After an awesome 48 hours in Rotterdam, An-Sofie and I figured that we just couldn’t get enough of this city tripping thing. So, as a sort-of-celebration for finishing university we decided to gift ourselves a – what else – trip!
We considered going away with srprs.me but in the end decided upon Riga, because we were both immensely attracted to this baltic city that was said to be so different from the Western European cities we were so used to.
So we buckled up, entered a plane and arrived at the charming city that is Riga.
I’d definitely recommend visiting Latvia’s capital, and here are some ideas for what to do when you’re there.
Walk around the historic center
Riga is one of those cities that desperately screams to be explored on foot. It is rather smallish in size, not too hard to navigate, and a definite feast for the eyes. What’s more, there’s cute houses and cobblestone streets everywhere. Honestly! I felt like I had just entered a beautiful provincial town, one that just happens to come with all the added benefits of being a country’s capital.
I’d absolutely recommend going on a walking tour if you’re up for it – and if the weather’s on your side.
Unfortunately for us, that was not the case. We had intended to join the free walking tour provided by our hostel, the Seagulls Garret Hostel, but rain kept pouring down. And since we had already explored most of the city center by ourselves (again, it’s rather smallish), we opted for a bit of resting in our dorm and a visit to The Museum of the Occupation of Latvia instead – which turned out to be the best choice we could have possibly made.
Hey, ain’t nobody got time to be soaking wet, right?
But whether you end up going on a walking tour or strolling around the city by yourself, just remember to include some time in your itinerary to explore Riga on foot. It’ll be worth it!
The Freedom Monument
As a memorial to honor the soldiers that were killed during the Latvian War of Independence from 1918-1920, The Freedom Monument has become known as one of Riga’s most iconic monuments. I mean, you’d probably find it listed in every single guidebook you could possibly lay your hands on.
What’s most shocking about this monument, though, is the fact that it still exists.
After the Latvian War of Independence, there was indeed a period of freedom for Latvia – but it was rather short-lived. Both Germany and the Soviet Union wanted to rule over the Baltics, which resulted in a rapid change of occupiers for the Latvians. Surprisingly though, Riga’s Freedom Monument – which honors the people who died for Latvia’s dream of independence – was somehow never demolished by either of its occupiers.
I’d suggest taking a look at The Freedom Monument, in view of it’s historic significance. There’s lots of benches and a park nearby if you want to chill for a bit, but don’t linger here for too long. ‘Cause there’s much more to see!
Art! Art! Art, everywhere!
So, what happens when you go on a city trip with a former art major?
Hmmmm, I don’t know… You end up seeing a lot of art?
Especially in a city like Riga, where there’s such an abundance of it.
I absolutely loved walking around Latvia’s capital with somebody who not only somehow knew something about approximately everything we encountered during our trip, but also passionately explained ALL of it to a not-so-artsy-fartsy newbie who had to try her hardest not to fail that one art history class she had to take at university. (Seriously guys, I still don’t know how I passed that class).
Anyway, it was incredibly fun and educational to be around an art lover in Riga. We visited an art museum, looked at the Tree of Mirrors, walked around talking about the many church styles and cute buildings, and tried our best to do our very own street art tour. Unfortunately, that last bit wasn’t that much of a success. While we saw some cool street art and definitely experienced a different Riga during our self-organized tour, we somehow couldn’t manage to find a couple of the things we were looking for.
Errrmmm… It was definitely the map, you guys!
A mix of architecture in Riga
On a similar note, I’d also recommend taking in the beautiful architecture Riga has to offer.
We spent an entire morning just strolling the Art Nouveau District, which was a blast. Every once a while we would stand in front of a multistory apartment building for a couple of minutes, trying to discern its many nitty-gritty singularities. It’s really amazing how many small details you can find in Riga’s Art Nouveau houses.
Even more so when you think about the importance of Art Nouveau architecture in Riga. With roughly one third of all buildings in the center of Latvia’s capital being built in Art Nouveau style, Riga is said to be the city with the highest concentration of Art Nouveau architecture in the world. Super cool, huh? That’s a lot of buildings with lots and lots of details to distinguish.
Imagine living in a time when all those houses were being built!
That would be the beginning of the twentieth century, when a rapid economic growth between 1904 and 1914 led to an explosion of Art Nouveau architecture in Riga. It absolutely makes for a beautiful city, that much is true.
The year 1914, however, brought about a wind of change.
It’s the start of World War I, which coincidentally marks the end of Riga’s rapid economic growth, its focus on Art Nouveau architecture, and it being one of the most important cities in the Russian empire. The result is a a rapid change in occupiers. In only a short period of time, Latvia switched from the Russian empire to Germany to independence to being occupied by the Soviet Union, then Nazi Germany and then the Soviet Union again.
It’s a period that definitely made its marks, something that can be noticed in the architecture of Latvia’s capital as well. When you walk in a straight line from the historic centre to Riga’s Freedom Monument and beyond, you’ll notice a gradual change in architecture, with the Art Nouveau style I previously mentioned steadily transforming in a style that so profoundly shows its Soviet influences.
I wouldn’t describe it as pretty, and I absolutely prefer Art Nouveau architecture, but I feel like there’s so much history in these parts of the city that I’m of the opinion you should get a feel for it yourself.
House of Blackheads
As a rather unique piece of architecture, I felt like the House of the Blackheads deserved its very own section.
The original building was first built during the 14th century for the Brotherhood of Blackheads, a guild for unmarried German merchants in Riga. Unfortunately, in 1928, it got demolished by German bombs, after which its remains got demolished again by the Soviets in 1948.
‘Cause, you know, destructing a building once is not enough…
The building was rebuilt from 1995 to 1999, however, so you’ll come across it when you walk around the city.
There’s plenty of churches and cathedrals to admire in Riga as well.
Some examples are the St. Peter’s Church, the Riga Cathedral, the St. Jacobs Catholic Cathedral, the St. Gertrude Old Church, the Nativity of Christ, and Our Lady of Sorrows Church. You’ll just come across them when you walk through the historic center, so there’s no need to really pinpoint their locations beforehand.
The Riga Castle
The Riga Castle, the official residence of the President of Latvia, is one of the oldest medieval castles in Latvia.
Interested in visiting the castle yourself? That’s definitely possible!
Important note: after a fire in 2013, the Riga Castle is currently closed to the public and being renovated. The reopening is scheduled for 2018. In the meantime, you can find the musea in other parts of the city.
Go to one of Riga’s many museums
If you read my wall of text up till now, you probably noted my mentioning the word “museum” a couple of times.
That’s because there are so many great ones in Riga.
We alternated our outdoors walking time with some indoors museum visits and hit up three museums in the short amount of time we found ourself in Riga: The War Museum, The Museum of the Occupation of Latvia, and the Art Museum Riga Bourse.
Personally, I found The War Museum to be nothing special. We just happened to come upon it when we passed the Powder Tower, and noticing the zero cost, we decided to enter on a whim. There were a couple of floors that showcased Latvia’s war history throughout the centuries, but the museum didn’t prove to be extraordinary. Then again, it was free, so you won’t be losing your money here. Only go if you’re interested, though.
The Art Museum Riga Bourse was fun, and you could find some great art, but it’s no must if you’re not interested in art either. I thoroughly enjoyed An-Sofie’s explanations about the different art pieces, though.
The Museum of the Occupation of Latvia, however, is on an entire different level. If you’re looking to visit one museum during your stay in Riga, absolutely pick this one! Mind you, I wouldn’t call the museum fun. Unless your idea of fun is learning about the horrifying things that happened during Latvia’s long history of being occupied. But you know what it did turn out to be?
It provided a very interesting, different-than-usual perspective on European history and the World Wars, and that was something this European at heart could most definitely appreciate.
Other options that look great, but that I personally haven’t visited, are:
- Latvian Museum of Photography
- Latvian National Museum of Art
- The National History Museum of Latvia
- Museum of the History of Riga and Navigation
- Latvian Ethnographic Open Air Museum
- Fashion Museum
- Art Nouveau Museum
- Latvian Architecture Museum
There’s lots of opportunities and places to go shopping as well, so don’t miss out!
You could take a look at the amber shops, or go to the Galerija Centrs.
Or you could take your chances at the Riga Central Market. Somehow, the building was closed when we went (I still have no clue what exactly happened there) – but we enjoyed the many fruit stands on the outside anyway.
Nothing makes me happier than spending time by the water, so I always try to add some time in my itinerary for enjoying some relaxing times by – in this case – the river. From here, you can also see the National Library of Latvia. We personally didn’t visit, but you can just cross the water if you’d like to.
If you like some good nightlife, Riga will not disappoint.
Enjoy the food
Since the great food in Riga was plenty, I’ll be dedicating an entire post to this subject. But I just couldn’t resist to mention it here already. Honestly, I had not expected to enjoy Riga’s food scene as much as I did.
And the best part about all of this? No matter the restaurant, the food in Riga is not expensive at all!
Overall, I was charmed by Riga’s timeless charm and I’m confident that you’ll be too.
And An-Sofie and me? We already took another plane to our next destination… New York!
Have you ever been to Riga? What did you think?
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