People have been living in the area around Riga for thousands of years, but Riga itself was founded in 1201 as a port city and a base for the Germans to conquer and convert the native Livonians to Christianity. Riga developed as the major trade hub of the area during the peak of the Hanseatic League in the 13th to 15th centuries. Germans have inhabited the city since its establishment and Germans were typically the elite while Latvians remained a lower class. Since then Riga (and all of Latvia) have been apart of the Kingdom of Sweden (starting in 1621), the Russia Empire (starting in 1710), independent for the first time (starting in 1918), under Soviet Union power (starting 1944), and finally independence in 1990.
Sadly, a considerable part of the old town was destroyed during World War II but many buildings survived. Within old town (Vecrīga) and the city center (Centrs) one third of the buildings are Art Nouveau architecture (locally known as Jugendstil) from the early 20th century. Art Nouveau style involves intricate building facades, with carvings of flowers and mythological creatures, and ornate doorways and windows. Riga is one of the best destinations to see this architectural style and has become a World Heritage Site for this reason.
So, the best thing to do when you visit Riga is walk around Old Town and admire all the Art Nouveau architecture. While you do that you can also check out all the other sites I visited. Now it may seem like a lot, but I was able to see everything in one day, because Riga’s Old Town is quite small, which is part of its charm.
House of the Blackheads – This was my favorite place in Riga and I am going to write about it separately tomorrow. In the middle of the square in from of the Blackheads is a statue of Roland, the patron of Riga.
Riga Castle – Started in 1330 and build onto over the years. Do not go there thinking it was a museum like most castles. I did this and the police officer disdainfully said it was not open to the public. Later I found out it is actually the President’s residence (ie their White House). Opps. 🙂
The Three Brothers – The oldest dwelling houses in Riga, built in the late 15th century, mid 17th century, and late 17th century.
Swedish Gate & St. Jacob’s Barracks – The last remaining gate and part of the old city walls.
Freedom Monument – A Latvian national symbol that surprisingly was never taken down by the Soviets.
Riga Central Market – Noticeable for its huge hangars, built from parts of actual zeppelin hangars bought for the market in 1920. Inside it was not jumbled together like many bazaars. This one is very airy and mostly sells fruit, veggies, meat, and fish. All the stalls are actually like a meat counter in a super market.
I also made sure to see Town Hall, Large Guild, and Small Guild building. They are worth checking out, but it is only for the facade. You can not enter them. I also checked out the following churches:
Riga Cathedral – Dating to 1207. It has an amazing organ and the pulpit is spectacular from the mid 1600’s.
St. Peter’s Church – Riga’s oldest church. The interior is rather sparse but you can get a great view from the bell tower. They even have an elevator to the top…..of course you have to walk up three flights of stairs to get to it. That is one I am still trying to work out, up stairs to use elevator!?!?!
St. John’s Church – From the mid 1200s this church is right behind St Peter’s but it is much smaller. I liked the ceiling which is from the Gothic period, and has 5 separate vaulted compartments.
St. Jacob’s Catholic Church – worth stopping in as it is right next to the Three Brothers, but I did not find it to be that big of a deal.