A Weekend in Riga – Discover Latvia’s Colorful Capital

There’s this beautiful city in Europe which although is gaining popularity in the last years, still remains a bit off-the-beaten path. It won’t be the first choice for any traveller who’s visiting Europe for the first time, but it could be the perfect destination for a weekend escape for the European traveller with a full-time job. With its city centre listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Latvia’s capital is perfect for a city break in the weekend. Historical heritage contrasting hipster cafés and pubs, colorful medieval buildings and lush Art-Nouveau architecture next to grey communist buildings, the vibrant Riga is full of contrasts. Read further on to find out how to spend the perfect weekend in Riga.

The Old Town in Riga is very compact and walkable. A great part of it is a pedestrian-only zone, so it’s really nice to wander through the cobblestone streets. My advice – take the time to discover the city on your own. Forget about the maps or the sights you have to tick off your list. Get lost in the Old Town to find yourself discovering those narrow medieval streets lined up with houses bursting with color.

When I first arrived in Riga I didn’t had a guide book with me and I hadn’t researched the destination in advance. I don’t do this often, but I wanted to see how I can experience a place without any preparations, so that I would have an unprejudiced look at it. I loved wandering the streets and discovering all the places. At the end of the day I bought a travel guide book from the Tourist Information Center and read in the hotel. I was surprised that I have discovered all sights in the Old Town by myself. Looking at the photos and reading about the various landmarks was really fun. I loved this approach and I will certainly use it again to discover new places.

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How to get to Riga

Riga is perhaps one of the most easily accessible European capitals. There are convenient flights from other European capitals and big cities. The two largest low-cost air companies in Europe, Wizzair and Ryanair, both have flights to Latvia’s capital.

Once at the airport, it’s very easy to get to the city’s center. When I arrived in Riga, I decided to test the public transportation. When you get out of the airport, the bus stop is across the street and there’s enough signage indicating the directions. You can buy a ticket directly from the bus driver. One way ticket costs 2 EUR. Bus line 22 goes to the Old Town. You can get off at the 11. Novembra krastmala or at the Central Bus Station (Autoosta).

a square in a city with lovely buildings and a church tower at the background, Riga

There are also day tickets or strip tickets, which you can purchase from a ticket vending machine at each bus stop. I won’t advise you to do so, as you won’t be needing any transportation in the city, unless you are staying in one of the farthest residential areas. Besides, the Old Town is car-free, so you will be walking anyway.

two picture of Riga with overlay text: The best weekend itinerary - Riga - Latvia; How to spend a weekend in Riga

Riga weekend itinerary Day 1

Depending on when you will arrive in the city, you can head for a walk and see some of the highlights of the heart of the Old Town.

an interesting orange brick building with lots of ornaments and details on the facade and a monument of a knight on the square in front, the Blackheads in Riga with the statue of Roland
House of the Blackheads with the Statue of Roland

Discover the heart of the Old Town

The Old Town of Latvia’s capital is enlisted as a UNESCO World Heritage. It caught me off-guard with its colorful buildings, lovely squares and absolute compactness. At the Town Hall Square (Rātslaukums) is located one of the most emblematic buildings of Riga – the House of the Blackheads (Melngalvju nams). The lavishly decorated building with Mannierist elements, served as a guild for the unmarried merchants in town, called The Brotherhood of the Blackheads. The House is a museum today and is open for visits.

a square qith a lovely yellowish building with the Latvian flags on the entrance, the Town Hall Square in Riga
Riga’s Town Hall

Just opposite the House of the Blackheads is Riga’s Town Hall (Rīgas rātsnams). The whole Town Hall Square was destroyed during WWII and today it is beautifully restored in its previous glory.

a monument of a Christmas tree on a square in Riga
The Christmas Tree in front of the House of the Blackheads

In the middle of the square stands a statue of a knight. The knight is Roland – a nephew of Charlemagne (747-814). The statue of Roland is a symbol of justice and independence. There’s another interesting monument on the square, which doesn’t attract attention immediately. It’s a monument of a decorated Christmas tree, as the first decorated Christmas tree that appeared in public was exactly on this square in 1510. Or at least so tell the earliest records of a decorated Christmas tree on public display.

a church with a very tall church tower with a clock, St. Peter's Church in Riga
St Peter’s Church

Afterwards head to St. Peter’s Church (1209) – the most impressive example of Medieval architecture in Riga. St. Peter is the patron saint of the city. The amazing bell tower, crowned by a gilded rooster, was the tallest wooden structure in the world in the 17th century! Today, you can climb the church tower and enjoy one of the most beautiful bird’s-eye views of the city of Riga.

a view of city from above with church towers, colorful buildings, little squares and a river with a bridge. a bird's-eye view of Riga
The view from the St. Peter’s Church

Continue to Dom Square (Doma laukums), where you can find Riga’s Cathedral Church (1211) – one of the most important churches in the Baltics and largest one on the Baltics in the Middle Ages. The Dom Square is the largest square in the city.

a red brick cathedral with a clock tower, RIga's Dom
The Cathedral Church in Riga

The thriving heart of Riga’s Old Town is another square – Livonian Square (Līvu laukums), where you can have a drink in the summer at one of the cafes and enjoy life. At this square are located other iconic buildings in Riga – the Big Guild (Lielā ģilde) – Latvia’s 19th-century Chamber of Commerce, built in English Gothic style, the Small Guild (Mazā ģilde) in Gothic Revival – a fraternity of master craftsmen (1352-1936), which has been turned today into a cultural centre, the famous Cat House with cats on the turrets, and the gorgeous Riga Russian Theatre, founded in 1883.

a square with colorful buildings and a patch of green grass and some flower baskets hanging to the left, Livu Square in Riga
The Livonian Square with the Big Guild

Recommended tours of the Old Town

If you don’t feel like discovering all the places by yourself, your best bet will be a walking tour of the Old Town. Or why not do both things… Tours are mostly up two hours, so you will always have some time on your own. Here are a few tours in the Old Town which I’ve picked for you:

Beer District tour

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that craft beer is a phenomenon in Riga. There are lots of independent breweries and brewpubs in the city centre. You can always do a craft beer tour by yourself, but I think that it’s more fun with a beer tour, as you gonna learn lots of stuff and will be tasting various beers.

three empty beer bottles with colorful labels
Craft beer in Riga

There are a few different tours offered in the Old Town, but Riga has its own beer district, which is a bit off the main tourist attractions. So, I would recommend a beer tour with Riga Beer District. This beer tour will take you not only to some historical breweries but also to a few craft-beer pubs.

One of my personal discoveries on the beer tour I took, was the typical snack that Latvians are having with a glass of beer – the garlic toasts! I think I ate a ton of these on my first night in Riga. The garlic toasts are deep-fried thin slices brown bread soaked in garlic. I can’t imagine a snack more perfect to go with a glass of cold beer than this one. OK. There’s one more thing that is almost that perfect, and this is French fries with Bulgarian white cheese – a typical beer snack in Bulgaria. But that’s another topic.

Riga weekend itinerary Day 2

On this 2nd day in Riga I suggest getting outside of the Old Town. Actually, let’s make a larger circle around the heart of the city and discover even more beautiful places in Riga.

a bridge over a river with cars driving and two big lantern poles and a triangel modern building at the back, the Stone Bridge in Riga with the Library

Walk around Riga’s Old Town

Start the day with a walk along the Daugava River (Daugova) – the largest river in Latvia, that flows through the city with a flair and then into the Baltic Sea. There are two lovely bridges that cross the river at this section of the town. The first one, the Stone Bridge (Akmens tilts), was built in 1957 and connects the Right Bank with the Left Bank (Pārdaugava). The lovely building on the other side of the river, is the National Library of Latvia (2014), which can be visited with a tour. There’s a lovely view from the viewing platform on the top of the building.

a river with a bridge and a few skyrises on a very gloomy day, the Daugava River in Riga
Daugava River with the Cable-stayed bridge

Continue all the way to the second bridge the Cable-stayed Bridge (Vanšu tilts). It was finished in 1981 and first was called Gorky Bridge, named after the famous Soviet writer Maxim Gorky. It reminds me a bit of the Swan Bridge (Erasmusbrug) in Rotterdam, also because of the skyline with high-rises behind it.

large yellow building with the Latvian flags hanging from top to bottom on the outside and a rounded tower in front, Riga's Castle
The Riga Castle

At the corner of the Old Town is the Riga Castle (Rīgas pils), built in the 14th century. Through the years it served as a covenant, a residence of the Master of the Livonian Order, it housed Polish, Swedish and Russian administrations and institutions, and was Pioneer Palace during the Soviet era. Today, the castle serves as the residence of the President of Latvia. In front of the palace, there’s a lovely square (Pils laukums) with a view to the lovely Church of Our Lady of Sorrows.

a lovely square with colorful buildings and a white church with green-bluish roof, the Castle Square in Riga
The Castle Square with the Church of Our Lady of Sorrows

At this part of the city you can’t miss the Three Brothers (Trīs brāļi) – another iconic landmark in Riga. These three houses are the oldest ones in the city. The facades of the house tell the architectural history of Riga: starting with the crow-stepped Gothic gabel of No. 17 from the 15th century, then continuing with the Dutch Mannerism facade of No. 19 from the 17th century and ending with the No. 21, having a lovely Baroque facade from the late 17th century.

three houses with stepped gables, the Three Brothers in Riga
The Three Brothers

After the Three Brothers continue to the Powder Tower (Pulvertornis). Built in 1650, the Powder Tower was part of the city’s defensive walls. Today, it can be visited as a part of the Latvian War Museum, which is located just next door. To the north of the Powder Tower are the old Jacob’s Barracks (Jēkaba Kazarmas), which house today numerous cute restaurants, cafes and shops, a great place to grab a bite for lunch or dinner.

a round tower with a yellow building to the left with coats-of-arms painted on the wall and a red building to the left, the Powder Tower in Riga
The Powder Tower and the Jacob’s Barracks

Taste Riga at Riga Central Market

You would ask yourself, what’s the fuss about Riga’s Central Market and why everybody’s saying that it’s a must visit. Riga’s Central Market is the modern version of a cornucopia, a real modern-day horn of plenty. And if the Old Town is the heart of Riga, the Central Market is the belly.

four huge hangars with grey clouds on the sky, Central Market in Riga
Riga’s Central Market

The Central Market opened in 1930. It consists of 5 huge pavilions that once served as Zeppelin hangars. There’s also an underground level and market stands in the open air. The whole complex is totalling 72 300 m2 (778,000 sq. ft).

plastic buckets with colorful pickles from cabbage, carrots and other vegetables with labels with prices in front
A stand with pickles on the market

The market is an explosion of colors, smells and tastes. Most of the vendors have sample plates and you can try the foods they are selling. I strongly suggest you do so – you have to try the pickles, the hemp spread and the smoked fish.

Tip: I did a guided tour of the Riga Central Market and I can’t enough recommend visiting the market with a tour. You need someone to tell you about all the special Latvian foods and the local produce. It’s an amazing experience!

Recommended tours of the Riga Central Market

Here is my selection of guided tours to Riga Central Market with food tasting:

Get a bird’s-eye view of Riga

If you, just like me, love getting to the highest tower in a city for an amazing bird’s-eye view, Riga won’t disappoint you. There are 4 places in Riga from where you can see the city from above and they all offer amazing views. On day 1, I suggested that you climb to the top of the St. George Church, and today I am taking you to the observation deck of the Latvian Academy of Sciences.

a view from above over a city with a few church spires and a river with bridges, Riga
A bird’s-eye view of Riga from the Latvian Academy of Science

Built in the 1950s, with its 108 m, the Latvian Academy of Science stood a long time as the tallest building in Latvia. Only in 2004 was it outshadowed by the Headquarters of Swedbank (121 m), which you can see on the left bank of Daugava.

a tall building with a spire in Stalinist architectural style, with a small colorful church to the left against a blue sky, the Academy of Science in Riga
The Latvian Academy of Science

The Latvian Academy of Science is a fine example of Stalinist architecture – the communist-type of a skyscraper that you’ll find in the capital cities of the former Soviet Bloc countries. The observation deck is located on the 17th floor (at 65 m) and there’s a lift to the 15th floor.

Riga weekend itinerary Day 3

When spending a few days at a place I like to split the sightseeing based on different themes. That’s why I’m spending day 3 of my time in Riga, exploring the art-nouveau district, which happens to be just outside of the Old Town.

Marvel the Art-Nouveau District in Riga

I told you Riga is surprisingly beautiful and with varied architecture. The lavish art-nouveau facades are a real eye-candy. Brussels maybe the birthplace and Paris the cradle of Art Nouveau but Riga is the Meca for any Art Nouveau architecture lover, as it has the highest concentration of Art Nouveau buildings at one place in the world.

a large white and blue building in Art Nouveau architectural style in Riga
Art Nouveau architecture in Riga

Towards the turn of the 20th century Riga was a rapidly growing city which was open to the latest influences in architecture, which were breaking free from the eclecticism of the 19th century and were introducing a new, more dynamic esthetic.

a large head with ornaments on a facade of a building in Riga
Art Nouveau in Riga

The best examples of Art Nouveau architecture in Riga can be found on Albert Street (Alberta iela), Elizabeth Street (Elizabetes iela), and Strēlnieku Street (Strēlnieku iela). Also in the Old Town there are Art Nouveau buildings. Actually one-third of all buildings in the city centre of Riga are in the Art Nouveau style. This is also one of the reasons why the Historic Centre of Riga is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Tip: I can highly recommend that you take a guided tour in the Art Nouveau District of Riga. Thus, you’ll be sure you’ll see all the beautiful architecture.

beautiful yellowish building with red roof and turrets, the Art Nouveau museum in Riga
Riga Art Nouveau Centre

You can also visit the Riga Art Nouveau Centre, which is housed in a lovely building from the period. Its spiral staircase is pretty unique.

Recommended tours of the Art Nouveau District

Here are my suggestions of guided tours of the Art Nouveau District:

Visit the Latvian National Museum of Art

Housed in an amazing building on Janis Rozentāls Square, designed by the German architect Wilhelm Neumann, the Latvian National Museum of Art is a must-visit not only or the art lovers among us. Finished in 1905, it was the first building in the Baltics, which was designed with the purpose of being an art museum.

a beautiful building with four columns and a staircase leading to the entrance, the Latvian national Museum of Art
The Latvian National Museum of Art

The museum takes you on a journey to discover the best examples of Latvian fine arts through the centuries. Although I pride of being a bit of an art connoisseur, I’ve never known the works of any Latvian artist. So, Latvian art was my personal discovery from my trip to Riga.

colorful paintings hanging in museum, Latvian art

At the museum, you can admire the works of Jūlijs Feders, Janis Rozentāls, Vilhelms Purvītis, Ludolfs Liberts, Voldemārs Matvejs, Konrāds Ubāns, Jānis Pauļuks, Boriss Bērziņš, Biruta Baumane, and many more and see Latvia and the Latvian way of life through their eyes.

Sip on a cocktail with a view

I can’t let you leave Riga without one more amazing bird’s eye view on the last day, can I. Just a short walk from the Latvian National Museum of Art is the Skyline Bar, located on the 26th floor of the Radisson Blu Latvija Conference & Spa Hotel. A panoramic lift will take you to the bar, from where, needless to say, you will have a memorable experience, enjoying a drink with the best view of the city.

Where to stay in Riga

When I visited Riga I chose to stay just at the edge of the Old Town. For me it was important to stay at a place that’s adorable, close to all attractions with an easy public transport and an access to taxis. The Old Town is closed for cars, so if you mind dragging your suitcase along the cobblestone streets, then you should choose for a place to stay outside of the Old Town.

a room in a hotel, Wellton Hotel in Riga
A single room at the Wellton Centrum Hotel & SPA

I found this perfect place at the Wellton Centrum Hotel & SPA. As the name suggests it, the hotel has a spa, so after a long day of walking you can indulge a spa treatment, or just relax at the indoor swimming pool, the sauna or take a Turkish steam bath.

The service at the hotel was very good. The receptionists were quite experienced and knowledgeable and they could help me with all my questions about getting to a place or finding the city’s best attractions.

Click on the photos below to find out more about the hotel.

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