September 5, 2014
On our way to Romania after Stockholm we had the opportunity to explore the city of Riga, Latvia on a 15 hour layover and collect another stamp in our passports. Beautiful and historic downtown Riga is easily reachable via a short bus ride from the airport, and easily walkable once there.
The center of old downtown Riga is a collection of small streets lined with old buildings and churches, shops, restaurants and cafes, as well as remnants of the old fortress walls and defensive towers which once surrounded the city.
Saint Peter’s Church
Built and rebuilt over the centuries, the spire of Saint Peter’s Church in the center of old downtown Riga soars high above the city. Last rebuilt after being burned out during a bombing in World War II, the church is now a great place to visit and learn about the history of the city and to take the elevator ride up the spire for a view.
The view from Saint Peter’s spire.
The House of the Blackheads -or- The origin of Christmas Trees.
The House of the Blackheads, a sort of men’s clubhouse or social organization for unmarried merchants, is an exact replica of what would be the true oldest building in town. The building was originally built in the early 14th century and stood unharmed until the Soviets tore it down in 1948. As luck would have it the blueprints were still intact and found after the Soviets left Latvia and the building was reconstructed as exactly as possible from the blueprints and pictures.
The building is famous as being the origin of the Christmas Tree in the early 1500’s, according to Latvians. Apparently in drunken merry, the Blackheads would decorate a tree and dance around it and then burn it on Christmas Eve. The tradition caught on and spread, all except the burning.
Riga, Latvia has made a great recovery after a certain failed experiment by the Soviets. The city has gone to great lengths to tear down any remaining reminders of the Soviet occupation. Downtown only one building remains with any sign of the Soviet hammer and sickle, an old bunker which has been converted in a history museum of their time as an Eastern Block Nation.
Free Walking Tour
We found a free walking tour of Riga which meets each day at noon in front of Saint Peter’s Church, right in the heart of old downtown Riga. We toured a bit of the old downtown and then went deeper into the city, to areas many tourists don’t get a chance to visit, especially if they are just in town on a day long layover. We learned the history of the Riga Central Market, which is built inside of old World War I German Zeppelin hangars. The Great Choral Synagogue Memorial, a memorial built to the atrocities of the Holocaust during World War II. We walked from there back towards the center of town, passing through a huge park that surrounds the old town of Riga, and ending in front of the Opera House.
Jewish Choral Synagogue and Holocaust Memorial
After the tour we stopped to have lunch and had a sour Russian soup with many unknown ingredients, but it was loaded with meat, vegetables, and a lot of dill. With our lunch we were offered a beverage choice of fresh “squished” juice, or “pre-squished” bottled juice. We chose fresh squished.
Art Nouveau Buildings
From there we continued our tour on our own to Alberta Iela street where there are great examples of buildings constructed in the Art Nouveau style. Riga, Latvia has the largest collection of Art Nouveau construction of any city in the world.
Next we grabbed a bus ride to the Riga Central Market, as we wanted to spend time perusing the endless food on offer. At least 80,000 people visit the market daily, and many people from Riga do a majority of their grocery shopping here as the food is fresh and the prices are fair.
After touring the city we returned to old downtown Riga for some more wandering and dinner before heading to the airport to make our connection to Bucharest, Romania.
Despite the extremely long day, departing Stockholm at 6:15am and not arriving in Bucharest until 2am, we were happy we opted for this layover and the chance to briefly see Riga. We left quite impressed with this lovely city.