The fascinating capital of a vanishing country – with KGB history and superb beer

Full of cobbled alleys and charm, it’s hard to believe this dynamic metropolis was ever part of the USSR - Getty

Standing on the windswept balcony of Riga’s Academy of Sciences, a colossal Soviet skyscraper known locally as “Stalin’s birthday cake”, the contested history of Latvia’s lively capital lies spread out below you like a map.

On the edge of town are the austere tower blocks built during the Cold War, when Latvia was part of the USSR; in the suburbs are the ornate wooden villas of the Tsarist regime, which ruled Latvia until the First World War; in the heart of town are the robust brick buildings of the Teutonic Knights, the German crusaders who founded Riga 800 years ago.

The Latvian Academy of Sciences in Riga
The Latvian Academy of Sciences in Riga - Getty

Riga’s medieval Old Town is its main attraction, but its more modern districts are equally enthralling, for this is a city whose stormy (and often bloody) past is writ large on every street. Conquered and colonised by Russians, Prussians, Swedes and Poles, every invader has left their mark.

From the handsome townhouses of its Hanseatic merchants to the brutalist hulks of its Soviet overlords, each building has a tale to tell. An important seaport since the Middle Ages, it’s always been an international crossroads, a place where east meets west, and from October 29 it will be even easier to visit, when British Airways start direct flights from London Heathrow.

Shedding the Soviet shackles

I first came to Riga in 2011, to report on the 20th anniversary of Latvia’s liberation from the Soviet Union. I’ve been back half a dozen times since, and I like it more and more. It used to have a rowdy reputation as a stag party destination, but after Latvia adopted the Euro prices rose and the nightlife became less raucous. There are still lots of colourful, convivial bars, but today most revellers do their drinking sitting down.

Eating out is an unpretentious pleasure. The restaurants are homely, the local cuisine is hearty, and the beer is superb. Virtually everyone speaks English. Food and drink are still good value and there are plenty of decent hotels. Since Latvia regained its independence, in 1991, Riga has enjoyed a remarkable renaissance.

Its antique buildings have been meticulously renovated (its Art Nouveau district is the biggest in Europe) and its inhabitants have thrown off the Soviet shackles and embraced the free market with gusto. Wandering the cobbled alleys of the Old Town, full of quaint shops and cafes, it’s hard to believe this dynamic metropolis was ever part of the USSR.

Eating out is an unpretentious pleasure, and the beer is superb
Eating out is an unpretentious pleasure, and the beer is superb - Getty

Latvia was a battlefield during the First World War (Riga’s covered market is housed in several huge Zeppelin hangars, left behind by the Kaiser’s army) and after a brief period of independence, between the wars, it became a battlefield again. In 1940, Stalin marched in and deported Latvia’s best and brightest citizens to Siberia.

In 1941, Hitler marched in, and set about murdering its many Jews. In 1944, Stalin marched back in again, and drove out Hitler’s Wehrmacht. Throughout these successive catastrophes, Latvians were stuck in the middle. Forcibly conscripted into both the Wehrmacht and the Red Army, fathers, sons and brothers ended up fighting on opposite sides.

Painful memories

After the Second World War, Latvia was swallowed up by the Soviet Union. Its culture was eradicated, its history obliterated. Russian became the lingua franca. Countless Latvians were exiled to far-flung corners of the USSR and replaced with Russian speakers. Many simply disappeared. This harrowing, heartbreaking story is recounted in Riga’s riveting Occupation Museum.

The Corner House museum is the old KGB HQ
The Corner House museum is the old KGB HQ - Alamy

An even starker memorial is the “House on the Corner” (as Latvians called it, euphemistically). This is the old KGB HQ, where numerous innocent Latvians were imprisoned, tortured and executed. For Latvia, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has reawakened painful memories. Its Russian-speaking minority (about a quarter of Latvia’s population) remains an awkward legacy of its subjugation by the USSR. The Russian border is only a few hours’ drive away. There are Ukrainian flags flying everywhere.

Latvia’s awful history is compelling, but a visit to its lively capital isn’t all doom and gloom. The National Museum of Art has a wonderful collection of Latvian landscape paintings, and the Splendid Palace cinema is a flamboyant relic of Riga’s first period of independence. It is a sprawling city, with over 600,000 inhabitants, but the centre is all walkable, ringed by canals and parkland. The Soviets left behind a lot of eyesores, but the Tsarists built some splendid boulevards. It’s a treat to simply stroll around.

'The Soviets left behind a lot of eyesores, but the Tsarists built some splendid boulevards. It’s a treat to simply stroll around,' writes Cook - Getty

Wilderness on its doorstep

Riga is also the ideal gateway to Latvia’s tranquil, untamed countryside. Jurmala, the country’s oldest and biggest seaside resort, is only 15 miles from the city centre. With a broad sandy beach flanked by thick dark forest, it’s beautiful but slightly sinister, like the setting for a film noir. There’s no road along the seashore. The houses are hidden in the trees. Busy in summer, out of season it’s supremely peaceful. The beach and the surrounding woodland seem to stretch on forever.

A few miles inland is Kemeri National Park, a marshy wilderness renowned for its rare flora and fauna. I saw several great egrets, and a field full of storks, gathering before their long flight south to escape the winter. Bustling Riga seemed a long way away.

Since Latvia regained its independence, it’s lost almost a third of its population – mainly young people, migrating west in search of work. For Latvians this is a big headache, but for British visitors the sense of space and freedom is sublime – fewer than two million people (about a third of them in Riga) in a country bigger than Switzerland.

18 countries where the population is falling
18 countries where the population is falling

Latvia’s Versailles

My Latvian guide, a jolly man called Aldis, drove me to Rundale, an intricate rococo palace surrounded by woods and meadows. Designed by Rastrelli, the renowned Italian architect who built the Winter Palace in St Petersburg, it’s a sort of Latvian Versailles – but without the crowds. The Soviets turned it into a school (and even, for a while, a grain store). It’s now been restored to its former glory.

Rundale, an intricate rococo palace
Rococo palace Rundale was built by the same architect who designed the Winter Palace in St Petersburg - Getty

I loitered in the ornamental gardens, drinking in the solitude, reluctant to return home. As he drove me back to Riga, Aldis told me about his national service in the Soviet army. He was badly injured by a landmine in Afghanistan. When Latvia won its independence from the USSR, he manned the Latvian barricades in Riga.

Latvian tourism has suffered since Russia invaded Ukraine, and that’s a shame. It seems potential visitors are put off by the proximity of the Russian border. I guess that anxiety is understandable, but it’s also irrational. Unlike Ukraine, Latvia enjoys the protection of NATO membership. If Russia ever invaded Latvia, we’d all be at war with Russia, and a cancelled or interrupted holiday would be the least of anyone’s concerns.

In fact, since Russia invaded Ukraine, there’s even more reason to visit Latvia. With travel to Russia sadly off-limits for the foreseeable future, Latvia gives you access to lots of Russian heritage, but there’s more to it than that. Latvian independence was one of the great victories of the Cold War. As we enter a new Cold War, it feels like an especially fitting time to discover this fascinating country, whose liberation from the USSR was so hard won.

How the population of Latvia has plummeted
How the population of Latvia has plummeted

Getting there

Air Baltic flies from London Gatwick to Riga, with numerous onward connections in the Baltic States and beyond. British Airways will fly from London Heathrow to Riga from October 29.

Staying there

Neiburgs is a stylish boutique hotel in a beautifully restored Art Nouveau building in the historic centre of Riga. Villa Joma is a homely old-fashioned hotel in a traditional wooden house in the seaside resort of Jurmala, a few minutes from the beach.

Getting around

William Cook was a guest of Baltic Holidays, a British based travel company with an unrivalled knowledge of Latvia and a passion for the Baltic States. Its bespoke tours, with informed and personable local guides, take you off the beaten track and reveal the sights most tourists miss.