It would be hard to deny the fairy-tale appeal of Prague’s Old Town, but as it attracts ever-growing hordes of tourists – and the hawkers who prey on them – the city risks losing its Cinderella glamor and being revealed as more of an ugly sister. It’s hardly surprising that savvy travelers have been looking for “the new Prague” for some time now. With Rīga, they might just have found it
Long the most lively and cosmopolitan of the Baltic capitals, and with a rich history as a mercantile center, Rīga refused to let its merits go unnoticed when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, and instead plunged headlong into its new-found independence. Today, this medieval city, known for its pretty gables, turrets, and steeples, is also a dynamic, thriving metropolis looking to the future, with a boisterous nightlife to match. Funky cafés, sophisticated restaurants, and edgy boutiques line the cobbled streets here, where old and new come together with undeniable charm.
Rīga’s beautiful, well-preserved Old Town serves as a constant reminder of the city’s fascinating past. In the 13th and 14th centuries, under the rule of Baltic German crusaders, it became a member of the powerful Hanseatic League of trading cities, the legacy of which can be seen in the many medieval merchants’ houses that line the streets.
By the late 19th century, Rīga was the third-largest city in the Russian Empire, and evidence of this prosperity can be seen in its many Art Nouveau buildings, which are regarded as the best in Europe. World War II saw much of the city devastated, but extensive restoration work has left the Old Town’s streets and courtyards looking much as they did centuries ago.
MAIN CITY SIGHTS
Town Hall Square
This square is the focal point of the Old Town. Its step-gabled House of Blackheads, which was damaged in the war and rebuilt in the 1990s, once housed a guild of unmarried merchants. At the edge of the square is the somber but fascinating Museum of the Occupation of Latvia
The largest church in the Baltics was founded in 1211 and exhibits a variety of architectural styles due to various extensions over the centuries. The interior might be plain, but it boasts an ornate 17th-century pulpit.
Art Nouveau District
Art Nouveau buildings are scattered around Rīga, but the best examples lie near the Old Town along Alberta, Strēlnieku and Elizabetes streets. The inventive and symbolic work of Mikhail Eisenstein – father of the renowned Soviet film director, Sergei – is particularly popular with visitors.
Getting There and Around
Rīga airport is connected to many European cities, and ferries run from Stockholm in Sweden and Lübeck in Germany to the city. You can also access Rīga on trains from Lithuania and Russia. The Old Town and Art Nouveau District are best explored on foot. Registered taxis have yellow registration plates.
When to Go
The long, warm summer days see Rīga at its most engaging, but also its most busy. Winter can be gloomy and windy here, but the cultural life of the city continues, and on clear, snowy days, it can look striking.
An excellent collection of museums reflects the city’s cultural standing, not least during the 19th-century growth of national sentiment, which culminated in the brief existence of an independent Latvia between the two world wars. Today, with this independence regained, Rīga finds itself capital of a nation eager to engage with the world around it – NATO and EU membership included – and to introduce visitors to its own brand of Baltic charm.
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