Riga – the capital of Latvia – is a rapidly evolving city saturated with Art Nouveau magic, gourmet experimental dining, modern art galleries, hidden hipster hotspots, and wild nightlife, at least for heterosexuals.
We are never going to claim Riga is the most gay-friendly destination in this part of Europe, but it is by no means the worst we’ve seen…
Riga lies on the Gulf of Riga at the mouth of the Daugava river where it meets the Baltic Sea and was founded as a center of Viking trade during the early Middle Ages. What followed has been centuries of trading – and being traded by – the Great Powers of Europe. The Hanseatic League, Holy Roman Empire, Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Swedish, the German the Russian – and most recently Soviets – have all left their mark here, for better or worse.
The result is a rich cultural tapestry which has endowed Riga with many unique attractions, however, for most tourists, the main highlights are undoubtedly the glorious historic center, copious Art Nouveau/Jugendstil architecture, and 19th-century wooden buildings.
Culturally distinct from its Russia and it’s Baltic neighbors, Estonia and Lithuania, today Latvia, a little country way up in the north, is embracing its independence and singular uniqueness. Tourism is quickly finding this ludicrously photogenic town. However, Gay Riga has been slow-coming and Latvia is by no means the most progressive country in the post-Soviet bloc. In fact, Riga still struggles with open homophobia, especially in the older generations, though the influence of the EU and proximity to Berlin continue to slowly improve the situation year-after-year.
A hangover from the communist-era when homosexuality was seen as a disease, today many young people have far more progressive views that wouldn’t be out of place in Oslo, Melbourne or Austin. Changing attitudes after decades of USSR propaganda, however, is proving difficult. As with most problems in modern Latvia, communism is a convenient scapegoat. After all, homosexuals simply didn’t exist in Stalin’s USSR…Still today Russia tells the UN that there are no gays in Chechnya.
In truth, much of the Russian speaking population today is still influenced by state-sponsored homophobia thanks to Russian news and social media. Attitudes in these Russian communities toward LGBT people are flat or even worsening – and a considerable challenge for Latvia in many respects.
Latvians as a whole have however made a determined choice to steer away from its old Kremlin overlords and tolerance of the LGBT community has increased massively since it joined the European Union. In fact win 2014 hen the foreign minister, Edgars Rinkevics, came out as gay last fall, he prophesied “mega-hysteria” but there was barely a murmur. Not long after however Latvia introduced a “morality clause” to the school curriculum under its Education Law to teach tradition values – so things are complicated, to say the least. Marriage equality – for now – looks like a distant dream, but thankfully homophobia is not as entrenched in the mainstream media as in ‘uber-Catholic’ Lithuania and Poland.
All anti-gay discrimination in the workplace is banned under the law, and visitors to Riga will notice in general an openness in these otherwise shy people. Much like Bucharest and Bogota where gay travel is helping to change attitudes in society at large, LGBT acceptance is rising annually in Riga. Gay tourists should have no more to fear here than in other significant European capital – although discretion is still advised at night outside of the small Riga gay scene or more liberal nightclubs.
As much as things have changed here, you will still be stared at by some people walking through Riga holding hands…
In all honest, LGBT travelers shouldn’t head to Riga for its gay scene but instead to fall in love with its old-world charm, beautiful hotels and the picturesque countryside of Latvia. Not to mention the lower prices, wonderful Latvian design community, and incredible gastronomical landscape.
If you’re looking for raging gay nightlife like Munich, Las Vegas or Bangkok – you won’t find it here. Still, there are plenty of cute Latvian boys and girls, cocktails aplenty and mountains of hidden gems to uncover… Trust us, Riga will not disappoint!
Gay Riga Guide: The Essential Guide To Gay Travel In Riga Latvia 2019
In this article we will cover...
Attractions in Gay Riga
Obviously being gay does not define which attractions we will want to see in each city and the majority of queer travelers just want to have fun and check out the top things to see in Riga during the day!
There is so much to do in this gorgeous city – but we found our favorite memories were simply sitting and drinking coffee watching the world go by, getting lost in the fairytale-like Old Town and Art Noveau neighborhoods or hiring a car and exploring the beautiful surrounding towns and countryside. Oh, and wandering through all the beautiful design stores and being pampered on an affordable spa day.
You hardly run the risk of getting bored in Latvia no matter how long you stay. It’s difficult to throw a stone in this bustling city without hitting something historic and worth visiting– but still, it helps to have some idea what is going on, so here are our just a few of our favorite things to do in Latvia that you should not miss!
- National Library of Latvia – A dominant landmark on the Riga cityscape, the national library was open in 2014 and is equally impressive inside and out. Non-residents simply need to borrow a guest pass to head up to the 7th floor for spectacular views of the Old Town, though there is a rotating array of exhibitions here which may also capture your attention – not to mention the unsurpassed collection of Latvian literature housed within.
- Riga Central Market – One of the largest indoor markets in Europe, located just outside of Riga’s UNESCO-listed Old Town. Found in repurposed zeppelin hangers, take the time to immerse yourself in local life as you explore the lively market, or why not opt for a food tour if you want to learn more about Latvian cuisine and cultural traditions. Either way, you can explore a variety of local specialties like smoked meats, cheeses, herring, and hemp butter – or taste modern gourmet cuisine in the new food hall. Much like Riga, the Central Market is currently undergoing a huge revitalization project, so while it may be in flux it is still certainly worth a visit.
- Latvian National Opera – In 1995, the entire building of the Latvian National Opera was reconstructed and six years later, the magnificent hall of the New Opera was opened to the public. Today the majestic concert hall can accommodate more than a thousand people and showcases a wonderful range of modern ballet and exquisite operas. You can buy Official Tickets to Latvian National Opera from a little as 5 Euro, so there really is no excuse not to go.
- Canal Boat Sightseeing Cruise – The River Daugava and Riga Canal encircle Riga’s UNESCO-listed Old Town, passing many of the city’s most memorable landmarks. This 1-hour sightseeing cruise offers a leisurely way to take in the sights —glide past the Freedom Monument, the Latvian National Opera, and the Latvian National Theatre; enjoy views of Kronvalda Park and Riga Castle, and cruise beneath the Shroud Bridge and Stone Bridge.
- Jurmala – Head out of town to Latvia’s biggest and most popular beach resort, less than an hour from Riga by train or car. Spend the day taking in the magnificent Baltic coast, explore the beaches of Jurmala, wandering old wooden neighborhoods, indulging at the spa or dining at any of the areas fine restaurants. A well-known bolt hole of wealthy Russians looking to hide their fortunes, the contrast between Jurmala and Riga is in itself absolutely fascinating.
- Bike Tour – Cover more of Riga’s highlights in less time on a bike tour that provides a great introduction for first-time visitors. Gain access to parts of the city that are difficult to reach by coach and car, and stop regularly to take photos and listen to commentary without the worry of finding a parking space. Feeling more independent – or on a budget? Just hire a bike and explore on your own.
- Day Trip To Rundale Palace and Hill of Crosses – Cross the border into Lithuania to visit the sacred Hill of Crosses, an important pilgrimage site, then tour Rundale Palace, one of Latvia’s most magnificent landmarks. Enjoy comfortable round-trip transport by private vehicle, learn more about the fascinating historic sites from your driver, and stop as many times as you like to admire the views and take photos.
- Riga Food Tour – Discover the tastes of Riga on this 3.5-hour small-group tasting tour. Walkthrough the city center and sample a range of Latvian specialties such as dark bread, fresh cottage cheese with dill, Riga balsam, and more. Explore local businesses in the creative quarter of the Republic of Miera like a local brewery and a chocolate factory. End the tour at a family-run restaurant with a delicious and seasonal Latvian dish.
- Riga Art Nouveau Architecture – Art Nouveau architecture in Riga makes up roughly one-third of all the buildings in the cities center meaning Latvia’s capital has the highest concentration of Art Nouveau architecture found anywhere in the world. Built during a period of rapid economic growth from between 1904 and 1914, most of Riga’s Art Nouveau masterpieces are multi-storey apartment buildings and are not hard to find wandering around – but for those with a specific interest many guided tours specialize in pointing out some of the architectural gems you might not stumble upon on your own.
- Tallinn Street Quarter – One of the current hotspot of hipster Riga, this industrial zone was used as a depot for ambulance cars in Soviet times but is now finding a new lease on life thanks to several bars and art venues. Head by during the day to admire the range of street art and post-industrial decay vibes (or just grab a coffee from the newly opened Rocket Bean Roastery) – but for maximum effect head in the evening or night to enjoy food, craft beer, and a buzzing nightlife scene.
- Riga Old Town – Designated a UNESCO World Site in 1997, the old town of Riga is as magical as others we have visited in Europe like Copenhagen, Bergen or Krakow – even if some areas are still a little run down. Riga was a major center of the Hanseatic League, deriving its prosperity in the 13th–15th centuries from the trade with central and eastern Europe. The urban fabric of its medieval center reflects this prosperity, though most of the earliest buildings were destroyed by fire or war
- Latvian Ethnographic Open-Air Museum – One of the oldest and largest open-air museums in Europe is located on the banks of Lake Jugla, just a 30-minute drive from downtown Riga. This museum is unique when compared to similar museums around the world with the fact that it began to collect its exhibitions before the war, and thus many of its exhibition objects are in very good condition. 118 historical buildings from all four of Latvia’s provinces – Kurzeme, Vidzeme, Zemgale, and Latgale, have been put on display at the museum with most of them were originally constructed between the 17th century up all the way up until the 1930s. You can spend a few hours wandering around here in the vast, silent forest – stuck in a sort of magical time-warp – and if you get hungry there is a wonderful café hidden in the middle with traditional delights and cute picnic tables.
- Baltic Pride – An annual LGBT+ pride parade rotating in turn between the capitals of the Baltic states: Tallinn, Riga, and Vilnius. It is held in support of raising issues of tolerance and the rights of the LGBT community and is supported by ILGA-Europe. Since 2009 the main organizers in Riga has been Mozaīka. It was held in Riga in 2015 in conjunction with EuroPride (the first time the pan-European LGBT rights week came to an ex-Soviet state.) and in 2018 – so the next Riga Pride should be in 2021. Typically held in June, you could always plan a trip to the three Baltic states around this one fabulous event!
Gay-friendly and Gay Hotels in Riga
In Latvia, you are extremely unlikely to find a boutique, upscale hotel which had any issues with gay guests but could potentially find an issue in some small, owner-operated hotels in this still sometimes conservative society – especially in older generations. While there are no exclusively gay hotels in Riga, we have featured hotels which are gay-popular thanks to their location or design and are also known for their gay-friendly environment.
Each hotel offers something very specific, so be sure to choose the right style and location to meet your needs. Prices are cheap compared to North American and Western European hotels (thought quickly rising) and standards are high – so it’s a great place to splurge!
Needless to say, there are also hundred’s more hotel and hostel options in Riga if none of these suit your desired budget, facilities or area – but these are the best hotels according to us and other gay travelers.
- Grand Hotel Kempinski Riga ☆☆☆☆☆ – The most fashionable hotel in Riga full of utter opulence and intriguing history. Originally built in the 19th century, the Grand Hotel Kempinski Riga is situated in the heart of the Latvian capital just opposite the National Opera House and by the entrance to the town’s historic center. Discover the finest collection of 141 luxury rooms and suites along with an all-day-dining and a rooftop restaurant, a bar, and a cigar lounge. Indulge in Kempinski The Spa, featuring six treatment rooms, a swimming pool and a health club with fitness center, relax in your spacious room or head for drinks and the undeniable pearl of the hotel, the stylish rooftop restaurant, and bar, Stage 22.
- Hotel Bergs ☆☆☆☆☆ – A sleek designer retreat, centrally located yet hidden away in the hip cultural quarter of Riga. With 37 large designer suites, the Hotel Bergs also features a newly opened restaurant Trends with summer terrace, original artwork, a fitness and wellness center, elegant meeting lounges and a penthouse event space with great city views. All rooms are fully equipped with executive work desks, kitchenettes, luxurious bathrooms, and LCD TV screens.
- Grand Palace Hotel ☆☆☆☆☆ – On walking through the massive doors of this luxurious hotel, you may get the feeling that you are finally back home. Built-in 1877 as the Central Bank of Latvia, it was turned into a boutique 5-star superior hotel in the year 2000 offering a place of warmth and comfort, accompanied by attentive and impeccable service. All 56 rooms and suites are designed by interior design firm Andrew Martin in color-balanced tones and offer a contemporary melange in idyllic surroundings along with 24-hour room service, complimentary high-speed Wi-Fi internet, and air-conditioning.
- Radisson Blu Latvija Conference & Spa Hotel ☆☆☆☆ – At 90m tall, this hotel is a bit of a local landmark – so you’ll always be able to find your way back! Book into one of their 571 Riga hotel rooms and suites to enjoy a good night’s sleep in modern surroundings. In addition to the upscale surroundings, you can pamper yourself with a tempting selection of high-quality treatments at the on-site ESPA spa or take advantage of the hotel swimming pool. There is also a fitness studio, saunas, steam rooms and open-air vitality pool to use during your Riga city break – not to mention upscale dining and one of the cities best city bars.
- Neiburgs Hotel ☆☆☆☆ -A family-owned hotel praised for its elegant fusion of the historical and the modern. Guests are welcome to book any of their 55 rooms, which offer breathtaking views of the stately Dom or the meandering medieval streets of the Old Town. For guests’ convenience and enjoyment, there is a restaurant, business center, conference rooms, as well as a fitness room and SPA. One of the most affordable hotels in Riga, without compromising on quality and style.
- Wellton Riverside SPA Hotel ☆☆☆ – A modern hotel newly opened in Riga right on the waterfront and edge of the old town. Offering hyper-competitive room rates, attentive service, daily breakfast and one of the biggest spa set-ups in town.
- Wicked Weasel Hostel ☆☆ – A stylish and modern hotel for if you are traveling on a budget or want to meet new friends to explore Gay Riga with. While room rates are very affordable in general here, we understand you sometimes want the company of others and recommend Wicked Weasel as a clean and contemporary solution. Their dormitories are equipped with custom-built bunk beds, each with their own power outlet, reading light and under-bed storage space – and their reception is open 24 hours a day for check-in and check out.
Gay Bars and Gay Clubs in Riga
While Riga is increasingly getting a reputation as one of the best party cities in Europe, this sadly does not extend to its gay scene, and there is only one ‘true’ gay bar in the city.
If you are interested – Prague is the gay nightlife capital of Eastern Europe, but Stockholm – just a short ferry-trip away – also has a vibrant gay scene. It’s just far more expensive! If your looking to party the night away with your queer family, Top Club is your only choice, but if you don’t mind shifting through straights, there are some gay-popular hipster cocktail bars, bohemian cafes and all-night dance events.
While things are changing, you should be aware Riga is not exactly a liberal city and therefore open displays of affection outside of gay bars can lead to trouble – especially late at night – so discretion is advised.
We found that many young clubbers don’t mind if you are gay or straight thanks to changing attitudes towards the LGBT community in Latvia, but homophobia is still a serious issue. New gay clubs also seem to open up now and again but don’t ever seem to last long, but please contact us if you find more. Use your common sense and discretion and you can enjoy what is certain to be a crazy fun night out in Gay Riga.
- TOP Club – A new Gay / LGBT club for all open-minded people centrally located in Riga. A multi-faceted art space divided into a bar, dance floor, lounge with a fireplace and variety of other themed areas for conversation and getting to know other patrons better. From Sundays to Thursdays TOP is more of a quiet bar open from 9 pm to 2 am with no entrance fee but for weekend parties there is a small entrance free. Large, vibrant, polished and intriguing – don’t be put off by the security camera and buzzer system, inside you will find friendly faces and a good time. With go-go dancers, performers and a packed dance floor you simply can’t not stop by TOP if you are visiting during the weekend. Since Golden has closed, this is the only gay bar left in Riga – though we do hope this changes soon.
- Skyline Bar – The highest bar in Riga, and one of its most sophisticated being located on the 26th floor of the Radisson Blu Spa Hotel. Elevate your senses amidst upscale surroundings with specially crafted signature cocktails or Asian tapas. Entrance is free most weeknights or before 10 pm on weekends, and prices are very affordable given its premium location. Surprisingly empty around sunset, so either come early or late at night to enjoy Skyline without the crowds. For non-drinkers, their mocktail menu is also one of the best in town.
- Alķīmiķis – The Alchemist craft brewery is contained in a devotedly restored 19th-century wooden building, though inside things are decidedly more modern with tiled walls, copper lighting, upcycled kegs, and old beer vats. The food is a little over-priced but their tasting menu of IPA’s, pilsners and pale ales are a fun way to start your night off.
- Herbārijs – An oasis of plants, flavours and genuine hospitality hidden on a rooftop terrace at the top of Galleria Riga. Open all year round with summer outdoor seating and heaters for winter, stop by to enjoy the stunning views, simple yet tantalizing menu and marvellous cocktails.
- Tallinas Kvartāla Ezītis Miglā – Ezītis miglā is a wildly popular chain of bars located across Riga, though each location embodies an entirely different design concept – and we would not have guessed they were even related besides sharing the same name. Ezītis miglā, meaning ‘Hedgehog’ however is not only spending time with your friends but also remember good times, read a book, play table games and enjoy delicious cocktails and many different meals. Opened in 2018, this location is an absolute must-visit and adds to the creative spirit of the Tallinn Street Quarter. Known for endless summer parties, long conversations and beautiful encounters, this utterly hipster spot found in a former mechanics garage offers food, refreshing delicious cocktails and an environment where everyone can feel at home well into the night. Various arts, music, and other events take place here on a regular basis – and the outdoor terrace in summer is one of Riga’s hidden gems.
- M50 Design Bar – In the heart of hipster Riga, this design store has expanded outside of art and knick-knacks to quench your thirst with wine, cocktails and Latvian craft brews. Intimate yet fun, there are also live acts here 2-3 times a week but space is very much at a premium.
- Kaņepes Kultūras centrs (KKC) – A self-proclaimed culture center, this local hotspot for hipsters found in a dilapidated wooden building just screams alternative. Old furniture, wall paper falling off the rooms and staff who are almost indistguishable from the patrons are hallmarks here. The summer terrace is awash with the scent of weed in weekends, and there is a full roster of concerts, cinema nights and art exhibitions – normally posted on their Facebook page.
- Kalnciema Ezītis Miglā – Another popular location of the Ezītis miglā chain hidden across the river in lively art and entertainment enclave surrounded by beautifully-restored wooden buildings. Explore the area, before settling in with a glass (or bottle) of wine in their outdoor seating area with hipster old trams or inside if the weather is refusing to co-operate.
Gay Cruising & Gay Saunas in Riga
Those who are interested in the Riga gay sauna scene will be disappointed to learn there is only one in all of Latvia. It seems these days people prefer to meet in hook-up apps and clubs.
LGBT travelers should take care never to confuse gay sauna’s versus traditional sauna as it would be extremely awkward to make advances in a traditional sauna or spa in Riga – which are all about health and relaxation rather than sex.
Gay Sauna Latvia is the only gay sauna in Riga conveniently located to TOP Club Riga. Inside guests with a find a steamy sauna with room for up to 12 people, an infrared sauna for 2 persons and a jacuzzi that can fit 5 in a pinch. There is also two XXX film viewing areas. Only open Friday and Saturday’s, their hours change frequently but are always up-to-date on their website. For men who identify as homosexual or bisexual only, entrance is 14 € and includes a locker with key, towel, and slippers.
Gay sauna or not, in any sexual encounter, please take adequate precautions. No matter what your intentions are in while traveling, you should bring your own condoms and lube to play it safe. Take home a hot guy or a hot memory, not an STD.
Besides, you never know what other fun surprises your trip might have in store for you...