People who know me well will know that I like to travel on a budget, and there is nowhere better to do so than Eastern Europe. Of course, people who know me well are also very much aware of my interest in Russia and Eastern Europe, so may not be too surprised that I have drawn such a conclusion. Nevertheless, I firmly believe that there is much worth seeing in Eastern Europe, especially the Baltics, and for a very reasonable price. Unless you are travelling in summer, however, do not plan on there being much sunshine.
I first visited the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia in 2015. I had just been to Ukraine and Poland with the LSE Grimshaw International Relations Club, and I decided to extend my stay by travelling up the Baltic coast. Although the weather was terrible, I fell in love with all three Baltic states, but for some unknown reason, I found Latvia the most appealing of the three.
While travel in Latvia is already cheap enough, there are several things to do in the Latvian capital of Riga which are completely free. In this post I would like to offer my recommendations about the best things to do in Riga without having to spend a single cent.
Situated on the River Daugava estuary as it enters the Baltic Sea, for much of its history Riga was a wealthy trading port. A member of the Hanseatic League, Riga was a vital point of exchange and transfer for goods between the Russian principalities of Pskov and Novgorod and European ports further west. The sumptuous House of the Blackheads opposite the City Hall is testament to the wealth of Riga’s merchant guilds.
Due to its strategic position, Riga became a target for neighbouring states keen to take control of the city’s trading wealth. After the Hanseatic League’s maritime power began to decline in the 15th century, Riga became vulnerable to Sweden, Poland, and Russia. Poland and Sweden were initially successful during the Livonian Wars in the late 16th century, but the Russian Empire established its control over the Baltic during the Great Northern War (1700-21). The Baltic states remained part of the Russian Empire until its collapse in 1917.
As a result of Riga’s turbulent history, the city’s population was divided along the confessional lines of the three main branches of Christianity. For this reason the city is home to three cathedrals. The 14th century Gothic Lutheran Dome Cathedral is one of the country’s most recognisable landmarks. The green spire of the Catholic St James’s Cathedral also forms a distinctive part of the city’s skyline. The neo-Byzantine Orthodox Cathedral of the Nativity was rebuilt following the collapse of Communism. All three cathedrals are impressive works of architecture and are open to visitors free of charge.
In 1997 Riga’s Historic Centre was placed on the list of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites. UNESCO not only recognised the medieval old town, but the extraordinarily high concentration of Art Nouveau –Jugendstil in German – buildings in the city. Over 350 edifices in the city were built in during the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in the Art Nouveau style, largely intended for wealthy nobles and merchants in the city. The highest concentration of Art Nouveau architecture in Riga is to be found along three streets: Alberta iela, Elizabetes iela, and Antonijas iela, located in the northeast of the city.
One of the most curious buildings in Riga is the Cat House, an early 20th century structure incorporating medieval and Art Nouveau styles. It is named for the cat sculptures that sit on the turrets of the building. A popular legend claims that the merchant who had the house built was refused entry to the Great Guild and ordered that the cats’ backsides point in the direction of the Guild. Some years later, when the merchant was admitted entry into the Guild, the cats were turned 180 degrees.
National Library of Latvia
Riga’s innovative architectural history, of which the Art Nouveau is a key part, continues onto the 21st century. The National Library of Latvia is housed in a glass building on the western bank of the River Daugava. Completed in 2008, the building houses 4.1 million books across eight floors and offers impressive panoramic views of the old town opposite the river. The Library hosts several permanent and temporary exhibitions throughout the building. Visitors are required to have a free access pass obtained at the reception desk.
In the 19th century, as Riga was expanding beyond its city walls, city authorities decided to remove the walls and towers that surrounded the city in order to create more space for the city’s expansion. One of the structures that survived the cull is the Powder Tower, which now forms part of the Latvian War Museum. The War Museum houses a rich collection of artefacts relating to the military conflicts that have taken place the territory that is now modern day Latvia over one and a half millennia.
The displays across four floors take the visitor on a journey beginning with the settlement of Baltic tribes in the area during the 600s AD, and ending with the two world wars. Some unexpected episodes of Latvian history, including the colonization of the Caribbean island of Tobago by the Duchy of Courland and Semigallia (the southern half of modern-day Latvia), are also highlighted in the museum. Courland also briefly established colonies in West Africa along the Gambia River. The vast museum takes a couple of hours of visit and provides excellent value to tourists interested in military history.
Museum of the Occupations
Like the War Museum, the Museum of the Occupations is one of Riga’s best museums. As with the War Museum, entry to this museum also happens to be free of charge. Although Latvia has been witness to many of European history’s most traumatic episodes, it has only been an independent nation for approximately fifty years. Latvia first declared independence in 1919 following the collapse of the Russian Empire in the First World War. Twenty years later, it was victim to the Nazi-Soviet Pact, which saw the Red Army occupy the Baltics. When the Nazis launched the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 they wrested control of Latvia before being pushed back in 1943. After allied victory in the Second World War, the Soviet Union annexed Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Independence was only restored in 1991.
This young museum was established to highlight the injustices the Latvian people suffered at the hands of both Nazi and Soviet occupiers between 1939 and 1991. Although the moral equivalence that the museum establishes between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union remains a controversial topic, especially for the ethnically Russian population living in Latvia, the museum is well worth a visit. The museum is not too big and has few artefacts on display, but makes up for it with a wealth of textual information and video and audio displays. The ongoing tensions between Russia and the Baltic states underline the importance of history to contemporary political debates. The information on display in this private museum offers key insights into understanding attitudes to Russia in the Baltic states in the present day.