Riga, just like Kraków, has been successful in handling the pompous weekend events attended by young people from Western Europe. The authorities of the Latvian capital have opted for arts, crafts and delicious local cuisine.

The similarities between the two cities do not end there. Both have a tumultuous history that has shaped them. They also have beautiful old towns that are listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Panorama Rygi z widokiem na Dźwinę

Where the West meets the East

The first traces of settlements in the vicinity of Riga date back to the beginning of the 12th century. Riga was officially founded in 1201. During this period, the first German settlers appeared and contributed to flourishment of trade in the 13th century, while Riga, as a Hanseatic city, became the main intermediary between the West and the East. Strong German influence and the presence of Brothers of the Sword and the Teutonic Knights led to rebellions of the Latvians. The local castle was burned down twice, but the uprisings were always suppressed. In the 16th century, for a short period of time, Riga belonged to Poland, but as a result of the Deluge, it fell into the hands of the Swedes, who, in turn, lost it to the Russians during the Great Northern War. Riga has become the second largest city in Western Russia after St. Petersburg. In the years 1918-1940, it was the capital of the independent Republic of Latvia, which after the Second World War was incorporated into the USSR as the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic that existed until 1991.

In the Old Town

When visiting Riga, you can feel the rich and difficult history of the Latvian capital. 2-3 days are enough for sightseeing, thus it is the perfect city for a short weekend getaway. Most of the attractions are within a few minutes’ walk of each other, so there is no need to worry about renting a car. Less mobile people can take advantage of hop-on buses. The Old Town of Riga is a must see. Its hallmark is the Town Hall Square with the Roland Statue and two historic tenement houses – the House of Scales and the House of the Brotherhood of Blackheads. The House of the Brotherhood of Blackheads is probably the most recognizable and most photographed building in the old town. It was the seat of merchants who could not belong to the Large Guild, an association of wealthy, unmarried merchants of German origin. The building was destroyed during the Second World War and had not been rebuilt until 1991. Its characteristic shape is covered with numerous, rich decorations. It was here that in 1921 the Peace of Riga was signed after the Polish-Soviet war. Behind the House of the Brotherhood of the Blackheads you can see the dark, gloomy building of the Museum of the Occupation, whose collections are devoted to the misery of the Latvian nation. Another famous building – the Cat House, is located near the Scales House. On the two towers that decorate it there are sculptures of pussycats. Apparently, a merchant who was not accepted into the Large Guild, built his house in front of it, and showed his dislike of the members of the association by placing cats pointing tails towards the windows of the Guild building. Eventually, after court battles, the cats were turned around. Currently, there is a restaurant there. When it comes to characteristic tenement houses, there are also the Three Brothers, i.e. three buildings located very close to each other, connected by unique ornaments. The oldest building was built in the 15th century in the late Gothic style. The middle tenement house is younger and comes from the Renaissance, whereas the youngest brother is a 17th-century tenement house.

Rynek w Rydze – widok na Dom Bractwa Czarnogłowych
Widok na kamienice i kościół luterański św. Jana

Vienna of the North

Riga is mainly famous for its beautiful Art Nouveau architecture, which was created thanks to the rapid development of the city at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. Its largest cluster is located along Albert Street. Its surroundings are called the Art Nouveau Quarter. There are richly decorated tenement houses, whose craftsmanship brings to mind Viennese arteries. One of the beautiful tenement houses was opened by the Art Nouveau Museum. There are over 700 Art Nouveau buildings throughout the city. Due to their impressive number and high artistic value, Riga was included in the Réseau Art Nouveau Network, i.e. the union of Art Nouveau cities, a part of which is also Łódź.

Zespól budynków Trzej Bracia, Stare miasto w Rydze
Secesyjne kamienice

Churches full of legends

The turbulent history and multiculturalism of the Latvian capital are also reflected in the history of its most important churches. The highest cathedral in this part of Europe is located in Riga. The 13th-century church has a 90-meter tower and the largest organ on the Old Continent. Currently, it is the seat of the bishop of the Latvian Lutheran Church. There is also the Church of St. Peter, which was originally Catholic, but now is a Lutheran church. The tower, which is a viewing point of the city, has been rebuilt countless times. It was on this church that the first clock in Riga was installed. In turn, the oldest church in Riga is the church of St. Johns (the Evangelist and Baptist). Already at the beginning of the 13th century, a chapel stood in the place of the present church. The church was rebuilt many times and lost its original shape. There is an interesting architectural detail in the form of two stone masks in the wall. According to legend, they commemorate monks who were walled up alive. The church is often visited by tourists due to the nearby statue of the Town Musicians of Bremen. The characters from the Grimm brothers’ fairy tales (a donkey, a dog, a cat and a rooster) stand on top of each other and look out the window, which is a metaphor for the iron curtain. The donkey has a worn nose because it is believed that rubbing it helps make dreams come true. Another church associated with the city’s legend is the Catholic St James’s Cathedral from the 13th century. During the Napoleonic wars, it was turned into a granary, as for some time it also served as a Lutheran church. Poles, in turn, may be interested in the fact that Piotr Skarga gave sermons there. According to legends, the cathedral bell will ring by itself when an unfaithful wife is found near the church. Orthodox believers also have their own cathedral in Riga. It was built in the 19th century during the tsarist occupation. Another Eastern Catholic church worth seeing is the Cathedral of the Nativity of Christ. It was converted by the communist authorities into a planetarium, and did not return to the role of an orthodox church until 1991.

Market halls in the city centre

After a day of sightseeing, it is worth having a meal to recharge batteries for the next day. Exploring new places also comes with getting to know new flavours. An ideal place to try Latvian cuisine is the Central Market located south of the Old Town. It consists of five halls that were originally intended to be hangars for airships. They were built in Liepāja during the First World War. After the fighting ended, the halls were moved to Riga and rebuilt to accommodate a marketplace. Each hall has its own specialty, e.g. in one dairy products are sold, while in another – fruit and vegetables. There are also sections with clothes and souvenirs. Merchants also lay out between buildings. Almost 100 000 people pass through here every day. Luckily, the place has not turned into a popular hipster mall with exorbitant prices. Local sellers still reign supreme there. The market houses also a lot of small bars, cafés and restaurants where you can try local specialties, such as pickled herring or fried sprats. Latvian cuisine is full of dishes based on potatoes and characteristic dark bread. In addition to its classic form, you can also try bread soup and even bread desserts. It is worth trying pickles, as in addition to cabbage and cucumbers known in Poland, you can find there pickled peppers, carrots and even apples. A popular, inexpensive and filling dish is pelmeni, or filled dumplings, which are definitely a Russian influence. As it is the case with the rest of the East, in Latvia you can drink good kvass. Adults, on the other hand, should try the black balm, i.e. a strong liqueur with an intense herbal flavour.

Monument to the Soviet “friendship”

Behind the market halls, there is a skyscraper of the Academy of Sciences, which brings to mind the Palace of Culture and Science in Warszawa, another souvenir from the times of the USSR. Today it houses scientific institutes and publishing houses. At the very top, there is a paid vantage point from which you can admire the panorama of the city. The view is remarkable, as is the one from the 97 m high terrace of the radio and television tower. It is quite a characteristic point on the city map. The tower is 370 m tall and it is said to be able to survive an earthquake of 7.5 magnitude on the Richter scale. The authorities want to raise and enlarge it even more.

Real freedom

One of the few objects that survived the Second World War is the 1935 Freedom Monument. It is a statue of a woman – an allegory of freedom – holding three stars symbolizing the three historic regions of Latvia – Livonia, Courland and Latgale. Today, the figure is facing West, while the sculptures with sad expressions at the base, linked by chains, look to the East.

Pomnik Wolności w Rydze
Pomnik muzykantów z Bremy, Ryga

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A visit to the castle

On the north-eastern outskirts of the city there is the 14th-century Riga castle, which lost its medieval character as a result of numerous and frequent damage, and only one of its four towers survived to this day. The castle was the residence of the Livonian Brothers of the Sword, then for years the seat of the Russian provincial authorities, and today the President of Latvia resides here. The building also houses two museums - the National History Museum of Latvia and the Latvian National Museum of Foreign Art with great collections of Greek, Italian, Roman, German and Flemish works of art.

An island in the middle of the city

If you find the time, you should also visit the island of Ķīpsala on the bank of the Daugava River. It is famous for its wooden houses and unique atmosphere. This is the birthplace of Janis Lipke, who saved 56 Jews during the Second World War. The shed where he would hide them was converted into a museum. The hero was posthumously awarded the title of Righteous Among the Nations.