City description

The capital of Latvia also calls itself the capital of the Baltic – and rightly so. Riga was one of the major trading cities of the Hanseatic League, a confederation of merchants along a trade route that extended from the Baltic to the North Seas. The largest city of the three Baltic states – the others are Estonia and Lithuania – has prospered economically following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Today, this dynamic metropolis is a major tourist destination for travellers in search of European history, Art Nouveau and medieval architecture, fine craft brews, stylish restaurants, hip bars and vibrant festivals.

Each wave of settlers – some would say ‘occupiers’ – left its mark on this ancient port city. The Latgalians and the Livs, along with other tribes, settled at the mouth of the Daugava River millennia ago. From these two groups we get the names Latvia and Livonia (the name of the coastal region). German traders and missionaries started arriving in the 12th century, giving the city its Christian and, later, decidedly Protestant heritage and a picturesque skyline of church steeples. Bishop Albert is credited as having founded Riga in 1201. Then came the Danes, Poles, Swedes and Russians, with the latter being Latvia’s largest ethnic minority today.

Most of the city’s main attractions are linked to its multicultural heritage. With so much to see and do in Riga, a natural starting point is Riga Old Town (Vecrīga). This compact area between the Daugava and Pilsētas kanāls, the city’s old defensive moat, is easily covered on foot. The star attractions of this UNESCO World Heritage site are its medieval quarter, energetic town squares, alluring cafes and the unparalleled quality and quantity of Art Nouveau architecture.

The two solstices are among the many reasons to visit Riga. The buildings, streets and parks are decked in lights for the winter holidays, with Christmas markets opening from late November through early January. Locals and tourists alike congregate in town squares to shop, ice skate and drink hot mulled wine. A winter speciality is Riga Black Balsam, a pungent local liqueur, usually served mixed into coffee or hot black currant juice. Every December 20, residents roll a Yule log around Old Town and then burn it in an ancient rite to scare away evil spirits and bring power to the new year.

Even more popular than Christmas is Jāni, the pagan midsummer celebration of fertility between planting and harvesting seasons. The city becomes even livelier than usual, with dances, live music, bonfires, young people wearing wreaths made of wildflowers (women) or oak leaves (men), and almost everyone eating caraway-studded cheese and drinking beer from sunset until dawn the next day. The festival is also called Līgo, meaning ‘sway’ in Latvian, which is presumably what one does after too much celebrating.

Although the city has its share of modern malls, some of the best shopping in Riga is found in its distinctive boutiques and markets. The Central Market (Centrāltirgus), another UNESCO World Heritage site, is a prime example. Over 3,000 stalls are located within and around five immense buildings originally built to house Zeppelins. Here, shoppers can find the usual grocery items from local farmers and producers, as well as some surprising sights and tastes of Latvian culture: bee bread (bee-fermented pollen), kvass, fried lampreys, hemp butter, sandthorn marmalade, mint beer, elaborately knitted Latvian mittens and more.

On foot or by bike, along narrow cobblestone lanes or open park trails… Riga is an exciting destination for curious globetrotters – a global capital that effortlessly mixes business and pleasure regardless of the season.
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