Riga, Latvia – A Low-Cost, Kid-Friendly Gem
We can’t fathom why more families aren’t taking trips to Riga! As the capital of Latvia, Riga is filled with delights that are both kid-friendly and quaint. It’s a manageable city of just over 600,000 inhabitants boasting a small airport near the city and ferry services to take you around the Baltic Sea and Gulf of Finland.
We flew into Riga International Airport (RIX) and were welcomed by a modern terminal with enough food options and reasonable public transport into the city. Bus 22 or minibus 222 take you downtown in around 35 minutes. Tickets from the driver cost 2 EUR but tickets from a kiosk (machine or magazine stand) cost 1.15 EUR. The bus versus minibus conversation is confusing. Riga has an extensive bus network and in the downtown core of Riga, there are also trams. But from the airport you can only use buses (or taxis). The regular buses stop more frequently while the minibus only makes a handful of stops. Both are the same price, but the regular bus has better luggage storage space. We took the regular bus into town then the minibus back to the airport so we could try both. It felt quite a bit like the minibuses were the Band-Aid solution to a crowded public transportation network. As such, it made for an awkward setup.
Latvia, like its neighbors Lithuania and Estonia is a small country. You could nearly day-trip to anywhere in Latvia from Riga so it should be considered as a home-base if you’re traveling a bit in Latvia. For itinerary planning, I think you could spend a week to ten days in Latvia with three full days in Riga. Speedy travelers might find 1-2 days in Riga sufficient without kids in tow.
There are great lodging options in Riga. The hotels are reasonably priced, but we opted for an Airbnb due to the convenience of having two bedrooms and a separate room to hang out in when the children fell to sleep.
When traveling around Riga look for this orange stroller badge letting you know that the restaurant or activity is child friendly. We saw them all over the city.
Our trip to Riga in early September was uncharacteristically cold and rainy. It rained all four days and we wore our coats zipped all the way up. It was so windy one day that our unbreakable Senz umbrella from Delft actually broke. This thing has been taking on skydive jumps and survived but it was no match for Riga. Most visitors find May-September to be pleasant. The winter in Riga can be cold with a breeze off the Baltic. With our four days in Riga, we found that one day-trip was about right to keep us busy. We day-tripped to Sigulda.
Riga is a beautiful town to explore on foot. Despite the rain we still got out and just tried to see the city center it is full of beautiful statues and park. The Freedom Monument is hard to miss and can be seen through most of the city.
The old barracks buildings displays the coats of arms for the Latvian parishes.
We all took turns picking our favorite.
The parks running along the river are perfect for exploring and enjoying. (Even in the rain.)
We found so many great statues around Riga. This couple and their dog though were my favorite.
More statues and even a small playground can be found in the shadow of the church. This was a perfect place to let the kids run around during out walk around the city.
There are plenty of new modern buildings built right into the old city. It gives Riga a certain charm that we couldn’t resist.
The Latvian War Museum is located in the Power Tower. We didn’t make it to the museum, but we did pass by the tower and admire the brickwork several times.
I always love to soak up the flower markets of European cities and Riga was no different. Stall after stall of beautiful flowers set out for sale.
I also popped into a few of the wool shops to check out the Latvian designs on socks and mittens. My biggest regret of the trip is not buying more of these beauties.
What To Do In Riga
The unexpected kid-friendly hit of Riga was the Laima Chocolate Museum.
Well, we read that the museum was underwhelming so we skipped that costly affair.
Instead, we booked the chocolate making class for our kids for 8 EUR each (book ahead). This 45-minute diamond-in-the-rough was exceptionally well executed.
Our master chocolatier met us at the information desk (in main entrance of Laima, not the cafe entrance next door) and immediately charmed our kids by letting them dig into a bowl of packaged chocolates. He encouraged our kids to “take one, take two, take three . . .” until their pockets were full and their smiles were ear-to-ear.
During the workshop (suitable for adults and kids), the master chocolatier explained the history of Laima then showed our kids how to make bon-bons. There were a dozen fill-ins to put inside the bon-bons like dried fruit, ginger and almonds. You make one to practice then you make four chocolates to take home.
The staff member does a fine job putting your chocolates into a nice box with a ribbon and other flourishes.
Another Riga exclamation point was the Latvijas Leļļu teātris, the local puppet theater. Sure, they only have programming in Latvian or Russian but for little kids, this is an amazing venue. Every detail is perfect. We went to see Cinderella in Russian.
The 80-minute show was bisected by a 15-minute intermission during which we snacked on delicious Latvian treats from the cafe. There are also exhibits in the social spaces showing puppetry history and puppetry techniques. Our kids loved how the seats at this puppet theater converted to kid seats. I’ve never seen this before, but you just push a button and the seat pops up into a booster for kids.
Was a Russian puppet show a good idea? Absolutely. We didn’t understand the language but followed the story really well. We explained the story of Cinderella to our kids beforehand too.
The puppet theater is across the street from a lovely little park that has a playground. The kids loved playing here while Jeff went and collected the tickets. They had a free playground and a few paid activities, like cars, trampolines and a jumpy house.
Lest you think we went to Riga and didn’t spend some time looking at the city from a historical perspective, we highly recommend the KGB Corner House Jail. It’s operated by the Museum of Occupation and the website is confusing because the museum and jail are at two different locations in the city.
Jeff went on this tour alone (book ahead, 2-5 EUR) and despite his normally flawless attention to detail for travel logistics, he accidentally booked himself on the Latvian language tour. It turns out a handful of other visitors made the same mistake, so we urge you to take more than extreme care with the confusing website.
Nevertheless, Jeff thought this was a must-see sight in Riga. It is unfathomable to think that the KGB arrested, jailed and did other unmentionable things to tens of thousands of Latvians in this jail. It’s eery and creepy to walk through. Since the tour guide had to give the tour in two languages, he sent the English speakers ahead while giving the Latvian talk at each waypoint. This meant that Jeff had to turn on lights, open jail cell doors and do otherwise nerve-racking things. That made the whole experience all the more engaging.
While Jeff was on his tour I took the boys to ZINOO Riga. It is a science center with lots of fun hands on exhibits. My kids were right in the zone for the hands on exhibits. The museum’s small size made it easy for me to keep track of the kids on my own.
The boys found plenty of toys they could all enjoy. As usual they migrated toward the corner with the trains and the gears. I was happy to let them play here.
The boys enjoyed the Ames Room. They took turns getting to be the big one. They loved laughing at the photos after.
Another fun little room was the blacklight room. My Big Middle thought he was invisible, since he didn’t light up at all. Meanwhile the Middle Little and I had glowing heads!
The center is located in the mall, which happened to be just a block from our AirBnB, making it the perfect place to entertain the kids by myself on a rainy day.
The Latvian Museum of Natural History was a hit for our kids. Tickets were 3 EUR for adults for five floors of fun. There were minerals, animals, fossils and so much more on display.
Each floor had a special area for children. Some had pull-out drawers at kid-level, microscopes or things for kids to touch. You can easily spend two hours here. The best part? It’s just across the street from Vermanes Park, where you’ll find paths for strolling and a great kids playground.
The last big sight I want to highlight is the Latvian Railway History Museum. This place is served by the city trams so it’s easy to get to. However, it was small and didn’t offer much (even less if you don’t read Latvian). Because it was rainy, we couldn’t even enjoy the outdoor exhibits (trains).
Where To Eat In Riga.
Riga is a great place for food! You’ll quickly find lots of restaurant options for your family. The most convenient for us was LIDO. This cafeteria-style Latvian chain was so easy. You can see what you’re picking up and prices are clearly marked. I found that a meal at LIDO was a great introduction to Latvian cuisine because each dish is a small commitment. If you don’t like something, you can just go back to the serving area and buy something else. LIDO doesn’t get great reviews online – but consider it for what it is – a cafeteria.
Supermarkets are plentiful in Riga. We found plenty of takeout options, and ate a couple of meals in great restaurants. One tip is that on weekdays in Riga, most restaurants offer a special menu for lunch. It will cost you under 10 EUR for three courses. Ask for it before committing to a restaurant because it can be a great experience. We did a three course lunch for 6.50 EUR and rank that as one of our top Latvian experiences. The food was amazing and the price was incredible.
For a market meal, consider the Central Market. It was built into five existing airship hangars. We took a stroll through Central Market one morning and picked up yummy treats from multiple vendors. The kids loved looking at the fish heads, fish roe, bountiful vegetables and breads.
We had a lovely dinner at begemonts, which actually changed names between the time we made the reservation and our trip. We had to call the number to find the restaurant.
We brought plenty for the kids to do so we could enjoy the great wine bar. It is a self service wine bar, which makes it a great chance to taste some local wines with little commitment.
We ate lunch at Charlstons, a lovely BBQ restaurant. They claimed, online, to have a kids area. When we arrived we found a small kids table in the corner with one little toy. Our kids did their sticker books and we enjoyed a lovely meal, but don’t count on a playroom.
Cydonia, on the other hand, has a great kids playroom and great food. The service was super slow, but we didn’t mind since the kids were happily playing. Cydonia is also located near the puppet theater and park.
In summation, Riga was full of great activities for our kids. Food was good and cheap, lodging was adequate and access was fast to RIX and into the city. For a weekend getaway, Riga is an uncrowded, undiscovered option you should consider. I don’t understand why more travelers haven’t found this gem.