Greetings Internet Stranger and welcome to 24 hours in Riga. Riga, Latvia isn’t always the first city to draw a tourist’s attention. Latvia is sandwiched in between the other two Baltic countries, Estonia and Lithuania, and sometimes it can feel like the middle child of the Baltics. It lacks Estonia‘s quaint beauty and Lithuania’s…strangeness. But I guarantee that if you spend 24 hours in Riga, you’ll see that the city has it’s own special beauty.
Allow me to lead you through my perfect 24 hours in Riga. I’ll show you the best art museum in the city, help you explore off the beaten track on a walking tour, and we’ll finish the evening at one of Riga’s best restaurants. By the time we’re through, you’ll feel ready to take on Riga all by yourself!
24 Hours in Riga
Where to Stay?
If you’re anything like me, you don’t want to spend a fortune on a hotel room. Sure, you want to be in a place that’s clean and comfortable, but you plan on spending most of your time outside the hotel anyway. However, you still want to be in a good location because you don’t want to waste your precious 24 hours in Riga getting to and from your hotel. That’s why I recommend Hotel Forums. My room was really cozy, and the price was right. But most importantly, Hotel Forums is right near the Old Town in Riga, so I could wake up and get straight to exploring!
24 Hours in Riga
What to Pack?
The weather in Latvia can be rainy. So the two most important things you’ll need to bring are an umbrella and some rain boots. My favorite travel umbrella is the Repel Teflon Waterproof Umbrella. It is strong enough to stand up to the sometimes-quite-strong winds of Latvia.
For rain boots, I recommend the Asgard Rain Boots. They are comfy/cozy and keep my feet dry all day. Plus they’re cute enough that I can wear them out and about without feeling like some gauche American with gross feet.
Finally, if you’re not from Europe, you need a universal adapter if you’re going to plug in electronics. European electrical outlets don’t work with either American or UK plugs. I suggest the NEWVANGA travel adapter. It’s usable with any electrical outlet in the world, so you won’t need to keep buying new adapters. I always carry two with me, just in case something happens to one.
24 Hours in Riga
Morning: Art Museum Riga Bourse
There are two things I simply must do any time I arrive in a new city. One is take a walking tour (we’ll do that later today), and the other is visit a museum. I know some people find museums boring and/or intimidating, but they don’t need to be! A museum is just a place where a community has gathered their beautiful and special treasures. And you, as a guest in the city, get to peruse these treasures and make slightly off-case assumptions about them!
The first museum to check out during your 24 hours in Riga is the Art Museum Riga Bourse. The first thing you’ll learn at the museum is that Riga is famous for art nouveau. There is art nouveau all over Riga, and it is fabulous. If you’re sitting out there afraid because you don’t know what art nouveau is, never fear! I’m here to help with…
three fun facts: riga art nouveau
1) what is some art nouveau subject matter?
Well, naked ladies are always welcome in art nouveau. I feel like “girls without their clothes on” has always been a popular theme throughout art history. But art nouveau has a better reason for featuring women in the buff than most genres of art. Art nouveau-ists were fascinated by nature, and the human body is certainly a part of nature.
Other popular subjects in art nouveau pieces are flowers, plants, birds…basically anything you might have found in the Garden of Eden. Some say that art nouveau, which started in the late 19th century, was a romantic reaction against the Industrial Age. The style eventually stopped around the same time World War I started, perhaps because people were too busy being killed to make clocks out of naked ladies. If only Kaiser Wilhelm had listened to the flowers!
2) what objects can be art nouveau?
You are a clever person, so you’ll already have noticed that a lot of art nouveau works aren’t actually paintings. Art nouveau-ists wanted to make items that served a practical purpose. So you can find art nouveau clocks, art nouveau vases, art nouveau chairs…etc. In fact, the most popular art nouveau object in the world is probably the original signs for the Paris metro stations.
Art nouveau-ists believed that anything could be a work of art. They wanted to combat the ugliness of mass production by creating beautiful, individual pieces that were in harmony with nature. This vase came from the small company of Latvian art nouveau enthusiast Maksis Servinskis. (You can call him Max for short. He’s dead, so he doesn’t care.) I think the art nouveau people would have a lot in common with Etsy crafters today.
3) why is a tapestry here?
The art nouveau-ists LOVED anything to do with medieval times. They saw it as a time when there was no commercialism and everyone in Europe was in touch with beauty and nature. Obviously they never went to a Medieval Times restaurant because there’s a lot of commercialism there and almost no nature.
You might be wondering why POMONA is written on top of this tapestry. It has nothing to do with the city in California. Pomona was a Roman goddess of fruit. In the tapestry, you can see that she’s holding a gaggle of apples in her skirt. So this tapestry is hitting both the “nature” theme and the “Medieval” theme. However, it loses some art nouveau points because Pomona has all her clothes on.
24 Hours in Riga
Afternoon: Explore Riga!
We’ve spent the morning of our 24 hours in Riga indoors learning about Art Nouveau, and now it’s time to take it to the streets! Join me for the best things I saw in Riga with…
approximately top 5: 24 hours in riga
1) fat pumpkin
Before we start walking, we’re going to need to fill our bellies! So I’m going to take you to one of the cutest lunch spots in Riga.
Fat Pumpkin is a vegan restaurant, which I was pleasantly surprised to find in Latvia. My father’s family is originally from Eastern Europe (Romania), and I know it can be difficult to find veggie-friendly dishes. Though I am not a vegetarian, I do like to provide my vegetarian readers with options while they are traveling. Plus it’s important to eat your vegetables when you’re on the road. You don’t want to get scurvy!
Just because you are eating vegetables doesn’t mean that you need to eat healthy. That’s just science. So I enjoyed chowing down on my burger made with pumpkin along with a stack of thick-cut fried potatoes. Did the pumpkin burger trick me into thinking that I was eating meat? No. Are pumpkins still delicious? Of course! Why else would pumpkin spice lattes be so popular. I think Fat Pumpkin should call this the Pumpkin Spice Burger and make a billion dollars.
2) stalin’s birthday cake
Now we’re fed and the tour can begin! The first major stop on the tour is this imposing skyscraper. I was told this was actually a “gift” for Latvia from Stalin when Latvia was part of the USSR. Officially its name is The Latvian Academy of Arts and Sciences. But apparently the locals call it “Stalin’s Birthday Cake”. It was supposed to be a gift from Stalin to Latvia. But since taxes collected from the Latvians actually paid for it, it seems more like a present from Latvia to Stalin. You can see a similar building if you go to Warsaw, the capital of Poland.
But we’re not just going to get to gawk at Stalin’s birthday cake. We’re actually going to blow out the candles. And by that, I mean go to the observation deck on the 17th floor. In the distance, you can see the Riga Radio and TV tower. Like Stalin’s birthday cake, it was built during the Soviet period. It is also the tallest tower in the European Union. So you’re getting to see two tall buildings for the price of one! I told you I’d plan these 24 hours in Riga carefully.
3) riga holocaust museum
The official name of this museum is the Riga Ghetto and Latvian Holocaust Museum. Unlike many Holocaust museums, the exhibits are largely located outside. The museum is located in the former Riga Jewish Ghetto. Like many cities in Eastern Europe, Riga used to have a large Jewish population. At one point about ten percent of the city was Jewish.
Latvia had a similar history during World War II as its neighbor Estonia. Neither the Soviets nor the Nazis were willing to let the Baltic countries stay neutral. First the Soviet Union took over Latvia, and then the Nazis successfully invaded. The Nazis established a Jewish ghetto, and they immediately began murdering Jewish people.
They also began deporting Jewish people from Germany and Central Europe to Riga in cars like the one you can see above. Almost all these Jewish people, both Latvian and otherwise, were killed by the Nazis. The Holocaust in Latvia finally ended in 1944 when the Red Army once again took over Latvia. (Much more about this later.)
4) riga central market
It’s very strange to go from talking about the Holocaust to talking about food shopping. But such is the nature of traveling around Eastern Europe. Also this is Latvia, so there’s plenty of upsetting history to talk about, even at the food market.
The Riga Central Market is a must see during your 24 hours in Riga. You can see the finest in Latvian food from fresh cherries to fish heads. But the buildings themselves are almost as cool as the food. They’re actually re-purposed zeppelin hangars left over from World War I. That makes sense. I’d rather have caviar than zeppelin any day.
See! 9 out of 10 Latvians agree with me!
As we walked around the Riga Central Market, we heard a lot of Russian being spoken. Apparently about a third of the population speaks Russian as their native language. This can lead to conflicts between the Latvian and Russian population.
For example, Victory Day, celebrating the end of World War II, is a major holiday for the Russian population. But to the Latvians, Victory Day represents the beginning of Soviet occupation of Latvia, and I was told they don’t like it being celebrated. I definitely get not wanting to celebrate Latvian occupation, but as a Jewish-American, it’s difficult for me to understand not wanting to celebrate the end of World War II. But in the Baltic countries, it’s common to hear people say that World War II didn’t end for them until the 1990s, when they got their independence.
But one thing Russians and Latvians can agree on is that kvas is delicious! Kvas is an indescribable Soviet soda made with bread. It’s basically the Soviet answer to Coca-Cola. Kvas is deeply weird, but once you get used to the taste, it’s kind of addictive. I’m tempted to run down to Brighton Beach, the Russian neighborhood in my hometown of New York, and see if I can find some now.
5) art nouveau
After the kvas break, go by public transportation to look at the most famous buildings in Riga. Of course, I speak of the art nouveau architecture. Riga has the largest concentration of art nouveau buildings of any city in the world. You should be able to recognize the art nouveau elements we saw in the art museum, like natural forms and medieval inspiration. However, they cool it with the naked ladies on the buildings, I guess because there might be kids walking by.
There are several streets in Riga that have an amazing concentration of art nouveau buildings. One of them is Alberta iela (Albert street in English.) The other major street is Elizabetes iela. If you like looking at pretty, old things, just give yourself some time to stroll down these two streets and bring your camera.
One fun fact is that the architect who built many of these art nouveau buildings was Mikhail Eisenstein, the father of legendary Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein. That’s a lot of artistic talent to be concentrated in one family! My family is mostly just proud of ourselves that we’ve stopped getting convicted of horse thieving.
24 hour treat: labietis beer
After all that exploring, it’s time to treat yourself to some Latvian craft beer at the Labietis brewpub. It was delicious, and I know of no better evidence that Latvia is no longer a communist country than that they now have craft beer. You can’t get this hoppy flavor from a state run brewery!
24 Hours in Riga
Evening: Dinner at Domini Canes
At the end of the tour, Anda will help you get on public transportation, so you can get closer to your hotel. We’re going to finish up our 24 hours in Riga at Domini Canes, one of the best-reviewed restaurants in Riga. I was going to make a joke about how I was stupid and thought the restaurant name meant God Dogs, but actually the name does mean “The Hounds of God”. Cool name for a restaurant! It sounds like God will punish us if we don’t eat here.
Latvian produce is fantastic, especially the forest berries. Latvia has tons of woods, and lumber is one of the number one industries in the country. So don’t sleep on the chance to grab as many Latvian berries as you can stuff in your cheeks.
As you should have noticed from all the fish heads at the Riga Central Market, Latvia also has access to great seafood. It’s right on the Baltic Sea, after all. So this might be a rare chance to try some flavorful Baltic salmon. And bonus! They even managed to sneak a strawberry into this dish.
And with the dessert, we’re going for the Latvian berry trifecta! This gorgeous creme brulee is almost too pretty to eat, but don’t cry for me! I definitely managed to eat all of it. What I liked about Domini Canes is that they take fresh, local ingredients, and they prepare them simply so the quality of the ingredients can shine. Not every great meal needs to have foams and explosions.
That’s a Perfect 24 Hours in Riga, Latvia!
What would you do with 24 hours in Riga? Why can’t we all just celebrate the end of World War II? And what would you rather have, zeppelin hangars or fish heads? Please leave your thoughts below!
Note: If you want to know how I put my travel itineraries together, just click here. Keep in mind that while each article is about how to spend 24 hours in a place, that doesn’t mean you should ONLY spend 24 hours in Riga. If you have time for another 24 hours in Riga, click here.