The architecture of Old Riga is a snapshot of the city’s storied past, from its founding by German crusaders at the beginning of the 13th century to Riga’s reign as the largest city in the Swedish empire 400 years later. Riga was part of the Hanseatic League during the Middle Ages, the Russian Empire in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the Soviet Union from 1940-1991. Amazingly, evidence of all these historical periods can still be found despite the damage the city sustained during World War II and the subsequent Soviet occupation. It’s thanks to this “living illustration of European history“ that Riga was granted UNESCO World Heritage status.
Arguably the most stunning architecture in Riga’s Old Town, the House of the Blackheads was built for a guild of unmarried German merchants in 1344. Sadly destroyed during the 1940s, the current building is an exact replica based on the original blueprints. It is also the temporary home of Latvia’s president while Riga Castle is being renovated.
The 800-year-old St Peter’s Church looms behind Town Hall Square, with its spire soaring to 123 meters. The view of Riga from the spire’s observation deck cannot be beat! (Don’t worry, there’s an elevator.)
The Town Musicians of Bremen is a story from the Brothers Grimm in which four animals – a donkey, dog, cat, and rooster – look through the window of a cottage and ultimately save it from robbers. Here in Riga, the clever animals are peering through the “Iron Curtain.” The sculpture, located next to St Peter’s Church, was made in 1990 when Latvia was on the verge of breaking free of the Soviet Union.
The next square you’ll come to as you walk through Old Riga is occupied by a year-round craft market and a popular summer beer garden where locals while away the sunny hours listening to live music. There is also an artistic ode to Riga as the birthplace of the Christmas tree. I love the colorful architecture surrounding this square and the narrow lanes that lead off in all directions.
If all roads lead to Rome, then all roads in Old Riga lead to Dome Square, the ceremonial heart of the city. In the 19th century, several old houses were demolished to enlarge the square and grand buildings were put up around it, including the Riga Bourse, or Stock Exchange, and the Latvian Radio headquarters. In 1991, after Latvia declared its independence from the USSR, locals built barricades in Dome Square to protect the city from Soviet reprisals. Today, the peaceful square is filled with summer beer gardens and the winter Christmas market.
Nearby stand the Three Brothers, the oldest stone houses in Riga, built between the 15th and 17th centuries. The one on the right is the oldest. You can tell by its larger size, smaller windows and front yard – all indicators of the price of land and tax requirements of the time. The interiors of the three buildings have since been connected and the Latvian Museum of Architecture occupies the ground floor.
The Roman Catholic St Jacob’s Cathedral was built in the early 1200s and has changed hands as many times as the city itself. In the 16th century, St Jacob’s became the first church in Riga to hold Lutheran services during the Reformation. Another notable feature is the steeple’s unusual exterior bell which was used to call townspeople to watch executions, once a popular form of entertainment.
Once part of the city’s fortifications, Riga Castle was built in 1330 as the headquarters of the Livonian Order, the group of knights also responsible for the castle in Sigulda. Today Riga Castle serves as Latvia’s presidential palace.
On the northern edge of Old Riga stands the 14th century Powder Tower, the lone survivor of the 18 which once surrounded the city. After the defensive wall was torn down, the tower was rented by a German fraternity. Today it houses the Museum of War.
The long lemon-yellow building adjacent to the Powder Tower is Jacob’s Barracks, an 18th century military garrison that has been converted into a pedestrian-friendly dining and shopping complex. The only remaining section of Riga’s city wall runs parallel to the barracks.
One of the oldest streets in Riga, Troksnu Iela (Noise Street) got its name because guards standing on the city wall would shout and cause a commotion whenever they saw enemies approaching. I can’t imagine that was pleasant for residents of the neighboring houses.
In 1698, a stone gate was built in Old Riga to commemorate Sweden’s occupation of the city. Interestingly, the local executioner lived above the so-called Swedish Gate and would put a red rose on the windowsill when he was about to go to work.
One of the most popular tales of Rigan folklore revolves around the Black Cat House, so-called because of the cat statues perched on the roof. According to local legend, the owner of this building was rejected from the merchants’ guild across the street. In revenge, he installed black cats on his roof with the tails facing the guild. The distressed merchants agreed to admit him so long as he turned the cats around.
Last but not least is Livu Square, the liveliest entrance to Old Riga. The square, which owes its existence to WWII damage, is flanked by the Russian Drama Theater, the medieval guild halls, and a row of colorful buildings turned touristy restaurants. Yet more beer gardens fill the square come summer while another Christmas market is set up during the winter.
For the past eight months, I’ve walked around Old Riga, admiring its unique mix of architecture and delving into its fascinating history. I still can’t believe I get to call this charming place home!
Do you have a favorite spot in Old Riga? Which of the city’s architectural styles do you prefer?