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Latvia in brief

Latvia is middle in size among the three Baltic countries. Latvia borders on Estonia in the north, Russia and Belarus in the east, Lithuania in the south, the Baltic Sea in the west and the Gulf of Riga pokes into Latvia's northern coast.  The area is 64,589 sq km. The coastal plain is mostly flat, but inland to the east the land is hilly with forests and lakes. Forests cover 44% of the territory. In Latvia there are nearly 3000 lakes and 12000 rivers.
The population of Latvia totals 2,4 million, of which 850.000 live in Riga. Latvians comprise 57%, Russians 30% , others 13%. Latvians official language is Latvian. It belongs to the Baltic group of languages and similar only to Lithuanian. English, Russian and German are understood and widely spoken in Latvia.

Riga  is the capital of Latvia and one of the biggest cities of the Baltic region with close to a million inhabitants. The city lies on the banks of the Daugava River, just inland from the Gulf of Riga.
Riga was included in the UNESCO World Heritage List (?) as one of the world“s largest and best preserved assemblages of Art Nouveau buildings, as a city having the structure and architecture that reflects the various periods of the city history from 1201 to present, and as a city having a collection of wooden architecture in the central city area.
Today Riga offers its guests to experience the pleasures and sights of a modern European city. Extensive reconstruction works help Riga to regain the natural beauty it possessed at the beginning of the century when the city was known as the "small Paris" and new comfortable hotels, cozy restaurants and modern office buildings are helping Riga to become the new Baltic metropolis. The recent reopening of the National Opera House gave Riga one of the most beautiful theaters in Europe.
Today the economy of Latvia is among the healthiest of the former Soviet republics. The GDP was increasing in the mid-1990s. Inflation was contained and the national currency was stable, both of which encouraged international trade and economic growth. GDP between 1995 and 2000, has gone up by 25,6% or by 4,7% in the average per year.
Latvia's principal exports are forestry products, textiles, prepared foodstuffs, and machinery and equipment. Leading imports are mineral products (notably fuels), machinery and equipment, and textiles.
Since independence a government privatization program is returning the farmland to private ownership. Summarising, today Latvia is one of the most developed countries in eastern European region and Riga has became the main economical and political center of the country.

1. Old Rīga on the UNESCO list of world heritage
Amazingly for a city which survived two world wars, the formerly walled section of the Latvian capital city which is known as “Old Rīga” has preserved a glorious range of old, older and very old buildings. From the magnificence of the Rīga Dome Cathedral, which dates back the 13th century, and the fantastic Gothic façade of St Peter’s Church, to the oldest residential buildings in the city – the so-called “Three Brothers”, to the small, decorative houses which surround Liv Square, to the newly rebuilt House of the Blackheads and the newly built City Hall, Old Rīga is truly a masterpiece of architecture and antiquity. In the 21st century, Old Rīga has adapted itself to the stream of tourists who pass through year-round, with cosy hotels, numerous eateries and a variety of attractions, but the ancient spirit of the city is never lost, particularly when the visitor wanders through some of the surprisingly narrow streets and alleyways which crisscross the old city.


2. Rīga – a Hanseatic city
Yes, Latvia is a relatively small country, and yes, Rīga is the capital city of a relatively small country, but that is only when the measuring stick is the globalised world of the 21st century. During the Middle Ages Rīga was a mighty seaport, the largest city in the Swedish Empire during the 17th century, a leading port for the Russian Empire in the 18th and 19th centuries, and a powerhouse centre for commerce and trade in the entire region. This status was facilitated by Rīga’s membership in the Medieval Hanseatic League, described one author as “not so much a league of cities as a league of merchant associations within the cities of Northern Germany and the Baltic.” The Hanseatic days are remembered in Old Rīga through the historical Great Guild and Small Guild, as well as the rebuilt House of the Blackheads – all of them artisans and craftsmen’s guilds in the booming city.


3. Unique objects of culture and history
Each resident of Rīga and each visitor to the city will come up with a separate short-list of must-see places and must-do activities, but there are certainly those that will be on most, if not all lists. Fans of architecture will marvel at the variety of style in the Dome Cathedral and the other sacral buildings of Old Rīga. Design buffs will gape at one of the greatest collections of Art Nouveau architecture and design in the entire world. Historians will focus on the ancient buildings and museums of the formerly walled Old City. Families will enjoy the Rīga Open-Air Ethnographic Museum, which features farms and other rural buildings which were brought to the park site lock, stock and barrel in the early part of the 20th century. The park is particularly active during the summer, when artisans demonstrate their craft. There is something for everyone in Rīga.


4. Rīga – a metropolis of Art Nouveau
When the ornate and fabulous style of Art Nouveau or Jugendstil appeared on the scene in the very late 19th and early 20th century, Rīga was well positioned to receive it, because the city was rich, rich, rich! Architects vied with one another in the grandeur of their designs, and despite years of Soviet-era neglect which allowed many grand interiors in particular to go to waste, the area around Elizabetes Street remains a true treasure for fans of the environmentally inspired artistic movement. Many buildings have been renovated and sparkle once again as they were intended by the great luminaries of the architectural world of the turn of the century, Mikhail Eisenstein among them.


5. Music and the arts
It was no accident that the process by which Latvia regained its independence from the Soviet Union was known as the “singing revolution,” because if there is anything that Latvians do universally, it is singing. The breathtaking quinquennial Latvian Song Festival assembles a choir of literally tens of thousands of performers, song is an important part of many ethnic festivals, particularly the Summer Solstice festival known as “Jāņi,” and, to be sure, amateur music is accompanied by distinguished professionalism. Latvian choirs win prizes all around the world. The Latvian National Opera is a respected member of international operatic circles. Rīga has been home to such major artists as the ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, the violinist Gideon Kremer, and the European operatic stars Inese Galante, Egīls Siliņš and others. In Rīga itself, not a single evening passes without a vast selection of concert, theatrical and other performances – a guarantee of something for everyone in concert halls, museums and galleries.


6. The second largest city market in Europe
What do you do with your zeppelin hangars when zeppelins go out of fashion? Well, in Rīga’s case four of the massive structures were transported to a site near the Daugava River and used to establish the city market. Under the vast roofs of the hangars, shoppers can find farm-fresh fruits and vegetables, fresh cuts of meat, live fish, and the gamut of anything and everything. Renovations have made the Rīga Central Market a nicer place than it was in Soviet times, although visitors are still to be cautioned against pickpockets. It is certainly worth a side trip and is a walk of just a minute or two from Old Rīga.


7. Religious tourism
Rīga claims to be the only city in Europe which has five different religious denominations with their own houses of worship. The Dome Cathedral and the magnificent St Peter’s Church are Lutheran, St Jacob’s Cathedral is the seat of the Latvian Roman Catholic Cardinal, and the beautiful synagogue in Old Rīga is the only Jewish house of worship remaining after the devastation that was wreaked upon the Jews by Nazi Germany during World War II. These and other sacred buildings are usually open to visitors and each features something specific. St Peter’s, for instance, has a viewing platform high above the city streets. The Dome contains the graves of the grandees of the Reformation period, with ornate grave markers still in place. Most of the sacral buildings are very old, and they are a beautiful reminder of the city’s vast history. English language, non-denominational Christian worship services are held at St Saviour’s Anglican Church each Sunday at 11:00 AM.


8. Green Rīga
When the walls of Medieval Rīga came down in the mid-19th century, the city fathers had the outstanding idea of installing parks and gardens in the area which used to feature the ramparts. The result is one of the greenest city centres in all of Europe, with beautiful parks to wander and explore. Alongside the parks visitors will find some of the loveliest and most important buildings in the city. Other parks are scattered all over Rīga, and although Latvian custom frowns upon walking or sitting in the grass, there is plenty to see and do, particularly during the summer. One specific part of green Rīga is the Biķernieki forest, which hides within its depths a professional-class automobile racetrack. Another is the Mežaparks neighbourhood, which translates to “Forest Park” and, according to its residents, has much nicer and cleaner air than the rest of the city does. For families, the neighbourhood also features the Rīga Zoo, as well as ferry boat services to and from the city centre during the summer. Not far from the city is a vast green area – Latvia’s first professional golf course.


9. Nightlife
It might perhaps be a slight exaggeration to say that Rīga is another of those cities which never sleeps, but the idea is not far from the truth. Particularly in Old Rīga, but also in its surrounding area, there are countless restaurants, bars and nightclubs, featuring entertainments that will satisfy most any taste. During the summer, Old Rīga bursts with open-air cafés and beer gardens. In winter, the central Liv Square boasts an ice skating rink. Once again – something for everyone, and a great destination for those whose tourism day does not stop at 6:00 PM. Old Rīga in particular is just as alive at midnight as it was six hours earlier.


10. The ex-Soviet Union
People who have been visiting Rīga regularly for the last 10 or 15 years always remark on the vast changes that have occurred since the collapse of the Soviet Union, but the observant visitor will note that not all signs of the former empire have been expunged. In the city’s skyline, for instance, the brown brick building of the Latvian Academy of Sciences (known popularly as “Stalin’s cake”) is a very in-your-face example of Soviet architecture, although less so now that the flashing red plastic star at the tip of its tower is gone. There are several restaurants in Rīga which cater to Soviet nostalgia, while the Latvian Occupation Museum is a grim reminder of the period. It is the most-visited museum in Latvia and is an important destination for anyone who wishes to remember what humankind can do to humankind. In most respects, however, the Soviet Union is well gone and not missed at all. Rīga is an ex-Soviet city in historical terms only. In all other terms it is a vibrant, contemporary city which will be a happy destination for just about anyone. Welcome!

Last changes 25.04.05.

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