Things to Do in Latvia
The Riga Old Town (Vecrīga) is the historic and geographic center of the city, located on the right bank of the Daugava River. Only remnants of the fortifications that enclosed the city between the 13th and 18th centuries still remain, but visitors will be charmed by the narrow cobblestone streets and the medieval architecture. The old city has something for everyone, from churches to museums to outdoor cafes and restaurants. Highlights include the 13th-century Riga Dome Cathedral, the tall steeple spire of St. Peter’s Church, Riga Castle, the House of the Blackheads and the Latvian War Museum, which is housed in the Gunpowder Tower. A trip up the tower of St. Peter’s is a must for its great views over the Old Town. During the holidays, large outdoor markets can be found in both Dome and Livu Squares and in the winter, an ice skating rink takes over the middle of Livu Square.
Dating back to the 13th century, Livonian Order Sigulda Castle was originally built by the Livonian Brothers of the Sword, a military order comprised of German “warrior monks.” The first stone fortification built in Latvia outside of Riga, it was designed to monitor the Gauja River running below the castle and to protect from the threat of invasion. The original castle building was rectangular shaped and made of dolomite blocks three meters thick, a small part of which still remains. In later years, a square shaped central column with an inner courtyard surrounded by three buildings was added. A three story high section of the central building remains today. In the 19th century, the ruins were fortified and two pseudo-gothic arches were added, together with a front gate.
Over the centuries, the castle changed hands numerous times and went through several stages of repair and restoration. It was reopened to visitors in 2012 and today it is possible to climb the North Tower and the Main Gate Tower. In the summer, the castle hosts performances and visitors can try their hands at archery.
Built in 1334 for the Brotherhood of Blackheads—a guild for unmarried German merchants in Latvia—the House of the Blackheads (Melngalvju Nams) is one of Riga’s grandest buildings. This Gothic structure, which features an elaborate Renaissance facade, now functions as a venue for concerts, exhibitions, and festive events, and the interior is open for visitors to explore.
The Latvian National Opera (Latvijas Nacionālā Opera un Balets) is home to both the Latvian National Opera and the Latvian National Ballet. Performances include modern operatic and ballet masterpieces, children’s performances and original Latvian works. During a typical season, more than 200 opera and ballet performances take place.
The Opera House was originally built in a neo-classical style in 1863 near the city’s canal. An 1882 fire destroyed a large part of the building and it was rebuilt according to the original design in 1887. A century later, the building underwent extensive renovations, including the foyers, coat rooms, staircases and stage, during which the capacity was reduced from 1,000 to 900. In 2001, a new annex known as the New Hall opened that includes additional performance space, seating 300 people.
Riga’s Town Hall Square (Rātslaukums) has long been the economic and administrative center of the city. While much of the medieval square was destroyed during World War II, it has been rebuilt. Standing on the square are buildings such as the House of the Blackheads, the tourist information center, the Latvian Occupation Museum and, of course, Riga’s town hall with its baroque clock tower.
More than 500 years ago, the first city Christmas tree was lit in the square. A memorial plank can now be found on the spot where the tree was list and a new tree is decorated each year. Also of note is the famous Roland Statue, which stands in the middle of Town Hall Square. The nephew of Charlemagne and a Frankish military leader, Roland was known to be a fair judge and thus, he gradually became a symbol of justice in northern Germany and Latvia. His statue was erected on the square in 1896.
St. Peter’s Church in Riga is a Lutheran church that dates back to the beginning of the 13th century and is one of the oldest examples of medieval architecture in the Baltics. It was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. The middle part of the church is the oldest, with only a few remnants remaining in the outer nave walls. The sanctuary was built in the 15th century and the church was later reconstructed to conform to the new sanctuary, resulting in a large basilica with three aisles and elaborate vaulted ceilings. Additional construction occurred in the 17th century, when a new tower was added and the roof, ceilings and furnishings were renovated. Today, the clock tower plays a Latvian folk song five times a day, while the bell rings every hour.
The church was destroyed during World War II and was rebuilt from 1967 to 1983, with services only resuming in 1991. It is also used for concerts and exhibitions.
The best known Swedish monument in Riga, the Swedish Gate (or Zviedru Varti) was built in 1698 after the conclusion of the Polish-Swedish War, when the Swedish Kingdom took over the city. Designed to provide access to the barracks outside of the city walls, it is set in the largest remaining section of the old city’s fortifications. According to one legend, the apartment above the gate belonged to the city executioner, who would place a red rose on the window ledge the morning before an execution, while according to another, a rich merchant cut the gate out of an existing house because he didn’t want to pay taxes each time he brought goods into the city.
Restored during Soviet times, the gate today leads to Trokšnu iela, the Old City’s narrowest and quaintest street. It is also popular among tourists as a backdrop for photographs.
St. Mary’s Dome Cathedral, also known simply as Riga Cathedral (Rīgas Doms), is one of the best known landmarks in Latvia. Built near the Daugava River in 1211 by Bishop Albert of Riga, it is the largest medieval church in the Baltics and is the seat of the Archbishop of Riga. The cathedral is also known for its organ, built by E.F. Walcker & Sons in 1882 and considered one of the most valuable historic pipe organs in the world. Instead of a cross, the cathedral’s tower is decorated with a rooster. During Soviet times, when religious services were prohibited, the cathedral was instead used as a concert hall.
Standing on the banks of the Daugava River, Riga Castle (Rīgas Pils) is one of the most resilient icons of Latvian heritage. At various points in its 700-year history, the castle has been under Polish, Swedish, and Soviet control. Today it is the official residence of the President of Latvia.
Located in the apartment where Latvian architect Konstantīns Pēkšēns once lived, the Riga Art Nouveau Museum (Jūgendstila Muzejs) opened in April 2009. The building housing the museum was built in 1903 and features ornamental reliefs on the exterior and a spiral staircase and decorative ceiling paintings on the interior. The staircase is considered one of the most impressive in Europe. It is one of the highlights of Alberta iela, a street well known for its Art Nouveau-style architecture.
The museum’s current exhibition showcases typical furnishings of a Riga apartment in the early 20th century, including an entrance hall, living room, fireplace hall and an almost completely restored Art Nouveau apartment. A digital exhibition is scheduled to debut in 2016.
More Things to Do in Latvia
Located between the Dome Square and the Town Hall Square in Riga’s Old Town, Jauniela Street (Jauniela Iela) is said to be one of the most beautiful streets in the city. Lined with colorful old buildings and paved with cobblestone, it has been the site for filming several movies and is home to a number of hotels. In addition to the rainbow of Art Nouveau buildings, the appearance of flowers nearly everywhere on Jauniela is notable, from the windows to the balconies.
Jauniela is popular with locals and visitors alike, with a variety of shopping, dining and nightlife options. Enjoy dinner in the Riga residence of a former Russian tsar, stay at the regal Neiburgs Hotel or visit the Riga Kino Museum, showcasing the history of Latvian and word cinema.
Albert Street (also known as Alberta Iela) is a popular street in Riga, Latvia, best known for its Art Nouveau-style buildings, eight of which have been designated as architectural monuments of national significance. The street itself was named after Bishop Albert, who is said to have founded Riga. The street was renamed during the Soviet era, but the original name was restored in 1990, just a year before Latvia regained its independence.
The buildings on Albert Street are considered by many to be one of the greatest surviving architectural legacies of the Art Nouveau movement. Most buildings on the street were built between 1901 and 1908 and feature balconies, sculptures, columns and other Art Nouveau architectural elements. Highlights include the buildings at number 2, 2A, 4, 6 and 8 Albert Street, all designed by architect Mikhail Eisenstein, as well as number 10, designed by N. Mandelstam and number 12, designed by Konstantīns Pēkšēns.
Riga's Classic Car Museum (Retro-Auto Muzejs) was officially established in 2010 but dates back to the Latvian Vintage Car Club, which was founded in 1972. With a motto of "save it from rust," the museum strives to preserve classic automobiles and to familiarize visitors with restoration techniques. More than anything, it brings together car and motorcycle aficionados.
Designed by architect J.D. Felsko in a neo-Gothic style, Riga's Small Guild (Mazā ģilde) stands in the center of the Old City on Livu Square. Built between 1864 and 1866, the building features Italian mosaic flooring and stained glass windows with portraits of craftsmen and benefactors. The doors and window boxes are embellished with sayings in gothic letters.
The Small Guild, also known as the Guild of St. John, was a fraternity of master craftsmen in Riga from the 14th to the early 20th century. The Small Guild building stood alongside the Great Guild Hall, which brought together Riga merchants and writers. The interior was restored from 1999 to 2000 based on photographs from the 19th century. Today, the building functions as a cultural and folk art center and is home to a variety of cultural organizations. It is used for concerts, meetings and other festive events.
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