Riga, Latvia: A City Imprinted With Soviet History

Shirley Mueller, MD, continues her Baltic travels with a trip to Latvia's capital, Riga. There, she finds a city where everything feels just a bit out of whack.

The resort town of Jurmala is a pleasant stop between Vilnius and Riga. It is on the Baltic Sea and has many restaurants that serve lunch.

Jugendstil in Riga

Though Gaudi is the King of Art Noveau in Barcelona, other architects elsewhere reign as princelings. The Latvian architects Mikhail Eisenstein (1867-1921) and Konstantins Pekens (1859-1928) are among them. Mikhail Eisenstein’s importance is further enhanced as he is the father of Sergei Eisenstein (1898-1948), the producer of the famed 1925 Soviet movie, "The Battleship Potemkin.”

Art Noveau in Riga.

The early 20th Century Art Nouveau section of Riga is primarily along Alberta and Elizabeth Streets. Here the buildings are mainly viewed from the exterior as most continue to be used privately. There is one, however, that is a museum. It is the Riga Art Noveau Museum on Alberta Street designed by Pekens. He built it in 1903 as his home and it shows his loving care with careful attention to detail. Upon entrance, there is a small room with a video about the architect and the house in English. This is a “do not miss.”

The spiral staircase in the Riga Art Nouveau Museum.

The most impressive part of the whole visit to me was the spiral stairway entrance. Here, perhaps a photo (above) is worth a thousand words.

The Riga Opera House

Mikhail Baryshnikov, the well-known ballet dancer who defected from Russia, was trained in Riga and danced on the stage of the Riga Opera House which initially opened in 1863. Today it is called Riga’s “White House” because the oversize building is painted white on the exterior. The inside, however, is a blast of color, primarily red and gold.

The interior of the Riga Opera House.

The Riga Market

The market is another attraction in Riga. It is in old Soviet hangars and a thriving conglomeration of smells, sights, and sounds. My impression was that the items for sale were expensive, even compared to New York City prices. This is true according to a Swedbank study published in early 2014. It found that Riga residents spent more of their income than any other Baltic country on food, housing, and transport.

A display of prepared food in the Riga Market.

It was in the market that my hand was slapped. A meat purveyor did not want me taking photos of his display. He was angry enough to reach over his counter and give me a hard smack. I was surprised and so were those around me. My take on this is that his behavior is a carryover from Communist times. Someone also suggested to me that perhaps he had something in his case he wasn’t allowed to sell legitimately. We will never know.

The Riga Freedom Monument

The Freedom Monument in Riga. A vintage building is to its left and a new one is behind.

The monument was built in the 1930s to honor Latvian soldiers killed in war. After World War II when the country was occupied by the USSR, it could well have been taken down, but was saved by a woman Soviet sculptor, Vera Mukhina, who acknowledged its intrinsic artistic value. Today, it is a symbol of national independence.

That the country is moving toward modernity is clearly demonstrated by a wedding party we observed. The groom and best man were having their photo taken by a female photographer in the park area surrounding the monument. In the background is McDonald’s. This says it all.

Wedding Photos in Riga.

The best man to the left, the photographer in the center and the groom to the right. Obviously a motorcycle is part of the festivities.

The Museum of Decorative Arts and Design

This museum was near our hotel. Though I overheard one visitor say that she liked it, the exhibition space was small and contained few historical artifacts. The one below is representative of my experience in Riga, Latvia.

To me everything seemed a bit out of whack in Riga. This exhibit in the Museum of Decorative Arts and Design demonstrates this perfectly.

This country is the least-developed of the 3 Baltic States. For me, it still has a heavy overlay of communism. I was also told it is the most corrupt.

Traveler’s Tips

The Grand Palace Hotel

We stayed at the Grand Palace Hotel near the center of Old Riga. Certainly it is a pleasant and cozy hotel. Our room, however, was small for 2 people. There apparently were larger rooms, however. The next time, I would be prepared to find out about room size before my visit.

In defense of this hotel, however, the food was very good. And the location was excellent.

Take a Tour?

I would be inclined to do this. First of all, the guide could give tips about restaurants in the city; some were not what we would have liked. Secondly, they could relate the complicated and often sad history of Latvia and the other Baltic States which could enhance memory. It is hard to plow through it on one’s own.

For Further Reading:

The Artist’s Colony between Munich and Frankfurt

All photos by the author.