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Cities in the Spotlight: Riga, Latvia

Updated: Mar 11

Today we are once again heading to Europe, this time we are heading to the Baltic country of Latvia.


Riga City Information

Riga is the capital and largest city of Latvia and is home to 605,802 inhabitants which is a third of Latvia's population. The city lies on the Gulf of Riga at the mouth of the Daugava River where it meets the Baltic Sea. Riga's territory covers 307.17 km2 (118.60 sq mi) and lies 1–10 m (3.3–32.8 ft) above sea level, on a flat and sandy plain. Riga was founded in 1201 and is a former Hanseatic League member. Riga's historical centre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, noted for its Art Nouveau/Jugendstil architecture and 19th-century wooden architecture. Riga was the European Capital of Culture in 2014, along with Umeå in Sweden. Riga hosted the 2006 NATO Summit, the Eurovision Song Contest 2003, the 2006 IIHF Men's World Ice Hockey Championships, the 2013 World Women's Curling Championship, and the 2021 IIHF World Championship. It is home to the European Union's Office of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (BEREC). In 2017, it was named the European Region of Gastronomy. In 2016, Riga received over 1.4 million visitors. The city is served by Riga International Airport, the largest and busiest airport in the Baltic states. Riga is a member of Eurocities, the Union of the Baltic Cities (UBC), and the Union of Capitals of the European Union (UCEU).


Riga Historical Significance

The river Daugava has been a trade route since antiquity, part of the Vikings' Dvina–Dnieper navigation route to Byzantium. A sheltered natural harbour 15 km (9.3 mi) upriver from the mouth of the Daugava—the site of today's Riga—has been recorded, as Duna Urbs, as early as the 2nd century. It was settled by the Livs, a Finnic tribe. Riga began to develop as a centre of Viking trade during the early Middle Ages. Riga's inhabitants occupied themselves mainly with fishing, animal husbandry, and trading, later developing crafts (in bone, wood, amber, and iron). The Livonian Chronicle of Henry testifies to Riga having long been a trading centre by the 12th century, referring to it as portus antiquus (ancient port), and describes dwellings and warehouses used to store mostly flax, and hides. German traders began visiting Riga, establishing a nearby outpost in 1158.

Along with German traders the monk Meinhard of Segeberg arrived to convert the Livonian pagans to Christianity. Catholic and Orthodox Christianity had already arrived in Latvia more than a century earlier, and many Latvians had been baptised. Meinhard settled among the Livs, building a castle and church at Uexküll (now known as Ikšķile), upstream from Riga, and established his bishopric there. The Livs, however, continued to practice paganism and Meinhard died in Uexküll in 1196, having failed in his mission. In 1198, Bishop Berthold arrived with a contingent of Crusaders and commenced a campaign of forced Christianization. Berthold died soon afterwards and his forces were defeated. The Church mobilised to avenge this defeat. Pope Innocent III issued a bull declaring a crusade against the Livonians. Bishop Albert was proclaimed Bishop of Livonia by his uncle Hartwig of Uthlede, Prince-Archbishop of Bremen and Hamburg in 1199. Albert landed in Riga in 1200 with 23 ships and 500 Westphalian Crusaders. In 1201, he transferred the seat of the Livonian bishopric from Uexküll to Riga, extorting agreement to do this from the elders of Riga by force.

The year 1201 also marked the first arrival of German merchants in Novgorod, via the Dvina. To defend territory and trade, Albert established the Order of Livonian Brothers of the Sword in 1202, which was open to nobles and merchants. The Christianisation of the Livs continued. In 1207, Albert started to fortify the town. Emperor Philip invested Albert with Livonia as a fief and the principality of the Holy Roman Empire. To promote a permanent military presence, territorial ownership was divided between the Church and the Order, with the Church taking Riga and two-thirds of all lands conquered and granting the Order a third. Until then, it had been customary for Crusaders to serve for a year and then return home. Albert had ensured Riga's commercial future by obtaining papal bulls which decreed that all German merchants had to carry on their Baltic trade through Riga. In 1211, Riga minted its first coinage, and Albert laid the cornerstone for the Riga Dom. Riga was not yet secure as an alliance of tribes failed to take Riga. In 1212, Albert led a campaign to compel Polotsk to grant German merchants free river passage. Polotsk conceded Kukenois (Koknese) and Jersika to Albert, also ending the Livs' tribute to Polotsk.

Riga's merchant citizenry chafed and sought greater autonomy from the Church. In 1221, they acquired the right to independently self-administer Riga and adopted a city constitution. That same year Albert was compelled to recognize Danish rule over lands they had conquered in Estonia and Livonia. Albert had sought the aid of King Valdemar of Denmark to protect Riga and Livonian lands against Liv insurrection when reinforcements could not reach Riga. The Danes landed in Livonia, built a fortress at Reval (Tallinn), and began conquering Estonian and Livonian lands. The Germans attempted, but failed, to assassinate Valdemar. Albert was able to reach an accommodation with them a year later, however, and in 1222 Valdemar returned all Livonian lands and possessions to Albert's control. Albert's difficulties with Riga's citizenry continued; with papal intervention, a settlement was reached in 1225 whereby they no longer had to pay tax to the Bishop of Riga, and Riga's citizens acquired the right to elect their magistrates and town councillors. In 1226, Albert consecrated the Dom Cathedral, built St. James's Church, (now a cathedral) and founded a parochial school at the Church of St. George. In 1227, Albert conquered Oesel and the city of Riga concluded a treaty with the Principality of Smolensk giving Polotsk to Riga.

Albert died in January 1229. He failed in his aspiration to be anointed archbishop but the German hegemony he established over the Livonia would last for seven centuries. In 1282, Riga became a member of the Hanseatic League. The Hansa was instrumental in giving Riga economic and political stability, thus providing the city with a strong foundation which endured the political conflagrations that were to come, down to modern times. As the influence of the Hanseatic League waned, Riga became the object of foreign military, political, religious and economic aspirations. Riga accepted the Reformation in 1522, ending the power of the archbishops. In 1524, iconoclasts targeted a statue of the Virgin Mary in the cathedral to make a statement against religious icons. It was accused of being a witch, and given a trial by water in the Daugava River. The statue floated, so it was denounced as a witch and burnt at Kubsberg. With the demise of the Livonian Order during the Livonian War, Riga for twenty years had the status of a free imperial city of the Holy Roman Empire before it came under the influence of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth by the Treaty of Drohiczyn, which ended the war for Riga in 1581. In 1621, during the Polish–Swedish War (1621–1625), Riga and the outlying fortress of Daugavgrīva came under the rule of Gustavus Adolphus, King of Sweden, who intervened in the Thirty Years' War not only for political and economic gain but also in favour of German Lutheran Protestantism. During the Russo-Swedish War (1656–1658), Riga withstood a siege by Russian forces.

Riga remained one of the largest cities under the Swedish crown until 1710, a period during which the city retained a great deal of autonomous self-government. In July 1701, during the opening phase of the Great Northern War, the Crossing of the Düna took place nearby, resulting in a victory for King Charles XII of Sweden. Between November 1709 and June 1710, however, the Russians under Tsar Peter the Great besieged and captured Riga, which was at the time struck by a plague. Along with the other Livonian towns and gentry, Riga capitulated to RussiaKing but largely retained their privileges. Riga was made the capital of the Governorate of Riga (later, Livonia). Sweden's northern dominance had ended, and Russia's emergence as the strongest Northern power was formalised through the Treaty of Nystad in 1721. During these many centuries of war and changes of power in the Baltic, and despite demographic changes, the Baltic Germans in Riga had maintained a dominant position. By 1867, Riga's population was 42.9% German. Riga employed German as its official language of administration until the installation of Russian in 1891 as the official language in the Baltic provinces, as part of the policy of Russification of the non-Russian-speaking territories of the Russian Empire, including Congress Poland, Finland and the Baltics, undertaken by Tsar Alexander III. More and more Latvians started moving to the city during the mid-19th century. The rise of a Latvian bourgeoisie made Riga a centre of the Latvian National Awakening with the founding of the Riga Latvian Association in 1868 and the organization of the first national song festival in 1873. The nationalist movement of the Neo-Latvians was followed by the socialist New Current during the city's rapid industrialization, culminating in the 1905 Revolution led by the Latvian Social Democratic Workers' Party.

The 20th century brought World War I and the impact of the Russian Revolution of 1917 to Riga. As a result of the battle of Jugla, the German army marched into Riga on 3 September 1917. On 3 March 1918, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed, giving the Baltic countries to Germany. Because of the armistice with Germany of 11 November 1918, Germany had to renounce that treaty, as did Russia, leaving Latvia and the other Baltic States in a position to claim independence. Latvia, with Riga as its capital city, thus declared its independence on 18 November 1918. Between World War I and World War II (1918–1940), Riga and Latvia shifted their focus from Russia to the countries of Western Europe. The United Kingdom and Germany replaced Russia as Latvia's major trade partners. The majority of the Baltic Germans were resettled in late 1939, prior to the occupation of Estonia and Latvia by the Soviet Union in June 1940. During World War II, Latvia was occupied by the Soviet Union in June 1940 and then was occupied by Nazi Germany in 1941–1944. On 17 June 1940, the Soviet forces invaded Latvia occupying bridges, post/telephone, telegraph, and broadcasting offices. Three days later, Latvian president Karlis Ulmanis was forced to approve a pro-Soviet government which had taken office.

On 14–15 July, rigged elections were held in Latvia and the other Baltic states, The ballots held the following instructions: "Only the list of the Latvian Working People's Bloc must be deposited in the ballot box. The ballot must be deposited without any changes." The alleged voter activity index was 97.6%. Most notably, the complete election results were published in Moscow 12 hours before the election closed. Soviet electoral documents found later substantiated that the results were completely fabricated. The Soviet authorities, having regained control over Riga and Latvia imposed a regime of terror, opening the headquarters of the KGB, and massive deportations started. Hundreds of men were arrested, including leaders of the former Latvian government. The most notorious deportation, the June deportation took place on 13 and 14 June 1941, estimated at 15,600 men, women, and children, and including 20% of Latvia's last legal government. Similar deportations were repeated after the end of WWII. The building of the KGB located at 61 Brīvības iela, known as 'the corner house', is now a museum. Stalin's deportations also included thousands of Latvian Jews. (The mass deportation totalled 131,500 across the Baltics.)

During the Nazi occupation, the Jewish community was forced into the Riga Ghetto and a Nazi concentration camp was constructed in Kaiserwald. On 25 October 1941, the Nazis relocated all Jews from Riga and the vicinity to the ghetto. Most of Latvia's Jews (about 24,000) were killed on 30 November and 8 December 1941 in the Rumbula massacre. By the end of the war, the remaining Baltic Germans were expelled from Germany. The Soviet Red Army re-entered Riga on 13 October 1944. In the following years, the massive influx of labourers, administrators, military personnel, and their dependents from Russia and other Soviet republics started. Microdistricts of large multi-storied housing blocks were built to house immigrant workers. By the end of the war, Riga's historical centre was heavily damaged by constant bombing. After the war, huge efforts were made to reconstruct and renovate most of the famous buildings that had been part of the skyline of the city before the war. Such buildings were, amongst others, St. Peter's Church which lost its wooden tower after a fire caused by the Wehrmacht (renovated in 1954). Another example is the House of the Blackheads, completely destroyed, its ruins subsequently demolished; a facsimile was constructed in 1995.

In 1989, the percentage of Latvians in Riga had fallen to 36.5%. In 2004, the arrival of low-cost airlines resulted in cheaper flights from other European cities such as London and Berlin, and consequently a substantial increase in the number of tourists. On 21 November 2013, the roof of a supermarket collapsed in Zolitūde, one of the city's neighborhoods, possibly due to the weight of materials used to construct a garden on the roof. Fifty-four people were killed. Latvian President Andris Bērziņš described the disaster as "a large-scale murder of many defenseless people". Riga was the European Capital of Culture in 2014. During Latvia's Presidency of the Council of the European Union in 2015, the 4th Eastern Partnership Summit took place in Riga. Following the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Saeima voted to suspend the functioning of a section of an agreement between Latvia and Russia regarding the preservation of memorial structures on 12 May, in the next day the Riga City Council also voted to demolish the Monument to the Liberators of Soviet Latvia and Riga from the German Fascist Invaders. On 20 May, a rally called "Getting Rid of Soviet Heritage" took place in Riga to call for removing Soviet monuments in Latvia, it was attended by approximately 5,000 people. The demolition began 22 August 2022 and on 25 August 2022, the obelisk was toppled. In 2022, after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the street on which the Embassy of the Russian Federation is located was renamed "Independent Ukraine Street."


Travel to Riga

*taken from Lonely Planet*

The Gothic spires that dominate Rīga's cityscape might suggest austerity, but it is the flamboyant art nouveau that forms the flesh and the spirit of this vibrant cosmopolitan city, the largest of all three Baltic capitals. Like all northerners, it is quiet and reserved on the outside, but there is some powerful chemistry going on inside its hip bars, modern art centres and the kitchens of its cool experimental restaurants. Standing next to a gulf named after itself, Rīga is a short drive from the jet-setting sea resort, Jūrmala, which comes with a stunning white-sand beach. If you are craving solitude and a pristine environment, gorgeous sea dunes and blueberry-filled forests begin right outside the city boundaries.


Must See Sites

Alberta Iela; Like a huge painting that you can spend hours staring at, as your eye detects more and more intriguing details, this must-see Rīga sight is in fact a rather functional street with residential houses, restaurants and shops. Art nouveau, otherwise known as Jugendstil, is the style, and the architect responsible for many of the buildings is Mikhail Eisenstein (father of filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein). Named after the founder of Rīga, Bishop Albert von Buxhoevden, the street was Eisenstein's gift to Rīga on its 700th anniversary. A jolly man, his bon vivant personality comes through in his exuberant work.

St Peter's Church; Forming the centrepiece of Rīga’s skyline, this Gothic church is thought to be around 800 years old, making it one of the oldest medieval buildings in the Baltic. Its soaring red-brick interior is relatively unadorned, except for heraldic shields mounted on the columns. A colourful contrast is provided by the art exhibitions staged in the side aisles. At the rear of the church, a lift whisks visitors to a viewing platform 72m up the copper-clad steeple. The church's austere Gothic outlook is softened by baroque sculptures, added in the 17th century, along with the spire that instantly became a signature element of Rīga's skyline. In 1721 the spire was destroyed in a blaze, despite Russian emperor Peter I personally rushing to the scene to extinguish the fire. A legend says that when it was re-erected in 1746, builders threw glass from the top to see how long the spire would last; a greater number of shards meant a very long life. The glass ended up landing on a pile of straw and broke into just two pieces. The spire ended up being destroyed again in WWII. When it was resurrected again, the ceremonial glass chucking was repeated, and this time it was a smash hit. Today St Peter's is garlanded by stylish restaurants and cafes.

Corner House; A real-life house of horrors, this imposing fin de siècle building is remembered by generations of Latvians as the local headquarters of the notorious Soviet secret police – NKVD/KGB. Arbitrary arrests, torture, executions – it all happened here. It's now an exhibition dedicated to victims and perpetrators of political repression. A sign outside reads 'KGB imprisoned, tortured, executed and humiliated its victims'. English-language tours are usually in the mornings but confirm in advance. Older Rīgans remember the lines of people who would form along the grey street outside the building hoping to get word about their missing loved ones. On the building at Brīvības iela 70, you can still see the metal brackets used for KGB cameras that recorded the faces of anyone who ventured near the Corner House.

Žanis Lipke Memorial; There is hardly a place in Latvia that can tell such a poignant and optimistic story as this quietly stunning memorial. Žanis Lipke saved over 50 Jews from certain death during the Nazi occupation: he found a job with the German air force, which allowed him to smuggle people out of the Rīga ghetto under the pretext of using them as labourers. He hid them in a bunker under the woodpile next to his house – now the site of this memorial. Lipke was helped by his wife and a whole network of volunteers, some of whom played with death by walking into the ghetto to pose as the runaways during the headcount. The memorial building is a masterpiece of understated design that amplifies the details of the story as it unfolds. Lipke's descendants still live next door.

Rīga Ghetto & Latvian Holocaust Museum; The centrepiece of this arresting and challenging museum is a wooden house with a reconstructed flat, like those that Jews had to move into when the Nazis established a ghetto in this area of Rīga in 1941. The central courtyard has a railway wagon similar to the kind that brought Jews from Germany to Rīga to be killed. Nearby, there is a photographic exhibition detailing the Holocaust in Latvia with the faces of those killed.

Biķernieki Memorial; Between 1941 and 1944, the Nazis – aided by Latvians – shot more than 35,000 Jews at 55 different sites in this forest. It is one of several killing sites that ring Rīga. In 2001 a large and impressive memorial was opened here deep in the woods, about 200m south of the busy road. Stones list the names of places in Europe from where Jews were brought to be killed here. Paths through the now-silent trees lead to other killing sites. Some 6km east of central Rīga, the memorial is a thoughtful and contemplative place.

Museum of the Barricades of 1991; Latvia's independence came after enormous struggles. One of the most remarkable stories involves the barricades built by thousands of citizens around important public buildings in Rīga. In January 1991, Latvians from every walk of life came together to prevent the Soviets from taking over the capital, a stunning display of heartfelt commitment to a greater cause. This excellent museum is run by the organization of barricade veterans. It's a moving – and professionally curated – account of this pivotal time.

Kalnciema Kvartāls; A lovingly restored courtyard with several vintage wooden buildings is home to creative cafes, shops, and restaurants. It's also home to a fantastic Saturday market that attracts some of the top food and produce vendors from across the region. Browse smoked meats, cheeses, vegetables, pastries, and even spirits. The baked goods are extraordinary. At other times there are concerts, performances, art exhibitions, and street food festivals.

Pilsētas Kanāls (City Canal); Pilsētas kanāls, the city’s old moat, once protected the medieval walls from invaders. Today the snaking ravine has been incorporated into a thin belt of stunning parkland splitting Old and Central Rīga. Stately Raiņa bulvāris follows the rivulet on the north side and used to be known as ‘Embassy Row’ during Latvia’s independence between the world wars.


Must Try Food & Drink

Riga Black Balsam; This Latvian herbal liqueur is based on a combination of 27 different botanicals, including wormwood, valerian, black pepper, gentian, and ginger. The herbal infusion is later matured and mixed with honey and caramel. It is believed that the drink was first produced by a pharmacist named Kunze in 1752, and it was originally launched as the Real Kunze’s Riga Herbal Balsam. The production of the liqueur was abruptly stopped during the Second World War, but it was later restored, and the drink is still produced following the original, secret recipe. This smooth and slightly bitter liqueur is best enjoyed neat, but it also incorporates well into cocktails and long drinks.

Pīrādziņi; These crescent-shaped pastries are one of the national Latvian dishes that appear in numerous varieties throughout the country. When prepared with yeast, they are traditionally larger in size and served as a snack. The smaller versions, usually made with a thin, buttery pastry, are intended to be eaten alongside various hearty soups. Nevertheless, all of the varieties are filled with flavorsome mixtures of onions, minced meat, bacon, cabbage, or creamy cottage cheese.

Skābeņu zupa; Skābeņu zupa is a traditional Latvian sorrel soup. It is made with beef stock, chopped sorrel leaves, pearl barley, onions, potatoes, and lemon juice. Common additions include grated carrots and smoked pork ribs, while hard-boiled eggs and sour cream are typically used as garnishes. Although skābeņu zupa is most commonly served warm or hot, it is very refreshing when served ice cold on hot summer days. The word skābeņu in the name of this soup is derived from skābs, meaning sour, referring to the sorrel’s flavor.

Biezpiena plācenīši; Syrniki is a dessert consisting of fried cottage cheese pancakes that are usually garnished with honey, fruit jam, sour cream, or applesauce. It is part of the Russian (where it's sometimes also called tvorozhniki), Belarusian, Ukrainian, Latvian, and Lithuanian cuisine. Cottage cheese is traditionally first sweetened with sugar, then combined with flour into a dough that is fried in hot oil until it develops a golden-brown color. Syrniki can be served for breakfast or consumed as a tasty dessert after a large meal.

Debessmanna; Debessmanna is a quintessential Latvian dessert made with berries, farina or cream of wheat, water, and sugar. The ingredients are cooked until a thick mixture has formed and it's then whipped up into a light and airy mousse. Although the dessert can be made with almost any type of berries or berry juice, the most typical are cranberries or cranberry juice, which add a pleasant tanginess to this sweet dish. Debessmanna is typically enjoyed chilled, and it often comes finished with milk or cream on top for a creamier and more flavorful dessert. Interestingly, the name of this sweet treat means heaven farina in Latvian.

Salinātā rudzu rupjmaize; Salinātā rudzu rupjmaize is a bread baked in Latvia from rye flour. It owes its distinctiveness to the traditional recipe and techniques used for its production. The recipe does not allow the baker to use yeast but requires the caraway seeds to be added to the mixture. Before the preparation of the dough, around 30% of the rye flour has to 'be sweetened' and then set aside and fermented for at least 12 hours. The distinct sweet taste of Salinata bread comes from breaking down the starch into sugars by the malt, and the sour taste is formed during the fermentation of lactic acid. It is easily distinguished by its hand shaped elongated form with rounded ends, its smooth and glossy dark brown crust that is coated with starch paste, and its aromatic crumb. It is traditionally baked on a hot hearth without using baking trays or molds. It is a very famous bread that can be found in many cookbooks and publications that describe traditional Latvian dishes since it is considered to be a significant component of Latvian national identity.

Kliņģeris; Kliņģeris is a traditional Latvian birthday cake shaped into a large pretzel. It can also be served on similar festive occasions or as a central piece in a dessert smorgasbord. The big pretzel is made with flour, butter, eggs, heavy cream, sugar, yeast, water, saffron, lemon and orange zest, cardamom, and raisins. Before baking, the dough is brushed with beaten eggs and sprinkled with almonds. After it has been baked, kliņģeris is often dusted with powdered sugar and decorated with bows, candies, or birthday candles. It is recommended to enjoy the cake while it is still warm and pair it with butter or jam.

Sklandrausis; Sklandrausis, which was granted a TSG status in 2013, is a round pie from Latvia prepared in the area since the 16th century. The dough, which is made from unleavened rye flour, is rolled into discs and shaped so that the edges are folded upward. The filling of potato and carrots is layered atop one another, and once everything is assembled, the top can be coated with cream and sprinkled with either cinnamon or caraway seeds. The pie is meant to be eaten cold with tea or milk.

Aukstā zupa; Aukstā zupa is a refreshing Latvian cold soup with an unusual, deep pink color. It is made with beets, cucumbers, kefir, hard-boiled eggs, and milk sausage. Greens such as dill and scallions are essential, and most people also enjoy the soup with a dash of vinegar. All of the ingredients are mixed together, seasoned with salt and pepper, and the soup is then left in the refrigerator until well-chilled. It's recommended to serve the soup with a few slices of dark bread on the side. Aukstā zupa is a seasonal dish, so it's practically impossible to find it in restaurants during winter, but most places have the soup on their menus in summer.

Ķiploku grauzdiņi; Ķiploku grauzdiņi is a traditional snack and the Latvian version of garlic bread. In order to prepare it, rupjmaize rye bread is cut into slices, then pan-fried in butter or oil on both sides for a few minutes. The slices are removed from the pan, drained on paper towels, then rubbed with garlic cloves on both sides. Ķiploku grauzdiņi can also be baked in the oven, and the slices are then just drizzled with oil or smeared with butter. Before serving, this Latvian garlic bread is sprinkled with salt. It's recommended to serve it with a glass of cold beer on the side.


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