The art-nouveau capital of Europe
The wonderful city of Riga. A very well deserved return to revisit after that many years in between the previous times. The fact that I kept postponing this city on behalf of others is still a fact I cannot quite explain. I cannot think of any possible reason nor excuse as it is still ranking one of my all time favourite European cities, not only for the beauty and cosines of the old town but because of its impressive collection of art-nouveau buildings, the largest of its kind on any city in the world. And yes, for those who don’t know me yet, art-nouveau together with art-deco are my favourite architectural styles.
Riga is the largest city not only in Latvia, also the largest of any city across the Baltic countries, followed by Tallinn and Vilnius; hosting one third of the country’s population. As such, plan at least 2 days for visiting it. Any shorter than this and you will struggle to enjoy the sights and relaxed time at any of the many restaurants and bars. Yet still, over 2 days and you might end up with not much more to do and see unless going to the outskirts neighbourhoods or nearby seaside resort of Jurmala.
The old town is inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage Site list due to its importance and rich past and prosperity over history as one of the major cities of the Hanseatic League and for hosting an almost intact medieval layout coupled with an incredible collection of 19th century wood classical buildings in the Russian style and an unrivaled 19th and 20th century art-nouveau city extension.
With so much to see and do it is guaranteed you will enjoy the city wherever you are and probably will also perceive it like I do, as one of the most elegant cities in Europe. People in the other hand is not the friendliest or open minded and seem cold and distant at first contact; after all, they are still greatly influenced by their past and the northern culture and mentality.
Finding nice places for food is not challenging at all. You will have plenty of choice anywhere around the Old Town while almost any restaurant offers really good quality dishes. Nevertheless, a note in here are the prices. When I visited 9 years ago everything was incredibly cheap; but times changed, and specially since they joined the Euro currency, therefore will be a good advise that you check few places around before making a decision. The same dish can be double or more the price than elsewhere.
For a very traditional Latvian food at really low prices, you should go to Lido. It’s now a chain of restaurants, all with the concept of self service where many food stalls serve different dishes and you chose what you want and the quantity you wish. The largest of these restaurants is not fat from the Freedom Monument, while a second one is inside the old town.
For more information about Riga check Wikipedia and Wikitravel sites. Latvia’s currency is the Euro (EUR). Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
What to see and do in Riga
- Outside the Old Town Is where the 19th and 20th century elegant extension of the city is and where most of the art-nouveau buildings are located.
-Art Noveau District Riga holds the title for having the largest number of this architectural style buildings of any city in the world. You can find many of them along Alberta, Elizabetes (where the most pictured building with the faces is) and Strelnieku streets just west of the Esplanade Park, and around the Freedom Monument. The most famous Latvian architect was Mikhail Eisenstein.
-Esplanade Park Nice park Designed by Georg Kuphaldt that acts as a link between the old town and the new town through the Freedom Monument not far in the middle.
–National Museum of Art One of the most important museums in the country with works by Latvian artists. The building itself is beautiful and impressive.
-Orthodox Cathedral Built during the Russian rule, don’t judge it only by the rather austere exterior, check the inside for the great decorations.
-Kobe Clock Was donated by Riga’s sister city, Kobe.
-Freedom Monument Area Is one Latvia’s national symbol and major sight. Was erected to commemorate the first independence and miraculously not taken down by the Soviets. Around the monument square there are several important sites as:
-Laima Clock A gift given to the city by the Latvian chocolate manufacturer Laima.
-Mentzendorff House Built in 1720 as the residence of a wealthy merchant it is now the museum dedicated to life in Riga during the 17th and 18th centuries.
-Bastejkalns Park Is a small park containing a Chinese and a Japanese pavilion and the Bridge of Love over the Pilsetas Canal, nowadays famous for adding locks to the railings after a couple is married.
-Latvian National Opera Located just to the south of the Freedom Monument and on the edge with the Old Town.
- Old Town Inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage Site list for the importance and beautifully well preserved medieval city and blend of other styles as Baroque and Classical.
-Riga Castle Located at the north side of the Old Town, it hosts the National History Museum of. Entrance fee of 3 Euros, 7 with camera. To be fair in here, the castle is not really worth it as it really has not much left from the former building as a castle.
-Saint James’s Church Built in 1226 was one of the first schools in Riga before turning back to its original use as a Catholic church.
-City walls and Powder Tower Very few remains are visible form the former defensive fortifications that once enclosed the city. A few sections of the wall are found near Saint Jacobs Barracks, together with the Powder Tower which is currently in good shape.
-House of the Black Cats Made famous for the two statues of black cats on the roof. The legend is about a tradesman who was not accepted into the Big Guild (building located nearby) so he built this house and put the cats with their tails pointing towards the Big Guild in order to express his scorn. Located few meters south of the Power Tower.
-Cathedral Square Is the second most important public space after the Town Square, with major landmarks around it and along the nearby streets.
-Cathedral Is the landmark number one in the city. Built in 1207 although the current interior is very austere and plain due to the many times it had to be rebuild and refurbish at some time during history. The 6768 pipe organ is the most noteworthy feature.
-Three Brothers Those are the oldest dwelling houses in Riga located at number 17, 19, and 21 on Mazā Pils Iela.
-Swedish Gate Right behind the Arsenal is the sole survivor gate from the old city walls.
-Town Square Is the major square in Riga since the old times, filled with beautiful buildings around and in the immediate surrounding streets.
-Statue of Roland Located right in the middle of the square.
-House of Blackheads Probably the most photographed and known buildings in the city. It is where the merchants-to-be had their guild. You can find the tourist information office on one of the sides while the rest is a museum where you can see upper floor grand ballroom and the wine cellar in the basement. Entrance of 3 euros, 1.50 for students.
-Town Hall With its clock tower, is easy to spot at one of the sides of the square.
-Saint Peter’s Church Is the oldest church in the city, with construction finished in 1209. From the tower you will get the very best 360 degrees views of the entire city and beyond. Worth to get here furthermore that there is a lift so no walking of stairs needed.
-Saint John’s Church Also dating from the 12th century but of smaller proportions than Saint Peters.
-Museum of the Occupation of Latvia Mentioned in here merely for the architecture of it, as you will perhaps question yourself why that building is there. Austere and black, ugly, definitely out of place around the other beautiful buildings.
The airport is located 10 kilometers to the southwest of the city, and the best and cheapest way to move from/to is via bus. There are 2 options here, local bus 22 runs every 10 minutes and takes around 30 to reach the city center passing through the bus and train stations in between among other stops. A single ticket costs 1.20 Euros, but you can work out a tip here that if you buy the ticket at the Welcome to Riga desk inside the terminal will cost you half price, 0.60 Euros!. A more expensive option is Airbaltic Express, running every 30 minutes and also liking the city center but for 5 Euros per way. Remember to get the tickets prior to boarding the bus, vending machines are next to where those buses depart.
Should you need to take a taxi, the best bet would be Baltic Taxi as they have a fix tariff of 14 Euros if booked online, slightly more if paid to the driver. Otherwise, regular city taxis have a 2.10 Euros minimum fare plus 0.70 per kilometer with a waiting time cost of 8.5 per hour.
Within the city and unless your hotel is located outside the old city center then you should not need to take any public transportation to move around. The old town core is very compact and pedestrian friendly, while the art-nouveau extension surrounding it just few minutes’ walk along beautiful and full of history streets. If needing to move any farther as for example the bus station, plenty of trolleybuses connect every part of the city and many trams too.
There is a great choice of hotels in Riga and for everyone’s budget. From top of the class luxury to more affordable modest ones, yet still, a beautiful high class 4* hotel won’t cost you any high if you are visiting the city after high season, as we did and therefore really benefit from this and enjoyed a spa hotel right in the center of the city, minutes away from the historical core. A good and reasonable point to start your search is by checking some of our preferred affiliate hotel search engine such as Hotels.com, Booking.com, Expedia, Otel.com, Agoda, Opodo, LateRooms or Ebookers.
We stayed at the Opera Hotel & Spa, at Raina Boulevard 33. Extremely well located and communicated to anywhere in the city without need for any transport to reach most of the sights. Comfortable beds, nice medium sized room and very clean, with a great breakfast choice.