Riga, Latvia is the largest of the three Baltic capitals and certainly the most cosmopolitan with everything you could ask for. Riga has a historic old town which has been classified as a World Heritage Site and the best nightlife in the Baltics. It is also awash with history, having been occupied by seemingly every major 20th century faction from the Nazis to the Russians, Latvia and Riga have stood the test of time and come out on top.
The 20th century brought World War I and the impact of the Russian Revolution to Riga. The German army marched into Riga in 1917. In 1918 the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed giving the Baltic countries to Germany. Because of the Armistice with Germany, Germany had to renounce that treaty, as did Russia, leaving Latvia and the other Baltic States in a position to claim independence. So after more than 700 years of German, Swedish, Russian rule, Latvia, with Riga as its capital city, thus declared its independence on November 18, 1918.
Between World War I and World War II, Riga and Latvia shifted their focus from Russia to the countries of Western Europe. A democratic, parliamentary system of government with a President was instituted. Latvian was recognized as the official language of Latvia. Latvia was admitted to the League of Nations. The United Kingdom and Germany replaced Russia as Latvia’s major trade partners.
There then followed World War II, with the Soviet occupation and annexation of Latvia in 1940; thousands of Latvians were arrested, tortured, executed and deported to labor camps in Siberia, where the survival rate equaled that of Nazi concentration camps, following German occupation in 1941-1944. The Baltic Germans were forcibly repatriated to Germany at Hitler’s behest, after 700 years in Riga. The city’s Jewish community was forced into a ghetto, and concentration camps were constructed in Kaiserwald and at nearby Salaspils.
In 1945 Latvia was once again subjected to Soviet domination. Many Latvians were deported to Siberia and other regions of the Soviet Union, usually being accused of having collaborated with the Nazis or of supporting the post-war anti-Soviet Resistance. Hundreds of thousands of citizens had perished and tens of thousands fled into exile in countries all over the world. As a result of intentional extermination, Latvia lost approximately one-third of its population.
After decades of Soviet rule, the policy of economic reform introduced as Perestroika by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev led to a situation in the late 1980s in which many Soviet republics, including Latvia, were able to regain their liberty and freedom. Latvia declared its full de facto independence on August 21, 1991 and that independence was recognized by Russia on September 6, 1991. Latvia formally joined the United Nations as an independent country on September 17, 1991. All Russian military forces were removed from 1992 to 1994.
Today, Riga is the worst kept secret in Europe. It is called the Paris of the North and you can do anything you want in Riga. The city is vibrant, the people are friendly and fun loving and there are tons of great restaurants and bars. It is well located within the Baltics for easy connection to Estonia and Lithuania and well connected with Western Europe with several airlines flying regularly to Riga. A great way to see the city is to have a cocktail at the rooftop bar of the Hotel Latvija high above the streets below.
Riga is a great city to walk around in and just explore the historic old town. The Russian Occupation Museum is truly eye opening to the history of these resiliant people. It exemplifies what they have been through in just the last century and it makes you look at their culture and mindsets in a different light, one of respect and admiration to the way they’ve overcome so much hardship.
The next time you are planning a trip to Europe and want to try something new, try the Baltics and definitely check out Riga. It’s a unique and different place that is becoming mainstream as discount airlines are flocking to get rights to fly to Riga. Check it out off season and hang with the locals. Bring your camers because it is truly a beautiful city.