In the interest of expediency, here are some excerpts from the Lonely Planet - Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania chapter on Latvia:
‘The Paris of the North’, ‘The Second City that Never Sleeps’ – everyone’s so keen to tack on qualifying superlatives to Latvia’s capital, but regal Riga does a hell of a job of holding its own. For starters, the city has the largest and most impressive showing of art-nouveau architecture in Europe. Nightmarish gargoyles and praying goddesses adorn more than 750 buildings along the stately boulevards radiating out from Riga’s castle core.
The heart of the city – Old Town – is a fairy-tale kingdom of winding, wobbly lanes and gingerbread trim that beats to the sound of a bumpin’ discotheque.
Although some Latvians may lament the fact that they are an ethnic minority in their own capital, others will be quick to point out that Riga was never a ‘Latvian’ city.
Founded in 1201 by the German bishop Albert von Buxhoevden (say that fast three times) as a bridgehead for the crusade against the northern ‘heathens’, Riga became a strong- hold for the Knights of the Sword and the newest trading junction between Russia and the West. When Sweden snagged the city in 1621, it grew into the largest holding of the Swedish Empire (even bigger than Stockholm!).
Then the Russians snatched Latvia from Sweden’s grip and added an industrial element to the bustling burg. By the mid-1860s Riga was the world’s biggest timber port and Russia’s third city after Moscow and St Petersburg.
The 20th century also saw the birth of cafes, salons, dance clubs and a thriving intellectual culture, which was all bombed to high hell in WWI, and subsequently captured by the Nazis during WWII. Somehow, Riga’s indelible international flavour managed to rise up from the rubble, and even as a part of the USSR, Riga was known for its forward thinking and thriving cultural life.
Today, Riga’s cosmopolitan past has enabled the city to effortlessly adjust to a global climate, making it more than just the capital of Latvia – it’s the cornerstone of the Baltic.
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