If You Like Latvia – Latvia Likes You
Back in 2012 the Latvian Institute and the State Chancellery of Latvia came up with an innovative advertising campaign to make more people aware of their exciting country. “If You Like Latvia – Latvia Likes You” invited visitors to like the country’s Facebook page in exchange for making bread. Every time someone liked their page a wooden log branded with the Like symbol was put into a real Latvian bread oven. When the oven reached the right temperature, loaves of Latvian rye bread were baked and sent to people. Five years later, the campaign continues to find new and exciting ways to raise people’s interest in this special country.
It’s a city that long been on my radar for a visit and thanks to some wonderful Latvian colleagues at work, I went to Riga armed with their list of must-do things. One thing I had already established working with lots of Latvian people is that they are some of the most wonderful and friendly people in the world. I was looking forward to getting to meet some local business owners to feature in the usual From Real People style. So read on and learn more about what to do in Riga.
Our Baltic Adventure
Ever since the 3 Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania regained their independence from Russia in September 1991, tourists have flocked to these wonderful countries in ever increasing numbers. The first stage of our trip to the region started off in the Estonian capital of Tallinn. We then took an awesome tour from Tallinn to Riga. Along the way we stopped in some fantastic places like Viljandi, Valga/ Valka, Cesis before finishing up checking out the bobsleigh track in Sigulda. Our last stop was the Latvian capital. In this post you will get loads of useful information about what to do in Riga.
An Introduction to Latvia
Lativa lies on the Baltic Sea to North East Europe. It’s sandwiched between Estonia to the North and Lithuania to the South. The country was first created in 1918 when it declared independence from Russia at the end of the First World War. Having been reoccupied during the Second World War the country then became part of the USSR. Moves towards independence started with the singing revolution that began in 1987. The Declaration on the Restoration of Independence of the Republic of Latvia took place on the 4th May 1990. Independence was finally restored on 21 August 1991. Since then Latvia and it’s capital city of Riga have become a popular tourist destination. It’s a wonderful city that is really well worth a visit.
Lativa – An Adrenaline Seekers Paradise
Latvians just love high adrenaline sports. Many of their thrill seeking sports stars have made it big on the global stage including 2 times Olympic BMX champion Maris Strombergs and various members from the Luge, Skeleton and Bobsleigh Teams. The most popular sport in Latvia is ice hockey and check out the website of the Dinamo Riga team to see if you can get tickets for one of their matches in the Kontinental Hockey League.
If adrenaline sports are your thing, consider taking a run down the bobsleigh track in Sigulda. There are all sorts of other amazing activities that you can take part in while visiting Lativa. There are some world’s best zip wires and you can also take part in rock climbing, quad biking or even bungee jumping.
Welcome to Riga
Now you know a little more about Latvia it’s time to get down to business and figure out what to do in Riga, it’s capital city. Originally founded back in 1201, about one third of the Latvian population (640,000 people) live in the city. Riga lies on the Daugava River a short distance inland from the sea. The city provides a natural harbour protected from the elements of the Baltic Sea, which is why it was one of the major ports on the Viking trade route to Byzantium.
There’s a lot of history in Riga making it a great place to visit. While it’s a very safe city, one thing to be aware of is that lots of stag and hen parties visit Riga, especially at the weekends. This makes the city centre streets not necessarily the best place to be wandering around with small children on a Friday or Saturday evening. Having said that we never felt unsafe at any time and it certainly shouldn’t put you off.
How to Get to Riga
After independence, tourism slowly began to grow in Latvia. It was in 2004 when low cost airlines started flying to Riga that led to a huge increase in the travel options for getting to Riga. The first option for flying to Riga is with local airline Air Baltic, who fly to a range of destinations across Europe with their swanky new Bombardier C-Series aircraft. The other main options are to fly with Ryanair (East Midlands, Glasgow, Leeds Bradford, London Stansted and Manchester) or Wizz ( Doncaster Sheffield, Liverpool or London Luton.
What to do in Riga
The old city centre of Riga is small enough that you can do most things on foot. We stayed in an apartment on Skolas Iela, a street North East of the Freedom Monument. The location seemed perfect as it was a fairly easy 2 km walk to the furthest point in the old town by the river. It was also less than a km to some of the other attractions like the KGB museum away from the old city. Between old world medieval charm, the river and the city’s Russian heritage there’s a huge range of interesting things to do in Riga. You can even take a trip out to the beach.
#1 – Take the Obligatory Walking Tour to Get Your Bearing
When it comes to visiting new places, I am sadly a creature of habit. Having discovered the joy of walking tours a few years ago, I continue to maintain that perhaps the first thing you should do when you get to any city is to take a walking tour with a local, independent tour company. There are companies in every city that give you the chance to have a local expert give you the low down on their city for not a lot of money.
I find that I enjoy the rest of a trip more after such a tour because I don’t waste time making so many mistakes. In Riga, as recommended by various Latvian friends you should check out E.a.t Riga Tours, which is the brainchild of Jmes, Arturs, Ansis, Agnese and Marcus. They have a fantastic range of really interesting tours, don’t even limit yourself to just one – try them all.
#2 – Visit the Freedom Monument
As we were staying just North West of the old city centre, the Freedom Monument gave us a great sight as we approached the city. The monument was unveiled in 1935 and commemorates the sacrifice of the soldiers in the Latvian War of Independence that took place between 1918 and 1920. During the Soviet occupation after World War II it was threatened with demolition on various occasions but thankfully it survived. Standing an impressive 42 metres high, the monument is important symbol to the people of Latvia and it plays host to many different events and ceremonies. It looks equally as impressive in both daytime and darkness.
#3 – Grab a Coffee and Cakes at the Rocket Bean Roastery
After a walk around the city, it’s nice to take a break and enjoy a coffee at a great local, independent cafe. If you haven’t read any From Real People posts before, the focus of the blog is not just on places but I also like to showcase local businesses and to encourage you spend your money in the local community rather than just lining shareholders pockets. A perfect example is the Rocket Bean Roastery, the perfect stop for coffee, cake and all sorts of other amazing things. The Roastery was established in 2015 by their 2 rocket men, Martins and Aivars. Together with the rest of their team they share a passion for great coffee!
At both the Roastery and the attached main cafe as well as their city centre cafe, they love to pass on the knowledge about speciality coffee to locals and tourists alike. Life is too short for bad coffee . During our trip to Riga we visited both their locations. We had breakfast at the roastery on our last day as well as coffee and cake at the coffee house – both awesome places to stop and support a great local business. Their tips for the best things not to miss in Riga are a visit Laima chocolate museum and to drink some amazing beers at the Alķīmiķi brewery.
#4 – House of the Blackheads
One of the most impressive buildings in Riga is the famous House of the Blackheads. It was originally built back in 1334 as the fraternity house for single German merchants from the Brotherhood of the Blackheads. It might be officially the oldest fraternity house in the world. Sadly the building was destroyed in World War Two and then totally flattened by the Soviet Union in 1948. Thankfully, the blueprints for the building survived and the replica building was completed in 2001 to celebrate Riga’s 800th birthday. In 2017 the building reopened to tourists after renovation of it’s amazing interior, make sure you check it out.
#5 – Enjoy the Local Food in Riga Central Market
If you really want to get a taste of Latvian life then Riga Central Market is the place to visit. The market is situated in reused Zeppelin hangars right next to the River Daugava. The market is housed in the 4 impressive buildings you see in this post’s featured photo making up one of the most amazing indoor spaces in Riga. The market originally opened in 1930 and it has been at the heart of city life ever since.
This amazing space is made up of different pavilions selling vegetables, dairy goods, meat, fish and other groceries. There is also a gastronomical market serving some amazing food as well as a Farmer’s day-and-night market. You can also buy clothes and all sorts of other things from local, independent business in perfect From Real People style. It’s open 7 days a week from between 7 am and 6 pm, depending on the market.
#6 – Climb to the Top of St Peter’s Church and Check Out the View
If you want to find the best views over Riga then the best place to go is the top of St Peter’s Church. Thankfully there’s a lift to whisk you the 130 metres to the top and all for just 9 Euros per person. There’s only one lift so you might have to wait around for a short while but the view from the top really is worth it. The photo in the featured photo for this post was taken with my phone from the top of the Church.
The Church itself dates back to 1209, although the current current Basilica and the tower were only added in the 15th Century. The tower itself has been rebuilt three times since then. Firstly after it collapsed in the 17th Century. Secondly after it was burned down by fire in the 18th Century. Then finally in the 1960s to repair the damage caused during World War Two. The church is also famous for it’s rooster weather vane, which was first installed in the 15th Century. In over 500 years the church has only had 7 Roosters.
#7 – See What’s Happening on the River Daugava – Take a Boat Trip
Riga’s location on the River Daugava means that the water is hive of activities. On the first day of our visit the section of the river between the two main bridges was playing host to speedboat racing. Very exciting indeed, albeit a little on the noisy side. We took a boat tour along the river and enjoyed a relaxing glass of wine in the sun watching the boats race up and down. The tour was a great way to see more of the river and find out more about it’s history and the amazing buildings along it’s banks.
#8 – Get “Lost” – Go on an Adventure in the Alchemy Escape Room
Coming to Riga with teenage children meant we had to offer them something with a level of excitement. We tasked my daughter Lucy with finding something suitable. We have heard a lot about different tourist attractions offering challenge and escape rooms but had never tried one before. Riga has loads of these types of things and Lucy found the Lost Escape Rooms for us to try. This fantastic place is the brainchild of Andris – he’s the guy in the photo. I don’t want to give any of his game away. However, we had an awesome time in the Alchemy room which has something of the Da Vinci Code about it.
#9 – Eat The Best Kebabs in Town at Ausmena
With a love of small independent places to eat it was great to find Ausmena Kebabs just down the road from our apartment. Their cool little restaurant had only been opened for 3 months when we visited but it was crammed full of people, even on a week night. There was a little bit of queue (always a sign of great food) but don’t be put off as their amazing food really is worth the short wait. In the middle of the photo is manager Raivis who is from Rezekne in the South-East of Latvia. There he met Portuguese chef Ruben (on the right) who is from Lisbon. The final member of the team in the photo is Rihards. Together they cook up some real magic in Skolas iela (School Street). It’s a perfect place to stop by for great food in a fun and exciting atmosphere.
#10 – Soak in the Evening Atmosphere – We Found the Copenhagen Showband
In the evenings, the streets of Riga really come alive. We found it so exciting just to wander the streets of the old town and take in the feel of this exciting city. Street performances take place at spots all over the city. During our visit we came across the amazing Copenhagen Showband who were in the middle of their European Road Trip. They gave some amazing performances over the course of a couple of days, we caught up with them 3 times. There were also artists making wonderful pictures and all sorts of other musicians, magicians and other wonderful performers. It was great and cheap way to finish a busy day in Riga.
#11 – Start the Day with Breakfast Donuts from Ze Donuts
We woke up for our second day in Riga with a craving for our morning coffee and something sweet for breakfast. After a quick internet search we stumbled across Ze Donuts in the next street. Lucy and I wandered across to find a perfect little shop with a colourful selection of classic donuts. This fab shop was established by owners Reinis and Guntis with the goal of offering good feelings to the people of Riga. Their donuts are soft, fragrant and delicious with the most colourful toppings imaginable. They encourage people to stop for a moment everyday, enjoy yourself, or, on the contrary, use free wireless internet access to capture a creative spark outside the office. The place has great wifi and the best coffee in town.
#12 – Understand More About Life Under Soviet Occupation at the KGB Museum
The Soviet Occupation of Latvia was a terrible time in the history of Latvia. Throughout this time the Soviet Political Secret Police were much feared by the local population. The home of the Cheka and later the KGB in Riga was the Corner House. The building has now been turned into a museum as a project by the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia. Inside the building you can take guided tours which include the cells, exercise yard and the interrogation rooms. The guides really bring this terrifying place to life and give you an appreciation for life in Riga during this time. The KGB Museum is a 20 minute walk from the city centre and entry costs 5 Euros for adults and 2 Euros for children.
#13 – Take in More History at the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia
If you want to learn more about the history of Latvia during the Soviet occupation you should make some time to visit the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia. The museum also covers the history of the German occupation in the Second World War from 1941. It’s a very special museum with lots of amazing artefacts and exhibits that really bring this part of the country’s history to life. It tells the story of the tragedy and hardship of the Lativan people during this terrible period. Take a guided tour to get the most out of your visit to the museum, it really makes all the difference.
#14 – Enjoy the Local Food at the Kalnciema Street Quarter
If you are in Riga on a Saturday there is one place you really shouldn’t miss. The Kalnciema Street Quarter is a gorgrous collection of wooden buildings that plays home to a fantastic traditional market from 10 am to 4 pm every Saturday. In the Advent period in the run up to Christmas, the market is also open on Sundays as well. The place really has something for everyone.
We had a great time wandering through the stalls of arts and crafts. For children, the wooden toys are a real speciality. Farmers come with all sorts of amazing produce from honey, jam and meat through to health and beauty products like soaps and even jewellery. Come with an empty stomach as the food is amazing.
#15 – Get the Full Soviet Experience at The Bunker
Having enjoyed the Lost Escape Room, we then heard some great things about a similar place with a Russian theme. We gave owner Dimitri a call and finding he had a space for his hour long escape experience, we jumped at the chance. The Bunker is unsurprisingly from it’s name, located in a bunker. It’s a little way North of the city centre along the Daugava River in the hip and funky Andrejsala district of the city. The game is exciting, scary and quite high pressure at times. Enjoy the wonderful experience that Dimitri has put together and see if you can escape in less than an hour. Given that we had 5 of us playing the game, the cost of 40 Euros for all of us seemed like a pretty good price.
#16 – Serve Yourself at Easy Beer
Having managed to escape from Dimitri’s Bunker with just 2 minutes to spare, we set off back to the centre of Riga to grab a drink and a snack to see us through the rest of the day. In the lovely little back street of Audēju Iela we came across the wonderful concept called Easy Beer. If you are a fan of beer then it’s the solution that means never having to choose between one beer or another. Of course it’s not just about the beer, there was plenty of other drinks as well. If you really don’t like beer at all, then check out the sister establishment of Easy Wine.
When you arrive you get a card for beer (you can limit how much is on it if you don’t trust yourself). Go to the beer wall, scan the card and pour as little or as much as you want from a huge selection of craft beers from all over the world. For a lover of independent breweries like me, it was heaven. We just had a small selection of beer snacks but they were really tasty and just what we needed to carry out exploring the sights of Riga. They also serve some great looking burgers as well as soups, salads and tex mex.
#17 – Visit the Riga Motor Museum
Our next stop was the wonderful Riga Motor Museum. The European Museum Academy (no I’d never heard of it either) recently awarded it in the top 10 museums in Europe. Quite some accolade and thankfully it lived up to the anticipation, provided you like looking at cars of course. Now in a newly refurbished home, the museum tells the story of the car from the first Benz through to the modern day. Feel the speed in the motorsports collection and check out the cult cars section with some real classics including a Beetle, Mini and even a 2CV. The museum even houses an amazing collection of Russian cars including the biggest collection of ex Kremlin cars outside Russia.
#18 – Take a Fiat 126 Tour of Riga
Always on the hunt for something a little different to do, we stumbled across the fantastic PanCars tours. The boss and owner of this awesome business is a Latvian guy called Imants Pankars (see what he did there – genius). It all started with the idea of travelling with his girlfriend all over the Europe in a little Fiat 126. Given that my first car was a red Fiat 126 Biz, this idea really was right up my street. In 2012, having completed his road trip experience he had the idea to create a Fiat 126 rental company in Riga, this was just the start of PanCars.
PanCars are Imants’ 21 fun and charming sons. He’s not a car collector, but he just wants to offer entertainment and something a little different for both locals and tourist. He calls the cars – “small tanks” and says that as long as they are properly maintained, they will take you almost anywhere. He loves that their size helps to lower people’s expectations compared to normal cars and loves their surprise when they realise how fun they are.
PanCars don’t do just tours, they also create a lot of crazy fun experiences including a City Race with orienteering around the city with checkpoints where people have to do different and fun tasks. They also do off-road challenges, track days, walkie talkie tours and even a Baltic Rally. The cars also can also be custom painted by graffiti artists for specific events. It’s another great local business in true From Real People tradition so check them out and say hi to Imants. His recommendation for any visit to Riga is not to miss the wonderful Art nouveau architecture.
#19 – Wander the Streets of the Old Town
Another recommendation from the lovely people at the Rocket Bean Roastery was just to take a wander around the streets of the old. Soak in the variations in the architecture, get lost and see what wonders await. We found some amazing little shops, loads of local businesses that were right up our street (literally in this situation). The whole area between the Freedom Monument and the River Daugava is just perfect for exploring so just go enjoy and see what you can find.
#20 – Have Proper Medieval Dinner at Rozengrals
On our final evening, we wanted to do something special for dinner. I asked my Latvian colleagues at work for their recommendations for the perfect meal in Riga. All 3 of them (Aigars, Andris and Vairris) told my not to miss the wonderful Rozengrals medieval restaurant. You can’t miss the place because it’s well located on one of them main streets that tourists find themselves walking around the old city. You also can’t miss it for the guys dressed in medieval costumes trying to entice you inside. In fact, from the outside it might look like the kind of place many tourists would choose to avoid perhaps for looking a little too touristy. Thankfully I followed the recommendations of the guys at work and that was definitely the right choice.
The restaurant is quite a dark, which helps to add to the medieval feel. They also play traditional music and while we were there I had fun enjoying some medieval dancing with a coach load of Chinese grannies. Holiday memories don’t come any better than that. The food is also very traditional and exactly what I would imagine from days of yore (obviously making an obtuse Friends reference there). Throw in a mug of ale and it really was a totally heavenly experience. If you want one restaurant recommendation for Riga, this is it.
What’s Your Favourite Riga Experience
So after an awesome trip it was time for us all to head home. A huge thanks to my colleagues Aigars, Andris and Vairris for all their wonderful tips on their home city. It was great to explore a new city and also to meet the owners of some great local businesses. In a world seemingly taken over by big corporations it was great to be able to support some fantastic people working hard to make a success of their enterprises. Hopefully I’ve encouraged you to explore Riga for yourself. If you visit, come back to the blog and tell me your favourite thing to do in Riga. Better still find a great local business and come back and tell me more about them.