In March, we had the pleasure of being invited to Riga to see the city, listen to music and taste its food. You can read the reviews of Latvian Radio Choir and Latvian National Opera separately, and Riga’s food culture is so amazing that I’ve also made it the subject of a separate article: the Central Market and the restaurants and cafés are not to be missed. What follows is to tell you about some of our other favourite places in the city, giving a flavour of its history and culture along the way. Our thanks to Juris Berže, who displayed exceptional knowledge and charm as he guided us around the city: the four hours he spent with us went by in a flash.

1Alberta iela: the “Art Nouveau Quarter”

The streets surrounding Alberta iela contain some of Riga’s most striking architecture, much of it built in the last glory days of the tsarist era. The most striking are by Mikhail Eisenstein, a riot of colour and decoration.

Eisenstein wasn’t even a full time architect: his day job was as an engineer and Tsarist official responsible for infrastructure. But he was a passionate architect, and in the period from 1904 to 1914, he was responsible for the creation of around 20 buildings in what became known as the “Art Nouveau” style (also called by its German name Jugendstil). His buildings are characterised by bright colours and a profusion of exterior decoration, a perfect mixture to cheer up a chilly winter.

While Eisenstein’s buildings are the most famous, they are by no means alone: many examples of the different substyles of Art Nouveau can be found across the city. Opposite an Eisenstein building is no.12 Alberta iela by Latvian architect Konstantīns Pēkšēns, which has now been turned into the small but fascinating Riga Art Nouveau Museum.

Latvian National Museum of Art: <i>Three Crosses</i>, by Jāzeps Grozvalds © David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd
Latvian National Museum of Art: Three Crosses, by Jāzeps Grozvalds
© David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd

2Latvian National Museum of Art

The main showcase for Latvian artists re-opened in 2016 after extensive refurbishment and is worth seeing just for the stunning white wooden framework of its top floor gallery.

The Museum houses works by Latvian artists (foreign art is housed separately in the Riga Bourse). Its four floors display temporary exhibitions as well as a substantial permanent collection. Many paintings show a distinct Latvian character, and the 20th-century art in particular demonstrates that this is a country which has suffered a lot of hard knocks. Items like Jāzeps Grozvalds’ Three Crosses, Kārlis Padegs’ Madonna with a Machine Gun and Džemma Skulme’s Folksong remind one of what a war-torn country this has been. There is also a healthy dose of Soviet Socialist Realism.

During our visit, the main temporary exhibition was On the Edge of the World, a display of paintings by Henrijs Klēbahs which showed an unflinching eye for hard Northern landscapes.

Statue of Roland in front of the House of the Blackheads © David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd
Statue of Roland in front of the House of the Blackheads
© David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd

3Roland and the Blackheads

Riga’s Town Hall Square contains one of the city’s iconic buildings: the House of the Blackheads. Outside, a statue of the knight Roland recalls Riga’s medieval days as a Hanseatic League city.

Riga joined the Hanseatic League in 1282. Like many Hanseatic cities, its Town Hall Square contains a fine statue of Roland, the league’s emblematic knight, sword in hand, his gaze proudly aloft. His left hand rests on his shield, on which the coat of arms of Riga is displayed. Roland stands in front of one of Riga’s iconic buildings: the banqueting hall originally built in the 14th century for the trading association the Brotherhood of Blackheads. I say “originally” because the hall was destroyed in World War 2 by German bombing (as was the statue of Roland): what you see now is a reconstruction, with the knights that guard each side of the doorway painted in vibrant colours, including the black face of St Maurice, the Egyptian patron saint of the Brotherhood. On the pavement outside, a plaque marks the site of what is said to be the first ever Christmas tree, erected by the homesick younger (and unmarried) members.

4The Latvian Riflemen Monument

A short walk from the House of the Blackheads in the direction of the River Daugava takes you to the city’s most evocative reminder of the Soviet era.

Three imposing, larger-than-life, greatcoated figures stare outwards towards the Daugava: this is the monument to the “Red Latvian Riflemen”, who were a major force in the Bolshevik Revolution. The Riflemen contributed the Red Army’s first commander-in-chief, Jukums Vācietis, and are said to have also contributed members of Lenin’s personal guard. Their imposing figures are impressive example of Soviet art.

Monument to the Latvian Riflemen © David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd
Monument to the Latvian Riflemen
© David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd

5Kalnciema Quarter

On the left bank of the Daugava, a 15-minute cab ride from the city centre, is an inspiring piece of urban renewal, where wooden houses in a near-derelict, rough area have been restored in traditional architectural style and turned into a vibrant community centre.

A less welcome legacy of the Soviet era is a titanic backlog of building refurbishment: beloved family homes in the pre-1914 era became communal living spaces under the Soviets and were poorly looked after: the city now contains a frightening number of damaged buildings, some of them semi-derelict. In recent years, Rigans have been starting to make inroads on the backlog: the style here isn’t to flatten them and build high-rise, it’s to gradually preserve and restore, a process that’s going to take decades. We were taken to a wonderful example of this, Kalnciema Quarter, where a pair of brothers bought up a cluster of wooden houses in a run down area, refurbished them in keeping with architectural tradition and turned the whole area into a centre for the community. There’s no public money involved: the costs are covered by renting out office space (which also funds the brothers’ hobby of restoring classic cars). Kalnciema Quarter has a superb Saturday market, and hosts an extensive set of workshops, education programmes and other cultural events, breathing life into what used to be a stereotypical inner city rough area.

6Peitav Synagogue

A beautiful, airy building with a striking blue interior bears witness to happier days of the Jewish community in Riga.

Pre-Holocaust Latvia had a thriving Jewish community which was tolerated by the Tsarist regime and at one point reached 7% of the country’s population. Today, Riga’s Jewish Community consists of approximately 8,000 members; its place of worship is the Peitav Shul, in the heart of the old city.

7Riga Cathedral

The Cathedral’s most remarkable feature is its organ, one of the largest in the world.

The first step of any self-respecting Christian occupier is, of course, to build a cathedral, and in 1211, Bishop Albert of Riga, laid the foundation stone of Riga Cathedral. Since then, it’s changed from Catholic to Lutheran and has undergone many reconstructions. The most notable feature for a music lover is its organ, which briefly held the title of world’s largest when it was built in 1884. The organ was fully refurbished in the 1980s, and its 124 stops and 6718 pipes make it an impressive beast indeed.

8Anywhere they sing

Finally, it's not exactly sightseeing, but one can’t write about Latvian culture without mentioning singing. It’s a core part of the national character and it should come as no surprise that the country produces world class singers as a result. The fine acoustic of St John’s Church makes it probably the top choral venue, but there are many other places.

Historically, rural Latvians lived in isolated farmsteads rather than villages, and each family developed its own oral tradition of song (young women also developed a tradition of hand-embroidering mittens to be given to guests at their wedding, which is partly why mittens are big in Latvia). One of the first to study these was the German Enlightenment philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder, a clergyman friend of Goethe’s who was posted to Riga as a teacher. Long before Bartók and Kódaly would do the same for Hungary, Herder collected thousands of Latvian songs, leading to an understanding of its culture that would reflect itself in the “All-Latvian Song Festival”, first held in 1873, which has now become one of the most important events on the country’s cultural calendar: the five-yearly “Latvian Song and Dance Festival”.

To give you an idea of the Festival’s scale: the 2018 closing concert attracted 67,000 people. To explain its significance, it’s best to watch the close of the 1985 festival. One of the audience’s best loved songs is Gaismas pils (“The City of Light”), about a mythical castle which is submerged under a mountain for centuries and emerges into the light. It’s blatant allegory about liberation from oppression, and the Soviet authorities banned it from the programme. But at the end, the crowd bay for it to be performed; when the choir has obliged, the audience refuses to leave and everyone joins in to sing a repeat. One can imagine the KGB operatives, unable to understand the language, shuffling uneasily in the mode of “something is happening but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr Jones”. The events epitomised what came to be known as the “Singing Revolution” which led to the independence of Latvia as we know it today.

This article was sponsored by Live Riga