Situated on a sandy plain 15km (9 miles) from the mouth of the River Daugava, Riga is the capital of Latvia and is one of the most beautiful of the Baltic cities. According to legend, once every 100 years the devil rears his head from the waters of the River Daugava and asks whether Riga is ‘ready’ yet. If the answer were ‘yes’, the now nearly 900-year-old city would be doomed to sink into the Daugava. The Latvian capital is a major tourist attraction, and has excellent air, train and road connections. It is rich in history and culture with remarkable Gothic, Baroque, Classical and Art Nouveau buildings. The center of the city is considered to contain the finest concentration of Art Nouveau buildings in Europe and has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Old Riga contains a remarkable diversity of architectural styles, perhaps best epitomised by the Dome Cathedral. Begun in 1211, the building has been added to throughout the centuries, resulting in a fascinating blend of Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and Classical styles. The cathedral’s organ, with nearly 7000 pipes, is recognized as one of the world’s greatest musical instruments and concerts are regularly performed here. The numerous other historical buildings in Riga bear witness to Latvia’s chequered history. Since its restoration after World War I, the old quarter of the city has been a protected area. The one surviving town gate is the so-called Sweden Gate, whilst the symbol of Riga, the 137m- (450ft-) high tower of St Peter’s Church, rises above the city. The St John’s Church of the former Dominican monastery was built in the 14th century and is one of several interesting churches in this former Episcopal seat. Most of the structure dates back to the 15th century and was constructed in a mixture of Romanesque and Gothic styles. The Catholic St Jacob’s Church was built in 1226 and is a fine example of Gothic architecture. The delightful Viestura Garden is ideal for relaxation. Its foundations were laid by Peter the Great who planted the first tree, an event commemorated by a flagstone in the park. Alexander Gate, the entrance to the park, was erected to mark the Russian victory over Napoleon’s army. It was in this park that the first Latvian Song Festival was held in 1873. At the end of the 18th century, Katharina II built the Peter and Paul Church north of the castle. Merchants’ houses from the Middle Ages such as the Three Brothers and the 24 warehouses in the old quarter are also picturesque examples of Latvian architecture. The residence of Peter I near the Cathedral has been dramatically altered and rebuilt. Riga has several museums including the Historical Museum of Latvia (founded in 1896), housed in the castle, and the Latvian Museum of Medicine, as well as two art galleries – the Museum of Foreign Art, which contains Flemish masterpieces, and the state Art Gallery of Latvia. The Riga Motor Museum displays the history of motor-car engineering, with veteran cars including rarities such as Stalin’s and Brezhnev’s private cars. In central Riga, the Freedom Monument (Brivibas Piemineklis) is a very significant site for Latvians. Built in 1935, the monument is a striking obelisk crowned by a female figure with upstretched arms holding three stars which represent the three historic regions of Latvia: Kurzeme, Latgale and Vidzeme. Reminiscent of the famous Statue of Liberty in New York, though much smaller at 42m (138ft), the statue ranks among the most distinguished monuments in Europe. Another place of interest is the Warriors’ Cemetery which was designed by the sculptor Zale, the architect Birznieks and the landscape gardener Zeidaks. Approximately 2000 graves from World War I are divided into three sections.
Not far from the city is the open-air Latvian Ethnographic Museum. With buildings from all over the country, ranging from wooden churches to windmills, it covers traditional rural architecture from the 16th to the 19th centuries.
Some 17km (11 miles) from the Latvian capital, the Baltic resort of Jurmala – consisting of 12 small villages – extends over 30km (19 miles) along the Gulf of Riga at the mouth of the River Lielupe. Fresh pine forest-scented air, sun and endless sandy beaches make this stretch of coast a particularly attractive holiday destination for all age groups. Drivers entering Jurmala need to purchase a special ticket; the fee is used to sponsor ecological programs in the area. The area is connected by roads and the commuter railway, which takes about 15 minutes from Riga.
Another Latvian health resort is Sigulda, about 53km (33 miles) from Riga. Situated on the picturesque banks of the River Gauja, the town has been established since the 13th century and attractions here include the ruins of the castle and local caves. In the National Park that is situated here, Turaida Castle (13th century) and its museum can be visited, as well as a sculpture park where Latvian folk poetry has been captured in stone. There is good downhill skiing in winter, and Sigulda is a popular boating spot in summer.
The most important Baroque building is the Palace in Pilsrundale, about 77km (48 miles) south of Riga, near the Lithuanian border. This fine summer residence of the Dukes of Courland was designed by the Italian architect Rastrelli, who also designed the Winter Palace in St Petersburg – an outstanding blend of Baroque architecture and Rococo decorative art, with gardens modeled on those of Versailles. The surrounding park is excellent for long walks.
Nature enthusiasts will enjoy the rich flora and fauna in the regions of Kurzeme, Latgale and Vidzeme, which are also favorites with hikers. Throughout the country, the landscape is dotted with picturesque villages such as Bauska, Cesis, Kolka and Talsi, where life generally follows a very relaxed pace amidst beautiful countryside. Nearby Kuldiga, situated on the banks of the River Venta, is Latvia’s highest waterfall and a favorite picnic spot.