City Guide: Riga – Latvia’s Architectural Wonderland

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Capital of Latvia and 2014 Capital of Culture, Riga is renowned for its architecture and deep, rich history. Founded in 1201, the city has been ruled by the Polish, Swedes, Russians and Germans – and has an intriguing culture to match its fascinating history.

The mesmerising city is located on the Gulf of Riga in the Baltic sea. Positioned at the mouth of the Daugava river, Riga played an important part in international trade between European countries in medieval times. And with transport links to Moscow as well as south to Lithuania and Poland, the city is often considered the crossroads between Northern and Eastern Europe.

With its 2014 culture title, it’s clear the city has something special to offer. Riga’s historic centre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, famous for its incredible Art Nouveau and 19th century wooden architecture.

But it’s also a city that’s moving forward like no other. Riga has been named Europe’s capital of Wi-Fi – as you might spot on road signs entering the city – because of its abundance of free wireless internet spots across the city.

And while it’s always advisable to plan ahead when exploring new cities, this is even more essential in the Baltics’ biggest city. Finding out the must-sees, must-dos and must-eats is a necessity if you want to get the most out of your visit. Our guide will provide you with all of this and more, to make sure your time in the beautiful Baltic gem is as incredible as the city itself.

Riga Schwarzhäupterhaus

Getting Around Riga

Like most European cities, the different districts of Riga are well connected by public transport. Nine tram lines cover most of the city, with 19 trolleybus routes and over 400 buses catering for everywhere in between. Transport is run centrally by Riga City Council’s Rīgas Satiksme, meaning that all day tickets – available at 5 Euros – can get you a full day of transport on all these services. Tickets are available across the city at sales points, or can be bought on-board – although this does cost more.

With most of the best bits located in the old town, you might be able to get away with tackling Riga on foot. However, there are certain districts like the Art Nouveau area that – if you want to get full Riga experience – will be best reached by hopping on a tram or trolley.

Panorama of Riga

Another option when it comes to transport is on the Daugava itself. The river runs right through the centre of Riga, meaning its great if you just want to sit back and take in the sites. It doesn’t offer quite the same hop-on, hop-off freedom of the transport on land, but it’s an experience in itself, taking in the incredible views as you sail down one of Europe’s most notable rivers. On an hour-long river tour, usually costing less than 10 euros, you will also get the best possible view of Riga’s several unique bridges – Shroud, Railway, Stone and South. South bridge is the most expensive bridge in Europe, while Railway bridge was rebuilt twice after both world wars in the 20th century.

What to See and What to Do

Number one on everyone’s list in Riga should be the architecture. It’s unlike anything you can see elsewhere. Start in the old town. The House of Blackheads is Riga’s most iconic structure. Built in the 1400s as a venue for public meetings or banquets, the Latvian landmark was bombed to ruins in 1941 and rebuilt in the 1990s. It didn’t always have the same enigmatic name though. The Blackheads were a group of craftsmen, merchants and caterers who formed a brotherhood. Strengthening through the generations, the Brotherhood of the Blackheads eventually took tenancy of the building in the 17th century.

Just next to the House of Blackheads is the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia. The museum takes visitors through the periods of occupation by Nazis and Soviets during and after World War Two. Latvia and its people suffered considerably during the Nazi regime, but the Soviet occupation following the war was a far longer, drawn out struggle to regain independence. Their story is both moving and intriguing, with tributes to those who were forced to flee the country.

Just a short walk down the Kaļķu Iela is the Latvian Freedom Monument. Honouring the soldiers who died in Latvia’s 1918-1920 war of independence, the monument was a symbol of independence even during the lengthy Soviet occupation years later. Its design is something you have to see in person, with spectacular depictions of Latvian culture and history as well as references to the battle itself.

Bastejkalna Parks

Surrounding the momument is Bastejkalna Park, one of Riga’s many beautiful parks. With a small canal, the park even has its very own ‘love lock’ bridge, where couples attach a lock to ‘secure’ their love. If you have time, it’s definitely worth taking a boat ride here or in Vērmanes Garden, just a stone’s throw away. Just outside Vērmanes you’ll find the centre of Riga, where there are a mixture of big brands and local Latvian stores. A great place if you love to shop.

Some of Riga’s best architecture is in the churches. The Nativity of Christ Cathedral, with its stunning Neo-Byzantine architecture, is the biggest church in Riga. Elsewhere, St. Peter’s Church is known for its impressive 72 metre spire, which has been transformed into an observation tower for tourists. For less than 10 euros, the tower is a great way to take in the views of the city.

Next on the list is the Art Nouveau area. Over a third of Riga’s buildings have been built in this style, but the best collection is along Albert Street to the north of the old town. On this street, along with some spectacularly designed buildings, you’ll find the Riga Art Nouveau Museum. Based in the old apartment of Latvian architect Konstantīns Pēkšēns, it’s a great way to find out the story behind the movement and see the impressive, authentic Art Nouveau interior in person.

A Hearty Culinary Feast

If it’s food you’re after, be sure to head to Riga’s Central Market. Built in the 1920s using former German aircraft hangars, the market is situated on the Daugava river just by the famous old town. It’s Europe’s biggest market at over 72,000 square metres, with five food pavilions – vegetables, dairy, meat, fish and gastronomy – offering a range of wonderful Latvian delicacies.

Latvian cuisine is simple but effective. High in fat, but high in satisfaction. At the central market, you can check out the huge range of fresh meats typical of Latvian cooking, with some particularly intriguing cuts of their most popular meat – pork.

While you’re there, you should definitely treat yourself to some Belash – Latvia’s speciality meat pies – and try some black rye bread. Known as rupjmaize, this bread is a Latvian staple and as such it can be found all around Riga along with the incredible smoked fish.

Riga Central Market smoked fish variety

Produced in Latvia for hundreds of years, rye is a big part of Latvian fare. So much so, in fact, that there is a drink made from it. Kvass is a fermented drink made from rye bread, and even though it’s an acquired taste – your trip wouldn’t be completed without sampling its unique flavour.

As well as kvass, Riga is renowned for its robust liqueur Riga Black Balsam. Traditionally stronger than vodka, it is served alone, on the rocks, and in a number of blends and cocktails. You might also find it being added to tea, coffee and even ice cream. Its flavour is a blend of bitter and sweet like no other.

If you want somewhere to indulge in Riga’s hearty culinary delights with a bit less hustle and bustle, LIDO is a chain of Latvian restaurants founded in Riga. With a number of branches in the city centre, it’s a great place to fuel up on authentic food that won’t break the bank.

Local Knowledge

While many people choose the short Baltic summer and late spring to visit Riga, it’s a great place to visit in the autumn and winter. With summer you get more daylight, but in winter you’re in for a more authentic Baltic experience. There’s no unpredictability with the winter weather – it will be cold, but you can easily prepare for it. As long as you’re wrapped up well, the frosty conditions are enjoyable and even add a magical layer to the stunning architecture of the old town. Nowhere looks better in winter than a beautiful medieval city.

Whether you prefer summer city breaks or romantic winter getaways, Cruise1st have a range of great options that cater for all needs when it comes to visiting this wonderful Baltic treasure. Our packages combine visits to Riga with other great Baltic and Scandinavian destinations. Check out our vast selection of cruise deals or call us on 0808 163 1115 for more information.

Image Credits: TausP, Sjaak Kempe, CurryStrumpetAndrey UpadyshevKārlis Dambrāns

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City Guide: Riga – Latvia’s Architectural Wonderland
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City Guide: Riga – Latvia’s Architectural Wonderland
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As the 2014 Capital of Culture, Riga is renowned for its architecture and rich history. Find out everything you need to know for a stop-off at this mesmerising city in the Baltic Sea.
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Cruise1st
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Claire Wilde

Claire has worked in the travel industry since leaving college in 1994. One of this blog's most regular contributors, Claire covers cruise news and industry trends.

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