Riga, Latvia was one of my favorite cities that I visited on my trip through the Baltic countries. Riga was designated as last year’s European Capital of Culture, and it’s not hard to see why. Aside from a stunning medieval Old Town filled with winding alleyways and charming squares, the city is world famous for its art nouveau district called Quiet Center. Without a doubt, I could have easily spent a few more days in Latvia’s capital and I would have loved to have more time to explore the rest of the country. But, if you’re headed to Riga you can hit the city’s highlights in a couple days.
Here’s 11 Things You Must Do in Riga, Latvia:
1. Learn the Legend of the Famous Cat House
Probably the most photographed building in Riga (which has now become a symbol for the city), you can’t miss the mustard colored building in Old Town adorned with two black cats atop its roof. Out of all the statues the owner could have chosen, why black cats? Well, as legend has it, the wealthy merchant built his home on the same square as Riga’s Great Guild, the premier guild for businessmen in Riga. The merchant sought membership into the Guild, but was refused. The merchant commissioned the cat statues to be placed on his roof where everyone could see them to seek revenge… oh, and the cats were positioned so that their rear-ends faced the Guild. (How’s that for a creative revenge plot?) Enraged by the merchant’s actions, the Guild struck a deal with him – he would turn the cat’s rears to face away from the Guild and in return the Guild would allow the merchant into their club.
2. Sample a Shot of Black Balsam
Black Balsam is a 90 proof Latvian alcohol which is made with 24 ingredients, including oak bark, wormwood and linden blossoms. You’ll find three different variations and most establishments that sell the balsam will let you sample it for free. I was told by a local that some Latvians take a shot a day of the liquor as “medicine” since they believe it treats cold symptoms and digestive issues. Personally, I wasn’t a huge fan of the drink, but you have to at least try it once while in Riga!
3. Visit the Occupation of Latvia Museum
You can’t travel to Latvia without understanding the country’s complicated past. Latvia has spent the better part of the last few centuries under foreign occupation and just became an independent nation in 1991. Its recent history includes horrific occupation by Nazi Germany and the Soviets which you can learn about in detail at the Occupation Museum.
4. See the House of the Blackheads
Don’t miss the famous House of the Blackheads. The beautifully ornate building was originally built in the 14th Century for the Brotherhood of Blackheads, a guild for married German merchants living in Riga.
5. Touch the Musicians of Breman
In Old Town you’ll find a sculpture of four stacked animals – a donkey, dog, cat and rooster. The statue depicts the characters from the Town Musicians of Breman, a Brothers Grimm Fairytale, and is an exact replica of the one found in Breman city hall. It’s said that if you touch each of the statue’s appendages you’ll be granted good luck!
I would highly recommend that you take a canal cruise if you happen to visit Riga during nice weather. The city is surrounded by water, so not only is the cruise a pleasant, relaxing experience, it also offers unique views of the city’s skylines.
7. Sip Some Local Alus
Alus (or “beer” in English) is huge in Latvia and many towns produce their own brews. Head to the popular Folkklubs ala Pagrabs, a beer hall and restaurant in Old Town, to sample a large array of Latvian beers on tap. On a related note, my dinner at Folkklubs was one of my favorites in Riga – the food was delicious and cheap, the portions were huge and the beerhall ambience was a ton of fun.
8. Travel Back in Time to Riga’s Medieval Era
Rozengrals is a medieval themed restaurant tucked off a narrow street in Old Town. I would have expected this dining experience to be cheesy (much like the one I had in Tallinn), but surprisingly, it wasn’t. The food was fantastic, as were the musicians who would bounce from table to table and were playing instruments used during the medieval times. The restaurant’s building itself gave off an aire of authenticity since parts of it actually date back to the 1200’s!
9. Take a Walking Tour of Old Town
The city has an eventful and interesting history which I found to be best appreciated with a knowledgable tour guide. You can hop on Traveller’s daily Free City Tour or you can pick up a private tour guide (and negotiate a price) in many of the popular squares in Old Town.
10. Enjoy a Cocktail High Above the City’s Rooftops
Just outside Old Town you’ll find the Radisson Blue Sky Bar. The bar is situated on the 26th floor of the hotel and offers unparalleled city views. One would expect a hefty price tag for such a swank venue, but Sky Bar is extremely reasonably priced by western standards with drinks starting at about $5 to $6 USD. Plus, there’s no cover charge if you visit during the day.
11. Take an Art Nouveau Walking Tour
I’m far from an architecture expert, but I do love viewing and learning about historic buildings. I especially loved viewing Riga’s wild and imaginative art nouveau architecture (even in the pouring rain). Riga has more art nouveau buildings than any other European city – over 750! Venture outside Old Town to the Quiet Center district where you will find screaming masks, gods and goddesses, lions, snakes, and even peacocks crowding the opulant building facades. I did a self-guided 3km tour of the district (which took about 1.5 to 2 hours at a leisurely pace and allowed plenty of time to take photos), but there are also several organized and guided tours you can join to learn more about the city’s early 20th century art nouveau craze.
Where to Stay in Riga:
If you read this blog, you know that I typically choose my accommodations based on location, location, location. But, staying in the city center isn’t without its downfalls – especially when we are talking about a historic Old Town center, like Riga’s. The tradeoff of a prime location usually means a hefty price tag, smaller rooms and may mean that you’ll be carrying your luggage up flights of stairs if there is no elevator.
While in Riga, I chose to stay at Primo Hotel which is located across the bridge from Old Town in the center of the Agenskalns district. The rooms were modern and HUGE, and the breakfast buffet was delicious. It was also really easy to get to Old Town from the hotel – there was a bus stop less than a block away and the ride took 5-10 minutes. If Riga isn’t the only stop on your itinerary, the hotel is conveniently located 15 minutes from the airport and 15km from the resort city of Jurmala. I found the Primo Hotel to be a great value and would recommend it to my readers. You can check rates, find a great deal and book your Riga hotel online here.
Have you traveled to Riga? What did you enjoy most? Anything else you would add to this list?
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Disclosure: Although I was a guest of Primo Hotel, all opinions are my own. CC header photo from Flickr: untitled by [Jim]. The link in this post is an affiliate link, meaning that if you choose to book through it, I will earn a small commission at no cost to you. I appreciate your continued support to keep this site up and running!