One of the reasons Riga is Riga is because it is always reinventing itself. While you can visit some capital cities and feel you have seen it all in a day or two, Riga has more to it than the casual visitor will ever know!
New quirky bars and restaurants offering cuisines from all over the planet open every single week as others depart this world. Areas of the city that were once hip suddenly become yesterday’s news as the young and cool find new and more exciting places to party. Redevelopment money from the EU and private investors means that the Riga that was once the place to avoid, is now the place to hang out and be seen. Yes, Riga has many many well-known delights such as its UNESCO Old Town, opulent opera house, and its dozens of stunning centuries-old churches but what are the real must-see places and things to do on a day trip to Riga right now?
Uzbek bread and oysters in a Zeppelin hangar
Many visitors are surprised to discover that Riga has the biggest central market and bazaar in all of Europe! And besides being the most sizable market on the continent, it is arguably the most captivating and fascinating! Pride of place are the five enormous former German Zeppelin hangars, dating back to World War One. One of the hangars has engaging monochrome prints showing scenes from Riga Central Market in its early days, while each of the Zeppelin hangars is buzzing and full of the eclectic sounds, smells, and sights one might expect from such gigantic food pavilions. Hundreds of merchants are hard at work here each and every day trading everything imaginable from biezpiens, aromatic spices, freshly caught fish, wild succulent berries, and dozens of varieties of forest mushrooms, to fluffy oven-baked Uzbek bread!
Riga from above
While all the other tourists are admiring Riga’s countless delights from its cobblestone street level, we suggest you lose the crowds and admire Riga in all its glory from high above. Fortunately, there are very few high rises in the Latvian capital, which is one of the reasons the city is so stupidly gorgeous. But for a different perspective of the city, we suggest you visit the Academy of Sciences building top floor, the Riga TV Tower, or the vertiginous 120-metre steeple of St Peter’s Church. Better still, if you fancy combining your birds eye views with culinary pleasure or an indulgent cocktail, then make for the Skyline Bar on the 26th floor of the Radisson Blu Latvija Hotel, the gorgeous Gutenbergs Rooftop restaurant (in Riga Old Town), or enjoy the sumptuous views of Riga from the three restaurants and bars atop (and the one clinging on to the side) of Galleria Riga.
Water is never far away in Riga and we suggest you make enjoying the Latvian capital’s watery delights one of your priorities. Latvia’s most important waterway is the Daugava River, cutting a swathe through Riga before flowing out into the Gulf of Riga. Arguably the best way to enjoy the river is on a sunrise or sunset Stand Up Paddle Board! Guided tours start from Riga’s charming city canal before venturing out into the Daugava and the islands beyond. And if you don’t fancy a SUP then you can do the same tour by kayak!
If you prefer less strenuous ways of enjoying Riga’s watery attractions then pay a visit to one of Riga’s marinas on Andrejsala or Pardaugava. There are classy cafes and restaurants in both locations and anyone exploring the Andrejsala area can journey further to the nearby port which is full of crumbling industrial buildings that lead to a pier with amazing cityscapes few ever see.
Life’s a beach
Latvia surprised most of the world when it picked up a bronze medal at the London Olympics for beach volleyball. But anyone who knows Latvia and Latvians wasn’t slightly surprised. Latvians adore the beach! And why wouldn’t they with more than 500 kilometres of stunning white sand beaches stretching along the Latvian coast! If you are visiting Riga for a day, then consider nipping on a train for 30 minutes to nearby Jurmala, a world-class beach destination full of modern spa hotels, delightful forest trails, cycling paths, beach bars, excellent restaurants, and a 30-kilometre long white sand beach!
Alternatively, heading north from the city, Latvians love to flock to Vecaki, another fabulous stretch of sand unbeknown to tourists that even has a nudist beach! Back in Riga itself, the city has its own city beaches! Kipsala beach is a stone’s throw across the Daugava from Riga Old Town, while lesser-known Lucavsalas beach, on the nearby island of the same name, is very popular with local families. But for the coolest beach vibe in the city itself, head to Cabo Beach Cafe on the banks of Kiserezers lake in Mezaparks.
Riga’s alternative party scene
While 99% of tourists make for Riga’s Old Town for their night time pleasures, Riga’s coolest and most happening party scene happens elsewhere. One of the most popular places with locals is the Tallinn Street Quarter, a former ambulance depot that is now full of free-spirited bars and mobile eateries in the summer months. Bohemian Miera iela (Peace Street) is nearby, with a smattering of cool coffee shops and hipster bars. Heading back into town, Gauja, Aleponija and Vest are all popular hangouts, which are part hipster, part hippy chic, with KKC arguably the best shout for music, people and culture. On the opposite side of the river, the Kalnciema Quarter offers a more upmarket and older happening vibe.
Little known corners
Avoiding the crowds and discovering little known corners of Riga is one of the most enjoyable experiences in the Latvian capital. Grizinkalns is a fascinating district of Riga almost no tourist ever visits. It is full of authentic wooden architecture (much of which is more than 100 years old), crumbling Art Nouveau, and is also home to the newly redeveloped national football stadium as well as two city parks (Ziedondarzs Park has one of the city’s finest cafes, situated next to a beautiful fountain).
Other less visited areas of Riga which are absolutely fascinating include the Moscow District, Tornakalns, and Sarkandaugava. All three districts are as down to earth as you could possibly imagine and are full of fascinating wooden and Art Nouveau architecture (Riga has the world’s largest concentration of Art Nouveau buildings). There’s also some seductive street art to discover here as well as some significant historical sites that are must-sees on any Jewish Riga or Soviet Riga exploration.
Cocktail making and beer tasting
If you want to see another side of Riga also consider joining one of the many tours that are now available for visitors. These include guided bike tours of the city, cocktail masterclasses, a central market culinary masterclass, or a beer district tour which includes visits to Riga’s top craft beer bars, a couple of breweries … and, of course, copious amounts of beer tasting!
Text: Graham Williams