January 2014 sees the start of Riga’s year-long stint as European Capital of Culture, an honour it shares with the Swedish town of Umeå. The occasion provides the Latvian capital with a golden opportunity to shrug off its reputation as a cheap destination for boozy breaks, and focus instead on the more creative aspects of its character. Here are just ten reasons why Riga is such an individual, rewarding and memorable place to visit – all of which will still be here long after the culture-capital carnival has moved on elsewhere.
Art Nouveau architecture
Some of the best-preserved Art Nouveau architecture in Europe is to be found in Riga, thanks to the wealthy mercantile culture that flourished here in the years before World War I. Largely the work of locally-based architects like Mikhail Eisenstein (father of film director Sergei), Riga’s Art Nouveau apartment blocks feature a phantasmagoria of nymphs, gargoyles, sphinxes and the odd winged dragon. A string of recently renovated examples line Alberta iela, where the Art Nouveau Museum allows a peek inside a typical interior of the period.
Big-hair and eighties pop music – in Latvian
One way to immerse yourself in local culture is to spend a night at Četri Balti Krekli or “Four White Shirts”, the club that eschews the global mainstream in favour of a Latvian-only music policy. The briefest of shimmies across Četri’s cellar floor will be enough to convince you that Latvian pop music is uncommonly melodic, well crafted and classy. It is also extraordinarily literate: during the communist era, pop music was enormously important in nurturing the Latvian language, frequently employing anti-regime metaphors that official censors could not understand. Should you wish to astound your new Latvian friends with a bit of foreknowledge then mention legendary rock band Perkons (“Thunder”). Their anthemic prog-pop provided the rapidly changing Latvia of the 1980s with a rousing soundtrack – and they were frequently banned as a result.
The National Romantic style: Art Nouveau noir?
Many of the grey, turreted apartment blocks looming above central Riga’s streets look like something out of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale or a particularly ominous episode of Lord of the Rings. These arresting buildings are products of the National Romantic school of architecture, a local extension of Art Nouveau in which Baltic folk elements – steep pointed gables, shingle roofs and arched window frames – were grafted on to modern construction styles. Prime exponent of the genre was architect Eižens Laube – the Niedra House (at Alberta iela 11) and the A. Keninš School (at Terbatas 15/17) are among his best designs.
Ghosts of forgotten zeppelins
So which European capital can boast a bona-fide Zeppelodrome bang in the centre of the city? Well Riga can – almost. The city’s central market is housed in five enormous hangars that were originally built to accommodate the 500-foot airships towards the end of World War I. These barrel-roofed buildings are all that’s left of a projected Zeppelin air terminal, which was planned during Riga’s brief German occupation but never put into operation. Adapted for use as the city’s main market in the 1920s, they are now crammed full of produce from the Latvian countryside.
Latvia was at the centre of a flourishing pagan culture before being put to the sword by twelfth-century crusaders from Western Europe. Judging by their tendency to gaze soulfully at their plentiful lakes and forests, the Latvians remain very much a nation of nature worshippers. Many of the old ways are remembered at the Sun Museum, a private collection that explores the spiritual and cultural importance of the fiery globe with a display of sun symbols from Latvia and around the world. For a more sober ethnographic take on the same subject, head for the History Museum.
Founded in 2007, independent publisher kuš! has grown into something of a pillar of the European graphic-arts scene, producing a regular stream of small-format books that showcase alternative illustrators and comic-strip talent from across the continent. A lot of kuš!’s output is international (and in the English language), although regular Latvian contributors like Ingrida Pičukane, Dace Sietina and Ernests Klavinš help provide the series with a discernable flavour. Kuš! comics can be found in the Luka Buka arts-and-architecture bookshop or the Istaba design store, two more cool locations that should be added to your Riga must-visit list.
Rents are high in Riga’s tourist-thronged Old Town and it’s no surprise that many of the most characterful places to shop or sip a brew are located a brisk walk beyond. The predominantly pre-World War-I street of Miera iela plays host to an up-and-coming cluster of design shops, vintage clothing stores, snug cafes and tea houses. Alternatively head west across the River Daugava to the island of Kipsala, where the Kalnciema Quarter offers well-preserved timber houses and a hugely popular Saturday food-and-craft market.
Dogs in space
The Pauls Stradins Museum for the History of Medicine is at first glance a rather forbidding place full of dentists’ chairs and fiendish-looking surgical instruments. Persevere to the top floor however and you’ll be greeted by an engrossing display devoted to the Soviet space programme. Alongside models, spacesuits and squidgy pouches full of space food, there is also the original capsule occupied by four-legged space pioneer Veterok (“Breeze”), rocketed into space together with Ugolyok (“Glowing Ember”) in February 1966. Both beasts arrived safely back on earth 22 days later, and despite being considerably shaken up by the experience, swiftly recovered to live happily ever after at Moscow’s Institute for Cosmic Medicine.
The one big Latvian modern-art name you ought to have heard of but probably haven’t is Gustavs Klucis (1895-1938), the Riga-born avant-gardist who went to Moscow after World War I to become the genre-defining master of constructivist art, agit-prop and photomontage. The Latvian National Art Gallery owns a modest handful of his works. Otherwise, this year’s Klucis retrospective at the Arsenal Exhibition Centre (August 22–October 26) offers a once-in-a-generation opportunity to catch up with his entire oeuvre.
The Palace of Light
The opening of Latvia’s new National Library – known locally as Gaismaspils or “Palace of Light” – looks set to be the single most important event of 2014, providing the city with a skyline-defining architectural icon as well as a high-prestige cultural institution. Designed by Latvian-American architect Gunars Birkerts, it’s certainly unlike anything else in the city, rising above the west bank of the River Daugava like a haughty concrete-and-glass iceberg.
Riga is one of the Rough Guides' top cities to visit in 2014 – you can see the full Rough Guide to 2014 here.
Full details of what's going on in Riga throughout the coming year can be found on the official Riga 2014 website (riga2014.org).
You can explore Latvia using the Rough Guide to Europe on a Budget – look out for the new update coming in March 2014. Book hostels for your trip, and don't forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.