Riga is an oft forgotten gem sitting at the crossroads between northern and Eastern Europe, boasting a UNESCO World Heritage medieval Old Town and the world’s richest collection of art nouveau architecture.
Gothic spires dot the skyline, peppered throughout the old town and are especially beautiful when glimpsed from below whilst wandering through the ancient cobbled streets. This is contrasted by the opulent and intricate facades of the art nouveau buildings outside of the old town, garnering Riga the nickname ‘Paris of the North’.
A truly European capital, Riga has been touched by many different cultures – German knights, Swedish Kings, Nazis and Soviet Russia. In 1991 Latvia gained its independence back from the crumbling Soviet Union, and ever since Riga has established itself as a cultural capital that is quickly becoming known for its buzzing restaurant scene, amazing nightlife and flawless mix of tradition with cutting-edge cool.
With all that said, here’s a guide for going it solo in Riga.
Where to Stay
The Old Town is the place to be if you want to be in the heart of the action. Hostels abound in these medieval streets, a popular spot for backpackers thanks to the cheap prices and overflow of culture, bars and restaurants.
The Riga Old Town Hostel & Backpackers Pub has cheap beds and sits over an Australian themed bar, but it’s not a cheesy one like you might be used to when visiting ‘Aussie’ pubs around Europe – there are no road signs, crocodiles on the wall or pictures of kangaroos here. There is however a beautiful kombi van that has been hollowed out and now functions as a bar, Aussie (as well as Latvian) beers behind the counter and 3 floors that fill out most nights with hostel guests and locals as well. It’s a great place to meet other travellers, but maybe not the place to be if you value sleep.
The Naughty Squirrel Backpackers Hostel is another great option, sporting friendly staff and a great atmosphere. It’s a good option if you’re looking for a good place to meet other travellers and get some shut eye.
The Old Town in Riga is easily walkable, and it’s only a short walk from there to the more modern part of the city. If you want to make use of the extensive bus system to explore further afield, head to a Narvesen (they’re everywhere and hard to miss) and pick yourself up a 10 ride transport card. The public transport uses a swipe on method, and you’ll be able to make use of any bus or tram across the city.
The main train station is Origo in the centre of town. Trains to other spots around Latvia are cheap as can be, and there are some worthy day trips out of the city like seeing the medieval castle at Sigulda or heading to the nearby popular beach town of Jurmala.
What to Do
As a solo traveller, there’s no end to the amount of things you can do to while away your time in Riga. Tourism is well developed in the city, so you can easily join a walking tour, a bar crawl or just decide to go it on your own.
The Old Town
Upon arriving, the best thing to do to get a feel for the city however is to wander the medieval streets of the old town, getting lost in the passageways that wind throughout. You’ll find some truly hidden gems, as bars, restaurants and shops are hiding around every corner. Glimpses of the gothic spires throughout and quietness of the streets after dark will make you think you’ve been transported back in time. Make sure to check out the ‘three brothers’, the oldest three residential houses in Riga, and the Riga Cathedral, the largest medieval church in the Baltics.
Peter’s Church and House of the Blackheads
Dominating the skyline of old town Riga is the green spire of St. Peter’s Church. Head here to ride the rickety lift to the top of the tower, rewarding you with amazing 360 degree views out over the city, the river and surrounding area. It’s the perfect place to get your bearings.
From down below, the church sits in the background to one of the most famous of Riga’s sights – House of the Blackheads. This ornate structure was built in 1344 as a home for a fraternity of unmarried German merchants known as the Blackheads Guild. The original building was destroyed in 1941 during the Soviet occupation, but an exact replica made from the original blueprints was built in 2001 for the 800th birthday of the city.
Affectionately known as Milda, this monument is the symbol of Latvian independence. Suffering through successive regimes from Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany and then Soviet Russia once again, Latvian independence was achieved in 1991. This moument was built in 1935 and completely paid for by public donations. The lady on top of the statue, Milda, is holding aloft three stars that represent the three original cultural regions of Latvia: Latgale, Vidzeme and Kurzeme.
The astounding art nouveau architecture that abounds in Riga is at its best on Alberta Iela. Intricate building facades exhibit ornate entrances with griffins, goblins, peacocks and more in an example of an expert’s painstaking attention to detail. The entire street was a 700th birthday gift to the city, from the architect Mikhael Eisenstein, the designer.
Housed in a number of large zeppelin hangars is Riga’s central market. Riga has always been an important trading city in the northern region, and the bountiful market is a great example of that. Haggle your way through the hangars, selling everything from fresh fruit to dairy to fresh fish. It’s a colourful experience and a good place to stock up on goods for a picnic (during the summer) in one of Riga’s many parks.