A slice of Riga: Join Latvia’s year-long arty party

Heritage is everywhere you go in this city – which has begun 12 months of cultural celebration, says Adrian Mourby

As the evenings get brighter, Riga is settling in to enjoy its role as joint European Capital of Culture – along with the northern Swedish city of Umea. This is an excellent time to take a stroll around Latvia’s idiosyncratic capital.

Beautifully restored since the Second World War and the fall of Communism, Riga is the capital of many cultures, very few of them actually much to do with Latvia.

Nothing sums this up better than the stunning Art Nouveau streets to the north of the old medieval city. Start this walk on Albert Street; Sir Isaiah Berlin, one of the great philosophers of the 20th century, was born at No 2a. The architect of this extravagant terrace was Mikhail Eisenstein who lived two blocks away in Valdemara Street, where his son Sergei, a great film director, was born. Both prodigies were children during Riga’s pre-First World War boom-time. 

Leave Albert Street by Dzirnavu Street passing Trusis Kafe  at No 43, a lovely new spot that emerged at New Year, which also sells Latvian wine. Now head south on Elizabetes Street looking out for the National Museum of Art on Esplanade Park (lnmm.lv/en), curiously closed for reconstruction until 2016.

Behind the gallery you’ll find a statue to Prince Michael Barclay de Tolly whose story sums up Riga’s curious history better than many. The Russian prince who devised the withdrawal tactics that defeated Napoleon in 1812 was a German-speaking descendant of Riga’s Scottish mayor. In Barclay de Tolly we get a snapshot of Riga, a German seaport run by the Russians with a sizeable population of Scottish immigrants. This city has actually been Latvian for less than 100 years.

Weaving south through the park you’ll pass the Russian Orthodox Cathedral (00 371 67212901; pravoslavie.lv) which was turned into a lecture theatre after Russia repossessed Latvia in 1945. The restoration of its religious iconography is now complete. From here, head southwest on Brivibas Boulevard and pause to look up at the 1930s Freedom Monument, which was one of the focus points for the “Singing Revolution” that re-established independence in 1991. Flowers, discouraged in Soviet times, are always in evidence around this memorial.

As you continue towards the old city you’ll cross the moat that defended the Hanseatic city port of Riga for centuries. It’s now a canal for pleasure boats. Window shop your way down Kalku Street pausing to look to the left along  Richard Wagner Street. Here, at  No 4, is where the young composer lived while engaged to conduct at Riga’s original opera house. The story goes that mounting debts caused Wagner to flee Riga by ship and the dreadful journey he endured gave him the idea for the Flying Dutchman overture.

Entering Town Hall Square, a  collection of brilliant buildings springs into view. Easily recognised is the red-brick House of the Blackheads (00 371 67 181 800; melngalvjunams.lv) and next to it the Schwab House, both of which were built as bases for medieval merchants working in Riga.

These guild houses continued in use until Adolf Hitler required all German citizens to return to the Fatherland. As most of Riga’s merchants were German, these buildings fell into disuse. Both were bombed during the Second World War and the ruins bulldozed by the Soviet authorities, but after independence from Moscow came in 1991 the houses were meticulously rebuilt. If Blackheads is open, peep inside. Today it’s a museum of the guild houses but at the moment the President is working there while Riga Castle is being reconstructed.

Turn right in front of the the  grim, concrete Museum of Latvian Occupation (currently also closed for reconstruction but temporarily rehoused at Raina bulvaris 7;  okupacijasmuzejs.lv/en). This was built by the Soviet authorities to honour those Latvians who fought with the Red Army, but since independence it has been redesignated a museum of occupation, recording the chilling experience of being overrun by both the USSR and Nazi Germany.

Exit the square by Kraum Street and in Jaun Street and you’ll pass another fine Art Nouveau building at No 25. Neiburgs (00 371 6711 5544; neiburgs.com) is now an elegant hotel and restaurant. It was built at the beginning of the 20th century by a Latvian businessman as a complex of shops and apartments.

After 1945, the Neiburgs were evicted as class enemies of the Soviet state and the building were turned into a beer restaurant for the  nomenklatura elite and those who were able to bribe the doorman. Amazingly, the Neiburg children survived deportation and labour camps and, after 1999, the hotel was given back to them.

Jaun Street empties into Dom Square where Riga Cathedral (doms.lv), the biggest in the Baltics, would look even taller if the square around it hadn’t risen up with 700 years of rebuilding. You’ll often find buskers in front of its 19th-century portal and it’s worth looking inside in case the organ (once the largest in the world) is being played. Pils Street leads from the square down past a very handy new pop-up terrace café next to the Anglican church in the direction of Riga Castle. Today, like so much of Riga it’s under restoration.

Turn left in front of the Anglican Church down Anglikan Street to 11 Novembra Kastmala where  Restaurant Burkans (00 371 6 750 3964; burkans.lv) offers outside seating and a great view to enjoy across the Dauguva river.

Fresh cuts

The Castle of Light will hold the national library, an exhibition centre, and a concert  hall when it opens later this year (bit.ly/RigaRead).

1914 (1914.lv/en) is an exhibition at the Arsenal Exhbition Hall commemorating 100 years since the start of the war that led to the creation of Latvia. Until 20 April.

Mikhail and Mikhail is a new  Latvian opera about chess at the Latvian National Opera House  (00 371 707 3777; opera.lv), premiering on 12 March.

Re:visited is an exhibition of recent international art at the Riga Art Space (00 371 67 181 327; makslastelpa.lv ) running from 14 March to 27 April.

Travel essentials

Getting there

Air Baltic (00 371 6700 6006; airbaltic.com) flies from Gatwick and Aberdeen to Riga from £91. Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) flies from Stansted, East Midlands, and Manchester.

Staying there

Hotel Bergs, 83-85 Elizabetes Street (00 371 6777 0900; hotelbergs.lv) has double rooms from €180 (£148), including breakfast.

More information