Riga

    
   - darkometer rating:  5 -
  
The capital of Latvia and largest city in the Baltics. It also offers a wider range of attractions to visitors than the other two Baltic capitals (Vilnius and Tallinn), and that includes an astonishing number of sites relevant to the dark tourism as well. Beyond that, I found Riga to also be one of the most pleasant cities in Europe overall.  

>More background info

>What there is to see

>Location

>Access and costs

>Time required

>Combinations with other dark destinations

>Combinations with non-dark destinations

>Photos

    
More background info: Like Tallinn, Riga was one of the major cities of the Hanseatic League from the 13th century onwards. Later it was for long periods part of first Sweden and then the Russian empire (and later still the USSR). Yet, as a legacy of the Hanseatic ties, Riga had a large German population and even used German as the official language until the late 19th century.
 
The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw Riga booming and expanding like at no other time in its history. It was also that period that brought the style of art nouveau, Jugendstil, to the city where it flourished like in few other places.
   
After a brief occupation by Germany during WWI, Latvia became an independent state and Riga its natural capital in the inter-war period.
 
This independence was brought to an abrupt end through the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between Hitler and Stalin, on the basis of which the Soviet Union swallowed up the Baltics and eastern parts of Poland. And then Nazi Germany broke the agreement by invading further eastwards ... bringing death and destruction not only to the east of Poland, as well as to Belarus, Ukraine and Russia, but also to the Baltics.
   
While some Latvians saw the arrival of the Germans as a liberation from the USSR, this quickly turned out to be extremely bad news for Riga's large and thriving Jewish community. Indeed, it didn't take long for one of the worst phases of the Holocaust to hit Riga (and the rest of the region – cf. also Liepaja and Skede as well as Vilnius and Kaunas in Lithuania).
 
A ghetto was set up in Riga itself and a number of concentration camps on its outskirts (see Kaiserwald and Salaspils). But the very worst crimes were perpetrated in Rumbula and Bikernieku where the Nazis carried out mass executions of predominantly Jewish victims at the hands of the infamous Einsatzgruppen.
 
The defeat of Nazi Germany, however, did not bring freedom for Riga and the Baltics, but renewed occupation, this time, again, by the USSR, and this time it was to last until the early 1990s.
 
In 1986 green protesters scored an unusual victory against the Soviet dictatorship by stopping an engineering plan to dam the Daugava River near Riga, thus preventing a potential environmental disaster.
 
In the remainder of the decade, protests in the Baltics gained momentum and calls for independence grew louder, especially on the part of the Latvian Popular Front. During several demonstrations the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (which the USSR denied ever existed) was openly attacked as the illegal root cause for Latvia remaining in the Soviet Union. The protests culminated in the Baltic Way of 23 August 1989, when a human chain was formed stretching all the way from Vilnius to Tallinn, and passing through Riga at about the halfway point of the distance.
 
Following the violent January 1991 events in Vilnius, especially the attack at the TV Tower on the 13th, citizens of Riga erected barricades of their own to protect the parliament. A few days later Soviet special forces attacked the Ministry of the Interior.
 
Yet in a referendum held in March almost three quarters of the electorate voted for independence. This is even more remarkable when you consider the fact that in Latvia almost half the population was not even ethnic Latvian! To this day, Riga has a very large Russian “minority” that is actually closer to being the majority in the city. 
 
More attacks by Soviet troops followed in the summer in the wake of the Moscow coup of August 1991. But after that failed, Latvia's independence was finally acknowledged by the new Russian Federation, which came out of the dissolution of the USSR.
 
After independence, Riga enjoyed an economic boom – including in terms of tourism, when the city became one of the “hottest new” destinations in Europe.
 
The financial crises from 2008 onwards hit Riga hard as well, and 2009 saw some outbreaks of violence. But things have calmed down again. 2014 was an important year for Riga as Latvia adopted the euro and the city became European Capital of Culture (together with Umeå in Sweden).
 
 
What there is to see: a lot. Certainly more than you would expect of a city this size and in the Baltics. None are really top-league major sites, but Riga offers a wider spectrum across various categories of dark-tourism sites than most cities. However, two predictable thematic threads are dominant here as well (like in the whole Baltic region), namely a) sites relating to the Soviet past and b) those relating to the Holocaust.
   
These are sites that are given their own separate chapters here. Yet more places are briefly outlined in the text below this list.
 
    
Rumbula
    
 
In addition to this already wide range of dark sites there are a number of sites that may also be of further interest to some dark tourists:
 
Those in pursuit of yet more Soviet relics may find an exceptional gem in the old harbour area of Andrejsala, which is currently undergoing an extensive regeneration programme. Some urban explorers made a rare discovery here: a Soviet bunker that lay forgotten underground, untouched and with all interior installations still intact.
 
When they got the door open (with ease – apparently the locks were broken) they even found – to their surprise and amazement – that even the electric lights and ventilation systems still worked! Now there are plans to open this bunker to the public as a Civil Defence Museum. When I was in Riga in the spring of 2014 that was not the case yet, but maybe by the time you read this such plans will have come to fruition. When I was there I couldn't even track down the exact location of the bunker.
 
But the area is also interesting for its industrial heritage, including the massive old grain silos and the former power station. Next door to this is a Museum of Power Generation (which I also found closed when I was there, so I cannot say what it's like inside).
 
There are big plans afoot for a complete regeneration of this old harbour area just south-west of the city centre so it is bound to have a totally different appearance in a few years' time. When I was there it still had a rather rough charm of a semi-abandoned industrial complex – which is something I revel in (see background), so I found it quite cool. But that atmosphere will probably not survive the regeneration scheme (it never really does – cf. London or Hamburg).
 
In contrast to the hidden location of the old Soviet bunker, the very largest relic from time of the USSR is impossible to overlook: the Academy of Sciences building, a classic Stalin-era skyscraper in the style you can also find in Moscow as well as in some non-Soviet cities of the former Eastern Bloc (such as Warsaw).
 
This example in Riga may not be quite as tall and massive but it is still a very noticeable landmark. Look out for the hammers and sickles on the façade of the central tower! Further down some Soviet stars and other symbols have been removed. You can go up to an observation platform on the roof.
 
Similarly dominating the skyline of Riga, though it is located quite a distance from the centre, is the TV Tower. At a height of 368m this is in fact not only the very tallest structure in the Baltic region but also (together with Berlin's) the tallest TV tower in the whole European Union. There's an observation deck you can take a lift up to, though this lies at a rather less impressive height of just under 100m (300 feet) inside the lower central section of the tower. There's nothing there – other than the views (but no restaurant/cafe as in the TV Tower in Vilnius). But the interior design oozes a certain kind of retro charm that I found quite endearing (admission/lift: 3.70 EUR, open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.).
 
A marvel of Soviet engineering, the design of the tower is rather unusual and very different from most other TV towers around the world (which usually are grey concrete needles with round platforms): it stands on three massive steel legs that support two central, rusty-metal-clad, triangular sections, each several storeys high and with a gap in the middle for various aerials and equipment, and the whole thing is topped with a steel needle in red and white that makes up a bit more than a third of the total height.
 
It's a striking enough sight to behold from afar, but even more so from closer up, making the hike to get to the tower worth the effort. The nearest public transport, trolleybus 19, can take you to the middle part of Sala bridge (the stop is called Zaķusala) but from there you have to walk for about a mile (1.5 km).  
 
Not far from the Old Town location of the Occupation Museum, in the middle of the square outside facing the river, there is another leftover from the Soviet times, namely the Riflemen monument – originally dedicated only to the Latvian Red Riflemen who protected Lenin as a sort of personal guard, but now reinterpreted as honouring all Riflemen.   
  
Along the river promenade you can spot a small memorial plaque that commemorates the worst naval disaster in the Baltics' history before that of the Estonia (see Tallinn), namely the sinking of  the “Mayakovsky” in which 147 passengers perished in August 1950.
 
Those set to investigate further the theme of the Holocaust and Jewish history in Riga should also search out the location of the ruins of the Great Choral Synagogue on Gogol Street. It was burned down in July 1941 by the Nazis, with hundreds of Jews inside who had been herded into the basement. Next to the ruins stands a memorial to Janis Lipke and other Latvians who helped or hid Jews during this bleak period.
 
 
Location: right in the centre spot of the Baltic region and Latvia itself, roughly 200 miles (300 km) each from Tallinn to the north and Vilnius to the south, but only about 10 miles (15 km) from the coast of the Gulf of Riga.   
 
Google maps locators:
 
Andrejsala/Museum of Power Generation: [56.9664, 24.0938]
 
Academy of Sciences: [56.943, 24.122]
 
TV Tower: [56.924, 24.137]
 
Riflemen: [56.9468, 24.1058]
 
Synagogue ruins: [56.9424, 24.1263]
 
Jugendstil Museum (and architecture): [56.9595, 24.1085]
 
Cat House: [56.9501, 24.1086]
 
Blackheads House: [56.9471, 24.1069]
 
Central Market Halls: [56.944, 24.115]
 
National Library: [56.941, 24.097]
 
Freedom Monument: [56.9514, 24.1133]
 
Laima clock: [56.950436, 24.112066]
 
 
Access and costs: easy to get to and to get around in, for the most part still quite affordable.
 
Details: Riga is the number one transport hub of the Baltics, and thanks to its international airport being the home of the Baltics' own budget airline (imaginatively named airBaltic) it's also the cheapest and most convenient entry point to Latvia and the whole region. You can also get here by bus. Long-distance buses are popular and cheap in the Baltics, with plenty of connections to choose from. Trains are a less convenient option, though direct connections exist to Moscow and St Petersburg, but not, bizarrely, down south to Vilnius in neighbouring Lithuania to connect with the mainline to Warsaw and Berlin.  
 
You can even get to Riga by boat, most notably by the daily ferry service from Stockholm, Sweden, operated by Tallink/Silja Line. There used to be a direct ferry to Travemünde or Lübeck in Germany as well, but as far as I could find out the only connections currently running in that direction go from Ventspils and Liepaja but not Riga. Cruise ships also regularly stop in Riga, but that's a mode of transport I like to discourage people from using (mainly for environmental reasons).    
 
Driving to Riga in your own car is hardly a workable option, also given that within Riga a car would be hindrance rather than an advantage most of the time because of the difficulty of finding parking. Hiring a car to get to or out of Riga – and maybe visit some of the harder to get to sites on the city's outskirts such as Bikernieku or Salaspils en route – is an option very much worth considering, on the other hand.
 
Getting around in Riga: first of all, avoid taxis! The taxi drivers of this city have a well-earned and much-documented bad reputation of ripping tourists off. They are not necessary anyway, you can get by perfectly OK by walking or, if necessary, by using buses, trams or trolleybuses for any longer journeys. These are comparatively cheap (at the time of writing in early 2015) if using pre-purchased tickets but cost significantly more when bought on board. The best deals are the multi-journey (e.g. 10 rides for 10.90 EUR) and day passes (3 days just 10 EUR, 5 days 15 EUR!). You have to validate your ticket on the electronic machines when boarding, these will display how many journeys you then have left on this ticket (where applicable).
 
Accommodation options in Riga are naturally as plentiful as you would expect for such a touristy city, but I can't make any specific hotel or guest-house recommendations here, as I opted for renting a self-catering apartment for my stay in Riga.
 
For that same reason I can only make limited comments on food & drink in Riga either. There are, however, two specific places I'd like to mention here:
 
One is an exceptional drinking spot only (although food can be brought in), namely the craft beer brewery/pub of Labietis, who also sell their brews to take out (very cheaply in plastic bottles) and have a good range of often highly imaginative varieties to choose from, including a superb imperial stout and different takes on the IPA theme.
 
The place is notoriously hard to locate if you don't know it. Tip: first find the supermarket in a side street off Valdemara street just before Alojas iela branches off. Towards the back by a large bistro walk all the way around to the back of the building and find the entrance in the house next door, which is wedged in between an old brick industrial complex.
 
A special place to eat that I personally found very cool was a small cellar bistro called StockPOT (external link, opens in new window; address: 6 Gertrudes street, open Monday to Friday 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.). It is run by a very likeable Brit who is trying his best to convince Latvians of the joys of spicy food (a rarity in these parts whose national cuisines rather tend towards the bland and stodgy) and at the same time offers vegetarian/vegan options, all at affordable prices.
 
Being a died-in-the-wool chillihead (and semi-vegetarian) myself, no such convincing was necessary in my case when I popped in for a late lunch (on the specific recommendation of another Brit I had met a couple of weeks earlier in Liepaja). The food was indeed a most welcome change from what you can normally find in the Baltics (though some Latvian food can also be nice – cf. Liepaja).
 
I did not have a chance to take part in StockPOT's monthly fire-eater contest as such, but was given a sample of the freshly ground chilli powder the chef was preparing for the next such occasion (unfortunately the day after I left Riga). And it was indeed of extreme heat. I wonder if I could have passed the test of the heat challenge (the rules include: no drinks or bread to cut the heat and only 20 minutes time to finish the plate!)
 
The normal menu is limited but includes regularly changing (or rather: rotating) dishes from all around the world with an emphasis on spicy styles, but not exclusively, so there will also always be some mild options for the not-yet-converted.
 
 
Time required: Even for just all the dark sites described here you will need several days in Riga, if you also want to see more of the general tourist attractions even a whole week will barely suffice unless you really fill your days and/or prioritize.  
 
 
Combinations with other dark destinations: The closest and at the same time most significant dark site in the vicinity of Riga, if not in the whole of Latvia, is Salaspils, the site of a former Nazi-era concentration camp and now dominated by an ensemble of stunning Soviet-era statuary and matching memorial architecture. A must-do excursion from Riga, no doubt.
 
Also within a day return trip range is Ligatne with its Soviet bunker, and the Irbene radio locator could possibly also just about be doable as an excursion from Riga, while Liepaja and Karosta, also only a couple of hours' drive or bus journey away from Riga to the west, rather warrant a couple of overnight stays to do them justice.   
 
 
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Like Tallinn and Vilnius, Riga too has an Old Town core that for many tourists is the main focus of their sightseeing. You can find all the trimmings to fit the cliché: the typical cobbled streets and squares, crooked ancient traders' houses, many in classic Hanseatic style, and of course grand old brick churches. Possibly the most photographed building in the Old Town, however, is a recent reconstruction from the late 1990s (the original was destroyed in WWII): the Blackheads House, so named after the depiction of traders from Africa on the façade ...
 
Unlike Vilnius and especially Tallinn, however, Riga also offers prime tourist attractions beyond its Old Town. First and foremost Riga is a Mecca for fans of the architectural style of art nouveau, or 'Jugendstil', as it is known as here (i.e. by the German term – cf. Vienna).
 
The expression of that style in Riga has several forms, but the most celebrated examples are the flamboyantly decorated tenement house façades full of statues, plaster faces of often stunning expressions, peacock reliefs, monkey heads, owls, and incredibly imaginative details of countless types all over the walls, punctuated further by unusually shaped windows with curved frames.
 
You can find some of the best of these in particular along Alberta iela, Strēlnieku iela and Elizabethes iela (esp. its western section), around Gertrudes Church a bit further to the east, and also here and there within the Old Town (such as the amusing Cat House). Keep your eyes open for all those wonderful details! It can keep you occupied for days!
 
The striking house on the corner of Strēlnieku and Alberta iela is home to the Jugendstil Museum, in which you can marvel at the interior designs, furniture, crockery and even clothes to match the architectural style of this era. Also worth noting is the bathroom of the flat with a toilet bowl that bears the legend “the incomparable closet” on it (apparently it's British made!).  
 
Another architectural style worth noting here is that of the old wooden houses that have an almost Scandinavian appeal. A restored cluster of these can be found on the other side of the river on Kalnciema iela, as well as in the vicinity of the Janis Lipke memorial museum.
 
Furthermore there are also plenty of striking examples of functional architecture ranging from turn-of-the-century industrial complexes or the brick warehouse complex around the Riga Ghetto Museum to the five Central Market Halls. The latter are the largest such set of market halls in Europe. Certainly worth a look – and also good for shopping, of course.
 
Admirers of contemporary modern architecture will find the new National Library building on the western banks of the river opposite the Old Town a particularly stunning example. Its ship-like curved glass shape is certainly highly unusual. It can catch the sunlight in sparkling fashion, though its nickname Castle of Light is said to go back to some piece of folklore rather than such obvious visual appearances.
 
Riga also has plenty to offer for rainy days when you'd rather spend time indoors. There are plenty of specialist museums beyond those mentioned above (e.g. a chocolate museum, a sports museum, a porcelain museum) as well as various art galleries. Interestingly, I found several eminent institutions, in particular the Latvian National Museum of Art, closed for refurbishment – and that during Riga's turn as European Capital of Culture 2014 – scheduled to re-open only in 2015. Bizarre time management!  
 
By the way, you don't even have to go inside anywhere to see art in Riga, there's also plenty of it to be seen in the streets, such as all those brightly coloured bicycles I saw hanging in the trees on the edge of Esplanade Park.
  
Probably Riga's most photographed woman sculpture is the one informally known as Milda who stands atop the Freedom Monument at the bottom of Brīvības boulevard. It was erected in 1935 and is regarded as a kind of national shrine for Latvians. The base of the monument sports reliefs of Latvian freedom fighters in typical war memorial style. In good weather you can watch real soldiers matching this live by parading and doing a changing-of-the-guards ceremony every hour on the hour.  
 
At the other end of the plaza around Milda, just opposite the outer edge of the Old Town, stands another famous monument of a more modest size, namely the Laima clock. It takes its name from the column the clock is at the top of advertising a Latvian chocolate brand of the same name. The clock is part of local folklore as a popular meeting spot (especially for young couples, so the legend goes).
   
   
 
  • Riga 01 - skylineRiga 01 - skyline
  • Riga 02 - Old TownRiga 02 - Old Town
  • Riga 03 - cathedralRiga 03 - cathedral
  • Riga 04 - HanseaticRiga 04 - Hanseatic
  • Riga 05 - narrow alleyRiga 05 - narrow alley
  • Riga 06 - very old buildingsRiga 06 - very old buildings
  • Riga 07 - very recently rebuilt Blackheads HouseRiga 07 - very recently rebuilt Blackheads House
  • Riga 08 - Blackheads - henceRiga 08 - Blackheads - hence
  • Riga 09 - cat houseRiga 09 - cat house
  • Riga 10 - that is whyRiga 10 - that is why
  • Riga 11 - bikes in treesRiga 11 - bikes in trees
  • Riga 12 - orthodox cathedralRiga 12 - orthodox cathedral
  • Riga 13 - Freedom MonumentRiga 13 - Freedom Monument
  • Riga 14 - Bastion HillRiga 14 - Bastion Hill
  • Riga 15 - Armenian memorialRiga 15 - Armenian memorial
  • Riga 16 - Choral Synagogue ruinsRiga 16 - Choral Synagogue ruins
  • Riga 17 - Latvian Riflemen monumentRiga 17 - Latvian Riflemen monument
  • Riga 18 - new landmark - National LibraryRiga 18 - new landmark - National Library
  • Riga 19 - railway bridge, Academy of Sciences and market hallsRiga 19 - railway bridge, Academy of Sciences and market halls
  • Riga 20 - in one of the market hallsRiga 20 - in one of the market halls
  • Riga 21 - smoked fish - Latvian goldRiga 21 - smoked fish - Latvian gold
  • Riga 22 - Academy of Sciences Stalinist skyscraperRiga 22 - Academy of Sciences Stalinist skyscraper
  • Riga 23 - spot the hammers and sicklesRiga 23 - spot the hammers and sickles
  • Riga 24 - here one is missingRiga 24 - here one is missing
  • Riga 25 - pre-Soviet hammer and sickleRiga 25 - pre-Soviet hammer and sickle
  • Riga 26 - hammer and anvilRiga 26 - hammer and anvil
  • Riga 27 - symmetryRiga 27 - symmetry
  • Riga 28 - big oil train and little boatRiga 28 - big oil train and little boat
  • Riga 29 - memorial plaque by the riverRiga 29 - memorial plaque by the river
  • Riga 30 - iconic TV towerRiga 30 - iconic TV tower
  • Riga 31 - closer-up wide-angle shotRiga 31 - closer-up wide-angle shot
  • Riga 32 - view from the viewing platformRiga 32 - view from the viewing platform
  • Riga 33 - harbourRiga 33 - harbour
  • Riga 34 - wooden housesRiga 34 - wooden houses
  • Riga 35 - the disadvantage of wooden housesRiga 35 - the disadvantage of wooden houses
  • Riga 36 - prisonRiga 36 - prison
  • Riga 37 - art nouveauRiga 37 - art nouveau
  • Riga 38 - famous exampleRiga 38 - famous example
  • Riga 39 - art nouveau staircaseRiga 39 - art nouveau staircase
  • Riga 40 - dragonRiga 40 - dragon
  • Riga 41 - beauty contest in art nouveau plasterRiga 41 - beauty contest in art nouveau plaster
  • Riga 42 - protective stockingsRiga 42 - protective stockings
  • Riga 43 - perpendicular styleRiga 43 - perpendicular style

  
 

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