While you could easily spend a day just wandering the streets of Vecriga (though I’d advise avoiding the narrower ones, where I saw quite a few unsavory characters) to sample its architectural brilliance, if you’re a bit more pressed for time, you shouldn’t miss these four buildings. They’re notable not only for their architecture but also for the stories surrounding them, which reflect Riga’s diverse history.
The Cat House (Mestaru iela 19) is Riga’s most famous building, emblazoned on innumerable postcards and other souvenirs. Indeed, it’s such a symbol of the city that Riga In Your Pocket used a close-up shot of its famous feline for its first cover. The house, built at the beginning of the twentieth century, originally belonged to a wealthy Latvian merchant who was enraged that the nearby Great Guild Hall (a social club for the city’s merchants) refused to admit him, as he was not German. Consequently, he had small statues of cats, with their backs up and tails arched, placed on the building’s highest points, with their rears facing the Great Guild Hall. After a lengthy court case, the merchant was admitted to the guild in exchanged for turning the cats around. The Great Guild Hall (Amatu iela 6), which today houses the city Philharmonic Orchestra, is worth a look, as is the Small Guild Hall (Amatu iela 5), a former artisan’s club which is now a conference center.
The 123.25m-high spire of the Gothic St. Peter’s Church (Skarnu iela 19) offers a fine view over Vecriga, although the elevator (which costs 2 Ls.) only takes you 72 meters up. First mentioned by the chronicles in 1209, a mere eight years after Riga’s foundation, its tower dominates Riga to this day. Indeed, until it collapsed in 1666, it had the highest wooden church tower in Europe. After it was rebuilt the next year, the builders threw a glass from its spire—the more pieces the glass broke into, the longer it would last—which unfortunately hit a pile of straw and therefore emerged unscathed. Lightning burned the tower down the next year, although this version remained intact until 1941, when German or Soviet artillery fire (it’s unknown which) destroyed it yet again. The present tower dates to 1973 and retains the same Baroque design as its predecessors.
Another historic building rebuilt after the ravages of the Second World War is the House of Blackheads at Ratslaukums 7. Originally built in 1344, it provided accommodation to traveling members of the German unmarried merchants guild, who were nicknamed "blackheads" after their patron, St. Maurice. Although such buildings are typical features of most former Hanseatic cities (the equivalent in Tallinn is known for its extremely attractive green door), Riga’s is particularly notable for its striking Dutch Renaissance façade. In fact, the original was so ornate that the Soviets tore down its remains in 1948 (the original had been largely destroyed in 1941) because they deemed it too decadent. It was completely rebuilt in 2001 to celebrate Riga’s 800th anniversary, when the statue at its front of Roland, the medieval defender of the accused was added. The interior may be visited for 1 Ls., but the mediocre exhibitions make it a poor value.