Riga is the capital and largest city of Latvia. With 650,468 inhabitants ( 2012) Riga is the largest city of the Baltic states, one of the largest cities in Northern Europe and home to more than one third of Latvia's population. The city is an important seaport and a major industrial, commercial, cultural and financial centre of the Baltic Sea region. The city lies on the Gulf of Riga, at the mouth of the river Daugava.
The river Daugava has been a trade route since antiquity, part of the Vikings' Dvina-Dnieper navigation route to Byzantium. A sheltered natural harbour 15 km (9.3 mi) upriver from the mouth of the Daugava—the site of today's Riga—has been recorded, as Duna Urbs, as early as the 2nd century. It was settled by the Livs, an ancient Finnic tribe.
The Chronicle of Henry of Livonia testifies to Riga having long been a trading centre by the 12th century, referring to it as portus antiquus (ancient port), and describes dwellings and warehouses used to store mostly corn, flax, and hides. German traders began visiting Riga, establishing a nearby outpost in 1158.
Along with German traders also arrived the monk Meinhard of Segeberg to convert the pagans to Christianity. (Catholic and Orthodox Christianity had already arrived in Latvia more than a century earlier, and many Latvians baptised) Meinhard settled among the Livs, building a castle and church at Ikšķile, upstream from Riga, and established his bishopric there. The Livs, however, continued to practice paganism and Meinhard died in Ikšķile in 1196, having failed his mission. In 1198 the Bishop Bertold arrived with a contingent of crusaders and commenced a campaign of forced Christianization. Bertold was killed soon afterwards and his forces defeated.
The Church mobilised to avenge. Pope Innocent III issued a bull declaring a crusade against the Livonians. Bishop Albert was proclaimed Bishop of Livonia by his uncle Hartwig of Uthlede, Prince-Archbishop of Bremen and Hamburg in 1199. Albert landed in Riga in 1200 with 23 ships and 500 Westphalian crusaders. In 1201 he transferred the seat of the Livonian bishopric from Ikšķile to Riga, extorting agreement to do so from the elders of Riga by force.
1201 also marked the first arrival of German merchants in Novgorod, via the Dvina. To defend territory and trade, Albert established the Order of Livonian Brothers of the Sword in 1202, open to nobles and merchants.
Albert had ensured Riga's commercial future by obtaining papal bulls which decreed that all German merchants had to carry on their Baltic trade through Riga. In 1211, Riga minted its first coinage, and Albert laid the cornerstone for the Riga Dom. Riga was not yet secure as an alliance of tribes failed to take Riga. In 1212, Albert led a campaign to compel Polotsk to grant German merchants free river passage. Polotsk conceded Kukenois (Koknese) and Jersika to Albert, also ending the Livs' tribute to Polotsk.
Riga's merchant citizenry chafed and sought greater autonomy from the Church. In 1221 they acquired the right to independently self-administer Riga and adopted a city constitution.
That same year Albert was compelled to recognize Danish rule over lands they had conquered in Estonia and Livonia. Albert had sought the aid of King Valdemar of Denmark to protect Riga and Livonian lands against Liv insurrection when reinforcements could not reach Riga. The Danes landed in Livonia, built a fortress at Reval (Tallinn), and set about conquering Estonian and Livonian lands. The Germans attempted, but failed, to assassinate Valdemar. Albert was able to reach an accommodation a year later, however, and in 1222 Valdemar returned all Livonian lands and possessions to Albert's control.
Albert's difficulties with Riga's citizenry continued; with papal intervention, a settlement was reached in 1225 whereby they no longer had to pay tax to the Bishop of Riga, and Riga's citizens acquired the right to elect their magistrates and town councilors. In 1226, Albert consecrated the Dom Cathedral, built St. James's Church, and founding a parochial school at the Church of St. George.
Albert died in January 1229. He failed his aspiration to be anointed archbishop but the German hegemony he established over the Baltics would last for seven centuries.
Riga remained the largest city in Sweden until 1710, a period during which the city retained a great deal of autonomous self-government. In that year, in the course of the Great Northern War, Russia under Tsar Peter the Great besieged plague-stricken Riga. Along with the other Livonian towns and gentry, Riga capitulated to Russia, but largely retained their privileges. Riga was made the capital of the Governorate of Riga (later: Livonia). Sweden's northern dominance had ended, and Russia's emergence as the strongest Northern power was formalised through the Treaty of Nystad in 1721. Riga became an industrialised port city of the Russian empire, in which it remained until World War I. By 1900, Riga was the third largest city in Russia after Moscow and Saint Petersburg in terms of the number of industrial workers and number of theatres.
Between World War I and World War II (1918–1940), Riga and Latvia shifted their focus from Russia to the countries of Western Europe. The United Kingdom and Germany replaced Russia as Latvia's major trade partners.
During World War II, Latvia was occupied first by the Soviet Union in June 1940 and then by Nazi Germany in 1941–1944. The Baltic Germans were forcibly repatriated to Germany. The city's Jewish community was forced into the Riga Ghetto and a concentration camp was constructed in Kaiserwald. On 25 October 1941, the Nazis relocated all Jews from Riga and the vicinity to the ghetto. By 1942, most of Latvia's Jews (about 24,000) were killed on 30 November and 8 December 1941 in the Rumbula massacre.
Riga was recaptured by the Soviet Red Army on 13 October 1944. In the following years the massive influx of labourers, administrators, military personnel and their dependents from Russia and other Soviet republics started.
Alberta and Strelnieku Streets comprise the biggest gallery of Art Nouveau architecture in Riga. Many buildings have still not been renovated and you can still venture into the beautiful although neglected hallways. Of particular interest are freshly renovated buildings of the Stockholm School of Economics and Law, as well as the head office of the Latvian anti-corruption police KNAB.
- Riga Cathedral is the Evangelical Lutheran cathedral in Riga, Latvia. It is the seat of the Archbishop of Riga. It is often known in English as the Riga Dom Cathedral (although it has no dome, the nickname comes from the Latvian Doms and German Dom meaning "cathedral"). It is one of the most recognisable landmarks in Latvia, and is featured in or the subject of paintings, photographs and television travelogues. Built near the River Daugava in 1211 by Livonian Bishop Albert of Riga, it is considered the largest medieval church in the Baltic states. It has undergone many modifications in the course of its history. David Caspari was rector of the cathedral school in the late 17th century. His son Georg Caspari also served at the cathedral.
- The Freedom Monument is a memorial honouring soldiers killed during the Latvian War of Independence (1918–1920). It is considered an important symbol of the freedom, independence, and sovereignty of Latvia. Unveiled in 1935, the 42-metre (138 ft) high monument of granite, travertine, and copper often serves as the focal point of public gatherings and official ceremonies in Riga. The sculptures and bas-reliefs of the monument, arranged in thirteen groups, depict Latvian culture and history. The core of the monument is composed of tetragonal shapes on top of each other, decreasing in size towards the top, completed by a 19-metre (62 ft) high travertine column bearing the copper figure of Liberty lifting three gilded stars. The concept for the monument first emerged in the early 1920s when the Latvian Prime Minister, Zigfrīds Anna Meierovics, ordered rules to be drawn up for a contest for designs of a "memorial column". After several contests the monument was finally built at the beginning of the 1930s according to the scheme "Shine like a star!" submitted by Latvian sculptor Kārlis Zāle. Construction works were financed by private donations.
- St. Peter's Church is a Lutheran church dedicated to Saint Peter. It is a parish church of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia. First mention of the St. Peter's Church is in records dating to 1209. The church was a masonry construction and therefore undamaged by a city fire in Riga that year. The history of the church can be divided into three distinct periods: two associated with Gothic and Romanesque building styles, the third with the early Baroque period. The middle section of the church was built during the 13th century, which encompasses the first period. The only remnants of this period are located in the outer nave walls and on the inside of a few pillars in the nave, around which larger pillars were later built.
- The Latvian National Opera. (LNO, Latvijas Nacionālā Opera), Riga, is the national opera of Latvia. The opera company includes theLatvian National Ballet (LNB), LNO Chorus, and LNO Orchestra. Riga already had a German-speaking theatre, which also offered opera and ballet, from 1782, and this was housed in the Riga City Theatre from 1863. The first attempt to create a Latvian national opera was 1893, when Jēkabs Ozols' Spoku stunda ("The Ghostly Hour") was performed. The Latvian opera (Latviešu Opera) was founded in 1912 by Pāvuls Jurjāns, though almost immediately, during the First World War, the opera troupe was evacuated to Russia. In 1918, the opera restarted (Latvju Opera) led by Jāzeps Vītols, the founder of the Latvian Academy of Music. The debut performance, on January 23, 1919, was of Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer. From 1944, following the occupation of Latvia by Russia, and incorporation into the Soviet Union, the Latvian National Opera became the Latvian S.S.R. State Opera and Ballet Theater. In 1990, the theater was renamed the Latvian National Opera, but almost immediately the building was closed till 1995 for renovation and the company moved to temporary premises. For the reopening in 1995, the first opera was Jānis Mediņš’ Uguns un nakts (Fire and Night). The National Opera House was constructed in 1863 by the St. Petersburg architect Ludwig Bohnstedt, for the then German-speaking City Theatre, and has been refurbished several times; 1882-1887 (following a fire in 1882), 1957–1958, 1991-1995 (following independence). A modern annex was added in 2001 with a 300-seat New Hall.
- Riga Castle is a castle on the banks of River Daugava. The castle was founded in 1330. This structure was thoroughly rebuilt between 1497 and 1515. Upon the castle's seizure by the Swedes, they constructed spacious annexes in 1641. The fortress was continually augmented and reconstructed between the 17th and 19th centuries. Sometime in the 1930s, some renovation work was done by architect Eižens Laube. The Latvian government declared the castle its residence in 1938. Today it is the official residence of the President of Latvia as well as home to several museums.