The enchanting city of Riga, capital of Latvia and the biggest city in the Baltic States, has emerged from behind the Iron Curtain and is slowly coming into its own as a tourist destination. Picturesquely split in two by the River Daugava, on the south-western coast of the country, Riga served as a major trading port and a crossroads between Western Europe and the East. The modern founding of the city dates back to the 12th century with the arrival of German traders, mercenaries and missionaries, while its older roots date back to a settlement of the ancient Finnic tribe, the Livs.
The city, and Latvia as a whole, was long caught in a tug of war between the Germans and the Russians, and suffered greatly in World War II when roughly a third of the country's population was exterminated, displaced or fled Nazi persecution. Despite this, Riga boasts a collection of exquisite Art Nouveau buildings that rival those in Vienna, Barcelona and St Petersburg, and this fairytale historic city centre is a delight to behold.
As the cultural and economic centre of the country, Riga is home to plenty of top-class museums, galleries and performing arts centres, as well as a range of sophisticated bars, clubs and restaurants. The city is fast gaining a reputation as a party capital, drawing hundreds of weekenders to its hedonistic nightlife and friendly atmosphere.
For a more traditional Latvian experience, it is well worth braving the winter cold to enjoy a spot of ice fishing, ice skating on the frozen Daugava River or a pirt, a rigorous sauna that involves being gently beaten with dried birch branches! With over 800 years of history, a UNESCO World Heritage Site listed historic city centre and a modern buzz, Riga remains a largely undiscovered gem with plenty to delight and enchant the visitor.