Latvia probably isn’t among the top places people aspire to visit when in Europe, but it’s worth one. This is a republic in the Baltic region, bordered by Russia, Lithuania, and Estonia. Its capital, Riga, is also the largest city in all the Baltic States. In fact, it is so large that it houses about a third of Latvia’s nearly 2 million population!
Because Riga is so large, this means there is a lot to see. Here are some of the best things you can do, to make your visit to the Latvian capital a blast!
- The House of the Blackheads. This is a building in the Old Town, which was originally erected in the 14th century. The current construction was started in 1995, when the building was razed to ruins in World War II. The amazing architecture has been preserved, especially the grand faćade.
- The Art Nouveau Buildings. Speaking of architecture, a good part of the capital is made up of buildings done in the Art Nouveau architecture. This makes Riga the city with the most such buildings in one place! This is especially visible in the apartment buildings around the city.
- Three Brothers. This is a series of three houses, forming the oldest such structures in the city. They are located on Maza Pils Street, and date from the 15th to 17th centuries. They have different designs owing to the different periods in which they were made.
- Cat House. Located in the Old Town’s Meistaru Iela, the house was built in 1909 and yet styled as a medieval structure. This is famous for the statues of two cats with arched backs and raised tails, both located on the roof.
Legend has it that the person who commissioned the building held a grudge against the Tradesmen Guild of the city, whose building was just across the street. The cats were built with their tails raised and pointing at the Guild’s building. Another version has it that the grudge was against the Riga City Council, and that the cat’s tails were pointed at the Riga Town Hall (which, before WWII, was located in the same direction as the Guild building).
- St. Peter’s Church. This is a Lutheran Church whose first constructions date back to 1209. It was destroyed in WWII, but was reconstructed from the 60s to the 80s. The modern version has an elevator that goes up the 72-meter church tower, which offers an awesome panoramic view of the city. Recently in 2012, the church also regained possession of a beautiful bronze candelarium dating back to 1596. It was stolen in WWII, and was for a time displayed in a basilica in Central Poland.
Outside the church is a curious sculpture, that of a donkey, a dog, a cat, and a rooster all standing atop each other. This is based on the Brothers Grimm story “The Town Musicians of Bremen”. There is a custom among tourists of rubbing the statue to get good luck, or at least good vibes on their journey!
- Parks and Natural Attractions. There are a number of parks and natural attractions in the city, from the Pilsetas Kanals, to the Vermanes Park, to the Riga Zoo. The clean, cool air of the surroundings make trips to these places a pleasure! Chilling amidst the greenery is a good thing to do in the afternoons.
- Canal Boat Cruise. There is an unguided, panoramic tour in the canal, taking you around the Old Town on one of the two historical canal boats “Aurora” and “Amber Riga”. The tour takes around an hour, and the silent journey is another great way to spend idle hours.
- Central Market. Aside from the different wares on sale, the central market is in itself a notable structure, even included as a UNESCO World Heritage Site! The whole market is more than 72,000 square meters large, with an Art Deco and Neoclassical architecture. There are more than 3,000 stands, selling national produce.
- KGB Museum. With a permanent exhibition on Raina Bulvaris 7 and another exhibit on Brivibas Iela 61, the KGB Museum (also referred to as the Corner House) is the former KGB Headquarters in the city. The Museum has guided tours around the basement prison cells, which take you to the horrifying chapters of the War and the activities of the Cheka, the Soviet Secret Police. It was a depressing time when the Bolshevik regime reigned supreme. It’s a scheduled tour, too, so make sure to check out the times beforehand. The tour takes around 2-3 hours.
- Walking Tours. Of course, Riga has free tours! These ones — especially the Old Town tour — gives you more information on the culture, legends, stories, and more. The guides are locals, so they know the city inside out! A great site includes the Freedom Monument, which commemorates the fallen soldiers during the country’s War of Independence from 1918 to 1920.
- Black Balsam. The black balsam is a traditional Latvian drink, made of natural herbal ingredients and mixed in vodka! You can drink it in a number of ways, but I had mine from Skyline Bar on a martini. There was great view, too!
- Nightlife! Of course I won’t forget to explore Riga’s nightlife! Here’s a list of some of the cool bars I went to.
- Radisson Blue Skyline Bar. Expensive, but has an awesome view! Cover charge applies only late at night, when it turns into a bar.
- Moonshine. It has a great diner-like ambience, with live music!
- Hardrock Café. The name alone says it all. A definite must-see is the Latvian branch of this world-famous chain.
- Labieties. This is beer heaven! It’s a local brewery with a vast menu — so vast you probably won’t see the end of it! The helpful bar staff will, of course, lead you through a tasting of 6-8 different beers to get your preference. Don’t miss this! This alone will give you enough buzz to enjoy the night, even without ordering anything yet. The craft beers they have also include a variety of American and English beers, enhanced (of course) with Latvian herbs and smatterings of fruit. We also had rye chips and smoked cheese, which were perfect combinations. Come with your friends for the beer, snacks, and games!
- Other interesting places include the Aussie Backpackers Pub, Café Leningrad, and Cuba Café.
We went to a bunch of other places as well, such as the Laima Chocolate Museum (small but delectable!), Rocket Room Café, and a bunch of other cool cafés. We had some quality dining experience at Egle, complete with live music and outdoor patio-style seating! This was right in the center of the Old Town.
Latvia may not be at the top of your European vacation list, but pay it a visit anyway. You will be glad you did!