Top Historical Things to See and Do in Riga, Latvia

Riga, Lativa is one of the coolest cities that you can visit in all of northern Europe.

Introduction to Riga

Riga, Latvia
Located along the Baltic Sea at the mouth of the River Daugava, Riga is the capital of Lativa and also the country’s largest urban space. Founded in 1201, the city has only became the capital of an independent Latvia fairly recently. Over the years, this now bustling and cosmopolitan city was occupied by armies of Polish, German, Swedish and the Russian soldiers. The decades of Communist rule finally came to an end in 1991 when Latvia became an independent state. With this, Riga grew into one of the Baltic area’s coolest and most prosperous cities.
Old Town in Riga, Latvia
Riga is known for its unique architecture which is made up of a mixture of styles. Its historical center has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site with many old buildings that date back to medieval times, the most prominent of these being the city’s gigantic Cathedral. Another is Riga Castle, today a history and art museum where the current President of Latvia also resides. Modern Latvia though is known for its Art Nouveau buildings, some of the most beautiful of their type in all of Europe. One of these is the façade of Riga’s School of Economics.

In and Around Riga

Riga by the river…
Riga has a bunch of cool districts and neighborhoods that are fun to explore. Be prepared though to do plenty of walking as cars are really a liability and public transportation, at least in Riga’s Old Town, is not the best (if it exists at all).

Riga’s Old Town

Streets of Old Town Riga, Latvia
Most of the historical attractions, which honestly are the focus here, are in Riga’s Old Town. This area contains a maze of picturesque streets, squares, monuments, a few parks and colorful little old houses. Old Town is made up of concentric rings due to once being surrounded by a circular defensive wall, the foundations of which date back to the 13th century. When the wall was torn down in the 1850s, new boulevards that were being built followed and extended out from this pattern, giving birth to the modern city that we see today. Some of the city’s best restaurants and night spots are also located here.

Rīga Castle (Rīgas pils)

The history of this place is quite interesting. The original castle belonged to the Livonians, a order of Teutonic knights. They seem though to not have not been very popular as this castle was destroyed by the then citizens of Rīga in a war to kick them out of the city. Unfortunately for the townspeople, they lost and after their defeat, were forced to build a new castle for the Livonians on the present site.
Sketch of Riga Castle
Years later in 1484, Riga’s citizens rebelled and forced the Master of the Order to leave the city, destroying the castle once again. The Livonians though came back, defeated the townspeople and had them build yet another castle, the one that currently stands today. If there’s a moral to this story, it’s for ordinary folks not to mess with armored Teutonic knights, or at least don’t knock down their home.
Today, the Livonians are gone but the castle is still is very much in use. It is the official residence of the Latvian President and also contains two really good museums, namely the Museum of Foreign Art (Ārzemju mākslas muzejs) and the History Museum of Latvia (Latvijas vēstures muzejs). If there is one place that a historian in Latvia should visit, it is here.

Parliament Building Saeima

Riga’s Parliament Building at night
Don’t let the Florentine Renaissance architecture fool you into believing that this is just some fancy building. This place has witnessed a lot of Latvia’s more recent history, some of it not so pleasant. From 1919 to 1934 it served as Latvia’s House of Parliament. During World War II, it was taken over by the Nazis and was unfortunately used as the office that oversaw the genocide of the country’s Jews, Gypsies (Roma) and others that Hitler and his thugs didn’t like. When the Nazis were defeated, the building was used as the headquarters of the Supreme Soviet of Latvia. Today though it is once again the seat of Latvia’s Parliament. I guess you could say that it did a full 360.

Dome Cathedral (known locally as Doma baznīca)

Doma baznīca
Also known as St. Mary’s, the Dome Cathedral was started in the year 1211 by a particular Bishop Albert von Buxhoevden. It soon become one of the most prominent buildings in the fortress settlement known as Riga. The place is so old that it looks as if it’s beginning to sink into the ground, but this actually is not due age but for the fact that the land the building has been raised to help prevent flooding from the nearby Daugava river.

Over the centuries, the cathedral has been renovated and expanded to the point that it is now the largest house of worship in the Baltic region. In addition to this, the Dome Cathedral is a bit of a museum of architecture styles dating from all ages: Romanesque, Baroque, Art Nouveau, Mannerist and a few more. This is a building that’s hard to miss.

Three Brothers Trīs brāļi

Trīs brāļi
Located on Mazā pils Street, the “Three Brothers” are a row of houses that cover three distinct styles of architecture. Most of the houses have interesting stories or something special about them. For example, house No. 17, which was once occupied by a medieval baker, dates back to the 15th century and is the oldest residential building in the city. House No. 19 now is the city’s Museum of Architecture. Other houses were built during various periods. While you can’t go in all of them, you can certainly walk outside and observe their peculiarities.

Museum of Rīga’s History and Navigation (Rīgas vēstures un kuğniecības muzejs)

Being a port city from the beginning, it’s not surprising that this is Riga’s oldest museum. Founded in 1773 and housed in a building with tiled stoves and beautiful stained-glass windows, the Navigation Museum is one of a kind. Exhibits and models of ships depict the country’s maritime history up to World War I. There are also other exhibits including medieval statues and sculptures in addition to others that tell Latvia and Riga’s prehistory up until it’s independence in 1918 (before the Soviets took it over).

Museum of the Barricades of 1991 1991 Gada barikāžu muzejs

This museum commemorates the events of January 1991 when the people of Rīga took to the streets to protest the Soviet occupation of the Baltics. Exhibits here include mostly photographs and video footage of the demonstrations during this pivotal time in Latvia’s history. There is also a room dedicated to the memory of those who died during the protests.

Powder Tower / Latvian War Museum (Pulvertornis / Latvijas kara muzejs)

The last of 18 towers, the Powder Tower is all that remains of Riga’s original defenses. It’s foundations go back to the 13th century, though most of the current structure was built during the 1650s. The tower changed hands and roles several times during the last few centuries, though today is part of the Latvian War Museum. This museum contains exhibits and artifacts from Latvia’s many wars, especially those from the 20th century and the country’s various independence movements.

Arsenal Museum of Art (Mākslas muzejs Arsenāls)

I know, by now you might be getting sick of museums. This is Riga’s Museum of Contemporary Art and is the city’s premier venue for the country’s artists to display their works within the building’s spacious rooms and wide ceilings. It’s definitely worth it if you’ve into this kind of thing.

Sources and Additional Reading

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