Riga Stories and Tips

Vecriga - A Romantic Sanctuary of History

The Blackhead's house Photo, Riga, Latvia

Vecriga is the Latvian name for Riga's Old Town. Crammed with cobbled streets, alleyways, medieval churches and century-old residential buildings, it can rightly be called a sanctuary of history. Add to these the various museums that depict the Latvians as the victims of totalitarianism and you can't help feeling pity for a nation which strived hard since the beginning of the 20th century to gain everlasting freedom. There's no better way to taste all this than to stroll along the streets of this romantic sanctuary which displays with amazing clarity the history and culture of Latvia.

The best starting point is the Freedom Monument on Brivibas iela, outside the Old Town. Constructed in 1935, ironically five years before Latvia's freedom was taken over by the Soviets and deportations to Siberia were not uncommon, this monument is a bronze casting of a woman, fondly nicknamed Milda standing on a high pillar and holding three golden stars in her hands. The stars actually symbolise three Latvian regions but during Soviet occupation, the stars were meant to represent the three Baltic states held in the good (read: iron) hands of Mother Russia.

If you walk southeast along Brivibas iela for about 100 metres, you reach Kalku iela, the street that divides the Old Town neatly into two and leads as far as Akmens tilts which spans the Daugava River. Continue straight along Kalku iela for about 150 metres until on your right, you reach Filharmonyas skvers, an irregularly shaped square and a top venue of outdoor restaurants and snack bars. Push yourself against the crowds and walk across the square until on your left you reach Amatu iela, a narrow street full of Old Town charm and character. The restored building of the Great Guild is on the right side while the Small Guild is housed inside a Gothic building on the left. Amatu iela leads into Skunu iela which runs northwest and opens into Doma laukums, the big square mostly occupied by the massive Dome Cathedral. This brick box-like structure dates back to 1211 but it has undergone multiple facelifts over the centuries. What you see today is the reconstruction of 1776 when the cathedral's tower was raised to a height of 90 metres. You have the opportunity to listen to the wonderful tone of its famous organ if you attend one of the organ recitals which are held daily in the cathedral.

From Doma laukums, walk northeast along the whole length of Smilsu iela until you reach the Pulvertornis, the only tower of the old fortifications that is still standing. This historical tower houses the Museum of War, worth a visit for its permanent exhibitions about Latvia's involvement in World War I, the proclamation of the Latvian state and the tough road towards independence. Like all historical museums in Latvia, the exhibitions portray with astonishing clarity the systematic attempts to destroy Latvia and the sufferings the people had to bear under the Soviets and the Nazis.

After visiting the tower, turn left and walk along Tornis iela past the long stretch of wonderfully restored barracks on the right side and fragments of the old defensive wall on the left. After about 100 metres, you'll reach the Swedish Gate, a small gate added to the fortifications in 1698 to celebrate the Scandinavian occupation of Riga. Pass through the gate and walk along narrow Aldaru iela until you come across Troksnu iela on your right. Troksnu iela leads towards one of the oldest churches in Riga, St.Jacob's Church, opposite which you'll find the Renaissance-style Latvian Parliament. From here, small Klostera iela leads towards three medieval residential houses nicknamed 'The Three Brothers' which adjoin each other along Maza Pils iela. Walk west to the end of Maza Pils iela, turn left and continue north until you reach a big square with a small central park. This is Pils laukums or Castle square. The big building on your left is the east side of Riga castle, the official residence of the President of Latvia.

If this walk along the medieval streets of Riga was not enough to satisfy your appetite for history, there are still more historical attractions to admire and more architectural styles to discover. The House of Blackheads on Strelnieku laukums was built from scratch after World War II and now looks wonderful after recent restoration works were completed. Nearby, a couple of metres away, a black modern glass structure houses the excellent Occupation Museum which portrays the history of Latvia from 1940 to 1991 through numerous original photos, documents and correspondence.

From Strelnieku laukums, you can't miss Riga's landmark: the tower of St.Peter's Church, a huge Gothic structure that was rebuilt several times through the centuries. Walk towards the church, visit its modest interior and take the lift up to the observation platform from where you can enjoy a wonderful bird's eye view of Riga. From St.Peter's Church, Skarnu iela leads south towards the Dominican Monastery and the adjoining St.John's Church. The Baroque altar, the stained glass windows and the statues that adorn the altar niches are wonderful works of art worth seeing. Enter St.John's courtyard and walk through the numerous passages of the Convent's Yard (Konventa Seta) which has now been artistically restored to house a hotel complex. In the basement, there are some souvenir and handicraft shops which double as exhibition centres displaying a wide choice of handmade linen, amber, silver jewellery and other Latvian works of art.

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