Riga of Latvia

Riga, Latvia: What to See, Where to Go and What to Know

Riga: Introduction

Riga (pop. 650 000) is the largest city in the Baltic States. Together with suburbs, it contains almost half of Latvia’s inhabitants. Nearly all major Latvian businesses are headquartered in Riga and foreign representations to the entire Baltic region are usually located in Riga.

Riga is both a major entry point to the Baltics region (its airport is the largest) and a major tourist destination of its own with one of the world’s best collection of art nouveau buildings, wooden residentials and a Medieval Old Town (UNESCO World Heritage).

Alberta street in Centrs district of Riga
Alberta street in Centrs district of Riga, famous for its art nouveau architecture. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Late 19th and early 20th century were the prime periods of Riga expansion, creating its romantic current look. However, the city was initially developed by German knights and merchants in the Medieval era when its cute Old Town was built.

The most famous square of Riga Old Town
City hall square of Riga Old Town with St. Peter church rising above it. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The 20th century was especially bloody for Riga as the Soviet occupation transformed the city and murdered thousands of its people while settling the city with Russians. While Riga is now a modern Western metropolis with Soviet past little visible for those who don’t seek it, the inhabitants of Riga remain bitterly divided between once-oppressed ethnic Latvians (~43% of the population) and a largely Russian-speaking remainder (privileged while under Soviet occupation).

Riga is divided by geographic features into:

1.Old Town (Medieval district surrounded by moat and Daugava)

2.Downtown (19th century districts, surrounded by railway and Daugava, consisting of the massive art nouveau Centrs and more prosaic Eastern Downtown, as well as the largely modern Northern Downtown)

3.Eastern new districts (districts beyond the railway, developed in 20th century or as 19th century suburbs. They include a former industrial hub of Sarkandaugava, multiethnic Maskavas suburb that has become a shabby version of Downtown, interwar district Teika, and a historic wooden villa suburb of Mežaparks where main Riga cemeteries are also located)

4.Pardaugava (the areas west of Daugava river, where the districts closer to Old Town – Āgenskalns, Kipsala – have been built over in the 19th century and are now undergoing transformation into a new city center. Further away lay the Soviet districts).

Wooden 19th century apartment buildings in Pardaugava
Wooden 19th century apartment buildings in Pardaugava. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Each of the famous 19th-century districts is a collection of four distinct types of buildings:

1.The largest and most lauded ones are 5 story edifices where elaborate art nouveau style predominates.
2.Then there are smaller and simpler (2-4 floor) brick buildings.
3.Wooden 2-floored residentials are another icon of Riga, although they are not so prestigious.
4.And, at the „smallest end“ there are single-floored detached homes and somewhat larger villas.

The Centrs neighborhood is nearly entirely built of the 5-floored residentials, but the further you drift from the Centrs, the less such buildings (and the more buildings of the smaller types) there you will find.

Soldiers memorial in Riga
A fragment of independence war soldiers memorial – one of the key interwar projects when city asserted its Latvian identity. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Old Town of Riga (Vecrīga)

In the heart of Medieval Riga, the labyrinthine pedestrianized streets of Old Town are still outflanked by massive church spires and guild houses. They date to the Middle Ages when Old Riga was a place of peaceful religion and trade, independent of nearby militarized states.

Livu squre in Riga
Livu squre in Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Old Riga is surrounded by a moat-like „City canal“ and a park on three sides, with Center district lying beyond them. The Canal has replaced city wall. On the West side Old Riga faces the mighty Daugava estuary. While freight vessels are now anchored closer to the sea, the views of Riga Old Town are still arguably the most magnificent from an embankment on the opposite shore of Daugava.

Riga Old Town from the opposite side of Daugava
The multireligious spires of Riga Old Town from the opposite side of Daugava. Left -to-right: Russian Orthodox, Anglican, Catholic and Lutheran. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The life in Riga Old Town revolves around three squares, each of them having a very different atmosphere.

City Hall square area (South)

The serene Rātslaukums (City Hall square) is dominated by a magnificient facade Black Hat house, one of many medieval merchant guilds. The particular house is new however, faithfully rebuilt after independence. Like some other gems of Old Riga it was destroyed by the Soviets – and contemporary Rigans try to reassert that lost history. Likewise, the once-destroyed City Hall was rebuilt.

Black Head House in Riga
Black Head House in Riga at night during Christmas period, with Christmas tree (allegedly a Rigan invention) on the right. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The atmosphere of the square is however still marred by a bleak black Soviet building that now serves as the Museum of Latvian occupation (originally built to display information about Latvian Red Riflemen).

City Hall square itself is rather devoid of life, lacking cafes and entertainment. Those are plentiful in surrounding streets. One home hosts Mecendorf museum that presents mural-clad interiors of an 18th century rich Baltic German’s home (less impressive than it sounds).

Mecendorf House in Riga, a survivor from the oldest times among somewhat newer buildings
Mecendorf House in Riga, a survivor from the oldest times among somewhat newer buildings. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Rising over the entire area is Ss. Peter’s church tower. Its multi-tiered wooden crown, burnt down and rebuilt, now serves as a good vantage point over the city (72 meters, elevator available).

First floor of St. Peter church
First floor of St. Peter church. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Cathedral square area (North)

Cathedral square (Doma laukums) is the most authentic and stunning square of Old Riga.

Impressive buildings at Cathedral square
Impressive buildings at Cathedral square. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The streets around it host many stately red-brick churches of various denominations, once frequented by foreign merchants and local craftsmen. After all, Riga was part of the Hanseatic trading league in the Medieval era, which has spanned as far west as England. So the city even has a St. Savior Anglican church (current building dates to 1857). A Catholic Our Lady of Sorrows church (1785) is nearby.

Our lady of sorrows Catholic church
Our lady of sorrows Catholic church. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Cathedral square itself is dominated by a massive Lutheran Cathedral (1211 with many modifications). The Catholic minority have their own smaller St. James Cathedral (1225). Both churches would be passed from Lutherans to Catholics and back during history and their ownership was even contested in two Latvia-wide referendums.

Lutheran Cathedral of Riga at Cathedral square
Lutheran Cathedral of Riga at Cathedral square. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Although Old Riga is some 800 years old, most residential buildings are in fact newer (having replaced their forerunners during the 19th century boom). Therefore “Three Brothers” homes, the earliest dating to 15th century, are especially famous.

Three Brothers
Three Brothers. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The northwestern side of Riga Old Town hosts a crusader castle (heavily rebuilt into palace since) and the sole surviving fortifications such as the Gunpowder tower (now a war museum). Latvian parliament and National theater are also located nearby.

Gunpowder tower of Riga
Gunpowder tower of Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The political importance of the area made it a target of Soviet military attack in 1991, when Soviets attempted to quash the restored Latvian independence. Latvians hastily built barricades to prevent tanks from coming and would spend days waiting around makeshif fires to keep warmth. Upcoming days resulted in some deaths but Latvia would not fall. These heroic times when armless struggle toppled the struggling Soviet regime are reminded by a small-but-quite-ingenious Barricades museum.

A model of Riga Cathedral square in 1991 at the Barricades museum
A model of Riga Cathedral square in 1991 at the Barricades museum. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Livu square area (East)

Unlike its two cousins, Livu square is not historic: it was created by Soviets who leveled historic neighborhoods that stood in its place.

However, hedonistic visitors seem to care little about it, spending time in Livu Square’s many open-air cafes as well as restaurants and nightclubs of surrounding streets.

A square in Riga
A square with restaurant on the right. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Two magnificent guild halls that survived Soviet occupation help to forget the square’s origin. Nearby House of cat has a curious story: the small cat sculpture had its backside turned at the guilds after the house’s Latvian owner was not admitted to join them by German peers (but it was turned around after a court reversed its decision).

Guild halls in Riga
Guild halls in Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

While Livu square area is the leisure center of Old Town (and Old Town itself – the hub of Riga), noisy entertainment and high prices have almost evicted people from the district. Merely 3 000 Rigans continue to live in the Old Town, although some 23 000 work in the area.

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Centrs (Center) of Riga

The Center of Riga is a living monument to the city‘s golden age of the late 19th century and early 20th century. At that time industrialization had made Riga one of the 5 largest cities of the massive Russian Empire and among the great European metropolises.

The population increased to some 600 000 and construction crews worked ceaselessly to build ever-prettier 6-floored edifices. Then-popular art nouveau style would prevail, making Riga one of the best cities to witness this type of architecture, itself an attempt to create a new style in the era when most other architects just copied the past.

Part of art noveau facade in Alberta street
A fragment of Art Nouveau facade near Alberta street. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Spanning the whole Centrs and continuing to eastern suburbs, Brīvības (Freedom) street is the main artery of both the district and Riga as a whole. It has some of the most massive turn-of-the-20th-century buildings.

A fragment of Brīvības street
A fragment of Brīvības street with a mid-19th century St. Gertrude Old Church (center), turn-of-the-century art nouveau apartment building (right) and a post-independence office block (left visible. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

However, the title of the prettiest art nouveau street is usually awarded to a much smaller Alberta street where famous architect Eisenstein created his masterpieces. Nearby Art nouveau museum allows catching a glimpse of opulent art nouveau staircase and apartment interior. Despite the Soviet destruction, these are still quite common in the Center of Riga (although most are only accessible to residents and their guests).

Art nouveau staircase interior leading to Riga art nouveau museum
Art nouveau staircase interior leading to Riga art nouveau museum. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Alberta street is in the northern reaches of Centrs, beyond the Krišjāņa Valdemāra street which has some of Riga’s most important late 19th century public buildings, including the National theater and what is now the Museum of (Latvian) fine arts. These have been built imitating historical styles rather than Art Nouveau.

Neo-Baroque National Theater of Riga
Baroque-inspired National Theater of Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Riga Centrs is anchored on straight wide streets that emit „big city feeling“. At the time of its inception, three different ethnicities vied for power over Riga and Latvia.

A fragment of a facade in Riga
A fragment of a facade in Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

There were German „Baltic barons“, for centuries the elite of the city who paid the bills for many of its greatest buildings. Gothic revival St. Gertrude Old church (1869) was built and belonged to the community.

A typical long straight street of Riga Centrs, surrounded by large old buildings
A typical long straight street of Riga Centrs, surrounded by large old buildings. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

There were Russians, since 1710 the political leaders, their role still visible in the massive Neo-Byzanthine Russian Orthodox Nativity Cathedral (1883) that stands in the district’s largest park Esplanade and earlier neoclassical St. Alexander Nevskiy church (1825).

Nativity Cathedral in Riga
Nativity Cathedral in Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

And there were Latvians, for millennia the majority of surrounding villages, who began migrating to industrialized Riga in their hundreds of thousands, asserting the city as their future capital and dwarfing the other communities. Their national awakening is reminded by places such as Krišjānis Barons museum – this was the Latvian who collected long-neglected Latvian folksongs that later became the essence of the nation. Like many of Riga Center house-museums, it is interesting both for the personality that lived there and for its turn-of-the-century interior.

Church in Riga Centrs
Brīvības street with St. Gertrude New church in Riga Centrs built by Latvian ex-parishioners of St. Gertrude Old church. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Additionally, Latvian architects would commonly add details inspired by Latvian culture and mythology to their contraptions (patterns and even sculptures), leading to the creation of unique distinctive sub-type of “Latvian national romantic art nouveau“.

A national romantic art nouveau building, adorned by ethnic patterns and a tall gabled roof
A national romantic art nouveau building, adorned by ethnic patterns and a tall gabled roof. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

After Latvia achieved its independence in 1918, Centrs of Riga became its political hub. In a symbolic place between Centrs and Old Town the Freedom statue was erected, symbolizing the unity of Latvia. Miraculously escaping Soviet demolition it remains *the* national symbol.

Freedom monument between Center and Old Town of Riga
Freedom monument between Center and Old Town of Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

During the occupations, Centrs served as a base for anti-Latvian institutions such as KGB, whose former HQ was transformed into a KGB museum (entry free to the introduction area, but in order to visit the cells where Latvians were tortured and murdered a paid guided tour is needed).

KGB prison in Riga
The prison zone of KGB building in Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Eastern fringes of the Centrs, where the large buildings slowly give up place for the smaller wooden apartment blocks of the Eastern downtown, has been reborn as a rather artistic place. Miera street now hosts various studios, a large mural of Latvian song festivals has been created near the intersection of Talina and Krišjana Barona streets.

The mural of Latvian song festivals ir Central Riga
The mural of Latvian song festivals ir Central Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Total population of Centrs: 35 000, but some 100 000 work in offices there.

Eastern Downtown (Avoti, Grīziņkalns, Brasa)

The neighborhoods of Riga’s Eastern Downtown are at least 100 years old but more varied and laid back than the Center itself.

Pretty restored art nouveau buildings are joined there by smaller historicist edifices, wooden countryside-like homes and empty lots used for parking cars.

A building in Grīziņkalns
Abruptly ending lines of large edifices are a common sight east of Centrs, the empty walls often used for adverts. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Had the early 1900s „Riga golden age“ continued longer all the remaining smaller buildings in those neighborhoods would have been surely replaced by stately art nouveau edifices. However, World War 1 all but stopped that expansion of Riga, ceasing the transformation of Eastern Downtown where it was, half-completed. These neighborhoods lag behind Center in housing prices and a few of the buildings are abandoned.

However, these districts are still residential, not yet taken over by tourists and businesses. If one would like to discover hidden gems of Riga architecture without getting surrounded by crowds and expensive cafes, Eastern Downtown is the best place.

A street in Grīziņkalns
A street in Grīziņkalns with St. Paul church at the end. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Eastern Downtown lacks top government and public edifices, but even mundane buildings constructed before World War 2 are of great architectural value (e.g. the gas reservoirs that once supplied the city with gas).

Gas reservoirs of Riga
Gas reservoirs of Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Gothic revival St. Paul Lutheran church (1887) is the spiritual heart of Eastern Downtown for Lutherans while the Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox cathedral and monastery (1902) is for the Russian Orthodox.

Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral in Riga
Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral in Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The most eerie sight is the Great Cemetery in Brasa. Once among the prettiest sights of Riga full of elaborate gravestones and crypts built by 19th century German elite of the city, the cemetery was destroyed by vengeful Soviets. Officially the cemetery is a park now, but gravestones and pretty family crypts survive here and there, not allowing to forget the past. There is nobody to care for them, however (as the local Germans were killed or expelled in 1940s) and the graves thus remain desecrated, vandalized with swastikas and satanist symbols.

Abandoned crypts in Brasa cemetery
Abandoned crypts in Brasa cemetery. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Eastern Downtown is officially split into districts of Avoti (south), Grīziņkalns (east) and Brasa (north).

Total population: 46 000.

Northern Downtown (Skanste, Andrejsala)

Areas north of Riga Downtown have been relatively sparsely inhabited, even empty. As such they have been used for some modern developments that needed both space and a downtown location.

For example, Arena Riga (used for ice hockey, basketball and concerts), modern offices and flats have been constructed here.

New residential buildings around Riga Arena
New residential buildings around Riga Arena. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Western parts of the Northern Downtown have been used as the main port of Riga. While they are still used as such, less area is now needed, and some of the former port zones of Andrejsala have been converted into a small district of restaurants and clubs.

Total population: 6 000

Maskavas Suburb

Maskavas Suburb is the melting pot of Riga‘s different ethnicities. The district was developed in 19th century on the road to Moscow (hence the name). It is a mish-mash of large brick edifices and two floored wooden apartment buildings (together with art nouveau the reason of Riga‘s UNESCO inscription). Many are abandoned as Riga suffered a population decline, especially among its Russophone population.

Abandoned apartment building of ~1900 in Maskavas Suburb
Abandoned apartment building of ~1900 in Maskavas Suburb. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Despite the departure of some Russians after 1990, Latvians are still a minority in the Maskavas suburb. The district has houses of worship of 5 denominations.

Russian Old Believer Grebenščikova church and monastery with its golden dome is among the largest churches in the world of this Russian schismatic community which escaped the persecutions by taking refuge in Latvia.

Grebenščikova Old Believer monastery
Grebenščikova Old Believer monastery. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Jesus Heart Catholic church is Latvia‘s biggest wooden building. Neoclassical St. Alexander Nevskiy Russian Orthodox church (1825) is among Latvia’s oldest Orthodox churches.

Jesus Heart octagonal church
Jesus Heart octagonal church in the middle of traffic roundabout. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

There is also a ruined synagogue reminding of the time when Nazi Germany forced Riga‘s Jewry to live in the Maskavas suburb, eventually killing many of them (names of Latvians who helped to save some of the Jews are written in the synagogue).

Another famous sight is the Riga’s bazaar-like Central Market, established in 1930 in disused airship hangars.

Nearby Špikeri district reused old port warehouses for more upscale trade (though they are still quite empty).

Špikeri district of old port warehouses in Riga
Špikeri district of old port warehouses. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Soviets used Maskavas Suburb for the tallest buildings in Latvia. 108 m tall Latvian Academy of Sciences dates to 1961 the Stalinist policy of erecting massive buildings of Soviet historicist style in the capitals of Soviet Republics, dedicating them to the „glory of science“. While formally respected, science was heavily censored in the Soviet Union, with many of its achievements made secret or regarded as unworthy.

Academy of Sciences in Riga
Academy of Sciences in Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

At 368 m Riga TV Tower is still the tallest building in the Baltics. Located in a Daugava island in front of Maskavas Suburb it is not formally part of it but within an easy reach. While it had a panorama restaurant, the tower‘s pyramid-like form meant that the now-closed observatory is located merely at 93 m.

Riga TV tower rising above the Maskavas suburb
Riga TV tower rising above the Maskavas suburb. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

More attractive is the nearby LIDO recreation center on the Daugava shores, famous primarily for its massive restaurant-canteen-bar, but also for a child-oriented funfair. One of the first legal post-Soviet Latvian businesses (started in 1987 when independence still seemed impossible) LIDO has a somewhat legendary status. When constructed in 1999 the Recreation center indeed felt like a miraculous addition to a Riga that still lacked malls and amusement opportunities. And while LIDO has since lost momentum and has been outflanked by other growth (much of it also adorning the shores of Daugava), it is still always full of Rigans.

Lido recreation centre with the iconic folly mill
LIDO recreation centre with the iconic folly mill (once LIDO owned specialized workshops to produce follies). ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Population: 32 000

Sarkandaugava

The centre of 19th century Rigan industry, Sarkandaugava has many old buildings, both industrial and residential. There are many less inspiring Soviet additions as well. Extensive railways and a nearby section of Daugava river were the reason why industrial district had been developed here.

The main avenue is north-south Ganibu Dambis.

In an area close to pristine Mežaparks the 1936-1940 president of Latvia Kārlis Ulmanis had his small palace, known as Dauderi. Now it is a museum.

Dauderi palace in Riga
Dauderi palace. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Population: 20 000.

Teika

As Riga largely ceased to expand after World War 1, Teika is unique as the only neighborhood developed at the time of independent interwar Latvia.

VEF factory, just beyond the railroad ring, used to be crown gem of interwar Latvian industry. Located in some pretty buildings that look more like palace than factory (as well as more prosaic later edifices) VEF used to manufacture world‘s smallest pre-WW2 camera (Minox), radios, phones, even aircraft.

Historic buiildings of VEF factory
Historic buildings of VEF factory. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Unfortunately during the Soviet occupation technology lagged so far behind the West that VEF was unable to compete with Western goods after independence, folding in 1999. Currently the massive premises are rented out.

Further east by Brivibas street you may find extensive districts of interwar and postwar (mainly Stalinist) residentials.

Interwar residential homes in Teika
Interwar residential homes in Teika. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Total population: 30 000.

Kipsala

Kipsala is an island in Daugava river that is now a prestigious neighborhood. Built-up by low rise wooden homes ~1900 and still having an atmospheric cobbled street Kipsala is just beyond the bridge from Old Town. Thus it is a great choice for those who seek both relative privacy and a downtown location for their homes. ~1100 people live in Kipasala and there is little activity beyond an out-of-the-beaten-path walk. The views are pretty, however, Old Town is partly obscured by a major bridge and less interesting (though still historic) port districts are visible instead.

The cobbled Daugava bank street in Kipsala
The cobbled Daugava bank street in Kipsala. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The island also had some industry, although it has been converted into lofts by now.

Āgenskalns

The historic part of left bank Riga, Āgenskalns is just beyond the Daugava river from the Old Town.

As such, the once-empty river banks have been used for key buildings of modern Riga after independence, such as Saules Akmens office tower (tallest in the city) and pyramid-shaped National Library.

National library of Latvia in Riga
National library of Latvia. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The historic Āgenskalns is further from the river however. It has many large buildings and is especially famous for old wooden residentials.

Old large buildings in Āgenskalns
Historic buidings in Āgenskalns. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Renovated Kalnicems district is among the most advertised as it is used for art sales and projects. Upmarket Saturday markets are its most famous event. However, the wooden buildings there are far from the largest. For architecture and atmosphere buffs it may be more rewarding to walk some of the smaller streets of Āgenskalns to see unrenovated wooden architecture.

Kalnciems district of Riga
Kalnciems district. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Āgenskalns also hosts the most controversial part of Riga – the “Victory park” with its massive Soviet monument. This propaganda place was built under the Soviet occupation to celebrate Soviet World War 2 victory – which sealed the fate of Latvians as an occupied and oppressed nation. As such Latvians tend to hate the monument and what it symbolizes. However, it is seen as their ethnic symbol by Riga‘s Russians (a privileged community during the Soviet occupation) who host Victory day celebrations there.

Soviet Victory monument in Riga is a focal point for Russian celebrations.
Soviet Victory monument in Riga is a focal point for Russian celebrations.

Population: 28 000

Mežaparks

Lauded as one of the first „garden cities“, Mežaparks is a district of picturesque art nouveau villas standing amidst lakeside forest. Once they housed the German elite of the city.

Villas of Mežaparks
Villas of Mežaparks standing amidst trees. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

After the Soviet 1940 many became derelict, but after 1990 they were repaired as the possibility to own a large home both in nature and not far from downtown appealed to modern-day Latvian businessmen.

The main Kokneses street looks like its in a city, but one has just to turn to side streets such as Hamburgas or Lībekas and Mežaparks begins to seem like a forest with houses built here and there. Entire Mežaparks district is built against a massive park where many gigs and events take place. It is the most famous for its Song festival ground where the UNESCO-inscribed events of tens of thousands singing Latvian songs are held every 5 years.

Latvian soldiers memorial in Riga
Entrance to the Mežaparks park with a song festival monument. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

In addition to this “garden city”, Mežaparks surroundings has three additional very different „green areas“: the Riga zoo (opened 1912, the oldest in Northern Europe), Latvia‘s first 18-hole golf course, a massive cemetery, most famous for its stately and vast interwar memorial for Latvian troops who died in wars of independence.

Latvian soldiers memorial in Riga
Soldiers memorial at graves near Mežaparks. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Another “green area” is further to the east of Mežaparks itself. It is the Riga skansen (ethnographic open-air museum) where old wooden 18th-19th century buildings have been brought in from all over Latvia. A forested park now includes huts, churches of multiple denominations, mills, warehouses, barns and other authentic utility buildings. Some have internal exhibits and others have handicraft shops but generally outside festivals the museum is quite static, best suited for a leisurely walk through its large 87 ha territory. The museum was established in the interwar period when the lifestyle presented was still alive – and has been continuously expanded ever since.

An old farmstead of Courland fishermen moved into Riga skansen
An old farmstead of Courland fishermen moved into Riga skansen. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Population: 5 000

Soviet districts of Riga

Like every Soviet-ruled city Riga received a fair share of dull and same-looking district of medium-to-high-rises filled with small flats. ~60% of inhabitants there are Russian settlers and their descendants. Churches are almost non-existent despite high population densities. There is little work there as the districts were meant just to house workers who would commute to factories, using crowded trams and (trolley)buses.

As independent Latvia became post-industrial, the commute is more commonly to the Centrs in a private car. Such change now stuffs the once-empty yards of Soviet buildings. Also, Soviet districts received some entertainment of their own. Spice shopping mall in Western Soviet districts is among the largest in Riga.

A Soviet district in southern Riga
A Soviet district in southern Riga with a church hastily constructed near Soviet apartment blocks after independence. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

However, just like when they were constructed in 1960s-1980s, they have very little to see.

Soviet districts essentially surround the historic Riga like a horseshoe, marking the city‘s Western, Southern and Eastern limits.

The western Soviet districts are crossed by many foreigners on their root to downtown as Riga International Airport is located there. A small aviation museum of mostly old Soviet aircraft is next to the airport (it may be visited on long layovers).

Riga aviation museum
Riga aviation museum. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Interestingly, Riga has another aviation museum located in Spilve airport not far away. Spilve was used as Riga’s main airport until 1973 and its somewhat derelict building (completed in 1956) is a good example of what Stalinist airports looked like, built to look as opulent as railroad stations of years gone-by yet with the romantic splendor replaced by communist symbols.

Spilve Airport where Stalinist times seemingly stands still
Spilve Airport where Stalinist times seemingly stands still. Even the hammer and sickle in the fronton is intact. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Seaside Riga

While Riga appears to be located on the Baltic Sea (Riga Gulf is even named after it), the downtown is actually further inland, using Daugava as a shipping artery. Most of the Seaside Riga is relatively empty, having a suburban feel. There is little point to overuse Riga‘s beaches after all when Jūrmala prime resort is merely 20 km away on a six-lane highway.

Among the more interesting places of Seaside Riga is Ziemeļblāzma culture palace. Constructed in 1913 using art nouveau style it still offer free concerts. The surrounding park has a nice art nouveau lookout tower (ticket required) and some folly landscapping.

Ziemeļblāzma culture palace
Ziemeļblāzma culture palace.

Vecāķi suburb on the right bank of Daugava offers walks in seaside forest and on the Riga port breakwater. One may view the vessels arriving and departing Riga port from there. One concrete ship wreck lies submerged near the beach. The area may be accessed by bus but a walk will still be needed.

A stroll on Riga breakwater
A stroll on Riga breakwater.

Daugavgrīva suburb on the east side of Daugava has remains of former fortress, but they are off-limits as a naval school is now open there.

History of Riga

Throughout its millennium-long history, Riga remained the main metropolis and trade center of East Baltic.

Medieval age: Crusaders to Merchants (until 1581)

Riga’s location on the mouth of Daugava (Baltic region’s longest river) first came to prominence as a trade location in Viking era. But the current city was founded German Christians in their fervor to Christianise the Balts, at the time the Europe’s largest remaining pagan population. It became a bishop’s seat. Anchored in Riga, Christianity indeed soon prevailed over Latvia. Not everything was rosy however and the bishop of Riga often found himself fighting against the fellow Christians Livonian Knights who controlled areas south of Riga.

Riga in 1400
A map of Riga in 1400, consisting of just a part of today’s Old Town (Daugava is at the bottom).

These conflicts were, however, pretty minor as the main Crusader forces moved southwards into the still-pagan Lithuania. Surrounded by relative peace, Riga became a major Baltic trading city, part of the famous Hanseatic union. While its hinterland was inhabited by Latvians, the city itself was largely German (like many new Eastern European cities at the time). Germanic town law was adopted and its unique form known as Riga law evolved.

Where to see the era today? The main churches of Riga Old Town (Catholic and Lutheran Cathedrals) and some other key buildings there date to this era.

Foreign rule age: Poles, Lithuanians, Swedes and Russians (1581-1867)

When Lithuania Christianised in 1385 the crusading knights no longer had a reason to stay in the area. Still, they refused to leave. However, the tides of war were increasingly unfavorable for them and Riga fell to joint Polish-Lithuanian forces in 1581. The German city-state was replaced by a foreign rule, which would continue uninterrupted for over three centuries.

Medieval Riga
Medieval Riga

Poland-Lithuania lost Riga to Sweden in 1621 and Sweden had to relinquish it to Russia in 1710. However, Riga has never been a mere frontier outpost. In fact, it was the largest city of Sweden (surpassing Stockholm) and one of the largest cities in Russia. Regardless of the ruling great power, the economy remained in the hands of the local German community, the “Baltic Barons”. As late as 1867 German-speakers comprised 43% of Riga‘s population of 103 000 (Russian-speakers – 25%, Latvian-speakers – 24%). The local laws that made it impossible for non-Germans to become craftsmen, for example, stayed unrepealed for centuries after Germans have lost the political control of the city.

Riga suburbs burning in 1812
Riga suburbs set alight in 1812 by Russians, as part of their scorched earth policy against Napoleon invasion

Where to see the era today? Much of the Riga Old Town dates to this era.

Golden age: Industrialization to Awakening (1867-1918)

When a belated industrial era reached Russia Riga became one of the Russian Empire’s largest industrial cities. Massive new districts of large buildings sprung up nearly overnight, hundreds of now-famous 5-6 floors art nouveau edifices were constructed filled with rental apartments. Exploding growth increased the population from 170 000 people in 1881 to nearly 600 000 in 1913. This number was much more impressive in that era than it is today as the cities generally used to be smaller.

Port of Riga in 1910
Port of Riga in 1900, adorned by large new buildings, instrumental at exporting the products of Rigan industry

As the center of a major region, Riga attracted so many people of other ethnicities that it had a larger number of Lithuanians than every city in Lithuania, for example (and even this meant just 7% of total Riga population). Still, Latvians from villages were the majority of “new Rigans” and Riga more than ever became the heart of Latvian nation, then undergoing a sweeping National Awakening. The Latvian-speakers share in total population increased from 24% in 1867 to 45% in 1897. At the same time, the German share declined from 43% to 22% as there were no rural Germans in Latvia who could participate in the urbanization.

Vilhelms Ķuze chocolate factory in 1910
Vilhelms Ķuze chocolate factory in 1910, one of Riga’s pre-WW1 industrial powerhouses

Despite all this glory, Riga lacked political importance. All the major decisions were made in Saint Petersburg far north. Public signs in Riga were Russian rather than either Latvian (the local plurality language) or German (local elite language).

This was soon to change as World War 1 led to the defeats of both Russia and Germany.

Workers of Riga Union factory
Mostly Latvian workers of Riga Union factory (all males, some of them in mid-teens) posing for a photo in 1906. They were numerous and aspiring for importance and after World War 1 they got their own free Latvia

Where to see the era today? As this was the prime era of Riga’s expansion it is not difficult to see. Centrs, districts east of Centrs, Maskavas suburb and Āgenskalns all were built to house new Rigans during the National Revival / Industrial revolution era. Sarkandaugava was the industrial heart of the times while Mežaparks hosted villas of the elite.

Freedom age: Capital of the nation (1918-1940)

With all the major empires weakened by war, Latvians seized the opportunity to crown their National Awakening with independence declaration (1918). After a hard fight against various Russian forces (pro-czar Bermontians and the communist Bolsheviks) in 1918-1920 Latvians established a firm control over Riga and it was destined to become their capital.

Riga Castle under Bermontian occupation in 1919
Riga Castle under Bermontian occupation in 1919. Led by Pavel Bermondt, these troops sought to restore czarist Russia with Latvia within it.

The city lost a third of its people as many Russian officials went back to Russia while most Lithuanians and Poles moved to develop their own newly-independent homelands.

In 1935 Riga had 385 000 inhabitants, 63% of them ethnic Latvians. This was the only time in history Latvians were the majority of Rigans. German share stood at 10% and Russian share at 9%. Both minorities were surpassed by Jews (11%) who arrived from towns as the Russian Imperial limitations on Jewish settlement were scrapped.

Latvian sogng festival taking place in 1931
Latvian sogng festival taking place in 1931. After independence, the Song Festivals transformed from a grassroots cultural movement into a state-sponsored mass extravaganza

However “The Paris of the Baltics” more than compensated its population decline by the power it had gained, attracting diplomats and celebrities, as well as undertaking major projects such as the Freedom fighters memorial and Skansen. Riga was destined to become a global city, but all the interwar glory was cut short by the Soviet Russian occupation in 1940: buildings were destroyed, grand projects canceled, and the ones responsible for building the Riga of 1930s were killed.

Riga city hall project, 1939
Riga city hall, one of the many interwar projects meant to give Riga that feeling of ‘seat of power’ (never built due to Soviet occupation).

Where to see the era today? Teika district is the only area of Riga built up during interwar independence era. Soldiers memorial and Skansen near Mežaparks are some of the greatest projects of that era when Latvian culture prevailed. Freedom statue near Centrs may look small but its symbolic value far outweighs its size.

Bloody age: Occupations to Genocides (1940-1990)

The Soviet occupation of Riga (1940) began as the “Year of Terror”. Tens of thousands Rigans were murdered or expelled to Siberia where further thousands perished. All the properties were nationalized and looted. Never before was Riga subjected to such brutality and when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 most Latvians greeted Germans as liberators.

Latvians attempt to recognize the mutilated bodies of their relatives who were murdered by Soviets in Riga
After the Soviet army was rooted out of Latvia, Latvians attempt to recognize the mutilated bodies of their relatives who were murdered by Soviets in Riga.

Not the Riga’s Jews however, many of whom had collaborated with the Soviets. The Soviet genocide of Latvians was replaced by a new German genocide of Riga’s Jews (the majority of them either perished or fled).

In 1944-1945 the Soviets came back and the targets shifted back again. Not willing to wait for their death many Latvian and German citizens of Riga evacuated to the West. Those who didn’t were to suffer a terrible fate.

Riga after Soviet re-occupation with parts of Old Town destroyed in order to create open fields or be rebuilt in a Soviet style
Riga after Soviet re-occupation with parts of Old Town destroyed in order to create open fields or be rebuilt in a Soviet style.

Riga German community was destroyed while the Latvian population severely reduced. Throughout the Soviet occupation Russian settlers would be sent to live in Riga in the apartments that belonged to the Latvians, Germans or Jews recently killed or expelled. By the 1980s Riga was already Russian-majority, with Latvians making just 37% of the population. Even the Latvian language grew increasingly rare in public as ethnic Latvians had to communicate in Russian with the people of other ethnicities (at that time most neighbors and co-workers would be non-Latvian). Two-thirds of Riga’s schools used Russian as the language of instruction, making Russian the primary language of most non-Latvian Riga’s kids.

People squeezing into Riga trams in 1950s
Russians and Latvians squeezing into Riga’s trams in the 1950s. Throughout the Soviet occupation cars remained a luxury and most had to rely on unbelievably crammed public transportation instead.

The life itself in Riga was similar to that anywhere else in the Soviet Union with massive shortages of goods and long queues, limited foreign travels, KGB surveillance and few entertainment opportunities. In 1940s-1950s massive Stalinist buildings were constructed while later some concrete slab boroughs have been built in the West. However, Riga grew little: so many people perished in the genocides that even after the massive Soviet settlement Riga was not that much more populous than before World War 1. The population peaked at 910000 in 1989.

Concrete slab building in Riga with Soviet propaganda
Concrete slab building in Riga with Soviet propaganda poster that was typical then, declaring (in Russian only): ‘Wherever there is [Communist] party, there is progress, there is victory’.
In the late 1980s Gorbachev’s perestroika/glastnost allowed limited freedoms and the Latvians of Riga soon dared to speak publicly in favor of restoring independence. “Now or never” – they thought as the independence would likely be impossible after another decade or two when Russian majority in Riga would be even firmer.

Riga metro project, 1989
Riga metro project, one of the targets of late 1980s protests. As only the cities of 1 million inhabittants were allowed to have subways in the Soviet Union, metro project was seen as an evidence of planned further Russian settlement.

Where to see the era today? The Soviet pompousness may be seen in key edifices they built near downtown, such as Stalinist Latvian Academy of Sciences in Maskavas suburb and the Soviet victory monument in Āgenskalns. The main residential expansion of Riga happened westwards as concrete slab districts such as Imanta were built; little has changed there after Soviet times save for construction of new shops. It is best to learn about the genocides and occupations at the Museum of Latvian occupation (Old Town) or the KGB museum (Centrs)

Modern age (1990 onwards)

In 1990 Latvia declared independence and Russian attempts to curb it failed as the Soviet Union totally collapsed. ~150 000 Russian settlers and officials moved out and Riga once again had a slight Latvian plurality (41% in 2000). Latvian became the sole official language for all public inscriptions and advertisements but it took another decade before Latvian became the most common language you would hear in Riga streets. The communities remained bitterly divided. This was visible on many occasions, even at the World War 2 veteran commemoration, when ethnic Latvians would celebrate the Latvian Legion Day (anti-Soviet) while Russophones would celebrate the Soviet Victory Day.

Deleted Russian street name in Riga
After independence Russian street signs of Riga were removed or overpainted with only the official Latvian names remaining. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Businesses brought international trends and ideas to Riga. At first, these companies were largely local but later foreign investments came in. First modern skyscrapers were constructed in the 2000s.

After a difficult decade of transition (1990s) Riga reasserted its role as the “Capital of the Baltics” with the most representative offices of foreign corporations and embassies among the Baltic States, and the most destinations out of its international airport.

2006 World Ice Hockey championship in Riga became the first event of such scale to be hosted in the city
2006 World Ice Hockey championship in Riga became the first event of such scale to be hosted in the city.

Where to see the era today? As the market economy returned in Latvia businessmen became keen to build over some of the empty or run down places that were skipped by the Soviet development despite being located at good locations. Western bank of Daugava (Āgenskalns near downtown) thus received its fair share of modern architecture, while shopping malls and supermarkets adorned key roads and district centers.

Getting to Riga

Riga is the hub of Latvia. Therefore, it is always easy to get from Riga to anywhere in Latvia, and your trip to Latvia will most likely start and end in Riga.

Railway is the primary public transportation from Riga to the nearby cities and towns (Jūrmala, Jelgava, Sigulda, Lower Daugava valley). It may also be used to go to the Eastern Latvia (e.g. Daugavpils) and further east into Russia.

Railway access to Riga
Railway access to Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

For such long-distance routes, however, air traffic has partly outcompeted railways. Riga International Airport is the largest in the Baltic States, offering convenient connections both eastwards and westwards. There are no domestic flights, however, as Riga is now effectively Latvia’s only passenger airport.

Buses are the primary form of transportation to go from Riga to Western Latvia (e.g. Liepaja, Ventspils) where trains are non-existent or few and far between. They are also used to go the other Baltic capitals (there are no train routes), although here the direct flights provide a good, although more expensive, alternative. International buses and flights are often priced the same way – the earlier you buy, the cheaper you may buy a ticket.

If you are going to Riga from the other side of the Baltic sea, you may also choose ferries which transport both passengers and cars from Germany and Sweden.

Ferry to Riga
Ferry to Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Shopping in Riga

Riga is the main destination for shopping in Latvia.

The main place for souvenir shopping are the stalls in the Old Town, however, the prices there may be high. The souvenirs include the typical ones (magnets, t-shirts) as well as more Latvian ones (amber) or Russian ones (matryoshkas).

Amber stall in Riga Old Town
Amber stall in Riga Old Town. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

A good alternative for more interesting upmarket souvenirs is the Kalnciema fair, that takes place in Āgenskalns district every Saturday. The products there are sold by Latvian artists, craftsmen and makers of traditional food.

Kalnciema fair in Riga
Kalnciema fair in Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The main place for general shopping in Riga are its modern shopping malls. A number of them exist further away from the downtown, each offering many shops and entertainment opportunities as well as extensive car parking. Riga Plaza is at the other side of Daugava from Maskavas district, Domina shopping is in Teika while Spice is in the Soviet districts of Western Riga.

Riga plaza shopping mall
Riga plaza shopping mall. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

A more traditional way to shop are the marketplaces. The main among them is the Central market in Maskavas district, located in former airship hangars and reachable easily from the Old Town on foot. It is a good place to buy groceries and cheap goods as well as souvenirs.

Riga Central Market in former airship hangars
Riga Central Market in former airship hangars. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Around Christmas, a Christmas fair is established in the Old Town.