Postcard From Riga
Riga is the largest city in and the capital of Latvia, the middle of the three small European Union countries on the east coast of the Baltic Sea. Riga itself is a major port on the Baltic Sea. The city has more than 800,000 residents in its metro area, which accounts for more than a third of Latvia's entire population. Among travelers, the city has become famous for its beautiful Old Town (Vecriga), its collection of Art Nouveau architecture and its nightlife.
Riga, as well as the modern Latvian Republic, has a long history of invasion and occupation by larger nations in the European North: specifically Germany, Sweden, imperial Russia and the Soviet Union. The city was officially founded in 1201 by Bishop Albert, sent to the region by Pope Innocent III as part of a crusade against the local people, the Liv, who practiced a pagan religion. Bishop Albert quickly recognized the strategic importance of Riga's location along Baltic trade routes, and he struck deals to ensure his new city would be the hub of German trading in the region. By the end of that century, Riga was a member of the Hanseatic League; the ornate trade unions the merchants built during the rise of the Hanseatic League help form the core of Riga's beautiful Old Town.
The city remained an important part of the Holy Roman Empire until the 16th century, when it was taken over by the Commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania. A mere generation later, it fell to the Kingdom of Sweden. Until 1710, Riga was Sweden's largest city. By the 18th century, nearby imperial Russia under Peter the Great became the dominant force in the region, and Russia took control of Riga.
During the later 1800s, Latvia began to experience what it now calls a national awakening, and a nationalist movement began to take hold. After the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, and after German interests were forced westward along the Baltic coast, Latvia became an independent state in 1918. The first republic lasted until occupation by Soviet forces in 1940. The territory changed hands twice -- to Nazi Germany in 1941 and back to the Soviets in 1944 -- during the war, then remained a major city in the USSR until it fell in 1991. The modern Latvian Republic was established in 1991, with Riga as its governing and cultural capital.
As a result of the Soviet occupation, more than 40% of Riga's population is considered to be ethnically, linguistically and/or culturally Russian. While Latvian is the official language of the city, Russian is the de facto second language, especially among the older generations. Younger Rigans, however, have studied English all their lives, and most speak it quite well.
Latvia's economy boomed from the turn of the century until 2008, making it initially the hardest-hit of the European economies during the worldwide financial crisis that began that year. As a result of the city's fluctuating fortunes, life in Riga features a mix of Old World oppulence, widespread financial hardship, luxury and crumbling infrastructure.
A mixed blessing has been the arrival of low-cost airlines to the Riga airport. This has helped connect the rest of the EU to Riga (Latvia and the other Baltic states are geographically remote, and rail connection from the EU is impossible at the moment because Latvian trains run on the old Russian track gauge) and has created a thriving tourist industry.
If You Go
Any visitor to Riga needs to visit the Old Town. It features meandering streets, a pastiche of architectural styles (from Hanseatic to Art Nouveau to Soviet) and a few of the most impressive church spires in Northern Europe.
Attached is an old postcard from the 1890s that shows a still-fairly accurate vista of the Old Town from approximately the vantage point of where the Monument of Freedom now stands (it was built more than 20 years after this image was created). The spire on the left is St. Peter's church, destroyed during the second world war and rebuilt after 1991. The spire on the right is Rigas Doms. The building in the very center of the picture now features a McDonald's.
Also, no visit is complete without exploring Riga's UNESCO World Heritage collection of Art Nouveau architecture. The city features more than 800 unique examples of the ornate style. Some of the best examples can be found in the Quiet Center of the city, north across the canal and through the parks from the Old Town, especially along Albert Street ("Alberta iela" on the map).