Reinvented Riga: a traveller’s guide to Latvia’s capital city

With two decades of freedom (and a renewed status as Latvia’s capital) under its belt, Rīga is reclaiming its rightful title as the cosmopolitan cornerstone of the Baltic.

Sitting at the crossroads of the great empires that wrote the pages of Europe’s elaborate history, Rīga was – for centuries – a strategic linchpin in the annexation of important lands, until it was smothered into obscurity when the Iron Curtain fell. Today, the city is unrecognisable - chic, lively and overflowing with architectural gems.

The historic centre of Latvia's capital, Riga. Image by Mariusz Kluzniak / Flickr / Getty Images.

The historic centre of Latvia's capital, Riga. Image by Mariusz Kluzniak / Flickr / Getty Images.

What’s new in Rīga?

Over the past few years, hip cafes have spread like wildfire throughout the city centre, sweaty pork-and-potato dinners have been swapped for savvy new-Nordic-inspired dishes, and hundreds of crumbling facades are being restored to their brilliant, art nouveau lustre – all in time for Rīga to earn the long-deserved honour of being named European Capital of Culture for 2014 (a joint honour with Umeå, Sweden).

Neoclassical statues in Riga, Latvia. Image by David Holt London. CC BY-SA 2.0.

A generous infusion of EU funds has further protected Rīga’s Unesco-protected castle core, while audacious attempts at civic, sculpture-like architecture have given the culture capital a certain 21st-century flair. A wide variety of events will also fill 2014’s calendar – from celebrations of the city’s German, Swedish and Russian influences to lively events unveiling many long-practiced Latvian traditions, such as folk singing and dancing.

Where to eat

Apparently, when Queen Elizabeth II spent a day in town, she had both lunch and dinner at Vincents, and other world figures have followed suit. The head chef inaugurated the Slow Food movement, and has used his restaurant to give chefs-in-training the chance to hone their craft. The dishes are of Michelin proportions, served in stylish, Van Gogh-inspired surrounds.

Where to stay

A classic manor house in the heart of the city gets a sleek, geodesic dome for an old-meets-new vibe; the epitome of modern Rīga. Hotel Bergs has been a cabbage farm, a turn-of-the-century shopping arcade, a printing house, Rīga’s first petrol station, a casualty of Soviet neglect, and the city’s premier hotel since the early 2000s. It defines the term ‘luxury’, from the lobby’s rococo portraits and suites with monochromatic furnishings to distinguished guests including Lady Gaga.

Browse more of the finest spots to rest your head in our collection of Rīga's best places to stay.

When to go: the best festivals and events

Summer solstice

Held over the summer solstice (23 and 24 June), Līgo and Jāņi are Rīga’s most important days, celebrated with deep pagan undertones. Though most city dwellers flock to the countryside for bonfires, beers and naked frolicking, the capital remains lively, with parades and locals dressed in traditional garb.

Summer singing

In mid-July, Rīga will play host to the World Choir Games – self-described as the ‘Olympics of singing’ – featuring singers from more than 90 countries.

Christmas tree in Riga. Image by Saeima. CC BY 2.0.

Christmas tree in Riga. Image by Saeima. CC BY-SA 2.0.

Christmas glow

Rīga’s Blackheads’ House was known for its wild parties; it was a clubhouse for unmarried merchants. On a cold Christmas Eve in 1510, a squad of bachelors, full of holiday spirit (and other spirits, so to speak), hauled a great pine tree up to their clubhouse and smothered it with flowers. At the end of the evening, they burned the tree to ground in an impressive blaze. From then on, decorating the ‘Christmas Tree’ became a tradition, which eventually spread across the globe (as you probably know, the burning part never really caught on). An octagonal commemorative plaque, inlaid in cobbled Rātslaukums, marks the spot where the original tree once stood; nothing’s quite like gathering around at Christmas time when a majestic tree towers over the square, lights aglow.