Anyone who’s watched Sex and the City will know dancer and actor Mikhail Baryshnikov. Kristaps Porziņģis is a household name for basketball fans. And you may have heard of the abstract expressionist Mark Rothko. But, what do they have in common? They were all born in Latvia, a country with a population just under two million. Keep reading as we explore the best things to do in Riga, the capital city.
Riga is the largest city in the three Baltic States of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. It attracts countless visitors with its multi-layered history, quality cuisine and a cultural agenda to rival Europe’s bigger metropolises. At a minimum, I’d recommend two to three days in Riga, and one to two days for day trips.
Explore Riga On Foot
A walk through Riga’s old town and central district will reveal exquisite Art Nouveau architecture, wide central boulevards and well-kept parkland. Slow down to take in all the detail. You’ll see faces, cats and other live-looking figurines gazing down at you. And you might even spot some ethnographic motifs of the National Romanticism style.
For a bigger picture, venture beyond the popular old town and so-called Quiet Centre neighborhood. Explore the Avoti area to get a sense of the changing city as rising rents push businesses further out of the city center. Also stroll across one of the bridges over the River Daugava to explore the residential neighborhoods of Ķīpsala and Āgenskalns with their distinct wooden houses and quaint, slightly rural feel. The bus, tram and trolleybus network is extensive and quite foolproof if you want to cover more ground.
Enough exploring? You’re never far from a coffee shop or patisserie like Ciemakukulis, Kūkotava or Mārtiņa Beķereja. In most cases 5€ should cover coffee and a pastry. This might be a good opportunity to try a pīrāgs (moon-shaped pie with a a smoky bacon and onion filling). Vegetarian versions come with fillings like mushroom or sauerkraut.
Visit Riga Central Market, A Haven for Foodies
When you’re ready for a bigger bite, head to Riga Central Market. Its five lofty halls are repurposed zeppelin hangars, referred to as pavilions. Most pavilions have a few hole-in-the-wall style eateries which could be deemed ‘edgy’ and are definitely in keeping with the market’s true spirit. The dumpling stand in the fruit and veg pavilion is a personal favorite. Wash your meal down with a shot of moonshine from the Rizhskiy Samogon stand in the fish pavilion.
I’d recommend exploring the market on a full stomach to avoid overindulging. Produce like seasonal berries, rich hemp butter and fresh jammy donuts is incredibly inviting. Looking for some edible souvenirs? You’ll easily get your hands on traditional items at the market, like the intensely herbal and spirited Riga Black Balsam, canned sprats and bee pollen.
Go Shopping for Local Souvenirs
In the mood to carry on shopping? Treat yourself, loved ones and your home at Riga’s design boutiques. Instead of cheesy t-shirts and key rings, pick up some linen homewares, handmade ceramics, amber and leather jewelry or ready-to-wear designer clothing. Support local brands at shops like Riija, Miesai and Pienene, which are all centrally located.
Enjoy Easy Access to Culture and the Arts
As well as being excellent at crafts and design, Latvians are a nation of culture vultures. We pride ourselves on events like the Riga Opera Festival and Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art. Though not a big city on the world scale, Riga is home to eight theaters, four independent cinemas and an opera house. Not to mention all the galleries, museums and event venues. Culture is highly accessible, and ticket prices don’t break the bank. By far, one of the best things to do in Riga, Latvia.
See what’s on at the grand Splendid Palace movie theater, which has been showing quality cinema since 1923. The main hall has stunning decorations like gilded palm trees and cherubs. Time your visit to coincide with a major art event or festival. While summer sees lots of outdoor events take over the city’s squares and fields throughout Latvia, September marks the start of the unofficial “culture season.” Performers return to their indoor stages and cinemas draw more visitors as somewhere warm to keep yourself busy outside the home.
Take A Day Trip to Jūrmala Seaside Resort
Riga may feel empty on summer weekends as locals leave for the woods, beaches or countryside. Many head out in winter, too. Forest walking and outdoor sunbathing are common national pastimes in Latvia. One of the closest and most accessible places to get a sense of Latvia’s coastline and forests is Jūrmala, a resort town since the 19th century.
Jūrmala comprises 12 former villages and two former towns, now neighbourhoods. Jomas Iela is a pedestrian street that runs between the Majori and Dzintari neighborhoods and is often recommended as one of the resort’s must-sees. I’d rather suggest the areas of Lielupe and Bulduri, which boast a high density of the villa-style residences Jūrmala is known for. They also have Ragakāpa Nature Park and excellent restaurants.
Both Lielupe and Bulduri have their own stations, so you can arrive at one and leave from the other. The distance between stations is only two kilometers. If you enjoy cycling, take a bike on the train from Riga or, better yet, cycle to Jūrmala along the designated cycle path. In Jūrmala, find a spot in the dunes to stop and enjoy the rare luxury of being alone in nature. That’s how locals recharge their batteries.
Budget permitting, sign yourself up for a treatment and spa access at the Lielupe Hotel by Semarah. Treatments with a local touch might use cranberry, healing herb or honey based products.
See Latvia’s Charm in Cēsis
Rise early to hop on a bus or train to Cēsis. Postcards of the picture perfect town show its medieval castle ruins and they’re certainly a must-see. Allow time for a slow stroll through the old town, a peek into the 13th century church and grab a slice of fresh bread at Cēsu Maize (Cēsis Bread). Though quite a small town, Cēsis has numerous options for lunch and dinner, such as the Italian trattoria Bekko run by an Italian-Latvian couple and H.E.Vanadziņš for contemporary Nordic cuisine.
Into hiking? The Cīrulīši Nature Trail is an hour’s walk from the train and bus station in Cēsis. It’s a moderately easy trail with quite a few steps, and runs beside Latvia’s longest river, the Gauja. The trail provides a glimpse into Latvia’s wilderness with sandstone cliff outcrops, towering pine trees and scattered berry bushes. All this at just 1.5–2 hours from Riga. Cēsis and its surrounding area provide a mere glimpse at what Latvia is like outside its big cities. For your next journey, consider a driving holiday in the Baltics.
More Things To Do In Riga?
Did you know much about Latvia before reading this post? Any surprises? Would you travel there? Do you know of other excellent things to do in Riga? Let us know in the comments!
Want to see a little more of Riga and the Baltics? Then, check out Global Debauchery’s favorite Baltic alleyways and see some of the Baltics’ most Instagrammable areas.
Lelde Benke was born in Australia to Latvian parents. She’s lived in Riga on and off since the age of seven. Life In Riga is Lelde’s passion project through which she aims to understand her identity and help others embrace Latvia and Latvianness. For many years, Lelde worked for Latvia’s national tourist board. She’s now a freelance translator and copywriter.