• Riga: Culture Capital of Europe & Golden Child of the Baltic States

    by  • November 18, 2014 • City Breaks, Religious Sites, Riga

    Celebrate Latvia’s National Day with a Look at some City Break Options in Riga

    November 18th marks Latvia’s National Day or, to give its official title, Proclamation Day of the Republic of Latvia, the date on which, in 1918, a group of nationalists declared an independent Latvian state from the might of the Russian Empire. A national holiday across Latvia, November 18th sees shops, businesses and public institutions closing and events taking place throughout the day.

    In Riga, for example, the day starts with a parade through the city and an official laying of flowers at the Freedom Monument by Latvia’s President and other important dignitaries, followed by a parade of the National Armed Forces in the afternoon at the 11th November Embankment and rounded off by a spectacular firework display over the River Daugava, bringing to a close Riga’s annual four-day Festival of Light. And what’s more, visit Riga on November 18th and you’ll get to travel on public transport free of charge!

    If you’ve missed the boat however for 2014 and would like to partake in a Riga city break before next year’s festivities roll round, here’s our top essential sightseeing tips to make your stay in Riga an utterly memorable one.

    Although the city boasts a number of architectural styles, Riga is particularly renowned for its superb array of Art Nouveau buildings, particularly in the New Town. For those with a particular interest in this style of architectural and decorative design, the Art Nouveau Centre on Alberta iela is a worthwhile visit, for it was the former home of local architect, Constantīns Pēkšēns, who designed over 250 of the city’s buildings.

    Towering above the city, the aforementioned bronze-topped Freedom Monument was unveiled in 1935 and symbolised the long-held dream of freedom from the constraints of German landlords and the control of the Russian Monarchy. The tallest structure of its kind in Europe known locally as ‘Milda’, the Freedom monument became the rallying point for nationalist protests in the late 80s and early 90s, yet today is more frequented for its changing of the guard, taking place every hour between 9am and 6pm.

    Leading the charge as the largest seat of worship across the Baltics, Riga’s enormous cathedral was founded in the early 13th century and is as renowned for its expansive size (the walls alone are two metres thick) as it is for its mix of Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque architectural styles. Inside, the grandeur of its organ, one of the biggest in Europe with 6,768 pipes, reflects its expansive setting and is played almost daily before evening mass.

    Following the ecclesiastical lead of Riga Cathedral and dedicated to the patron saint of the city, St Peter’s Church (Petera Baznica) meanwhile dates back as far as 1209 and served the Catholic faith until 1523 when it turned Lutheran. Destroyed several times over the centuries, most recently in 1941, the church is recognisable for its distinctive red-brick structure and its soaring 200-foot spire, reputedly the tallest in Europe. Climb up to the observation deck and you’ll be rewarded with spectacular sweeping views across Riga.

    Without doubt one of the city’s most attractive architectural treasures, the House of the Blackheads dates back to 1344 when it was used as a fraternity house for a guild of unmarried German merchant. Partially destroyed during World War II and flattened by the Soviets in 1948, this building was painstakingly recreated and reopened at the turn of the century to coincide with Riga’s 800th birthday.

    Another distinctive piece of city architecture is Riga’s 14th-century, cylindrical Powder Tower, the sole survivor of 18 original towers that once populated the city walls, albeit with nine Russian cannonballs embedded deep within its redbrick walls. Formerly serving as a gunpowder store, prison, torture chamber and German fraternity house, today the Powder Tower plays host to the Museum of War, highlighting Latvia’s various wartime associations dating back to medieval times, with particular focus on the War of Liberation and World War II.

    Speaking of war, another must-see museum in Riga is the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia. Housed in the former US embassy building, this museum offers a rather sobering and haunting audiovisual history not only of the Nazi and Soviet occupations of Latvia during World War II, but also of the tumultuous events in Latvia’s quest for an independent state in 1991. Exhibits detail the terrible living conditions of the Siberian labour camps and the horrific crimes committed against the Latvian people. Not an easy visit certainly, but a thoroughly thought-provoking one nonetheless, and indeed rather fitting given the history behind today’s annual and national celebrations.

    About

    With a French grandmother, childhood holidays on the continent and a degree in French and Spanish, a love of languages and travel has always been in my blood. Fresh from university with an unfettered enthusiasm to show off my linguistic ability and first-hand knowledge of the world beyond the UK, I entered the travel industry and, 16 years on, I’m still there! With several years spent in the luxury sector planning escorted holidays across Europe for the American market, followed by an even longer tenure designing short breaks with a difference in the must-see cities of Paris, Barcelona, Rome, Amsterdam, Madrid, Prague, Florence, Brussels, Venice, Salzburg, Milan, Krakow and Berlin (to name but a few), it’s fair to say that Europe is my passion! Today my travels have taken me far beyond the boundaries of Europe with so many destinations still to discover, yet the continent abounds in such a wealth of treasures – historical and architectural, cultural and musical, gastronomic, artistic and linguistic – that its appeal, for me, will be eternal.