Rīga is the largest, liveliest and most cosmopolitan of the Baltic capitals, with a great selection of accommodation to suit any budget and a wide variety of world cuisine. A heady mixture of the medieval and the contemporary, the city has much to offer architecture and history enthusiasts in the narrow cobbled streets of Old Rīga and the wide boulevards of the New Town, where beautiful examples of Jugendstil Art Nouveau architecture – “music in stone” – line Strēlnieku iela and Alberta iela. The city also has all the trappings of a modern capital, with efficient and affordable public transportation, excellent shopping, and a notoriously exuberant nightlife.
Old Rīga (Vecrīga), centred around Cathedral Square (Doma laukums) and bisected from east to west by Kaļķu iela, forms the city’s nucleus and is home to most of its historic buildings. With its cobbled streets, medieval buildings, narrow lanes and hidden courtyards, it gives the impression of stepping back in time. To the east, Old Rīga is bordered by Bastejkalns Park, beyond which lies the New Town (Milda). Built during rapid urban expansion between 1857 and 1914, its wide boulevards are lined with four- and five-storey apartment buildings, many decorated with extravagant Jugendstil motifs.
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Rīga has extensive budget accommodation, mostly concentrated in the southern half of Old Rīga, with a few options in nearby New Town and by the Central Market. Reserve in advance in summer.
Bastion Hill (Bastejkalns) – the park that slopes down to the city canal at the end of Torna iela – is a reminder of the city’s more recent history: on January 20, 1991, four people were killed by Soviet fire during an attempted crackdown on Latvia’s independence drive. Stones bearing the victims’ names mark where they fell near the Bastejas bulvāris entrance to the park.
Cathedral Square is dominated by the towering red-brick Rīga Cathedral, established in 1211 and featuring one of the biggest organs in Europe. On the other side of the cathedral, is the worthwhile Museum of Rīga’s History and Navigation, featuring Bronze Age and medieval artefacts, such as a mummified criminal’s hand, as well as temporary art exhibitions.
From Cathedral Square, Pils iela runs down to Castle Square (Pils laukums) and Rīga Castle (Rīgas pils), built in 1515 and now home to the Latvian president. Follow Mazā Pils iela from Pils laukums to see the Three Brothers (Trīs brāli), three charming medieval houses, one of which, built in the fifteenth century, is thought to be the oldest in Latvia.
Opposite the cathedral, the former building of the Latvia stock exchange at Doma laukums 6 contains the Rīga Bourse Art Museum (Mākslas muzejs Rīgas birža), the nation’s collection of old-masters and archeological treasures. A small Monet landscape and a Rodin sculpture are the main big-name draws, although the Flemish still-lives and classical antiquities are enough to keep the interest from flagging.
The Old Town offers innumerable opportunities for bar hopping, with a wide range of watering holes (many serve decent food too) filling up with fun-seeking locals seven nights a week. Most dance venues offer a commercial diet of techno, Euro-hits and golden oldies, although you might get more varieties in smaller clubs, especially on week-nights. Drinks are affordable even in the most stylish places, and there's usually some sort of food menu.
Classical music in Rīga is of an exceptionally high standard. The Latvian National Symphony Orchestra and Latvian National Opera are the biggest shows in town. The theatre scene is rich and varied, although you'll need a working knowledge of Latvian or Russian to appreciate it fully.
The majority of Rīga's restaurants serve international cuisine, while a crop of self-service cafeterias offer filling and cheap meat-and-potatoes meals. Restaurant prices are on the whole higher that in Vilnius or Tallinn, but still significantly lower than in Western European capitals; on average, a three-course meal with drinks will be somewhere around 20 or 30Ls – more if you are ordering bottles of wine.
The modernist Freedom Monument (Brīvības piemineklis), known affectionately as “Milda”, dominates the view along Brīvības bulvāris as it enters the New Town, holding aloft three stars symbolizing the three regions of Latvia. Incredibly, the monument survived the Soviet era, and nowadays two soldiers stand guard here in symbolic protection of Latvia’s independence.
Jews living in Rīga and other parts of Latvia suffered the same fate as Jews in other parts of Eastern Europe when Latvia was overrun by Nazis. The Rīga Ghetto Museum built on the site of the Jewish ghetto behind the Central Market consists of two outdoor exhibits: a seemingly endless wall of victims’ names, and photographs and text illustrating the life of the Jewish community in different parts of Latvia before World War II. On Peitavas iela 6/8, you’ll find the last surviving synagogue in Rīga; when all the synagogues in the city were burned down by the Nazis in 1941, this synagogue and its treasures – the sacred scrolls – escaped destruction due to its close proximity to other buildings. There’s a memorial on Gogoļa iela where the Great Choral Synagogue was burnt down in July 1941 with its 300-strong congregation trapped inside. At Skolas 6, you will find a small but gritty and informative Jews In Latvia Museum on the history of Jewish life in Latvia from the eighteenth century onwards, including persecution by both Nazis and Soviets, and the survival and “rebirth” of Judaism in independent Latvia.
If you want to see the city unfold before you, with its melange of church domes, vast parks, ribbon of river and squat Soviet creations, follow the urban throng to Šķūņu iela to St Peter’s Church (Pēter baznīca), a large red-brick structure with a graceful three-tiered spire and climb the tower (3Ls) for excellent panoramic views of the city. Battling the church for the finest views of Rīga is “Stalin’s Birthday Cake” – the Academy of Sciences, a 1950s Empire State Building lookalike at Akadēmijas laukums 1. The 65m skyscraper, adorned with hammers and sickles near the top, has a 360-degree viewing platform on the 17th floor.
One of Rīga’s most intriguing sights is the quaint and curious Museum of the Sun at Valnu iela 30 (Saules muzejs), a private collection of artworks, ornaments and cult objects connected with the fiery life-giving orb in the title. Visually attractive throughout, the display also has interesting things to say about the position of the sun in religion and folk belief, and the development of astronomy.
Esplanade Park runs north from Brīvības bulvāris. At the far end of the park, the worthwhile Latvian National Art Museum (Valsts mākslas muzejs), housed in a grandiose Neoclassical building, displays an impressive array of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Latvian paintings, sculptures and drawings by Rosentāls, Padegs, Valters and others, as well as changing modern art exhibitions. In a separate building, the Arsenāls Exhibition Hall stages cutting-edge temporary exhibitions by contemporary artists.
Temporarily housed in the former building of the American Embassy at Raina bulvāris 7, the Occupation Museum (Latvijas okupācijas muzejs) documents the atrocities committed against Latvia’s population by both Nazi and Soviet occupations. Emotion-inducing exhibits include letters to loved ones thrown from trains by Latvians forcibly removed to Siberia, and the simple household items (children’s toys, Christian crosses) they fashioned by hand to make life bearable once they got there.
The Rīga Art Nouveau Museum, housed in the former apartment of renowned artist and engineer Konstantīns Pēkšēns, is a must for anyone with an interest in Art Nouveau. You can view original period furniture and some of Pēkšēns’ work and the visit culminates in the viewing of a short video which will enable you to tell the difference between “romantic” and “vertical” Art Nouveau facades on the city’s streets.
It’s worth travelling 8km out of town to seek out one of Rīga’s odder attractions – the Motor Museum (Rīgas motormuzejs). Home to an impressive collection of vehicles through the ages, its pride and joy are the vehicles belonging to Soviet heads of state: see Stalin lounging in the back seat of his bulletproof ZIS.
On Torņa iela, you’ll find the seventeenth-century Swedish Gate (Zviedru vārti), the sole surviving city gate. At the end of Torņa iela is the Powder Tower (Pulvertornis), a vast, fourteenth-century bastion, home to the excellent War Museum (Kara muzejs) – nine floors of the country’s turbulent history, from medieval weaponry to world wars I and II and Latvia’s struggle for independence.
From the doors of St Peter’s Church, Rātslaukums (Town Hall Square) is straight ahead and dominated by the House of the Blackheads (Melngalvjunams), whose facade is an opulent masterpiece of Gothic architecture. Once serving as the headquarters of Rīga’s bachelor merchants, who adopted the North African, non-white saint St Maurice as their patron (hence, the name "Blackheads"). Largely destroyed in 1941, the House was lovingly reconstructed for the 800th anniversary of Rīga’s foundation in 2001.
The ugly oblong structure next door belongs to the Occupation Museum (Latvijasokupācijasmuzejs), currently closed for long-term renovation – visit the museum’s temporary display on Raina bulvaris.