Nestled on the Baltic Sea at the mouth of Latvia’s River Daugava, Riga is so much more than the picturesque Gothic city it initially appears to be. Of course, those spires and the medieval Old Town are part of what makes it so attractive, but there’s also a lot going on beneath the surface.
Behind the wooden buildings and cobblestones, you’ll find a vibrant cultural centre full to bursting with contemporary art, hip bars and innovative food offerings. It’s an architecture buff’s dream destination; walking along streets lined with candy-coloured buildings and art deco creations makes you feel like you’re in a film set. The new national library, by local architect Gunnar Birkerts, is another arresting sight.
Aside from the living museum of the city itself, you’ll also find tonnes of fascinating museums telling you more about the history and culture of Latvia and its capital. Spend your days here, or in the many art galleries, soaking up the surroundings and stopping the bar at the Kanepes culture centre or famous Café Osiris for refreshment. Not for nothing is it (occasionally) dubbed the ‘Baltic Berlin’. Edgy bars doubling as art spaces, techno clubs and innovative pop-up eateries abound, particularly in the Old Town.
Make no mistake, though – this is a city with a difference. It’s quirky, eclectic, and 100% itself. What else would you expect from a city that stakes a claim to the first ever public Christmas tree? It might get comparisons to Berlin or London, but Riga has a totally unique character. You’ll find a whole wealth of unusual things to do in Riga, which is why we’d encourage you to embrace the strangeness. Why go to the same places as everyone else when there are things like the following options on offer?
OK, this isn’t as weird as it sounds, but it’s certainly unusual. The Blackheads were a guild of unmarried German merchants who built this ornate building in Riga’s old town 1344. Meant as a venue for celebrations, meetings and conferences, it could arguably be described as an early form of fraternity house (with fewer games of beer pong, we’re guessing!). The façade is famously opulent, and the interior gives it a run for its money, with gilding, crystal chandeliers and coats of arms.
What’s totally fascinating about visiting the House of the Blackheads now is that it’s actually a new building. After being destroyed by bombing during the Second World War, an exact replica was rebuilt during the 1990s using the original blueprints. Even more amazingly, this fulfils a prophecy once written on the building’s doors: If I am destined to ruination, I will be rebuilt by you. Worth visiting for this story alone!
While this might not sound like the most cheerful museum, it makes a big impact. Established in the early 1990s in a Soviet-era building from 1971, the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia documents the 51-period of occupation that started with the USSR in 1940, continued with Nazi Germany from 1941 to 1944 and ended with the USSR again from 1944 to 1991. It might be unusual to see such a singular focus in a history museum, but these occupations were a significant part in the country’s history.
The exhibitions (temporarily housed in the former US embassy until the official building reopens in 2020) are interesting but often disturbing. They include a recreation of a gulag cell, first-hand accounts of deportations and imprisonments, and evidence of the resistance. There’s an important audio-visual archive that contributes documentary films. The stated aim is to remember victims of occupation and remind the world of the crimes Latvia suffered; visiting is a mark of respect and understanding.
Over 52,000 works of art reside in this beautiful Baroque building on the Esplanade. Recently renovated to add an underground exhibition space, much-needed upgrades and an attractive restaurant, this 1905 building is an impressive spot even when you don’t factor in the extensive art collection within.
It shows the development of Latvian art from the 18th century to the present day and includes works by masters of the Latvian painting school such as Purvītis, Rozentāls, Annuss and Valters (don’t worry if you haven’t heard of them!). There are also often interesting temporary exhibitions to supplement this education in local art.
This cylindrical tower is the sole survivor out of 18 that were built in the 14th century to strengthen the defence of the old city wall. It now proudly stands firm as home to the Latvian War Museum, having acted formerly as a prison, a torture chamber, a gunpowder store and a frat house (not sure which is the most gruesome, really!). The walls are 2.5m thick, which was obviously effective as the there are nine Russian cannonballs that didn’t make it through built into the walls by the stonemasons – clearly ones with a sense of humour!
As you’d expect from a country so unfortunately ravaged by war, the Latvian War Museum has an extensive collection covering the struggles of the 20th century, from the occupations to the fight for independence and the development of the country’s army. With photographs, memorabilia and life-size wax figurines, the inside of the Powder Tower is as interesting as the exterior.
Founded in 1912, Riga Zoo offers you the opportunity to get out of the city and into the hilly pine forest where it’s located. It’s not the biggest zoo we’ve ever been to (understatement), but it’s in a gorgeous location and has over 400 species of animal living there. Among the trees of Mezaparks and along the side of Lake Kisezers, a range of wildlife coexists.
Local Latvian animals hang out in the petting zoo where visitors can cuddle or pet them. More exotic animals include carnivores like the Amur Tigers, Galapagos Tortoise, a Red Kangaroo and playful seals. Regular feeding shows provide you with extra information about these animals and their lifestyles.
Whether you’re interested in cars or not, this is an absolute gem of a museum. It’s actually the largest antique vehicle museum in the Baltic countries and boasts an extremely impressive collection. It’s a little bit outside the city centre, but the journey to get there is worth it when you get to see not only the cars that belonged to USSR dignitaries like Stalin, Gorky and Khrushchev, but life-sized models of those men as well (warts and all).
You’ll also find vintage Rolls Royces and BMWs alongside the oldest car in the world – the Benz Patent Motorwagen. When you get tired of looking at these cars, have a go on one of the interactive driving games or get a picture of you at a Soviet parade using a green screen. The quirky touches are classic Riga!
When you want a break from all the historic sightseeing, Livu Aquapark is the place to come. Located on the edge of a lake, this water park boasts both indoor and outdoor fun (outside is summer only, of course!). There are three areas – one for all the splashing around, one for families and one spa and sauna area to relax in. Between these you’ll find Kamikaze, a slide for adrenalin junkies that’s the height of a 5-story building, a 45-meter water loop, an almost too realistic wave pool and a tornado pipe.
If all this sounds a bit overwhelming, or you like to relax after going on all the slides, then Livu’s got you covered. With a Tropic Wood Zone for more sedate playing, four different saunas and a huge range of spa treatments, you’ll definitely leave feeling ready to take on the world!
Hold the phone, did you know this was the tallest tower in the European Union (and the 3rd tallest in Europe)? For some reason our minds still thought it was the Eiffel Tower! Unfortunately, it’s currently closed until 2023 due to an extensive renovation project but when that’s complete there will be a restaurant at about 100 meters, a Foucault pendulum and the opportunity to see the tower’s bomb shelter.
It began transmission in 1986 and has a projected service life of 250 years, so it will be interesting to see how its uses change as technology develops. For visitors to Riga, it’s mainly interesting to see the incredible views from the observation platform at 97 meters.
With its slightly convoluted name, this is the oldest public museum in the Baltic. It’s located in the old cathedral monastery, which gives the historic collection an even more special feel. It started life in 1773 as the private collection of a local doctor and has since grown into a substantial exhibition showing the history of Riga.
Artefacts date back to the Bronze Age with examples of pre-Christian jewellery and continue up to World War II. The navigation aspect of the name refers to the collection of instruments, ship models, maps and plans that give an insight into how people found their way in times gone by. The combination of the unique setting and the vast group of pieces make it one of the most unusual things to do in Riga.
Don’t tell your dentist you’re coming here, of course, but the historic Laima Chocolate museum is too much temptation to resist. You can smell the cocoa from several streets away, so simply follow your nose to find yourself in this interactive museum dedicated to all things chocolate. Laima, started in 1870, is Latvia’s biggest chocolate producer and the owner opened the museum on the site of the factory to entice more people in.
Here you’ll learn about the chocolate-making traditions of the company through interesting videos, create videos of your own, learn how to make some of the treats the company produces and even get a message printed on a chocolate bar. It’s great for kids – or adult chocoholics!
Whether you’re a fan of the world in the skies or not, this eclectic outdoor museum is a fun place to visit. It’s logically located in the grounds of Riga International Airport, meaning that while you admire the collection of aircraft from the past while the present-day versions zoom overhead. What’s even more fascinating about it, is that it all exists because of one keen aviation engineer, Victor Talpa. As well as building one of Europe’s more unique collections, Talpa also established a Young Pilots’ Club for aviation-keen teens.
In 1997 the museum was fully privatized and opened up to the public. All the exhibits are outdoors, so are slightly weather-worn, but for those interested in the Cold War or engineering, it’s a must-see. The planes range from the huge Mi-6 helicopter to MiG fighter jets and demonstrate the evolution of aviation. Given its location, it’s the ideal place to visit when you’ve got an hour or so to kill before your flight.
Reading this list, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Latvians have a bit of a thing for transport; however, the museums on this theme do tend to be among the most quirky and unusual things to do in Riga. The Latvian Railway History Museum is no exception to this rule. Located in a former engine warehouse from the 19th century, it features a reconstructed waiting room, offices for the station master and ticket counters, and a train platform. You can also get a look at diesel and electric locomotives, including a 1930s passenger carriage and a prison car from the Tsarist era.
As well as these delights, you also inspect the vast collection of memorabilia, which includes photographs and postcards, uniforms and tickets. Something about this patchwork of items from history makes the exhibit more real, as you get a sense of all the people who used to go about their daily lives on the Latvian railways.
Sabile is a gorgeous little town around 1.5 hours from Riga that was formed in the ancient valley of the River Abava in the 13th-14th century by traders and craftsmen. Today, the Old Town of Sabile mesmerizes its sightseers with an exceptional mix of history, wine, and visual delights.
A place to pause, take time and let small-town life take you over, Sabile allows you a glimpse into what life in Latvia is like outside of Riga. Sabile Wine Hill is the most famous attraction in the city and was previously listed in the Guinness World Record Book as the most northerly vineyard in the world – before Norway overtook it. Thanks global warming…
There is also a wooden toy museum, beautiful hikes, cute restaurants and the infamous Doll Garden of Sabile, a somewhat disturbing garden chock-full of hundreds of endlessly smiling doll people. A wonderful day trip from Riga, reachable either by public bus or by hiring a car. We recommend combining with the nearby Pedvale Open Air Museum…
In the northwest part of Latvia, next to Sabile town, you will find the curios Pedvale Open Air Museum – one of the most wonderful and unexpected attractions we visited in Latvia. After the restoration of the independence of Latvia, in 1991, the sculptor Ojārs Arvīds Feldbergs obtained the manors of Firckspedvale and Brinkenpedvale and started developing the Open-air Art Museum and in 2018 opened the Pedvale Art Park to the public.
The terrain of the Art Park encompassed almost 100 hectares of meadows, bushes, steep slopes, deep valleys, streams, and a winding river – all of which visitors are free to wander around and visit. The conception of the Art Park is to integrate the natural landscape, cultural heritage and art into a single space and artists who participate in the museum’s creative projects are encouraged to get inspiration from the surrounding area and to use the natural materials available there.
You will need to hire a car to get here or take a bus and walk from Sabile, but there is no way you will regret the extra effort as you spend hours in awe of the interaction of art and nature in this exceptional space.
A hidden gem of Riga that you will either love or hate, the Art Café Sienna offers an escape from the modern world and a return to centuries-old values. Step back into a bygone era, complete with antique furniture, porcelain, and attentive butler service. This is a ‘café’ to simply be leisurely and enjoy the atmosphere with high-quality coffee, teas from around the world, French-style desserts and cakes.
It’s like drinking in someone’s lovely living room and the service here is second to none. Unique, but certainly not to everyone’s taste. It is seriously expensive though, so unless you are a Russian oligarch we recommend staying away from the champagne and cognac and just going for one of the more affordable coffee or tea sets.
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