The old centre of Riga on the right bank of the Daugava River is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. On these scurrying cobblestone streets and sociable squares are Riga’s oldest houses and churches. Vecrīga is stacked with restaurants, nightspots, art galleries and museums. At a cafe you have to order the dessert named after Vecrīga , made from choux pastry filled with curd and vanilla cream and dusted with icing sugar. Rozena iela is such a narrow street that you can touch both sides as you walk, while the venerable Skārņu Street has an arts and crafts market where you can get a tasteful souvenir. The Great and Small Guild Halls hark back to when Riga was a thriving Hanseatic City, trading across the Baltic and Northwest Europe. Vecrīga lost a third of its historic monuments in the Second World War, but many were rebuilt after Independence in 1990.
Riga is an Art Nouveau wonderland, with more than 800 buildings, a third of the city’s stock, dating from the prime years of the movement at the start of the 20th century. This is the world’s largest collection of Art Nouveau architecture, easy to identify for its curved doorways and windows, abundant floral reliefs, female sculptures, whimsical gargoyles or Romantic nationalist imagery. The reason for this proliferation of Art Nouveau is that Riga had a financial boom and needed fashionable homes for a growing bourgeoisie when the movement was flourishing. So most of these residences lie in the newer “Centrs” district, to the north and east of Vecrīga, beyond the former walls. We have a few examples on this list, but one of the masterpieces is at 10a and 10b on Elizabetes street, by “Riga’s Gaudí”, Mikhail Eisenstein.
Town Hall Square
Standing on Riga’s Town Hall Square and gazing at the Town Hall and House of the Blackheads, it’s mind-boggling to think that these monuments are little more than 20 years old. The reconstruction is seamless, and the plaza has a grandeur fit for a capital. Sticking out like a sore thumb next to the House of the Blackheads is a dark and squat 1970s Soviet building that until recently contained the Occupation Museum. The Roland Statue, depicting a mythological knight, is a signature of historic German towns, symbolising the city’s Medieval privileges. Keep your eyes peeled for a modest stone marker in the ground, recording the location for what is believed to be the world’s first decorated Christmas tree, erected by the Brotherhood of Blackheads in 1510.
House of the Blackheads
The pièce de résistance on Town Hall Square is undoubtedly the magnificent House of the Blackheads, first built for an association of unmarried merchants and ship-owners in the 1330s. This exuberantly adorned brick building was a nexus point for business and trade in Riga during the Hanseatic years. And as they were bachelors, the Blackheads were known for bringing life to Riga society, organising parties and celebrations. The building was modified in the 16th and 19th centuries, before being wrecked during a German bombing raid in 1941. The reconstruction didn’t take place until after the Soviet period, and was finished in 1999. You can go in from Tuesday to Sunday to learn about the Blackheads and the history of the building. The vaults in the basement are original and date from the 14th century, while the stupendous Celebration Hall and the collection of antique silver are must-sees.
If you have limited time to hunt down Riga’s Art Nouveau marvels there are many clustered together on Albert Street, which is like an outdoor gallery for architecture. One of the many surprising things about Albert Street is just how quickly these buildings went up. The artery took on its inimitable appearance within just seven years, from 1901 to 1908, and eight of the buildings are listed as Latvian state monuments. Much of the street is the work of Russian architect Mikhail Eisenstein, with special mention for Konstantīns Pēkšēns and his protégé Eižens Laube. The must-sees are the listed monuments at 2, 2a, 4, 6, 8, 11, 12 and 13. Take as long as you can to appreciate the reliefs and sculptures on the facades, bearing the Romantic Nationalist motifs and mythological figures that were a hallmark of Art Nouveau.
At 17, 19 and 21 Mazā Pils Street stand the oldest complex of houses in Riga, dating from the 15th century. The oldest facade is no. 17, which has a mix of Gothic and Renaissance in its crow-stepped gable and the pointed arch on its doorway. Painted pale yellow, No. 19 dates to the middle of the 17th century and blends Renaissance with Dutch Mannerist design. The distinguished Classical portal here is newer and was built in 1746. This building houses the Latvian Architecture Museum if you’re curious. Lastly, the slender no. 21 is a Baroque dwelling from the end of the 17th century, with a flowing curved gable.
East of Vecrīga this solemn landmark remembers the soldiers killed fighting Soviet forces during the Latvian War of Independence (1918-20). Standing 42 metres high, the Freedom Monument (1935) is built from red granite and travertine, and crested by a copper sculpture of Liberty holding three golden stars. This monument remains the centrepiece for official remembrance ceremonies in the city. If you approach the base you’ll find 13 groups of reliefs recording national heroes, allegories, images from Latvian culture and pivotal moments in the nation’s history like the Russian Revolution of 1905 and the War of Independence.
The park around the Freedom Monument reaches across both sides of the Pilsētas Kanāls (canal), which meanders along the course of Riga’s old moat. Until 1856 this elevated area was the site of Riga’s eastern fortifications, and its name translates to “Bastion Hill”. Over the course of the 19th century a dignified boulevard, gaslights, sculptures, formal flowerbeds and a manmade waterfall were laid out on the hill, while cute wrought iron bridges traversed the canal. The resplendent buildings neighbouring the park, like the Latvian National Opera and University of Latvia, all add to the sense of ceremony. Watch the sun go down from the hill and amble beside the canal to see the ducks, swans and beavers.
Included in Riga’s UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Riga Central Market is one of the largest and most visited markets in Eastern Europe. Up to 100,000 shoppers enter its pavilions every day. The building is a wonder in its own right, constructed in the second half of the 1920s and repurposing German zeppelin hangars into pavilions. These titanic buildings are right on the Daugava, just south of Vecrīga, and each one has its own speciality, be it gastronomic specialities, fish, meat, dairy or vegetables. There are also stalls to browse outside, while the former warehouses (Spikeri), have been turned into a trendy arts and entertainment zone. Some goodies that may take you out of your comfort zone are smoked eels, Rupjmaizes kārtojums (a layered dessert made from rye bread) and hemp paste.
An enduring symbol for Riga, the “Dome Cathedral” is the seat of the Archbishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia. The building has been altered many times since it was first built by the right bank of the Daugava River at the start of the 13th century. Like all of the churches in Vecrīga the cathedral has a cockerel atop its spire, weighting 86 kg and functioning as a weather vane. There’s an older version on show in the cathedral’s delightful Romanesque cloister, one of the oldest parts of the building. In the 16th century the Dome Pipe Organ inside was the largest in the world, but was destroyed in a fire in 1547. The current instrument has a marvellous carved wooden case and was installed by the Walcker Orgelbau company at the start of the 1880s with 6718 pipes.
In Medieval times Riga was protected by a mighty wall with 20 towers and a 90-metre-wide moat that would later be turned into the Pilsētas Kanāls. Of the eight gates that used to control entry to the city the sole survivor is the Swedish Gate. The reason this fragment has lasted to the 21st century is that it was turned into an apartment after becoming obsolete when the city’s bastions were built in the 17th century. Its tenant was the city executioner, who according to tradition would lay a red rose on the window sill on the morning of an execution. The stretch of wall along Torņa Street was restored during the Soviet occupation.
St Peter’s Church
The 123-metre tower of this Lutheran church is an integral part of Vecrīga’s silhouette. St Peter’s Church was begun at the start of the 13th century, but had two more phases of construction in the 15th and 17th centuries, leaving it with a melange of architectural styles, from Romanesque to Baroque. There isn’t much remaining of the earliest building, but you can find traces in the outer nave and on a few of the pillars. Safe to say that the church’s tower had a difficult past: The initial 15th-century Gothic tower collapsed in 1660. Its replacement from 1690 was then brought down by lightning in 1721. And later the tower burnt down in the Second World War to be renovated in the 1960s. During the last reconstruction an elevator was installed, taking you up to the second gallery at a height of 72 metres for the best view of Vecrīga.
Best experienced when the autditorium fills up for evening performances, the Latvian National Opera and Ballet is a Neoclassical theatre from 1863. The venue is older than the Latvian National Opera, which was founded as in situation in 1912 and had to wait until after the First World War to give its first performance, which was Wagner’s Flying Dutchman in 1919. The resplendent interiors were produced by the studio of August Volz, who also designed the Roland Statue and allegorical sculptures on the facade of the House of the Blackheads. Culture-lovers can’t turn down a night of Faust, Die Fledermaus or Madame Butterfly, so check the listings when you’re in town and join the impeccably dressed throng. A neat piece of trivia is that Wagner was the music director of the Deutsches Theater, the forerunner to the National Opera, for a couple of years in the late 1830s.
A building to be seen from the outside while you navigate Vecrīga, the Cat House is a Medieval-inspired Art Nouveau house on Meistaru Street. It was drawn up by the architect Friedrich Scheffel for a wealthy Latvian merchant, and is named for the copper cats that stand on the corner turrets. The story goes that these cats were designed with their backsides turned towards Riga’s House of the Great Guild because of a grudge held by the Latvian owner for not being allowed in the mostly German Great Guild. After a court case cats were turned back the right way and the owner was admitted to the guild.
East of the Bastejkalna Parks and fronting the main building for the University of Latvia, the Vērmanes Garden is the second public garden in Riga. It takes its name from Anna Gertrud Wöhrmann, a Prussian widow who contributed the land and funds for the park in the 1810s. Previously this part of the city had been torched by the city in preparation for an attack by Napoleon that never came. One of a few solemn monuments in the park is an obelisk in her honour, and this is accompanied by an elegant fountain representing the four seasons and a set of stone lions. The park has formal gardens and exotic trees, playground for little ones, season cafes, people playing chess and an outdoor stage for music and dance performances in summer.
Nativity of Christ Cathedral
The cathedral for Riga’s Orthodox community is a stirring neo-Byzantine building begun in 1876 when Latvia was part of the Russian Empire. You can’t miss that ostentatious golden central dome. Tsar Alexander II donated the cathedral 12 bells, which required a separate belfry to be constructed. These bells were melted down at the start of the 1960s under Soviet occupation when the cathedral became the Republic House of Knowledge. At that time the dome was used as a planetarium, while the crucifixes were pulled down and invaluable iconostasis was destroyed. Restoration work started at the end of the 1990s and continues today, helping the iconostasis and interior regain their previous splendour.
Museum of the Occupation
During our visit in 2019, the Museum of the Occupation was still housed in the former US Embassy building on Raiņa Bulvāris. Drawing on a huge audiovisual archive and reserve of artefacts, the museum documents the often grim period from 1940-1991, when Latvia came under the yoke of the USSR, then the Nazis in the Second World War and then the USSR once more. There are poignant but informative accounts of the hardships of Siberian gulags, purges of Latvian Nationalists after the Second World War and the deportation and murder of Jews in the Holocaust. On Brīvības Street the sister attraction is devoted to the history of KGB Operations in Latvia, in a former KGB building with prison cells intact.
A fun diversion on Skārņu Street is the sculpture for the Brothers Grimm fairytale, the “Town Musicians of Bremen”. The story is about four ageing domestic animals, a donkey, dog, cat and cockerel, who fear that they’re about to be put down, so run away to Bremen to become musicians. They never make it that far though, as on the way these cheeky critters scam a band of robbers and take over their house. The monument in Riga, gifted by Bremen in 1990, is also believed to carry political undertones as a nod to Gorbachev’s Perestroika. It’s supposed to be good luck to touch each animal’s face in sequence, and you can see where the bronze has been buffed up by millions of hands over the last 28 years.