True Lithuania

Riga, Latvia

The capital of Latvia is in a sense a complete antonym of Lithuanian cities. Established by the Teutonic Knights in the 13th century it survived through the ages as a major city, even after it was conquered by Poland-Lithuania in the 16th century and then by Sweden in 1621. Until the Swedish era was cut short by Russian annexation Riga was the largest city of Sweden surpassing even Stockholm. The Russians continued the industrial development and Riga was one of the Czar's 5 largest centers of population. Only Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Warsaw, and Kiev could have rivaled it in 19th and the early 20th centuries. The population of Riga was some 600 000 people in the year 1914, almost the same as it is today (650 000 according to 2011 census).

Freedom Monument in Riga (1935) built between the medieval Old Town and the industrial era Centrs is the symbol of Latvia. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The late 19th century Riga was home to many Lithuanians as there were far more job opportunities in its mighty industry than in the small provincial towns of Lithuania. In fact, more ethnic Lithuanians lived in Riga than in Vilnius at the time.

That Golden Era when Riga was known as Paris of the Baltics is well visible in the city. Its UNESCO-inscribed Centrs district is full of large (5 and 6 floors) Art Nouveau apartment blocks once built by rich Germans of Teutonic descent who dominated the high society despite all changes in the political rule. That is until the Soviet Union forces came in 1944 and the Baltic Germans were either killed or expelled.

These Art Noveau houses are extremely elaborate with domes, towers, statues and bas-reliefs adorning their large facades. You may enter some of them where there are museums dedicated to famous people like the folksong collector Krišjānis Barons.

A detail of top floors of an art nouveau building, Strēlnieku street, Centrs district. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

There are other turn-of-the-century districts, including the ethnically mixed Moscow (Maskavas) district, where the large 5 storied buildings are joined by wooden apartment blocks that even at 2 and 3 floors seems large because wooden buildings are rarely built of such size. In fact, together with art nouveau, the 19th-century wooden architecture was cited as a reason for Riga's UNESCO World Heritage inscription. The best location for spotting wooden apartment blocks is Āgenskalns on the opposite (western) side of Daugava.

Wooden apartments in Āgenskalns. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Mežaparks district with its villas surrounded by a forest is also cute.

The medieval town of Riga, on the other hand, is not on-par with that of Vilnius. It is smaller and damaged under the Soviet occupation with many buildings replaced by new Soviet ones. That said however it has many nice structures, including the tall St. Peter‘s church the spire of which you can visit. It is also known for a lively nightlife. Some of the bars are aimed at tourists and are known to charge extortionary prices and use certain scams.

City Hall square in Old Town Riga, with St. Peter church tower and the recently rebuilt Guild house (right). ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Just like every other formerly Soviet city, Riga has many Soviet apartment block districts. After all, so many people were sent to live in Riga from the Soviet Union (mainly Russians) that ethnic Latvians became a minority by the 1970s (36,5% in 1989). Even today they constitute less than 50 percent of Riga people. The unusually large size of pre-war Riga meant that less new construction took place here than in Vilnius or Kaunas with many old buildings nationalized and partitioned into small flats by the Soviet government instead.

In the northwest of Riga stands Jūrmala resort. Formally it is a separate city, but in reality, it is an agglomeration of several seaside villages that has now become effectively a suburb of Riga, reachable by an electric train and a six-lane highway. Popular among Russians Jūrmala is a place of residence or second home for many rich people.

Riga may be reached from all major cities of Lithuania by bus. There are also direct plane routes from Vilnius, Kaunas, and Palanga, but all these are aimed at transfer passengers and business clients, therefore, good deals for direct flights to Riga are rare. There are no train routes from Lithuania to Riga.

Read more: Full Riga travel guide at Onlatvia website

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