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Latvia's Capital, Riga - The Paris of the North

Updated: Apr 30, 2022

Did you know that there is a city known as the Paris of the North? It is Riga, the capital of Latvia. The city is a treasure of architecture and a UNESCO world heritage site.

City skyline and river flowing through Riga, Latvia's capital city and home to incredible Soviet-era and post-Soviet architecture
Beautiful architecture of Riga, Latvia's Paris of the North

Like many North Americans, for many years I knew that Latvia was one of the three Baltic countries but I had not been there. It takes about three hours to fly there from Paris, France and there is a one hour time difference. It is well worth a visit and represents a relatively unknown gem, as I discovered on a visit of one week with my wife in June 2015.

Latvia is clean and safe and provides excellent value for money. Food and lodging cost significantly less than in North America but are of equal quality.

English is widely spoken in the country, so you do not have to have a Latvian spouse, as I do, in order to explore the destination beyond your guide or itinerary. You could easily purchase tickets for a gallery or museum, flag a taxi or navigate an order in a restaurant.

An American tourist among the spires and architecture of Latvia's capital city, Riga

Of course, for me, having Latvian relatives is a plus, since the people are very welcoming. For food aficionados, there is a market in the city center that is the size of four football fields!

Riga was founded by the Germans in 1201 as part of the Hanseatic League and reflects every architectural style since then. It is a delight to walk the cobblestone streets and admire the sea of beautiful spires, including the Gothic cathedral, the baroque St. Peter’s and the squat medieval turrets of the former Palace, now the residence of the President of Latvia.

As well, there is the huge Russian cathedral with its onion domes. It is a reminder that Latvia suffered greatly during the 50 years that the Soviet Union occupied it from 1940 until 1990.

The Latvian spirit of resistance and enterprise shines through at the beautiful Freedom Monument nearby which commemorates the Latvian War of Independence before the founding of the Republic of Latvia in 1918. The monument consists of a 138 foot high pedestal topped by Lady Liberty who holds aloft three stars representing the three main regions of the country. As a touch of humor, the Laima chocolate company time clock next to the monument serves as the best known meeting point in the city.

An American tourist in Riga, Latvia, meeting friends at a chocolate shop near the foot of the Lady Liberty statue and landmark

More Latvian humor appears at the top of a building facing the Big Guild House near Livu Square. According to legend, there was once a rich German merchant who was a member of the Small Guild which owned a building nearby. The town refused to grant him membership in the more prestigious Big Guild, so in indignation he erected a statues of a cat on his building with its tails raised in disdain to the Big Guild.

The Latvian spirit of resistance and enterprise also shines through at the Town Hall Square where the Guild House of the Blackheads which was destroyed in 1948 was carefully rebuilt by 1999. A statue of the medieval knight Roland and the baroque St. Peter’s Church also border the square, as does the haunting Museum of the Occupation of Latvia which chronicles the atrocities that the country suffered under occupation first by the Nazis from 1941 to 1994, then by the Soviets from 1944 to 1990.

Eloquent architectural style of the buildings in Riga, Latvia's capital city

There are even more signs of the Latvian spirit of resistance and enterprise: the whimsical Art Nouveau district with flowing sculptures on the entrance of buildings and the National Library opened in 2014 which was designed as a Castle of Light across the Daugava River from the old town. The name refers to the folk song that served as a rallying cry against Soviet repression during the occupation and reflects the rich tradition of choral singing in the country.

Practically every summer since 1873 a Latvian song and dance festival has been held in Latvia or other Latvian communities across the world, including North America. The festivals gather thousands of performers. The one in Riga alone regularly gathers over 40,000 singers and dancers.

Dancers performing a traditional Latvian dance during a festival in Riga, Latvia

So let your heart sing and let the beauty of architecture entice you to make your next trip to Latvia!

Michael Wood

July 2021



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