Riga is a fabulous city and I recommend spending as much time as possible exploring all it has to offer. But for many travelers, this is one stop in a larger Baltic tour. Or maybe you have a long layover and want to escape the airport and check out the highlights. If you find yourself with just one day in Riga, this self-guided walking tour is for you! It takes you to all the top attractions and offers plenty of options so you can get to know the city through your preferred activities.
Begin your one day in Riga at the Freedom Monument, a beacon of Latvian independence since 1935. The Freedom Monument is the heart of the city, standing between the historic old town and newer city center. On either side is Bastejkalns Park and the Riga City Canal, my favorite spot for a stroll. It is especially stunning in autumn when the foliage is at its peak.
Part of Riga’s charm lies in its sophisticated cafe culture, so I suggest starting your day with a cappuccino and pastry. One of my go-to cafes, 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.
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!
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 for unbeatable views of the old town.
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.
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 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.
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 and 18th century fine arts as well as a lovely view of Dome Square from the top floor window.
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. You can read my complete Riga shopping guide here.
Spend the next hour wandering through the rest of Old Town to 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.)
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.
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.
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!
** Most museums and attractions don’t open until 10:00 am and are closed on Mondays. You can read my full museum guide here.
Tell me: How would YOU spend one day in Riga?
What a great post. Lots of memories of my two visits. Would recommend Latvia, especially Riga, as a vacation destination. Thanks for being my tour guide.
Nice wlaking options. I would include the National Library and the view from the top. Thanks for share.
hell yea, this is an awesome guide. i like how it is very tailored towards those with a layover (whether it be cruise or plane) and covers the main sights. i wish i had this on my first trip to the city back in 2011! i missed so much that i didnt really like the city. i ended up back in 2012 and needless to say, the rest is history 🙂
Jess @UsedYorkCity says
What a perfect guide! These are my favorite to read about cities I’ve never been to–I feel like it gives such a thorough snapshot!
That looks like quite the action-packed schedule … will have to use this to plan my itinerary if I end up going here when I visit Europe next year!