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Inside: A walking tour of charming Old Town Riga including all the best things to see and do.
Author’s Note: Originally published in 2014 as part of a 30-day trip, this post has been fully updated following a recent return visit.
After wrapping up the Russian portion of this 30-day summer adventure from Moscow to the Med, it’s time to move on to our next destination: Riga, Latvia.
Read More: 24 Hours in Moscow
The flight from St. Petersburg to Riga’s Lidosta International Airport is a painless 55 minutes. And after a quick taxi ride into the city, my regular travel accomplice Shannon and I arrive at our hotel ready to explore.
The Latvian capital has been on my travel wish list since falling in love with nearby Tallinn, Estonia years ago on a 30-day trip around Europe. Rumor has it Riga is even better.
Read More: Taken with Tallinn
What is Riga known for?
Nicknamed the “City of Inspiration by the Baltic Sea” Riga’s colorful Old Town occupies a well-deserved spot on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
With soaring gothic spires and architectural styles from Renaissance to Art Deco to Baroque, the historic center is a spirited blend of classical European history…without the typical hefty European price tag.
In fact, Riga is widely considered one of the top value destinations on the continent. Riga is the largest (and liveliest!) of the Baltic capitals and a fantastic city to explore.
Tip: Prague is another terrific European city that offers a lot of bang for your buck.
But before I dive into all the best things to do in Riga, let’s answer a few frequently asked questions about the Latvian capital.
What’s the best time of year to visit Riga?
Like most of the Baltic region, Riga lives up to its icy reputation in the winter months. So the warmer months of April – September are likely to serve up better conditions for sightseeing.
That said, there are few things lovelier than Riga around the holiday season and this underrated European capital boasts an excellent Christmas market in Dome Square each year. The dates for 2022 have not yet been announced but the latest information can be found on the Riga Christmas Market’s official website.
How many days do you need in Riga?
Thanks to its compact Old Town, it’s easy to see the top sights in just a day or two. And that’s why Riga makes the ideal weekend getaway. Of course, if you have a little more time, you can find plenty to do for three or four days.
Do they speak English in Riga?
Yes, in the popular tourist areas within the Old Town, you won’t have any trouble finding English speakers at hotels, shops and restaurants. Of course, Latvian is the official language and outside the city of Riga it can be slightly more challenging to communicate.
What’s the main currency in Riga?
The main currency in Riga is the euro (which makes it easy for those already travelling around Europe). Latvia joined the European Union in 2004 and adopted the euro in 2014.
Best Hotels in (or near) Old Town Riga
There are a variety of Riga hotel options ranging from budget apartment rentals to 5-star luxury.
Our choice? The Boutique Hotel Kristofs, located in the heart of Old Town Riga. It’s a lovely (and very affordable!) hotel housed in an 18th-century mansion. The central location is ideal for exploring the city since it’s easily walkable to everything we want to see in our limited time in the city.
Tip: For the most luxurious stay in Riga, you can’t beat the Grand Hotel Kempinski Riga. This newly-renovated hotel has all the elegance, style, and amenities of the top European hotels, but with a Latvian price tag.
2022 Update: On my more recent visit, we stayed at the Radisson Blu Latvija Hotel in Riga city center, just a 5-minute walk from Old Town Riga. This modern hi-rise hotel has spacious rooms and terrific views over the city.
7 Awesome Things to See & Do in Riga
Not surprisingly on this whirlwind adventure, we have just one night to spend in Riga and hope to make the most of it.
When time is short, I’m a big believer in starting at the top!
1. St. Peter’s Church
We kick off our day with a climb to the spire of St. Peter’s Church for a birds-eye view of the city.
St. Peter’s is Riga’s tallest church and the best place for a terrific view over the Old Town. Originally completed at the end of the 15th century, the tower of St. Peter’s has been demolished and rebuilt several times throughout history. The current tower was completed in 1967.
The 360-degree views of Riga’s magnificent Old Town are spectacular, even set against a backdrop of clouds. It’s the perfect way to get our bearings before venturing further out. After taking in the view from every conceivable angle, we get out our map and quickly plot out the most efficient route around town.
2. The House of Blackheads
From the church, we head next door to Rātslaukums Square. The square is home to the town hall building and the Dutch Renaissance façade of the House of Blackheads.
In the Middle Ages, the square served as an open-air market. It was completely destroyed during World War II but has since been painstakingly restored to its former glory.
Built in the 14th century, the House of Blackheads belonged to the Guild of Unmarried Merchants and was the most prestigious building in the entire city. Its post-WWII restoration was completed in 1999. Today, visitors are treated to an exact replica of the former landmark.
3. Dome Square
From Rātslaukums Square, we wind our way down the narrow cobbled streets to the heart of Old Town Riga, Dome Square.
The largest of Riga’s many squares, Dome Square is anchored by the Gothic spire of Dome Cathedral and lined with some of the city’s best outdoor restaurants and cafes. The square is filled with locals and visitors alike, out and about enjoying the warmth of a summer day.
4. The Three Brothers
Guided by our excellent map of Old Town’s buildings of interest (provided by the ever-so-helpful Riga tourism bureau) we follow one of the square’s arteries and easily find the residential homes known as the “Three Brothers.”
Each of the pastel-colored homes represents a different century with the oldest dating back to the 15th century. One of them currently houses the Latvian Museum of Architecture.
5. Livu Square
Next up on our self-guided tour of Old Town Riga, a break for lunch at Livu Square.
Built in the 20th century after World War II, Livu is a relatively new square by comparison. Like Dome Square, it’s lined with lively restaurants and cafés, many featuring live music. It’s a great spot for lunch or dinner.
6. Riga’s Cat House
Located just off Livu Square, Riga’s Cat House is one of the city’s most quirky attractions.
With an architectural style that’s a blend of medieval and Art Nouveau, the Cat House was built in 1909 by a wealthy tradesman who was denied membership in the Riga Tradesman Guild.
Legend has it the tradesman had the two copper statues of angry-looking cats added to the turret rooftops with their backs arched and tails turned up toward the nearby Guild building in retribution.
Well, I guess he showed them!
It’s an interesting story and the black cat souvenirs found all over Riga make a fun gift or keepsake from a visit to Riga.
7. Riga Central Market & Food Hall
Finally, we continue on to our last stop of the day, Riga’s huge Central Market, “Centraltirgus.” Built in the 1920’s, the market’s massive hangers were once used for military airships.
Today, they are home to one of the largest markets in Eastern Europe.
As many as 100,000 people shop here daily for everything from seafood and exotic spices to housewares and clothing.
You could spend hours exploring every aisle and there’s no better place to sample the local Latvian cuisine.
Update: On my most recent visit to Riga, I was excited to discover that the Central Market has added an incredible new food hall (Centralais). Featuring more than a dozen restaurants, pastry shops, and bars, it’s a great atmosphere for lunch, dinner, or even just cocktails.
Wrapping Up 24 Hours in Riga
So, there you have it! The 7 best things to see and do in the beautiful and historic city of Riga.
Riga is a fabulous town to explore and there’s no doubt it’s one of Europe’s most affordable and unique destinations.
Next up…a few hours in Vilnius, Lithuania before continuing on to Sardinia tomorrow night!
Read More: Lightning-Fast Lithuania: 3 Hours in Vilnius