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As the capital of Latvia, Riga is the largest city in the Baltic states and home to roughly one-third of the nation's entire population. The city developed as an important trading center in the Middle Ages and has become renowned for its unique mix of architecture, which ranges from medieval wooden structures to stunning Art Nouveau buildings. You'll find traces of the city's centuries of history around every corner, and you can also absorb its vibrant modern culture as you stroll around the city center and stop at lively markets, pubs, restaurants, and museums. As you explore this still relatively undiscovered gem of Europe, there's no shortage of things to see and do.
Like many ancient European cities, Riga was constructed on the water. Its UNESCO-listed Historic Centre lies on the eastern side of the Daugava River and can be easily explored on foot. The Old Town and Art Nouveau District showcase Riga's most beautiful architecture, and the bustling Central Market offers a slice of the Latvian traditions still alive today.
The Old Town is—not surprisingly—the oldest section of Riga, and portions of the medieval walls that once surrounded it remain. Its narrow cobblestone streets are dotted with architectural gems from different eras, the most grandiose of which are the Riga Cathedral and Riga Castle, both dating to the Middle Ages. Among the historic buildings, the area's open squares are filled with sidewalk cafes, beer gardens, and craft markets.
Riga's Art Nouveau District sprang up in the early 20th century, when the city expanded rapidly and hundreds of structures were built in the ornamental Art Nouveau style. Stunningly detailed houses, mansions, and multistoried apartment buildings make up the largest collection of Art Nouveau architecture in the world. The neighborhood is also home to the city's first public garden—Vermanes Garden—and the Riga Circus, one of the oldest circuses in Europe.
The youngest UNESCO World Heritage Site in the city, the Central Market is no less impressive than the city's more ancient landmarks. Constructed using repurposed German Zeppelin hangars, this massive indoor bazaar represents the largest market in Europe. More than 3,000 stalls tempt shoppers with fresh produce, meat, herbs, seafood, Latvian delicacies, and traditional crafts.
Riga contains a rich mix of original architecture, beautifully restored landmarks, and fascinating museums to uncover. In Old Town, admire the opulent facade of the House of the Blackheads, an impeccably crafted replica of the residence that housed the German merchants who dominated the city during the 14th century. Among the area's original medieval landmarks are the 13th-century St. Peter's Church and the Powder Tower, which stands as the sole remaining tower in Riga's defensive fortifications. Nearby, the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia tells the story of the troubled, 51-year period in the country's history when it was successively occupied by Nazi Germany and the USSR. In the center of the city, the Freedom Monument, dedicated to the fallen soldiers in the Latvian War of Independence, rises to the sky as a symbol of national unity and freedom. For an eye-opening look at Latvia's cultural heritage, visit the Latvian Ethnographic Open Air Museum on the shores of Jugla Lake. Here, a showcase of traditional homesteads and household items gathered from different regions paint a picture of rural life through the centuries.
Round out your sightseeing with a variety of things to do in Riga. Treat your taste buds to a sumptuous multicourse dinner of authentic local dishes, or sip on Latvian liquors and beers on a guided pub crawl around Old Town. With a hop-on hop-off bus pass, you can enjoy convenient access to all the city's top landmarks and attractions, from the renowned Latvian National Opera to the Kalnciema Quarter, which is known for its beautifully restored wooden architecture and Saturday farmers' market. If you're eager to discover Latvia's treasures beyond Riga, choose from guided day trips to enchanting destinations in the surrounding countryside. To the northeast, Gauja National Park encompasses a spectacular landscape of rolling hills, dense forests, and crumbling castles. On the shores of the Baltic Sea, the resort town of Jurmala offers expansive white-sand beaches, charming shops, and elegant summer houses to discover.