Old Rīga (Vecrīga)
The curving cobbled streets of Rīga’s medieval core are best explored at random. Once you’re sufficiently lost amid the tangle of gabled roofs, church spires and crooked alleyways, you will begin to uncover a stunning, World Heritage-listed realm of sky-scraping cathedrals, gaping city squares and crumbling castle walls.
Touristy Rātslaukums is a great place to start one’s exploration of the old city. There’s a tourist information centre stuffed to the gills with brochures and maps; it’s located in Blackheads House.
Kalēju Iela & Mārstaļu Iela
Zigzagging Kalēju iela and Mārstaļu iela are dotted with poignant reminders of the city’s legacy as a wealthy northern European trading centre. Several of the old merchants’ manors have been transformed into museums.
Lively Livu laukums, near the busiest entrance to Old Rīga along Kaļķu iela, features several beer gardens during summer. A colourful row of 18th-century buildings lines the square – most of which have been turned into restaurants.
From Pils laukums, photogenic Torņa iela makes a beeline for City Canal (Pilsētas kanāls) at the other end of Old Rīga. Almost the entire north side of the street is flanked by the custard-coloured Jacob’s Barracks, built as an enormous warehouse in the 16th century. Tourist-friendly cafes and boutiques now inhabit the refurbished building.
Central Rīga (Centrs)
As Kaļķu iela breaks free from the urban jumble of turrets and towers, it turns into Brīvības bulvāris (Freedom Blvd), and continues to neatly cut the city centre into two equal parts. An emerald necklace of lush parks acts as a buffer between the medieval walls and the large-scale gridiron of stately boulevards. Central Rīga’s hodgepodge of memorable sights includes the flamboyant art nouveau district, a sprawling Central Market housed in mammoth zeppelin hangars and the iconic Freedom Monument.
Just when you thought that Old Rīga was the most beautiful neighbourhood in town, the city’s audacious art nouveau district (focused around Alberta iela, Strēlnieku iela and Elizabetes iela) swoops in to vie for the prize. Rīga boasts over 750 Jugendstil (art nouveau) buildings, making it the city with the most art nouveau architecture in the world.
Old factory meets olfactory along Miera iela, an industrial district that’s home to the Laima chocolate maker just beyond the scatter of stunning art nouveau facades in the Quiet Centre. Walk down the main street to find a charming assortment of cafes, craft shops and bookstores. The street abuts in Aristida Briāna iela, which hosts a cluster of popular drinking and dancing venues.
Separated from the Old Town by the Central Railway Station, Rīga's 'Moscow Suburb' is in fact one of its oldest central districts, though unlike the rest of the centre it looks like it has never got over the economic hardships of the 1990s. The place also feels haunted because of its dark history – it was the site of the Jewish ghetto during the Nazi occupation of Latvia. Yet today, it is also the site of Rīga's lovely main market and the city's first gentrified industrial space.
Those who venture beyond Rīga’s inner sphere of cobbled alleyways and over-the-top art nouveau will uncover a burgeoning artists’ colony, a couple of excellent museums, and a handful of other neighbourhoods that help paint a full picture of this cosmopolitan capital.
Beyond the river Rīga becomes markedly lower, quieter, with old wooden houses keeping parity with newer ones, made of stone.
Woodsy Mežaparks (literally ‘Forest Park’ in Latvian), along Lake Ķīšezers, 7km north of the centre, is Europe’s oldest planned suburb. Built by the Germans in the 20th century, this ‘garden city’, originally called Kaiserwald, was the go-to neighbourhood for wealthy merchants looking to escape the city’s grimy industrial core. The atmosphere hasn’t changed all that much over the last 100 years – tourists will find prim country homes, gorgeous art nouveau facades and lazy sailboats gliding along the lake.
The park itself is a huge woodsy area crisscrossed by cycling paths, with large lake inviting for a swim and all forms of procrastination on the beach. Outlets selling shashlyk (Caucasus-styled grilled meat on skewers) and chebureky (Tatar meat-filled pastry) are scattered around. There are also a couple of nice lakeside restaurants.
To reach Mežaparks, take tram 11 from K Barona iela to the ‘Mežaparks’ stop; get off at the ‘Brāļu Kapi’ stop for the Brothers’ Cemetery.
Just a quick 10-minute walk west over Vanšu Bridge, quiet Ķīpsala is Rīga’s veritable Left Bank. Over the last five years the island has seen quite a bit of gentrification – wooden houses have been completely restored, and abandoned factories turned into trendy loft apartments. The tree-lined riverside is a great spot for taking photos of the city centre across the Daugava River. While walking around, try to spot a bronze kangaroo, a frivolous addition to a newly restored wooden house by its Australia-linked owner.
The Rīga Motor Museum and the Latvian Ethnographic Open-Air Museum orbit Rīga’s central core several kilometres out.
Oh Christmas Tree
Rīga’s Blackheads House was known for its wild parties; it was, after all, a clubhouse for unmarried merchants. On a cold Christmas Eve in 1510, the 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 the ground in an impressive blaze. From then on, decorating the ‘Christmas tree’ became an annual 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.
Strolling by the Rīga Opera House, you might bump into an old-fashioned bronze couple walking an – also bronze – chao-chao dog. At first glance they may look like some generic residents of fin de siècle Rīga cast in bronze to remind the contemporaries about their great-grandparents. But in reality the couple (and the dog) were not only real, but important enough for Queen Elizabeth to come over and unveil this monument in 2006.
That's because the man is George Armitstead, who presided over Rīga’s belle èpoche (1901 to 1912), when the city acquired its present cosmopolitan elegance. As it happens, Rīga's best mayor of all ages was a Brit, born into a family of local jute traders hailing from Yorkshire.
So what is Armitstead’s legacy? Well, just about everything you can now see outside the old town came to life on his watch, starting with 680 art nouveau buildings that now form the architectural face of the Latvian capital. But also: the grandiose Latvian National Art Museum; the modern outlook of city’s main street, Brīvības iela; parks surrounding the old town; the electric tram; the still-functioning water supplies system; the Central Market; and dozens of other things.
Most importantly, it is during his stint as a major that Rīga acquired its atmosphere of a quirky global megalopolis that embraces modernity and cares about its past.
Although the men of the Armitstead house kept marrying into the Baltic German aristocracy and strove to be loyal citizens of the Russian empire, they remained staunchly British. It was their clan that built Rīga’s Anglican Church, while the architecture of George Armitstead’s countryside residence at Jaunmoku Castle is full of nostalgia for the land of ancestors. The family’s obsession with dogs was also seen as a quite British peculiarity at the time.
So who is the mayor of Rīga in 2015? Also a larger-than-life multicultural character. Former journalist Nils Ushakovs is the only ethnic Russian in charge of an EU capital. Fully bilingual, he appeals to both Russians and Latvians in a city where the two equally sized ethnic communities live still quite separate lives.
Can you spot him walking a dog? No, Ushakovs is a cat man. He keeps at least three cats, which you may see wandering around the Town Hall if you come inside. Does it spell anything for Rīga? Nothing, we hope. Even when it comes to the uneasy inter-ethnic relations, the 'cats and dogs' metaphor is far from applicable.
Rīga Art Nouveau
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 failed Russian 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, who flexed his artistic muscles on Alberta iela.