- By Jennifer Monaghan
- Jan. 27 2013 16:45
Main industries: Biotechnology, chemicals and pharmaceuticals, electronics and communication technologies
Mayor: Nils Ušakovs
Founded in 1201
Interesting fact: Sergei Eisenstein, the Soviet film director, was born in Riga. His father, Mikhail, was an architect and built several of the most recognizable art-nouveau buildings in the city.
Sister cities: More than 25, including Amsterdam, Moscow and St Petersburg.
Helpful contacts: Mayor Nils Ušakovs (+371 67026000;
RIGA, Latvia — At the turn of the 20th century, this bustling seaport laid claim to being the Paris of the east thanks to a thriving cafe culture and an abundance of art-nouveau style buildings.
It was the outstanding architectural contribution of Riga's historic center that gave rise to its designation as a UNESCO world heritage site in 1997. In the Old Town alone, one finds no end of cobbled streets, gothic constructions and medieval spires. In the Central District, Albert Street in particular offers a fantastic example of jugenstil design.
In more recent years, Riga has become associated with a very different type of culture as the destination of choice for many a boozy British stag party. Yet while Riga is undoubtedly still a popular choice, this stag tag seems unfair and fails to reflect a city that has so much more to offer to visitors.
On the banks of the Daugava River and just 10 kilometers from the eastern coast of the Baltic Sea, Riga was an important center for trade between the east and the west. The city was founded by German merchants in 1201 but fell under the jurisdiction of both Poland and Sweden before its eventual accession to the Russian Empire in 1710. A period of growth ensued, and by the 19th century Riga had become one of the largest seaports in Eastern Europe.
As a frontier town during World War I and a battleground for extremist ideologies during World War II, Riga was not spared from the major violence of the 20th century. Successive implementation of Nazi and Soviet policies saw the deportation of thousands of local residents and brought about the nearly total decimation of the city's Jewish population.
Under the Soviet occupation that Latvians truly embraced their country's affectionate nickname: the land that sings. With more than 1.2 million traditional folk songs, or dainas, to choose from, Latvians used singing as a powerful tool of civil disobedience, and the "Singing Revolution" of the late 1980s helped to pave the way for the country's independence in 1991.
Latvenergo (12 Pulkveza Brieza Iela; +3 7167-72-82-22; latvenergo.lv/portal/page/portal/english/latvenergo/main_new) is a power supply company involved in the generation of electricity and thermal energy. It also provides IT and telecommunication services and is one of the largest corporate entities in Latvia.
Rimi (161 A. Deglava Iela; + 37167-04-55-29; rimibaltic.com/) is a supermarket retailer that operates 241 stores across the Baltic states.
Grindex (53 Krustpils Iela; +3 7167-08-35-00; grindeks.lv/en) is the largest pharmaceutical company in the Baltics. Specializing in heart, cardiovascular, anti-cancer and central nervous system treatments, Grindex exports its products to over 50 countries across the globe.
The Latvian Song and Dance Festival was founded in 1873 and acknowledges this fact. It celebrates the unique place that music has at the heart of Latvian national identity and takes place in Riga once every five years. The next one scheduled for this year.
While Riga is now the capital of an independent Latvia, its suburbs are also home to more than half the nation's population, making it the largest metropolis in the Baltic States.
Yet just like its Baltic neighbors, Riga was profoundly affected by the 2008-2009 global financial crisis. At that time, unemployment in the city rocketed to record levels, and many inhabitants were forced to leave the country in order to find work abroad. This happened just a few years after Latvia had enjoyed one of the fastest-growing economies in Europe.
Since 2010, Latvia's economy has stabilized, and business in Riga is once again picking up. Proof of the city's growing confidence can be found in its recently being named as the 2014 European Capital of Culture, a title it will share with Umea, Sweden. Expect there to be a buzz around the place as preparations get under way for the upcoming celebration. Riga is a city that can easily take pride in its rich cultural heritage.
What to do if you have two hours
No visit to Riga would be complete without a tour around the historic Old Town. The best way to get a feel for this place is on foot, though a climb into the spire of St Peter's Church offers fantastic aerial views of the city (19 Skārņu Iela; +3 7167-18-19-43;
A: Riga is the main driving force of the Latvian economy as well as a significant metropolis in the Baltic Sea region. The city holds a strong position across different sectors and industries.
Q: What measures have been taken to encourage investment?
A: We have an open market economy without barriers and with low operating costs and low business taxes. We also have a skilled, educated, flexible and multilingual workforce.
To promote the development of the city's priority sectors, we participate in local and international trade fairs as well as business events. Our municipality also organizes workshops, seminars and business matchmaking events for local and foreign companies from the city's priority business sectors. These events are supported by industry and entrepreneur associations, city authorities and international organizations
Q: What sectors should investors consider putting their money into?
A: On the basis of Riga's long-term development strategy until the year 2025, Riga aims to base its economic development on international co-operation and on sectors of the economy with high added value, such as processing industries, construction, tourism, logistics, transportation, storage and communication, consulting services — IT, management and legal services — and recreation and entertainment services.
Riga's most internationally competitive economic sectors have been biotechnology, chemicals and pharmaceuticals, electronics, electrical manufacturing and engineering, mechanical engineering and metalworking.
From St Peter's, it is only a short walk to Town Hall Square, where the magnificent House of the Blackheads is located. Ironically, the original, 14th-century building, which was put up as a headquarters for the Brotherhood of Blackheads, a guild for unmarried German merchants in Riga, was obliterated by German bombs in June 1941. But the carefully reconstructed version, built to commemorate the 800th anniversary of Riga's founding, is still impressive.
From Town Hall Square, head north toward Dome Square, home to the largest cathedral in the Baltics. In the summer months, this plaza also plays host to a number of open-air bars, where customers can relax while listening to live music.
If time permits, Riga's Freedom Monument is located just a five-minute walk from the Old Town. This 42-meter high statue honors the soldiers killed during the Latvian War of Independence 1918-1920 and, between the hours of 9a.m-6p.m, a change of the guard takes place every hour (weather permitting).
What to do if you have two daysRiga is home to one of the finest collections of art-nouveau architecture in Europe. Albert Street, in the Central District, is one of the best places to see examples of this classic style, which is characterized by rich facades and ornamental curves. Many of the buildings on this street are a throwback to the 19th century, when Riga was flourishing as an economic and educational center. The former home of Konstantīns Pēkšēns, a prominent architect from this era, is on this street and now houses Riga's Art Nouveau Museum (12 Alberta Iela; +3 7167-18-14-65;
There are a number of pubs, clubs and bars in Riga's Old Town, though the Skyline Bar (55 Elizabetes Iela; +3 7167-77-22-82;
A: I am originally from Lebanon and lived in London for 25 years before moving to Riga in May 2007 to be with my girlfriend. I was laid off in the U.K., and this was a great chance for me to explore a different culture and a new way of life. The timing and opportunity couldn't have been better.
Q: How have things changed here?
I used to work for a recruitment company, which gave me a great insight into Riga's employment sector. Between 2007 and mid-2008, things were great, people had money to spend and the Latvian economy was on the up. Many companies were investing in the country, mostly companies from Scandinavia — Sweden, Finland — in many different sectors: banking, farming, property. But the crash of late 2008, early 2009 had a huge effect on Latvia; you could almost feel it overnight.
Since then, things have improved a little. Unemployment is still high but not as high as it was. You can almost feel the tension being lifted from the dark days of 2009-10.
I would say that the city is more expensive then when I first arrived, and there is a greater influx of foreign people and business. On the other hand, there are fewer job opportunities, and salaries are low compared with the increased cost of living.
Q: Describe Riga in 6 words.
A: Enrapturing, frustrating, beautiful, friendly, developing, home.
everything from beers to fancy cocktails, and on weekends revelers are kept entertained by a live DJ set. There is an entrance fee of 2 lats ($3.75).
For those wanting a little more culture, the Latvian National Opera House (3 Aspazijas Bulv, +3 7167-07-37-77;
Where to eat
With a small menu and even smaller prices, Stockpot (6 Gertrudes Iela; +3 7127-83-21-65;
Also in the Central District, Vincents (19 Elizabetes Iela; +3 7167-33-28-30;
For a more traditional supper, head over to Salve (5 Ratslaukums; +3 7167-04-43-17;
If only to loosen the tongue, be sure to sample the locally brewed Riga Black Balsam. This herbal liqueur is often used to treat colds, though there are more inventive ways to enjoy the bitter concoction. Enjoyed neat, in cocktails or even as an ice-cream topping, Riga Black Balsam has an alcohol volume of 45 percent. For more alcoholic delights, head over to the Black Magic Bar (10 Kalku Iela, +3 7167-22-28-77;
Where to stay
Between Town Hall Square and Dome Square, the three-star Kolonna Hotel offers affordable accommodations in the heart of the Old Town. Rooms start from $46 dollars a night, including breakfast (Tirgonu Iela 9; +37167-35-82-54;
A: Riga is a small, pleasant town with a beautiful old quarter, the heart of which is over 800 years old and is well-preserved. I love the peaceful and measured pace of life here, and I like that Riga is not far from the countryside.
Q: How has the city changed in the past 10 years?
A: Riga used to be a fairly green town, but unfortunately all the small squares have now been built on. In other respects, I think it is the same as anywhere else. There are a lot of new, largely uninteresting buildings, though the new library is impressive. In the first six or seven years of the 21st century, the city changed a lot, but with the onset of the crisis, this process has stopped. Riga is slowly starting to lose its shine.
Q: How would you recommend spending two hours in the city?
A: I would visit Albert Street, Strelnieku Street and Antonijas Street, where there are some very beautiful houses, and then walk through the park from the House of Congress to Riga Cathedral. Go to the Radisson Hotel up to the 26th floor and have a drink there, a cocktail with Riga balsam (hot or cold depending on the season). Then, take a stroll past the National Opera House to the Old Town, where you can listen to the organ in Dome Cathedral, buy amber decorations near the Church of St. Peter and visit the House of the Blackheads.
The Dalai Lama is one of the more famous names to have stayed at the four-star Hotel Vecriga (Gleznotaju 12/14 Iela; +3 7167-21-60-37; vecriga.lv/). On the east side of the Old Town, it is just a stone's throw away from many of the local attractions. Rooms start at around $70 a night, including breakfast.
For something more upmarket, look no further than the five-star Grand Palace Hotel (12 Pils Iela; +3 7167-04-40-00; grandpalaceriga.com/home/en/). West of the Old Town just 200 meters from Dome Square, this is a hotel that certainly lives up to its billing. The spa area comes with its own sauna, steam bath and 24-hour gym. Between May and September, a summer terrace also allows guests to make the most of any late evenings. Rooms start at $215 per night including breakfast, though a 12 percent discount is applied if the stay for two nights.
Latvians are generally reserved, though visitors can improve their chances of acceptance by offering up the friendly greeting "lab-dien" (luhb-dyehn; good afternoon). Russian is widely spoken and ethnic Latvians make up less than 50 percent of Riga's population, but native Latvian speakers will appreciate the effort. Last year, a referendum to recognize Russian as an official language was resoundingly rejected by 75 percent of the voters. Latvians are proud of their national identity, and it would seem that language — be it spoken or sung — is a key part of this identity.
How to get there
Aeroflot (+7 4952-23-55-55;
It is also possible to take a train to Riga's Central Station (+3 7167-23-11-81;