Riga, the largest city in the Baltic states is one of the coolest places in Europe for a city-break! Although it has a small population of a bit over 600,000, it has more than 1/3 of the population of Latvia and is the economic, cultural and entertainment capital of the Baltic region.
Riga was the home of the ancient, fiercely independent peoples known as the Liv or Livonians. In the region since at least the 2nd Century CE, these people were a fierce tribe of Viking warriors that protected the entrance to the Daugava River, which runs through the city. The Liv were amongst the very last pagans to be forcibly converted to the Christian faith after Pope Innocent III declared a Crusade against the pagans in 1199. Riga was founded in 1201 as the seat of the Catholic Church in the region of the Liv.
Riga’s port was especially strategic because it was the entrance to the Dvina-Dnieper trade route that passed through Kiev on the route to Constantinople (modern Istanbul). Because of its strategic location, Riga was often subject to foreign rule by its neighbours. At various times, Riga was ruled by the Danes in Copenhagen, the Norwegians from Oslo, the Russians from both St. Petersburg and Moscow, the Germans from Berlin and the Polish from Krakow.
With an excellent quality of life, a highly educated population and a unique Baltic culture, Riga is a wonderful place to visit.
Riga International Airport (IATA code: RIX) is a modern facility served by many full service and low-cost carriers in Europe. The newly upgraded facilities are convenient and comfortable with non-stop flights or easy connections from just about everywhere in Europe. Taxis and rideshares are available for the short 13km (8 miles) ride from the airport to the city centre. There are also buses and a convenient tram system throughout the city. Riga’s city centre is compact and therefore excellent for walking but the winters are cold and there can be a lot of ice and snow, so proper attire is recommended.
Here’s a pro-tip: Latvia is part of the European Union and so the Euro (€) is used in Riga making it very convenient.
Here are some cool things to see and do in Riga:
- Vecriga – this is the old town centre and the place with the most action in Riga. In addition to wonderful restaurants, art galleries and museums, the Riga Cathedral, Peter’s Church and the Swedish Gate can all be explored within the compact area.
- House of the Blackheads – no, this is not a monument to facial blemishes. Instead, this is a wonderful reconstruction of a central commercial building first built in the 1330s and just recently reconstructed after being bombed in World War II. This delightfully decorated building is one of the most important in Riga.
- Riga Central Market – this is a busy food and goods market that has more than 100,000 visitors daily. The huge building in which the market is housed was originally a hangar for German Zeppelins, the huge hydrogen airships of the early 20th Century.
- The Cat House – this beautiful example of Art Nouveau architecture is my favourite because it has huge bronze cats on the decorative turrets around the house. Legend states that the cats have turned their backsides toward the Great Guild Hall because the Latvian owner was irritated that the Great Guild admitted only those of German descent. I confess that I’m amused with a cat’s arse being used as a political statement!
- Albert Street Art Nouveau Architecture – During the period from the 1880s until the First World War, Riga was a wealthy place and successful merchants commissioned the finest Art Nouveau architects, including the famous Eisenstein, to make beautiful examples of this genre. Albert Street has a great many of the finest examples.
- Bastejkalna Parks – these state-owned parks are right outside of Vecriga and are beautifully decorated. The parks are surrounded by important edifices like the Freedom Monument and the Latvian National Opera.
- Museums – there are a large number of high-quality museums throughout Riga. My favourites include; the Museum of Occupation, the Latvian Museum of Art and the Museum of the History of Riga and Navigation.
- Ethnographic Open Air Museum – about 30 minutes outside of town is this cool exhibit of traditional Latvian buildings. There are 118 different buildings carefully reconstructed to show the way of life from the different regions of the country. It is really cool to peek into the traditional lives of Medieval Latvians.
- Jūrmala Beach – this beautiful 33km (20 miles) stretch of white sand is a great place to relax during the summer. It is possible to bathe in the Baltic Sea if you are brave. The water is very cold!
Riga also has wonderful shopping and excellent boutiques for retail therapy!
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The city offers a cool foodie scene with both local recipes and international fusion venues. Situated on the Baltic, expect fresh seafood to feature prominently. However, Latvia is known for its fertile lands and produces excellent foodstuffs. Here are my favourite places to eat in Riga:
- Forest – This smaller venue offers cool recipes based on traditional Latvian food. Be sure to try their 7-course tasting menu and finish off the meal with their signature chocolate fondant.
- Vincents – this venue has one of the highest reputations in Riga. The speciality of the restaurant is Central European food and many of the recipes are vegetarian-friendly. This is a place where you should plan to dress for dinner.
- Milda – this is a super-cool Russian restaurant that is one of my favourites in Riga. The Scandinavian décor is functional and stylish and the food is just delicious!
You can find every style of food in Riga but the above selection is specific to the region and that’s why these restaurants are amongst my favourites.
Riga is a port city and that means it knows how to party! Here are my favourite nightspots in Riga:
- Studio 69 – this upscale nightclub is in the Royal Casino Spa & Hotel and is a great dance venue. DJ sets feature electronic dance music and you can try your luck at the tables before spending your winnings on champagne in the club!
- La Belle Epoque – this bar is locally known as the “French Bar”. It is a lively but small place that still somehow seems to pack in dancing and even snacks at the bar. The drinks are the best value in Riga and this is a fun spot for excitement in the city.
- Folkklubs ALA Pagrabs – this super-cool, the underground venue features local folk music and a rustic Latvian beer hall décor. I love the vibe of this local place. Even if you cannot understand the language of the songs, it still makes for a fun night!
Riga offers excellent hospitality with chain hotels but my favourites are always locally-owned and operated venues. All hotels are very reasonably priced and provide excellent value. Here are my favourites when I visit:
- Dome Hotel & Spa – this is my favourite hotel in Riga and one of my favourites throughout Europe. Beautifully situated in the Vecriga, this elegant hotel offers perfect service and the spa is world-class.
- Grand Palace Hotel – this luxurious venue is also in Vecriga and offers opulence, style and impeccable service. You’ll feel like you’ve entered a different and more gracious era when you stay here.
- Hotel Bergs – this is part of the exclusive “Small Luxury Hotels” group which I really enjoy around the world. This hotel is filled with cool artwork and stylish design. I love the melding of artwork with the comfort provided by this hotel.
Riga is cold in the winter and pleasantly temperate in the summer but it always has a warm heart welcoming visitors to enjoy the Latvian capital. You’ll love this Baltic gem!