On the banks of the Daugava River lies a huge surprise for architecture lovers: Riga, Latvia.
Latvia’s time-tested capital’s old soul bears the traces of long-gone European empires and alliances. Whether hunting down Riga’s Germanic architectural roots or uncovering its Russian sensibilities, a walk through Riga’s Old Town and New Town will reveal most interesting blend of urban architectural styles in Northern Europe & the Baltics.
Can’t stop gawking at architecture when you travel? Spend your first 48 hours in Riga stalking out these eye-catchers:
Day 1: Old Town Riga
If at first glance Riga strikes you as Gdansk or Bremen transplanted in Latvia, I wouldn’t blame you. You’re not so far off.
From the late 13th- until the late 16th-century, Riga was part of the Hanseatic League, a Germanic trading guild that painted Northern, Western, and Central Europe with its distinctive and compelling architectural styles. Remember those boxy, staircase-like façades you couldn’t stop staring at in Amsterdam? Yep, that’s thanks to those good ol’ Hansa fellas.
Town Hall Square
Their architectural promiscuity found its way as far as Riga. And there’s no place better to dazzle at their genius than in Town Hall Square, the beating heart of Old Town Riga. The main building in question: the House of Blackheads, a union hall sexy enough to make even the most staunch anti-communist blush.
St. Peter’s Church
Pulling Town Hall Square together from behind is St Peter’s Church, symbolizing both Riga’s medieval past and its tenacity. The church was completely destroyed in World War II, so what you’ll see now is the result of a decade-long reconstruction project after the church. (A job well done, wouldn’t you say?)
Don’t stop your visit to St. Peter’s Church short at the outside. Sure, its brick-walled interior doesn’t compare to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. But the view of Old Town Riga atop the steeple is worthy of your camera lens.
More Old Town Riga Architecture
In and about Old Town during your first 24 hours in Riga, your visual cortex never rests. Here are some more architectural delights you’ll encounter:
Day 2: New Town Riga & Pārdaugava
New Town Riga is a bit of misnomer. It’s not new by any stretch of the imagination. But compared to the medieval architecture of Old Town Riga, what you’ll find in New Town feels decidedly modern.
The main reason for escaping the Old Town Riga bubble is simple: Jugendstil, better known as Art Nouveau. And for architecture lovers wanting a glimpse of the Art Nouveau architectural style, New Town Riga displays one of Europe’s finest collections.
Start on Alberta iela (Albert Street), an endless stretch of elegant Art Nouveau façades crafted by some of Eastern Europe’s most famous architects including Mikhail Eisenstein, father of the venerable Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein.
Nearby Brīvības iela (Freedom Street), Elizabetes iela (Elizabeth Street), and Strēlnieku iela (Strelnieku Street) are also worth exploring for their Art Nouveau buildings.
Wandering elsewhere you’ll soon discover another style famous in Riga: wooden architecture. Along gritty Miera iela (Peace Street), not far from Central Riga’s Art Nouveau elegance, stumble into New Town’s withering wooden buildings alongside some of Riga’s most interesting street art or for more well-preserved examples of Latvian wooden architecture hop over the Daugava River to Riga’s Pārdaugava district.
Riga Travel Essentials
Where to stay
With all its class and character, Old Town is my recommendation for narrowing your search for hotels in Riga. You’ll pay a little more in Old Town, but the atmosphere is worth it!
My recommendation in Old Town is St. Peter’s Boutique Hotel. The small guesthouse sits on a (usually!) quiet side street, only a couple blocks away from Town Hall Square and other Old Town Riga attractions.
By air: If you wanted to fly directly to Riga, you could. But that’s rarely going to beat the price of flying into other regional hubs. A cheaper way is to fly to Tallinn, or even better, Helsinki. Both are interesting cities worth exploring on their own! Search for cheap flights on Skyscanner.
By bus: Already in the Baltics? You can catch a LuxExpress bus from Vilnius to Riga for as little at 3 EUR with an advanced booking. The trip takes about 4 hours and 10 minutes. The same company also runs the Tallinn to Riga route in 4 hours and 25 minutes for a similar cost.