If you are arriving into Riga from Vilnius or Tallinn, the first thing you will probably notice is the size difference. The two other capitals of the Baltic region are significantly smaller and have retained more of their historic centers. All three are gorgeous but Riga is quite a bit more established and modern than the other capitals. That being said there are of course some amazing gems in the city.
What to do
Running through the center of town lies the first major Art Nouveau street in Riga. This grand street is lined on both sides with architecturally stunning buildings the majority of which were designed by Mikhail Eisenstein. Some are coloured, some have exquisite exterior plastering, and some even seem to defy standard logic. This street was soon home to some of the richest residents of Riga leading to its growing significance. Due to this, they felt it was fitting to name the street after the founder of Riga, Bishop Albert.
Nativity of Christ Cathedral
While it may not be the oldest church in the city, that doesn’t mean the Nativity of Christ Cathedral isn't every bit less of a major attraction as some of the others. The massive Russian Orthodox cathedral was built in the late 1800s and is still the largest Orthodox cathedral in the Baltics. Due to tensions with Russia post-1918 independence, the church was almost torn down and even acted as a planetarium for a while. It is amazing that the exceptional frescos on the inside are still in such great condition as they are some of the best works by a number of Russian artists.
House of BlackHeads
In centuries past, organizations were established to create partnerships and allow for collective bargaining. This was done on an independent level and in the process, guilds were created. It was important to many livelihoods to be part of the guild in order to operate your business so some grew to become very strong. The House of Blackheads was originally built in the early 14th century by the guild for unmarried merchants, shipowners, and foreigners. Due to the importance of the Riga harbor, the guild was quite powerful and wealthy, and so was the building they operated out of! While the original was destroyed by the Germans in 1941, it was rebuilt in the 1990s allowing you to take in the magnificent building for yourself.
Running between the historic city and the new city, the long thin Bastejkaina Park is one of the most important spaces in the city. Raised above the park is a walkway that connects the longest street in Riga to its historic counterpart. The meeting point is home to The Freedom Monument, a 140-foot tower topped with a Liberty statue holding three stars. The monument was first unveiled in 1934 to commemorate the lives lost in the fight for freedom from Russia. Its location overlooks Brivibas Street which was once named after Hitler and Lenin. The park is also a lovely spot to have a picnic while watching ducks and geese or to visit the Latvian National Opera.
Riga Central Market
Sitting just off of the downtown core is 5 massive Zeppelin hangers that have been re-purposed to create the largest indoor market in Europe. What's more impressive than the size and cleanliness of the main floor is that there is an entire substructure where all the action happens. All preparation is done below with elevators bringing the food and meats up once ready for sale. After a quick walk around you will be amazed at the different colours, smells, preserves, and meats you can find. Why not do a tasting tour through the Central Market with a local who can show you all the best stalls! The site was also inducted into UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites as part of Riga's historic centre.
City Wall , Sibiu, Romania
Not far from Dome Square and the center of town, the Three Brothers stand triumphantly proving that time can not even knock them down. The three houses together form the oldest living complex in Riga. While the interiors have been renovated over the years, the exteriors have stayed pretty consistent with their original form. The oldest dates from the 15th century with the one in the middle dating to 1646 and the thin baroque styled on the far left dating to the 17th Century. They are no longer residential units and instead hold the State Inspection for Heritage Protection and the Latvian Architectural museum.
Covid Conscious Activities
With Covid-19 being such a huge factor in daily life, it is important to take steps towards a safer holiday like trying to limit your daily contact with others. Keep up to date with the latest local advisories and information.
Even during the coldest winter days, Riga is still a great destination. Luckily Riga is a great city to explore outside or otherwise keep distanced from others. Along Albert Street, you have some of the best examples of Art Nouveau architecture. Passing everything from flying horses to screaming faces, the motifs that are displayed on the buildings are unique, to say the least! After, head towards the waterfront to see one of the best "guild houses" - the Blackheads Guild. Also, keep an eye out for the black cat silhouette. Try taking a self-guided walking tour or audio tour that leads you past these building and many of the other unique spots in Riga.
Where to Stay
As we toured the Baltics with a specialty company, we visited 3 different hotels during our stay. Each was a little different but all had great pluses. The final battle on which gets our vote is close between the Hotel Dome Spa and the Grand Palace Hotel. The Dome Spa is a super quaint 13 room hotel with a ton of character, while the Grand Palace is a 5* classic hotel that feels a bit clunky. While they both had amazing breakfasts (and even a friendly parrot in the Grand Palace), the spas are what set them apart. The Grand Palace has a wellness center in the basement complete with locker rooms, a sauna, steam shower, and lounge, that you rent out for free privately. It was a super nice perk to an already nice hotel.
The city center is where all the things to do are so it is best to stay as close to the main square as possible. Riga is relatively inexpensive so it isn't worth the extra effort of public transportation to stay outside of easy walking distance.
How to get there and around
There is not really a train system through the Baltics so the best way to travel around is either with a rented car, a tour group, or on long-distance buses. The driving is very simple through the Baltics with no hard borders so it's easy to travel across the region. The bus system is decent allowing you to not only travel between major cities but out to the beach resorts and other coastal cities. If you are not renting a car, you may miss some of the major palaces as they are not on the bus lines. You could always pay for day tours or even just rent a car for a day to get to them. Check out the Baltic road trip itinerary for more.
Riga Airport is the main hubs for airBaltic meaning its well connected to the rest of Europe. To get from the airport into town, you can either opt for a taxi (the most expensive but easiest option), airBaltic Hotel Express for 5 Euro/person, or bus #22 for 2 Euro/person. More info can be found on the Riga City Website.
Sigulda and Gauja National Park
Gauja National Park is only about an hour away offering lots of hiking opportunities or the chance to tour a few castles. Check out the Castle of Livonian which has one of the most magnificent views into the river valley. After a bit of history, get your heart pumping at the Sigulda Bobsled Track. Interestingly, Latvia has only won medals at the Winter Olympics in track sports. This track is used by a number of their Olympic athletes but is also open to the public. Don a helmet and get behind a trained bobsledder and take off reaching speeds of up to 125KM/hour! After your stomach settles, head to the small town of the same name, and check out Cat House Restaurant, a cafeteria styled restaurant with great authentic Latvian foods. If that hasn't been enough for you yet, you can take in the Baltic's largest cave, which honestly is quite underwhelming in size. What is does have though, is many unique sets of coat of arms carved into the walls. Some date back hundreds of years and are extremely intricate. The whole national park area is gorgeous and a perfect day trip from Riga!
Hill of Crosses
While it may be a bit far for a day trip, the Hill of Crosses is a perfect spot to stop on your way to Vilnius. What started as a memorial to the lost bodies of soldiers from failed uprisings against Russia in 1831, has become a pilgrimage spot for hundreds of thousands. Post-1918 Independence the hill became an important spot to worship and pray for the longevity of the new country. After the Soviets took over Lithuania in WWII, religious freedom was squashed and the hill was bulldozed and set on fire. This didn’t deter the people who risked life and limb to continue to build crosses on the site under the cover of darkness. In 1993 Pope John Paul II visited the site and declared it a site for Peace, Love, and Sacrifice. As it is a spot for all Lithuanians and others, the space is open for anyone who would like to worship or lay a cross. To add to the importance of the site, cross-crafting is an important Lithuanian aspect even leading it to be declared part of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of People by UNESCO.