What to do in Riga, Latvia
Our mini tour through the Baltic region is rarely something anybody ever asks me about. I almost never hear that people are off to Latvia or Estonia for a summer jaunt. They don’t really scream ‘weekend getaway’ to most of us in Western Europe. Personally, I’d say this is undeserved. The architecture in Riga is beautiful, the winding cobbled streets are classic, and the weather isn’t that bad. The beers are cheap, the medieval taverns are fun, and the people-watching never fails to provide an interesting sight.
If I’m honest, I didn’t love the atmosphere in Riga when I was alone. I was joined by friends after a day, but as a solo female it wasn’t quite the vibe I was looking for. Plenty of people looking at me in the street, which you get used to travelling, but with very few other tourists around, or people in general, it got a little sinister. At one point 2 men tried to approach me while I sat in the park, but they were put off by the 20 or so crows that had decided to sit around me. It was weird. Classic Latvia.
‘Classic Latvia’ became a bit of an idiom for us on this trip. Every time something absolutely bizarre, and slightly sinister, happened, we’d chalk it up to being ‘classic Latvia’. The bus station we went to to catch our ride to Tallinn really embodied this spirit. The market in ‘Little Moscow’, which is just outside the bus station, was mainly filled with older people glaring at us, and younger sketchy looking individuals following as close as they could behind us. I’ve travelled in plenty of questionable spots, and I wouldn’t say that Riga is anywhere up there in terms of actual danger, but there are plenty of people in the city that will do a good job of making a couple of young girls feel super uncomfortable.
Once I had a larger group of friends, I enjoyed the city much more. You don’t notice how quiet the streets are in the day if you fill it with people yourself.
#Ladvia isn’t immune to the ‘Brits on Tour’ crowd, but they do make the nightlife pretty lively. Young Latvians and tourists alike converge on Riga’s small bars to drink very cheap beer and sing very terrible karaoke, and the streets feel friendlier at night. We stayed at Cinnamon Sally hostel, which I loved and can’t recommend enough, which was super sociable and was an easy place for us to accumulate a big crowd to check out Riga’s social scene with. Our favourite was an underground tavern, which served good beers, played live music and made really, really fantastic garlic bread. It’s with super dark rye bread and loads of butter. We still talk about it 3 years later.
Beyond socialising, there’s tons to do in and around Riga.
1. The House of the Blackheads
It’s the famous place that you’ve seen in every picture you’ve ever seen of Riga. Admittedly, it’s a very picturesque spot, and is worth checking out. In a square in the middle of the Old Town, it’s tough to avoid stumbling upon. The Old Town of Riga isn’t exactly massive. It’s a pretty building, if you do a walking tour (or surreptitiously listen in on someone else's), you’ll learn it was built for a 14th century Latvian guild. It was bombed and rebuilt recently, hence the great condition it’s in.
2. Explore the Old Town
After a while it does get generic, when reading blogs on European travel, to be told to wander through cobbled streets. However, it’s only because it’s always an enjoyable experience. If you’re looking for quiet winding streets with classic architecture, the streets of Riga’s Old Town won’t disappoint you.
3. Visit the Art Nouveau District
For a different style of vacant street wandering, try Riga’s art nouveau district. Around a 20 minute jaunt out of the Old Town, the district houses hundreds of buildings styled around nature and mythology, characteristic of the art nouveau style. A step away from the staples of medieval Scandinavian stylings, the area around Albert St gives an insight into the more forward-thinking stylistic developments in Riga, contrasted starkly with the soviet towers that loom over the Eastern block.
4. Go Church Hopping
You can wile away any European city break flitting from church to church, each being of varying levels of interest. Plenty being fairly boring. The highlight of these in Riga is the Natvity of the Christ cathedral, a short walk from the Freedom Monument (the massive spire that tends to end up being the navigation point for all of the city, once you’re fully lost). The cathedral is built in typical Russian Orthodox style, and will be familiar to those of you who have spent much time in Russia or Eastern Europe. Intricate decadence on the outside, smokily dower on the inside. Make sure to dress appropriately if you’re planning to entire- though Riga isn’t exactly a spot people tend to wander around in in skimpy shorts, regardless. It’s not warm. There’s a number of other interesting churches in the Old Town, notably St. Jacob’s and St. Peter’s.
5. Go Bar Hopping
So you can hop all through the day and all through the night. As I mentioned earlier, the nightlife in Riga is surprisingly vibrant, given how austere the streets tend to feel in the daytime. The beers are very cheap, and you have to try Latvian black balsam, the local liquid delicacy. It tastes like blackcurrant and goes down surprisingly easily, considering its high alcohol content.
6. Day Trip to Sigulda
Take a local bus out to the x castle, nestled in a forest-covered canyon. The bus will drop you off at the side of a random Latvian highway, which is pretty disconcerting, but we eventually managed to trudge through the snow far enough to find a local with a bit of English, who pointed us towards the tourist-friendly town where you can visit the castle. Enjoy getting out of the city for a day, and maybe even take the cable car which flies over the canyon. You can also sign up to bungee jump from said cable car, but we decided against that one.
7. Try Bobsleighing
We did, however, opt for a slightly less extreme sport. In the same town, you can go to the Latvian Olympic bobsleigh team’s training run, and try out the sport for yourself. We opted for the cheaper, and safer for beginners, option of taking a foam-coated sleigh down. Very rapid and very fun, it’s definitely worth trying your hand at bobsleighing, a sport that isn’t all that accessible elsewhere in the world.
All in all, you can’t deny that Riga has character. Latvia is an odd place, with a lot to see, and a charm you can find once you manage to warm them up a bit. It’s a perfect location for a weekend break from elsewhere in Europe, and an essential stop if you’re planning to tour the Baltic region.
Read more about my time in the Baltics here!
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