Latvia’s history involves interactions with the Teutonic Knights, Sweden, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Imperial Russia and the Soviets. These associations, and the assimilation of a large German merchant population, have given Latvia a fascinating, varied culture. This is reflected especially in its Hanseatic port and capital, Riga. Founded in 1201, Hanseatic Riga prospered from Baltic trade, eventually becoming the third largest city in the Swedish Empire. Its defences include 13th-century city walls, the well preserved ‘Powder Tower’ and Riga Castle. Its medieval streets are lined with high-gabled warehouses, guildhalls as well as Gothic and Baroque churches like the Dome cathedral. Its churches’ high steeples acted as markers guiding visiting merchant ships to port. Riga’s House of the Blackheads (1334), housed an association of bachelor merchants. This magnificent building is a fine restoration of the original. The restored Mentzendorff House, once a wealthy merchant dwelling, vividly portrays 17th and 18th century town life. Riga has one of Europe’s finest Jugendstil (Art Nouveau) precincts, built between 1896 and 1913. Many of its masterpieces, a number designed by Mikhail Eisenstein, father of film-maker Sergei, incorporate Latvian folk elements. Riga’s new Art Nouveau Museum is located in the apartment of the famous Latvian Jugendstil architect Konstantīns Pēkšēns (1859-1928).
Beyond Riga is vast, Baroque Rundāle Palace (1736- ) designed by the Italian architect of St Petersburg, Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli. Over 40 restored rooms include the Golden Hall with beautifully decorated ceilings and chandeliers. Its Grand Gallery, the intricately stuccoed White Hall, and the Room of Roses are magnificent. Rastrelli also designed a palace at Jelgava, the seat of the Duchy of Courland, and the beautiful nearby Orthodox Church of St Simeon and St Anna. Latvia’s Ethnographic Open Air Museum has a vast collection of Latvian rural dwellings, windmills, pubs, equipment and domestic material. Its National Museum of Art holds a wonderful collection of Latvian art. Araisi, a reconstructed 10th-century tribal fortress, floats on logs in the middle of a lake and the lovely village of Cesis is dominated by its great ruined castle.
Explore the beautifully preserved old towns of Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn (all UNESCO World Heritage sites), Tartu and Kaunas. Visit museums, medieval castles, cathedrals and Baroque palaces. Read more