Home to Europe's biggest food market, its oldest zoo and its finest collection of art nouveau buildings, Riga is a city of little-known superlatives. Its compact center is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site packed full of architectural treasures and there's plenty to explore on both sides of the river Daugava, including topnotch restaurants and buzzy creative quarters. Here are seven reasons to put this Baltic beauty on your bucket list.
Riga's Old Town Is a UNESCO World Heritage Site
With its narrow cobblestone streets, colorful squares and Medieval-era buildings, Riga's Old Town is full of architectural treasures. It features over 500 buildings that reflect different architectural styles including gothic, baroque, modernism and art nouveau and it's been a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1997. Highlights include Riga cathedral, the largest medieval church in the Baltics; St Peter's church for stunning skyline views from its observation platform; and the Three Brothers, a series of three neighboring houses, each built in a different century. Take a stroll down Rozena Steet, a narrow alley where you can touch the opposite walls with both hands, and stop for a coffee at one of the pavement cafes on Dome Square.
It's Home to Europe's Largest Market
Occupying a series of 5 WWI Zeppelin hangars near the edge of the river Daugava, Riga's Central Market covers a vast floor space and is officially Europe's largest market. More than 3,000 vendors sell an impressive range of fresh local produce here and the stalls are divided neatly into separate hangars selling meat, fish, dairy and vegetables, including an amazing array of sauerkraut and huge jars full of pickles. Grab a seat at Sturitis Pelmeni and refuel with a bowl of hand-rolled meaty dumplings served in a delicious broth with a dollop of sour cream.
Its Art Nouveau Architecture Is Amazing
Over a third of all buildings in Riga are examples of art nouveau architecture and the city is recognized as having the finest collection of art nouveau buildings in Europe. Head to the Alberta iela to marvel at the grand houses that line both sides of the street and look up to take in the colorful facades, intricate stonework and unusual gargoyles. Stroll around the surrounding streets, a designated art nouveau quarter, and pop in to the Art Nouveau Museum to see examples of residential interiors from the era.
You Can Hit The Beach in 20 Minutes
Known as the Pearl of Latvia, Jurmala is a 20-mile strip of fine white sand home to a string of beach towns facing the Gulf of Riga. It's the largest resort in the Baltics and a popular weekend escape with its wooden guesthouses, art nouveau villas and spa hotels. Jump on a train from Riga's central station and you can reach the beach in around 20 minutes. The rail track runs along the coast from Lielupe to Kemeri and round-trip tickets cost around $5. Majori is a good station from which to alight. It has a tourist information center and a pedestrianized main street lined with bars and restaurants. Don't miss cocktails at Simply Beach House, a contemporary glass-fronted beach bar right on the sand with unobstructed views of the Baltic, followed by a performance at Dzintari Concert Hall, an atmospheric gig venue built in the 1930s.
Its City Parks Are Stunning
It's easy to find a peaceful spot in Riga for a stroll or a picnic in a lush park. The closest patch of greenery to the city's Old Town is Bastejkalna (Bastion Hill), a pretty 19th-century park home to romantic water features, flower-filled banks and a winding canal. Further north, Esplanade Park is a grand area flanked by Riga's orthodox Nativity Cathedral with its striking gold domed roof, the National Art Museum and the Latvian Art Academy. Close to the art nouveau quarter, Kronvalda Park sits on former hunting ground and features a dancing fountain, a Chinese pagoda and rollerskating tracks.
It Has an Exciting Food Scene
While there are plenty of cozy restaurants serving hearty Latvian dishes like pork knuckle and meatball soup, Riga is home to a growing number of contemporary restaurants helmed by top chefs. Highlights include Restaurant 3, an intimate spot in the Old Town with a focus on natural ingredients sourced from the forest (sorrel soup, pine ice cream, wild garlic chocolate cake), Fabrikas Restorans for contemporary cuisine in a converted factory on the banks of the river Daugava, and 3 Chefs for seasonal dishes served from a buzzy open kitchen.
It's Home to Multiple Creative Quarters
Beyond Riga's cobblestone streets and historic sights you'll find a number of cool pockets of land that are now designated Creative Quarters. Behind the Central Market, the Spikeri Quarter is made up of a series of renovated warehouses home to an art gallery, a concert hall and an outdoor square that hosts regular flea markets and open-air cinema screenings. Across the river from the Old Town, Kalnciems Quarter is an area of beautiful 19th-century wooden houses that have been converted into cafes, restaurants and shops selling arts and crafts. Or head northeast of the city to stroll along colorful Miera Iela (Peace Street) to browse its galleries and its vintage clothes stores before hanging out in a hip cafe.