Latvia’s cosmopolitan capital, Riga, once revered across Europe as the ‘Paris of the North’, is now firmly on the tourist map. Older than both Stockholm and St Petersburg, Riga is the only Baltic capital to have a real big-city buzz.
Any lingering images of Communist deprivations are quickly blasted away by a stroll around Riga, with its gleaming renovated buildings, its fashion conscious mobile-phone carrying youth and the new wave of bars and cafes. The focus is still firmly on Riga’s Old Town, which tumbles towards the banks of the Daugava River in a maze of cobbles, voluminous spires and impressive squares.
It is ironic that the city that was once besieged and captured by Germany now has Europe’s most impressive array of Germanic art nouveau architecture, a fact recognized by UNESCO on its World Heritage List. Much of the art nouveau lies across Bastekalns Park in the New Town, the commercial and business heart of the city.
Rīga has always been the big boy of the Baltics – a metropolis with a big-city atmosphere hard to find elsewhere in the region. Funky and vibrant, it pulsates with a magnetism that traps travelers long after their planned departure date. Set on a flat plain divided only by the 500m-wide Daugava River, the city answers the quaintness of Tallinn and Vilnius with impressive Art-Nouveau architecture of its own, a historic old quarter and large parks. You won’t want to leave once you’re settled into a candlelit bar or lost on winding, sun-dappled or snow-covered cobbled streets. Rīga manages to couple its toy-town cuteness of steeples and turrets with a glitzy nightlife and thriving restaurant scene. Business is booming, with eager backers pouring much-needed money into its infrastructure. Old Town may be a Unesco World Heritage site, but this fairy-tale city, is building so fast that Unesco has warned Rīga it may withdraw its protected status due to the number of glittering glass hotels and business centres springing up faster than mushrooms after the rain.
With lavish beauty, timeless elegance and a restless fusion of old and new, Rīga has a charm as potent as the Rīga Black Balsams liquor it’s known for.
Fewer than half of Rīgans are ethnic Latvians (41.2% at last count), with Russians accounting for 43.7% of the population. Despite Latvians being a minority in their own capital, ethnic harmony prevails in the city, with street- and shop-talk a natural blend of Russian and Latvian.