While I always recommend spending as much time as you can in a new destination, often that’s simply not possible. Many cruise ships that dock in Riga give their passengers just one day to explore the city. So how can you make the most of that precious time? I’ve put together a one-day walking tour that combines the must-see attractions with a few of my own favorite spots. So skip that boring cruise ship tour and see Riga through the eyes of a local!
8:00 am* From the ferry terminal exit, walk to the main road (Eksporta Iela) and cross at the light. Head east down residential Citadeles iela, away from the river, then turn right on Kronvalda bulvaris and follow the tram tracks towards Old Town. Leafy Kronvalda Park, one of Riga’s many green spaces, will be on your left. At the end of the boulevard, walk around the elegant Latvian National Theater on the left corner to the crosswalk next to the bridge. Cross over busy Krisjana Valdemara iela at the light and enjoy a peaceful stroll along Riga’s City Canal, once a moat that flowed outside the Old Town walls. Those medieval fortifications were torn down in the 19th century to allow for geographical expansion, and some of the stones were used to create lovely Bastejkalns Park.
8:45 am At the end of the park you’ll arrive at the Freedom Monument, a beacon of Latvian independence since 1935. (Amazingly, the Nazi and Soviet regimes both chose to reinterpret the statue rather than tear it down.) Important holidays are celebrated here, often with music and always with flowers. The Latvians love flowers more than any people I know on Earth.
9:00 am Part of Riga’s charm lies in its sophisticated cafe culture, so I’d be remiss not to suggest starting your day with a cappuccino and pastry. My current go-to cafe, BakeBerry, is located in a pretty red building on Audeju iela, or Weavers’ street. To reach it, cross the tram tracks next to the Opera House and enter Old Town by way of Teatre iela, or Theater street. Turn on left on Kaleju iela, or Blacksmiths’ street, right onto Audeju iela, and the cafe will be on your left.
9:30 am Sufficiently fueled, you’ll be ready to tackle Riga’s Central Market, one of the largest and busiest in Europe. To get there from BakeBerry, turn right onto Audeju iela, then right again onto Valnu iela, or Ramparts street. Once at the end, go down the stairs in front of you to cross under the busy road. Keep going straight through the tunnel towards the autoosta, or bus terminal, and go up the staircase at the opposite end. The market is housed in five WWI-era zeppelin hangars, each dedicated to a particular food group (i.e. fish, meat, dairy). This is a good place to find souvenirs, such as Latvian honey and woven linens, and to sample local delicacies, like salted herring or smoked chicken. Don’t miss the pickled vegetable area!
10:30 am** Go back the way you came (under 13 Janvara iela) and head to St. Peter’s Church. Originally built in 1209 and oft damaged due to lightning and war, restoration works remain ongoing. Inside, you’ll find a gorgeous reproduction of the 19th century wooden altar, intricate royal coats of arms, and a bronze 16th century candlestick that survived WWII in Wloclawek, Poland, and was returned to its original home in Riga in 2012. Take the lift to the observation deck in the church’s spire – the birds-eye view of Old Town is worth every penny of the €9 ticket price!
11:15 am Exit St. Peter’s Church and walk straight to Town Hall Square. This is where you’ll find arguably Riga’s prettiest attraction – the House of the Blackheads. Originally built in the 1300s but demolished during WWII, this stunning building is a testament to Latvian craftsmanship and patriotism. Locals are proud of the meticulous work that went into its post-Soviet reconstruction, and rightly so. Look for the spot outside the building which marks where the world’s first decorated Christmas tree stood centuries ago.
12:00 pm OPTION A If you’re like me, you’ll be starving for lunch at this point. I like to take my guests to “Key to Riga” in Dome Square, opposite the Cathedral. It may seem a bit touristy and overpriced at first glance, but this medieval-themed restaurant is a great option for lunch if you know what to order. I recommend the pretty-in-pink cold beet soup and potato pancakes with sour cream and lingonberry jam, washed down with a Latvian beer. (Valmiermuiza and Mezpils are good choices.) I’ve found the service at “Key to Riga” to be friendly and efficient. Just make sure to ask for the check when the plates are being cleared away to speed up the process.
12:00 pm OPTION B Got enough to eat at the Central Market? Then skip lunch and check out two of the city’s top attractions. Dome Cathedral has been the ceremonial heart of Riga for 800 years. While religious services were suspended during the Soviet Occupation, the church remained in use as a concert hall and its organ is renowned for its beautiful sound. Across the square, the Riga Bourse Museum boasts a large collection of 17th- to 18th-century fine arts as well as a sweeping view of Dome Square from the top floor window.
12:00 pm OPTION C Museums not your thing? Then use this time to shop ’til you drop! Latvia produces some of the finest handicrafts in the world and it would be a shame to return home without a souvenir of your travels. Exceptional products include pottery, linen scarves and tablecloths, wooden children’s toys, and traditional Latvian mittens. The large craft market in Egle Square is a convenient place to find all of the above at a fair price. Just look for the stands next to the beer garden, where you can celebrate your purchases with a refreshing glass of pear cider.
1:00 pm Depending on which option you choose, you’ll have about 45 minutes to wander through the rest of Old Town and admire the varied architecture of this UNESCO World Heritage Site. Make your way past the Three Brothers (some of the oldest buildings in the city) to Riga Castle, the newly restored home of Latvia’s president. Head down Torna iela, or Tower street, to find the Swedish Gate and the Powder Tower, two of Riga’s most iconic structures. Around the corner, the Black Cat House faces off against the Large and Small Guilds in Livu Square. (To learn more about these fascinating buildings, read this.)
2:00 pm OPTION A Old Riga is so charming that it can be easy to forget Latvia’s difficult history. That’s why I think visiting the Occupation Museum is so important. Currently housed in the former U.S. Embassy building on Raina bulvaris (one block from the Freedom Monument), the museum explains in detail the dark days of Latvia’s Soviet and Nazi occupations during and after WWII. Knowledgeable guides give 45-minute tours (€3 per person) in English everyday at 14:00, and the personal tidbits they share will give you a fuller picture of the damage done.
2:00 pm OPTION B If you already know a bit about the Soviet Occupation, or would rather spend your afternoon looking at pretty things (no judgment!), then maybe the Latvian National Museum of Art should be your next stop. The historic building only recently reopened after a multi-year restoration and is truly extraordinary to behold. The permanent exhibit on the top floor showcases the best Latvian painters and sculptors, including Janis Rozentals, Johans Walters, and Vilhelms Purvitis, to name a few. I thought it was interesting to see the progression of these artists’ styles during their careers, as well as Latvian art as a whole throughout its oft-turbulent history.
3:00 pm No visit to Riga would be complete without stopping to gape at the impressively detailed buildings of the Art Nouveau district. From 1900-1913, Riga experienced unprecedented economic and geographic growth. The old city walls were demolished and hundreds of new buildings constructed, many of them in the Art Nouveau style. Jugendstil, as it’s also known, is characterized by the use of fanciful decorations that celebrate womanly beauty, nature, and mythology. While over one-third of Riga’s buildings are Art Nouveau, the largest concentration can be found along Elizabetes and Alberta ielas.
If you have time, check out the Art Nouveau Museum to get an idea of how these sumptuously decorated apartment buildings looked when they were first built. The ground floor of Albert iela 12 has been beautifully restored and lavishly decorated to recreate early 20th century Riga life, while staff in period costume complete the effect. Even if you don’t have time to go through the whole museum, at least go inside the lobby and look up at the wondrous spiral staircase!
3:30 pm Sadly, your day in Riga has come to an end and you must rejoin your fellow passengers on the boat. Walk to the end of Elizabetes iela, carefully cross the street, and make your way to your ship’s embarkation point. Then immediately start planning your return visit. There’s so much of Riga left to explore! Have a bit more time before departure? Art Cafe Sienna on Strelnieku iela is a perfect place to wait!
* The cruises that stop in Riga have wildly different schedules, so please adjust this according to your trip’s timetable to ensure you’re back on the boat before it leaves!
** Most museums and attractions don’t open until 10:00 am and are closed on Mondays.
Tell me: How would YOU spend one day in Riga?