The buildings in Riga’s Old City look like dollhouses. The streets are narrow and cobbled, and the iron church steeple of St Peter’s is visible at almost every turn, its light a consecrated guidepost. Riga is one of those cities that look like a Christmas card all year round. It feels intimate in the way only a medieval city can; sometimes streets are a mere two metres wide, forcing human proximity. It has been a cult tourist destination for some years, but has remained shielded from the crowds, tucked away in Latvia and removed from the European backpacking trail. But Riga has now been chosen as the European Capital of Culture, in 2014, the same year that it joins the euro, and so is about to become the next must-visit destination.
Because of its rich and diverse tradition, Riga survives as an old cultural capital
Riga sits on the mouth of the mighty Daugava River, where it meets the Gulf of Riga on the Baltic. Because of its strategic position linking Scandinavia to the rest of Europe, Riga has always been a hub for trade, commerce and multiculturalism. It was once a Viking stronghold, and a central point of their navigation routes, before the arrival of German settlers and Catholic monasteries in the twelfth century. It is a small but bustling city, with just under 700,000 inhabitants, but it prides itself in being the industrial, commercial, cultural and financial centre of the Baltics.
Riga is emerging as hot property in the European tourism market. An economic crisis in 2008 made Latvia extremely affordable for foreign visitors, and tourism emerged as a reliable revenue-booster for the country. Latvia grew 50 percent between 2004 and 2007, partly because it remains a heavily industrialised country and partly because it made a rapid move towards embracing the free market after independence in 1991, when the country earned its moniker: ‘The Baltic Tiger’.
But 2008 and the global economic downturn hit the country particularly hard, with GDP contracting 10.5 percent that year. The country required a bailout from the IMF, and in 2009 earned the unwelcome accolade of having the highest unemployment in the EU. In just two years, however, Latvia had regained control of its economy and finances and got unemployment back under control.
“Those who change will endure,” said Christine Lagarde, IMF Managing Director, at the opening of a 2012 IMF conference in Riga. “You have pulled through. You have returned to strong growth. You have lowered budget deficits and kept government debt ratios to some of the lowest in the EU. You have become more competitive in world markets through wage and price cuts. You have restored confidence and brought down interest rates through good macroeconomic policies. We are here today to celebrate your achievements. If we want to single out one factor for Latvia, it would be the impressive determination.”
Because of its rich and diverse tradition, Riga survives as an old cultural capital. The birthplace of art nouveau, and Baltic wooden architecture, the historic centre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and tourism is increasing at an astounding rate. In 2010, as the rest of Europe was floundering in recession and economic turmoil, Riga attracted 1.3 million tourists to its streets, an increase of 18 percent from the previous year, and only 30 percent of those were domestic visitors.
“Our biggest tourist groups – Germans, Scandinavians and Russians – make up about 12-14 percent of the total each,” Gastons Neimanis, director of the Riga Tourism Development Office told bestriga.com. “We don’t have such a large group of tourists coming from any single country as our neighbours do. More than 50 percent of all tourists in Tallinn are from Finland. That means we have to work with each country individually.”
An ever more diverse selection of guests are expected this year as Riga fulfils its duties as the European Capital of Culture. The initiative, launched in 1985 by the European Commission, aims to highlight the “richness and diversity of European cultures”. Riga fits the bill perfectly; it is well equipped to receive masses of visitors and boasts well-funded cultural apparatus. A report assigned by the European Commission suggested the Capitals of Culture initiative was rated the “most beneficial cultural events for cities in terms of development”, with the events that accompany the title boosting numbers of incoming visitors by up to 12 percent. For Riga, this will be a unique opportunity to capitalise on the city’s rich architecture and history, so often overlooked by tourists in lieu of more showy European capitals.
The increase in tourism and accolade of Capital of Culture are deeply significant of Latvia’s economic and cultural rebirth after full independence was restored just over twenty years ago
Winning European Capital of Culture is also a wonderful economic opportunity for Latvia, as events are designed to raise the profile of the city as a viable business centre. It is significant that Riga was selected to receive the honour in 2014, a year in which many European countries will host events commemorating the centenary of the start of World War I. The Great War and subsequent Treaty of Brest-Litovsk were two of the most significant events in modern Latvian history and led to the country, along with its Baltic neighbours, finally making a move for independence from the Russian Empire. Though it was short-lived, as Latvia was soon occupied by the Soviet Union, it was the first step on the path to liberation.
Though Latvia and Riga in particular hardly feature in the dialogue about the interwar period and World War II, it is a huge part of modern Latvian culture. The multicultural nature of Riga’s population meant that during both World Wars and subsequent annexation to the USSR, the city was a constant target for attack, something that has left deep emotional scars on the native population. The increase in tourism and accolade of Capital of Culture are deeply significant of Latvia’s economic and cultural rebirth after full independence was restored just over twenty years ago.
However, though Riga has been steadily rising through the ranks of most-visited capitals in Europe since 1991, the arrival of budget airlines in the last decade was the final push the city needed to become a top destination. Along with Prague, Tallinn, Budapest and Warsaw, Riga benefited from the intersection of low living costs and cheap transport. According to Yahoo Travel, Riga has topped the list of cheapest weekend city breaks for British tourists since 2010. Flights and accommodation in Riga cost around a third of that in Stockholm, another city that has benefitted from the emergence of low-cost airlines.
And visitors get plenty for their money in Riga. The city’s fascinating architecture mixes medieval and art nouveau as well as an amalgamation of nineteenth-century wooden buildings, giving the city a unique look. And every nook and cranny of the cobbled streets is packed with history. Throughout the ages, philosophers, musicians and artists have come to Riga seeking a home or a refuge. And the city has received them all with open arms; Immanuel Kant, Richard Wagner and Sergey Eisenstein all lived here and were inspired by the city’s rich heritage.
Around 40 percent of the buildings in central Riga and around the old town have an art nouveau influence – the largest collection in the world. During the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century, when art nouveau was at its most popular, Riga was experiencing a demographic and economic boom as it emerged as the largest port in the Russian Empire. Around that time, the Latvian National Opera, and a number of other opulent theatres and museums sprung up around the city, and have since become notable tourist attractions.
Riga is a city that blossoms in the winter, but is warm and inviting in summer too. It is deeply culturally engaging, with new concerts, operas, ballets, and exhibitions debuting almost every day. This year, Capital of Culture events will peak in August to cash in on the higher influx of tourists to the city. Highlights will include the Riga Opera Festival that runs through the summer. Along with cultural events, Riga will be hosting a variety of markets and trade fairs. Boosting trade and revenue and raising the business profile of a city are one the main aims. Riga will be spending just over €44m on the city’s investment programme in 2014, plus a further €80m on public transport, much of which will be used to boost resources for the events.
Latvia has rebuilt itself twice in the last two decades; first as it adapted to the demands of the free market and then when, after years of herculean growth, the economy crashed in the European Crisis. Not that any of that is apparent in the well-preserved streets of the capital. Riga has withstood the test of time, and managed to hold on to its charm and character even while so many other former Soviet capitals succumbed to the industrialisation of their streets. Its medieval alleys are a testament to its rich heritage, and proof that Riga has been a European Capital of Culture for centuries before the European Commission decided to grace it with the title.
WHERE TO EAT
Celebrating its twentieth birthday this year, Restorāns Vincents is one of Riga’s most exciting and well-respected eateries. Head chef and founder Martins Ritins is President of Latvia’s Slow Food Association and has instilled this philosophy in his restaurant. The menus change every week, depending on which products are in season and available from local farmers.
This focus on quality, organic ingredients, and the way they are skilfully crafted into beautiful plates of food, has attracted a litany of famous faces and master chefs, including Elton John, the Emperor of Japan and Heston Bluhmental. Expect delicate starters, Asian-influenced fish dishes, wild game with luxurious accompaniments, and charcoal-cooked dry-aged steaks, as well as a flavoursome vegetarian menu. Every dish is exquisitely presented, treating your eyes as much as your stomach. For a comprehensive sample of Restorāns Vincents’ style, try the seven-course tasting menu, at €110 per person.
31a K Barona Street
Set on the upper floor of Galerija Istaba, this café and restaurant overlooks a quirky art gallery, setting a unique ambience for your dining experience. The décor is eclectic, combining found objects and original artworks. Mārtiņš Sirmais is the popular head chef here, and creates a small but deeply satisfying menu, in line with the capacity of his miniscule kitchen. He is known to visit diners at their table, sounding out their culinary preferences and advising them on their choice of meal.
Most of the ingredients are local and organic, bought fresh each morning from the city’s markets, so expect different dishes every day. The restaurant’s balcony provides a great place from which to watch Riga’s street life, while the indoor view over the art gallery shop allows you to browse potential purchases before buying.
Le Dome Fish Restaurant
4 Miesnieku Street
Located in an UNESCO-recognised building, part of a quaint street constructed in the first half of the thirteenth century, Le Dome Hotel and Spa was established in 2009 by a group of Latvian designers, artists and craftspeople. The acclaimed Fish Restaurant has been voted the best in the Baltics and serves only freshly caught produce, from local fishermen. Diners can sample plaice, sturgeon, Baltic pilchard, sander and more, as well as local game, berries and vegetables, seasonally dependent. Head Chef Maris Astics is an experimental cook and favours Latvian eel, catfish and pike. The restaurant’s chilled, sophisticated atmosphere is set by live evening music from one of Riga’s finest pianists. In the summer months guests can even dine out on the charming roof terrace, taking in tranquil views of the famous Dome Church and the colourful buildings of Riga’s Old Town.
WHERE TO MEET
Riga Congress Centre
5 K Valdemara Street
Opened in 1982 as the House of Political Education, Riga Congress Centre initially housed Communist party conferences and meetings. Designed by state architects J Gertmanis and V Kadirkovs, the building boasts marble and granite lobbies and its own library. In the late eighties, the centre became a hub of debate and discussion regarding Latvian independence.
Now, an exciting reconstruction project is underway, equipping the building with state-of-the-art audio systems, and enlarging the main stage to accommodate a full-size symphony orchestra and choir simultaneously. There are currently three halls and 10 auditoriums, as well as a lobby and dining hall, with capacity for 5,000 guests. The areas can be hired for concerts, seminars, conferences, exhibitions and many other types of event. Riga Congress Centre has held seasonal balls, the Carrot Festival, the Baltic Pearl Film Festival, the annual Riga Festival, and more.
Ozo Golf Club
16 Milgravja Street
If your business associates like golf as much as the corporate clichés suggest, then Ozo Golf Club is the perfect place to host a meeting. The club offers bespoke business packages, which can include: drinks receptions at the club house; talks on the history of the club; golf tutorials overseen by professional players; an introduction to the basics of the game and golfing etiquette; one-on-one training with elite coaches; and practice sessions on the driving range.
There is also a conference room, holding up to 20 people, while the Bloom restaurant provides gourmet food and business buffet options. Ozo is Latvia’s first 18-hole golf course and features 16 man-made ponds, 50 sand bunkers and views of the lovely Lake Kisezers, whose banks are incorporated into some of the holes. Corporate events can be hosted here from April to October.
Baltic Beach Hotel
23-25 Juras Street
Located 15 minutes from Riga Airport, on the edge of a beautiful beach and surrounded by pine forest, this hotel treats business guests to an array of idyllic natural backdrops for their meeting or conference. Inside, the Baltic Beach Hotel offers 10 conference halls, the largest of which holds 350 people. All of the usual technical extras – wi-fi, sound systems, projectors, laptops, simultaneous translation, and on-hand technicians – are available to make the day run smoothly. But a Baltic Beach conference really excels on the luxury touches. Coffee breaks come with French cakes, business lunches come with a sea view, and the day ends with a back massage and rejuvenating juice drink in the hotel’s spa. To get ideas flowing in a new setting, meetings can even be moved outside to the hotel’s forest park, and evening receptions may be held on the beach.
WHERE TO STAY
Situated in the centre of Riga’s Old Town, this beautiful art nouveau hotel has a rich history to match its sumptuous interiors. Ludvigs Neiburgs arrived in Riga in 1891 and quickly mastered masonry, becoming one of the city’s best-respected builders. In 1903 he constructed the hotel, which was originally used as a residential building, from the designs of architect Wilhelm Bockslaff. After World War Two, Latvia’s autonomy was lost and Neiburgs’ properties were nationalised by the Soviet government, becoming a hotel and restaurant for visiting Communist officials. But with the renewal of state independence in 1991, Neiburgs’ buildings were returned to his heirs and in 2003, they decided to establish a hotel. Merging art nouveau aesthetics with modern comforts, the hotel opened to guests in spring 2010.
Hotel Neiburgs has 55 apartments, ranging from standard rooms to gargantuan suites. The deluxe suite, the largest offering, is set over two stories and has its own living room, bar, kitchen area and work space. Guests don’t have to go far for an exquisite dinner; on the hotel’s ground floor the Neiburgs Restaurant provides traditional Latvian food in a subtly stylish environment. Dishes combine local flavours such as herring, pearl barley, liver, rhubarb, pumpkin and beetroot, and everything is complemented by a carefully selected wine list. Neiburgs is also associated with Riga’s Park Spa, and will chauffeur guests to a Latvian buckwheat honey wrap or Baltic amber scrub – very rejuvenating.
A settlement, ‘Duna urbs’, is established close to the mouth of the Daugava River
Merchants from Bremen, Germany, arrive. This century also brings German Christian crusades and the first church is opened
City of Riga is founded by Bishop Albert von Buxhovden of Bremen, who later sends his Livonian Knights to Christianise the Baltics
Riga castle (originally constructed in the 1440s) is rebuilt and expanded. Nowadays it houses the Latvian president
The city converts from Lutheranism to Catholicism and is soon granted status of Imperial Free City by the Holy Roman Empire
The Siege of Riga occurs and the Russians take power
Riga becomes the capital of Livonia, an area now divided between the Republics of Latvia and Estonia
Riga Naturalist Society founds the Museum of Natural History. It is the first in the Baltic States
Riga Central Station is built and the 218km-long Riga-Daugavpils Railway comes into operation
Russian becomes the official language of the Baltic nations
Riga becomes the capital of independent Latvia, as World War One ends
In quick succession, Soviet and then German occupation, before Soviets take permanent power in 1944
On August 21, Latvia declares independence. On September 6, USSR recognises this
Latvia joins the European Union, but does not yet adopt the euro currency
Riga Wine and Champagne Festival
BIBLIOTĒKA N°1 Restaurant
A new addition to Riga’s cultural scene, the festival’s spring sessions begin with a Moët & Chandon champagne tasting, and the Nordea Great Bubble parade – a sparkling wine walking tour of Riga. March 9 brings a trio of master classes from wine connoisseurs.
Mikhail and Mikhail Play Chess
Latvian National Opera
March 12 onwards
Created by young Latvian composer Kristaps Pētersons, this opera is dedicated to Riga-born world chess champion Mikhail Tal. The story centres on the tense 1960 world chess championship in Moscow, 1960, where Tal beat celebrated Soviet chess master Mikhail Botvinnik.
The National Library of Latvia
Until March 23
A celebration of Latvian avant-garde art since the twentieth century, this exhibition features celebrated Latvian constructivists Gustav Klutsis and Karl Ioganson, whose spatial constructions have never before been shown in Latvia. Works from artists in the 1970s give an insight into Soviet-era Latvia.
329th Jubilee of Bach
The Big Guild
Riga’s brass orchestra, conducted by Mārtiņš Ozoliņš, celebrate Johann Sebastian Bach’s anniversary with modern Latvian interpretations of the great composer’s work. Riga’s finest wind instrument players perform in the old guildhall, in a concert focusing on Bach’s dance suites and instrumental pieces.
Arsenāls Exhibition Hall
Until April 20
This collection of art explores the First World War and its impact on Latvian culture, from the perspective of both wartime and modern artists. The exhibition includes eyewitness photography, paintings, graphic works, and a prestigious collection of sculpture from all over eastern Europe.
Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art
March 15 – April 27
A carefully curated selection of European art, the LCCA has mined some of the continents most successful recent exhibitions and biennials creating an exciting and enlightening journey through the contemporary creative scene.
Magic Dance Expo
Kipsala International Exhibition Centre
A three-day celebration of dance in all its forms, Magic Dance kicks off with competitions, including the Open Baltic Cup, the Open European Street Dance Cup and the Latvian Dance Sport Federation’s annual contest. The expo concludes with a musical performance, based on The Jungle Book.
Alternative Grand Piano
Baltais Flīģelis Concert Hall
A little outside Riga, in the picturesque town of Sigulda, the Baltais Flīģelis (White Grand Piano) presents a night of unconventional performances. The building’s exterior wall becomes a screen for visual art and the night ends with Concert on Seven Synths III by electronic music composer Kaspars Tobs.