Medieval Riga in Latvia

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 the Center district lying beyond them. The Canal has replaced the 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.

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 magnificent facade Blackhead 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.

Blackhead House in Riga
Blackhead 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 but, now restored, offers a great introduction to the tragic occupation of Latvia, memory of which is ingrained in country’s psychology, culture, demography and beyond).

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 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 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 has its 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 a 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 the Soviets attempted to quash the restored Latvian independence. Latvians hastily built barricades to prevent tanks from coming and would spend days waiting around makeshift fires to keep the 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 the 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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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 the Viking era. But the current city was founded German Christians in their fervor to Christianise the Balts, at the time 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 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 in 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 the total Riga population). Still, Latvians from villages were the majority of “new Rigans” and Riga more than ever became the heart of the 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 the Riga Union factory
Mostly Latvian workers of the 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 an 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 of these minorities were surpassed by the Jews (11%) who arrived from towns (as the Russian Imperial limitations on Jewish settlement were scrapped by independent Latvia).

Latvian sogng festival taking place in 1931
Latvian song 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 murdered.

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. The Soldiers memorial and Skansen near Mežaparks are some of the greatest projects of that era when the 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. The Soviet terror was so great that when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, most Latvians greeted the 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.

The 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 already had a 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 the other ethnicities (at that time, most neighbors and co-workers would have been 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, extremely limited foreign travels, KGB surveillance and few entertainment opportunities. In the 1940s-1950s, massive Stalinist buildings were constructed in the downtown. In the 1960s-1980s, 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 the [Communist] party, there is progress, there is victory’.
In the late 1980s, Gorbachev’s perestroika/glasnost 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 was likely to become impossible after another decade or two of further Russian settlement leading to an even firmer Russian majority.

Riga metro project, 1989
Riga metro project, one of the targets of late 1980s protests. As only the cities of 1 million inhabitants were allowed to have subways in the Soviet Union, the 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 the 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 the 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 the 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. The first modern skyscrapers were constructed in the 2000s.

After a difficult decade of transition (the 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. The 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.