Although small, the Baltic country of Latvia attracts oversize attention, luring in travellers with a richness of culture and traditions, green and pure nature and a history dating back to early 9000 BC.
Latvia’s capital city, Riga, is the largest metropolis in the Baltic states, an urban spread particularly well known for its fantastic integration of historic and contemporary architecture. In fact, Riga, sometimes called the Eastern Paris, is considered by many to be the world’s best epicentre of Art Nouveau, particularly Jugendstil (German Art Nouveau).
Its architecture is so eclectic that some people come away thinking Riga is a city with two faces – one ancient, the other youthful. Since its establishment (written records exist from the 2nd century), each passing era has left its mark on Riga, taking its place and then ceding space to new generations and values. Today, every step you take reverberates with echoes of important times past, whether deafened by the grunt of wartime guns or buoyed by freedom songs. Art Nouveau and Baroque buildings stand side by side with newer structures anchored in Functionalism and Classicism. Fortunately you don’t need much to explore it all; just wander around town with your eyes angled up and Riga’s building design heritage can’t be missed, clear expression of Latvian history and culture.
The Old Town of Riga is a unique cultural treasure now recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. A web of narrow streets located on the right bank of the Daugava River, it is the oldest part of the city and its historic and geographic centre.
Each building, street and square lets you share in the ancient aura of the city, exhibiting evidence of the Riga’s storied past, usually in the form of architectural styles from a variety of different periods and European countries. For example, Old Riga was once the innermost territory of a 13th- through 18th-century system of surviving fortifications recognised as unique medieval architectural monuments. You can also find religious buildings, museums, private residences and beautiful squares.
Dome Square and the Riga Cathedral
One favourite stop for many tourists is Dome Square, frequently identified as the heart of Old Riga and the place where city feasts and fairs unfold. Dome Square began to take shape at the end of 19th century, assuming its present form in only 1936. It is the site of several architectural monuments, including the Riga Cathedral (Rigas Doms), whose construction begun on the 13th century.
Given its intriguing mix of Gothic and Romanesque styles, Riga Cathedral is certainly the most photographed religious building in the city. Although now a Protestant temple, it was constructed in 1211 by Bishop Albert, the founder of Riga, as the city’s most resplendent structure to signify the power of the Catholic Church. It is today home to a world-famous pipe organ, a key highlight of any visit.
St Peter’s Church
The other ‘must-see’ attraction of Old Riga is St. Peter’s Church, one of the most important examples of Gothic architecture in all of the Baltic states. Built in 1209 with money from the magistrates’ offices, it was intended as a church for the people of Riga. Until World War II, its tower, the current version of which was completed in the 20th century, made it the tallest wooden building in Europe. Today, while its ecclesiastical functions continue, it is also used as a concert and exhibition hall. A lift installed in the 1970s is now available for speedy visits to an observation gallery at the top of the spire from which there are unparalleled views of the city.
From the Hanseatic Era
The Big and Small Guild and the reconstructed Blackheads House are historical reminders of when Riga belonged to the Hanseatic League, a powerful 13th- to 17th-century monopolistic alliance of merchants and their cities in the Baltic Region and northern Germany. The Blackheads House is a stunning example of Gothic architecture. Its meticulous reconstruction was completed in 1999 after the original 1344 building was severely damaged in World War II and the ruins bulldozed in 1948. Built as the headquarters of unmarried local merchants, known as the Blackheads, it boasts an impressive hall and a 28-metre gabled façade rising majestically above Town Hall Square, which was the centre of public life during the Middle Ages.