9 things you must do in Riga, Latvia

Riga, Latvia’s capital, is set on the Baltic Sea at the mouth of the River Daugava. It is considered a cultural center and is best known for its wooden buildings, art nouveau architecture and medieval Old Town. If you are looking for a place that is steeped in charm, but is still a highly undiscovered European gem, I highly recommend this incredible city. Here are just a few recommendations on what to do during your visit.

1. Take in the incredible views from St. Peter’s Church
Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997, St. Peter’s Church itself is beautiful and deserves a visit. However, the best thing about my visit to this church were the breathtaking 360 degree views of Riga from the top of the steeple. It does cost €3 to enter the church and another €6 to ride the painfully slow elevator to the top, but the views are worth it and there are no stairs to climb. If you are obsessed with finding the best views of a city like I am, it’s money well spent!

Gorgeous views of Riga from the top of St. Peter’s church.

2. Visit Central Market
At the turn of the 20th century, Zeppelins were seen as the transportation of the future. During that time, five giant hangars were constructed to house the German-made airships in the center of Riga. When the Zeppelins fell out of use, the hangars were turned into Europe’s largest market, which was added to the list of UNESCO’s World Hertiage Sites in 1998. Each of the five hangars offers something different, including vegetables, dairy, meat, fish and other delicious foods. There is also a large outdoor market selling flowers, handicrafts, clothing and almost anything else you can imagine.

If you want to try a real taste of local Riga, grab a pastry and a glass of kvass. A traditional Baltic beverage, kvass is a concoction of rye bread that is soaked in water, mixed with yeast and fermented for a few days. The result is a carbonated and slightly sour beverage that locals line up for during the hot summer days. What does it taste like? It’s a bit difficult to describe, but reminded me a bit of kombucha.

A delightful selection of pastries at Riga’s Central Market.

3. Explore the Art Nouveau District
Once you’ve had your fill at the market, you may be looking for a way to walk it off. Art Nouveau architecture makes up roughly one third of all buildings in Riga’s center, earning the city the title of having the highest concentration of Art Nouveau architecture anywhere in the world. Take a stroll down Alberta Street (and surrounding areas) to take in the best of the elaborate, flamboyant naked maidens, floral motifs and funky gargoyles that adorn almost every exterior. Can’t get enough? You’re in luck! Art Nouveau wasn’t only relegated to the façades of the city’s buildings. The flowery style quickly became a part of everyday life and was present in well-to-do homes in furniture, flatware and fashion. For a peek at an entire art nouveau apartment where even the bathroom and kitchen are adorned with Art Nouveau elements, visit the Riga Art Nouveau Museum.

Art Nouveau facades.

4. Say hello to the Three Brothers
Bring your wide angle lens to capture the best shot of these adorable houses at Maza Pils 17, 19 and 21, which form the oldest complex of stone houses in Riga. Legend has it they were built by three men from one family and represent different stages in the architectural development of Riga, from medieval to Baroque. The white house (#17) is from the 15th century, the yellow is from 16th and the green from the 17th century.  Don’t forget to take a look at the tiny windows on the upper levels. Rīga’s property taxes during the Middle Ages were based on window size, which is why they are so small.

Riga’s Three Brothers.

5. Take a Coffee Break
Duck into the alley right across from the Three Brothers and follow the signs to find the cutest little coffee shop in Riga – Parunāsim Kafe’teeka. Touting itself as the most romantic cafe in Old Town, this adorable hidden gem has a super Instagrammable patio and the most incredible selection of sweet treats. Even without a romantic partner to share the experience with, this cafe is quite a treat. Order a slice of their red velvet cake and an afternoon cortado and enjoy the quirky accents inside this cafe.

Adorable patio at the Parunasim Cafe.

6. House of the Blackheads
Located in the heart of Old Town, in Town Hall Square, this magnificently decorated building was originally built in 1334 as a place for traders and shippers to gather and conduct business. It maintained the city’s economic lifeline, as well as established trade links with the East and West. But just who were the Blackheads, you ask? The Blackheads Society was a gentlemen’s club for wealthy single merchants and their journeymen who were best known for organizing festivities, such as tournaments and celebrations, for themselves and the citizens of Riga. Their extravagant Balls were famous throughout Europe. The building remained the cultural epicenter of Riga for centuries and is now a symbol of the city. Unfortunately, the original building was destroyed by bombs in the Second World War but was fully rebuilt in 1999. Visitors can explore its 14th century historic basements, marvel at its magnificent collection of silver, which was once the largest in the Baltics, and absorb the atmosphere of the Celebration Hall.

House of the Blackheads.

7. Indulge in Latvian Cuisine
After all this exploring you are bound to be hungry. When in Riga you must try the local cuisine. However, if you are expecting heavy, Soviet-influenced dishes you might be disappointed. While you can find several restaurants serving traditional Latvian cuisine, Riga’s newest generation of chefs are using local ingredients and their creativity to conceptualize dishes that would be right at home in any world class city. One of my favorites was lunch at Valtera Restorans. Chef Valters Zirdziņš offers a constantly changing menu of seasonal, modern Latvian cuisine. Everything on the menu sounded fantastic so I took the server’s recommendation and went with the arctic char. Not only was the fish incredible, the plate was a work of art. For less than€20 I felt like I was dining at a 5 star restaurant!

Artfully plated arctic char at Valtera Restorans.

8. Try Riga Black Balsam
You’ll see the signs all over Riga: If you haven’t tasted it, you have not been in Riga. That certainly sounded like a challenge to me. One that I was most definitely up for. But first, I wanted to know more about it. As it turns out, Riga Black Balsam is a traditional Latvian balsam made with a blend of 24 all-natural ingredients, including extracts of carefully selected grasses, roots, berries and buds. It is actually the oldest bitter brand in the world and is an essential ingredient in many popular drinks, such as a Negroni, Caipirinha and Espresso Martini – who knew?

Have you tasted it?

9. The Cat House
Another example of Art Nouveau architecture, this infamous yellow house has two angry black cats perched on top its roof. It is said that one Riga local was so offended by being refused membership into the Great Guild that he attached the cats on top of his building so they would cast an evil glare upon the Guild. Obviously, the members of the Guild hated the sculpture, and a fight between the man and the Guild raged for months. An agreement was finally reached and the statues were turned around, but the famous Black Cats still sit on their perch atop this house in Old Town Riga.

Riga’s legendary Cat House.

Did you know? A Latvian invented jeans! Tailor, Jacob W. Davis, was born Jākobs Jufess in Riga and emigrated to the US as a young man in 1854. In 1870, a customer asked him to make a strong pair of trousers for her husband, who was a woodcutter.  His creation becamse the template for modern denim jeans, and two years later, with help from Levi Strauss, he patented the product.

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29 thoughts on “9 things you must do in Riga, Latvia

  1. I hope to visit Latvia by mid-end of next year. So thanks for this perfect list of things that I shouldn’t miss.
    Being an art history enthusiast, I believe the Art Nouveau architecture here would be the top of my list!
    Stone houses? That’s fascinating! I’ll bookmark this page for my future use.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. What a great blog. We just returned from Ljubljana this summer and Riga really reminds me of it. I love the story about the cat on top of the building and the three buildings built over 3 centuries. How interesting that window size was the basis of taxes in the middle ages?? I like that the public market is huge and filled with lots of yummy treats! I will get there soon!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve desperately wanted to explore more of Eastern Europe. Latvia has been on my radar for years, and this only solidifies it! I don’t know if I could stomach kvass, but all that bread… yum! Also the architecture is just so gorgeous. If I ever get there, I am so using this as a guide!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I visited Riga several years ago and absolutely loved it. I’ve spent a few days in the city and visited all the attractions you mention here, but I had no idea that a Latvian invented jeans. Thanks for sharing that interesting fact.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Anda-
      Your name is very Latvian.
      Another little tidbit-the first decorated Christmas tree was in Riga in 1510! They just celebrated the 500th anniversary of that tradition.
      I hope you had a great time in Latvia!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Everyone is going to Riga lately and I can see why! The views from the top of that cathedral are amazing and worth the cost in time and money-especially since I don’t have to climb stairs. What a great use of the old zeppelin hangars to turn them into a market. The new chefs cuisine of using fresh and local foods is also a bonus.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Having been brought up eating Latvian food , I would say it combines German, Polish, Nordic and Russian influences among others. Sausages, sauerkraut and beer(Germany), smoked fish (Russia), pierags (Polish pierogi), lots of dill like in Sweden, etc.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Riga is one my favorite European capitals. I visited a few years ago and it barely had any tourists but I see that is slowly starting to change nowadays. I really didn’t know that the first jeans were created by a Latvian immigrant tho! Thank you for sharing

    Liked by 1 person

  7. You’ve really inspired me to visit Riga after reading this! I’m interested to try the Black Balsam too, it sounds interesting! The Three Brothers are wonderful, and with a great history behind it too. Hope I get to visit next year!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Loved this mini guide to the lovely capital of Latvia. The panoramic views from st peter’s church are amazing. Thanks for the little trivia about the origin of jeans – that’s something i wouldn’t know if i didn’t read your blog!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I never realised Riga was so pretty. I love the look of the art deco district. And the Latvia cuisine looks really delicious, I would have expected Soviet stodge!!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Wow, Riga is having lovely artistic buildings with interesting exteriors. Hello to Three Brothers which represent different eras are quite interesting and I would love to explore more on this. Never knew that Latvian person invented jeans, which was then patented by famous brand – Levi’s. Thanks for sharing wonderful information about Riga, Latvia.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. As a self-confessed crazy cat lady, the cat house has my name all over it! I’ve been considering Riga for a while, but only because I knew it was a bit of a fairy tale city – I didn’t know there was so much to see and do there. And I didn’t realise Latvian cuisine was actually a thing either – might have to make a little trip there sooner than I thought x

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Indulging in Latvian cuisine would be the top thing for me to experience because I have never tried Latvian food before and I love trying local cuisines when I travel. Apart from that, Riga looks like the perfect old charming European city, especially with those red rooftops, the river and the bridge over it, the central market with such delicious looking pastries and the architecture.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Riga sounds like a complete cultural delight. I loved the tale of the three brothers and how the size of window = taxes. By that logic, I would be paying a huge price 😉 Kvass sounds interesting. I have always loved Kombucha. Guess I might like this too. Enjoyed reading about the House of Blackheads too.

    Liked by 1 person

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