Latvia was my first visit to a Baltic country, and it didn't disappoint. Its capital, Riga, is the biggest city in the region and one of the most interesting cities in the north of Europe for a short break. From a beautiful medieval Old Town to one of the best Art Nouveau architecture in the world, Riga was a big surprise and I enjoyed every single moment that I spent in there. Here is what you can expect to see if you have 48h to spend in the Latvian capital!
Day 1: Discovering Riga's Old Town
I reserved my first day in Riga to explore the Old Town, which is the best way to get familiar with this beautiful city. My hotel, the Wellton Oasis Hotel & Spa, was located right at the south end of the Old Town, which made it very convenient to explore all the main historical attractions.
My first stop was the sculpture of the Bremen Town Musicians. The statue is inspired by a tale written by the Brother's Grim, which tells the story of a donkey, a dog, a cat and a rooster who are no longer considered useful by their owners and decide to become musicians.
The statue, a gift from Bremen to Riga, its sister city, was made in 1990 and it is a symbol of liberty. Apparently, touching the animal's nose and beak brings good luck.
After 10am, as soon as St. Peter's Church opened, I bought my ticket to climb the tower. Although visiting the church is free of charge, you can take the elevator to enjoy the 360 degree view of Riga from the 123m tall tower. Tickets cost €9 per adult, and the views are absolutely worth it.
My visit was in November, so the entire city was covered in snow. This made the views even more special, the panorama was just spectacular! The tower is the tallest in Riga, so you will be able to spot all points of interest from the top; my favourite part was seeing the colourful houses and roofs of the Old Town from above.
The church, originally built in 1209, has been reconstructed many times with the years after it was severely affected by fires and the wars. The current basilica was renovated in the 15th century.
The interior is not the most spectacular that I've ever seen, but this is the norm in Latvia. Most churches have a very simple decoration, but they're interesting nevertheless.
Just in front of St. Peter's Church is the Town Hall Square, surrounded by some of the most beautiful buildings in Riga. The Blackheads House stands out thanks to the beautiful ornaments of the facade.
The original building dates from the 14th century and belonged to the Brotherhood of Blackheads, a guild of German merchants in Riga. In the middle of the square is Roland's statue, the nephew of Charlemagne, who became a symbol of justice and peace in the Northern German cities. Many northern cities still have statues in his honour.
I continued towards Dome Square, the biggest square in the Old Town. All the main streets of the Old Town leave from here, so it could be considered the heart of Riga, full of restaurants and cafes. The square takes its name from the Riga Dome Cathedral, and even though the interior was quite plain, I was happy to pay the €3 entrance fee to run away from the cold.
The cathedral was originally founded in 1211, and it has been redesigned and reconstructed several times with the years. Its present day appearance was given with the renovations carried out between 1881 and 1914. You can also access the cloister during your visit.
On the left hand side of the Dome Cathedral I also found Rozena Street, one of the hidden gems of Riga. It is the shortest and also the narrowest street in Riga, and it feels like travelling back in time and visiting a Medieval street. On both ends of the street you can find a beer garden and a medieval restaurant.
Following Pils Street, you'll come across Our Lady of Sorrows Church, a small Roman Catholic church that is worth a visit.
Just behind it, I reached Riga Castle, founded in the 14th century. It has served as a fortress for centuries, but nowadays it is the official residence of the president of Latvia, and it also houses several museums. I didn't get inside any of them, but the external walls and gardens were filled with candles to commemorate the recent anniversary of the end of the World War I, which made the visit quite special.
Just a few minutes away from the Castle is another symbol of Riga, the Three Brothers.
The Three Brothers is a complex of three houses built together that have the record of being the oldest medieval complex of dwelling houses in Riga. Each of them represents a different period of development, which gives them a totally different style and external decoration.
Right across the street is the Latvian Parliament or Saeima, and next to it you'll find St. James's Cathedral, built in 1225. Originally, it was just a chapel that later became the second Lutheran church in Riga holding services in German. It was finally converted into a Catholic church.
Following the beautiful pebble streets towards the north end of the Old Town, I reached the City Walls and the Swedish Gate. This is the oldest remaining of the fortification that once protected the city.
The Swedish Gate, built in the 18th century to celebrate Sweden's occupation of Riga, is the only original entrance gate to the Old Town still remaining.
Another reminder of the old protective walls is the Powder Tower, originally a part of the protective system of Riga. From the 17th century, it was used to keep powder, period from where it gained its current name.
Today, it holds the Latvian War Museum, a military museum that reveals the military and political history of Latvia, focusing on the 20th century. The visit is free of charge, and actually quite interested if you're interested in the World War I and II.
Livu Square was one of my favourite spots in Riga.
Located at the edge of the Old Town, this square was totally destroyed during World War II. Thankfully, it was reconstructed and today is one of the most beautiful squares in Riga.
I finished my first day in Riga visiting another of the main symbols of the city, the Freedom Monument. The monument was funded thanks to the donations of local residents that wanted to construct a memorial of those who died during Latvia's fight for independence.
It represents a woman holding three stars above her head, symbolising the historic three provinces of Latvia. This monument is one of the best examples of the stormy recent past of Latvia. The street where it is located, originally called Freedom Street, was renamed Adolf Hitler Straße during the German occupation, Lenin Street after the Soviets took the country, and it finally got back the name of Freedom Street in the 90s when Latvia became an independent country.
Day 2: Riga's Art Nouveau district and museums
My first day gave me plenty of time to enjoy the Old Town; the whole area is not that big after all. During my second day in the city, I decided to go a bit further outside the city centre and visit the Art Nouveau buildings of Riga, one of the main factors that made the city a Unesco World Heritage Site.
I started the day going to Riga's Central Market, located literally across my hotel. It's not only one of the largest markets in Europe, but apparently also one of the most visited with around 100,000 people shopping in there every day. If you'd like to buy or just try some local food, this is your place!
I also took the opportunity to visit the old Jewish Ghetto, located just a few minutes away from there. There's almost nothing left, but if you're interested in Jewish history, you can visit the Ghetto and Latvia Holocaust Museum.
The exhibition is quite small and it displays the name of over 70,000 Jews victims of the Holocaust, as well as a photo exhibition focused in the Holocaust in Latvia. There is no entrance fee, but you need to give a small donation.
On my way to the Art Nouveau district, I passed next to the Latvian Academy of Science, a 107 meter high building in a Stalinist style very similar to the 7 Sisters of Moscow or the Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw.
Apparently, there are very nice views of the Old Town from the top, but I was happy enough with the panoramic views that I got in St. Peter's Church, so I didn't go up.
I also stopped at the Nativity of Christ Orthodox Cathedral of Riga. Built in the 19th century, when the country was still part of the Russian Empire, it is the biggest Orthodox cathedral in all the Baltic countries.
Converted into a Lutheran church during the German occupation, and into a planetarium and restaurant by the Soviets, it was restored after the fall of the Soviet Union and today it works again as a church. The interior is just beautiful, painted in blue and depicting images from the Bible. It somewhat reminded me of the Church of the Saviour on Blood in St. Petersburg. Unfortunately, photography is not allowed inside.
Even though Riga is filled with Art Nouveau buildings and decoration, all the main highlights are located around Elizabetes iela and Alberta iela.
Over a third of Riga's buildings have Art Nouveau decoration. The main reason why so many buildings using this style were constructed is that Art Nouveau was at its height in popularity at the same time that Riga experienced an economic boom in the late 19th century. As it grew, the city started expanding beyond the Old Town, and it used the most popular style of the time for the facades of these new buildings. This has made Riga the city with the highest number of Art Nouveau architecture in the world.
I kept the rest of the afternoon to visit some of Riga's museums in order to learn a bit more about the interesting history of this country. My first stop was the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia, which tells the struggle and suffering of the country during both the German and Soviet occupation.
I made the mistake of trusting my map and I expected to find the museum in the Old Town right next to the Blackheads House, like it said everywhere... well, apparently the museum is currently under renovations, and the exhibition has been moved to a building in Raina bulvaris 7, not too far from the Freedom Monument. Make sure to double check the location before heading to the totally opposite direction.
Entrance to the museum is by donation, and the visit is highly recommended. In 1939, after the pact between the Nazis and the Soviets to divide Eastern Europe, Latvia fell under the influence of the Germans. The country was then occupied by the Soviets between 1940-41, then again by the Germans between 1941-45, and there was a second Soviet occupation between 1944 up until 1991, when Latvia finally gained independence.
The museum includes photographs from those times, as well as very touching video testimonies from Latvian citizens that were deported to Siberia by the Soviets due to political reasons.
After spending a couple of hours in the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia, I visited the former KGB building of Riga. The exhibit is free of charge, and you can also take a guided tour of the hallways, cells, cellar and exercise yard for only €5. Unfortunately, the timing of the English tours didn't work for us, so I only visit the main exhibition.
The Soviet regime was supported by a secret policed called Cheka. In the fall of 1940, the Cheka was moved to a building in the corner of Stabu and Brivabas Street where the museum is today.
Arrests of Latvian citizens began that same year, affecting mainly state officials, police and staff of the State Security Administrator, as well as members of right-oriented national organisations. The exhibition covers these years of repression, and tells the story of many of those Latvians that were arrested, tortured and in many occasions executed in this building.
With not too much time left before having to head to the airport, I went back to the Old Town to visit Peitav-Shul Synagogue, the only synagogue in Riga that survived the Holocaust. During the German occupation, all synagogues in Riga were burned down. This one was the only one saved due to its location: since it was right in the middle of the Old Town, Germans were afraid that the fire could spread to other houses.
The synagogue is still active and used today, and you can visit for only €3. The building is a bit hidden in between some narrow streets, so not too many tourists are aware of this hidden gem. In fact, I was the only one inside. The building is another example of Art Nouveau, with an interior decorated with ornaments and elements from the ancient Egypt and Babylon. I absolutely loved the synagogue and I'd highly recommend you to spend a few minutes inside.
I couldn't leave Riga without seeing the Cat House. I totally missed it the first day, so I went back to Livu Square just to see this curious house. The building, of course constructed in an Art Nouveau style, takes its name from the two cat sculptures on its roof.
It also comes with a legend. Apparently, the man who commissioned the house was a wealthy merchant that wanted a state house in the same square where Riga's Great Guild was located. The Great Guild was a German organisation that controlled the business in the city and, as the powerful businessman that he was, this merchant of course wanted to be part of the guild, but was refused entry. As a revenge, he commissioned two statues of black cats with their backs arched and the tail up in the air, so that they would point their backside at the guild.
Overall, Riga was a great introduction to the Baltic region. The Old Town is one of the most beautiful medieval towns that I've visited so far, and the mixture with Art Nouveau decoration make it a very unique place.
Before my visit, I wasn't really aware of the very interesting history of Latvia, so I can't wait to discover more about this region in the near future!
Where to eat in Riga
During my visit, there were a couple of restaurants that I loved and that you shouldn't miss.
The first one is the Lido chain of restaurants, an institution in the city, especially among tourists. They have multiple restaurants in Riga; I ate in the one located right in the middle of the Old Town. They serve traditional Latvian food in a buffet style, and it's just delicious! They have a great selection of local dishes, grilled meat and fish, salad, and desserts. The interior is beautifully decorated as a traditional Latvian country house made of wood. Prices are quite cheap, so it's definitely a great choice if you want to try some local cuisine.
My second recommendation is Ribs & Rock Grill, also located in the Old Town, specifically in Kalku street. A bit more pricey than Lido, it specialises in barbeque and rib dishes. We tried the steak and their speciality burger and it was one of the best meals I had in Riga! I also loved the ambience and decoration inside; you will find electric guitars and vinyl records all over the walls, as well as some of the best rock classics playing while you eat. The staff couldn't have been any kinder; in general one of the best experiences that we had in Latvia, so give it a try if you have the chance!