RIGA, LATVIA: Riga, capital of Latvia, is the largest city in the Baltic States. This is one of the attractive cities of Europe which is still not spoiled by heavy tourists. The city was founded in 1201 as a base for the Northern Crusaders. It was once part of Swedish and later Russian Empires. In 1990, Riga became the capital when Latvia broke away from Soviet Union. Unfortunately, during WWII the city was heavily bombed and left to decay until its independence. That’s when the government started reconstructions and restorations of the old part of Riga. This is a thriving capital city with futuristic buildings and structures and an old town with pleasant medieval look.
Latvian people are very friendly and helpful. They speak very good English as well as Russian. The native language is Latvian but most people speak both Latvian and Russian.
Old central part of Riga is not that big and can be covered on foot. If you rush little bit and are not into museums you can probably manage to visit the main landmarks in a day. We saw many homeless and beggars here. While some of them are just asking for money some others try to give you small service in exchange of small amount of money, like sketch your face or something.
TIME of TRAVEL: We flew to Riga beginning of October, 2013. While it started to get gloomy and rainy here in Belgium, the weather in Riga was actually very nice…at least the days we were there. It was a bit empty in the old town on Saturday morning; many stores were closed, not too many people on the streets or in cafes. But eventually we started seeing people in the afternoon. Everything was ok here except our luggage was lost and didn’t arrive on time. But luckily we got it the next day…phew. I thought we would have to wear the same clothes for our 3-days stay in Riga.
OUR HOTEL: We stayed in Hotel Radisson Blu Daugava in Riga with a fantastic view of the old town on the other side of River Daugava. Good thing about this hotel was they had free shuttle to and from old town. Of course a free grand breakfast and Wi-Fi were included in the package too. I never had problem staying in Radisson Blu…simply a great hotel. Their dinner was awesome too. Every night we used to sit by the window with the river in front of us. This is about 20 minutes of drive from the airport.
EATING and SHOPPING: All of the dinners here we had in our hotel. But for lunch we tried Rockabilly’s House in Livu Square. They had live Rock ‘N Roll music with a local band, I think, which was quite enjoying. It’s a good American restaurant with few selections of Latvian dishes.
Riga is THE place to buy amber. Not only amber jewelries but also home decors and arts made from amber. You can find both natural and synthetic ones here. There are cluster of decent amber stores in the old town. Don’t buy cheap stuff, better to pay a bit more and get real natural amber from showrooms. Winter hats, gloves, and scarves are popular souvenirs here too. There was a big farmer’s market in front of Riga Dome on one Saturday that we were there. They sell fruits, veges, small souvenirs, gourmet food items, ceramics, and many other cool stuff.
Laima is a popular chocolate manufacture in Riga. There is even a spot near Freedom Monument called “Laima Clock” (from 1924) which is a popular rendezvous’ point for young sweethearts.
PLACES WE’VE VISITED: I spent only a day in Riga while my husband took the girls on the 2nd day for some more sightseeing. One place that I really wish I could see was Art Nouveau style buildings from the 19th century which is part of UNESCO World Heritage Site.
If it interests you, go to round cylindrical-shaped Powder Tower to visit Military museum which is the only tower of the old fortification system that is still standing. St. John’s Courtyard is a surviving example of a medieval courtyard. Bastion Hill and St. Jacob’s Barrack are both Riga’s historic points and contain some of the old walls and defense system.
Don’t waste time going to Three Brothers…which is supposed to be oldest dwelling houses in Riga…but they are nothing but some dull old architectures sitting in one corner where there is nothing really to do.
1) TOWNHALL SQUARE and HOUSE of BLACKHEADS: Town Hall Square was and still is one of the main squares of Riga. This is where we were left off by our hotel shuttle. The square has little bit of contemporary look. Statue of Ronald in the center represents that Riga was once part of the Hanseatic League. City Hall is at one side and adjacent to it is the House of Blackheads. House of Blackheads was once used to be a guild house, now it’s a museum, concert hall, and part of it is tourist office. This is one of the most vibrant and decorative buildings in this neighborhood. Original one, from 1334, was completely destroyed during WWII and was later rebuilt in 1999.
2) ST. PETER’S CHURCH and BREMEN MUSICIANS: Located beside Town Hall Square, St. Peter’s Church is one of the oldest and most valuable monumental architectures from the Middle Ages in the Baltic States and the oldest in Riga. First record of St. Peter’s Church goes back to 1209. It suffered heavy fire damage during WWII. 123 meter tower of this church was reconstructed after the war. It was included in UNESCO World Heritage list in 1997. Inside of it didn’t really look very interesting with simple altar and ceiling. There was an art exhibition going on when we were there.
It’s 1 LS to enter the church. You can climb the observation tower from the height of 73 meter for a magnificent panoramic view of Riga. It costs 5 LS for that. The church is open for visitors from Tuesday – Saturdays from 10 – 7 and Sundays 12 – 7.
When you are done, get out of the church and go around to the back of the church where you can see a copy of Bremen Musicians (original one is in Bremen, Germany). Rub their noses and make a wish…IT WILL COME TRUE!!
3) LIVU SQUARE, CAT HOUSE, and STONE HEAD: The Cat House situated in Livu Square is one of the symbols of the city. You can see a big black cat standing on top of an old building. Stone Head near the Cat House is a stone idol of ancient Livu tribes. The square is a nice hangout place with many outdoor and indoor restaurants. Don’t miss the beautiful guild houses here.
4) RIGA DOME or DOME CATHEDRAL: This is the Archbishop’s Cathedral of the Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church and a parish church. The construction begun in early 13th century in the Romanesque style. One of the ancient parts of the church is the choir. In 18th century, the east pediment and the dome of the church was rebuilt in Baroque style. The cathedral houses one of the largest organs in the world with 6768 organ pipes. But interior is very simple with old floor, some big stained-glass windows, and a simple altar. There is a small museum near the cloister with cathedrals old ruins and old decors.
We were there on a Saturday and the square in front of the cathedral was very lively with tons of local vendors and their customers. You can find fresh produce, small trinkets, hand-woven winter accessories, and many other unique items for a reasonable price here. It is 2 LS to enter.
5) ORTHODOX CATHEDRAL: Only a few steps away from the old town, this typical Russian style orthodox cathedral is a beautiful place to get a taste of architecture from the Russian era. It was erected during the rule of Soviets. Inside and outside are both eye-catching. Onion-domes adorns the exterior while many colorful fresco make the interior very gorgeous. Like other Russian churches we’ve seen so far, this also doesn’t have any sitting arrangements or a nave but does have a dazzling altar. It is an active worship place. There is no entrance fee but we weren’t allowed to take any picture inside.
6) MONUMENT of FREEDOM: Built in 1935, this symbolizes Latvia’s freedom and independence. There are two guards at the base of this 42 meter monument and some laying flowers showing respects to the heroes who lost their lives during the Latvian War of Independence from 1918 – 1920. Although we didn’t attend it, there is a small change of guard ceremony couple times a day.
7) BOAT TOUR from ESPLANADE PARK: Only a block away from Monument of Freedom is the lush green Esplanade Park. It was almost fall in Riga during our visit and the trees just started to change colors. Patches of yellow, orange, and green looked simply spectacular. This is the best place to find yourself surrounded by nature in the heart of Riga. Don’t miss the Bridge of Love where hundreds of love-locks are hanging, symbolizing immortal love of young couples and newly weds.
From here we took a boat tour to get out from the city life for a short time. We started from a small natural canal, rode under many small bridges and tall trees, and ended up in Daugava River. You can get a nice view of city’s skyline with churches tall spires, some stylish bridges (like Stone Bridge), and cool buildings. It was 5 LS per person for an hour tour. It’s available from 9am – 8pm in every 25 minutes.
8) SWEDISH GATE and CITY WALL: Swedish Gate is the only medieval town gate that has been preserved in its original form. The long stretch of remaining city wall is directly opposite of St. Jacob’s Barrack.
9) BIG CHRISTOPHER: His name is connected with one of the legends about the beginnings of the town. The original wooden statue from 1683 is located in Museum of History of Riga and Navigation. This one is a copy which was made in 1997. The legend goes something like this (copied from the info board).
“Once upon a time, long ago, before the city of Riga was founded, a tall strong man named Lielais Kristaps (Big Christopher) carried people across the River Daugava. Kristaps lived in a cabin on right bank of the river.
While sleeping one night, Kristaps heard a small child crying on the other side of the river. He immediately rose to fetch the child, and began to carry it across the river. Half way across, the child became so heavy that Kristaps barely managed to get to the other bank. Exhausted, he laid the child down to sleep in his shack, and fell asleep himself.
The following morning Kristaps awoke to find a large chest of gold coins where the child had been, upon his death, the money was used to find the city of Riga, the first building was built on the spot where Kristaps cabin had once stood.”
10) RIGA CASTLE: Located at the edge of old town right by river Daugava, Riga Castle in Castle Square is the residence of the President of Latvia.