Up in the Baltic region, on the banks of the Daugava River, lies an undiscovered treasure: Riga, Latvia’s long-enduring capital. Riga’s Old Town is one of the best-preserved and most charming historic centers in Europe. But that hasn’t always been like that.
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Riga During the Soviet Occupation
Till about 20 years ago, Riga didn’t make the list of desirable European destinations. The destruction suffered during WW2 followed by the Soviet occupation left the city in a dismal state.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union when Latvia regained its independence, Riga’s Old Town went through an extensive transformation. Its historic buildings, churches and squares have been rebuilt and brought back to their initial splendor.
Today Riga Old Town is one of the most charming and sought after historic centers in Europe, with over 800 majestic Art Nouveau buildings. Here are some of the amazing buildings, squares and monuments that you must see in Riga’s Old Town:
Best Squares in Riga Old Town
• Town Hall Square
The best way to explore Riga’s historic center is on foot. In this area is where you will find most of the city’s attractions. Riga Old Town has a series of open squares linked by charming cobbled streets. One of the most beautiful squares in Riga is the Town Hall Square, home to the Town Hall building and the famous House of the Blackheads.
In the center of the square is the statue of Roland, a Frankish military leader who became the a symbol of justice and freedom in many European countries. The sandstone statue in the square is a copy of the original which the Soviets removed in 1945.
• Livu Square
Arguably the nicest of all the squares in Riga is Livu Square, located close right at the edge of the Old Town. The square’s architecture is absolutely lovely, featuring an eclectic mix of old and new buildings. In the centre of the square is a beautiful green space with flowers.
Iconic Buildings in Riga Old Town
The historic center of Riga has the biggest concentration of Art Nouveau buildings in Europe. They say you can’t stay on any street corner in Riga without seeing an Art Nouveau building.
• The House of the Blackheads
Located in the Town Hall Square is one the most beloved landmarks in Riga Old Town: the House of Blackheads. The building was erected in 1344 and expanded in the 16th, 17th and 19th centuries. The opulent façade features the various architectural styles of the respective periods.
The House of Blackheads was initially a venue for meetings and banquets for various public organizations. In 1713 a guild of unmarried German merchants who called themselves the Brotherhood of Blackheads bought the building. Hence the building’s current name – the House of Blackheads.
Sadly, the House of Blackheads was completely destroyed by bombs during the Second World War. But on the gates of the original building there was an inscription that read: “Should I ever crumble to dust, rebuild my walls you must.” And sure enough, after Latvia regained its independence, an exact replica of the house was erected based on the original blueprints.
Since 2012 the the House of the Blackheads has been used as the presidential residence while Riga Castle is being renovated. As of July 2016 the House of Blackheads still remains closed to public.
• The Town Hall Building
Also in Town Hall Square, opposite to the House of Blackheads, is the Town Hall, a three-storied building with a tower and a clock.
The building that you see today is a reconstruction of the 17th century original building that was destroyed in WWII. The façade displays the emblem of the city and and a statue of Themis, a Greek goddess of divine law and order.
• The Three Brothers
A beautiful example of medieval baroque architecture are the three buildings in a terrace-like format on Mazã Pils iela, called the Three Brothers, which today are home to the Latvian Museum of Architecture.The white one on the right is Riga’s oldest building, erected in 1490.
• The Cat House
One of the most popular buildings in Riga Old Town is The Cat House. The beautiful Art Nouveau building with two black cats on the roof is located on the corner of Meistaru and Amatu Ilea. The Cat House is a testament to the desire of one man to take revenge on his enemies.
The story says that long ago, a wealthy Latvian merchant owned this house. But he could not obtain to be a member of the Great Guild, which was located just across the street from him. Their reason was that he was Latvian and membership was reserved for German merchants only.
Out of revenge, the Latvian merchant placed on his roof the statues of the two angry looking cats. The cats had their tails up and their butts turned toward the Great Guild building.
You can only imagine the reaction of the members of the Guild. A long court battle followed and in the end the merchant won. After they accepted him as a member of the Guild, the merchant agreed to turn the cats with their face toward the building.
Historic Churches in Old Town Riga
• Riga Dome Cathedral
One of the centrepieces of the Old Town is Riga Dome Cathedral. The cathedral functions as a Lutheran church and as one of Riga’s organ music centers. Riga Dome Cathedral survived centuries of warfare and transformations and as such has a mix of styles. Its initial shape was that of a cross and then changed into Gothic style.
Later, a monastery was added to the Cathedral’s southern wall. The cathedral’s first tower was destroyed by fire and then a new tower was constructed (around 1600s).
• St. Peter’s Church
Another Old Town landmark is St. Peter’s Church, built in 1209. This is one the oldest and most valuable monuments of medieval architecture in the Baltic States. The church served as the main place of worship for the citizens of Riga for a long time. There is an elevator that will take you to an observation deck at the top of the tower. From up here you will have a great view of the entire city.
• St. James’s Cathedral
St. James Cathedral, (a.k.a. the Cathedral Basilica of St. James) is the Roman Catholic cathedral of Riga. The church dedication took place in 1225.
Statues and Monuments in Riga Old Town
• The Musicians of Bremen
Every city has its own famous statues and monuments and Riga is no exception. One of the two most beloved statue in Riga is The Musicians of Bremen statue, inspired by the Brothers Grimm’s fairytale with the same name. The statue is very symbolic for this recently independent nation.
In the Brothers Grimm’s story, a donkey, a dog, a cat and a rooster rejected by their owners, set out for Bremen to become musicians. On the way, tired and famished, they came across a cottage. Looking inside the window they saw a table table laid with fine food and drinks. But the cottage was occupied by a band of robbers.
Planning to scare the robbers away, the musicians hopped on each others shoulders and looked inside making a loud noise. Not knowing what the strange sound was, the thieves left everything behind and ran for their lives.
The statue is kind of a political statement inspired by Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika. Rather than peeping through a cottage window, the musicians seem to be peeping through the Iron Curtain on a world as unreachable to them as the scene in the fairy tale. The statue was gifted to Riga in 1990 by the city of Bremen, which has a similar copy.
• The Freedom Monument
Monuments are big in the Baltics and the gigantic Freedom Monument located right next to the Old Town is no exception. The 42.7 meter high monument represents a woman at the top of an obelisk –affectionately called ‘Milda by the locals– holding three stars in her hands. The stars symbolize the three reigions of Latvia: Courland, Loveland and Lettgallen. The 13 sculptures and bas-reliefs at the bottom of the monument are depicting Latvian history and culture.
The monument dates back to 1935 and is a memorial for those who fell in Latvia’s struggle for independence. The funds for the construction came entirely from donations made by the local residents.
Interestingly enough, during the Soviet occupation the Russians didn’t remove the Freedom Monument, although it was a symbol of independent Latvia. The Soviets knew how sacred and symbolic this monument was for the people of Latvia and feared serious protests.
However, there was a tacit understanding that the Freedom Monument was never to appear in any film, or photograph, or newspapers article. The guides would tell foreign visitors that the monument depicted Mother Russia holding three stars representing the three Baltic Republics.
Other Interesting Places in Riga’s Historic Center
Riga’s medieval city walls had eight gates that gave access to the city. Today only one of those gates remains – the Swedish Gate– built in 1698 under the Swedish occupation of the city.
One of the legends tells of a Latvian girl who fell in love with a Swedish soldier on duty near the Swedish Gate. Their love was considered ‘illegal’ and ‘immoral.’ As a result, the girl was sealed within the wall, as warning to others. Apparently, visitors of the wall at midnight can still hear the unhappy girl whispering “I love him.”
A Final Note
Seeing Riga’s Old Town today it’s hard to imagine it during the Soviet times. A time when the streets were dismal, the buildings were gray, and the House of the Blackheads was just a pile of rubble. Fortunately, enough of the city’s architectural treasures have survived the many struggles.