Riga, the capital of Latvia, is a city few people outside of the Baltic States have heard of, in a country many can’t place on a map.
Yet the port city at the mouth of the Daugava River, half way down the Baltic coast, has been a critical center of trade between Northern and Eastern Europe since it was founded in 1201 by Albert, the bishop of Bremen, Germany, and his crusading knights. By the end of the 13th century, it had become a key port of the Hanseatic League, the German confederation of merchant guilds that grew to dominate Baltic maritime commerce for three centuries. Next came the Swedish kings, followed by Russian tsars. All left their imprint along the winding cobble streets of the Old Town.
The Hanseatic Heritage
The narrow streets and colorful squares of Riga’s Old Town are lined with architectural reminders of its Medieval-era Hanseatic prosperity.
The Dome Cathedral – After its foundation stone was laid in 1211, it grew to become the central cathedral in the Baltic States. In addition to its religious functions, it also served as the main venue in the city for concerts, a dual function it retains to this day. Although some additional Gothic, Baroque and even Art Nouveau features were added over time, it is still considered the largest Medieval church in Baltic States.
Saint Peter’s Church– Only a few walls and pillars remain from its original 1209 construction. Rebuilt in the 15th century, the nave is a soaring Gothic masterpiece. But the most significant feature of St. Peter is its 123 meters (400 feet) octagonal spire, the tallest in the city and a prime example of 13th century Northern Gothic style. An elevator added during its latest renovation in 1967 takes visitors to the second gallery. At a height of 74 meters (240 feet) it offers a unique circular view over the entire city.
The House of the Blackheads – It started as “the New House” in 1334, built as one of the elements of Riga’s Town Hall Square; hence its distinctive Dutch Renaissance stepped façade. It was intended as a gathering place for traders and shippers who oversaw the commerce links between the West and East that were the city’s economic lifeline. Soon, it also became a favorite meeting place for the young, unmarried traders (black heads), who turned it into the heart of the local social scene. Today’s visitors can experience the many faces of the House of the Blackheads, from its grand Assembly Hall, where the portraits of the Swedish and Russian royal families glare at each other across the floor, to its original 14th century basement storerooms.
From Romanesque to Art Nouveau
By the 17th century, Riga has become the largest provincial town of Sweden. By the turn of the 20th century, it is an industrial powerhouse, the fourth city of the Russian Empire, topped only by Moscow, St. Petersburg and Warsaw. Throughout its development, it remains a modern city that keeps up with the trends in architecture and urban planning. From Romanesque to Gothic, Northern Baroque and Neoclassic to Art Nouveau, the city offers a unique legacy of the evolution of northern European architecture. Today, 800 years of successive styles harmoniously coexist in the Old Town.
With the demolition of the medieval ramparts in 1865, the ancient moat becomes a picturesque canal snaking along a thin belt of parkland. Beyond it, Riga is free to expand, at a time when the Industrial Revolution is bringing unprecedented prosperity and a sudden population explosion to the city. Beyond the park, a new neighborhood comes to life, laid out in a modern grid pattern and subject only to a single restriction. No construction can exceed six stories or 21.3 meters (70 feet), thus ensuring a degree of urban homogeneity, even as streets quickly become lined with grand buildings in the exuberant new style that is turning heads throughout Europe.
The Art Nouveau Capital
By the early 1900’s, with some 50 Art Nouveau buildings of note in its Old Town and more than 300 in the new neighborhood across the park, now the Historic Center, Riga boasts the highest concentration of Art Nouveau architecture in the world. Some of the most extravagant examples of the style can be found here, all the more stunning for their diversity.
Alberta iela is the Art Nouveau epicenter of Riga, with every building along the 250-meter (850 foot) long residential street a unique representation of the style, created by the leading architects of the time (Mikhail Eisenstein, Konstantīns Pēkšēns and Eižens Laube). In a era when over-the-top design is just the beginning, Eisenstein, who has five buildings to his credit on Alberta alone, still manages to stand out with his monumental facades teaming with crowned godheads, Egyptian and Zoroastrian symbols, Greek goddesses, nests of slithering snakes and hybrid peacock-griffin creatures. The street, and indeed the entire neighborhood, is so rich in mythical and symbolic details that it deserves several visits to absorb.
Europe’s Largest Market
Just south of the city’s canal, wedged between the railroad tracks of the central train station and the Daugava River, five First World War German Zeppelin hangars were converted in the 1920’s into the city’s central market. The cavernous halls hold a sprawling complex of stalls overflowing with smoked fish, charcuteries, fresh vegetables, brightly decorated cakes and every imaginable foodstuff, as well as tiny makeshift bars and fried fish shacks. In one of the halls, clothing merchants hawk everything from local felt slippers and multicolored hand-knit sweaters to garish polyester fashion that looks like a throw back to 1960’s USSR and Russian heavy metal band T-shirts. The experience is as “traditional Riga” as you can get.
Good to Know
- Getting there – By air. Riga International Airport, with direct flight from most European capitals and major cities, is located 10 kilometers southwest of the city. There is a minibus shuttle (Airport Express) every 30 minutes with fixed stops at several hotels near the airport and in the old town (cost is €5 pp at the time of this writing). However, several taxi companies operate from the airport to the centre of the city for a fixed, pre-paid price of €15 if pre-booked online or via your hotel (otherwise, metered rates apply if paid to the driver.) Service to the Old Town takes 20 minutes. In general, regular taxi can be expensive if the meter is used and a fixed price is not negotiated. By Bus and train – There are international bus and train connections between Riga and most major cities in the other Baltic States (Estonia and Lithuania), as well as a few cities in Russia and Belarus. Ferry – Tallink operates a daily ferry service between Stockholm and Riga. The journey takes 17 hours.
- Getting around – The Old Town and Art Nouveau District are rather compact and best explored on foot. The Old Town is paved with rounded cobblestone streets that may be hard to walk on if you are not wearing appropriate shoes. Outside of the Old Town, most streets are paved with asphalt.
- Staying – There is an abundance of short-term lodging options throughout the city center, ranging from efficiency apartments to boutique and international chains hotel. On this recent stay, I chose the Konventa Seta Hotel, Kalēju iela 9/11, Centra rajons, Rīga, LV-1050for its ideal location in a quiet enclave in the heart of the Old Town. Housed in a former convent that is designated as a historic monument, the property consists of seven buildings around interior courtyards. It has been fully renovated with modern amenities, and decorated in the functional, minimalist décor that is typical of Northern European hotels. The very reasonable room-rate included a generous buffet breakfast and reliable Wi-Fi throughout the property. The front desk staff spoke proficient English and was unfailingly helpful and pleasant. Contact: tel. +371 60008700, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Visiting – The Dome Cathedral, Doma laukums 1, Riga, LV 1050, is open every day from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm. Contact: e-mail email@example.com. St. Peter’s Church, Reformācijas laukums 1, Rīga, LV-1050 is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm and Sunday from 12:00 noon to 6:00 pm. Closed on Monday. Contact : email firstname.lastname@example.org. The House of the Blackheads, Rātslaukums 7, Riga, VL 1050 is open Tuesday through Sunday from 11:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Closed on Monday. The Central Market is open Monday through Saturday from 8:00 am to 6:00 pm and Sunday from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm.
- Eating –The restaurant scene in Riga has come a long way since Latvia’s independence from the USSR in 1990. While you can still find plenty of eateries offering local dishes based on the traditional local staples: fish, pork, potatoes and cabbage, there is now a full range of new options available from international fast food to regional pubs and refined, chef-driven restaurants serving imaginative dishes using locally sourced seasonal products. The best one I came across during this recent stay was the Domini Canes, Skārņu iela 18/20, Centra rajons, Rīga, LV-1050, coincidentally located a two-minute walk from my hotel, on the small square facing the historic St. Peter’s church. It seems I am not the only one to delight in their succulent garlic butter sautéed sea scallops with mashed swedes (rutabaga) or their slow-roased lamb shank with red-wine poached beets and carrot-caraway purée. Reservations are a must every day for dinner. Open every day from 10:00 am to 11:00 pm. Contact: tel. +371 22 314 122. Another delightful place I stumbled onto is Parunasim kafe’teeka, Mazā Pils iela 4, Centra rajons, Rīga, LV-1050. From this backstreet of the Old Town, let the blackboard arrow guide you to the courtyard entrance of this cozy coffee shop. The old-fashion pastry case is filled with home baked goodies that are a perfect foil for the best cappuccino and hot chocolate in town. There is also a courtyard terrace in the summer. Contact: tel.+371 25 663 533.
- UNESCO designation – Riga’s Old Town, Art Nouveau District and Central Market were designated UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997.