The largest city in the Baltic states, Latvia’s capital, Riga, stands as a hub for gorgeous Gothic architecture, a thriving art scene, and a quiet but growing culture that embraces fun bars and trendy culinary hotspots. While cobblestone streets and museums may seem like a travel luxury exclusive to Western Europe, this northern city in the east bucks those assumptions. Plus, without the crowds and high prices of places like France, Riga is an affordable destination that still makes travelers feel like they’ve “discovered” the city. We outline a few inexpensive things to do in Riga, a city some call “The Paris of the North”.
Take a Free Walking Tour
Riga hosts a number of free walking tours, especially through the handsome, UNESCO-honored Old Town of the city. Compared to some marathon-length free tours given in other cities, many in Riga last between an hour and a half, and two hours. Tours tend to focus a lot on the city’s breathtaking art nouveau and Gothic architecture as seen on the facades of historical buildings like St Peter’s Church, the Riga Cathedral, and the Latvian National Opera building. The guides proudly present their city and give exciting insights into why many believe Riga is prepared to ascend into the pantheon of European travel spots.
Wander Alberta Iela
Alberta Iela, or ‘Albert Street’ in English, is the must-go destination in Riga for architecture lovers. Built in 1901, the street is primarily made up of apartment buildings, but each has different decorative inspirations. While they all adhere to art nouveau standards, the lack of uniformity in structure and decoration makes it possible to study this street for hours. Some of these buildings are still residences while others now house colleges and universities, as well as embassies.
House of the Blackheads
Built in 1344, the House of the Blackheads was originally used as a fraternity house for bachelor German merchants. This tradition and building survived a long time, until 1941, when Soviet bombs destroyed it. Unbelievably, the building’s original blueprints remained intact and an exact replica was recreated in 2001 for Riga’s 800th anniversary. Locals claim that in December 1510, drunk fraternity members (not much has changed in 500-ish years) carried a large pine tree into the house and lit it on fire. This supposedly gave birth to the Christmas Tree tradition around the world.
Experience Riga’s Central Market
Located in old WWI zeppelin hangars, the huge market spans multiple hangars and even extends outdoors. Whether you need groceries or not, the market is an awesome place to get a feel for the culinary traditions of Latvia, and also to get in some good people watching. While much of the market has been commercialized, forcing out some of the traditional shop owners, there are areas where local farmers and foragers still sell their goods.
Activities on the Daugava River
At 630 miles long, the Daugava may not be one of the longest rivers in Europe, but it still stretches through three different countries Latvia, Belarus, and Russia. Those wanting a different perspective of the spired skyline of Riga can take a river cruise along the Daugava’s banks. Other fun options include walking along the promenade or tourists can try the recently adopted favorite river activity, stand up paddleboarding.
Sample Local Food and Drink
Riga has a budding foodie scene, as restaurants from many different nationalities pop up throughout the city. However, that doesn’t mean traditional dishes are going to be hard to find. Much of the Latvian cuisine is heavy, on par with other Northern European cuisines like German food. Karbonade (a schnitzel type dish), speck (a type of bacon), and rye bread are common Latvian favorites. Those wanting to take a shot of the local hooch need to find themselves a bottle of black balsam. The vodka-based liquor is mixed with raspberry, linden flower, ginger, pepper, and bilberry.
Admire the Art in Riga’s Many Museums
Riga has no shortage of museums. One of our favorites, and maybe the best-known museum in the city, is Art Museum Riga Bourse. While the building itself is stunning (in keeping with the rest of the city), inside are many exceptional pieces of art. Galleries range in theme from Oriental to Egyptian to Western. Highlights include a Monet, a smaller cast of Rodin’s The Kiss, and a well-preserved mummy.
While not a museum, take a stroll to The Freedom Monument, a 138-foot tall tribute to soldiers who died for Latvia’s independence. For a nontraditional museum experience, check out the Riga Motor Museum, which displays numerous old cars from the Soviet era.
Take Advantage of Latvia’s Nature
Riga has amazing public parks. Bastejkalna Park usually ends up as many people’s preferred option in the city. The park is on the site of Riga’s former eastern fortification of its walled city, and the canal that flows through the park is a remnant of the old moat. Also, aside from the Daugava River, Riga is surrounded by plenty of natural beauty. The Gulf of Riga, the mires of Kemeri National Park, Lake Kanieris, and numerous forests are all within an easy drive from Riga.
Adventure Out on a Day Trip
While some of the fields of blueberries, shorelines, and lakes may win people’s choice for a trip outside of the city, there are other towns that are worth a stop too. Jūrmala is a favorite in the region, and is the most popular beach town on the Baltic Sea due to its amazing white sand, choppy seas that give way to endless horizons, and an air of class amongst the city’s many old villas.