Found on the windswept shores of the Baltic Sea in northern Europe, Riga is the largest city in and the capital of Latvia and one of the most vibrant and up and coming destinations to visit on the continent.
As well as being Latvia’s largest city this is the largest urban center in the entire Baltics, and consequently, Riga has grown to become the region’s center of culture, art, commerce, and history, making it an exciting destination to explore.
There are many museums explaining and exploring Latvia’s often turbulent history, some excellent art exhibitions and galleries, and some wonderful local restaurants, cafes, and markets to visit in Riga. To help you to plan your trip to the Latvian capital, here’s our ultimate guide to Riga.
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Table of Contents
How to Get to Riga
Riga is located on the Baltic Sea overlooking the waters of the Gulf Riga but being the largest city in Latvia its urban area spreads out far inland along the banks of the Daugava River. Riga is a well-connected city and as Latvia borders the neighboring countries of Estonia, Lithuania, Belarus and Russia, as well as maritime borders with the Scandinavian nations on the Baltic Sea, there are many transport routes across the region and further afield, making this an easy city to travel to.
Riga International Airport is the Baltic’s busiest airport and a hub for the local carrier, Air Baltic, as well as several other airlines. Air Baltic has connections across the region to most major European cities and to many of the former nation’s of the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe and further afield in Central Asia. There are also a great number of low-cost carriers operating out of Riga with Ryanair and Wizz Air having a particularly strong presence and great budget fares across Europe.
Riga has great land connections to European cities too with regular buses to the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius to the south taking around 5 hours or buses north to Tallinn, the Estonian capital, taking around 4 hours. There are long-distance buses to Belarus, Russia and even onto Poland and other western European nations.
Riga is also a stop on many Baltic Sea Cruises while the port has public ferries sailing across the water to Stockholm in Sweden, although this is a long, overnight journey.
How to Get Around Riga
Riga has a large urban area but the city center and the Old Town which are the main focus for visitors, are in fact, very compact and as such can be traversed easily on foot or by bicycle, which is a pleasant way to explore the cobbled streets and historic buildings.
If you do need to travel further afield, then there is a great network of local trams and buses which connect the center to most other districts, while an express bus runs regularly to the airport with a journey time of just half an hour.
If you need to take a taxi, fares are generally inexpensive, particularly if making use of the local ride-hailing services. The best app to download is Taxify which can also be used across the rest of the Baltic nations too.
The Best Time to Visit Riga
Riga’s far northern location ensures that it’s infamous for its icy, cold winters. From September onward you can expect temperatures to drop from their summer highs and in the New Year, January and February will be almost perpetually below zero degrees Celsius. Although cold, winter can be a wonderful time to visit Riga still as the city is home to many light displays and around Christmas, many festive markets and celebrations which help people to cope with the long nights and the chill.
Summer temperatures never reach much higher than 30 degrees Celsius, but for Latvians used to the cold, this is incredibly hot. Summer is the most bustling and busy time of year to visit Riga and around the Solstice, you can even expect to find many parties and traditional celebrations that welcome in the longer days.
What to Expect in Riga
Riga is one of northern Europe’s most historic cities and due to its location at the crossroads between the east and west, and due to its past affiliations with many other countries and empires, you can expect to find a multicultural and diverse capital where the past really is meeting the new.
The local language is Latvian, however, most Rigans will also speak Russian due to the country’s long tenure in the Soviet Union. Due to changing dynamics and Latvia’s joining of the European Union though, most of the younger generation will speak excellent English too. The local currency is the Euro and you can easily find ATMs and money changers across the city.
Things to do in Riga
Explore the Old Town
One of the first things to do in Riga when you arrive in the city is to explore the Old Town. The city dates far back to the 1200s, however much of the historic center was unfortunately destroyed during the destructive battles for Riga that took place during World War II. In subsequent decades, the former grand old architecture was gradually restored and today the Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Center worthy of your time. Wander through the cobbled streets and narrow alleyways, while enjoying the colorful buildings and beautiful cathedrals of Riga.
Latvian National Opera
The Latvian National Opera dates back to 1912 when locals began creating more national institutions to assert the Latvian desire for independence. Although two world wars then interrupted the development of the Latvian opera, the Soviet period and then later eventual independence saw a resurgence in operatic performances in Riga. If you have the opportunity and your stay coincides with a performance then a Riga must see is most certainly a Latvian opera.
Shop at the Central Market
One of the most interesting of the Riga attractions you have to explore during your time in the city is the Central Market. This is one of the largest marketplaces in the Baltics, if not Europe, and it’s a great place to immerse yourself in both the city’s culture and culinary tastes.
Riga Central Market is home to a huge array of shops and market stalls selling everything from fresh fruit and vegetables to caviar and dried fish, alongside clothing, drinks and almost anything else you could imagine. A visit here can be one of the best things to do in Riga in winter, as the warming interiors are brightly lit and you can find all sorts of hearty, delicious food and drink to heat you up.
Places to visit in Riga
National History Museum of Latvia
The perfect place to begin to learn more about Latvia’s ever-intriguing past is at the National History Museum of Latvia. This historic institution dates back to 1869, although the exhibits have changed locations several times. The national museum tells the story of the nation’s struggle for independence through the centuries alongside cultural exhibits too.
Museum of the Occupation of Latvia
Throughout its history, Latvia has always struggled under the yoke of larger foreign powers. The Museum of the Occupation of Latvia tells the dark stories of the country’s invasions in the 20th century by Germany and Russia and the ensuing occupations, with Latvia only gaining independence from the Soviets in 1991.
The Freedom Monument in Riga is dedicated to those citizens who have given their lives over the years in the struggle for Latvian independence. The monument was erected in 1935 to commemorate the war of 1918 -1920 that gave Latvia short-lived independence. The Soviets almost destroyed it, but it survived and now continues to form a centerpiece for an independent Latvia.
Riga Castle is located on the banks of the river in the center of the Old Town and can trace its foundations back to the 14th century. Since then it has been expanded, destroyed and rebuilt more than once and is today the home of Latvia’s President.
Town Hall Square
Town Hall Square forms the heart of Riga’s Old Town and is a wonderful place to visit to take in the historic architecture of the UNESCO World Heritage area. This is where many of the most famous buildings are found, including the iconic House of the Blackheads. A walk to Town Hall Square is one of the best things to do in Riga at night as the area is always beautifully lit up when darkness falls.
Albert Street is another of Old Town Riga’s most popular and historic areas to visit. This is a wonderful place to explore as the street is lined with buildings that are famous for their unique Art Nouveau style dating back to the turn of the 20th century.
Art Nouveau Museum
If you are interested in learning more about Riga’s Art Nouveau influences then a visit to the Art Nouveau Museum is certainly in order. The museum is found on Albert Street itself, inside one of the decorative apartments, and it can be one of the more unusual things to do in Riga.
The Riga Motor Museum offers you the opportunity to learn more about the motorized world, and to view one of the largest and most diverse collections of motor vehicles found anywhere in the world.
What to Eat in Riga
Riga has a fantastic selection of restaurants serving up both international and local cuisine. The Old Town has a great array of traditional eateries where you can find Latvian specialties. Many restaurants are hidden away in old cellars or in cozy surroundings and the hearty Latvian food will keep you warm even in the coldest of months, with a huge focus on stews, potatoes, and broths. Alternatively, visit the Central Market for an even more authentic look at Latvian food.
A few must-try dishes when visiting Riga include Pelmeni Dumplings, the local sausages, and Beetroot Soup. The local spirit that’s more than worth a try is Black Balsam, a type of flavored vodka.
Where to stay in Riga
The Naughty Squirrel Hostel is an exciting place that lives up to its intriguing name. This is the city’s backpacker haunt, where you can find cheap but quality lodgings and meet some like-minded travelers to enjoy Riga with.
As far as Riga hotels go the Opera Hotel and Spa is one of the most well known and well revered in the city. It’s perfectly sited next to the Opera house and offers luxurious spa facilities at mid-range pricing.
The Dome Hotel is an opulent offering in the center of the Old Town that’s found in one of the city’s oldest buildings, a location which dates back over 400 years. It’s five stars and will suit any luxurious needs.
We have also written an extensive guide on Where to stay in Riga.
Tours to do in Riga
The best way to see the quaint, charming, cobbled streets of the Old Town is on a guided walking tour. Join a local guide to learn more about Riga’s ever interesting history.
Go on a tour of the best eateries in Riga and explore the local food markets with great food guides who can show you the best dishes and places to dine in the city.
Learn about the darker past of the Soviet Occupation from locals who experienced the communist years first hand, in an intriguing tour that shows you the city’s recent Soviet history.
Day trips from Riga
Actually located south across the border in Lithuania, a trip to the Hill of Crosses is still an easy day trip from Riga that gets you to another Baltic nation and lets you explore a unique hill that is literally covered in crosses.
Rundale Palace is found south of Riga and is one of the country’s most historic and elegant palaces. Dating to the 18th century, it’s architecturally beautiful and a wonderful place to spend the day.
Want to learn how to travel on a Budget? Check out our dedicated “Budget Conscious Travel Guide”
Recommend budget tours in Riga
- Full-Day Private Tour to Cesis and Sigulda from Riga
- Riga by Canal Boat Sightseeing Cruise
- Private day trip to Rundale Palace, Hill of Crosses &more with Premium class van
- The best of Riga segway tour
- Best of Riga Walking Tour
- Old Town Walking Tour of Riga
- Riga Central Market and Food Tasting Tour
- Full-Day Rundale Palace and Hill of Crosses Private Tour
- Full-Day Private Tour to Latvia Palaces and Medieval Castle from Riga
- Half-Day Private Tour to Sigulda from Riga
- Red Buses Riga Hop-On Hop-Off Bus
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