Walking Tour: Albert to Alberta

  • Start Latvia Freedom Monument
  • End Alberta iela
  • Distance 3km; two hours

Bishop Albert von Buxthoeven is the man who founded Rīga in 1201 and Alberta iela is a street that bears his name. There is seven centuries dividing the two, which you can cover in one leisurely stroll.

Starting at Latvia Freedom Monument, the glorious Milda, cross the trams lines into the Old Town and turn left into Vaļņu iela. It is a commercial street lined with shops, but you’ll soon escape the hubble and bubble of modernity by sneaking into the little cobble-stoned Gleznotāju iela.

Now you are slicing through medieval Rīga. Walk towards Kalēju iela and turn left. After about 30m, you’ll approach a red-brick wall with a gate. It leads into Jāņa sēta, the courtyard of St John’s church, where Bishop Albert set up his residence when he founded the city in 1201.

Now we are into a bit of a quest. A narrow passage that was on your right, when you went through the gates, leads into the next medieval courtyard – Conventa Sēta, dominated by the namesake hotel, formerly a retirement home for widows of rich merchants.

Now follow the blue arrow sign pointing towards Georga zale. On the left side of the tiny lane you’ll find the wall of former St George church, the only building in Rīga left largely intact since the birth of Rīga in the 13th century.

Turn right to get into the parallel little nameless lane that abuts the touristy Black Magic bar. You might now feel an urge to down a shot of the black magic, aka Rīga balsam, before getting into the busy Kaļķu iela on the other side of the bar. If not, walk around it through a green-coloured passage on your left.

Turn into Šķūņu iela and walk all the way to Dome Sq. Rīga Dome is of course another building bishop Albert embarked on constructing as soon as he set foot here. Follow Jēkaba iela towards St James Church. This is where the Protestants held the first Lutheran-styled mass in 1522, ushering in the epoche of Reformation.

Find a little passage on the left side of the church and sneak into Hobbywool shop. Marvel at this little repository of knitted treasures – shawls, hats and socks – before walking out into Maza Pils iela (you can also bypass the shop, if it’s closed).

Here, you are in for a date with the Three Brothers. The three cute old houses carry you from the 15th city all the way into the 17th century, as the oldest of them waited two centuries for the youngest to emerge. German knights were succeeded first by the Poles, then by the Swedes during this period.

Continue along Maza Pils iela towards Rīga castle. Its current outlook was shaped by Polish and Swedish rulers. But as soon as you turn into Torņa iela, you’ll find a legacy of the Russians who embarked on massive construction as soon as they took over the city in 1710. Pass the Arsenal (now a great art centre) and Jekaba barracks (now a restaurant row), built in the present shape on the orders of tsar Peter the Great.

Nod to the Gunpowder Tower (we are back to Swedish times again), then cross the tram lines and the canal bridge, usually guarded by street musicians. The monument to writer Rudolfs Blaumanis will greet you on the other side.

Cross Krišjāņa Valdemāra iela and head towards the pleasant Kronvalda parks, wasting no time on the yawning Soviet piazza in the between. The art nouveau district is now a stone's throw away. Let the ornate building of Stockholm School of Economics at Strēlnieku iela 4a serve as an introduction to the style. We are in the 1900s now.

A whole gallery of masterpieces is waiting around the corner at Alberta iela. As – hopefully dazzled and speechless – you reach the other side of the street, turn into Dzirnavu iela and enter Albert Hotel. Take elevator all the way to Star Lounge Rīga Bar on the upper floor. Order a drink, walk into the balcony and enjoy a bird’s-eye view of Rīga, now intimately yours.

Walking Tour: Art Nouveau in Rīga

  • Start Alberta iela, Quiet Centre
  • Finish Smilšu iela, Old Rīga
  • Distance 3km; 2 hours (leisurely pace)

If you ask any Rīgan where to find the city’s world-famous art nouveau architecture, you will always get the same answer: ‘Look up!’ More than 750 buildings in Rīga (more than any other city in Europe) boast this flamboyant and haunting style of decor; and the number continues to grow as myriad restoration projects get under way. Art nouveau is also known as Jugendstil, meaning ‘Youth Style’, named after a Munich-based magazine called Die Jugend, which popularised the design in its pages.

Art nouveau’s early influence was Japanese print art disseminated throughout Western Europe, but as the movement gained momentum, the style became more ostentatious and freeform – design schemes started to feature mythical beasts, screaming masks, twisting flora, goddesses and goblins. The turn of the 20th century marked the height of the art nouveau movement as it swept through every major European city from Porto to Petersburg.

The art nouveau movement in Rīga can be divided into three pronounced phases. The first phase was called ‘Eclectic Decorative Art Nouveau’; it occurred during the first five years of the 20th century. During this time, the primary focus was the facade rather than the interior, as highly ornate patterns were imported from Germany by the local architects who studied there. The intricate sculpture work was also locally designed, mostly by August Volz, who did his apprenticeship in Germany as well. This design phase is the most pronounced in Central Rīga because the prevalence of the style coincided with the opening of a local architectural faculty.

After the revolution of 1905, however, this art nouveau style was quickly phased out as local architects furiously dabbled with the notion of establishing a design scheme with nationalistic flair. The so-called ‘National Romanticism’ was born out of this idea, and reflected Latvian ethnographic motifs. An affinity for natural materials flourished as urban facades were left unpainted to show the greys and browns of the building materials. Facades were meant to act as windows, so to speak, into the layout of the structure within. Although this rather un- art nouveau style was only popular for four years, it coincided with a boom in the city’s trading wealth, and thus a lot of structures exhibit this style, even today.

The final phase was known as ‘Perpendicular Art Nouveau’ – it flourished from around 1908 to 1912. The style was a hybrid design between the existing art nouveau traits and a return to classical motifs (presented in a heavily stylised fashion). An accentuation on verticality was pronounced, as was the penchant for balconies and bay windows.

In Rīga, the most noted Jugendstil architect was Mikhail Eisenstein (father of Sergei Eisenstein, a noted Soviet film director) who flexed his artistic muscles on Alberta iela. At Alberta iela 2a, constructed in 1906, serene faces with chevalier helmets stand guard atop the facade, which noticeably extends far beyond the actual roof of the structure. Screaming masks and horrible goblins adorn the lower sections amid clean lines and surprising robot-like shapes. Most noticeable are the two stone satyr phoenix-women that stand guard at the front. The facade of the building next door is in much better condition. The three heads on Alberta iela 4, two doors down from 2a, will surely capture your attention. If you look carefully, you’ll see a nest of snakes slithering around their heads, evoking Medusa. All six eyes seem transfixed on some unseen horror, but only two of the faces are screaming in shock and fear. Two elaborate reliefs near the entrance feature majestic griffins, and ferocious lions with erect, fist-like tails keep watch on the roof. Further down the street, the Rīga Graduate School of Law at Alberta iela 13 epitomises Jugendstil’s attention to detail. Peacocks, tangled shrubs and bare-breasted heroines abound while cheery pastoral scenes are depicted in relief on Erykah Badu-like turbans atop the giant yawning masks. The triangular summit is a mishmash of nightmarish imagery: lion heads taper off into snake tails (like Chimera), sobbing faces weep in agony and a strange futuristic mask stoically stares out over the city from the apex.

Turn the corner to find the Stockholm School of Economics at Strēlnieku iela 4a, filled in with sumptuous blue brick and framed by garland-wielding goddesses. More eye-candy awaits at Elizabetes iela 33, with muscular men balancing stacks of Corinthian columns on their shoulders. The blue-and-white facade at Elizabetes iela 10b, also designed by Eisenstein, is one of the city’s earliest examples of art nouveau and a clear fan favourite. The enormous sullen heads squished at the top of the facade are the subjects of myriad postcards. Continue down Elizabetes iela in the direction of the towering Radisson Blu Hotel Latvija and make a right on Brīvības iela. Follow Brīvības past the Freedom Monument and make your way into medieval Old Rīga.

Most visitors don’t realise that Old Rīga also offers wonderfully ornate gargoyle heads, mythical beasts and ancient gods hidden among its patchwork of gabled roofs and church spires. Enter the city’s medieval core on Teātra iela and pause at Teātra iela 9, the Italian Embassy, to admire the facade’s pantheon of Greek figures – two ragged older men (Prometheus perhaps) frantically clutch their necks while supporting the convoluted wrought-iron balcony above. Further up, reliefs of Athena and Hermes stand proud. Look way up high to spot Atlas with the world on his shoulders (literally). The stunning zinc-and-glass globe sparkles in the evening.

If you look closely at Šķūņu iela 10/12 you’ll spot a variety of ‘D’s hidden in the front design – the initials of the original owner. A watchdog stands guard at the top. The building at Smilšu iela 2 is considered to be one of the finest examples of Jugendstil in Old Rīga. The exterior features a variety of hybrid creatures including intertwining vines that morph, like a mermaid’s tail, into the torso of two caryatids. The home of the building’s architect can be visited at Rīga Art Nouveau Centre. On the same street, at Smilšu iela 8, two women stand atop a protruding bay carrying an elaborate crown of leaves. A large mask of a melancholic woman with her eyes shut hovers over the entrance – a common theme early on in the art nouveau movement. The building’s lobby continues a similar ornamental theme to the exterior.