Situated at the mouth of the Daugava, the city of Riga is the capital of Latvia and the biggest city in the Baltic States. It has emerged from behind the Iron Curtain and is slowly coming into its own as a major European tourist destination.
Situated on the south-western coast of the country, Riga is split in two by the River Daugava, and served as a major trading port and a crossroads between western Europe and the East. The modern founding of the city dates back to the 12th century with the arrival of German traders, mercenaries, and missionaries, while its older roots date back to a settlement of the ancient Finnic tribe, the Livs.
Riga boasts a collection of exquisite Art Nouveau buildings that rival those in Vienna, Barcelona, and St Petersburg, and the fairytale historic city centre is a delight to explore. As the cultural and economic centre of the country, Riga is home to plenty of top-class museums, galleries, and performing arts centres. It also has a wide range of sophisticated bars, clubs, and restaurants. The city is fast gaining a reputation as a party capital, and its vibrant nightlife draws hundreds of weekenders from all over Europe.
For a more traditional Latvian experience, it is well worth braving the winter cold to enjoy a spot of ice fishing, ice-skating on the frozen Daugava River, or a a rigorous sauna involving being beaten with dried birch branches. With over 800 years of history, a UNESCO World Heritage Site-listed historic city centre, and a modern buzz, Riga remains a largely undiscovered gem with plenty to delight and enchant the visitor.
Dating back to 1211, the red brick Dom (or Dome) Protestant Cathedral is a highlight of the historic centre of Riga. The cathedral is situated near the Western Daugava River and boasts an incredible organ with over 6,500 pipes built in 1844, stained-glass windows, and a beautifully whitewashed interior. There are regular concerts held on the organ, and the cathedral also has its own boys' choir that gives regular performances. A great historical sight in Latvia, that earns rave reviews from all who experience it. The Dom Protestant Cathedral is a great historical sight in Latvia that earns rave reviews from all who experience it.
Riga Castle (or Riga Pils) was built in 1330 on the site of the original settlement of the city as a residence for the master of the Livonian Order, and later it served as the base for the city's occupiers throughout its history. The distinctive yellow castle was destroyed and rebuilt over time, and today it serves as the offices and home of the Latvian president, as well as the Latvian Museum of Foreign Art and the Rainis Museum of Literature and Art History. The castle is strategically placed on the banks of the Daugava, originally in order to oversee all ships entering the city's port, and has four towers and an inner courtyard.
The Open Air Ethnographic Museum is a fascinating reflection of the traditional Latvian way of life. Set on 247 acres (100ha), the museum consists of farmhouses, fishing villages, windmills, and other historic buildings relocated here to create an outdoor exhibit. Visitors to Riga can watch craftsmen at work, sample traditional Latvian cooking and ales, and learn more about the history of this deeply interesting country.
One of the oldest and biggest of its kind, Riga's Central Market dates back to 1201 and is a riot of sounds, sights, and smells. Anything from fresh fruits, cheeses, and whole sheep carcasses, to appliances, clothing, and CDs are on offer, usually at very reasonable prices. The market was moved from its original home and relocated several times, but since the 1930s has occupied the same space in several World War I hangars, close to the bus and train stations. There is room for over 1,000 vendors, and no visit to Riga is complete without a stroll through its tantalising stalls.
Latvia was occupied from 1949 to 1991 by two successive regimes in the forms of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. This well-curated museum conveys what life was like during this time, and serves as a memorial to those who died or fled as a result of the occupation. Visitors can view film archives and see a reconstruction of life in the infamous Siberian labour camps. A sobering and humanising experience, highly recommended for those who wish to connect to Latvian culture while on holiday in Riga.
The city of Riga contains the highest concentration of Art Nouveau architecture in the world. Otherwise known as Jugendstil, some of the buildings in central and downtown Riga date as far as the late 19th century. The style is characterised by unusual shapes, curved and organic arches, gargoyles, carved faces, and flamboyant cornices. Over 30 percent of central Riga's buildings were created in this style, many supervised by famous Russian architect Mikhail Eisenstein. The best streets to view buildings on are Elisebetes, Strelnieku, and Albert. The Riga Art Nouveau Centre, located in central downtown, has been furnished in the Art Nouveau style allowing visitors to fully immerse themselves in the early 20th century.
What is undoubtedly eastern Europe's finest motor museum is tucked away on the outskirts of Riga, and makes for an essential outing if you enjoy classic cars and Soviet history. The museum contains Molotov's limousine, Stalin's bombproof sedan, and the wreck of Brezhnev's car in which he crashed. The model dummies in the vehicles are a nice touch. There is a priceless collection of classic sports cars and motorcycles, irresistibly photogenic for petrol heads.
Jurmala is the main holiday resort town in Latvia, the place locals go to when they want to relax, catch a tan, and enjoy a spa treatment. The beaches are very good and the seafood restaurants are excellent too. Apart from sand and sea, the main attractions of Jurmala are its spas, which offer a range of therapies and treatments at a fraction of what they'd cost in western Europe. Getting to Jurmala from Riga is easy: by train or bus, the journey takes 30 minutes. Jurmala is fast becoming one of eastern Europe's best spa destinations, and tourists are urged to check it out before the secret gets out and prices begin to sky-rocket.
The Latvian National Opera building is a magnificent 19th-century structure, home to the National Opera, Ballet, and Orchestra companies. Built in 1863 by the St Petersburg architect Ludwig Bohnstedt, the columned and colonnaded building is not only incredibly photogenic, but lays claim to an interesting history. Guided tours of the opera building take place at 5pm every Friday, and are a very popular tourist attraction in Riga. Culture-vultures should also check out the Latvian National Opera's website for programme information. The country has a proud classical music history, with Richard Wagner being Director of Music in Riga between 1837 and 1839, and recitals are often of rare quality.
Riga has a moderate climate, influenced by its close proximity to the sea. Summers tend to be short and cool with cloud cover, and high temperatures average around 64°F (18°C). Winters are usually long, dark and cold, with temperatures averaging between 18°F (-8°C) and 28°F (-2°C) in January. Snowfall is heavy and snow cover usually lasts from mid-December to mid-March. The city is overcast for roughly 40 percent of the year.
Riga has a varied nightlife, mostly centred round the Old Town, where many clubs, bars, casinos, and live music venues can be found. Riga is also famous for its classical entertainment, with symphonies and operas taking place throughout the year.
A detailed and monthly updated guide to all Riga's nightlife can be found in the Riga In Your Pocket booklet, available free throughout the city. Close proximity makes walking between nightlife venues a viable option.
Visitors should be cautious late at night as muggings are often reported. The larger clubs attract stag groups from the UK and Scandinavian duty-free tourists. Rather stick to the smaller bars if you want a less rowdy experience.
Riga is a good place to buy local crafts, alcohol, and foodstuffs, but imported goods are very expensive. The highest concentration of shops is in the Old Town and the city centre. One of the best souvenirs to buy in Latvia is amber, for which the country is world-famous. Look out for amber set in silver jewellery. Other quality buys include woollen jerseys and hats with distinctive Baltic patterns, the local liqueur Black Balsam, and World War Two memorabilia. Bargaining is not expected and unlikely to be successful. A great shopping experience is a visit to the huge Central Market, located in five cavernous pavilions. Everything can be bought here, including fresh fish, fruit, honey, and cheap clothes.
Riga has a well-developed and relatively cheap public transport system that consists of buses, minibuses, trams, and trolley buses. Most services run from 5am to as late as 1am and some routes run a regular night service. Tickets can be bought on the bus, trolley, or tram. Final destinations are marked on the front of all transport vehicles. Taxis are readily available, and it is worth noting that licensed cabs will have a yellow number plate. One can risk an unlicensed taxi, but drivers usually turn off the meter and the price needs to be negotiated beforehand. Riga's ferry terminal is located less than half a mile (1km) north of Old Riga. The central train station will take commuters to destinations in Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine.
Just 33 miles (56km) from the capital, Sigulda is a picturesque little town located in the primordial Gauja Valley. It's well worth the trip for tourists to Riga. Dubbed the 'Switzerland of Vidzeme' due to the steep cliffs and caves that line the sides of the river gorge, Sigulda makes a wonderful base from which to explore Latvia's considerable natural bounty. Notable tourist attractions of the area include the Medieval and Turaida Castles, with the former staging an annual open-air Opera Festival in the summer. Gauja National Park is within touching distance of Sigulda, offering great activities such as walking trails and bungee-jumping in summer; and luge, bobsledding, and skiing in the winter. The town of Sigulda itself is particularly worth visiting in spring, when cherry blossoms bloom; and in autumn, where the town seems to take on the blood-orange hue of the leaves falling from its trees. Be sure to visit the Gutmanis Cave, the largest in the Baltic region, and the setting of the Latvian folktale of the Rose of Turaida.
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