Rīga has an upscale, big-city feel unmatched in the region. The capital (almost as large as Tallinn and Vilnius combined) is the business center of the area while original, high-quality restaurants and hotels have earned Rīga some bragging rights among its Western European counterparts. The city also doesn't lack for beauty—Rīga's Old Town (now a UNESCO World Heritage site) is one of Europe’s most striking examples of the art nouveau architectural style. Long avenues of complex and sometimes whimsical Jugendstil facades hint at Rīga's grand past. Many were designed by Mikhail Eisenstein, the father of Soviet director Sergei. This style dominates the city center. In many ways, the wonder of Rīga resides less in its individual attractions and more in the fabric of the town itself. In the medieval Old Town, an ornate gable or architrave catches the eye at every turn. The somber and the flamboyant are both represented in this quarter's 1,000 years of architectural history. Don't hesitate to just follow where your desire leads—the Old Town is compact and bounded by canals, so it's difficult to get totally lost. When the Old Town eventually became too crowded, the city burst out into the newer inner suburbs. The rich could afford to leave and build themselves fine fashionable mansions in the style of the day; consequently, city planners created a whole new Rīga. Across the narrow canal, you'll find the Esplanāde, a vast expanse of parkland with formal gardens and period mansions where the well-heeled stroll and play. Surrounding this is the art nouveau district. Encompassing avenues of splendid family homes (now spruced up in the postcommunist era), the collection has been praised by UNESCO as Europe's finest in the art nouveau style. The best examples are at Alberta 2, 2a, 4, 6, 8, and 13; Elizabetes 10b; and Strēlnieku 4a. If the weather permits, eschew public transport and stroll between the two districts, taking in the varied skylines and multifaceted facades, and perhaps stopping at a café or two as you go. The city has churches in five Christian denominations and more than 50 museums, many of which cater to eclectic or specialist tastes.
You'll find many souvenir and gift shops in the streets of the Old Town, many of which specifically cater to visitors. Latvia is famed for its linen, which is fashioned into clothes and household items such as tea towels and table runners. Woolen sweaters, mittens, and socks with traditional patterns have been worn by generations of locals during the winter. Amber items are everywhere, although their quality can vary, so shop around. Also popular are jewelry, carved ornaments, and Rīga Black Balsam, a liqueur made from an ancient recipe incorporating herbs and medicinal roots.
One of Rīga's premier dining establishments, Cydonia gastropub serves outstanding Mediterranean cuisine, with an emphasis on seafood, as well as light soups and salads. The dining room is furnished in a fashionable Scandinavian style—simple yet cozy, with an abundance of natural materials like wood and stone. There's also a lovely kids' corner with toys and crayons.
Found in the the art nouveau Hotel Viktorija in downtown Rīga, this may be the capital's best place to sample Latvian national cuisine, with such offerings as roast leg of pork, sauerkraut, an assortment of potato dishes, and smoked chicken.
The Three Brothers—a trio of houses on Mazā Pils—show what the city looked like before the 20th century. The three oldest stone houses in the capital (No. 17 is the oldest, dating from the 15th century) span several styles, from the medieval to the baroque. The building at No. 19 is the city's architecture museum. The third is at No. 21.
Towering St. Peter's Church, originally built in 1209, had a long history of annihilation and conflagration before being destroyed most recently in 1941. Rebuilt by the Soviets, it lacks authenticity but has a good observation deck on the 200-foot spire.
In Doma laukums (Dome Square), the nerve center of the Old Town, the stately 1210 cathedral dominates. Reconstructed over the years with Romanesque, Gothic, and baroque elements, this place of worship is astounding as much for its architecture as for its size. The massive 6,768-pipe organ is among the largest in Europe, and it is played nearly every evening at 7 pm. Check at the cathedral for schedules and tickets.
The Latvian Occupation Museum details the devastation of Latvia at the hands of the Nazis and Soviets during World War II, as well as the Latvians' struggle for independence in September 1991. In front of the museum is a monument to the Latvian sharpshooters who protected Lenin during the 1917 revolution.
Latvia's restored 18th-century National Opera House, where Richard Wagner once conducted, is worthy of a night out.
The fiercely Gothic Blackheads House was built in 1344 as a hotel for wayfaring merchants (who wore black hats). Partially destroyed during World War II and leveled by the Soviets in 1948, the extravagant, ornate building was renovated and reopened in 2000 for Rīga's 800th anniversary. The facade is a treasured example of Dutch Renaissance work.
The central Freedom Monument, a 1935 statue whose upheld stars represent Latvia's united peoples (the Kurzeme, Vidzeme, and Latgale), was the rallying point for many nationalist protests during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Watch the changing of the guard every hour on the hour between 9 and 6.
The Open-Air Ethnographic Museum is well worth the 9-km (5-mi) trek from downtown. At this countryside living museum, farmsteads and villages have been crafted to look like those in 18th- and 19th-century Latvia, and costumed workers engage in traditional activities (beekeeping, smithing, and so on).
Valsts mākslas muzejs
The National Art Museum has a gorgeous interior, with imposing marble staircases linking several large halls of 19th- and 20th-century Latvian paintings.
At the Motor Museum, the Western cars on display can impress, but the Soviet models—including Stalin's iron-plated limo and a Rolls-Royce totaled by Brezhnev himself—are the most fun.