A weekend in Latvia’s capital
Spending four days in Latvia during the summer should certainly find its way on your list of travels. One can typically find a roundtrip flight from Frankfurt Hahn to Riga, Latvia via Ryanair for 75 euros. Riga is the capital city of Latvia and offers much to see. Although Riga rarely makes it onto posters at the local travel agency, it contains a quaint old town, majestic churches and a stunning block of unprecedented art nouveau architecture. There are also monuments dedicated to historical events and the liberation from the Soviet Union. If you are bold enough to venture out, you will find the public transportation system very effective.
Prices in Riga are reasonable, and you won’t feel any significant pitch in your pocket. Tourism does not drive the country’s economy but you will still find the people to be friendly and English a common language. It would be wise to stay in the downtown area where you could get around on foot as the things to see in Riga are within close proximity. Of course, the hotels in this area cost more, but you’ll save on transportation costs in and out of the city and have no worries about public transportation times and routes.
The Old City
The most prominent sites are either very close or within the Old City. If you have seen other eastern European old towns, then you know what to expect — historic buildings and areas with ties to the age of kings and queens and a large square in the middle. Riga’s is no different, and you’ll find a mix of modern and nostalgia with each step.
There is a magical charm in the area that is difficult to describe. It is not loud but a quiet comfortable atmosphere where money is not the main focus for business. You find few ruins, as Latvia has invested in restoring the bulk of the buildings in the Old City. With every turn you’ll see new buildings on a grand scale, a mix between castle, manor and church. In the main square is a famous building known as the House of the Blackheads, a 14th century guild for the Brotherhood of Blackheads, who were unmarried German merchants in Riga. I guess this was the first sports bar for men.
The Cat House — known for its two cat sculptures, with arched backs and raised tails on its roof — is said to be the result of a dispute between guilds in Latvia. As the legend goes, the owner of the Cat House was refused membership into the Tradesman’s Guild and decided to erect these cats in the direction of the Tradesman’s Guild building to show his dissatisfaction at their decision. The Cat House is styled with medieval architecture and some elements of art nouveau.
The largest cathedral in Latvia is St. Mary’s Dome, which is also located within the Old City. It has been under renovation for the last decade but can be accessed. You’ll be convinced the cathedral was built around the large organ that is still in operation. A closer look inside and outside, and you’ll find artifacts strewn within the walls. A museum sits at the back of the cathedral as well.
The most interesting Lutheran church is St. Peter’s due to its spectacular views of Riga from the town. If you want to see Riga as a whole, the clock tower is the best view in town.
The Riga Castle stands on the banks of the River Daugava at one edge of the Old City. It was founded in 1330 and has undergone numerous sieges, demolitions and rebuilding. Several museums are housed in the southern part of the castle, and the President of Latvia lives in the northern part. The castle is currently off limits to visitors without special permission. The castle borders the edge of the Old City.
Directly across from the castle is the Vansu Bridge that spans the river, and farther down the Railway Bridge spans the river at another location. There is a large wide sidewalk along the river that offers a nice stroll with a few ice cream and coffee shops. You’ll see an active group of individuals along this boardwalk along with casual walkers.
Riga has a large greenspace, Vermanes Park, on another edge of the Old City. A canal system runs through the park, and footbridges of various designs offer passage and lend an artistic feel to the park. The middle of the park is dominated by a large square where street performers can be seen or heard at their craft.
Freedom Monument (pictured left) is placed in the middle of the square and is a memorial honoring soldiers killed during the War of Independence (1918-1920). It is considered an important symbol of the freedom, independence and sovereignty of Latvia. There are also reliefs decorating the memorial depicting Latvian culture and history. A short walk leads to the next canal crossing and the National Opera House.
The architecture of Riga
The gem of Latvia is the art nouveau district, an area unlike anything you would expect to see in this country. This style of architecture dominates one-third of all buildings in the center of Riga, about 700 buildings. Riga has the highest concentration of art nouveau in the world, and if you have a penchant for architecture, make sure your camera battery is fully charged and you have plenty of memory cards. Most of these buildings date between 1904 and 1914. There are different styles within art nouveau, and a museum dives much deeper into the difference between eclectic, perpendicular and neo-classical, but the founding of this style derives from the differences in the designers and not an actual concrete building style. This area is exceptionally artistic and you will keep your head upward looking at the often ostentatious styles. Leaning nudes and beautiful female forms abound, topped by lions and other mythological creatures, all in bright colors against white decorations. Each building has a style and life of its own, and you can aimlessly wander these streets awaiting the next surprise.
All countries under the former rule of the Soviet Union have some lasting architectural impressions, and Latvia is no different. The Latvian Academy of Sciences is easily recognizable as a Soviet show of power. The architecture of the skyscraper resembles many others buildings in the former Soviet Union which became known as Stalinist architecture. This Stalin-era building beckons the former reach and influence of a defunct empire as still evidenced by the hammer and sickle symbols that dominate the interior. The spire was originally decorated with a wreath and five-pointed star that was removed after Latvia regained independence in 1991.
Castles beyond Riga
If you had time and wanted to get out of Riga you could travel to one or more castles. Cesis Castle is a two-hour bus ride away, whereas the old Sigulda Castle (not to be confused with the 19th century new castle) and Turaida Castle sit on opposite sides of a valley about an hour away from Riga. All are medieval castles under renovation.
Cesis Castle (pictured above) is more than mere ruins; an intact manor house sits adjacent to it with a stacked porcelain stove as the highlight stretching upwards in a spiral staircase. Do not expect ostentatious chambers; the rest of the interior has transformed into a museum with artifacts in glass cases.
Sigulda and Turaida castles sit on opposite ends of the primeval Gauja River valley. A viewing platform at each castle allows visitors to look across the valley at the gigantic red brick structures. Each castle has existed since the 14th century and was founded by members of the Teutonic Order. There is a cable car that travels between the two castles, stretching across the valley and providing spectacular views of the local wildlife.
All these castles are near towns with tourist information centers. In particular, Cesis has a small charming old town easily navigable by foot and filled with modern shops and cafés.
Riga is within reach of Germany, and a competitive price is reason enough for many to venture to the city. A weekend allows you to see the capital without rushing. Riga may not be Venice or Paris, but tourist lines and great distances between famous sites won’t hinder your exploration. It is also a great way to expose yourself to Ryanair if it is your first time using the discount airline. The fact that RyanAir flies into the main airport is another added bonus; avoid out-of-the-way remote airports with untimely public transportation to your final destination.
Images by Will H.