With world-renowned architecture, massive markets and extremely low prices, it’s a wonder international tourists aren’t flocking to Riga. Once the fourth largest city of the Imperial Russian Empire (behind St. Petersburg, Moscow and Warsaw), Riga’s streets are built for royalty. In the summer, the days are long, with the sun hovering just under the horizon for six hours each night. In the winter, Latvian saunas reinvigorate even the most frozen of visitors.
This is a city for history buffs, foodies and night crawlers alike. Visitors will find an unlocked treasure trove around every corner, from Eastern European cuisine, revived since the fall of the Soviet Union, to the ornate freedom of Art Nouveau.
If we haven’t convinced you to visit the birthplace of artists and thinkers like famed filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein yet, read on.
1. St. Peter’s Church
Get acclimated from the tower at St. Peter’s Church (pictured above), a Lutheran church in the heart of Riga’s old city. Unlike many other European countries, Latvia is mostly Lutheran, not Catholic. The country followed pagan traditions until the 13th century, when the Reformation trickled up to Latvia with the Germans.
2. Riga Art Nouveau Museum
As the bohemian Belle Époque reigned in Paris’ Montmartre, Art Nouveau seized Riga’s cultural elite. Hundreds of buildings were erected in this style that rebelled against academic art and reconnected with the natural world, eventually leading UNESCO to protect Riga’s historic center as the most prolific city of Art Nouveau in the world. Download this guide for a free, self-guided outdoor Belle Époque tour and stop inside the Riga Art Nouveau Museum and see restored apartments exemplary of the movement.
3. Museum of Occupation
Well-constructed exhibits expose all of the dirty secrets behind Nazi and Soviet control on Latvian soil at Riga’s Museum of Occupation. The museum has been named one of the most comprehensive and well-curated historical museums in Europe. It covers before, during, and after Nazi and Soviet powers wreaked havoc on the small country, using tangible relics and examples, like a recreation of the barracks used for deportees bound for Soviet prison camps. Entrance is by donation and includes admission to the former building of the KGB and Cheka, the Soviet secret police, on the corner of Br?v?bas and Stabu Streets. Decompress afterward on the banks of the Daugava River and find the statue of Kristaps, the legendary founder of Riga.
4. Riga Black Balsam
No drink is more unique to Latvia than Riga Black Balsam, an alcohol that dates back to the middle of the 18th century. Over 24 ingredients are required to make it, including linden blossom, birch bud, valerian root, raspberry, ginger, nutmeg and black peppercorn added to vodka and aged in oak barrels. Try it like a Latvian by adding a little bit to tea, coffee or hot currant juice, or at Riga Black Magic, which also boasts a sumptuous desert menu and is decorated in the elegant, low-lit style of the Belle Époque. Customers can order a number of chocolates and cakes with Black Balsam hidden in the ingredients, like the “Taurus” truffle, a dark chocolate truffle infused with Riga Black Balsam.
5. Riga Central Market
Photo via Flickr/Sergejs Babikovs
Riga Central Market, one of the largest markets and bazaars in Europe, lives inside former German zeppelin hangars just outside of old city. These hangars are five of eight remaining in the world. Every day, vendors line up behind more than 3,000 stands filled with fruits, vegetables, meats, dried fruit and nuts, prepared foods, and dairy products like Eastern Europe’s famed kefir and tvorog, the Eastern derivative of quark. Craftsmen sell Latvian handmade goods like knit socks and homemade ornaments that make great souvenirs and presents. Try some kvass, a refreshing fermented rye bread drink often flavored with different fruits, or smoked fish fresh from the Baltic Sea.
On the Eastern shore of the Daugava River stands Vecr?ga, the medieval old town of Riga closed to traffic and protected by UNESCO. But there is nothing old and tired about this part of town; locals have revived it by opening bars and nightclubs on its street, and it is now a nightlife hot spot. Pregame at Krogs Aptieka, a pharmacy-themed bar with cheap drinks and a jukebox featuring a wide selection of classic rock treasures. Then head to beauty-salon-by-day Bar.Ber Room to dance under a plethora of disco balls, and choose between two floors with different nightclub vibes. If you’re more of an indie-seeker, check out gritty underground at the hip, bohemian student concert hall, nightclub and dive bar Nabaklab, located on the edge of old town near the pristinely beautiful Bastion Hill Park.
Ashley Schneider is a Brooklyn-based writer, translator and traveler previously hailing from France and Russia.