Whether enjoying the local Balsam, checking out the Gothic spires or visiting for past Soviet remains, this town is stepped in culture and history
Having finished the conference in Helsinki, Catherine and I attached a couple more places onto our trip. We’ve already visited Stockholm, Copenhagen and many Polish destinations, so this narrowed our options. The obvious choices around the Baltic were Tallinn, Vilnius, St Petersburg and Riga.
We knew it had to be a city with easy transport links, as we didn’t have much time, so we opted for Riga and then Tallinn. I would have wanted to do it the other way around, but there were no outward flights to London on the days we wanted.
London to Tallinn on a Sunday night was a given as there are a lot of stag parties heading back from a big weekend. With a Baltic Air flight in the early evening, we arrived in the capital of Latvia.
You’ll no doubt start your Riga trip at the Riga International Airport. Once through security, head outside to the local bus stop across the carpark to catch the no.22 bus.
It takes 30-minutes to the city centre and you’ll arrive on the shores of the Daugava River.
The walk to the Old Town isn’t very far and is very interesting, as the little lanes bend around like a maze. The hotels in Riga are clearly separated into Old Town and boutique establishments, with the bigger chains outside of the city walls. The Man-Tess Boutique Hotel is a great hotel that is based in Old Town.
After a cracking authentic breakfast and a pleasant walk around Riga’s Old Town you’ll most likely bump into some of these amazing attractions.
House of the Blackheads
A venue for exhibitions, concerts and other events, the house was built in 1334 for meetings and banquets but was destroyed by bombs in the Second World War. Fully rebuilt in 1999, the house has exact replicas of 19th Century weaponry and armour sets and stained glass of the Blackheads’ Coat of Arms and girandoles.
Towards the end of the 14th century, Riga’s merchants and craftsmen were joined by a brotherhood who called themselves Blackheads, who chose St Maurice as their patron saint, who traditionally was depicted as a soldier in knight’s armour.
The seat of the Archbishop of the Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church, the cathedral is one of the oldest sacred buildings of the medieval period in Latvia and also the Baltics.
The foundation stone of Riga Cathedral was laid in 1211 and a monastery of the Cathedral Chapter of the Riga Diocese and the Riga Cathedral School were built next to the cathedral soon afterwards.
The roosters sitting on the spires of Riga Old City churches are one of the symbols of the town.
Part of the Museum of the History of Riga and Navigation, the cathedral showcases early Gothic architecture and is one of Riga’s organ music centres.
Museum of the History of Riga and Navigation
The oldest public museum in Latvia and the Baltic, the attraction is located in Old Town, in a 13th – 20th century architectural monument – the Riga Dome complex. Currently, the museum possesses 500,000 objects, organised into 80 collections.
The Second World War and the Soviet occupation resulted in the museum losing a part of its holdings because of the departure of the Baltic Germans and the removal of some collections to German-occupied territories.
Soviet authorities removed historical objects and in 1940, the regime nationalised the museum. In 1964, it was renamed as the Museum of the History of Riga and Navigation.
Located on the right bank of River Daugava, the castle was founded in 1330 but was rebuilt between 1497 and 1515. Currently housing the president of Latvia, it is a typical sample of late Classicism architecture and includes a spacious festival hall.
Folklore states that when Polish King Stephen besieged Polotsk in 1579, a stark flew to Riga Castle to build its nest where a raven had lived for dozens of years. After a month-long fight, the raven flew off. Rumour claims that the raven symbolised German rule.
St Saviour’s Anglican Church
Sitting on the shore of the Daugava River, the neo-Gothic church was designed by Johann Felsko. Transformed into a student disco during Soviet times, the church has now been restored for religious use, with services running at 11am on Sundays.
The Swedish Gate
Part of the Old Town walls that went around Riga during the medieval times, the gate was one of the few entrances to the town providing access to barracks outside the city wall. Built in 1698 after the Polish-Swedish War was over and Swedish Kingdom took over the city, the gate functioned as a border for trade purposes and also as a fortification wall.
Several restoration works took place over the 80s and 90s, shown by the differing colour of bricks and the gate is the only structure in the Old Town that preserved its original looks.
Sitting opposite the Swedish Gate are three yellow buildings with orange tile roofs collectively known as James’ Barracks (or Jacob’s Barracks). Built as barracks for local troops in the 18th Century, they stretch for around 230m from the Powder Tower until Jēkaba iela.
The buildings, located on Torna Street, are now café and souvenir shops.
Latvian War Museum
A military museum located in the Powder Tower in Old Riga, the attraction is the biggest military history museum in Latvia.
Boasting a collection of more than 25,400 items including uniforms, weapons, photos and a large number of documents, the exhibitions showcase warriors and the art of war from the 9th-16th Century (the oldest period in Latvian history) and the country during World War II.
There were 11 cannons placed in the tower and also a cannon ball catcher. Later there was a prison and torture chamber in the tower and weapons were stored there until 1883. The tower’s walls are three meters thick.
Riga Nativity of Christ Cathedral
The largest Orthodox church in Riga, the cathedral’s founding stone was laid in 1876 by Riga Bishop Serafim (Protopov) and after the Russian Czar Alexander II presented 12 bells, the design was updated to include a belfry.
Although the cathedral survived both world wars, in the early 1960s, Soviet authorities closed the cathedral, sawed down the crucifixes and melted the bells. It was then converted into a planetarium, called the Republic House of Knowledge.
However, in the 1990’s restoration work began, and the iconostasis was consecrated by Archbishop Alexander in 2000. Renovation works are ongoing.
Riga Central Market
The market sits in this amazing Art Deco and Neoclassicism hangar like building. It is one of Europe’s largest indoor markets and one of the most notable structures in Riga. The building received UNESCO World Heritage Site recognition, along with Old Riga, in 1998.
The main structures of the market are five pavilions constructed by reusing old German Zeppelin Hangars. It holds more than 3,000 trading stands. If you come out the south side of the market you’ll see one of the biggest buildings in Riga.
Latvian Academy of Sciences Observation deck
If you enjoy eastern Europe and you want to see the ex-soviet Seven Sisters’ buildings, this is a great place to start.
This isn’t one of the Seven Sisters, they are all in Moscow, but it is built in the same style.
These buildings were built in past soviet cities, such as in Warsaw, Prague, Kiev, Riga, etc.
Church of Jesus
This Lutheran church has been built, destroyed, rebuilt on a number of occasions due to war and siege. The first church was constructed in the 17th century, with the foundation stone laid in 1635.
The present building was completed in 1822 and is the largest wooden classical building in Latvia.
If you are interested in football, the local team’s stadium is a good place to visit. Just a short ride from the city centre, it is easily accessible. The stadium has 9,500 seats and was built 2000. It is the biggest football stadium in Latvia and is the home to the National Latvian team. The venue has other uses, for example, Snoop Dog, Massive Attack, Akon and Depeche Mode have all performed.
St Gertrude Old Church
This Lutheran church is situated at Ģertrūdes Street, just outside the city’s walls, therefore it is unprotected in times of war. Seven churches have stood on the site, the first of which was constructed in 1418.
It has close connections with the German ethnic community and the congregation worships are carried out in German.
The Freedom Monument
Acting as the town’s most prominent landmark for nearly a century, the monument was designed by Latvian sculptor Kārlis Zāle. It depicts the nation’s struggle for freedom and independence. Standing at 42.7m tall, the granite and copper art work contains a woman on top holding three golden stars representing the coutnry’s historical regions of Kurzeme, Vidzeme, and Latgale.
The motto ‘For the Fatherland and Freedom’ is inscribed upon the base, which symbolises the nation’s work ethic, spiritual strength and independency.
During the Soviet occupation, any gathering at the Freedom Monument was strictly forbidden.
The city hall stands on Town Hall Square at the very heart of Riga. Just underneath the Riga City Council building is a narrow cobble-stone street, which is home to shops, a giant cascading waterfall and the remains of an ancient tree stub unearthed during the reconstruction process after the war.
Latvian National Theatre
The theatre building is of an eclectic style and it is an architectural and art monument. The building was constructed in 1918 and is located on the bank of the city canal, just outside the old town.
At the end of the day, had a great meal at a local restaurant.
St Peter’s Church
This is a beautiful medieval church with simple but glorious interior.
The great thing with this church as well is that for a small fee, you can climb to the top and get an amazing view of Riga.
Choosing this observation deck is a wise choice as the view includes the Latvian Academy of Sciences.
Black Magic Café
If your stomach is rumbling and you fancy a sweet treat, head to the Black Magic Café next to the Black Cat for a little bite. Take a sip of Riga Black balsam, a traditional Latvian balsam made with different natural ingredients, or try a Black Mojito.
People drink balsam with coffee in winter and in the summer, they pour it on cold ice-cream balls.
Behind a bookcase are hidden stairs to the alchemist’s laboratory.
The cat house is a building in the middle of Old Town and if you hadn’t researched Riga you might miss it. It was built in 1909 and is designed in a medieval style, with some Art Nouveau elements. It is known for two cat statues, with arched backs and raised tails, on its roof.
It is said that the owner of the house wanted the cats to be placed with their tails turned towards the house of the Great Guild, which is nearby, as he held a grudge against its members. The cats were later ordered to be turned to face the guild house instead.
If your time is up in Latvia’s capital then catch the no.22 bus, outside the central market to Riga International Airport.
Click here for more information on Riga.
For the final part of our Baltic journey in Tallinn, click here.
Checking out J & C