Latvia's capital is not only incredibly charming, but also highly affordable. With a wealth of history and culture to explore, Rīga is an ideal option for travellers looking to discover somewhere new without breaking the bank – here's how.

View of the colourful facades of the buildings of pretty Jauniela St, Rīga, which is a winding, cobblestone lane © Caroline Hadamitzky / Lonely Planet

Explore colourful cobblestone streets

Rīga's Old Town is a delightful collection of cobbled pedestrian streets and squares; its small size and compact centre mean travellers can ditch the map and just go where their feet take them. The ornate House of the Blackheads is Rīga's most recognisable building, and the Three Brothers are the oldest medieval houses in the the city, dating as far back as the 15th century.

Stroll along the old city walls, where you'll find the Swedish Gate leading to Jakob's Barracks, now a series of charming boutiques and cafes. Just off bustling Livu Sq is the famous Cat House, created to spite members of the nearby Guild Hall, and the inspiration for many of the cat souvenirs here. Jauniela boasts the whimsically painted Restaurant 1221 and the intricately detailed Hotel Neiburgs, while nearby Tirgonu Iela is lined with buildings in a range of bright colours.

Portrait shot of a statue in Riga's Old Town, with the red-bricked House of the Blackheads behind © Caroline Hadamitzky / Lonely Planet

Admire the incredible art nouveau architecture

Rīga is known for its stunning art nouveau buildings, which can be found dotted throughout the city, including in the Old Town – in fact, 40% of the buildings here were built in this ornate style. The most exquisite examples lie just outside the Old Town on Elizabetes Iela and Alberta Iela. Here you will find some stunning works of architecture, perhaps none more breathtaking than Number 10b Elizabetes Iela. Dating from 1904, the cobalt blue facade features enormous stylised faces, complemented by peacocks and geometric shapes – impressive even if you're not an architecture buff.

Seek out cheap eats

It's easy to eat on the cheap in Rīga, even in the more heavily touristed Old Town, where many mid-level restaurants offer main courses for under €10. At casual Šefpavārs Vilhelms, sweet and savoury pancakes can be enjoyed from just €0.80 each. Buffet-style cafes like the ubiquitous Lido chain charge by weight, and a basic but filling meal can be had for under €5. Travellers with a sweet tooth and a tight budget shouldn't miss Martina Bekereja, where mouthwatering cakes and local goodies like doughy, caramel-filled pastries start at just €0.38. For more cheap eats and treats to take home, head to the well-stocked Rimi supermarket, where you can pick up snacks, as well as local Laima chocolates, for less than at one of the many souvenir stores.

Window display of a variety of delicious pastries and other sweet treats with their names and prices labelled © Caroline Hadamitzky / Lonely Planet

Enjoy traditional drinks and music

One of Rīga's most famous places to enjoy local nightlife is Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs. This lively venue is tucked into a cellar and showcases live music at least five times a week, with a focus on local musicians. The food and drink are plentiful and cheap: they have 28 beers on tap and traditional dishes like Latvian meatballs and beer-braised beef shank can be had from €3.50.

And don't forget to try Black Balsam, available at every bar, café and souvenir shop. It's said you haven't been to Rīga if you haven't tasted this potent local liquor made with vodka and 24 different herbs and other natural ingredients, which are said to have medicinal properties.

Browse the largest market in Europe

Rīga Central Market is housed in a truly unique location: a series of five former Zeppelin hangars dating back to 1930. Just outside the Old Town, the bustling marketplace has 3000 stalls, and is visited by 80,000-100,000 shoppers a day. Meat, dairy, produce, fish and baked goods can all be found here, alongside spices, honey, nuts, flowers and household products. Browsing the huge pavilions alongside locals offers travellers a look at daily life in Rīga. Visitors can also find a selection of souvenirs and handmade goods at very reasonable prices.

Customers browse the fresh produce on the stalls in one of the vast Zeppelin hangars that now make up Rīga Central Market © Caroline Hadamitzky / Lonely Planet

Discover Rīga's museums and churches

Latvia's capital offers a range of museums dedicated to the country's dramatic past. Entry to the Latvian War Museum, housed in the cylindrical Powder Tower, is free, and showcases uniforms, weapons, and more from the various wars fought by Latvia over the centuries. The Museum of the Occupation of Latvia (entry by donation) focuses on life in the countryLatvia under foreign rule, including occupations by both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. The darkly intriguing cells formerly used by the KGB can be toured for €5.

Rīga is home to many historic churches, including the imposing Rīga Cathedral and the Nordic-style Saint John's Lutheran Church; both are free to enter. The original cathedral dates back to the 13th century and features stunning stained-glass windows and one of the most valuable church organs in Europe, while Saint John's is the oldest active church in Latvia and a boasts a unique rib-vaulted, High Gothic ceiling.

Be on the lookout for comical sculptures nearby – a jovial armadillo next to the cathedral, and a replica of the famed Musicians of Bremen across from Saint John's.

View of Rīga's skyline, which is peppered with the spires of the city's many churches © Caroline Hadamitzky / Lonely Planet

Take a stroll in the parks

Bastion Hill lies between the old and new towns, and is a lovely place for a stroll. Climb the bastion for views of the Powder Tower and Jakob's Barracks, stroll along the City Canal, and admire the various statues along the paths. Be sure to stop on the small, love-lock–covered bridge and read some of the intriguing locks commemorating relationships, engagements, births and deaths.

In the middle of the park lies a plaza in which the Freedom Monument stands, celebrating Latvia's independence, and nearby is the charmingly retro Laima Clock, advertising the chocolate company. You'll find more green space and walking paths in the Vermanes Garden, and crossing the Esplanade park on your way to the art nouveau district, you'll pass the golden-domed Nativity of Christ Orthodox Cathedral.

Getting there

Rīga International Airport is served by several budget airlines, including Norwegian, Ryanair, airBaltic and WizzAir. Getting from the airport into the city centre is quick, easy and cheap – local bus 22 and minibus 222 both run from just outside the arrivals and cost €2 per person. The journey takes between 20 and 40 minutes and drops you in the heart of Old Town, so you can begin discovering historic Rīga right away.

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