Riga, a brill mix of the old and the new.
Riga had been on my travel radar since 2016, when Lonely Planet named it one of the best places to travel. It was one of those European cities that wasn’t high priority on my list, but when I saw a £40 return flight, and found a £24 a night Airbnb studio in the heart of the city’s Old Town, I knew it was too good an opportunity to pass up.
And, that’s how I found myself in Riga for a city break mid-March.
What to Do
- Explore Riga’s Charming Old Town: Cobblestone streets, pastel buildings, narrow alleyways- it’s serious heart eyes. I didn’t have an agenda as I wandered Old Town, choosing streets to walk down at leisure. A few things you shouldn’t miss:
- Three Brothers: Three buildings next to each other that are some of the oldest houses in the city
- House of Blackheads: One of the most beautiful buildings in Riga. Originally built in 1334 for the Brotherhood of the Blackheads, it was rebuilt in 1999 after surviving WWII damage
- St. Peter’s Church: The best view of the city can be found from the church’s terrace. It costs €9 to take the elevator on floor 2 to the top of the tower, but the views are spectacular
- Wander the Art Nouveau Neighbourhood: Riga has almost 800 buildings in the art nouveau architecture style- more than any other city in Europe. To see stunning architecture, go for a walk along Alberta, Elizabetes and Strelniku streets
- Peruse the Central Market: As Europe’s largest market, Riga’s Central Market is housed in five of the world’s nine remaining German Zeppelin hangers. Locals favor this market for its creamy cheeses, fresh veg, assortment of seafood, tasty pastries and wool products. I didn’t buy anything at the market, but enjoyed seeing all of the local Latvian goods
- Visit the Spa: I didn’t get a chance to do this, but heard the Baltic public saunas are a go-to for relaxation, Balta Pirts came recommended. A bartender told me the traditional experience is: shower, sauna, ice pool, repeat. An interesting part of the sauna ritual: You’re given a dried birch branch to soak in warm water, which you’ll then be smacked with as part of a massage treatment
Where to Eat & Drink
- Bakeberry: Awesome cakes and tons of space to lounge. Totally get why people say you can find some of the best desserts in Riga here
- Kuuka Kafe: Popped in here the day I flew into Riga for a caffeine pick-me up. Ended up lingering over my flat white with a book- loved the cosy velour couches and cute photo frames hanging on the brick walls
- V. Kuze: If you want to sip coffee and experience what Riga’s cafe life was like in the 1930’s, this is the place. Came here late on a Sunday morning and indulged in a slice of chocolate cake and Latvia’s version of Irish coffee, made with Black Balsam
- Innocent Cafe: Heard the food is great here, but I popped in for a mocha while exploring Centris. Normally not a mocha drinker, but would definitely recommend ordering here- so creamy
- Makonis: Adorable cafe with a great lunch menu- stopped by for a winter greens salad and Latvia’s version of gluhwein- warm blackcurrant juice with honey and Black Balsam
- Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs: This basement restaurant came highly recommended from friends who’d been to Riga, and upon entering I immediately understood why. Stone walls, wooden tables, candlelit- it was beautiful. And, the food was affordable and delicious. For under €10, I had a goblet of local Latvian red wine, a cheese and pickled veggie board, and potato pancakes
- Easy Wine: Loved this self-service wine bar so much, I came both nights I was in Riga. When you enter, they’ll give you a card that you use to try different wine pours (50-250 ml) of red, white, rose and dessert wines. I looooved being able to try a wine before I committed to a glass of it, and felt they had a great range of reds. Also ordered the cheese board both nights I came- the Latvian cheeses on it were ace
- B-Bars: Stopped in here to check out one of the city’s best cocktail bars on my first night. I was pretty exhausted and only stayed for one drink, but was surprised by how great the cocktail I ordered was (the menu was pretty standard, and I was worried the drinks would be too sweet for me)
- Black Magic Bar: Touristy? Sure. But, a great place to try a few different ways to enjoy Latvia’s herbal liqueur, Black Balsam. I ended up trying the special liqueur in a shot, warm drink, and truffle. The shot I had was a local favourite- Black Balsam and peach juice. The kind of thing I’m glad I tried, but won’t be ordering again 😉 Also, don’t miss the speakeasy bar downstairs- it’s hidden behind a bookcase near the back of the shop
- Skyline Bar: Came here to check out the view, but decide to skip a drink after seeing the menu (your usual classic cocktails, apparently the mojitos are very popular?) in favour of heading back to Easy Wine. The bar was nice, and view was beautiful so I’d check it out if you’re nearby. Pro-tip: The view in the restroom is just as good as the bar area, and easier to grab a pic without reaching over tables
Where to Stay
I stayed in Old Town, the historic heart of Riga, in a rustic studio that was a steal at £24 a night. There are plenty of great, affordable options in central Riga on Airbnb. I also checked hotel deals on Hotel Tonight and Booking.com, but nothing compared to the affordability of Airbnb.
If you’re only in Riga for a short time, I’d recommend staying in Old Town- there are a few bits that are way too touristy, but for the most part, it’s a beautiful place to explore.
As an alternative, the Centris neighborhood is an easy walk or bus ride from Old Town. In comparison, it’s more modern with plenty of great bars and restaurants.
Getting Around Riga
Staying in Old Town meant I walked everywhere. Even on the day I explored the Centris neighborhood, I chose to walk vs. take the bus or tram. Taxis are also readily available in main parts of the city if you’re really crunched for time.
From the airport to the city and back, I took bus #22 for €2 a trip. Easy to find, runs every 15-20 minutes and takes about 30 minutes each way from city centre. You can purchase tickets before getting on the bus from the machines located at the stop.
Bit of advice: Make sure you validate your ticket when you get on the bus. I neglected to do this on my way back to the airport and had a run in with the Latvian bus police.
Like Germany, they take un-validated tickets seriously- they tried to tell me I had to get off the bus and go to the police station with them to pay a fine of €20-200. I kept trying to explain I didn’t know you had to validate tickets- there are no signs telling you to do so, and the ticket validation machine was in the centre of the bus, so you may not see it if you get on and stand near the door like I did. Ultimately, they left me alone when a bunch of locals started arguing with them on my behalf, but it was a lesson learned.
Have you ever been to Latvia or one of the Baltic countries? Estonia is next on my list!