Discover 11 amazing places to visit in Riga, from its Art Nouveau Centre and chocolate museum to the House of the Black Heads!
Riga, Latvia’s capital, is a jumble of old and new, decorative and functional, beautiful and monolithically grey. Its Art Nouveau centre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, its concrete Soviet brutalism stays dark in the daytime. It’s full of bars and restaurants, it’s all pretty much all walkable and, more importantly, it’s great fun…
Latvia – independent since 1991 (yes, that recent) – sits at a crossroads across the Baltic. Invaders, visitors and traders have all bestowed their own unique elements to the port of Riga. As a result, you’ll never know quite what you’ll find around any corner.
One thing you’ll not miss, however, is the Freedom Monument, which was completed in 1935 to commemorate Latvian independence. Sadly, World War II saw the country fall under first Nazi and then Soviet rule; the latter deciding to stay until just over 30 years ago. It’s therefore also a monument to crushed ambition, which makes it all the more inspiring.
Not far away there’s the KGB Building – a monument to something entirely different: brutal oppression. It tells the story of how the Russian secret police stifled opposing voices with unimaginable cruelty and violence. It’s shocking and fascinating in equal measure – it’s modern history at its most cruel. It’s also a reminder of what Latvia has left behind so successfully.
A far happier experience can be found at the Central Market (Centraltirgus), a sprawling jumble of stalls and domed halls that were once Zeppelin hangars, filled with tasty food, cheap clothes and assorted tat. It’s just great.
However, according to its official website: “There are a lot of people so beware of cutpurses!” Consider yourself warned.
For great views across Riga…
On a clear day it’s worth taking the lift up to the Panorama Riga Observation Deck. Which is exactly what it says it is. It’s sat atop the Latvian Academy of Sciences, a stern red brick monolith that is unlikely to inspire budding scientists but you can’t miss it, so I suppose that’s a bonus.
The views are pretty much unbroken as the surrounding countryside is so flat. It’s a good place to get your bearings and marvel at the jumbled buildings below.
At the other end of the architectural spectrum is Riga Town Hall Square. It shines a light on what the city must have looked like before the Germans and the Russians rampaged across the country’s borders. It’s charming, atmospheric and open at one edge to the river – a reminder of the city’s all-important sailing heritage. While you’re there, behave like a local – stop for a coffee.
Visit the House of the Black Heads
The square is home to the House of the Black Heads, which was originally built in the 14th century for the Brotherhood of Blackheads, a guild for unmarried merchants.
Sadly, the Germans bomb it into a ruin in 1941 and what was left was pulled down by the Russians after the war. However, such was the national interest in the famous lost house that is was rebuilt… largely funded by small contributions for the local population. Today it’s a venue for music and exhibitions.
A temple to Art Nouveau
Our favourite stopover during our Riga trip was Alberta Iela, a temple to Art Nouveau. It’s a time capsule house that’s brimming full of everyday artefacts – from clothes to furniture, paintings to pottery. All visible through a window into the past. We found it great fun, partly because the staff were so friendly and helpful.
If Art Nouveau’s your thing, there’s a map available that lists Riga’s main attractions, lined up along a suggested walk. It’s well worth an hour of your time.
The best museums in Riga
Another standout from our weekend was The Museum of the Occupation of Latvia. Not only is it brilliantly laid out – the use of images, maps and models, as well as historical relics – brings a sad story to life. This is a small country that has suffered at the hands of others. Fortunately, it has a happy end – today Latvia is a thriving democracy, albeit with a dark past.
Unfortunately, our long weekend didn’t allow for as much time as perhaps we’d have liked. Not seen, but doubtless great fun, where the Laima Chocolate Museum, The World of Hat Museum, The Riga Aviation Museum, which looks like it’ll be amazing [if you like rusting old planes and helicopters], and The Riga Motormuseum.
Why visit Riga, Lativa?
Best of all, the city isn’t expensive and neither are flights from the UK – as we highlighted in our guide to Europe’s cheapest city breaks. So dust off your passports and take the trip.
Riga is a small but perfectly formed bundle of things to do that will keep you happily occupied for a short stopover.
11 Amazing Places to Visit in Riga, Latvia – pin for later!
This is a guest post by Anthony Clark, journalist, copywriter and longtime friend of the Ladies What Travel team. He loves beer, cheese and travel and is a genius when it comes to making the most of his annual leave.