Riga: city break ideas from my second home
One of the most beautiful cities I have come across is one I know very well, Riga, located on the Baltic Sea in Latvia and is the largest city in the Baltic countries (Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia). A city which has many different faces due to invasions and previous owners such as the Germans, the Swedish, the Russians, and even for a while, the English (nah, that didn’t happen), there are so many structures in parts of the city which shows certain periods of time. Latvia itself claimed independence in 1918 before the Nazi Germans and the Soviet Union stole the show and made Latvia part of their countries before claiming independence again in 1991. So it is here that certain parts of the city I can see the past from Swedish times, Soviet times and German times. On my journeys into the Old Town of Riga which I get to see something different and something new on every single city I make, here are my top things to do and see for first timers visiting this amazing city.
The Churches of Riga
There are many beautiful churches and cathedrals in the old town. The main cathedral is known as Dome (named after the German influence) and is the biggest place of worship in the Baltic. Inside the cathedral, there is one of the biggest organs in Europe to check out which has over 6700 pipes. The Dome is in the heart of the Old Town and is located on Doma Laukums (Cathedral Square) where there are some fantastic bars and restaurants to check out.
Near the Freedom Monument is the amazing Russian Orthodox Cathedral, also known as the Cathedral of Christ’s Nativity. Built in the late 19th century and its main feature from the outside is the five golden domes, the inside is just truly amazing. The paint work on the walls and ceilings of Orthodox saints. In the 20th century during the Soviet occupation, the cathedral was turned into a planetarium. The Soviet’s also destroyed many of the ornate works of art including wall and ceiling art. Thankfully since returning to the congregation in 1990, most of the cathedral has now been restored. For me this is better than the nearby art museum, truly bedazzling and one of my favourite Orthodox Cathedral I have come across on my travels.
Riga’s Town Hall Square
One of the top sights to hit up is the beautiful Town Hall Square which has stood here since the 14th century and was the city’s administrative centre (alongside the nearby castle and Dome cathedral) which represented the interests of the residents of Riga. From being a marketplace as well and the main site of festivals to being a place where executions were carried out, this place is full of history. To the eastern side of the square is the impressive step-gabled House of Blackheads (which had to be completely rebuilt in the late 1990s after being destroyed in the Second World War) which was originally built for the city’s guilds before the place became a home for unmarried foreign merchants. Above the entrance is the medieval saying ‘if I should fall, build me again’, to which the locals did.
Next to it is the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia which is interesting for people who love studying about the Second World War and what happened to the country whilst in Soviet hands. There are plenty of photographs to show what happened during the era and there is even a replica of a Gulag barracks which gives visitors an insight of the hardship experienced by deportees.
On the northern side of the square inside the white building with a clock on top is Riga’s City Hall, where all the decisions on the city are made here by the council. I was fortunate once to go inside and have a ‘peek’ around. Usually not open for tourists but there are some occasions where they are allowed in.
In the middle of the square is the Statue of Roland, a legendary medieval figure and one of Charlemagne’s knights (not going into the full story of Charlemagne here guys!) named Roland to which he also became a symbol of the independence of cities from the local nobility. Not sure what that means but he sounds like he does great things for the city of Riga. I just love the medieval armour he wears and the sword pointing skywards. Gives the square even more historic look with the House of Blackheads behind it.
Did you know the first ever Christmas Tree in the world was placed out the House of Blackheads back in 1510. This is also accounted for on a medieval document. The guildsmen based here placed a tree on the square, decorated it on Christmas Day and then set it on fire around twelve days afterwards. This is one of the earliest accounts of a Christmas Tree in the world and was certainly the first in Riga. Today there is a monument which marks the spot where the Christmas Tree was placed.
Just south of the square is the Latvian Riflemen Monument which is a little bit controversial as the red granite statue is dedicated to the Latvian Red Riflemen, to which some of the people in this group were Lenin’s personal bodyguards. Locals see this monument as a symbol of the old communist system and just want to wrap a rope around their necks, tie it to a truck and pull down the statue. Other locals believe its a tribute to Latvians who did battle in the early years of the World War. Officially it honours all Latvian riflemen from both sides of the conflicts and systems.
Along the riverfront
To the western end of 11.Novembra Krastmala (which is the main road which runs alongside the northern shores of the Daugava river) has a couple of sights to see. For starters there is Riga Castle which has stood here since 1330, which has been either burnt down or destroyed by the locals many times over the centuries after being rebuilt and was recently caught on fire a few years ago (insurance job? Mafia? Someone dropped a cigarette – who knows?). However the castle not only has the president of Latvia living here, there is also the Museum of Foreign Art to check out but my favourite is the History Museum of Latvia where there are exhibits of religious sculpture, traditional regional costumes and consumer goods from the first period of independence.
Another one of my favourite viewpoints is on the bridge located next to Riga Castle. Walk a few hundred meters towards the centre of the bridge and look back at the castle and there is the perfect view of Riga’s Old Town skyline. With its castle in the foreground and spires of the churches behind it, what else could anyone ask for?
Other sights in the Old Town
Of course, no visit to the Old Town would be complete without checking out the Houses of Three Brothers. Located on Maza Pils Iela (17-21), this row of buildings covers three distinct architectural styles. Number 17 has a stepped gable and Gothic niches dates back from the 15th century and is Riga’s oldest stone residential building. On the stones next to the door is the symbol of ears of wheat which indicate that the building was owned by the baker. Number 19 with its wooden interior was built in the 17th century and now houses the museum of architecture whilst number 21 (which is the green building) was built in the 18th century. The buildings didn’t get damaged in the Second World War whilst all the surrounding buildings got destroyed.
The Swedish Gate which is located between Torna iela and Aldaru iela is the only remaining gate of the eight which were built during Swedish times back in the late 17th century. Myth has it that the gate was created illegally by a wealthy merchant who wanted a more direct access to his warehouse on the other side of the wall. These days, newly married couples pass through the gate because it is supposed to give them good luck. Opposite the Swedish Gate are three yellow buildings with orange tiled roofs which are known as James Barracks or Jacob’s Barracks. These were built in the 18th century as barracks for the local army and served as this function until the late 20th century. These days they have been converted into shops, restaurants and cafes.
Another favourite place of mine is the House of Black Cats which is a beautiful yellow Art Nouveau building located on the corner of Meistaru and Amatu Iela which has two black feline cats statues perched on the points of the towers. When the building was being built, the sculptor fell to his death whilst putting the cats u. Then before the First World War a merchant who owned the building was barred from entering the Great Guild building across the street because he was Latvian and membership was reserved for Germans only. So to piss the Germans off (back then it was a popular thing to do), he put two feline cats on the roof (which both had their tails up) and positioned them so that their backsides faced the guildhall. A long court battle followed but he somehow won, gained entry into the guildhall and turned the cats backsides away.
Opposite the Black Cat House is the Great and Small Guild Halls which were built when the German dominated the economics along the Baltic Sea. The Great Guild was built in 1384 and housed the merchants whilst the Small Guild was built much later and housed the city’s artisans. These days the Great Guild has the Latvian Symphony Orchestra based here whilst the Small Guild hosts conferences. Only the Small Guild is open to the public.
Checking out the Art Nouveau Architecture – Right, I am not going into what is Art Nouveau etc…I am not an art person. However walking around Elizabetes Iela (around the western end of the street) and Alberta Iela is a huge collection of Art Nouveau Architecture plastered everywhere on buildings and has been recognised by UNESCO as the best Art Nouveau seen anywhere in the world. Here are a few examples I have come across. It’s great to walk around this part of the city plus other areas of the Old Town and come across great pieces of art. Just keep looking up!
Back in the heart of the Old Town, The Freedom Monument is one of Riga’s top landmarks, towering 42 meters (138ft) up towards the sky. At the top is a female figure known as Milda who holds three golden stars, which represent the three cultural regions of the country, Latgale, Vidzeme and Kurzeme. At the bottom the granite base is decorated with statues representing four virtues, work, family, spiritual life and protection of the fatherland as well as Latvia’s number one superhero, Lacplesis (which has a great beer named after him!) The words ‘Tevzemei un brivibai’ means for Fatherland and Freedom. Usually there are boys training up for the army standing here at the base during daylight hours throughout the year so that they are taught how to discipline themselves and honour their country. However, don’t go up to them or try and take a photo of them so closely, you will get the Latvian treatment (not saying what that is!). Also for stag parties visiting the city (mainly British), do not PISS against the statue, you will love the local hospitality in a prison cell for a few days.
Nearby is Bastion Hill which is a man-made hill created in the mid 1800s to replace the old defensive bulwark (a defensive wall). On the hill there are memorial stones to five people who were killed by the Soviets during disturbances in January 1991 (before the collapse of the USSR and Latvia regained its independence). A couple of the people died were camera operators who were trying to film the awful events.
Satiekamies pie Laimas pulksteņa – let’s meet at the Laima clock! This clock is located just south of the Freedom Monument and is a fantastic meeting place with locals since it was erected in the 1920s. The clock has advertised chocolates but I am pretty sure a lot of ‘sweet’ romances have kindled here.
The Old Town of Riga is an UNESCO World Heritage Site and because of this, every street I turn, there was always something to see and do. Here are a few things visitors can expect when having a ‘wander’.
To the east of the centre
Just east of the Old Town visitors will find the international coach and train stations, the Orgio shopping centre (which has a clock tower with the word RIGA on top), as well as the huge department store Stockmann and the Forums Cinema. Behind these buildings is the Central Market which has stood here since 1930 and is one of the largest marketplaces in Europe. During the First World War, four of the five pavilions were used as zeppelin hangers. These days visitors and locals can buy meat, fish, dairy and produce as well as clothes and souvenirs. Haggling doesn’t go one much anymore compared to the good ‘old’ days.
On Akadēmijas laukums is the Academy of Sciences. This type of building which was built in Soviet Union times can be found in cities like Warsaw and Moscow and is known for its ugliness. The locals even have nicknames for this place ‘The Empire State Building’ or ‘Kremlin’ or ‘Stalin’s Birthday Cake’. On the facade there are several hammer and sickle logo up near the top. Visitors can go inside and head up to the seventeenth floor where there is a balcony. This is a great viewpoint to see the old town’s skyline. However this is only open from April to November.
One of my favourite places to eat for a cheap, nice meal which is all Latvian foods (mostly) is at the chain restaurant of Lido but the best one to eat at is a tram journey away on lines 3, 7, or 9 (or it’s quicker to do the five minute taxi ride from the international train station) on Krasta Iela. Visitors can’t miss it as there is a huge windmill on top of the entrance. Here there are plenty of tables as there are three levels to this building. The basement has the main bar where Lido brews its own beer and on the first floor is where all the food can be found. Lido is open most of the day serving breakfast, lunch and dinner here as well as other Lido’s in the city and the airport (on the top level at the airport above the check-in desks). In the winter months there is an outdoor ice skating rink and a beautiful Christmas tree and display to check out.
To the north of the centre
Another place to learn some dark history of Latvia when it was under the occupation of the Soviet Union is the ‘House on the Corner’, which is the former KGB building and now houses a museum. A tour can also be done and check out the cells where prisoners were kept. Most Latvian’s who entered the building were sent to Siberia to work and live in the gulags.
Nearby is the Laima Chocolate Museum, to which Latvia’s largest chocolate producer has opened up some of the building to visitors. Here on Miera Iela there is a fantastic interactive museum which also has a great history section on the company. I also loved producing my own chocolate video and having a personalised message printed on a chocolate bar.
One of my favourite parks to check out in the city is Mežaparks at the end of the tram line 11. The park came about when the rich people of the city had enough of the noise, grime, basically the hustle and bustle of the city in the early 20th century so they all got together to build a massive park area so they could enjoy the nature, the trees, lakes, the simple things in life. Inside the park ground is the zoo, whilst people can enjoy the lake for water sports and the wide paths for in-line skating. The park is also the home to lielā estrade, otherwise known as the Song Festival grounds. I love enjoying the scenery here, going for a run or even having a beer at a cafe. This is truly the most relaxing place in the city and has something for everyone.
At the very northern tip of the city (further north than the suburb of Jugla) is the Ethnographic Open-Air Museum of Latvia (it takes about thirty minutes to drive there from Riga’s Old Town). Located in a pine forest on the shores of Lake Jugla, this is one of Europe’s oldest and largest outdoor museum and has stood here since 1924. The museum has 118 historical buildings from all over the country. Buildings from the regions of Zemgale, Vidzeme, Kurzeme and Latgale are all represented.
The museum is a great way to give visitors of what Latvia’s rural landscape is like and how the way of life was like for the local folk over the centuries. Whilst walking around I found people who were dressed up as farmers, fishermen and craftsmen and inside a lot of the buildings there were displays showing items like tools, crafts, furniture. It is best to come here in the summer months as there are usually blacksmiths, weavers, teachers showing off their skills and there maybe the odd-band playing instruments and singing traditional Latvian folk songs.
One of my favourite viewpoints of the city is located at the 26th floor of the Radisson Blu Hotel Latvija on Elizabetes Iela at the Skyline Bar. The best views of course are to the south where the spires of church buildings overlooking Riga’s Old Town & this is where visitors should sit. The view to the north is OK I guess but I find it boring looking at the grey Soviet type buildings. The staff here are fantastic and very organised as well as the bar men serving the best cocktails in town. I also love the lounge music in here during the evenings, however this place is packed at weekends and evenings. Also in the hotel is EPSA, a five star spa where hotel guests and visitors to the city can enjoy a relaxing massage, manicure and pedicure treatments, sauna and swim. I can definitely recommend this to my readers.
To the south of the centre
I have to admit, I found there is not much to see and do on the southern side of the Daugava River but one place I did find is the Latvia Botanical Garden which is at a university located on Kandavas Iela. This is the oldest botanical garden in the country (but started off in a different location in 1922 until the government gave the gardens a bit of land in 1926 to which the gardens have flourished until this very day). Here are many rare flowers, trees and plants as well as a palm house, butterfly house and a pond. Inside the Palm house is a specimen of the wollemia nobilis, which is an ancient tree which experts thought was extinct for millions of years until it was found in a very remote location in Australia in the 1990s.
How about some ice hockey?
I love ice hockey (or as North Americans call it, just ‘hockey’) and my team is Dinamo Riga. They play in the second biggest league in the world, the KHL which consists of teams from Russia, Kazakhstan, Finland, Belarus, China and so on and play their games at Arena Riga (which is also used for basketball and concerts). Visitors who love the game should attend a game here if there is one going on. Tickets are easy to get (unless they are playing teams from Moscow or St Petersburg), and all the details of their games and tickets can be found here.
Run a marathon?
Every May the Riga Marathon takes place in the centre of the city and is one of the best marathon courses I have run in Europe. It is a fast course but there is a long drag of a bridge over the River Daugava to contend with. There are also races that day in the half-marathon distance plus 10km or 6km. Entries open usually in September of the previous year before the event is due to take place. Check out my times and photos of my experiences of the marathon here.
Day trips or weekend break ideas from Riga
Latvia has so much to offer and eventually I will bring you all my Latvia travel blogs to fruition. One of my favourite day trips is going to the heart of the Gauja National Park for cable car rides, hiking, checking out the caves and castles as well as taking in the beautiful folk song park of Turaida. Also the city of Cesis should be checked out.
Other places to check out is Jurmala, one of the main beach resorts in the Baltic’s. There are also the other coastal towns of Liepaja (also known as Latvia’s music city) and Ventspils. Further afield weekend trips to Tallinn and Vilnius can also be done.
How to get to Riga
Riga is the easiest city to get to in Latvia as well as the Baltic region. The international airport has many airlines here and is also on many airlines transfer routes, connecting Russia and Central Asia to the rest of Europe. The main airlines are Air Baltic, Ryanair, WizzAir, Aeroflot, just to name a few. There are also international coach routes to Tallinn, Vilnius, Warsaw, Minsk, St Petersburg and Moscow with EcoLines and LuxExpress as well as international train services to Moscow.
There you have it guys, these are my recommendations of places to hit up with the odd bar and restaurant to eat out off. Riga is my second home and have been living here, coming here, exploring the country since 2005 and even got married here to a local. There is always something new to see and do every time I come here and I can tell my readers now, you will get a warm Latvian reception from the locals. They are amazing, nice and helpful. I am very proud of Riga and Latvia, it’s still developing, find it’s feet since the collapse of the Soviet Union but now a member of the European Union, NATO, Schengen, plus with the help of Nordic banks and the ideas from the locals, Latvia has come along way in a short space of time. I fell in love from the moment I first arrived and will always have a special place in heart. I am so happy to write you this blog post and can’t wait to show many more experiences from this country as well as the two Baltic neighbours, Estonia and Lithuania.
Please note that while I was not working with any of the companies mentioned on this page and that all my trips back to my second home and family in Riga were all paid for by myself. I love Riga and Latvia so much and want to show you the city through my eyes and give you the best advice possible. My reviews and experiences written about in this post are 100% genuine. I value my readers too much to lie to you. My blog would be nothing without you and your continued support!