The Baltic Stories: Riga’s Top Attractions
I started thinking about what I could write about Riga for you. I get chills thinking back. Good chills. There is something about Riga. I can’t put my finger on it. Maybe I’m just happy for this proud little nation- they spent years trying to break free from the Soviet Union and in 1991 they finally got their independence. There is a lot (a lot) of Soviet influences throughout the city, more so in my opinion than the rest of the Baltic States.
When I write about Vilnius, in neighbouring Lithuania, I will write you a story on independence that will make your heart ache.
So do go to Riga. Drink her Black Balsam. Listen to her stories. They’re good ones.
On the corner on Brivibas and Stabu streets, there is a place as disturbing as Auschwitz, and that’s the KGB Building, now called the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia. I was told that there was an old KGB building and I just had to find it (partly because I didn’t believe it). It’s not signposted, it’s not in any tourist information place, it’s just a door on the corner of these streets with a sign containing opening hours. When we’d finished debating on whether we should actually attempt to open the door, we pushed it and found ourselves in a “cage” before we were let in through another door.
In the museum they give guided tours of the prison cells in the basement and an interesting history lesson about Latvia in the Soviet times. No spoilers here!
House of Blackheads:
No, this isn’t a tactfully named beauty salon.
In the quaint old town of Riga, The House of Blackheads is where the unmarried German merchants had their guild, the Brotherhood of Blackheads. In June, 1941 the Germans bombed this building to ruins and the Soviet Russians demolished said ruins in 1948. However, the reconstruction (1995 – 1999) is well worth a photo or two.
There is a tourist information office inside and a museum too. Upstairs holds grand ballrooms while the basement has a wine cellar and exhibits on trading in Riga. It costs €3 admission, half price if you’re a student.
I’ll be honest, I didn’t go into the museum, but this is a beautiful building and I came back to it a couple of times during my stay in Riga. It’s especially nice to see at night too.
The Town Hall of Riga:
Visitors are not allowed inside of the town hall, but it’s right across from the House of Blackheads so you may as well have a look at it. It’s easy on the eyes.
I was in Riga when the Paris Attacks happened in November 2015, and the town hall (plus a few others) were lit up in memory for the victims. It was nice to see.
To find the Cat House, you have to be looking out for it. There are only two cats on the roof and it’s easily missed. Luckily, I was looking out like a hawk!
Rumour has it that the owner of the house, a wealthy tradesman, wanted the cats’ raised tails pointing towards the House of the Great Guild – he wasn’t so fond of them after they refused him membership, it seems. Later on though, he was ordered to have the cats’ actually facing the house.
Latvian Academy of Sciences:
Now, I know this one probably doesn’t make it on to many “What To See in Riga” lists, but bear with me.
There is something eerily fascinating about this building. I saw it in the distance and I knew I had to see it. Actually, I thought it was going to be some super famous landmark. How could it not be?! So, with my eyes glued onto its stern, brown structure, I followed it through side streets and car parks, when lo and behold, there she was standing in front of me.
I felt as if I had gone back in time to Soviet Russia, that the KGB were going to suddenly appear, or the ghosts of Russian soldiers would begin goose-stepping. But known to the locals as “Stalin’s birthday cake”, how could you not think such thoughts?
Being 108 meters tall, this was quite a sight. And it was only the Academy of Sciences! Wow! It’s decorated with several hammer and sickle symbols, but also with Latvian folk ornaments and motifs.
Please, please, go and see this. Riga has a lot of Russian influences throughout the city, but this one, this really is the icing on (Stalin’s) cake.
Unveiled in 1935, this granite column honours soldiers who died in the Latvian War of Independence back in 1918-1920. On the top of the column is a figure of Liberty holding three stars which represent the districts of Latvia: Vidzeme, Latgale and Courland.
There were two soldiers marching in front of the monument, and people were laying flowers behind them. They would even pause for the elderly ladies to pass. It says a lot.
Bastion Hill (Bastejkalns):
This is such a sweet place. Over the Pilsetas Canal, stands the Bridge of Love. Heavy with padlocks, this bridge holds the promises of many newly-weds, but also couples of all ages.
There is a little waterfall here too (in case you didn’t think it could get any nicer), lots of little paths, hills, a teahouse, and a memorial for two people killed during events in 1991.
National Library of Latvia:
After a refreshing walk across the River Daugava, you come to a surprisingly modern building, a side to Riga you didn’t think existed. Okay, well it doesn’t get any more modern after the library, but you wouldn’t be blamed for thinking that way. It only opened in 2014!
Esplanade Park / Nativity Cathedral:
Even though I was there in Winter, this is still a really nice park to stop in. There’s nothing particularly spectacular, but it has a fountain, some benches and is nice and quiet… Which makes it more exciting when you see the Nativity Cathedral on the corner across the road from the exit.
This is the largest Orthodox cathedral in the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) and was built with the blessing of the Russian Tsar Alexander II. The Latvian government was extremely unfriendly towards the Orthodox Church in the first years of of Latvia’s independence. In the early 1960’s, Soviet authorities closed down the cathedral and converted its building into a planetarium, but luckily, the cathedral was restored after Latvia regained independence in 1991.
There is so much more to see in Riga, more churches, more theatres, more museums, but these attractions I think are the most impressive and are what you must definitely see if your time is limited in this post-Soviet city!
Give my love to Riga!