The Latvian capital is the joint European Capital of Culture for 2014 (alongside Umea in Sweden). Festivities begin on 17 January, with a performance of Richard Wagner's first opera, Rienzi – written while he was living in Riga – at the Latvian National Opera on Aspazijas Bulvaris 3. For more information, visit riga2014.org. The euro becomes Latvia's official currency on New Year's Day; prices quoted here may differ slightly when the move takes effect.
Get your bearings
Riga is the biggest city in the Baltic states, but most of its main landmarks are within walking distance of the compact city centre. Most historic sites are situated in the beautifully preserved old town – a jumble of medieval and Renaissance buildings on the east bank of the Daugava river. Further east, beyond the pretty City Park lies one of Europe's largest concentrations of unspoilt Art Nouveau architecture.
Riga's tourist office is at Ratslaukums 6 (liveriga.com; 10am-6pm daily) on the main square. The flamboyant building in which it's housed, a 14th-century guildhall, is an attraction in its own right.
Take a ride
Riga City Tour buses (citytour.lv) depart from Latviesu Strelnieku Laukums between 10am and 3pm daily. Tickets cost €15 and are valid for 48 hours. You can hop off and on at a dozen stops along the way. The route takes in the old town, New Riga (the Art Nouveau district) and wooden Riga (the traditional timber houses on the west bank of the Daugava). The tour takes between 60 and 90 minutes, depending on traffic.
Take a view
Take the lift up the spire of St Peter's Church at Skarnu 19, a short walk from the Latviesu Strelnieku Laukums, where the tour buses terminate (peterbaznica.riga.lv). Tickets cost €7 and also include admission to the church, which doubles as an art gallery. The ticket office is open 10am-5.30pm Tuesday to Saturday and from noon to 6pm on Sunday. The view from the top is breathtaking, but this Unesco-listed Lutheran church – which was originally founded in 1209 by the Germanic crusaders who established Riga – is also well worth a visit.
Lunch on the run
Located around the corner from St Peter's, Province at Kalku 2 (provincija.lv) is the perfect pit stop. The décor is quaint and folksy, the food is nourishing and hearty. A big bowl of cabbage soup with meat and potatoes, followed by bread pudding with cream, figs and nuts, washed down with half a litre of cold, strong ale, costs €13.10.
Take a hike
Brivibas iela ("Freedom Street") is like a timeline of the last century. A walk along this busy boulevard constitutes a crash course in Latvian history. Start at Latviesu Strelnieku Laukums, beneath the statue of the Latvian riflemen who fought for Lenin. Head east along Kalku iela, past rows of handsome houses built by German merchants, to the graceful Freedom Monument erected during Latvian's first era of independence, between the wars. Further along is Riga's Russian Orthodox Cathedral, a planetarium during the Soviet occupation, now a place of worship once again. End outside the former KGB HQ on the junction of Stabu iela and Brivibas iela. A plaque remembers the countless Latvians who were imprisoned, tortured and killed there.
Visit Pienene at Kungu 7/9 ( studijapienene.lv; 10am-8pm daily) which sells products made by local artisans, including clothes, cosmetics and children's toys. The shop contains a stylish café, selling handmade truffles.
Alberta Street is the hub of Riga's Art Nouveau district and the best place to drink in the view is from the top floor of the high-rise Albert Hotel at Dzirnavu 23 (alberthotel.lv). The penthouse lounge is a laid-back bar, with DJs from 8pm.
Dining with the locals
A block away from the Albert Hotel is Restorans Alberta 1221 at Antonijas 13 (alberta1221.lv). The décor is modern, the menu is European with a contemporary twist: goulash with apricots, sturgeon and salmon borsch. Three courses cost around €22, without beverage.
Go to church
Riga's magnificent brick cathedral on Doma Laukums (doms.lv; 10am-5pm daily; €4.30, except for worship) is the biggest medieval building in Latvia. It was founded in 1211 by the Teutonic Knights who established this Hanseatic port in the 13th century. There are services in German at 10am (except for the first Sunday of the month) and in Latvian at noon on Sundays, and organ recitals on Wednesdays and Saturdays at noon, admission €7.
Out to brunch
The island of Kipsala, with its old wooden houses, is the ideal destination for a Sunday morning stroll, and Ostas Skati at Matrozu 15 (ostasskati.lv) is a sublime setting for Sunday brunch. This sleek waterfront restaurant has lovely views of the old town, across the River Daugava. The buffet costs €11.25, including coffee. It's always popular, so best to book ahead.
Walk in the park
The Freedom Monument is the best starting point for a wander around Riga's City Park. Follow the canal north to the Congress Centre or south to the Opera House. In summer, you can take a boat trip along the canal and out into the Daugava river (kmk.lv).
Built in 1923, in ornate Rococo style, the Splendid Palace at Elizabetes 61 (splendidpalace.lv) was the first cinema in the Baltic states to show talkies. Ninety years later, it's still a working cinema, showing a wide range of European films and live transmissions from foreign opera houses. Riga Story, a 30-minute documentary screened daily in English at 10am, noon and 2pm, is a useful introduction to the history of this extraordinary city. Admission is €7.10.
Icing on the cake
Designed by a German from St Petersburg in the style of a Venetian palazzo, Riga Bourse epitomises the Latvian capital's eclectic heritage. The old stock exchange at Doma laukums 6 has been lovingly restored, and is now a palatial art museum (lnmm.lv; 10am-6pm daily except Monday, until 8pm on Friday). The permanent collection features a respectable selection of Dutch and Flemish Masters, and a spectacular haul of Meissen porcelain. Until February 4, an exhibition called "Impressions and Parallels" charts the close relationship between Latvian and Belgian modern art. Access all areas: €6.40.