The D&O Diary’s European travels continued with a stop in Riga, Latvia’s capital city and the largest city in the Baltic states. Located on the Daugava River where it meets the Baltic Sea, Riga is a level, walkable city full of interesting architecture and beautiful parks.

The entire country of Latvia has only about 1.9 million people, with about 635,000 of them living in Riga. Latvia is a small country, only about the geographic size of the U.S. state of West Virginia. At 57 degrees north latitude, Riga is very far north; while I was there, the sun didn’t set until nearly 10:30 pm, and it did not get fully dark until after midnight.

Riga is best known for its historic Old Town, known locally as Vecrīga, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Although the Old Town was badly damaged in World War II, many of the buildings have been restored, and today the Old Town streets are full of tourists and lined with restaurants, bars, and cafes.

A representative view of Old Town’s streets. I took this photo directly in front of my hotel.
Another street scene in Old Town Riga. I am not sure how I managed to get pictures of the Old Town without any people in them. The district’s streets were pretty crowded all the time while I was there.
Riga’s venerable old Riga Cathedral, located in the Old Town. It was originally built in the early 13th century and modified many times since. During the Soviet era, church services were banned there, but it reopened to religious services in 1991. The Cathedral may be the most recognizable landmark in Latvia.
The House of the Blackheads, also located in the Old Town. It was first built in 14th century as a warehouse and as a meeting place for the Brotherhood of Blackheads, a guild of merchants and foreigners. It was badly bombed in WW II and the Soviets demolished the remains in 1948. A new structure (a replica of the former building) was finished in 1999. It is a common feature of visiting Eastern European cities — you have to decide how you feel about replicas.

Along the northeast side of the Old Town is the Pilsētas Kanāls (City Canal), the city’s old moat, built to protect the medieval walls from invaders. The canal sits within the Bastejkalns Park, a belt of stunning parkland splitting Old and Central Rīga. The canal area was so delightful in the bright summer sunshine that prevailed while I was in Riga that I spent much of my time there.

The city canal in Riga. A really great place for walking on a sunny summer day. I returned there frequently during my Riga visit.
In the park near the canal are last remnants of the bastion for Riga Fortress, which was demolished in the mid 19th century.
In the center of the canal park is the 140 foot tall Freedom Monument, a memorial to the soldiers killed in the Latvian War of Independence (1918-1920). Surprisingly, the monument was not destroyed during the Soviet occupation after World War II.
Just to the northeast of the canal is the striking Cathedral of the Nativity of Christ, an Orthodox church built in a neo-byzantine style at a time when Latvia was part of the Russian Empire. The recently re-gilded dome and bell tower are very eye-catching.

The main reason I wanted to visit Riga was to see its famous Art Nouveau architecture. Art Nouveau buildings make up roughly one-third of the buildings in Central Riga, making Riga the city with “the highest concentration of Art Nouveau architecture anywhere in the world.” Most of the Art Nouveau buildings were built in the early 20th century, when Riga prospered and grew rapidly.  I have set out some pictures of the many splendid buildings below; this pictures are only a sampling, and really don’t do justice to the many beautiful buildings, mostly located in the Center City to the north of the canal.

Just as was the case in Vilnius, the city of Riga was also full of Ukrainian flags. Given the country’s history of Russian and Soviet occupation, the war in Ukraine does not feel very far away. For Latvians, the Ukrainian war is all too reminiscent of the country’s 20th century nightmares. As a small vulnerable country, Latvia feels the threat deeply.

I was fortunate in the timing of my visit to Riga. The summer weather was absolutely wonderful, with sunny skies and daytime highs in the mid-70s. In my experience, June is a great time to visit Northern Europe, particularly the Scandinavian and Baltic countries.

Coincidentally, the day of my arrival in Riga turned out to be Baltic Pride Day. There was a parade and a big party in one of the city’s parks. The weather could not have been nicer for the event.
June is such a great time to travel in Europe, with the flowers in bloom. The weather is also conducive to walking around, which is my preferred activity when traveling, particularly when I visit a city for the first time. With its level topography and interesting architecture, Riga is particularly well suited to exploring on foot. More than one travel site has ranked Riga as one of the most walkable cities in the world. Riga is truly one of the hidden gems of Europe.