We started exploring Riga from its Old city called Vecrīga. It’s located on the right side of the Daugava River and is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
It used to be a Hanseatic City, an essential part of the trading route in Europe in the Middle Ages, around 8 centuries ago. It lived under Swedish, Russian Empire, Nazi, and Soviet rule till only 3 decades ago.
There are quite a few museums, architectural gems, restaurants, and cafes there, so let’s have a look! It’s worth a note that many monuments were destroyed during WWII, but many were recreated in the last 20-30 years.
Here I prepared the complete guide of what to see and where to go in Riga!
1. Town Hall Square
Obviously, on the Town hall square, there is a Townhall itself, the seat of Riga City Council. There is also the statue of Roland, a real historical figure representing the human liberties and as well as symbol of the successful trade, and his sword is the zero point for the city measurements. By the way, there’s a tiny shopping street right at the back of the Town Hall!
Nearby the Occupation Museum is located, where you can learn about the occupation of Latvia by the USSR, then the Nazis, and then the USSR again.
2. First Christmas tree sign
Did you know that Riga claims the right to be the first city where the fir tree was installed for Christmas by order of the Blackheads in 1510? Don’t miss this sign on the floor of the Town hall square!
3. House of the Blackheads
Suppose you have traveled around the Baltic states. In that case, you are probably familiar with the Brotherhood of Blackheads, a brotherhood of unmarried young traders dating back to the 14th century who chose St Maurice (frequently depicted black Egyptian soldier) as their patron saint – and it still exists!
They are first registered in Riga is 1413. Gorgeous House of the Blackheads on the Town hall square is one of the main symbols of Riga: it has a bright red facade with allegorical figures on it, and cellars and a few rooms on the 1st floor are open to the public.
The story of the building was quite turbulent: it was drastically damaged during WWII, and it was decided to demolish it. Only later, it was entirely rebuilt, and you can visit the exact replica of the old house with the cellars remaining original.
4. Three Brothers
One of the most famous architectural gems of Riga: three houses called Three Brothers. Those are the houses N17, 19, and 21 on Mazā Pils Street, with the N17 being the oldest and dating to the 15th century and the other two dating to the 17th century. They house the Latvian Museum of Architecture and the State Inspectorate for Heritage Protection.
5. Freedom Monument
Freedom monument dating to 1935 is one of the most important symbols of modern Riga: that’s a 42-metre high column with a female figure representing liberty holding three stars. The figures at the foot show different scenes linked to the Latvian War of Independence (1918-1920) – and it barely survived the Soviet period.
6. Riga Cathedral
Dome Cathedral, or The Cathedral Church of Saint Mary, should be very high on your list of priorities for a Riga trip.
The first church on this site dates back to 25th of July 1211: it was commissioned by Albert of Riga, the founder of Riga, who converted the local population to Catholicism. You can still see the remnants of this initial building as the oldest parts of the cathedral are the choir and and eastern transept.
Once, it was one of the largest medieval churches in this part of the world. Later the building was modified many times resulting in the mix of architectural styles: modifications of the 14th, 15th and 16th century were realised in the Gothic style; Baroque elements were added in the 18th century with the Baroque tower you see today added in 1776; pseudo-Gothic additions were incorporated in the 19th century.
Today it’s the seat of the Archbishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia. Don’t miss the cloisters, one of the oldest parts of the cathedral, with its collection of artefacts, the pipe organ by E.F. Walcker & Co, and the Weathercock on the top, as many other churches in Riga do!
7. Great Guild and Small Guild
Lielā ģilde or Great Guild (6 Amatu Street) is another building in Riga you must see! It was erected around 1854–1859 in Gothic style. Now it houses the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra and is used for various cultural events.
The Neo-Gothic Small guild is adjacent to the Great Guild. It dates to 1864—66 and was built after a project by architect Johann Felsko. The Small Guild as an organisation itself dated to the 13th century and was the first union of Riga craftsmen.
You can also see Konventhof, a 13th-century residence of the Sword Brethren Order, in a short walk, now it’s occupied by a hotel.
8. Cat House
Cat house is one of the most well-known buildings of Riga: it has metal cats on its roof! It dates back to 1909 and was designed in Art Nouveau style. Th cats on the roof initially are told to be turned other way because the owner of the building had a quarrel with the Great Guild members or with the old Town Hall so he expressed his emotions placing cats with their tales up toward his offenders. Once the issue was settled, the cats were turned into their today’s position.
9. Riga Castle
Riga Castle is located on the riverside of River Daugava and was founded in 1330. It’s been rebuilt a few times, for instance, in the late 15-early 16 century and in the mid-17th century when the city was taken by Sweden.
Since 1922 it’s been the official residence of the President of Latvia. Watch the change of guards there and make sure you have a quick look at the interiors: the castle is closed to the public, but you can explore it by scanning a QR code and following a digital guide.
10. St Peter’s Church
Lutheran St Peter’s Church, with its 123-meter-high tower, is just a must-see for you: it’s the tallest church in the city! Its construction started in 1209, but only a few remains are left from that period. It has quite a long tragic story.
The church was rebuilt in the 15th century, then the tower collapsed in 1666, and then was struck by lightning in 1721. Finally, it was severely damaged during WWII – thankfully, it’s renovated now! Please also note a golden cockerel on its roof: in the older times, all spires of old Riga carries those.
Don’t miss the wooden altar and Blue Guard Chapel, along with other interior elements. And make sure you go up to the 3rd floor, take a lift from there and observe a magnificent panorama of Riga and Daugava River!
11. Albert Street
Albert Street is the number one location in Riga to admire original Art Nouveau architecture at its best – Riga was even called the capital of Art Nouveau back in time!
Those buildings were erected here at the beginning of the 20th century, mostly around 1901-1908, when Riga was quickly growing and had a large financial influx. This is the place for you if you want to see many Art Nouveau together, and eight buildings on this street are listed as Latvian state monuments.
12. Elizabetes street
Elizabetes Street (located nearby) is another must-see place. The most famous architect and visionary of it is Mikhail Eisenstein, sometimes nicknamed “Gaudí of Riga.” Look for houses 10a and 10b. Other names to make a note of are Konstantīns Pēkšēns and Eižens Laube.
13. Art nouveau museum
Art nouveau museum on Albert Street is a must-visit: it was designed by Konstantīns Pēkšēns, who lived here as well. Once you enter the building, you already know that something astonishing lies ahead because the hall is stunning and decorated with floral motives.
The spiral staircase is an absolute jaw-dropping gem too. You can visit Konstantīns’ apartment, which was restored to its original outlook of 1903, with all the furniture, tableware, and even the stained glass.
14. Powder tower
The Powder Tower, a part of the defensive walls surrounding the city, dates back to 1650 – as you can guess, the gunpowder was stored here. The tower was built on a site of the so-called Sand Tower dating to 1330.
15. Swedish Gate
Swedish Gate is located just a stone’s throw away from the Powder Tower. It’s the only surviving Gate out of eight and was built in 1698 when the city was taken by Swedes. The Gate was extended by adding the houses on the sides along Torņa Street during the Soviet period.
16. Riga Ghetto and Latvian Holocaust Museum
The Latvian Holocaust museum was opened in 2010. It is located near the site where the Jewish ghetto was located.
It showcases the cultural traditions and life of the traditional Jewish community in Riga and also commemorates the victims of German occupation. There are a few parts of the exhibition split into different halls on the site. Nearby there is Red Warehouses district III built in the second part of the 19th century.
17. Corner House
Our next landmark showcases a dark side of the Soviet occupation of Latvia: its so-called Corner house, the quarters of the KGB (Committee for State Security in the USSR that acted as secret police), or simply the KGB museum, a part of Occupation museum.
KGB moved in in 1940 and returned in 1944 after the German occupation. In this exact house, there were the living quarters of the agents as well as cells for the prisoners (people were brought here for the interrogation, and many never came back). Once Latvia became independent, the building was occupied by the State Police till 2008, and then since 2015, it’s been used by the current exhibition of the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia.
18. Big Christopher monument
A statue of Big Christopher, or Lielais Kristaps! It’s a local folklore giant who carried the travellers across the river. Once, he saved a crying baby who was incredibly heavy, and the giant was hardly able to help him. When Christopher woke up from sleep in the morning the next day, he found gold instead of the baby, which is thought to be a representation of Christ, and the weight of the baby refers to the importance of human sins.
The statue in the shire of Daugara River dates back to 1997.
19. Laima Chocolate Museum
As I have relatives in Latvia, I had a steady influx of Serenade from Laima chocolates as a kid. And I was the happiest to learn that they also have a museum!
You get a cup of dark chocolate on arrival, then go through an exhibition on the history of Laima: it dates back to 1870 when Theodore Rigert founded his company in Riga.
You’ll also learn about the process of chocolate making, and at the end, you can make photos and videos in front of the green screen (see mine too) and receive the digital versions too! There are a nice shop and a cafe area too.
20. Bastejkalna Parks
The monument is surrounded by Bastejkalna Park, a pretty green area with a canal called Pilsētas Kanāls – in the past, the old moat was located on this site. The National Opera is nearby too.
21. Riga Central Market
Did you know that Riga Central Market is the largest market in Europe, with about 3000 stalls? It’s even included in the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list of the Riga!
It dates back to 1924 – 1930, and German Zeppelin hangars were used in the construction. You can buy all varieties of food (veggies, fruits, fish, meat, etc) and souvenirs there. There are flower and fruit stalks outside as well.
22. Rozena Iela
Rozena iela, or Rozena Street, is one of the narrowest streets of the city; sadly, the construction works are taking place there now.
23. Nativity of Christ Cathedral
Nativity of Christ Cathedral is the largest Orthodox Church in Ruga, with striking gold domes marking the influence of the Russian empire in Riga. Its construction started in 1876, the emperor Alexander II provided the cathedral with 12 bells, and some icons were painted by famous Russian artist Vasily Vereschagin.
The cathedral was officially opened in 1884. In the 1960s, the cathedral was closed, and the bells melted down as the USSR was an anti-religious state. The interior was changed to accommodate a planetarium, and only in recent years, the cathedral returned to its initial splendor.
24. Town Musicians of Bremen
This statue shows the Bremen Town Musicians, donkey, dog, cat, and cockerel, characters from the brothers Grimm’s tale! Animals ran away from their owners, who mistreated them, and decided to become musicians in Bremen, but instead, they occupied a house of robbers on their way.
25. Rigensis bakery
If you suddenly had a crave for something deliciously sweet, go to Rigensis bakery (Tirgoņu 8). It’s located in the historical building and has a wide range of cakes, pastries and everything you need for a break after a long walk around the Old city centre!
26. Latvian Academy of Sciences
Another building belonging to the famous Stalin’ Seven sisters (Moscow) style, the Latvian Academy of Sciences, dominates the scenery of Riga. The Academy of Sciences was founded in 1946, and the skyscraper was built in 1951-1961. You can also visit its observational desk on the 17th floor.
27. Galerija Centrs
Riga is a great destination for shoppers as there are plenty of shops with local arts and crafts and souvenirs everywhere in the city centre. If you need to shop for international brands around central Riga, go to Galerija Centrs, or Central Gallery, initially opened in 1938.
It has many shops and a tremendously stylish food court on the last floor (go there for dumplings or Georgian cuisine – if you’re a fan, try Alaverdi restaurant too in the Old town). Another option is Stockman in a short walk from the Gallery,
28. National Library
Sadly, we didn’t manage to go inside but it seems to be one of the nicest libraries you can visit! National Library of Latvia was founded in 1919 however this unusual building nicknamed the Castle of Light was designed to 1989 and brought to life in 2014.
29. St John’s church
St John’s Church a stone throw away from St Peter’s church is the oldest religious building in Riga although it’s easy to miss! It used to be a chapel of Dominican church however was confiscated by the city and rebuilt later.
30. Soviet movie locations
Did you know that Riga was a site of shooting for many Soviet films? For instance, this street – Jauniela (New Street) – played the role of Baker Street in Soviet Sherlock Holmes (see the screen shop of the movie below!)
What to bring from Riga?
Black Balsam, a local liquor made of different plants, berries, etc., dating back to 1752, is supposed to make you healthier. It’s a perfect gift from Latvia because it’s probably the most well known tourist product of all!
Consider buying amber and wooden goods too – and of course, Laima chocolates!
Do you still have time?
You can also visit Saktas flower market, Kalnciema Quarter, Riga Zoo, and Ethnographic Open Air Museum or see the original Stonehead of Salaspils! Try to go to Jūrmala for a day if you have a chance too.
Where to stay in Riga:
We stayed in Grand Hotel Kempinski which is located very close to the Old City. Please note that the old city has cobblestone streets, and if you’re moving around with a pram, it might be challenging.
Upon our arrival, we were told that George would get a fish called Nemo to accompany him during his stay, and we expected to receive a soft toy or a plastic toy or something similar… Imagine our shock when we got a real fish! and a good portion of fish food for daily feeding sessions.
We also loved their rooftop restaurant with high-cuisine creations: I bet you never had a sparkling cucumber soup or electrifying Sichuan flower for palate cleanser!
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