Riga is divided into four sections or suburbs, each named after the traditional region of Latvia it is closest to – Vidzeme, Kurzeme, Zemgale or Latgale. It’s the latter section that we’ve decided to explore in the following feature. Long known as an unruly area of town where Russians, Latvians, Jews and Old Believers all dwelled, the Latgale suburb is still one of the shabbiest sections of town, but it also has plenty of character. Often referred to as Maskavas forštate or the Moscow District, its neglected early 20th-century art nouveau masterpieces mingle with traditional 19th-century working-class wooden homes, some of which appear to be on the verge of collapse. Churches of various styles and faiths share common real estate with Soviet housing estates, while meandering cobblestone streets often flank large empty parks.
Oddly enough, the area is also located next to the main highway to Daugavpils, Russia and Belarus so one of Riga’s poorest areas is also home to a well-kept stretch of road that’s lined with modern glass shopping centres, futuristic car dealerships and the massive LIDO Recreation Centre, which features one of the largest log cabins in Europe. The area also features the trendy warehouse district just behind the Central Market called Spīķēri, which is home to cafés, shops and galleries as well as a recently completed promenade along the bank of the Daugava river. Although some sections of the district, like the Church of Jesus square that includes an embassy and a luxury hotel, look as if they could be a part of the old town, bear in mind that you’re literally on the other side of the tracks here and the usual safety precautions should be taken. We recommend a stroll during daylight hours.
Although you can easily walk to the area from Old Riga, you might consider taking the N°15 trolleybus from the University stop or trams N°7 or 9 from the Opera or Central Market stops if you’d like to explore the more distant former Jewish ghetto.
Academy of Sciences (Zinātņu Akadēmija) Akadēmijas laukums 1. This Soviet edifice is a cousin to similar statements of ugliness all over Eastern Europe and local nicknames for the Empire State building copy include ‘Stalin’s birthday cake’ or ‘the Kremlin’. Most Latvians just consider themselves lucky that the portrait of Uncle Joe that was supposed to be a part of the facade never came to fruition. If you look close enough you can spot several hammers and sickles, but best of all, at a height of 65m, the 17th-floor balcony is open to the public from April - October for s small fee. Pay at the information desk on the ground floor.
Central Market (Centrāltirgus) Centrāltirgus iela, www.centraltirgus.lv. When construction was completed in 1930, Riga’s Central Market was one of the largest and most modern marketplaces on the European continent. Seventy years later, four of the five pavilions, which were used as zeppelin hangars during WWI, still serve their original function as meat, fish, produce and dairy markets. The bustling atmosphere also hasn’t changed much, although most of the hawkers are more reluctant to haggle than in the past. The markets spill out beyond the confines of the hangars and operate throughout the day, some longer than others. Each pavilion has slightly different opening hours so if in doubt check its website. Open 08:00 - 17:00, Mon, Sun 08:00 - 16:00.
Great Choral Synagogue (Die Greise Hor Shul) At the corner of Gogoļa and Dzirnavu. Although the colossal synagogue no longer exists, it’s worth the 10 minute walk from the train station to see what remains of this one-time place of worship and to meditate on one of the most beastly crimes committed during the Nazi occupation of Latvia. On July 4, 1941, hundreds of Jewish refugees from Lithuania and local Latvian Jews were herded into the basement of the synagogue which was then intentionally burned to the ground. Only ruins, a metal menorah and a memorial stone remain. A memorial to Žanis Lipke and other Latvians who saved hundreds of Jews is located next to it.
Grebenshchikov Church (Grebenščikova baznīca) Krasta 73, tel. (+371) 67 11 30 83. The first wooden place of worship was built here in 1760, and the current building went up in 1814. It is home to one of the largest congregations of Old Believers in the world, an Orthodox Christian sect that fled persecution in Russia in the 18th century. Take tram N°7 or 9 to the Daugavpils stop. You can’t miss its shiny golden dome.