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Riga, the pearl of the Baltics

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Wilson Jone |
Latvia    Riga has the finest collection of art nouveau buildings in Europe

Imagine yourself at a big, beautiful lake with some cafes around, people strolling shady, tree-lined walkways just a few steps away from medieval architecture and cosmopolitan nightlife. With a break for a snack enjoy the pearl of the Baltics, Riga.

RigaRiga was founded in 1201 and throught the history it was a home to Germans, part of the Polish-Lithuanian kingdom, then it was part of the Swedish empire, then came the Russians and the USSR. That created an ethnically diverse town in which today only 45 percent of population is Latvian, and that diversity is one of the most interesting things in Riga. In 2014 Riga was named the European Capital of Culture, so camera in hand and try to capture Riga’s beauty in photos.

St Peters ChurchRiga is the largest city of the Baltic states, despite a relatively small population of 800,000. It has a large Old Town (Vecriga), which stretches alongside the Daugava river with a number of historic monuments. It is famous for its old churches and cathedrals the most striking of them are the Doms Cathedral and St. Peter's Church. Referred to locals simply as the centre, Vecriga is famous for its Art Nouveau architecture with some of the pieces being described as grandiose and the historic centre as a whole is included on the UNESCO world heritage list.

SaeimaRiga is home to two of Latvia's largest academic institutions, the University of Latvia and Riga Technical University, it houses the Latvian parliament (Saeima), boasts the largest airport in the Baltics, and can claim the tallest building in the Baltics - the Riga Radio and TV Tower. This is also the city of the first Christmas tree, or so the story says, although there's some doubt about that. This is also the place where Jacob Youphes was born. He later went to the U.S., changed his name to Jacob W. Davis and invented jeans with some financial help from Levi Strauss.

Street sceneThe weather in Riga changes more often than the traffic lights and it's clever to carry a sweater and umbrella with you. It's not uncommon to be hot, chilly and wet in the time it takes to enjoy a single drink on one of the city's many outdoor verandas. Nature fans will be happy with Latvia's capital: More than half of the area of the city is made up of blue zones (rivers, lakes and canals) and green zones (woodland, parks and urban squares). Perhaps the most noticeable is the Bastejkalns Park, with many lovely little bridges, which connects the Old Town with the Central District.

Riga retro tramNature enthusiasts looking for sporting adventures are in the right place in Riga. There are parks that cater to outdoor activities and for those who are not sure where to start, there are a variety of daytime and evening activities in and around the city. You can take a retro tram or a Segway tour through the Old Town, go down Sigulda's world championship bobsleigh track, go to a biking safari, play golf or tennis, and experience one of Riga's wind tunnels.

Riga sidewalk cafeDescribed as a classic European city, you will find that enjoying a cup of coffee, whether black or with cream, and a miniature pastry in an elegant sidewalk café is part of Riga's way of life. The city's cafes and restaurants are well-known for high-quality cuisine and service. You will find everything from French haute-cuisine, to Spanish and Japanese dining. If you are looking for good food on the go Latvian fast food includes pelmeni, Russian meat dumplings, pancake and kebabs. Don't forget to try a glass of Latvian beer in one of the many summer terraces in the Old Town.

Galerija CentrsRiga is a shopper's dream come true with all well-known European labels. The city's shopping hotspots are mostly concentrated in the Old Town, where you can find fashion shops and famous brands' boutiques on Valnu Street and Basteja Pasaza. If you're looking for a unique Latvian souvenir, visit Jekaba Kazarmas (Jacob’s Barracks). Galerija Centrs or Center Gallery is home to more than 100 shops, many which are tourist-friendly with tax-free shopping. The nearby small streets of Tirgonu and Laipu are great spots for art and antique shopping and all things bohemian.

Riga Art NouveauThere is also a whole district with Art Nouveau buildings, more than 800 of them, built when the country was at the zenith of an unprecedented financial boom, so for the art and architecture fans this is the place to visit. Don't miss to visit Riga Art Nouveau Museum. The building has an impressive spiral staircase and the authentic interior of 1903. Whenever you choose to visit the city keep in mind that spring and autumn are mostly rainy and cloudy period, while winters with obligatory snow and frozen rivers also come with some rain. So, your best bet is summer. An an umbrella.

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