Home to over a third of the nation’s population, Riga is both the capital and largest city in Latvia. One of the most important administrative, financial, and cultural centers in the Baltics, the city lies on the Gulf of Riga with the Daugava River running through it.
Due to its strategic and scenic setting, the city has been ruled by everyone from the Swedes and Poles to the Soviet Union throughout its history. As such, the former member of the Hanseatic League has a fascinating past for you to delve into, with lots of impressive historic sights to discover. Besides its magnificent medieval Old Town, which is where you can find many of its main attractions, the city boasts the highest number of Art Nouveau buildings in the world. With trendy bars, cool cafes, and fantastic restaurants all on offer, and the nearby beaches at Jurmala for you to enjoy, Riga really does have it all.
12. Musee Art Nouveau
With so many elegant and elaborately decorated Art Nouveau buildings scattered around town, it is well worth heading to this brilliant museum to see what one of them looks like on the inside. Designed by Konstantins Peksens, who also lived in it, the building was built back in 1903 at the height of the Art Nouveau movement.
While its beautiful facade features lots of floral motifs and ornamental reliefs, its interior is no less spectacular. Restored to its former glory, the rooms all exhibit furniture, decorations, and period pieces from that epoch, as well as lots of lovely paintings and stained glass windows. The undoubted highlight, however, is its exquisite spiral staircase which runs through the building.
In addition to all of this, there is a great exhibition for you to peruse on Art Nouveau art, architecture, and design in Riga.
11. Latvian Academy of Sciences
Towering to 103 meters tall, the Latvian Academy of Sciences dominates the city’s skyline and is a rather unwelcome remnant and reminder of Soviet rule. Built between 1951 and 1961, the Stalinist-style skyscraper’s construction was financed through ‘voluntary donations’ from local Latvians.
Nicknamed both ‘Stalin’s birthday cake’ and ‘the Kremlin,’ the imposing building is decorated with Communist symbol hammer and sickles, as well as Latvian folk motifs. The main reason for visiting, however, is for its wonderful Observation Deck on floor 17, which offers breathtaking views of Riga and its surroundings.
10. St. Peter’s Church
Another very recognizable landmark and prominent feature of the city’s skyline is the 123-meter spindly spire and steeple that towers above St. Peter’s Church. Set in the heart of the Old Town, it is from this steeple that you can enjoy the best views of the city’s ancient streets below.
While the view is spectacular, the church itself is just as worthwhile visiting; it is actually one of the oldest buildings in the whole of the Baltics. Built between the 13th and 17th centuries, the marvelous red brick building exhibits a wide range of architectural styles, with Baroque, Gothic, and Romanesque elements on display. Quite austere and unembellished inside, St. Peter’s Church is located just a short walk away from many of the city’s most important sights.
9. Freedom Monument
Erected in 1935, the Freedom Monument commemorates those who lost their lives during the Latvian War of Independence and symbolizes the country’s sovereignty and independence. While the Liberty figure that tops the 42-meter high monument is liable to draw most people’s attention, it is the bas-reliefs at the bottom that are of the most interest.
This is because the intricately-carved sculptures depict various scenes from Latvian history and culture. Although the Soviets considered destroying it, the epic-looking Freedom Monument thankfully still stands before us today.
8. Riga Cathedral
The largest medieval church in the whole of the Baltics, Riga Cathedral is one of the most recognizable landmarks in not only the capital but the country at large. Built in 1211, it exhibits some delightful Baroque, Gothic, and Romanesque architecture, with Hanseatic features also included here and there.
While the ‘Dome Cathedral,’ as it is known, boasts a great tower and weather vane, its main attractions are found inside. Its pipe organ, for instance, has a staggering 6768 pipes to it, while ornate tombs and a fabulously carved pulpit can be found around the nave.
7. Museum of the Occupation of Latvia
A very somber and harrowing place to visit, the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia looks at a dark and tragic part of the country’s history. Between 1940 and 1991, Latvia was occupied by the Soviet Union, with Nazi Germany also ruling the country between 1941 and 1944. These years saw not only the torture and interrogation of Latvian Nationalists before they were sent to the Gulags, but also the deportation and then extermination of its Jewish population.
Opened in 1993, the museum’s extensive collection of artifacts, photos, and documents sheds light on the atrocities that took place in Latvia and the actions of the brave people who resisted both totalitarian regimes.
6. Alberta Iela
Named after Bishop Albert, who is said to have founded Riga all the way back in 1201, this pretty and picturesque street is home to many of the city’s most impressive Art Nouveau buildings. Mostly erected between 1901 and 1908, the houses exhibit some stunning designs, with floral motifs, sculptures, and mythological figures dotting their facades.
While many of them were designed by Mikhail Eisenstein, others, such as the Musee Art Nouveau, are by Konstantins Peksens. With many of them now listed as state monuments, it is well worth ambling slowly along Alberta Iela and taking in all the magnificent art and architecture.
5. KGB Building
Also known as ‘the Corner House,’ it is here in this unassuming building that the KGB once had their headquarters. Once a symbol of oppression, occupation, and terror, it now houses a number of exhibitions and displays on the brutal Soviet state apparatus.
To learn about the KGB’s workings, visitors can take a tour of its basement prison cells to see where opponents of the regime were imprisoned, interrogated, and executed. While the content makes for uncomfortable viewing, a visit to the KGB Building is a must for the invaluable insight it offers into Latvia’s troubled past.
4. Town Hall Square
Although it was destroyed during WWII, it is almost impossible to tell, as Town Hall Square has been painstakingly reconstructed and now appears as it did centuries ago. Dominated by the gorgeous House of the Black Heads that lines one side of it, the square is very spacious. At its heart lies a wonderful statue of Roland – a mythological knight.
This same figure can be found in various cities because, in medieval times, it indicated that a place was free and enjoyed certain privileges. While most of the square’s buildings are very pretty and quaint, the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia certainly stands out somewhat as it is located in a rather ugly Soviet-era building. Besides this, there is lots of lovely architecture and a lively atmosphere for you to take in.
3. Central Market
Housed in a cavernous series of pavilions which were once German Zeppelin hangars, Riga’s Central Market bustles with life and is loads of fun to explore. Each section has its own specialty; while one sells meat and fish, another will be home to rows upon rows of fruit and vegetable stands.
In addition to this, it is also a great place to pick up some local delicacies or hand-crafted souvenirs. While exploring its many delights, make sure to keep an eye out for the fantastic Art Deco and Neoclassist architecture on show all around you. Opened in 1930, Riga’s Central Market is one of the largest and busiest in the whole of Europe.
2. House of the Black Heads
Bombed to smithereens by the Nazis during World War II, the House of the Black Heads was carefully and caringly rebuilt between 1996 and 1999. Now, it appears even more majestic than before, with splendid statues and elaborate embellishments coating its bright red facade. The original building was erected all the way back in the 1330s and used to house unwed merchants and shipowners.
As such, it was an important center of business and trade in the city. These days, you can take a tour of its equally exquisite interior to see its grand ballrooms and learn all about the guild’s power and prestige. Located in Town Hall Square, the House of the Black Heads is undoubtedly the most beautiful building in the whole of Riga.
1. Old City
Located right on the banks of the Daugava River, it is here in the Old City that you will find Riga’s oldest and most impressive buildings, historic sights, and cultural landmarks. Known as Vecriga to locals, the maze of small alleys and cobblestone lanes are fascinating to explore as they lead to centuries-old cathedrals and churches, elegant palaces, and pretty squares.
While many buildings were damaged or destroyed during the Second World War, the vast majority of them thankfully remain in great condition. Tucked away among this mesmerizing array of medieval monuments are lovely little cafes, restaurants, and bars for you to discover. This is, in part, what makes Riga so delightful to visit as old and new mix so seamlessly together in the former Hanseatic City.