When you have been to over sixty countries it becomes tough to be truly astonished by something. I’m still thrilled to see large cats in the wild and there are physical landscapes that are unexpectedly stunning but when you have seen the Pyramids, Angkor Wat and the Vatican, you start to worry that you may have lost your ability to marvel at architecture. The architecturally jaded just need to head to Riga!
It is home to the largest display of Art Deco architecture in Europe but I think the title should be “in the world”. I adore art deco but this was the first time I saw it on that scale. One of the most glorious periods in Riga’s history happened to coincide with the age of Art Deco. Like in Chicago (another city to visit if you love architecture), the alpha male merchants of the day had a lot of cash so spent some of it on ornate buildings to make sure everyone else knew they had a lot of cash.
Perhaps not the most worthy behaviour but definitely a boon for present day tourists. Unlike the frequently erected modern towers filled with unimaginative steel and glass (thanks Mies!), buildings in the past often used ornate architecture so that the owners could ostentatiously show off. Early 20th century Riga was a bit like 21st century Dubai 😉
One of the other great things about Riga is that there is an ongoing effort to restore the art deco buildings of its golden age so you can see increasingly more of it as it looked a century ago.
Riga is an easy walking city so you should do some random wandering to really appreciate how many buildings there really are focused not just on functionality but also on beauty. If you are short on time – or hate walking – make a beeline for Alberta iela.
There you will find the most spectacular Jugendstil buildings along with the Riga Art Nouveau Museum. Don’t make the mistake I did of being mesmerized by
the art deco staircase inside the building and being lured to another museum on a higher floor first. The Art Deco Museum cost 6 euros but it is definitely worth the money. It’s essentially a reproduction of an art deco apartment circa the turn of the 20th century with each room hosting all sorts of art deco treasures appropriate to the function of the room. If you are a real art deco devotee, there is a shop in the museum and another across the street from it.
On Alberta iela look out for Mikhail Eisenstein’s gift to Riga for its 700th anniversary. Alberta iela 2a features screaming masks and horrible goblins and satyr phoenix-women. At Alberta iela 4 you will see stone evoking Medusa. Alberta iela 13 contains a mishmash of nightmarish imagery amid bucolic greenery and peacocks. I suspect there may have been drugs involved in art deco design. It’s pretty but can also feel a bit like an acid trip if you look too closely…
Since you are in the neighborhood, a great way to cap off the day is to head to the Albert Hotel. It’s also an
interesting place to stay. The hotel is dedicated to Albert Einstein who apparently wanted to come to Riga because of a correspondence he had with a Latvian scientist named Rudolf Karklins.
I gather Einstein never made it but it’s a lot easier to do these days and I highly recommend it. Take a seat at the Star Lounge Bar, order a Black Balsam cocktail and make a toast to Albert while enjoying the sunshine and the view over Riga…