When I told friends I was going to Riga, some of them looked a bit confused. All they really knew of Riga was its reputation for cheap beer and no-holds-barred nightlife. This makes the city a firm favourite on the stag do circuit, but its got so much more than its appealingly affordable booze.
Riga might be a small capital city but it’s not short on offerings. It survived years of Soviet control and now enjoys the status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with people coming to the city specially to see its inspiring art nouveau architecture.
You’ll find a colourful city centre rich in history and art. The old town itself has a protected status thanks to buildings dating from the city’s foundation in 1201 and an unparalleled art nouveau neighbourhood that was once home to Isaiah Berlin before he moved to England with his family.
Strolling around the city you’ll come across many examples of art nouveau architecture to stop you in your tracks. In total, there are over 800 Art Nouveau buildings in Riga, but finding them all would be quite an ambitious task, so I’ll try to guide you to the most noteworthy ones.
Alberta Street (Iela)
One of the city’s most prolific art nouveau architects was Mikhail Eisenstein (1867 – 1921). He is best known for his collection of buildings on Alberta street famous for its unusual sculpture, coloured bricks and tiles, geometric ornaments and uniquely shaped windows. The street itself is named after Bishop Albert who founded Riga in 1201.
While the Art Nouveau style until reaching Riga was still fairly consistent around its influences – nature, shapes, plants and flowers, colourfulness – suddenly Eisenstein went in a direction nobody else has been before, involving human, mythical and even zoological elements into his design.
Another well-known Latvian architect was Eižens Laube (1880 – 1967), considered one of the fathers of the style of National Romanticism. I completely well in love with the apartment building at Alberta 11, which captures this style of art nouveau design, mixed with medieval and gothic undertones.
Riga Art Nouveau Museum
The architect, Konstantīns Pēkšēns (1859 – 1923), designed no less than 250 buildings including the iconic edifice at Alberta 12, which the architect once called home and that now houses the Riga Art Nouveau Museum. This museum is your opportunity to visit the interior of one of the buildings on Alberta Street. I would recommend going just for the staircase leading up to the top floor apartment that hosts the museum.
The entrance fee is very inexpensive and the museum is really lovely complete with furnishings, and gives you a good insight into the birth of art nouveau in the city. It flourished during a period of rapid economic growth.
Being a massive chess fan, I was particularly overjoyed to see an exquisite chess table complete plant motifs.
One of Eisenstein’s most iconic buildings can be found at the corner of Elizabetes street nearby Alberta street. The building with the blue façade with the incredibly long faces at the top is one of the most photographed buildings in the city.
While Alberta and Elizabetes street might be the most famous spot for taking in art nouveau architecture, Jauniela is located in the heart of the Old Town and offers more to see and do at the same time including its close proximity to the St. Mary’s Dome Cathedral and the City Hall. Highlights of nouveau style include hotels Neiburgs (pictured) and Justus.
Audēju Street 7
Now a bookshop, this was the very first Art Nouveau-style building completed in 1899. The facades of the building are adorned with geometric shapes, floral designs and other relief ornamentation characteristic of the art nouveau.