Greetings Internet Stranger and welcome to the one day in Riga itinerary. There are some tourists out there who are obsessed with only visiting obscure destinations and attractions. “I’m a traveler, not a tourist!” they will say, stroking their goatees.
Well, I hate to disappoint these people, but if you are visiting a city for pleasure, you are certainly a tourist! You don’t want to be an Ugly Tourist, but there’s no point in refusing to visit the top attractions in a city just so you can feel cool. And there’s no point in having a one day in Riga itinerary without seeing Riga Old Town.
Every Baltic country has an adorable Old Town, and Riga Old Town is no exception. If you like adorable old buildings, odd statues, quirky little burger shops, and quaint stores full of well-dressed dolls, Riga Old Town is for you! The winding streets and cobblestones can be a little overwhelming, especially if there are cruise ship crowds in town. So just follow me, and I promise we can get through Riga Old Town together!
One Day in Riga Itinerary
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 One Day in Riga Itinerary 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 Riga Old Town, so I could wake up and get straight to exploring!
One Day in Riga Itinerary
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.
One Day in Riga Itinerary
Morning: House of the Blackheads
Sometimes when you’re traveling around Europe, the cities can start to blend together. Here’s another art museum. There’s another church. Here’s another fountain shaped like Poseidon. That’s why you can’t pass up the chance to start your One Day in Riga Itinerary at the House of the Blackheads. No other city has two pseudo-14th century buildings that look like twin brick wedding cakes and were also where the Christmas tree was invented. Don’t believe me? Let me prove it to you with…
three fun facts: house of the blackheads
1) how old is the house of the blackheads?
That’s a very complicated question! The original building was constructed all the way back in 1334. As you can probably tell from looking at the elaborate exterior, Riga was a wealthy city back in the 14th century. Like pretty much every well-to-do city in northern medieval Europe, Riga owed its wealth to the Hanseatic League, which was a trade organization that united every major port city on the Baltic and North Seas.
The House of the Blackheads stood, noble, proud, and weird, until the 20th century. This house could withstand many things, but it could not withstand Nazi bombs, and it fell during World War II. After the USSR took over Latvia, the Soviets demolished what was left of the House of the Blackheads. (To be fair, there wasn’t much left.)
Still this story has a happy ending! The city of Riga decided to rebuild the house. A few short years after Latvia regained its independence from the USSR, the House of the Blackheads was standing once more! Now any visitor or local can go inside and tour the recreation of the medieval building.
2) why is it called the house of the blackheads?
The House of the Blackheads was a meeting place for a medieval organization called the Brotherhood of Blackheads. This brotherhood supposedly was a group for “unmarried merchants, shipowners, and foreigners”. I don’t know exactly what all those people have in common, except that they probably always know where the good liquor is. I suspect the Brotherhood of Blackheads was just a good excuse for young men to get together and party down, medieval-styles. Probably lots of mead was involved.
But since medieval Europe was so deeply religious, even a brotherhood of partying bros needed a patron saint. The patron saint of the Brotherhood of Blackheads. was Saint Maurice, an Egyptian saint who was always shown as a black man during medieval times. So the House of the Blackheads is covered with images of black people in his honor.
I have not spoken to every single Latvian in Riga. But every Latvian in Riga to whom I did speak about the House of the Blackheads is aware that these images are old-fashioned and potentially offensive. “It’s not meant to be racist!” is a phrase I heard several times.
3) and they invented the christmas tree?
So, that’s a bit debatable, Internet Stranger. The Brotherhood of Blackheads were the first organization to celebrate Christmas by lighting a tree on fire. But Riga wasn’t the only city that had a Brotherhood of Blackheads. There was one in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, as well. (Back then Tallinn was called Reval, but that’s another story and shall be told another time.) So both Latvia and Estonia claim to have invented the Christmas tree.
But this post is about Riga Old Town, so I’ll be presenting the Latvian version of events. Apparently one freezing Latvian Christmas in 1510, a group of gentlemen decided it would be a great idea to celebrate the birth of Our Lord by grabbing a giant pine tree and setting it gently on fire. (They may or may not have been incredibly drunk.) So the next time you and yours are gathered peacefully around the Christmas tree, remember that we probably owe these festivities to drunken Latvian sailors.
One Day in Riga Itinerary
Afternoon: Riga Old Town
Now that we’ve spent the morning indoors at the beautiful and strange House of the Blackheads, it’s time for some fresh air. Fortunately we have a beautiful afternoon full of exploring Riga Old Town ahead of us. Part of the fun of seeing any old town is just wandering and rambling around to see what strikes your fancy. But I’ll point out the highlights with…
approximately top 5: One Day in Riga Itinerary
1) street burgers
At this point in our One Day in Riga Itinerary you’ll be ready for lunch! But we don’t waste our time in Riga Old Town with a big sit-down lunch. That’s why I suggest picking up a burger at Street Burgers. This is a local burger chain that serves only grass-fed Latvian beef and craft beer. They’re basically the Shake Shack of Latvia, except that I don’t think Shake Shack serves Latvian beef. Wrap your lips around a delicious cheeseburger and/or a craft beer, and you’ll be ready to see the sights of Riga Old Town!
I did not get French fries because we have a very big dinner ahead of us. I’m not kidding. Save room. Latvians know how to eat!
2) st peter’s church
So I know people can get “churched out” when visiting Europe. There are just so many churches and almost all of them are gorgeous! But Riga Old Town really does have three unique churches and each one is worth visiting for different reasons. Let’s start with the Lutheran church, St. Peter’s. Unlike its southern neighbor, Catholic Lithuania, Latvia has a large Lutheran population. Because it was part of the Hanseatic League, in some ways it’s just as much a Northern European country as it is an Eastern European country.
The number one reason to visit St. Peter’s is that it has the tallest spire in Riga. That means you can ascent to the top and get amazing views of the adorable Riga Old Town. From up here, the buildings look so quaint they resemble a set design for a Wes Anderson movie.
St Peter’s is also famous for its art exhibitions. I believe this one was called “Quilt People Without Faces”.
3) riga cathedral
Most cities I’ve visited only have one cathedral. (A cathedral is a church that is also the “home church” of a bishop.) “Nuts to that!” says Riga. They have two cathedrals, one Catholic and one Lutheran. But only the Lutheran cathedral actually gets to be called Riga Cathedral.
But of course, Riga Cathedral wasn’t actually born Lutheran. It was founded by Catholic Bishop Albert, who was also the founder of Riga back in the year 1201. (If you only remember one Latvian, let it be Bishop Albert. He’s a really big deal.) So you could think of Riga Cathedral as the birthplace of the city.
If you’ve ever been in a medieval church, you can probably tell that the interior of Riga Cathedral doesn’t look like it dates back to the 13th century. It’s too white and classic. Like many European churches, Riga Cathedral was burned down and rebuilt many times. And of course the Soviets made some “minor changes” like removing the altar and turning the church to a concert hall. Riga Cathedral was restored to its former condition in the 1980s, though it still remains a popular concert hall. Check their website to see what’s on when you visit.
4) st james’s cathedral
Now we arrive at the Catholic cathedral, aka St James, aka St Jacob. So don’t get confused if you see signs for St. James and St. Jacob pointing in the same direction. They’re referring to the same place! I never knew that James and Jacob were the same name before. Thanks, Riga!
St James is quite a bit smaller than St Peter’s or Riga Cathedral. But it still has several claims to fame. The first is that it has been bounced back and forth between the Lutheran and the Catholic church several times, depending on whether the Swedes or the Poles happened to be running Latvia at the time. Man, everyone wants a piece of Latvia, don’t they? Are they just trying to steal some Latvians for their national basketball teams? There are better ways of winning championships!
The other claim to fame is the gorgeous ceiling that looks like snowflakes. There’s even a sign inside St James proclaiming that this ceiling is the best Gothic nave in either Estonia or Latvia. The same sign also said that St James “didn’t need a bell tower”. That sounds a little like St James has an inferiority complex relative to St Peter’s church and its high bell tower. You’re special too, St. James, just the way you are!
5) statues of riga old town
Not everything in Riga Old Town is a church! Some things are statues next to churches. The most popular statue in Riga Old Town is probably the Bremen Town Musicians. I was a little surprised to see this statue here because Bremen is in Germany and Riga is definitely not. But this statue was a gift from the city of Bremen, which is the sister city of Riga.
You might recall that in the original story, the Bremen Town Musicians are walking to Bremen and stop to peek inside a house filled with thieves. But this sculpture was designed in 1990, after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The animals are supposed to be peeking through the Iron Curtain at a brand new world after communism.
I think the reason the animals have shiny noses is because it’s said your wish will come true if you can rub the noses of all four animals. But this is very unfair because only Latvians are tall enough to reach all of them! Give us short Irish people a chance! We have to chase down four leaf clovers to get any luck and those are very hard to find.
If you want an animal that’s easier to reach, track down this armadillo who roams the streets of Riga. Even I am tall enough to reach his nose. He can be easy to miss, so don’t kick him by accident. It will hurt your toes.
One Day in Riga Itinerary
Evening: Food Crawl!
On our last one day in Riga itinerary, we chowed down on some Latvian fine dining. But now it’s time for some tasty down-home street food! Let me introduce you to some of the best I found with…
three fun facts: latvian food
1) what do latvians snack on?
Obviously there’s many possible answers to that question, so I’ll give you one savory and one sweet. Apparently Latvians love to eat dark bread, like many people in northern Europe. I recommend the Laci brand of bread.
But of course no one eats bread alone for a fun snack. Now, after all the traveling I’ve done, I’m not easily astonished. After all, I was once on a flight from Houston to New York with Andre 3000. But I was mildly surprised when I learned this dark bread is popular with some hemp seed butter. (Hemp is the cannabis plant.) It’s considered to be very healthy and popular in Latvia. Just pick some up at any health food store and enjoy a little picnic with some brown bread outside.
I thought the hemp butter tasted pretty similar to any other nut or seed butter I had ever tasted. Also, I don’t think it made me high, but I’m a naturally strange person, so it can be hard to tell. And if it does make you high, respect to Latvia for defeating the Soviets when their population was baked on hemp seed butter all the time. That Red Army was no joke.
24 hour treat: laima
If you prefer sweet treats, you’ll love the Laima chocolate shop. Laima is sometimes called the Cadbury’s of Latvia. The famous Laima clock near the Freedom Monument is one of the notable landmarks of Riga. I suggest getting a big bag to snack on for your dessert.
2) what do latvians drink?
Again, there’s many possible answers to that question. Craft beer seemed really popular in Riga. I suggest you try some very flavorful stuff from a Latvian brewery called Saldalus… You should be able to get it at Lauvas Alus.
But the drink you have to try when you’re in Riga is Black Balsam. This is an herbal liqueur made with 24 different ingredients. The recipe is secret, so don’t think you’ll be able to make this at home. It’s basically Riga’s alcoholic version of Coca-Cola. And just like Coke, it was created by a pharmacist.
The taste of Black Balsam is both bitter and sweet at the same time. It’s hard to describe, but I did enjoy it with a side of herring, cottage cheese, and dark bread. Promise me you’ll at least taste some, even if you think it sounds super weird. You only live twice, as James Bond always told me.
3) Where should we get dinner?
Glad you asked! I recommend the restaurant Mellenes ar Pienu which is where I had my Black Balsam + appetizer. The main course was a full on delicious piece of pork with potatoes, cabbage, and dill sauce. If I’d closed my eyes, I could have imagined I was in Germany. I was definitely not expecting Latvian food and German food to be so similar.
The family pet also came to join us, which was very friendly.
After such a heavy main course, one wants a light dessert. This bowl of fresh blueberries in milk was the perfect finish. Always bet on Latvian berries was the other thing James Bond always used to tell me.
That’s a Perfect One Day in Riga Itinerary!
What would you do on One Day in Riga Itinerary? Can you get high on hemp butter? And who invented the Christmas tree: Latvia or Estonia? 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 have a One Day in Riga Itinerary. If you have time for another One Day in Riga Itinerary, try this one.