Every now and then, I discover a city that seems to be pretty damn close to perfection — yet mysteriously under-touristed, not visited by as many people as it should be.
That latest city for me was Riga, the capital of Latvia. It was one of my favorite destinations of my summer in Europe and I feel like it doesn’t get nearly enough love or attention as it deserves.
A beautiful city? Absolutely, with UNESCO World Heritage-listed architecture.
Things to do? Totally. Lots of tours and museums, especially if you’re into history.
Food? Surprisingly good, and nothing like the Soviet stereotype.
Shopping? You bet. Amber jewelry is probably the best quality item on which to splurge.
Green spaces? Quite a few beautiful parks with lots of flowers.
Nightlife? Absolutely. Whether you’re into beer, wine, or Black Balsam, you’re in good condition!
Day trip potential? Lots of options, whether you want to visit the beach, the countryside, or other cities.
Tourist crowds? Blissfully few. It’s not like Prague, where you’re fighting your way through the old town.
And the prices? Very, very affordable. And lots of budget airlines fly there, making it affordable to get there as well.
What’s not to love about all that?
Most people visit Riga in tandem with trips to surrounding Lithuania and Estonia, as the three Baltic nations are small in size and have easy transit connections. That wasn’t what I did — my mother, sister and I visited Riga on its own to connect with our family ancestry in the city.
Yes, Riga is absolutely doable as a trip on its own, as is Latvia as a whole. We had hoped to branch out and see more of the country, but unfortunately it was uncharacteristically chilly and rainy, which made us want to stay put.
There is something to be said about getting off the beaten path, however you happen to define that phrase. I think Riga is off the beaten path as it has all the charm and beauty but nowhere near the level of tourism of similar cities like Prague, Krakow, even Ljubljana.
Here are my favorite highlights of the city!
The Historic Centre of Riga is one of Latvia’s two UNESCO World Heritage Sites (the other is the ephemeral Stuve Geodetic Arc). The Hanseatic architecture is fantastically preserved and you can see why it received that designation!
And while the city center is very pastel, the flowers bring a warm dose of primary colors!
Being so far north, Latvia is fairly dark for a few months of the year — these colors breathe more life into the city.
Latvia is always a running joke on Reddit. “Potato” is always the punchline and there’s even a subreddit called Latvian Jokes. (“Two latvian look at clouds. One see potato. Other see impossible dream. Is same cloud.”)
Honestly, I didn’t expect much in terms of food, but Riga was one of my favorite food destinations of my summer in Europe!
And because the prices are so cheap, you can splurge a little bit. When we were in the basement pub at Folkklubs, delicious main dishes cost about 6 EUR ($7) each. In a high-end restaurant in the old town, main dishes like venison stew cost about 15 EUR ($18 USD).
Riga’s Central Market is very much worth a visit. The food is fresh and prices are super-cheap.
I’m a pickle fiend — always have been. (Except for sweet pickles. Blech.) As you might imagine, Latvia knows how to pickle just about everything.
At one point while on our walking tour, I broke away, bought a pickle (for something ridiculous like 20 cents) and walked back to the group. My mom and sister turned around and saw me standing there, chomping on a pickle like it was the most normal thing in the world, and they burst out laughing.
This lady is one of Riga’s most beloved street performers. Every day she turns on a boom box with traditional music and dances in place. She cleans up quite nicely.
People-watching in Latvia was always interesting! You’d see old babushka ladies walking arm in arm, gorgeous young women in high heels and cutting edge couture, and families strolling together. Always something to look at.
Riga’s Freedom Monument is the anchor of the city. It’s a memorial to the soldiers killed in the Latvian War for Independence (1918-1920).
Time your visit right and you’ll see the soldiers changing guard.
I think that having central green spaces is essential to a city, and Riga is dotted with several parks. The major central one is Bastejkalna Park, which is close to the Freedom Monument and surrounds the canals.
Perfect place for strolling on a sunny day.
Cafe culture is important to me in my European travels, and I delighted in Riga’s many outdoor cafes. You won’t be short of places to find your afternoon caffeine boost.
This yellow building was probably my favorite building in Riga! Love that color.
Our introduction to Riga nightlife was at an awesome subterranean pub called Folkklubs that my sister found. Delicious and cheap food, an excellent beer selection, and live music. We happened to be there on karaoke night — and Sarah and I rocked the harmonies on Toto’s “Africa.”
Our second introduction to Riga nightlife was Easy Wine — a self-service wine bar where you can order different kinds of wine in quarter, half, or whole glass portions. So many delicious options! I especially loved a New Zealand sauvignon blanc they had on tap.
I loved Easy Wine so much, I insisted we go back on my birthday two days later.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of going to Riga and seeing nothing but the old town, which is why my family and I loved taking the free Riga Alternative Tour, which was almost entirely outside the old town and showed us a side of the city that most tourists don’t get to experience.
Overall, I had such a wonderful time in Riga and I really think you should consider it as a future European destination! There’s so much to love about this little city.
Essential Info: In Riga we stayed at this three-bedroom Airbnb apartment for $81 per night plus Airbnb fees. It couldn’t possibly have been better situated, right in the center of the Old Town, and it was very comfortable and homey. Our hosts kindly picked us up and dropped us off at the airport for 15 EUR ($17) each way, which was equivalent to what a taxi would cost.
We also did the free Riga Alternative Tour, which was fun and educational (remember to tip your guide!). Also, don’t miss trying the famous Black Balsam liqueur, on its own or in cocktails.