bulwarks and old defensive sand structures were torn down during the mid-19th century. The hill was created between 1857 and 1859.

After the Crimea War, the 19th century fortifications lost their military importance as modern guns were able to fire with increased accuracy and destructive power. It was therefore decided to demolish the defensive dykes surrounding the city of Riga.

These fortifications were demolished in 1857 and their soil used to construct a 15m high artificial hill known as Bastion Hill. With the removal of the earthen fortifications, a new period in Riga’s development set in, which offered great opportunities for beautifying the city.

The ramparts of Riga were destroyed and in their place was established an area of boulevards, green spaces and official buildings in a semi-circle embracing Vecriga. This new construction took place between 1857 and 1863.

The greening of the banks of the canal was an important aspect of the development of the area as the former defensive moat was transformed into a winding city canal. From 1859, plants were cultivated along both of the canal banks and gardens were planted in the area. Vegetation was selected taking into account the developing traffic, while higher expectations were set for the art of gardens.

In 1860, a pavilion was built on the top of this hill. In 1880, the hill was rebuilt with footpaths added that go to the top. In 1884, the territory near the hill was landscaped and trees planted. After the Riga Bird Society gifted 2 swans to the park administration, a swan house was built for their needs.

Today, the Bastejkalns park is one of the most beautiful places in Riga, set inside a semi-circle of greenery, built over a hill. Stone embankments with little cascades and waterfalls have been arranged here to resemble a mountain river. Alpine plants are cultivated here. A wooden footbridge added close to the hill for the use of pedestrians was replaced in 1892 by a stone bridge. The environs of the bridge have been beautified with trees.

One of the most romantic spots in central Riga, Bastejkalns has narrow paths, a water cascade, stone garden and alleys lined with trees. Be it winter or summer, you are always guaranteed a special atmosphere at Bastion Hill.

Visitors can take a walk or enjoy relaxing in the green grass surroundings adjacent to a canal with gondolas. The paths run around the hill on varying levels, and can take you to the very top which offers pleasant views in the evening sun or the bustling city. They can also walk you around the hill to take in the splendid scenery.

There are colorful flowers, artificial waterfalls and a handful of sculptures. Pay attention to the small bridges on which newlyweds have left their padlocks, which according to custom brings long life and happiness.

Swans and ducks love the canal and a special swan house has been set up on its banks. If you are lucky, you will spot the canal’s most interesting residents, the badgers. At summertime, a dock next to the park is open to all who wish to take a boat or river tram.

Dividing Vecriga and the Central District with the Freedom Monument in the center, Bastejkalns is itself divided by the winding Pilsetas Canal. There are benches to bask in the sun, as well as picturesque bridges over the canal. On one side is the Liberty monument, while the Blaumanis sculpture is found on the other.

9. Kristus Piedzimsanas Pareizticigo Katedrale

Kristus Piedzimsanas Pareizticigo Katedrale or the Nativity of Christ Cathedral is the largest Russian Orthodox cathedral in Riga and the entire Baltics. The cathedral was built between 1876 and 1883, during the period when Latvia was part of the Russian empire.

Situated in Esplanade Square, the Kristus Piedzimsanas Pareizticigo Katedrale was the most dramatic and expensive building at the time of its construction, due to its interior of uniquely rich and high artistic value.

The Neo-Byzantine exterior of the church is matched on its inside by icons traditionally found in orthodox cathedrals. The magnificent cathedral is embellished with 5 domes raised on florid towers. The dramatic interiors of the church are enriched with numerous icons and other sacramental objects illuminated by light erupting from the small windows.

The cathedral was particularly famous for its outstanding collection of valuable and ancient icons including 3 iconostasis painted by the brightest pedagogues of the St. Petersburg Academy of Art, as well as Vasily Vereshchagin, the famous Russian painter; clergymen outfits made by the best seamstresses in St. Petersburg; and Byzantine-style frescoes with orthodox Christian ornamentation.

During World War I, German troops occupied Riga and converted the Russian orthodox cathedral into a Lutheran church. But in 1921, the Kristus Piedzimsanas Pareizticigo Katedrale once again became an Orthodox cathedral.

Although the cathedral survived both world wars, in 1960 it was changed into a planetarium on the orders of the Soviets. The crosses were sawed down, the icons covered in concrete and the bells melted down. Since been returned to its original function, restoration of the cathedral began during the late 1990s after Latvia regained independence from the Soviet Union and is still ongoing.

Each day of the week you will find large numbers of Riga’s many Russian speakers under the arches of the Kristus Piedzimsanas Pareizticigo Katedrale, lighting the traditional long Eastern Orthodox candles.

10. Vecriga

Vecriga is Riga’s old town that offers something for everyone hiding within its Kafkaesque medieval streets. Nestled against the eastern bank of the Daugava River, Vecriga is a small historical section in Riga. Vecriga is an ideal starting point for visitors who wish to get to know Riga, its history and the surroundings.

Long a trade city with its port on the River Daugava, Riga was an important location for the Vikings and German traders. Because of its trade history, Riga became part of the formidable Hanseatic League during the 13th century, when its power and wealth began to increase.

What keeps the memories of Riga’s history alive are the main sights which are easily spotted along the squares and twisting roads of the Vecriga. Whether you’re visiting to absorb the city’s culture like a sophisticated sponge or drink it up, you will find all that you need within the confines of this old town.

The best place to begin your tour would be at the Ratslaukums or Town Hall square that’s situated at the end of the Kalku Street. The old Town Hall Square is home to the House of Blackheads, one of Riga’s most recognizable buildings which was rebuilt following destruction during the Second World War.

Other interesting landmarks within the square include the Town Hall of Riga and the statue of Roland, Riga’s patron saint, which is located in the middle of the square. Riga Castle houses 2 museums, the Museum of Foreign Art and the National History Museum. The Dome Cathedral is one of the most important churches in Riga, as well as one of the city’s best-known symbols.

The Swedish Gate is the last remaining medieval entrance to the old fortified city. Powder Tower is a remnant of the city’s defensive system. The St. Peter’s Church tower is a popular lookout point for taking in views of Vecriga from above. Moreover, the Riga Christmas Market is held in this area each year.

More attractions can be seen just outside Vecriga, including the Freedom Monument; the Art Nouveau District; and the grand Central Market building with its arched roofs. All these sights are situated within walking distance of the old center and offer deeper insights into all that Riga has to offer tourists.

Vecriga is also home to an eclectic mix of restaurants with international cuisines including Georgian and Finnish. If you’re in the mood for some authentic Latvian food, be sure to sample some of the local meat and potato dishes that will certainly make your mouth water.

The nightlife scene of Riga is pretty impressive with active bars, pubs and clubs available to suit your particular occasion or mood. Be sure to try the Riga Black Balsam, which is the most widely advertised alcoholic beverage in Latvia.

It’s easy to get around Vecriga, as the town is small enough to explore by foot. Grab a map then go wander, sightsee, take photos, relax in cafés and enjoy the beauty and charm of old town Riga at your leisure. There are also plenty of sights beyond the old town that you can go explore.