Riga, the capital city of Latvia, is an absolute gem in the Baltics that should not be missed on a trip to Eastern Europe. I’ve got a whole lot of love for this city—it was the location of my first solo trip in continental Europe (excluding Britain) and my first solo trip to Eastern Europe, back in November/December 2013. I had a blast that weekend, and knew that Riga was one place where I would have to return.
As the hub of budget airline AirBaltic, I was thrilled to return to Riga for just over 24 hours, as a long layover for two separately booked flights (traveling from St. Petersburg to Minsk). I was also a little disappointed to see how much Riga has changed in the last 3.5 years. Mainly because now it’s very expensive! (Vilnius is much cheaper.) I was shocked at how much a beer cost in bars in the Old Town, and I was also a little sad to see so many other tourists. There were a few big cruise ship tours as well—it’s no longer my beautiful, undiscovered gem.
Despite it all, I had a fabulous brief stay in Riga. If you’re heading there for a quick visit, look no further—here is how to spend 24 hours in Riga!
With only one full “real” day to explore the city, you should spend all of it in the city center. Start at the Blackheads House, the former guildhall merchant building, which is one of the most popular squares. The house is one of the iconic symbols of Riga.
Riga’s Old Town is charming and beautiful, and wandering through to see all the buildings is one thing you must do in Riga.
You can pay an obscene amount (11€!!!) to go up the bell tower of St. Peter’s Church, which gives excellent (if extremely overpriced) views of the Old Town and the city.
The Dome Church is another of Riga’s most beautiful churches. If you go, make sure to walk around the courtyard cloisters. One of my most poignant memories from my first trip was wandering around the cloisters, all alone in the atmospheric, peaceful church, seeing the historic artifacts jumbled in piles that looked a bit forgotten, and thinking, “yep, this is Eastern Europe.”
The Three Brothers buildings on Maza Pils street in the Old Town not only house the Latvian Museum of Architecture, but showcase three different periods of architecture right next to each other. The first building, 17 Maza Pils, was built in the 15th century with Gothic and Renaissance aspects. The second (middle) house, number 19, is meant to have Dutch Mannerist influence. The last one, number 21, is 17th-century Baroque architecture. Each one is unique, yet they are all built next to each other on the same street!
Bastejkalna Park is just outside the Old Town, and has a very picturesque canal running through it. In the summer, you can pay for a ride down the river. There are great views of the park from the top of the hill.
The Freedom Monument is another of the city’s most important landmarks. Built in 1935, it commemorates the Latvian War of Independence (1918-1920). The monument was considered for demolition during the Soviet occupation, but the plan was never put into action. It remains an important symbol of independence and freedom today.
Riga is famous around the world for its wealth of Art Nouveau buildings. There’s a whole district of them! The best ones are on the corner of Elizabetes iela and Antonijas iela, and on Alberta iela (iela is Latvian for street). I loved admiring the architecture, looking at all the different facets of the different buildings, and seeing how ornate and detailed they all are. If you have extra time, you can take an Art Nouveau walking tour to learn more information!
On the opposite end of the Old Town, you can find the former area of the Riga Ghetto. The Riga Ghetto was created by the Nazis following the German invasion of Latvian during World War II. There’s a museum (the Riga Ghetto and Latvian Holocaust Museum) that’s meant to be very informative, but unfortunately it was closed when I was there.
One building you absolutely must see on a visit to Riga is the Academy of Sciences building. The tall, towering building is classic Stalinist architecture, and was built between 1951 and 1961. The building was formerly stopped with star, which was removed after Latvia gained its independence in 1991. It’s quite similar in appearance to the Palace of Culture in Warsaw, “Stalin’s gift” to the Polish capital. There is an observation deck on the 17th floor of the building!
The Central Market is another place you can’t miss on a trip to Riga, no matter how short it may be. The market is housed in an old army air hanger, and is absolutely massive inside. Be careful around here though, as there is a black market area/neighborhood that can get pretty sketchy.
If you’re looking for food in Riga, I have your answer: LIDO. It’s kind of touristy, but the food is amazing and decently priced. It’s a self-service cafeteria-style restaurant, where you go around to different stations and pick out what you’d like to eat and drink. Then you pay for it all at the register. Eat at LIDO as much as possible. I went to the one at the intersection of Elizabetes and Terbatas streets, But there’s several more near the Old Town. There’s also a huge one (which I will visit on my next trip!) outside the city center. You’re welcome.
There is so much more to do and see in Riga. If you have more than 24 hours, I suggest seeing a few more museums (the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia is meant to be great), the National Library, the Latvian National Opera, and of course drinking plenty of the local spirit black balsam. There’s Rundale Palace for imperial splendor, and Jurmala for relaxing at the beach nearby for daytrips.
The Basics: Latvia is one of the main Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. The official language is Latvian, although there is a large ethnic Russian population, and Russian can be used as well. Native Latvians don’t necessarily like this though (they want people to speak Latvian in Latvia), but luckily my Russian will never be good enough to pass as a native speaker. Hopefully I didn’t offend anyone. Everyone in the Old Town will speak enough basic English to get by. Latvia has a population of roughly 2 million people, about 640,000 of whom live in Riga. During my first visit to Riga, they were still using the Latvian lat as the official currency. Now, Latvia is on the Euro (one main factor in why it was so much more expensive!). Latvia is a member of the European Union and is part of the Schengen zone.
Getting Around: Everything in the Old Town is walkable, and most everywhere in the city center can be seen on foot. All the places mentioned in this post can be seen by walking in one (albeit one long) day. There are buses and trams if you’re going outside the city center.
Where I Stayed: For both of my visits to Riga, I stayed at the Naughty Squirrel, one of my absolute favorite hostels in Europe. It’s a big hostel, but dorms are comfortable and bathrooms are clean (if a bit small). The staff are super friendly and helpful, they have a cheap bar, and they give you a free shot of black balsam at check-in. Could you ask for anything more?! There is a great social atmosphere, it’s easy to meet people, and if you want to party, the Naughty Squirrel basically guarantees a good time. I’ve recommended this hostel to two other friends, both of whom had excellent stays here. I wouldn’t stay anywhere else in Riga! Check out my full review here.
Riga is such a wonderful city to explore, even if you only have a short amount of time. I absolutely loved re-visiting this great city, and plan to return (again!) when I have even more time!
Have you ever been to Riga? What were your impressions?