Adi takes a family-friendly holiday in Riga, Lativa and shares what to do, see, and eat in 72 hours in this gem of Baltic Europe.
I’ve been writing for CheeseWeb for a couple of years now, and during this time it has been not only my host but also a great source of travel inspiration. I have Alison to thank for visiting Iceland, Ireland, many spots in Belgium and now, Latvia. After I read her article on Latvia, I quickly became interested in Riga, its UNESCO-listed capital.
With such an extensive pool of travel information to choose from; it can be overwhelming to decide where to go next. Since we haven’t explored much of the Baltic Europe, we decided now was the time to do it.
Where to stay in Riga
Travelling with kids means hotels are almost always out of the question since we have to book family rooms which can be way over our budget. So, as we do on most of our travels, we booked an apartment via Airbnb, in the appealing Art Nouveau district.
The apartment was large and slept six comfortably. We chose it because of the good reviews but, most importantly, due to its 24h check-in. We had a late arrival and an early departure, and they arranged for a taxi as well.
One detail to keep in mind, if you travel in the shoulder season and the temperatures drop, there will be no heating until the daytime average temperature drops below 8C. The heating system in Latvia is turned on by one company, at the same time, for everybody. To combat this little predicament, the staff in the lobby supplied us with space heaters and blankets as the temperatures never went above 11C during the day and 3-4C at night.
What to do in Riga
1. Freedom Monument
The Freedom Monument is a memorial honouring the soldiers killed during the Latvian War of Independence, and it is considered an important symbol of the freedom, independence, and sovereignty of Latvia. You cannot miss this monument because it’s 42m high and in the centre of town. The area does not allow for cars and is flanked by a park and other green spaces. It’s perfect if you travel with kids as they can unwind and chase pigeons while you relax on one of the many benches.
2. Enjoy Riga’s Parks
Because we went to Riga in October, we were able to observe the foliage at every step while crossing the city’s beautiful parks. The central park area is especially lovely due to the snaking Pilsētas kanāls, the city canal, which splits from the much larger Daugava River, and runs between the centre and the old town.
Many of the parks have playgrounds, a plus if travelling with children like us. Vērmanes Park was the best in terms of kid fun offering trampolines where our children jumped for hours while we enjoyed gorgeous tea at Apsara Tea House, situated only a few meters away from the trampolines. Everybody was happy.
3. Take a canal and riverboat tour
The little wooden boats moored by the foot of the bridge, right next to the Freedom Monument patiently await visitors to take them on a lovely one hour canal and river ride. Adults pay 15 euros; older kids pay 9 euros; while kids 6 and under go free.
The boats are small; at the time of our tour, only two older couples were with us. The boats are silent allowing you to enjoy the sounds of the fauna that live on the river. Hundreds of Mallard ducks make the canal their part-time home allowing for some entertainment for the tourists.
The tour starts on the canal and exits on the Daugava River giving you the opportunity to view the city from the river before returning to the canal in one big circle. The one-hour tour was one of the most enjoyable activities in Riga. Our kids were delighted too.
4. Enjoy the lively Līvu Square
It is hard to believe the present square was once just river and part of the shipping route for transporting Latvian grain up to the 16th century. Today, the only thing that reminds people of the water are the wavy flower beds representing the flowing river.
This part of the Old Town is full of life in summer and the beginning of fall, with many open-air concerts, and theatre plays. Cute little cafes and restaurants line the sides of the square as well as a few stalls where independent vendors are selling hand knitted wool clothing and souvenirs.
5. St. Peter’s Church and Tower
You probably have noticed by now; visiting churches is something I love to do. I enjoy the calm and silence churches offer as well as the gorgeous art. If you are lucky, some of them will allow access to their towers. St. Peter’s is one such church.
For a fee, you are allowed climb the tower. I didn’t love the spiral staircase and the many steps to the top, but it is worth the effort. The view of Riga from the tower is gorgeous and worthy of your time. Once down from the tower, you can enjoy the art exhibits displayed inside the church.
6. Test your archery skills
Every day, from 9-11am, next to St. Peter’s Church, you can unleash your inner Robin Hood at the little archery range. You are given a real bow and 14 real arrows for 5 euros. No experience needed, as they give you a short crash course. My son begged us to do it so my husband joined in. It was great fun for both of them.
7. Stroll the Old Centre
One of the best things you can do in Riga is simply walk. The architecture is beautiful, and because we travelled offseason, we weren’t surrounded by groups of people and the dreaded selfie sticks. Riga felt very open, airy and relaxing. The tourist centre offers walking tours, but we generally stay away from that. Because we travel with our children, we prefer being on our own and taking our time.
8. The Nativity of Christ Cathedral
The Neo-Byzantine cathedral was built between 1876 and 1883 when the country was part of the Russian Empire. It is the largest Orthodox cathedral in the Baltics, built with the blessing of the Russian Tsar Alexander II. In the early 1960s, Soviet authorities closed it and converted the building into a planetarium. The cathedral has been restored since Latvia regained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
As with most Orthodox churches we’ve visited, photography is not allowed inside, but I can assure you this cathedral is worth visiting. The details are striking, and I loved the blue paintwork. It is unique in our travels. I did manage to squeeze a shot just outside the door to give you a small taste of what awaits inside.
9. Riga Cathedral
Also known as the Riga Dom, the cathedral was built near the river Daugava in the year 1211. It is the largest medieval church in the Baltics, and it’s one of the most recognisable landmarks in Latvia. During the Soviet occupation, of 1959-1989, religious services were prohibited, and the cathedral was used as a concert hall. There is a fee to see the cathedral which includes the cloister.
10. Observe the Art Nouveau Architecture
Since over a third of all buildings in Riga are examples of this unique school of design, there are many viewing opportunities. One of the best streets in which to see amazing Art Nouveau architecture is Alberta Street. Here, one of the city’s most prolific Art Nouveau architects, Mikhail Eisenstein, designed a series of buildings famous for their unusual sculptures, coloured bricks and tiles, geometric ornaments, and uniquely shaped windows.
Where to Eat in Riga
For filling and cheap buffet breakfasts, I recommend eating at the Lido restaurant. There are several around Riga, although it’s not really a chain as far as I could tell. This one was, luckily enough, next door to our apartment building. Every morning we filled our bellies with huge plates, and our kids ate free. At lunch, I recommend trying the cold beet soup with kefir and cucumbers. It’s a fresh Latvian delight.
Another choice for authentic Latvian food is Taverna Pie Sena Dzintara Cela, situated by the Powder Tower. Here we enjoyed delicious thick, meaty soups in a bread bowl, while my husband tried the blood sausage. He swears he never had better.
For the sweet tooth, try Crazy Donuts café. The donuts come in a variety of flavours and are made in house. I don’t have to tell you that our kids requested daily visits here.
Saving the best for last, I recommend eating at the Riga Central Market, opened in 1930, in former military aircraft and zeppelin hangars.
One of the largest in Eastern Europe, Riga Central Market is the heart of Riga. The market offers a vast variety of Latvian-grown and handcrafted products, fruit and spices, as well as manufactured merchandise. The market spans over five pavilions each with its own category: vegetables, dairy, meat, fish and gastronomy products, as well as an outdoor area with stalls and stands containing mostly fresh produce. Some of the best bites are sold in the fish pavilion. The smoked herring sitting on crunchy toast with garlic and pickled beets was something I would have never thought would work together, but it does, and it’s delicious.
Extra Riga Travel Tips
- You can get a Riga card that allows you to use public transportation for free and get discounted entrances to different tourist attractions.
- Visit in the shoulder season to avoid crowds. If you are a nature nut and love observing the foliage, early to mid-October is the best time for a visit.
- Most vendors accept cards but do carry cash, especially for the street shops and the market.
- There is fast, free wifi in most restaurants and cafes so do ask for the password.
- It’s an affordable destination and travelling with a larger family will not thin the wallet.
- Most people speak English thus there is hardly a language barrier.
- If in need of a taxi, the prices are very affordable.
Discovering Riga with my family was fun and delicious. Put Riga on your travel list and get ready for a great time.