With its cobbled streets and Art Nouveau architecture, Riga sounds more like the sort of place you’d recommend as an anniversary treat for your parents but the Latvian capital offers more than sweet steeples and historic squares. Tucked away amongst the charm and fairytale prettiness is another Riga entirely, a city that likes to play and has the pubs, clubs, bars and restaurants to prove it.
At a glance:
• The biggest of the Baltic cities, it’s the capital of a country that shares a border with Lithuania, Estonia, Russia and Belarus for a unique snapshot of Eastern Europe
• The gorgeous Medieval Old Town with its celebrated buildings and beautiful squares is a UNESCO World Heritage Site
• Expect pleasant, sunny weather and temperatures up to 20° between May and September
• Sub-zero temperatures from December to March make the city and surroundings exciting for extreme activities – just remember to wrap up warm
• Sup on Black Balsam, the city’s thick, black and ancient local drink – the exact recipe is a secret, its potency is not
• Visit the amazing spa-resort of Jurmala on the Baltic Coast just 40 minutes from Riga
Things not to miss:
Riga’s a city of contradictions. Ancient church spires and pretty towers contrast with monolithic Soviet era architecture. The Central Market celebrates rural life and traditional skills, but the city’s extensive new build is putting its World Heritage status under threat. Tourism is vital to Riga, but some of the city’s clubs still refuse entry to non-Latvians. Our advice? Enjoy what’s great about Riga – the history, the adventure, the warm welcome you get most places, the good food, wonderful beer and good-time vibe. And just bear in mind, like many Eastern European cities, Riga has a lot of rules. Be a good guest and you’ll have a great time.
Riga Old Town – beer gardens and lazy summer evenings
The historic heart of Riga is a mix of ancient buildings, graceful open squares, quaint alleys, cobbled streets and stunning monuments. The predominant colour scheme is ‘ice-cream’. And summer is one of the best times to visit. The Old Town is where you’ll find some of the city’s most interesting bars, cafés and restaurants and between May and September their beer gardens are where you want to be. Street musicians play until late into the evening, the gentle Baltic breeze cools the air and even if you’re not a diehard romantic, it’s virtually impossible not to be just a little bit enchanted.
Central District - a local look at Riga
The majority of architecture in Riga’s Central District is Art Nouveau. The buildings are stunning and the intricate and immense carving and sculptural detail might be a bit sinister in places but it’s it’s always breathtaking. The streets to look out for are Elizabetes, Alberta and Strelnieku. But, if you want a more contemporary, cheaper and less touristy side to Riga the Central District does that too. It’s where you’ll find the huge Central Market – it’s so vast they do guided tours. The independent shops are fascinating and very Eastern European exotic. And restaurants, cafés and bars here are relaxed and friendly with wonderful local food and prices.
Central Market – join the crowds for a snapshot of an immense Riga institution
Selling everything from pickled cucumbers and pig’s snouts to lace and embroidery, this is Eastern Europe’s largest covered market and attracts upwards of 80,000 visitors every day.
Riga’s best cocktail bars:
Skyline Bar, Elizabetes iela 55
Cocktails served at 26 storeys high with views over the Central District’s Art Nouveau rooftops. Go at the weekend for guest DJs and fantastic sunsets.
Cuba Café, Jauniela 15
Tucked away off Doma Lakums, this little slice of Cuban decadence is Buena Vista Riga style. The crowd’s lively, the music good and rum is a cocktail staple – naturally.
Betty’s Lounge, Matisa iela 38
Part sports bar, part 1950s cocktail lounge, Betty’s is all about unwinding and just seeing where it goes. The food’s brilliant, you can watch sports on TV backstage and Cocktail Happy Hour runs every night from 5pm to 7pm.
Star Lounge, Dzirnavu iela
If you crave cocktails and have no fear of heights, the Star Lounge terrace on the 11th floor of the Albert Hotel is an amazing place to treat yourself – it’s not cheap but the views are worth it.
B-Bar, Doma Square 2
B stands for Balsam, the traditional local drink and the basis for many of the famous and inexpensive cocktails in this cool, three-storey bar. Take it easy though. Balsam’s strong and can sneak up on you. bbars.lv
Riga’s best pubs:
Victory Pub, Tirgonu iela
Endless promotions, Ladies Cut Price Cocktail Nights, a legendary karaoke and all the beer brands you know and love – a bit of a party pub for sure.
Aussie Backpackers Pub, 43 Valnu lele
Guest DJs and live bands in the basement, wild and wonderful events programme and the only pub in Riga to have 12 different local beers on tap – it’s almost like a challenge.
Donegans, Skunu iela
You can’t miss Donegans, there isn’t a bit of ‘The Oirish’ this place doesn’t cover, from the hearty and fantastic pub food to the free-flowing stout and shamrocks everywhere. Some say it’s Riga’s best pub. donegans.lv
Paddy Whelans, Grecinieku street 4
Riga’s first Irish pub and sports bar. Firm favourite with roaming stag and hen parties but the line-up of beers on tap and the great promotions could tempt you to stay put.
Moloney’s Irish Pub, Riharda Vagnera street 3
For loud, lively and raucous live sports on TV and different promos every day head for Moloney’s. Weekends good for big crowds and live music.
Riga’s best nightclubs:
Long-running Riga favourite with six themed bars, three dance floors and a broad mix of sounds and regular guest DJs. Girls get free admission.
The weekends are full-on for this house/techno club. The crowd’s young and good looking and if you come with friends before 1am you get in free (it’s only €7 if you miss curfew)
Riga does Studio 54 decades down the line. The clubbers are an older mix and mainly Latvian but the energy’s good and it’s a real Eastern European experience.
Radio Bar Nightclub
Riga does bars-come-clubs with a relaxed feel, guest DJs or live music and a dancefloor. They’re usually quite small and not open every night. Try Radio Bar to see if you like a Riga twist on traditional clubbing, it’s one of the best.
Same idea as Radio Bar but with some really good promos and 2-4-1 cocktails every night between 5pm and 7pm.
Food: Eat like a local
Traditional Latvian food is designed to keep you warm, so it’s hearty and delicious. Try the Piragi, pastry stuffed with bacon and onions or breaded pork chops known as Karbonade. And if you need a salad ask for Rasols. It’s salad – but heavy on potato, eggs, bacon, sausage...fantastic.
Vincents, 19 Elizabetes
One of the best restaurants in Riga, Vincents’ modern European take on fresh, local ingredients is faultless. It is expensive, but unforgettably good.
Lido, Krasta iela 76
Hearty, cheap and very traditionally Latvian, there are eight Lido restaurants in Riga and they’re well-loved with good reason. Buffet style is usually the way and some have English menus too.
dADa, Galerija Centrs
Need a high-energy hit? Hit dADa for noodles and all the trimmings. You pick your sauce, fill a bowl with your choice of veg, meat or seafood and noodles, hand it to the chef and it arrives back at your table cooked perfectly in minutes – great value.
Ala Folk Klub, Pedlu Street 19
Traditional food, local beer and folk music all in an underground cellar, it doesn’t come more Latvian than that. Locals like Ala Folk Klub, always a good sign.
If you can’t get through the day without caffeine pick up your fix at Coffee Inn and add some of their delicious cakes, muffins and pastries to your order. It’s like a Latvian Starbucks – only better.
Best time to visit:
It’s not a huge surprise that Riga is stunning in winter. It’s Latvia, so all that snowy wonderland stuff comes as standard and it’s beautiful, romantic and only perfect for extreme activities. Think Husky Dog Sledding: just you, your hounds and the magnificent untamed wilderness ahead – you get full training and safety equipment obviously. Or freezing rivers might be more your thing, in which case get a team together and take a Gauja River Canoe Trip – very male-bonding. Summer in the city is a bit less strenuous but you can flex your cultural muscles at the annual Riga Festival in June or work your drinking arm at the Latvia Beer Fest in May.
The best view of the city:
Without a doubt the best view in Riga is the one from the top of St. Peter’s Church tower in the heart of the Old Town. Best bit is you don’t have to climb, there’s an elevator to the top and your €7 entry price includes the Art Nouveau exhibition.
Trams, buses and trolley cars are the way to get about Riga by day and into the early hours of the morning. They’re cheap, easy to use and you can save by buying tickets in advance for up to 20 journeys or up to five days of city travel.
If you’re using taxis, use Baltic Taxi (the green ones). They’re safe, reliable, friendly and you won’t get scammed – being given change in Lithuanian currency instead of Litas, meter hikes and roundabout routes.
Riga Daily Bike Tours are also a fun way to see Riga’s historic landmarks and get a bit of exercise. The tours take off twice a day (noon and 3pm) from the Town Hall Square, they last just over two hours and your bike is included in the price. Booking in advance is a good idea and private tours can be arranged at eatriga.lv/bike-tours/.
Like any major European city, Riga has pickpockets. The Central Market, between the bus station and the Old Town and along Valnu Street are favourite haunts. Take the usual precautions and pay attention in crowds or narrow spaces, like doorways.
A honey trap is a popular local scam. Attractive young women invite unsuspecting men into expensive bars, order up drinks then disappear, leaving the man to foot the huge bill. Some strip clubs run a similar racket and prey on lone males, so stay in a group.
And finally, Latvian coins are worth five times more than Lithuanian coins, if someone asks you to help them out and exchange coins for a bank note, check the change.
When in Riga...
It’s illegal to drink in any public place in Riga or even to have an open bottle or can of alcohol. This includes all streets and parks and breaking this city law carries a large fine.
The city has a zero-tolerance policy on drugs and the penalties for buying or selling cannabis are as severe as they are for cocaine.
5 Useful phrases:
Thank you = paldies
Yes = ja
No = ne
Hello = sveicinati
Cheers = prieka
Did you know?
It’s almost impossible to get lost in Riga city centre, just look for the huge Freedom Memorial and use it as a reference point. You can see it from anywhere in the city, but it’s worth a closer look too.