Originally we planned to venture to Valga, a town two hours from Tartu which straddles the Estonian-Latvian border. However, in researching Valga, Zach realized it would only be another two hours to make the trip to Riga. Easily swayed by Riga’s grandeur and cosmopolitan nature after a quick Google search, I was sold on the idea. So we purchased tickets for the 9:05 Lux Express bus. (Although a train runs from Tartu to Riga, it requires a connection at the border.) Thinking we had plenty of time, we arrived at the bus station 20 minutes early, and Zach walked over to the McDonald’s to grab Egg McMuffins for the journey. However, as the minutes ticked by, I grew increasingly worried that we would miss the bus as Lux Express, as we had already noted, is quite punctual. Zach was equally panicked (and frustrated) at McDonald’s. I walked to an area where I could keep an eye on the bus and an eye peeled for Zach. With five minutes to spare, I noticed Zach sprinting toward me. Only then could I take a deep breath and laugh off my panic. We boarded the bus a bit flustered and barely got settled before it peeled away at precisely five after nine.
Although the Egg McMuffins were ultimately disappointing, the drive to Riga was enjoyable. We were able to pass the time without it feeling interminable, and we arrived slightly early, around 12:45. Our return bus was at 6:45, so we had exactly six hours to peruse Riga. It was freeing to hop off the bus without any luggage and immediately begin exploring. The bus station is near Riga’s Old Town, so it was simple to quickly find ourselves weaving through cobblestone streets.
We wound up at the base of St. Peter’s Church. Feeling a bit churched out by that point, we decided we didn’t want to pay to see any of the churches in Riga. All of them – with the exception of the Orthodox Church – had rather high admission prices compared to Estonia too. Instead, we sat at a cafe in its shadow and enjoyed coffees and crispy potato pancakes. St. Peter’s Church was first built in the 13th century and later expanded to its current size in the 15th, although little of its original structure remains after it was destroyed during World War II (WWII). Its baroque tower is 400 feet tall with a viewing platform at 236 feet that visitors can pay to ascend by elevator. The tower has been struck by lightning six times (!) and was the tallest wooden tower in Europe before the church burned down during WWII.
Riga is the largest city in the Baltic States. Situated on the Daugava River just south of the Gulf of Riga, the city was established in 1201 on the site of an ancient settlement as it was transforming into a prominent trading post. Riga joined the Hanseatic League in 1282, becoming an integral part of the medieval Baltic economic structure. Latvian history follows a similar pattern to that of Estonia. After passing through several hands – Polish, Swedish, Russian, German – Latvia declared its independence in 1918 only to have the Soviets and Germans occupy their lands during WWII, ending with Latvia under Soviet control until 1991. Riga sustained a lot of damage during both World Wars, and much of the city had to be rebuilt. Even still, Riga’s Old Town retains many of its medieval structures – although the city walls were removed in the 19th century – and was granted UNESCO world heritage status in 1997. Unlike Tallinn’s Old Town, Riga possesses a wide range of architectural styles giving it a distinct feel, and it is much more expansive.
We had a rough idea of sites we wanted to see and loosely wove through the Old Town in our quest to find them. After we finished our snack beneath St. Peter’s Church, we stopped in a shop to browse for souvenirs and try Riga’s special liquor. Riga Black Balsam has a history in the city dating back to at least the 16th century, although the current recipe dates to 1752. A concoction of 24 ingredients, including Valerian, ginger, and wormwood, it was often used as a medicinal curative. We tried the original along with a couple other flavored varieties and found that the most tolerable was the black currant. The original burned our throats, while the cherry reminded me of cough medicine. We were glad we had the opportunity to taste several before selecting the small, 40-milliliter black currant flavor to buy as a souvenir.
After our tasting, we ventured over to Town Hall Square. There, one of Riga’s most prominent sites – the House of the Blackheads – presides over the large, open square historically used as a trading area. The square’s buildings were destroyed during WWII and have been reconstructed. The House of the Blackheads is stunning. Built in 1334 as a meeting space for public organizations, the Brotherhood of Blackheads took over the building at the end of the 15th century. (The Blackheads was a guild for young, unmarried merchants, ship owners, and foreigners.) The building underwent many transformations before becoming the opulent facade seen today. Demolished during WWII, the only surviving remnant was a medieval cellar. The rebuilding was finished in 1999. Next to the House of the Blackheads is the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia – which I would like to visit on a return trip – and on the opposite side of the square sits Riga’s Town Hall, which was rebuilt in 2003.
We popped into the tourist information center to grab a map and a few pamphlets to help guide us to the most prominent sites. After departing Town Hall Square we walked northwest toward Dome Square. Riga seemed to be a city of spires. At every turn, we caught a glimpse of a spire towering over a building or framed at the end of an alley. Arriving at Dome Square we were met with a gigantic open space, flanked on one side by Riga Cathedral, famous for its organ and mash-up of architectural features. The square is relatively new, formed in the 1930s after the demolition of several older buildings. It has an incongruent feel to it and embodies the varied architectural styles that permeate Riga’s Old Town. The best example of the Old Town’s medieval architectural evolution, though, was not too far away. The Three Brothers, which now house the Museum of Architecture, are three buildings that represent the oldest residential building complex in Riga. The oldest of the buildings (the white building) is from the late 15th century, while the other two are from the mid- and late 17th centuries.
We finished our tour of the Old Town, wandering down cobblestoned streets, popping into souvenir shops, and photographing buildings of interest. We found the Swedish Gate – the only remaining city gate along the only remaining portion of Riga’s city walls – and passed the Museum of War with its Powder Tower, which dates back to 1330 and is the only tower remaining of 28 towers in Riga’s fortification wall. On our way to Līvu Square, we passed the “cat house.” According to local lore, the building’s owner was so upset at not being granted admission to the Great Guild, he placed an angry black cap atop his turret. I’m not sure if that story holds any truth, but I do like the idea of that style of vengeance. We passed through Līvu Square, which was lively with cafe terraces and music, and crossed the main boulevard toward Bastejkalns Park.
Bastejkalns Park was buzzing with activity as tourists and locals sought the sun. It looked inviting with its shaded lawn and flowing, boat-laden canal which was once the moat protecting the Old Town. In the center of the park, the Freedom Monument rises toward the sky. Dedicated in 1935, it was erected in the memory of those who died for Latvian independence. The three stars held above the woman’s head symbolize the three historic provinces of Latvia. It’s quite striking in person and seemed to garner quiet pause for those who passed it.
We travelled along the park’s edge as we made our way toward Albert Street where a collection of Art Nouveau buildings reside. Although a bit out of the way, it was worth the trek. The buildings were gorgeous with varying motifs, details, and colors splayed across the facades. The proliferation of Art Nouveau buildings occurred during a particularly prosperous era in Riga between 1898 and 1915. Roughly one-third of the city’s buildings in the center of town were constructed in the Art Nouveau style, making Riga a destination for that style of architecture. We arrived at Albert Street to find it empty, surprised to have it to ourselves. We slowly strolled up one side, admiring the details, doing our best and failing to capture the beauty of the buildings. At the end of the street, we were bombarded by a tour group of older adults, so we waited a while to stroll down the other side.
The last spot I wanted to visit was the Cathedral of the Nativity of Christ. The largest Orthodox church in Riga, no photos are allowed of the interior and a strict dress code must be observed. I had brought along a cardigan to cover my shoulders, and my dress was knee-length, but I didn’t have a head scarf to wear. I sent Zach inside, assuming I wouldn’t be able to go in, and he returned to tell me they had loaner scarves at the entrance. So, we were both able to wander through. Of the Orthodox churches we visited on this trip, Nativity of Christ is by far the most beautiful. The exterior alone outshines all of the others with a gold dome and subtle but grand detailing. The interior, though, was exceptional. It was littered with gold, while the walls and ceiling had the most striking cerulean blue hue. The Byzantine-style frescoes were immaculately decorative and every inch of wall was coated in color. It was a dream; I was thrilled that I got to see it. (Oddly enough, during the Soviet era, the church was converted into a planetarium and cafe but was rededicated in 2000.)
By that point, we had checked off all of the sites we wanted to see and had time to grab a meal before catching the bus. In hindsight, we should have stopped to eat as we were walking through the Old Town instead of being so focused on checking off sites because now I wanted an atmospheric setting without any idea of where to find it. Eventually we made our way back to Līvu Square, where we wolfed down burgers, fries, and a house-brewed beer. Thankfully, we didn’t have to rush through our meal and had enough time to pop into a print shop to buy a souvenir on our way back to the bus station. We arrived back in Tartu around 10:30 and completely exhausted, went straight to bed.