Riga Old Town Walking Tour, Riga

Riga Old Town Walking Tour (Self Guided), Riga

The area that is home to present-day Riga has hosted inhabitants since the days of the Vikings. With a sheltered natural harbor nearby, the River Daugava made Riga a stop on the Vikings' Dvina-Dnieper trade route to Byzantium.

Trade allowed the area to flourish, and the Livs, a Finnic tribe, settled it. In the early Middle Ages, the town's economy revolved around fishing, trading, and crafts. By the time the city was officially founded in the 12th century, it was referred to as an "ancient port."

German traders began establishing a nearby outpost in 1158. With them came monks and crusaders looking to convert the Livonian pagans to Christianity. One of the early arrivals was Bishop Albert, who was pivotal in the city's early development. It was during this period that many of the city's landmark churches were built, including the Riga Cathedral and Saint Peter's Church.

The Hanseatic League, which Riga joined in 1282, provided the town with some stability. For 20 years, it was a free imperial city of the Holy Roman Empire, and then it was part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. After that, it was part of the Swedish and then Russian Empires.

By the time World War I broke out in Europe, an independence movement had developed in Latvia. Finally, after Armistice Day, the country was in a position to make it happen. Latvia was incorporated into Soviet Union after World War II, but it regained its independence following the collapse of Soviet Union.

World War II bombings and shelling decimated the city. As a result, many of the landmarks you will pass today, including Town Hall and the House of the Black Heads, were completely destroyed. Thankfully, these cultural and architectural treasures were rebuilt and recreated to restore Riga's distinctive charm.

Riga is a medieval city full of spectacular wonders. For a special look at how things changed in the city over the years, check out the Three Brothers buildings. Then, a stroll down Lime Street will fill your senses with wonder and your belly with good food. At its end, wander the Freedom Monument to learn more about the Latvian movement for independence.

Riga is full of history and a wonderful spot to explore. Join us on this walking tour of Old Town Riga.
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Riga Old Town Walking Tour Map

Guide Name: Riga Old Town Walking Tour
Guide Location: Latvia » Riga (See other walking tours in Riga)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 12
Tour Duration: 2 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 2.4 Km or 1.5 Miles
Author: helenp
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Town Hall Square
  • House of Blackheads (Melngalvju Nams)
  • Saint Peter's Church
  • Cathedral Square (aka Dome Square)
  • Riga Cathedral
  • Lielais Kristaps (Big Christopher)
  • Riga Castle (Rigas Pils)
  • Three Brothers
  • Swedish Gate and City Wall
  • Powder Tower
  • Brivibas Piemineklis (Freedom Monument)
  • Kaļķu Iela (Lime Street)
1
Town Hall Square

1) Town Hall Square (must see)

This cobblestone town square marks the center of Old Riga. It's surrounded by beautiful architecture, including the House of the Black Heads and Riga City Hall.

In the center of the Square stands a statue of Roland. He was Charlemagne's nephew and a Frankish military leader. His reputation for stringent but just governance has led to him becoming a symbol of justice in Northern Germany. The statue has stood next to the town's well since 1897.

However, the Square's biggest claim to fame is that it was the site of the first lit and decorated Christmas tree in 1510. There is a plank marking the location, and, of course, a tree is decorated here every year during the holidays.

Bombs leveled Town Hall Square and its surrounding buildings during World War II. Everything you see today was rebuilt in the years following the war. The House of the Black Heads was reopened in 1999, and the Town Hall Building in 2003.

The Square is a great place to begin your explorations of Riga--the narrow cobblestone streets wind through some of the most beautiful architecture you'll find. The scene is especially stunning at night when the buildings are lit for maximum effect.
2
House of Blackheads (Melngalvju Nams)

2) House of Blackheads (Melngalvju Nams) (must see)

The House of the Black Heads is now a museum celebrating commerce in Riga. The building was originally erected in 1334 and has dominated Town Hall Square for centuries.

It was built by the Brotherhood of the Black Heads, a local guild made up of unmarried Riga merchants, shipowners, and foreigners. The organization was active from the middle of the 14th century until about 1940, although a chapter in Hamburg still meets. It began as a military society but gradually transitioned into a social organization.

The House of Black Heads was meant to be a meeting place for the society, where they would host banquets and cultural events. The first decorated Christmas tree was displayed on the square outside in 1510.

The building was destroyed during World War II--first leveled by Germans bombs in 1941 and then further demolished by the Soviets in 1948. As it stands today, the building was reconstructed in the late 1990s. Locals donated a few Euros each person to put a brick in the wall during an event called "I Build the House of the Black Heads."

The building has been rebuilt to its previous glory and is open to the public. The upper levels have grand ballrooms where some of Riga's most posh cultural events occurred. There are also spaces used by former Presidents of Latvia, as this house was used as the Presidential residence between 2012 and 2016.

Most interesting are the cellars, which were buried and re-excavated during the rebuilding and restoration efforts. Here you can walk through original 14th-century corridors in the authentic underground of medieval Riga. This space was used to store goods and is now used as an exhibit space.

The museum is open Wednesdays through Sundays. On the last Sunday of every month, they hold a free one-hour-long guided house tour, available in both English and German.
3
Saint Peter's Church

3) Saint Peter's Church (must see)

You can trace the history of this beautiful church back to 1209. Having such a long story to tell, it's not surprising that the tales are traced to the building styles of various periods. The church has Gothic, Romanesque, and Baroque elements.

Little remains of the original Gothic construction. Only the central section of the church, including the outer nave walls and a few pillars, remain from those early years.

The second construction period was overseen by master builder Johannes Rumeschottel from Germany. This was in 1409, but work was interrupted by wars and the plague. Nevertheless, by the late 15th century, the church had a mighty basilica with three aisles and vaulted ceilings. It also sported a new bell tower, 136 meters (446 feet) tall, with a steeple.

The final construction period occurred in the late 1600s when the western facade and new bell tower were built after a devastating fire in the city. Many of the furnishings and the vaulted ceiling were refurbished as well. When finished, the new tower and steeple was the tallest wooden structure in Europe.

The church was reconstructed after artillery fire destroyed it during World War II. The bronze candelabrum--a standing lantern--was taken from the church to Wloclawek, Poland. It was displayed there until 2012 when it was returned to Riga.

The steeple was completed in 1970, and the clock tower in the early 1970s. The rooster atop the steeple weighs 158 kilograms and includes 140 grams of gold plating. The bell plays the Latvian folk melody "Riga Resounds" five times a day, and the bell chimes hourly. There is an elevator that takes guests up the tower, where you can take in the view of Riga from a height of 72 meters (236 feet).

Today, the church is owned by the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia. Services resumed here in 1991. In addition to the view from the tower's top, strolling through the art collection and seeing the beautiful nave are must-dos in Riga.
4
Cathedral Square (aka Dome Square)

4) Cathedral Square (aka Dome Square)

Another of Old Riga's cobblestone squares lies squarely in front of the Riga Cathedral. Commonly called the Dome Cathedral, this is one of Riga's trademark buildings. The word "Dome" comes from the German "Dom," which also means cathedral. It is considered to be the largest medieval church in the Baltics.

The church was built on the river in 1211 by Livonian Bishop Albert of Riga from Lower Saxony. It was Roman Catholic until a 1923 referendum forced it to be shared with the Lutheran Church. During the Soviet Era, the church was used as a concert hall. Religious services were restarted in 1991, and today it is used by the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia.

Cathedral Square is the site of various events during the year, including a popular Christmas Market. It's a great place for souvenirs and local delicacies. But no matter what time of the year you stop through, there's bound to be something going on. From art installations and cultural festivals to bustling sidewalk cafes and great people watching, Cathedral Square is at the center of it all.
5
Riga Cathedral

5) Riga Cathedral (must see)

Riga Cathedral is the oldest religious site in the city and one of the oldest in Latvia. Its foundation stone was laid on July 25th, 1211 by Bishop Albert of Riga. Originally, the church was built in a geometric, Romanesque style and was meant to become a centre of Christianity in the Baltic region. In the 14th-15th centuries it had side chapels and a western cross-nave added, along with the tower walls elevated and an octagonal spire built in. In the following centuries, the cathedral endured many reconstructions. The most drastic ones took place between 1881 and 1914, when part of the building was completely remodelled. Another reconstruction was undertaken in the 20th century. During the Soviet period, the cathedral was used as a concert hall.

Presently, the Riga Cathedral features a combination of Gothic, Romanesque, Baroque and Art Nouveau styles. Its key feature is the 6718 pipe organ, built by E.F. Walcker & Co in 1883-1884, which is considered to be one of the most precious organs in the world.

Today, the cathedral serves as the country's main Lutheran temple and is the seat of the Archbishop of Latvia Evangelical Lutheran Church.
6
Lielais Kristaps (Big Christopher)

6) Lielais Kristaps (Big Christopher)

Big Christopher is the legendary founder of Riga, who is widely recognized as the city’s protector from floods and other natural calamities. Sailors and fishermen would habitually ask Big Christopher for help whenever they ventured out to the sea.

Legend has it that Big Christopher was a ferryman who used to carry people across the Daugava river. One night he heard a baby crying on the opposite side of the river and rushed to its rescue. As he picked up the baby from the water and carried it to the bank, the closer he got to the bank, the heavier the baby would grow. Finally, as he reached the dry land and put the baby down, he fell asleep almost immediately because of the extreme exhaustion. The next morning, when he woke up, to his surprise Christopher discovered, instead of the baby, a big pile of money.

According to the legend, that money was used to build the city of Riga. Some people claim that the baby was none other than Jesus himself, although the authorities prefer to keep it free from religious context so that everyone could love Big Christopher regardless of their faith and recognize him as the city’s benefactor.

In 1683, a wooden statue of Big Christopher with the baby was installed in the place where the hero supposedly lived. Riga citizens come regularly to the statue; they bring flowers and light candles when asking for Big Christopher's protection. Today, the original statue can be seen at the Latvian Museum of History and Navigation, while its replica adorns the Daugava river bank.
7
Riga Castle (Rigas Pils)

7) Riga Castle (Rigas Pils)

It has been rebuilt and remodeled countless times, but the original castle was built here in 1330. It's located outside the boundaries of Old Riga, thanks to a treaty between Riga at the Livonian Order. After a conflict between the parties, the Order agreed to build the castle outside Riga's border.

The castle was meant to be home to the Master of the Livonian Order in its early years. However, constant conflicts with the Rigans caused the Master to move to the Castle of Cēsis.

Over the following centuries, ownership of the castle bounced between leaders of ruling parties. First, the Lithuanians, then Polish, Swedish, Russian Empire, Soviet, and finally Latvian parties resided in the castle. Each left their own marks on the structure, rebuilding it as necessary for their purposes.

The structure suffered major damage after a fire incident in 2013. The fire claimed over 3,200 square meters of the castle, including much of the roof and attic. Thankfully, none of the priceless art collections housed in the museums were affected.

Today the castle is the official residence of the President of Latvia and the Latvian government. There are also several museums located in the castle.
8
Three Brothers

8) Three Brothers

The Three Brothers are a unique set of architectural treasures in Old Riga. The name applies to three adjacent houses, each built at different times and in different styles. Together the treehouses represent the oldest dwellings in the city, and each one demonstrates a different development period.

The oldest house is at number 17 Maza Pils Street--it dates from the late 1400s. It has crow-stepped gables and a few Gothic and Renaissance details. The interior is one large room with an attic.

The exterior of its neighbor at 19 Maza Pils Street is from 1646. The exterior style of this building has elements of Dutch Mannerism. This is the middle building and has a distinctive pale yellow exterior. Above the door, the Latin inscription reads, "Glory to God alone!"

Number 21 Maza Pils Street is the newest, a narrow Baroque structure last updated in the 17th century. The green color was meant to guard against evil spirits.

Today, Number 21 houses the Latvian Museum of Architecture and State Inspectorate for Heritage Protection. It's open to the public and is a good place to see photos of the history of Riga. The Three Brothers earned the European Heritage Label in 2020.
9
Swedish Gate and City Wall

9) Swedish Gate and City Wall

The Swedish Gate and the Old City Wall are what's left of the once mighty fortification system that surrounded Riga in the Middle Ages. Much of the complex, built between the 13th and 16th centuries, was destroyed by time or invaders or torn down in the 19th century.

The Swedish Gate is the only city gate still in place, and was built in 1698 by the Swedes, who ruled the city at that time. It stands on the site of the Jürgen tower, a semicircular defensive structure, whose lower part was later built into the nearby house no.11. The apartment above the gate is said to have been, at some point, occupied by an executioner who used to put a red rose in the window each time a convict was beheaded. In 1926, the property was leased from the Society of Architects of Latvia, and rebuilt.

During the Soviet period, the complex underwent two renovations: one in 1953-1956, run by A.A. Reynfeldsa, during which it was extended with a new building, no.13; and another time in 1986-1987, during which it was attached with the freshly built house no.15.

Today, the gate and the walls no longer serve their original fortifying purpose, but merely separate the Old Town from the busy nearby area, packed with bars, restaurants and other businesses.
10
Powder Tower

10) Powder Tower

Built in the 14th century, the Powder Tower was first known as the Sand Tower and formed part of the town's fortification system, called the Sand Gate. The system comprised in total 25 towers which stood along the Sand Road, leading into the town. Its walls were made of red brick and measured up to three meters in thickness, which was enough to withstand any military assault in those days. In the 17th century the tower was transformed into a gunpowder depot and, subsequently, changed its name to Powder Tower (Pulvertornis).

In 1625, it successfully fended off the attack of the Swedish army, but the walls suffered severe damage and required serious restoration. It started only 25 years later. Another war – with Russia – left nine cannon balls embedded in the walls of Powder Tower, calling for a new overhaul.

Between 1935 and 1940 the tower was fully refurbished and enlarged to accommodate the Museum of War.
11
Brivibas Piemineklis (Freedom Monument)

11) Brivibas Piemineklis (Freedom Monument) (must see)

The Freedom Monument commemorates the soldiers who fell during the Latvian War of Independence of 1918-1920. Built in 1935 to a design by R. Mirsmeden, the monument presents Latvia's national values. It stands as the symbol of two battles fought by the country for its independence and is a ground zero for the majority of political demonstrations held in Riga nowadays.

Surprisingly enough, the monument has survived almost 50 years of the Soviet rule, in part due to its high artistic value. On 14 June 1987, about 5,000 people gathered at the monument to lay flowers. This rally renewed the national independence movement, which culminated three years later in the re-establishment of Latvian sovereignty after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

The structure consists of three major blocks decorated by 14 statuary groups. The base block features Latvian riflemen and singers. The block above depicts scholars, people of work, Guardians of the Fatherland and the Family. The central element of the monument, topping a 19 meter (62 ft) column, is the bronze statue of a woman holding up three golden stars above her head, symbolizing three Latvian regions: Kurzeme, Vidzeme and Latgale.

With a total height of 42 meters, the Freedom Monument is visible from almost every corner of Old Riga, and acts as a sort of navigation aid for tourists en route to different locations.
12
Kaļķu Iela (Lime Street)

12) Kaļķu Iela (Lime Street)

One of the oldest streets in Riga, Lime Street runs from Town Hall Square northeast to the edge of the old city. It was first mentioned in 1407.

A stroll down Lime Street will reveal many treasures and surprises. Number 11 is a bank from the 18th century. Number 16 is the impressive Mikhail Chekhov Russian Theatre of Riga, founded in 1883. Finally, Number 20 is the Lion Pharmacy, the oldest in Riga that traces its lineage to 1653.

During the Soviet Era, Lime Street was merged with two nearby thoroughfares to form the principal street through Soviet Riga. It was called Lenin Street.

The street is a bustling central shopping and entertainment district for the city. Sidewalk cafes line the wide walking lanes, interspersed with fine dining establishments and trendy shops. There are also banks, hotels, and fast food choices.

The street ends at Bastejkalna Park and the Freedom Monument. You'll also find the Laima Clock, a popular local meeting spot. The distinctive clock is restored and dates from 1924.

Walking Tours in Riga, Latvia

Create Your Own Walk in Riga

Create Your Own Walk in Riga

Creating your own self-guided walk in Riga is easy and fun. Choose the city attractions that you want to see and a walk route map will be created just for you. You can even set your hotel as the start point of the walk.
Art Nouveau Architecture Walk

Art Nouveau Architecture Walk

An architecture lover in general and that of Art Nouveau in particular will find plenty to look at in the quiet center of Riga. Jūgendstil (Latvian: Art Nouveau) architecture makes up roughly one third of all buildings in the heart of Latvia's capital. In fact, the city boasts the highest concentration of Art Nouveau structures anywhere in the world.

Constructed during a period of rapid...  view more

Tour Duration: 1 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 1.3 Km or 0.8 Miles
Historical Churches and Cathedrals

Historical Churches and Cathedrals

One great thing about Riga is that many of the city's religious buildings are concentrated in its historical center. A variety of faiths are represented in Riga, although the majority of city residents are Roman Catholic, Orthodox or Lutheran. Explore the historic churches and cathedrals of Riga on this self-guided tour.

Tour Duration: 1 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 2.5 Km or 1.6 Miles

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