First impressions of Riga’s highlights
There’s nothing like exploring and discovering a “new” capital city. Especially one that goes under the radar of European mass-tourism. I had long wanted to visit Riga in Latvia, so while being on a work trip to Kemeri National Park last year, I was excited to get my first look at country’s capital too, although briefly.
Despite my limited time to explore, I really enjoyed Riga. And I thought I would share a few highlights from my strolls around the city, for you to get an impression, in case you’re up for an alternative and exciting city break in the Baltics.
But let’s get going with a couple of facts: Riga was founded in 2012 and has a little more than 630.000 inhabitants, making it the largest city not only in Latvia but in the Baltics combined.
The UNESCO-listed Old Town
Like many other cities around Europe, Riga is blessed with a beautiful old town adorned with cobbled streets, towering church spires and atmospheric squares. But what sets Riga’s UNESCO-listed old town apart is an extraordinary collection of beautifully kept Art Nouveau architecture both in the old town itself and in the nearby neighbourhood known as ‘Quiet Centre’.
This turns a stroll around the city’s historic heart into a treasure hunt for wonderful details. Among the monumental highlights you’ll find the Dome Cathedral and the gothic St. Peter’s Church dating back to the 13th century. But don’t miss the spectacular House of the Black Heads that was initially built to promote business activities in the city. It is found on the town hall square.
The old town offers an array of restaurants, bars and cafés, and I quickly found a favourite in Kuuka Kafe in the street of Grecinieku Iela. A cosy little place to hide away with a cup of coffee.
The Freedom Monument & Bastion Hill
Riga’s most iconic sculptural monument is without a doubt the Freedom Monument that stands 42,7 meters tall in the Central District near the old town. It is a proud symbol of freedom and independence that was erected in 1935. This massive yet elegant granite structure is topped by a woman in copper who holds aloft three golden stars – each representing a historic region of Latvia. The monument gained even further importance in 1991 when the country’s independence from the Soviet Union was restored.
The granite pillar is reaching to the sky near Bastion Hill (Bastejkalns in Latvian), which is a romantic stretch of park along the small Pilsetas canal that runs through the heart of Riga. The park is dotted with sculptures and bridges and is a lovely little place for a gentle stroll, a picnic or a boat trip.
Riga Central Market
Set in four giant structures that were initially built to house German army zeppelins, Riga’s central market from 1930 is major tourist attraction but still offers a highly authentic feel. A classic food market that gathers local sellers and shoppers from all over the city and beyond.
The market is known as ‘The City’s Belly’ as it has been feeding the people of Riga for decades. You can find almost anything under the big roofs, and its many stalls are open 7 days a week. Meat, fish, fruit, vegetables, nuts, herbs and spices, as well as flowers, crafts and souvenirs. You can easily spend an hour or two exploring this unique market and you might be tempted to bring home some local delicacies.
Behind the main market buildings, you will find even more stalls selling everything from food to clothes – just a stone’s throw from the wide Daugava River.
Nativity of Christ Cathedral and street art mural
A collection of grand churches and cathedrals are found in the Latvian capital, but few are as visually impressive as the Nativity of Christ Cathedral. It stands on the large Esplanade-area just a short walk from the Freedom Monument and it catches your eye immediately with its striped brick-patterns, endless arches, circular windows and gold-clad domes. An architectural masterpiece that was opened to the public in 1884. During the Soviet Era, the cathedral was oddly transformed into a planetarium and a restaurant, but it has since been restored as an orthodox church and a great attraction in central Riga.
Another eye-catching attraction of newer date can be admired from Tallinas Street just northeast of the city centre. It is a giant street art mural covering no less than 800 square meters, and it was created in 2014 to celebrate Riga’s status as European Capital of Culture that year. This spectacular piece of urban art came to life in collaboration between the artists Rudens Stencil and Kiwie, and it’s said to be inspired by a Latvian Song Festival poster from 1938. It features, among other elements, some very detailed traditional Latvian patterns that you’ll also see on many souvenirs today.
There are plenty more street art and plenty more attractions for you to discover in Riga, so why not consider something different for your next trip? I’m definitely going back!
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