I spent nearly six weeks in the capital of Latvia, living on a barge in Riga for most of that time. Yup, a barge, it had awesome Wi-Fi.
I didn’t venture far from the city, yet found myself with plenty of things to do in Riga to keep you entertained for at least three solid days of playing tourist.
- 1 Where Is Riga?
- 2 What To Do In Riga
- 3 Cultural Guide To Riga
- 4 Food And Drink
- 5 Getting Around Riga And Latvia
- 6 Accommodation In Riga
- 7 Other Useful Posts About Things To Do In Riga
- 8 Closing Thoughts
Where Is Riga?
Latvia is sandwiched between the Baltic nations Estonia (north) and Lithuania (south). Russia is to the west and Belarus to the southwest. It gets a bit of breathing room Baltic sea making up its west coast.
TLDR: The Riga Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Riga is the largest Baltic city, with ~640,000 people calling the city home.
Latvia has stood the test of time with plenty of history (founded in 1201) and is starting to see a tourist boom thanks to budget airlines now flying to Riga.
What To Do In Riga
TLDR: Start in Old Town but make sure you explore beyond its borders as time allows.
Explore The Old Town Starting With A Free Walking Tour
There are free walking tours all over Europe and they’re a great way to begin exploring a city and get some bearings on your first day. Don’t take photos on tour as you can go back to the spots you want to revisit for proper photos and no one likes waiting for ‘that person’ on tour. Instead, listen, observe and ask quality questions.
Exploring Riga Outside Of The Old Town
The key areas to explore outside the old town are the river, parks, Art Nouveau district, Central Market and the river front.
Riga is famous for its Art Nouveau architecture (not the same as Art Deco). Apparently over 1/3rd of the buildings in Riga are of this style, but head to the Art Nouveau District for the best of the best.
The theory of why Art Nouveau is so big here is Latvia went through a financial boom when this style was at its peak in the late 1800’s/early 1900’s.
Riga Day Trip Ideas
I took two day trips outside of Riga; both beach trips during the week. One to Jurmala, a Latvian resort town and to Vecaki beach, a local beach.
Jurmala was pretty busy on the beach considering the weather wasn’t great with the rest of the tourists mingling around the main walking street. Make sure to hit up Dzintaru Mezaparks (north end of walking street) and climb the tower.
Vecaki surprised me. Being a local beach, I expected it to be empty during the week. By crikey it was the complete opposite. People everywhere…kids, teens, young adults, old adults; the works. Not sure who keep the city running during the week, but those who don’t make sure to not let a sunny day go by without a trip to the beach.
There’s a nude beach not too far away from their either so if you go for a walk, expect to see older gentl
Sigulda is sadly somewhere I didn’t get to explore. From what I hear it is absolutely beautiful and has some great walks in a surreal forest setting. Sigulda can be done in a day but there is plenty of room for camping if you get a chance. If you go, tag me in your photos!
A Growing Street Art Scene
The street art in Riga is not massive like Ipoh or Penang, but it was alive and what I did see around the city was awesome – and portrayed some interesting messages.
There is no specific area to look so keep your eyes peeled. Here are a few of my favourite pieces.
Cultural Guide To Riga
TLDR: Super nice when you interact with them and proud of their country.
A stereotype growing up for me was, Eastern Europeans are serious people, keeping to themselves in public so much so it’s as if humans are an obstacle occasionally getting in the way as they go from A to B.
I found this to be true, it turned into a challenge was walking around town.
Can I get an acknowledgement from someone on the street?!
It was tough and I never found a way to increase my chances significantly. Saying hello a few metres in advance to give them a chance to comprehend what had happened and respond wouldn’t work and making eye contact with a nice smile was never a chance of success.
It was interesting to see on the day trips the acknowledgement frequency did increase. Is this due to the stress involved with work and stuff? I won’t be doing a study on this so who knows.
TLDR: As proud as red necks; without any of the negative stereotypes
I cannot recall who said it, but they said something along the lines of “we love our country and make sure everyone knows about it”. Agreed.
I had conversations with quite a few Latvians and there was never any complaints from them. They talked up the forest life as a must see in Riga and especially Sigulda; which from what I have heard from both locals and non-Latvians really is a magical area. Yeap, still gutted not to make the trip.
You just need to walk along the streets of Riga and it won’t be long until you start spotting Latvian flags hanging from the buildings. A few of the main streets have flags hanging from every building start to finish. It was pretty impressive and never overbearing, just the right amount of flag action.
The Latvian Language
TLDR: The younger generation (sub-30) speak fluent English
There is no need to learn the native language here (or Russian). It could be helpful at times but literally everyone you’d consider ‘young’ speaks English. The older crowd were hit and miss, but it was okay as my interactions with them were generally limited to shops.
What bemused me was most could also speak Russian, it was more prevalent in the older generations as a go to language.
You would expect the Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian languages to have similar sounds like Western Europe languages. People speak different languages but can understand what their neighbouring countries are saying.
The Baltic’s languages however are not related however therefore it was rare to come across someone who knew Lithuanian and Latvian etc.
Given the Russian influence left over from the Soviet era, Russian was a common language in all three countries.
The flag itself is below. The deep red represents the blood shed by a Latvian leader and cloth to wrap the wounds is the white stripe.
They Love To Make The Most Of The Weekends
TLDR: If the suns out, they aren’t going to hang out in the city
St. Petersburg wasn’t my cup of tea in the weekend, it was packed. Riga for that reason was great (in the summer anyway).
Most people tend to head out to their holiday homes in the weekend. I would say the biggest drive in Latvia is four hours away from Riga, so you could get out of the city every weekend if you wanted. Wandering around the city centre (not Old Town), it was so empty; crazy. *Unless a cruise ship was in town
Food And Drink
TLDR: Cheap, tasty and good quality. An underrated food destination.
I’m not a foodie but was happy to settle into exploring the Pakistani kebab shops throughout the city. So much falafel. For a medium falafel kebab you pay somewhere between 2-3€.
Bistros outside the Old Town will set you back a few euros which will get you a good amount of random dishes.
Restaurants are cheap. You can fill yourself up for 7€ pretty much everywhere. Many restaurants have lunch or dinner deals, keep an eye out for these as they provide great value. Ala Folkklubs in the Old Town is popular, but awesome atmosphere, environment and beer. It’s a maze inside. It could be worth making a reservation in advance if you have a group, it’s packed!
Cafes are splendid with seating is out on the curb and when the sun is shining you cannot help but love life. Cafe Leningrad is a cool cafe with events on throughout the week.
International cuisine? Don’t expect anything and everything available but your usual suspects can be found.
Vegan/vegetarian food is widely available and most people serving the food will understand the concept, double check the garlic/yoghurt sauce when ordering a kebab however.
I wrote about my favourite two places to eat vegan in Riga here.
Supermarkets in Riga are everywhere. Food prices in Riga supermarkets (August/September 2015):
- Bread (600g): €0.50 – €0.80
- Bananas (1kg): €1.00 – €1.79
- Coca-Cola (330ml): ~€0.50
- Kidney Beans (400g): €0.40 – €0.80
- Tomatoes (1kg): €2.00 max
- Cucumbers (1kg): €1.00 max
That gives you a little idea – supermarkets are cheap and the cost of living in Riga is cheap (my apartment was 90 euros for the month)!
If you want a beer etc., Kiwi Bar is expensive but for me it was a cool taste of home.
Find a bar outside the old town, there is plenty and are all unique. Expect to pay €2 – €3.50 for a 500ml beer. Chomsky is a chilled out hipster bar popular with the locals.
Ticket to Heaven is a great wee spot 30 minutes from the Old Town, a worthy sunset bar.
Getting Around Riga And Latvia
TLDR: There’s no bad option for getting around. The choice is yours.
Trams/trolleys and buses can get you to anywhere in the city. If you want to get out of the city, trains and buses are the best mode of transport, with local trains very cheap. A train to Vecaki is €1.60 return.
TLDR: Not common but people happily pick you up.
Long section. Scroll on down if hitchhiking is nothing to you.
I hitchhiked solo for the first time from Tallinn to Riga. I anxiously waited for my first ride from the point Hitchwiki recommended. 25 minutes later all my worries were put to bed when a local picked me up. He was 26 and mowed lawns for a Finnish owned company. Great chap and he dropped me off 40 minutes later.
It wasn’t long before I was chatting to a guy from the Estonian army on his way back home to his wife and kids. The reason he picked me up? I looked sober and didn’t have piss all over my pants. We talked life and he took me around his home town, Parnu. He was so proud of his home town, Estonia’s summer capital.
The next ride was short and scary, a 70+ year old who couldn’t speak English. He nearly caused a car crash but I survived.
Finally I meet a Russian driving to Latvia to get his car re-registered, we peaked at 190km an hour and he was nice enough but my conversation was lacking, eyes firmly ensuring we weren’t in danger…much.
The second hiking trip was with my friend Anna, we met one local who drove us 10km. He wasn’t in the mood to talk. The next ride were waiting for us, having seen us walking to the next ideal area. They were new hipster couple on their first weekend away together. They used a paper map for navigation (this happens), and inevitably they missed a couple of turns. They were a great laugh and I learnt about the Rainbow party in the Latvian forest being held in August. Not my gig, but would have probably gone if in the area, they got my interest. They dropped us off by the border before where we waited 45 minutes before getting a great ride right to the heart of Vilnius.
Hitchhiking to and from Riga was not scary at all. It was the easiest place I have experienced hitchhiking thanks to the minimal main roads ensuring everyone is going in your direction. Three friends (females) also hitched through the Baltic’s and had no issues at all. While I saw no other hitchhikers, hitchhiking in this region is not strange and you should definitely consider it.
It’s A Very Walkable (Flat) City
TLDR: Latvia’s highest elevation is 312m above sea level.
The Baltic countries are flat as a pancake. The highest elevations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are 318m, 312m and 294m respectively, true story.
There was an overpass on the way to a friends place in Riga which was definitely the biggest ‘hill’ I negotiated in Riga. Though Vilnius and Tallinn did have some small hills surrounding their old towns.
If I were to stay in Riga long term, I would be looking to escape once a month at least to another country (Zakopane?) to get some hiking in.
Accommodation In Riga
The first night I arrived I stayed in Central Hostel, it was relatively expensive via Hostel World but was a very nice place to stay after a long transit.
Talking to others, the hostel I have to recommend is Tiger Hostel.
Apartments In Riga
I had it pretty easy in Latvia, a friend from Chiang Mai spends a lot of time in Riga each year and put me in touch with a landlord who had a spare apartment on a boat docked in a harbour.
The room and boat wasn’t flashy, but it was functional and cheap at €230 for the month. The internet was great which was the main requirement for me. Speaking to other people, everyone seems to find a room by knowing someone who knows someone. I am sure if you turned up, stayed in a hostel and asked around you would have a place sorted pretty quickly.
The population of these countries is not massive, yet there seems to be a lot of housing.
If anyone wants to get in touch with the manager of the boat I stayed on, send an email to jub (at) tikitouringkiwi (dot) com and I can hook you up.
airbnb in Riga
I’ve yet to stay in an airbnb apartment. One friend was staying in one long term and said the host was great.
Other Useful Posts About Things To Do In Riga
Top 10 Things To Do In Riga Latvia by Suitcase Stories
You Should Visit Riga, Latvia…It’s Quite Pleasant by Wandering Earl
Expat Eye On Latvia by Linda, Irish Expat
Riga can be visited in so many ways. You can fly through and see all the major sites within a day or two. If you need to unwind it’s chilled out, just avoid the old town during the day when the cruise ship crowds are out and about causing chaos.
There is nothing really WOW worthy about Riga, but like the post above, Riga is pleasant.
If you have unlimited time in Europe, definitely get there. You won’t be disappointed. There is a reason Paris, Berlin, Rome and all those cities get more tourists. There is more to the cities.
If you’re a digital nomad, or someone who chills in cities for a few weeks/months at a time, then head to Riga for sure.