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marianne Riga - A travel report by Marianne
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Riga,  Latvia - flag Latvia -  Riga
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marianne's travel reports

Paris of the North

  16 votes
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Medieval architecture, cobbled streets, Art Nouveau buildings and left-overs from Soviet days: Riga in a nutshell. After independence in 1991, Riga rebuilt and restored many of its historic buildings, and can reclaim its former title: Paris of the North.

St Peter's Church, Riga's best known landmark
St Peter's Church, Riga's best known landmark
Latvia is sandwiched between Estonia in the north and Lithuania in the south. The Latvian capital, Riga, is larger and more cosmopolitain than either Tallinn (Estonia's capital) or Vilnius (Lithuania's capital).

The Old City, Vecriga in Latvian, is compact and lies between the Daugava river and a string of parks. It is pedestrianised and small enough to explore in one day. It is crammed with cobbled streets, medieval churches and merchant houses, some of which are not medieval at all but rebuilt replicas.

Two jewels, the Town hall and the House of the Blackheads, were bombed in WW II. The Soviets flattened what was left. Now these two buildings have been rebuilt and restored to their former glory.

Beyond the parks bordering the Old Town is the 19th and 20th century extension of the city. Leafy avenues and streets boast numerous Art Nouveau façades. Further afield the suburban sprawl of dark-grey apartment buildings, remnants of old factories; silent reminders of Soviet days.

A ride on tram #11 is a good way to see this aspect of Riga. Get on at Kr Barona Iela (Iela means street) and get off at Mežaparks. This is a wooded area near the Zoo dotted with large villas of the well-heeled.

Latvia's currency is the lats (Ls), divided into 100 santimi. (1 Ls = €1.46)

Accommodation swallowed the major part of my daily budget. The price of mid range hotels is roughly Ls 60 – 90 (€ 85 – 130). lists most Riga hotels, with prices and websites.

Meals are generally speaking good value for money. Main courses start at Ls 5 (€ 7.50). Transport is very cheap.

Trams, buses and trolleybuses within Riga Ls 0.20 per ride.

Favourite spots:
St John's Church and medieval houses
St John's Church and medieval houses
The 123-metre three-tiered spire of St Peter's Church is Riga's most famous landmark, but what you see is a steel replica as the original was destroyed in 1941.

The interior is austere as all Lutherian churches are, but worth a peek. Better to go to the viewing platform (by lift), for a panoramic view of the city.

Neighbouring 13th century St John's Church with its stepped gable, and the adjoining pastel-coloured medieval houses on Skārņu Iela are Riga's most photogenic sights. It is best to come late afternoon when the buildings catch the sun.

We passed through Konventa Seta porch, (the small pastel-pink house in the photo) next to the medieval houses, and walked through the small passages of the restored convent yard which now houses a hotel complex. This is a very quiet part of Riga.

The hotel is flanked by handicraft shops displaying silver jewelery, handknitted mittens with intricate patterns, embroidered linen and amber. (real amber floats on salt water).

What's really great:
The House of the Black Heads
The House of the Black Heads
The House of the Blackheads on Rātslaukums ( Town Hall Square) is my favourite building from architectural point of view. Late afternoon is the best time to take photos.

I did not mind at all that it was a replica of the building, in other words it is not medieval at all, but brand new. The original was bombed in World War II. When the Soviets flattened it to the ground because the ruins were too much a reminder of the decadent west. Rebuilding started in 1991 and was completed in 1995 in time for Riga's 800th aniversary festivities.

The House of the Blackheads was the meeting place of a group of unmarried merchants whose patron saints was Maurice, a warrior-saint from north Africa.

It consists of two adjoining buildings with stepped gables, ornate windows and embossed statues of black men. The building is now a concert hall, café, tourist office and museum decked out with newly-made 19th century furniture and a collection of silver ornaments labelled in Latvian only

Town Hall
Town Hall
The House of the Blackheads is now a concert hall, café, tourist office and museum decked out with newly-made 19th century furniture and a collection of silver ornaments labelled in Latvian only.

No one, not even the English speaking person in the tourist office could tell me about the origin of the silverware. I liked best old photographs of Riga, showing the ruins in Town hall Square. But if this is worth Ls 1.50 (€ 2) is debatable.

The Blackheads café is a good place to try Black Balsam, Latvia’s most famous liqueur, dark and strong and is reputed to have medicinal properties. The recipe is a secret but it is known to consist of 25 ingredients, including berrries and herbs.

Opposite the Blackheads is the Townhall a white building, rebuilt in 1991. In the middle of the square is a statue of Roland, the medieval knight who fought the Arabs and became known throught the old French epic: The Song of Roland (La Chanson de Roland). It is a replica of a 19th cent version.

Art Nouveau detail
Art Nouveau detail
South of Grēcinieku Iela and Audēju Iela is a warren of streets lined with merchants' houses. They are either in the process of restoration or have recently been restored. This part of Old Riga used to be the Red Light District. It still holds good today, but it is almost unnoticable. Except for the odd, scarcely dressed, high-heeled blonde beauty waiting in a doorway. What can be seen and above all heard are rowdy tourists who frequent the many bars in this part of the Old Town.

We stayed in Hotel Monte Kristo (see tips), which is right behind Grēcinieku Iela and Audēju Iela. The disputable character of this part of town did not bother us. The hotel is in one of the old merchants' houses, has L-shaped rooms with ensuite bathrooms that are always heated by the central town system, also in the height of summer. Breakfast is a true feast, an abundance of fresh fruit, a choice of hot dishes including pancakes filled with apple and cinnamon or fresh white cheese.

Central market: barrel shaped hangars
Central market: barrel shaped hangars
The central market consists of five barrel shaped hangars. They are German-built and housed zeppelins in WW I. These hangars were brought to Riga in 1930 at the behest of the government and now function as meat, dairy, fish and fresh produce markets.

I read a graphic description of these markets: rows of animal carcasses waiting to be carved into cultlets, gurgling tanks full of eel and carp. I expected a colourful, chaotic slightly exotic market. But the markets do not live up to this description and I was greatly disappointed because they look like huge supermarkets: well-organised and very clean.

Fish arrived deep-frozen, the meat was precut. I suppose it is all because of EU regulations, which makes the world into one boring uniformity.

Outside the hangars the fruit, vegetable, flower and household stalls are far more colourful and lively than the Central market itself.

More about the market:

Menzendorff House Museum
Menzendorff House Museum
Menzendorff House, built in 1695, is a beautifully restored merchant's house and now a museum, and a good opportunity to see the interior of a medieval house. It gives an excellent impression of how rich merchants lived in those days.

After WW II it was divided into flats, not maintained properly and fell into decay. But in the 1980s it was restored to its former glory: wooden floors, trellised windows and Baroque furniture.


North of Brivibas Bulvaris is Esplanade, a shady park with lime trees. On the south side of this park the Russian Cathedral of Christ Nativity built in the 19th century for the city's Russian community.

The outside is mediocre, but the inside is worth more than a peek. It has recently been renovate. The walls are decked out with a maroon and green swirly pattern.

The church furnishing is elaborate as is customary in Russian churches. You will have to go yourself to see this splendour as taking photos is not allowed.

Art Nouveau facade
Art Nouveau facade
North-east of Kronvalda Parks is Elizabetes Iela, an avenue with monumental buildings many of which characteristic of the Art Nouveau period.

Art Nouveau is a new architectural style end 19th early 20th century characterised by geometrical lines, figures and flowery garlands. Architects made functional details such as windows and balconies as decorative as possible.

The interiors of Art Nouveua buildings are also elaborately decorated. Not so much for any practical purpose but simply to please the eye. Many of the adornments show the history of the house or the family. Wall or ceiling decorations will show family-life scenes or the nature of the owner's business, often allegorically depicted in bas reliefs.

Many of the Art Nouveau buildings are in the process of being restored.

The following have been restored and are worth the detour.
Elizabetes Iela 10b
Strēlnieku 4a
Most of Alberta Iela but especially numbers 2, 2A, 4, 6, 8 and 13

Other recommendations:
Bus station
Bus station
Ryanair from London Stansted and Berlin Air from Berlin have daily flights to Riga International Airport, 8 km south-west of the city centre.

At the airport there is an ATM, currency Exchange and a Tourist Information Office. A taxi will cost Ls 8, or alternatively cross the parking lot and join the queue waiting for bus #22 at Ls 0.20. It is a 30-min ride to the centre. Gett off at Stockmann (department store), walk through the underpass and turn into Vaļņu Iela. This straight goes straight into Old Riga.

The bus station (autoosta) is next to Stockmann Department Store, just off 13 Janvara Iela, on the edge of the Old Town. Bus timetables are displayed in the hall. There is also an ATM, left luggage and Tourist Information.

Eurolines and Ecolines have their offices in the bus station and depart from here.

The train station is two blocks away. Trains are far slower than buses. There are no trains to Vilnius and Tallinn, but there is a train to Moscow.

Published on Monday August 7th, 2006

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Thu, Dec 21 2006 - 07:28 AM rating by horourke

Immense detail. gripping report

Mon, Aug 14 2006 - 07:38 PM rating by eirekay

Great report, as always! Terrific photos! I really enjoy the unique architecture!

Mon, Aug 14 2006 - 06:58 AM rating by frenchfrog

Excellent report Marianne , thanks for the Infos as I might plan a week end there year...may be!??

Sat, Aug 12 2006 - 03:49 AM rating by st.vincent

Interesting report Marianne, with some good information. Everything seems so new, even the "old" buildings.

Wed, Aug 09 2006 - 02:32 AM rating by gloriajames

Well done marianne! Another excellent report. Very tempting and perhaps some day I shall pay a visit.

Mon, Aug 07 2006 - 12:51 PM rating by mistybleu

Another intesting report. The architecture is fabulous I can't wait to visit this city.

Mon, Aug 07 2006 - 09:44 AM rating by mrscanada

A super reveview, Marianne. Lyla

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