A sculpture of a lion on the top of the Art Nouveau building is pictured in Riga

A sculpture of a lion on the top of the Art Nouveau building is pictured in Riga (Ints Kalnins, Reuters)

RIGA (Reuters) - A city of the medieval Hanseatic league of trading nations with a mix of Latvian, Germanic and Russian cultures, Riga has a rich 800-year history and a vibrant modern buzz.

A trip to the Latvian capital is an opportunity to see world class art nouveau buildings, join trendy locals in top eateries and take a trip down the memory lane of Soviet history.


After arriving, you have a choice of several good hotels, from the top end Neiburgs Hotel (http://www.neiburgs.com) favorite of German tourists or the Grand Hotel in the medieval Old Town (http://www.grandpalaceriga.com/), the boutique Hotel Bergs in the newer center (http://www.hotelbergs.lv), which has hosted celebrities such as Lady Gaga, or bigger chain hotels like the Radisson Blue Hotel Latvija (http://www.radissonblu.com/latvijahotel-riga).

Riga is split into two central parts favored by tourists - the historic Old Town near the river, and the newer center, which includes the Art Nouveau district, as well as the main shopping streets.

5 p.m. - The first excursion is to the Old Town, starting from the square at the top end of the area nearest to the river Daugava. Here you will see a statue of French medieval epic hero Roland, who was a symbol of justice in northern German towns and which the German-dominated Riga burghers decided to erect in 1897.

Roland, along with several other buildings, was destroyed during World War Two and the city council has gone to great lengths and expense to try to re-create the pre-war feel.

The statue, City Hall and the House of the Blackheads, a guild house for unmarried German merchants when the Baltics were dominated by a German-speaking elite and ruled by the tsars in St. Petersburg, have all been restored. Today the House of the Blackheads is the temporary office of the Latvian president as Riga Castle undergoes reconstruction.

Take a leisurely walk around the Old Town, savoring more than 800 years of history that has been influenced by Riga's former German, Swedish and Russian overlords. Riga has been back in the hands of the Latvians themselves since independence was regained from the former Soviet Union in 1991.

Of particular note are Cathedral Square (Doma Laukums), with the Dom cathedral on one side, the building housing Latvian Public Radio on the other. Another corner features a newly restored old bourse building that now houses a contemporary art museum.

From here, take any of the streets and let your feet guide you - you will see tiny, cobbled streets, little squares, many with small bars or restaurants, several old churches and Riga Castle. In the days when Latvia was ruled by the tsars, Riga Castle was the residence of the Russian governor.

Other notable monuments are The Three Brothers, the oldest buildings in the Old Town, as well St Peter's church, St Jacob's cathedral and the Cats' House, an old building in the center of the Old Town which has two statues of cats on the point of each tower. The legend is that a Latvian merchant was excluded from the nearby guild and had the cats' bottoms turned towards the guild house to show his anger. The dispute was later resolved and the cats' bottoms were turned the other way round.

8 p.m. - Stop by "The Three Chefs' Restaurant 'The good shall grow'" (Tam Labam Bus Augt, http://www.tamlabambusaugt.lv/) restaurant inside Jacob's Barracks in the Old Town. The three well-known chefs - Eriks Dreibants, Ruta Rietuma and Martins Sirmais - will titillate your taste buds. Because almost all the food is made from local, fresh organic produce, the menu changes daily and depends on the season.

In the new part of the town, next to the plush embassy district, there is also the very well known Vincents restaurant (http://www.vincents.lv), run by Martins Ritins. Most visiting foreign dignitaries drop in.

10 p.m. - Savor the night life of the Old Town, which boasts many bars and restaurants.


9 a.m. - Begin a day with a walk around the beautiful Art Nouveau district in what is known as the "The Quiet Centre". Riga boasts one of the largest collections of Art Nouveau buildings in the world, which are also recognized by UNESCO as having outstanding universal value.

10 a.m. - Visit the Art Nouveau Museum (http://www.jugendstils.riga.lv/eng/muzejs), take a walk on Alberta iela (street) and Elizabetes iela, gaze at the Art Nouveau building of the Stockholm School of Economics in Riga nearby. Lunch can be had at any of the cafes in the area, such as Harry Morgan's, the bar of the Albert Hotel, the Bite Blues Club or Burga Bars.

1 p.m. - After lunch, head back to the Old Town, where there is still plenty to see, through the two parks which were built during the days of tsarist rule, first Kronvald park and then over to the park leading up to Bastion Hill (Bastejkalns).