A Guide to Riga
Similar to many off-the-beaten-path places of the world, the Baltics are often overlooked by travelers, but are truly in a category of their own. Although technically part of Europe, the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have a distinct appearance much different than most European Nations. They barely miss the mark of fitting into Scandinavia and Russia. Despite obvious Russian influence from their past as a member nation of the USSR, the Baltic states have shown they value an identity of their own and customs diverse from Russian influence.
What to Know Before You Go
An Unknown Destination
Latvia is a place many travelers don’t venture to or talk about. Although it’s an off-the-beaten path destination, it is still quite easy to get to. By remaining off the main path of tourism, Latvia’s capital, Riga, has maintained its authenticity, and has become a must-visit for travelers seeking something new and different.
It’s no surprise that Riga hasn’t been on your bucket-list. Just 20 years ago Riga was much more dangerous than it is now. It was filled with gun violence and petty crime. However, today it's a gem of Eastern Europe, alongside Tallinn. Riga is just as safe as the rest of Europe and has just as much to offer!
Despite the lengthy history of Riga, much of what is visible to travelers today was built in the 1970’s and 1990’s, due to the destruction of the city during World War II, when Nazi Germany occupied Latvia. Even with much of the city destroyed, many older buildings survived, making the city an interesting mixture of new and old. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Latvia raced toward Europe. Latvia joined the EU and NATO in 2004, and became part of the eurozone in 2014.
The best way to get around Riga is by using Taxify, as Uber is not yet available. Hailing a regular cab on the street is not only inconvenient, but it’s also much more expensive than Taxify. Make sure to download the app before you leave. I also always suggest downloading the offline country map on Maps.me for any place you are visiting.
Where to Stay
During my time in Riga, I stayed at the Park Inn by Radisson - Barona. The Park Inn is a residence and not a hotel. My one-bedroom apartment was stylish and featured its own kitchen which was fully equipped, making it easy to cook up a Latvian meal after visiting the Central Market.
The Park Inn is just 10 minutes walking distance to Old Town Riga, making it easy to go in and out of the main city throughout the day. There was no parking at this location, but they were flexible enough to allow me to park at the other Park Inn location across town for free. There is also paid parking nearby.
I also loved the convenience of the asian restaurant downstairs, where I ordered up noodles every night for dinner, as well as a grocery store just a block away.
What to Do In Riga
Museum of the Occupation
The Museum of the Occupation is one of the highlights of Riga. Although it’s best to save museums for rainy days, my suggestion is to visit on your first day. Learning about the struggles that Latvia has overcome due to occupation by Russia and Germany, will help you have a greater understanding and appreciation for the unique culture that Latvia offers.
Free Walking Tour
Every day, there is a free walking tour of Riga. The tour meets at noon at St. Peters Church in Old Town Riga. The tour lasts 2.5 hours and walks guests through the city while explaining an in-depth history of Riga. Don’t forget to tip your guide, they are working for tips, not completely for free! My advice is to tip what you can, but 5-10 Euros is enough.
Take a Walk in the Park
Some of the parks are absolutely beautiful and I highly suggest taking a walk through them even if it’s just for a few minutes. Bastion Hill Park has a small river running through it and is beautifully manicured. The park is just outside the Old Town of Riga, making it easy to walk to.
The Perfect Lunch Spot
The Dome Hotel and Spa is insanely beautiful. The building is an UNESCO world heritage site, built during the middle ages. Each room is special and unique with original paintings still on the wall. With their chef trained at a Michelin star restaurant, the Dome Hotel’s restaurant is one of the best in Riga, and climbs higher on the list each year.
There are two options for dining at the Dome Hotel, the cozy restaurant, or the rooftop terrace. My favorite dishes were the Fois Gras brulee´ and the Tuna tartare in crispy waffles with wasabi cream cheese. However, the most interesting ingredient was in the butter. Cannabis butter.
Riga Central Market
Riga’s market is the largest market in Europe- and is certainly one of the most unique. If you are expecting a wholesome European farmers market, consider yourself warned; this market is unapologetically honest and gritty. The market’s main structures are made of 5 old German Zeppelin hangers, making it impossible to miss.
Not much is known about the Three Brothers other than they are the oldest stone residential buildings in the city of Riga dating back to the 15th century. They represent the different stages of architecture in Riga from medieval to Baroque. Today they house the Latvian museum of architecture, and since you will see them on just about every magnet and postcard of Riga, they are worth a visit.
House of the Blackheads
Originally built in the 14th century, the House of the Blackheads was built to house members of a German merchants guild living in Riga. Like many things in Riga, the House of the Blackheads was destroyed by the Germans and demolished by the Soviets in the 1940’s. Later, in the 1990’s, the iconic structure was rebuilt. Above the entrance it reads “If I should fall, build me again”, and they did. Today, the House of the Blackheads is one of the most iconic structures in Riga.
Try Black Balsam
Coming to Riga without trying this take-your-breath-away herbal liquor, is like visiting Russia without trying vodka. It's a staple, a must-add to your list of Latvian adventures!
Black Balsam has a pretty high alcohol content and is made up of 24 ingredients. The local saying is "If you haven't tasted it, you have not been to Riga".
Watch me try Riga Black Balsam in the video below!
Unless you see a lot of locals doing it, then it’s okay. Apparently jay walking is punishable by a fine, and it’s not uncommon to be ticketed.
Smoking in Public
In public places such as public parks, bus stops, and near buildings, smoking is not allowed. You need permission from the people around you to smoke, and if you are asked to put it out, you must. However, this law is similar in many other European countries.
Riga, along with many other Baltic cities, has many other European destinations beat when it comes to affordability. From museum entrance fees to high end dining, car rentals and spa treatments, the Baltic's are extremely affordable for just about any traveler’s budget.
Driving in Latvia
Latvia has terrible drivers. They tailgate, pass at high speeds on blind curves, and run red lights. Be sure to take proper precautions, stay alert and be safe. Additionally, don’t speed. Speeding is checked by camera, as I found out after I arrived home when I was billed for a ticket by my rental car company.
Due to the Russian occupation, travelers often feel there may be a language barrier when traveling to Latvia. Although most people in Riga speak Latvian and Russian, I found that many locals spoke English, making getting around the city and communicating effortless.
Why You Should Rent a Car
Renting a car is a great way to get around. If you are visiting the Baltics, renting a car is far more ideal than traveling by bus. It’s also very affordable to rent cars in the Baltic states. Five days in the highest luxury vehicle (a brand new Mercedes) in Tallinn was only about 500 Euro with EuropCar. (EuropCar is partners with Advantage in the US) The Baltics are a great place for affordable luxuries. Obviously an economy sized vehicle would have been even more affordable.
Day Trips from Riga
Day trips are another great reason to rent a car when traveling through the Baltics.
The Castle of Cēsis
Visiting the castle of Cēsis was one of my favorite activities in the entire Baltic region. There is a museum and a castle in the middle of the town. Once you arrive at the castle, you can enter from the lowest level (the dungeon, perhaps?) with a lantern and climb the stairs in the dark up to the top of the tower. Truly a great experience, but left me thinking, maybe I wouldn't have been cut out to be a princess with all those dark steps!
The pine fringed beaches of Jūrmala, have long been a seaside playground for hundreds of years. Jūrmala is the Baltic’s version of the French Riviera. It’s the perfect place for a daytrip, or an overnight.