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).
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 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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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).
Cathedral square area (North)
Cathedral square (Doma laukums) is the most authentic and stunning square of Old Riga.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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“.
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.
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).
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.
Total population of Centrs: 35 000, but some 100 000 work in offices there.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
Eastern Downtown is officially split into districts of Avoti (south), Grīziņkalns (east) and Brasa (north).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
Soviets used Maskavas Suburb for the tallest building 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. In summer, it is possible to ascend to the top.
At 368 m Riga TV Tower is still the tallest structure in the Baltics and the entire European Union. 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, leading to its unpopularity.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 island also had some industry, although it has been converted into lofts by now.
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.
The historic Āgenskalns is further from the river however. It has many large buildings and is especially famous for old wooden residentials.
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.
Āgenskalns also hosted 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 tended to hate the monument and what it symbolizes. However, it was seen as their ethnic symbol by Riga‘s Russians (a privileged community during the Soviet occupation) who host Victory day celebrations there. However, in 2022, after Russia invaded Ukraine, status quo ended and the monument was demolished.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
Around Christmas, a Christmas fair is established in the Old Town.