I always like to say that Latvia is more than just Riga. There is plenty to see outside the city, especially if you have more than a weekend. Beautiful evergreen forests, white sand beaches, lots of lakes in which to take a refreshing dip, and lovely red-roofed towns wound through with cobblestone streets, to begin with. But if you have just forty-eight hours for Latvia, Riga is a wonderful place to explore. This weekend guide will get you going.
Start your morning by exploring vibrant Old Town Riga and head to the House of the Blackheads. The House of the Blackheads was built in the 14th century and belonged to the Guild of Unmarried Merchants. Nowadays, it is used for holding prestigious balls and other events. Take in the Baroque, Renaissance, Classical, and Art Nouveau architecture on display and keep your camera ready; this is one of the most iconic sights of Old Riga.
Afterward, wander through Old Riga and enjoy the 800-year-old city with its cobblestone streets, colorful houses, red roofs, and steepled church towers as you walk to the building complex called the Three Brothers. Each of these three buildings represents a different century and architectural style: the 15th, 17th, and 18th centuries, designed in the Gothic, Dutch Mannerist, and Baroque styles. (As a side note, if you want to find the Three Sisters, you’ll need to travel beyond Riga all the way to Tallinn, Estonia.) After enjoying the Three Brothers, head to the Riga Dome Cathedral for a spectacular view of the biggest medieval church in the Baltic States. The Dome Cathedral represents a dizzying mix of Romanesque, Gothic, and Baroque architecture.
Stroll down to the Cat House to spot the two black cats on the roof and end your Old Riga tour with a great view of Riga from St. Peter’s church, once the tallest wooden building in Europe.
After taking in the stunning city panorama, stroll out of Old Riga and make your way to the Freedom Monument, one of the most important Latvian landmarks. The woman holding the three gold stars (which represent three areas of Latvia) is called Milda. This monument was fully financed by public donations.
Look right and you will see Opera Square. Latvians are true lovers of theatre, ballet, and opera. Many of them hold annual memberships, and the locals love to dress up when going to the opera.
After visiting Opera Square, explore great Art Noveau architecture in the Art Noveau district. Although Art Noveau architecture can be seen throughout Riga, this district offers the highest concentration and finest examples of Art Noveau buildings in the city. Search for ”Alberta Street” in Google Maps to get started.
True lovers of Art Noveau architecture may want to take the opportunity to learn more about the style by immersing themselves in a vintage apartment in Riga’s Art Noveau Museum. Or just head to the divine Art Café Sienna, one of my all-time favorites. The Art Noveau furniture, fashion magazines, and fine china combine with a great selection of teas, coffee, and desserts to make a wonderful atmosphere. The café is a bit pricey, but the stunning interior and delicious treats make up for it, especially since all the desserts are made from organic, whole-food ingredients without any preservatives or artificial colors.
If you feel hungry, enjoy a late lunch at Restaurant Ferma. Their slogan, ”Bring nature into the restaurant,” perfectly describes their menu, and the interior strikes a beautiful balance between functional modernism and Art Deco elements. Head chef Maris Astics and his team have made sure that each dish is the manifestation of Latvian heritage, with seasonal, local ingredients.
Before a late dinner, catch an opera or ballet at the Latvian National Opera, home to many talented artists including the world-famous Latvian opera singer Elina Garanca. One of the reasons why so many Rigans enjoy a rich cultural life is because the tickets are very affordable. Ticket prices range from 9 EUR to 55 EUR each and can be booked at https://www.opera.lv/en/.
As the day softens into golden dusk, head over to Entresol. This is one of the most beloved restaurants in Riga, with an exquisite interior, unforgettable atmosphere, local products, and delicious small plate dishes. I highly recommend their “knapas,” which are small plates similar to tapas and inspired by the Latvian word knaps, meaning little. Enjoy two or three knapas as appetizers and then continue with the seasonally-inspired main dish. Ask the staff for a wine recommendation or try Latvian kvass, a slightly sweet non-alcoholic drink made of rye and barley.
When it comes to getting to know a new country, there are four things that I usually try to learn about: people, food, art, and architecture. After day one, you have a sense of how Riga’s architecture is a mix of beautiful Art Noveau buildings, wooden houses, and the blockhouses outside the city center that serve as a reminder of Soviet times. Now it is time to learn about Latvian art. There is no better place to do that than the National Museum of Art. I especially like the way this museum enables visitors to learn about the everyday life of Latvians throughout the centuries. The artwork is displayed without glass coverings so that you can look at each work closely, without barriers. Paintings depict the natural landscape, the peasant way of life in the countryside, wars, and the life of the rich in cities. Traveling the halls of the museum, you feel as though you are moving through time. Pay special attention to the most famous Latvian painters: Vilhelms Purvitis, Janis Rozentals, and Karlis Padegs.
After your trip to the National Museum of Art, you deserve a coffee break. Here, I have two places to suggest. Herbārijs is a café/bar in a tall, greenhouse-like glass building on the rooftop of the shopping center Galerija Riga. I love its contemporary, chic, black-and-white interior accented with vibrant greens. You also can choose to have your coffee outside on the terrace with a charming view of the roofs of Riga. Herbārijs has a friendly, welcoming staff, and they serve delicious coffee, unique cocktails, and a mostly plant-based menu.
My other suggestion is Skyline Bar on the twenty-sixth floor of Radisson Hotel Latvija. Although I like the interior and atmosphere better in Herbārijs, I have to admit that the view from Skyline bar is better, and both their coffee and cocktails are good. They also serve some snacks. It’s your call, but you can’t go wrong with either one.
Now it is time to find a souvenir. Plenty of touristy souvenir shops can be found across the city, but if you are looking for something more sophisticated, I know just the right two places. Bold Concept is the biggest design concept store in the Baltic States. Even if you are not planning to buy anything, it is interesting to see what Latvian designers are creating. Another place worth a visit is the design shop and cafeteria Pienene. Here you can get lots of good souvenirs starting with organic cosmetics, textiles, clothing, home accessories, and jewelry, and ending with iconic RIGA T-shirts. If you want to spend more time shopping, try Galerija Centrs shopping center in Old Riga or Galerija Riga (where the café Herbārijs is located).
When you are done burning calories shopping, head to the Riga Central Market. The market is situated in five different pavilions that used to be old hangars for Zeppelin air vessels and airplanes. Now each hangar houses a different category of products: meat, dairy, vegetables, fish, and gastronomy. In the gastronomy hangar, you can find about twenty food stalls serving up everything from local food to pizzas, ramen noodles to sushi. This is one of the largest markets in Europe, very popular among locals and visited every day by up to 100,000 people. This is a must for all food lovers because of the authentic food and wonderful shopping…or you can just walk around and enjoy the bustling atmosphere.
From Riga Central Market, you are about an eight-minute walk away from the Old Town area, which is good because there is one last thing you should definitely try while in Riga: Riga Black Balsam. When I moved to Copenhagen, I was pleasantly surprised at how many people kept telling me how they loved Riga Black Balsam and requesting that I bring it back from home. Riga Black Balsam is a traditional herbal liqueur made from twenty-four natural ingredients. It’s been brewed since 1752 and its recipe is still a secret. I always knew it was good, but I never knew how famous it was abroad. But it is, and for good reason. Riga Black Balsam has won more than one hundred awards. Although it’s wonderful plain, in recent years it’s become very popular as a new twist on classic cocktails. For example, Black Balsam in a mojito transforms it into the delicious Black Mojito. My favorite Black Balsam flavor, however, is black currant. One of the best places to taste Riga Black Balsam is Black Magic Bar, a quirky and cozy place that serves both drinks and delicious chocolates. (As always, remember to drink responsibly.)
Now it is probably time for dinner. In Old Riga, there are two lovely places I can suggest. One of them is Muusu, which means Ours in Latvian. The name is spot-on for this cozy, intimate place. Although it is a touristy location, the food served is definitely not touristy. The meals are exceptional, the wine list is decent, the staff is professional, and the interior is simply beautiful.
Another place I personally love is 3 pavāru restorāns, also located in Old Riga. The staff here is absolutely outstanding and attentive. They serve creative, local food with deep flavors and innovative twists. Food presentation is another reason to visit this place. I took my husband to this restaurant for his name day, and the waiter brought us a surprise dry-ice-infused dessert for the occasion. Not only a nice gesture but quite a show, too! That’s service!
I hope you enjoyed my article. See you in Riga!
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