Between Estonia and Lithuania lies the Baltic country of Latvia. It has a medieval old town, several museums and decent nightlife. The ‘Paris of the North’ was the European Capital of Culture in 2014. The country’s flag remains unchanged since 1280 and only the Danish flag is older. Another claim to fame is the inventor of jeans was Latvian. Read our guide on how to spend 24 hours in Riga.
Airline: Wizz Air from London Luton (LTN) to Riga International Airport (RIX). From £60, return.
To the city: Take bus 28 to the city. The bus timetable is here.
Cost: 1.15€ (Adult single) for the bus or take a minibus for 5€ (Adult single).
Journey time to centre: 25 minutes.
Need to know
Visa: From 1st January 2021, UK residents can visit Riga for 90 days maximum in any 180 day period.
Travel: See the FCDO website.
Currency: Euro (£1 = €1.11 approximately).
Language: Latvian and Russian. English is understood.
Best time to visit: May to September.
Time: GMT +2.
First Impressions of Riga
- Relatively quiet, even at weekends with few people around.
- The old town spans the entire city.
- Lots of pastel-coloured buildings everywhere.
24 hours in Riga
- St Peter’s Church – €8 (Adult) for church, exhibitions and tower.
- St John’s Church – Free.
- House of the Blackheads – €6 (Adult).
- Old City Riga (Vecriga) including Rātslaukums & Riga City Hall – Free.
- Cat House – Free.
- Livu Square – Free.
- Riga Cathedral – €3 (Adult).
- Dome Square – Free.
- Three Brothers – Free.
- Latvian National Opera – Free (from the outside).
- The Freedom Monument – Free.
- Powder Tower – Free (as part of the War Museum).
- Swedish Gate – Free.
St Peter’s Church (Pēter Baznīca)
The church dates back to 1209 and is a mix of Gothic and Romanesque. There is a rooster on top of the steeple. Although it appears tiny from ground level, it weighs 160 kilograms. It is a vigilant defender against evil and his morning song drives away all bad things.
The tower offers excellent views across Riga’s old town, and behind the church is a sculpture of four animals, a donkey, dog, cat and rooster, all perched upon each other. This is a popular spot with tourists.
St John’s Church (Jāna Baznīca)
This distinctive buiding is a Lutheran church from 1297 where legend dictates that two monks living here were imprisoned and bricked into the walls after their death. The church is dedicated to John The Baptist, and although an active place of worship, is open to visitors.
House of the Blackheads (Melngalvju Nams)
Constructed in 1334, it is one of the showpieces of architecture in Riga. It has undergone reconstruction several times, most recently in the 1990s. European royalty attended parties, banquets and feasts in years gone by, often in disguise. It is now a museum and has links to the Freemasons society.
Old City Riga (Vecriga)
Off the main square are narrow and crooked cobblestone streets lined with buildings of various architectural styles. According to Tripadvisor, wandering the cobbled streets is one of the top things to do in Riga. Early Soviet filming of Sherlock Holmes, circa 1979, took place at Jauniela Street, which runs alongside Riga Cathedral and doubled as ‘Baker Street’ in the TV series.
Cat House (Kaku Māja)
This art-nouveau building from 1909 in the old town area is famous for two cat sculptures with raised tails. A court case ensued to have these cats turned around to face the Guildhouse, which the city lost.
Once the site of the Riga River, this lively square is now the place for restaurants and other buildings such as the Cat House, Philharmonic Building and the Guild House.
Riga Cathedral (Doma Baznīca)
The cathedral is the largest place of worship in the Baltics, with walls 2 metres thick and an organ with nearly 7,000 pipes and one of the biggest in Europe. This is not obvious from the outside as the church is unassuming. The Cathedral Square is lower than the church’s base, indicating how the city’s level has risen in the preceding eight centuries.
The seven streets leading from the square converge here, deemed as the heart of the city. Several buildings with striking architecture surround the square, including the only Neo-classicism-style building with the balcony of Riga Commercial Bank, now housing the Latvian Radio.
The Three Brothers
Given the name, one might expect a statue, perhaps of three men. In reality, it is three adjacent, pastel-coloured houses. They form the oldest dwellings in Riga, dating from the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. Their house numbers are odd, namely numbers 17, 19 and 21 Maza Pils Street. Three men from the same family built the houses and often referred the oldest, middle, and youngest brothers.
Latvian National Opera
A 19th-century Neo-classical theatre and home to the National Opera & Ballet companies. Sitting in a park alongside the Pilsētas Kanāls, quirky sculptures exist such as Piemineklis Džordžam Armitstedam (A man, woman and dog), and Māris Liepa Monument (Lady in ballet pose).
The Love Lock Bridge is where lovers hope to find love by attaching a padlock to the bridge, and as a result, it is covered in thousands of locks.
The Freedom Monument
Erected in 1935, it symbolises Latvia’s freedom, independence, and sovereignty. At the top of the monument, there is a statue of Milda, a symbolic feminine Latvian image. She holds three stars representing the three regions of Latvia that existed during the first republic.
This was part of Riga’s defensive strategy, originally built in 1330 as a gunpowder store. Now it houses the war museum. The tower is only 25m (82ft) high, but the walls are 3m (9.8ft) thick.
Riga’s medieval city walls had eight gates or entrances. Today only the Swedish Gate provides access to Jacob’s Barracks from the Old City.
The local executioner lived in a house above the Swedish Gate, and at the time, a red rose would appear on the window ledge of the person next in line for execution.
One of Riga old town’s most colourful and narrow streets, Trokšņu iela is accessed by passing through the gate. In the 19th century, it became the haunt of prostitutes. At that time, clapping your hands on the street would bring women to the windows above, beckoning you to enter.
Why not try?
For foodies, visiting the local market to try authentic Latvian food such as meats, fish, local fermented vegetables, and sweets is a change of scene from the Art-Nouveau architecture. The Motor Museum houses 100 vintage, unique cars and motorcycles. Finally, like most cities under Communist occupation, there is a KGB Museum that people find fascinating. Know as the Corner House, in appearance is more like a residential apartment block.
There is plenty to see for a small, compact city, with decent bars, museums and culture, a charming old town plus opera and ballet. The people are friendly, navigating the city is easy and cheap.
Although still relatively undiscovered, during summer, it gets busy, but like the other Baltic countries, the temperature drops in winter. Twilight is near midnight and by 4am, it becomes light again, and people make the most of this time.
Spending 24 hours in Riga is enough to see the main sights. The airport is close to the city, so that is a bonus, and it is worth a weekend visit, or perhaps longer if time permits. Potential days trips include Sigula and Gauja Valley, Jūrmala.
More information – 24 hours in Riga
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