The capital city of Latvia, Riga is the biggest city in that region. Comparing it to the other Baltic capitals, it significantly larger than other cities, giving home to more than six hundred thousand inhabitants. Riga has a few landmarks, that almost anybody can recognize, but it has a lot more to offer to the people visiting it!
My personal experience
Riga was always a destination which has been on my bucketlist with the other Baltic capitals as well. As I became an ambassador for the latvian airline AirBaltic, for me all roads lead to Riga. I’ve had the chance to visit this city many times almost in every season, so there was always something new to discover.
AirBaltic is probably the best option to get to Riga, thanks to its great coverage of destinations around Europe. Flying with new Airbus 220-300 airplanes is a great experience, even for those who are not used to travel with planes that often. The aircrafts have a luxury leather seats and plenty of leg space, even on economy which is definetely a huge advantage for me, as I’m almost two meters tall so it can be hard to squize myself into those seats on other airlines. Air Baltic has the greenest commercial aircraft in the world, as it is the first aircraft to have a transparent declaration of the life-cycle environmental impact, helping to reduce CO2 and NOX emissions by 20% and 50% respectively. People say that the most important thing during travelling is the destination itself, but flying with AirBaltic is an experience which is hard to forget.
Riga has a lot to offer to you and I tried to collect all of those places that I think are a must see during your trip to Riga. If you want to save some of these spots, this map can be helpful to you as well! 😉
What to see in Riga
- Art Nouveau buildings
- Bastejkalns Park
- Central Market
- Chiesa Ortodox Colorata
- Daugava River
- Freedom Monument
- House of the Blackheads
- Kalnciems neighborhood
- Kronvalda Park
- Latvian Academy of Sciences Observation deck
- Latvian National Opera and Ballet
- Latvian National Theatre
- Līvu laukums
- National Library of Latvia
- Nativity Cathedral
- Our Lady of Sorrows Church
- Powder Tower
- Riga Aviation Museum
- Riga Cathedral
- Riga Tower Counter Sculpture
- St. Gertrude Old Church
- St. Jacob Catholic Cathedral of Riga
- St. Peter’s Church
- The Cat House
- Three Brothers
- Stone Bridge, Riga
- Vanšu Bridge
- Vermanes garden
Art Nouveau Buildings
The Art Nouveau architecture in Riga makes up roughly one third of all the buildings in the centre area of Riga, making the city with the highest concentration of Art Nouveau architecture anywhere in the world! You can easily ask why are there so many in the Latvian capital? The answer is actually quite simple. When art nouveau was at the height of its popularity, Riga just happened to be at the zenith of an unprecedented financial boom. Built during a period of rapid economic growth, most of Riga’s Art Nouveau buildings date from between 1904 and 1914. The style is most commonly represented in multi-storey apartment buildings close to the Old Town area, so it is easily accessable for any tourist who are just wondering around the city. Most of these amazing buildings can be seen along the Elizabetes and Alberta Streets, and the Strēlnieku Street in the Embassy district. I’ve always spent a lot of time exploring these streets and simply gaped at the amazing façades. One of the best tip that I can give to you when you’re walking around Riga’s historic centre is to always look up!
This park is located on the eastern edge of the Old Town. Dividing the Old Town from the Central District with the Freedom Monument in the middle, Bastejkalns Park itself is divided by the winding City (Pilsetas) Canal, giving the perfect conditions to chill and rest for a little while discovering the city. Besides benches to bask in the sun and picturesque bridges over the canal, the park contains memorials to those who died there in Latvia’s struggle for freedom in 1991 during the times of the USSR collapse.
I’ve almost always stopped at this place with some fresh fruits or bakery products with myself, just to get away a bit from the center of Riga as it can be a bit crowded sometimes.
Located next to the Main Bus Terminal, the Central Market of Riga is probably one of the best places to visit if you really want to experience the local flavors and cuisine. It is one of the most notable structures from 20th century in Latvia, and has been included in UNESCO World Heritage Site list together with the Old Town of Riga. The construction finished in 1930 – the main structures of the market are five pavilions constructed by reusing old German Zeppelin hangars which makes it the largest market and baazar of Europe!
The facades of the market pavilions are in the Art-Deco style. But the market is not only made up of these great structures, you will also find a huge area of outdoor trading, as well as the many brick warehouses that date back to the 1800’s within Riga’s Central Market. You may also wish to check out Spiķeri, an area of the market that is slowly developing into a creative part of the city.
Here you can find fresh and natural products from Latvian farms and also some of the country’s specialities. Local products are of particular interest, such as smoked fish or village bread (baked with addition of treacle and spices).
Within the market you will find all kinds of fresh produce, from meats to milk, fish to bread, wild berries to fresh fruits and even clothes and hardware. Spend some time here and buy as much local produce as you can. In season you will see things like birch tree juice or wild berries and mushrooms.
There’s no chance of missing the river Daugava if you’re visiting Riga. It’s enormous and its dark waters cleave the city in two, as they run parallel with the Old Town on the East bank towards to the Gulf of Riga. Not only does the waterfront path along the Daugava River offer great panoramic view, but it also passes by some of the top landmarks of the city, such as the Riga Castle, the National Library of Latvia, and the pointed TV Tower. The nicest part, with stone pavers, decorative railings, and steps to the waterfront is between Vanšu Bridge and A8 Bridge on the east bank. The Daugava has been a major artery of Rigan life from times of old, providing water for drinking and sanitation, a mode of transportation, and more recently three hydroelectric dams – with another controversial one planned.
The Freedom Monument is an architectural representation of the idea of freedom — the large-scale sculptures, arranged on several levels, depict significant events and personalities in the Latvian history. The Monument is located very close to Old Town. The monument was funded entirely by donations from residents and constructed as a memorial to those who fell in Latvia’s struggle for independence. At the top of the monument’s obelisk is the nine-meter symbol of freedom – a young woman holding three stars above her head, which symbolize the three historic provinces of Latvia, and national unity.
House of the Blackheads
The House of the Blackheads – also known as Melngalvju nams – is one of the city’s most known building situated in the Old Town. The original building was erected during the first third of the 14th century for the Brotherhood of Blackheads, a guild for unmarried merchants, shipowners, and foreigners in Riga. Major works were done in the early 17th century, adding most of the Mannerist ornamentation.
A number of projects were worked out in post-war years to rebuild the House of the Blackheads (as it was bombed during World War II.) and later archaeological excavations were carried out at the site. The job got under way in 1995, and since 1999, Riga again takes pride in the reborn edifice which has become brilliant testimony of Rigans’ affection and craftsmanship. The prophecy that was once written on the building’s doors: “If I am destined to ruination, I will be rebuilt by you!” has come true! 🙂
I advise to visit this place not just at daytime, but at the evening as well, because its lighting settings are perfect for some great photography.
Kalnciems Street Quarter, with its beautifully-restored wooden buildings, is not only an area pleasing to the eye, but a lively arts and entertainment enclave, where you can taste-test and buy a large selection of locally-produced goodies. The market also has a wide range of interesting local arts and crafts
Another centrally located park, Kronvalda is the second richest public park in Riga. The park was named after the participant of the Neo-Latvian movement, Atis Kronvalds. The park’s reconstruction started in 1930 when new plants were introduced and the alleys were redesigned. In 1938, Kronvalda was expanded with a piece of land attached from the other side of the canal and a pedestrian bridge built to connect the two banks.It includes around 104 foreign tree and bush species and a huge, stunning fountain, which offers a show of lights and colors at night.
Nowadays, the park is a home to the largest willow tree in Latvia, as well as the largest cork tree and the largest beech tree with dark red leaves in Riga. Among other attractions and facilities it has a playground, a café, an underground parking lot and roller skating tracks. During summer, there are also boats and water bicycles available for rent.
Latvian Academy of Sciences Observation deck
The 107-metre building that is the Latvian Academy of Sciences, is considered the first high-rise in Latvia. It has been prominent fixture of the Riga cityscape since the 1950s. The Academy of Sciences is one of the most notable examples of the so-called Socialist Realism in Latvia. The building was originally meant to become the Kolkhoz Workers’ Building, or a hotel and dormitory for collective farm workers who come to Riga – but it was never used for the purpose.
The building is decorated with several hammer and sickle symbols as well as Latvian folk ornaments and motifs. The spire was originally decorated with a wreath and a five pointed star, which was removed after Latvia regained independence in 1991.
Residents of Riga used to call the buildings “Stalin’s birthday cake”, “Stalin’s baroque” and suchlike.
Nowdays tourists can enter the building from where the panorama of the city is truly magnificent! A lift will take you to the 15th floor, from there you will have to walk up the stairs to reach the 17th floor. You can stay at the observation deck as long as you wish, observing the hustle and bustle of Riga Central Market and the magnificent building of Latvia’s National Library on the other bank of the river. You will also probably spend some time looking at the rooftops and church steeples of the Old Town, the bustling life of the Central Market, and the unhurried flow of the Daugava River
Latvian National Opera and Ballet
Located between the Old Town and Bastejkalns Park, the Latvian National Opera and Ballet is a really easily accessable sight for every tourist. Attending to one of the productions at the Opera, you can really expect a top-class classical opera, modern opera and ballet performances and many original Latvian productions.
The building itself has a really nice setting for photographers, who are really into blue-hour photography.
Latvian National Theatre
This theatre is located on the north of Old Town, next to Pilsetas Canals. It’s a short walking distance from the center, and from other main attractions. The building was built in the Eclectic style and it is an architectural and artistic monument. I could not get a ticket to see the interior, but it is definetely a really beautiful building with important history. The building is not large although it has much subtle details which truly comes alive with the lighting settings at night. The Latvian National Theatre provides shows for all spectators in accordance with its main task – a wide range of repertory and prices.
Līvu laukums (or Līvu Square) is probably one of my favourite place in Riga, that I would recommend to anybody, who’s about to visit this city.
Līvu Square is situated between Zirgu, Meistaru and Kaļķu iela. It was “built by” the World War II, when several buildings were destroyed, creating an empty spot. In 1950 a square named Philharmonic Square was set up here bringing new features to the city’s architecture. Līvu Square is also surrounded by the Small Guild, Cat House, and Riga Russian Drama Theatre.
In the summertime, the square offers a great variety of outdoor cafes and restaurants and beautiful flower-beds which are designed like waves to remind of the lost river after whom Riga was once named. In wintertime, this Old Town square offers a skating rink. This is the place in Riga that never sleeps as there’s always something to find or do here!
National Library of Latvia
As you cross the Stone bridge from Old Town, on the left bank of the Daugava, looms an extraordinary culturally and really easily recognizable building, the National Library, also known as the Castle of Light.
The new library building houses a modern information centre and ample space for cultural and social events, offering one and all multi-themed reading rooms and access to rare books and audio/video recordings besides the usual printed matter.
Entering the library is also possible for tourists as well, as the library has already become active in organizing various exhibits. We spent more than a half day inside of the building, as there were some many rooms, with different theme of exhibits. Many of them was related to the history of Latvia and the growth of Riga, but there were some where you had the chance to learn more about the natural enviroment of Latvia, and also a great exhibiton of historical books which date back to centuries ago. We could also see what currency Latvia used before changing it to euros.
The Riga Nativity of Christ Cathedral is the largest Orthodox church in Riga, which has survived the Soviet-era, even though its function was a bit different as it used to be: during those years, the cathedral functioned as a planetarium and restaurant, but once again has become a sacral building, where Orthodox church services take place on a regular basis.
Our Lady of Sorrows Church
The white and blue Our Lady of Sorrows Church was the first stone church built in Riga after the Reformation had reached Livonia in 1785 (a historic region once encompassing present-day Latvia and Estonia). From 1858 to 1860, the church was rebuilt according to design of Riga architect Johann Felsko – the presbytery was located in the SW wing, with a new sacristy being added and the facade being changed into the Pseudo-Roman style. Only the white and blue colours still remind one of its Classicism past.
As the church is situated at the edge of the Old Town, it is quite easy to create postcard-like photos of it, since there are usually not so many people there.
Riga Aviation Museum
As many tourists enter or leave Riga from the airport, this sight is pretty convinient for everybody. The Aviation Museum is filled with old Russian fighter jets, supersonic bombers and helicopters right next to Riga International Airport (RIX), so if you can check it out right before you take off. It has an impressive display of military jets, plus you get a chance to have a look into some real old-school aircrafts and appreciate the growth of aviation.
Riga Cathedral formally The Cathedral Church of Saint Mary, is the Evangelical Lutheran cathedral which is one of the oldest sacred buildings of the medieval period in Latvia and also the Baltics.
The roosters sitting on the spires of Riga Old City churches are one of the symbols of Riga. Yet the rooster of Riga Cathedral is not just a symbol, it also serves as a weathercock, always facing the wind. The sculpture, weighing 86 kilograms, is about 0.5 meters tall and about 1.3 meters wide.
Located at Doma laukums, this building is in the very middle of Riga Old Town where you can choose among a great number of cafés, restaurants or pubs, enjoying the view of the lovely Old Town.
St. Gertrude Old Church
Old St. Gertrude’s Church is one of those rare churches in Riga which is not located in the Old Town. Back to the medieval ages, the church was at the very border of the city – after it there were only small huts, meadows, forests and roads. Today, Old St. Gertrude’s Church belongs to the Evangelical Lutheran Church, and concerts are also held here.
Photo tip: if you want some photos from Riga which is a bit different from those that you can see over and over I highly recommend this place, as the church is in the middle of a roundabout which is in the middle of Ģertrūdes iela. This street is not so busy, so it is really easy to create portrait photos here – just in case, be careful from the traffic 😉
St. Peter’s Church
St. Peter’s Church is located in Old Town Riga near Town Hall Square and the House of the Blackheads. It dates back to 1209 (although it has been destroyed and reconstructed several times), and is one of the oldest monuments of medieval architecture in the Baltic States, dominating the cityscape as the tallest spire in Riga.
This church in the heart of the city is a really lovely addition to the rest of Riga’s beautiful architecture palette. The tower of the church offers a beautiful panoramic view of the city, however it comes with a cost to go to the tower, but trust me, it is truly worth it! Everything always looks better during magic hours of the day, so I would advise to visit this place in the morning, or during the sunset. If you’re planning to visit Riga in the winter season, you can capture some great photos during the early opening hours as well. Visiting the church right before sunset is probably the best way to get the best light for photos and you can also shoot some great shots about the blue hour as well.
The Cat House
As walking around the Old Town you might see many souvenir shops all the way along. If you’ve been to Riga you may noticed that all these shops are filled with magnets and other souvenirs representing a black cat in any form.
Whilst sightseeing in Riga you may come across The Cat House. Sometimes called Black Cat House or Riga Cat House, this building has become the unofficial symbol of Riga. The house itself dates from 1909 (architect: Friedrich Scheffel) and is a mixture of styles, most notably its medieval twin turrets, on which the cats are perched, and its elaborate Art Nouveau portal surrounding the main entrance. It stands on Livu Square in the centre of Old Riga opposite the Great Guild hall.
Stories regarding the origin of the two black cats centre on the building owner’s relationship with the members of the Great Guild, and the Riga Town Council. One legend suggests that he was denied entrance to the guild and in disgust had two scared cats with arched backs placed on his house, posteriors pointed towards the offending guild. The cats were only turned around when he finally gained admittance. Another suggests that he had problems getting permission to build the house from the town council, and the cats’ bottoms pointed in their direction until a court order led to their reversal.
Nowadays the two black cats point nowhere in particular, but are constantly posing for the passing snap-happy tourists. They have become a symbol of the city of Riga, due to the popularity of the legend, but also possibly due to most Latvians’ love of cats, and the number of cats you can see when walking the streets of Riga.
The Three Brothers are the oldest medieval dwelling houses in Riga. In the medieval times, Maza Pils Street was located in the outskirts of Riga and craftsmen lived there.
The first brother, which was built in the late 15th century features impressive Gothic and Dutch influences. It was originally used as one large room; a bustling little hub for manufacturing, trade, and everyday life.
The middle brother is a pleasant shade of mellow yellow and arguably the architecturally grandest and most eye-catching one, was built in the mid-17th century. It, too, features Dutch influences thanks to the city’s trade relationship with the Netherlands.
The third brother was built in the second half of the 17th century and had small apartments on each floor. The youngest building is the narrowest and the smallest one of the three brothers. It has a very interesting facade element – a mask, which, according to the owners of the building, protected its inhabitants from evil spirits.
Built in Stalin’s style, a bridge that crosses the Daugava river, constructed during 2 years and opened in 1957 (named as October Bridge), the Stone Bridge in Riga is the only crossing point for the city’s tram system, as well as a great bridge to cross the river on foot and enjoy the view on both banks.
The Vanšu Bridge in Riga is a cable-stayed bridge that crosses the Daugava river in Riga, the capital of Latvia. Until 1991 it was so called “Gorky Bridge”. 595 meters in length, it is one of five bridges crossing the Daugava in Riga and passes over Ķīpsala island. It was built during the Soviet period and opened to public use on 21 July 1981. It is one of the important bridge for means of transport!
My travel buddies’ experience
I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to travel to Riga, thanks to my friend, Norbi, and airBaltic. I will always be thankful for this experience, it was an amazing time! Riga is a beautiful city, and it has a unique athmosphere with its beautiful characteristique buildings and nice places to visit. It was my first time in Norhern Europe, but I’m sure it wasn’t the last!
When Norbi contacted me if I would like to travel to Riga with AirBaltic I said yes without any hesitation. I was really excited even before the departure since I’ve never been to any of the Baltic countries. After our arrival to Riga I was immediately captivated as we started to discover the city. We didn’t really have to use public transportation that often, as everything was in walking distance. We had enough time to visit all the sights of the city, and we also had time to just wonder around the streets and parks. Also In addition, our trip was especially enjoyable by the fact that the temperature of the capital was quite cool, thanks to its location even in summer. In a word, Riga with its atmosphere and beautiful buildings is a perfect destination for those who want a little peaceful relaxation.
Some tips for your trip to Riga
- Transportation is always a great choice, specially from/to the airport. Just take bus line 22 which is a great option with many stops next to the Old Town
- Communication won’t be a huge problem, as most of the Latvian people can speak english or russian – or both 😉
- For a great variety of restaurant, check out liveRiga’s site and I’m sure you will find something that will grab your attention!