Riga - "Latvia" may have the wonderful sound of a backward third world republic, with the exotic dissonance created by putting a "t" and a "v" next to each other, punctuated by that final syllable "ia," which is just so Eastern Europe. But its history, involving Scandinavian, German and Russian influences (read: colonizers) has made it more than an interesting backwater. Everyone seems to have contributed to making this city an interesting beautiful place.
Here are our picks for some things to see in between watching grown men play with giant sticks.
To begin with, there's the lovely Art Nouveau architecture with over-the-top ornamentations, as much a defining feature of this city as skyscrapers are to New York and canals are to Venice. Among the most famous of these architects, was Mikhail Eisenstein (the father of Soviet filmmaker Sergei). Strange giant classical faces peer out of his frightening blue-and-white construction on Elizabetes 10a. You can see some more of his work on the stunning Alberta Street nearby.
The acoustics of the 13th-century Dome Cathedral in Old Town are perfect for enjoying its regular organ concerts. From just about anywhere in Old Town, you should be able to spot the spire of St. Peter's Church, where you can get a great view of the city. Like most such sites in every city, it's always a little crowded and windy on top of the spire.
The Riga Synagogue on Peitavas Street in Old Town, built in the Art Nouveau style, was the only temple in the city to survive World War II, and the only temple in the country to function continually since the end of the war. It's about to undergo a renovation.
Riga Castle (Pils 3) is now home to President Vaira Vike-Freiberga, as well as a Museum of Foreign Art. The museum displays include some interesting originals, as well as many copies of Ancient Greek, Roman and Renaissance masterpieces (it's not like Riga was ever the capital of a country-conquering empire that stole art work from other places). The State Museum of Art (Valdemara Street 10a), another impressive building, houses Russian and Latvian works.
The House of the Blackheads on Ratslaukums may disturb the culturally sensitive. It was a merchant guild and is so named for the group's patron saint, Mauritius, who hailed from Africa. As a result, there are several sculptures and visages with exaggeratedly black skin and red lips, similar to America's infamous Sambo dolls, throughout the museum. The images may upset some, but they are not meant to offend or oppress, and actually serve to make the experience here a little trippy. If you've seen the unintentionally comic changing-of-the-guard ceremonies in Greece and Bulgaria, or the hyper-serious ones in America or the UK, the one in front of the Freedom Monument fronting Old Town is relatively dull. Still, there's always a captive crowd of tourists ready to witness the hourly ritual.
You can enjoy a little bit of park life around the canal outside the city center, but you may want to take the number 11 tram out to Mezapark. The park, made up of wide concrete paths around tiny clusters of tall trees, surrounds a lake. There's a small dated amusement park and a zoo. It's an ideal place for rollerblading, bicycling or just people watching.
Bored by all this? Well go watch some hockey.