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UNESCO World Heritage listed Rīga, the Baltic’s largest city, oozes history and culture from every cobblestone. Beginning life as a fishing village, it was frequented by Scandinavian and Russian traders for centuries until German merchants settled there in the 12th century and a Bremen Bishop built a fort as a base for the Northern Crusades. Flourishing from trade with Russia and the Scandinavians, Rīga was snatched by the Swedes in the early 17th century, becoming a Swedish city, until the Russians captured it in 1710, transforming it into a thriving industrial centre, Russia’s third largest city after Moscow and St Petersburg, and a busy port for the export of timber, flax and hemp.
After Latvian serfs were freed in the 19th century, most made a beeline for Rīga and paid work, initially as labourers and tradesmen, but later to follow business, creative and intellectual pursuits. Rīga’s new mood gave birth to the Latvian national awakening, inspiring the development of a distinctly Latvian culture, including a national theatre and the first Latvian song festival in 1873. Left with a population of only 180,000 people following World War II, when Hitler called Germans home from newly independent Latvia, Rīga became a destination for western agents, diplomats and journalists spying on the Soviet Union, becoming something of a Scandic-style Paris, an exotic intellectual and artistic hub with a vibrant nightlife. Later, under the Soviet occupation, it became the USSR’s most western city with a lively music, art and cultural scene that remains so today.Read more
While there’s plenty of medieval architecture and atmosphere to soak up in the Old City, once outside its narrow streets, Rīga’s boulevards are lined with art nouveau gems. With more than a third of the city’s buildings (some 800) in the lavish decorative style, Rīga is one of the world’s largest centres for art nouveau architecture. Most of Rīga’s art nouveau edifices, mainly designed by Latvian architect, were built at the movement’s peak around 1899, making them exceptional examples of the extravagant style.
Expect to gawk at glorious façades flamboyantly decorated with flowing lines, stylised flourishes and sculptural motifs of flowers, plants, peacocks, eagles, winged lions, masks, heads, maidens and mythological figures, along with expressive geometrical ornaments, conical cornices and lofty gables. The body of work is truly breathtaking and for many is reason alone to visit Rīga.