Latvia Trips

Riga - Day 1 - from the Freedom Monument to The Three Brothers

Guido Amberotti


Our 1st day in Riga: from The Laima clock or Freedom Monument to The Three Brothers.

Main Attractions: The Laima Clock, The Freedom Monument, Bastion Park, Bastion Hill, Powder Tower, Latvian War Museum, Jacobs’ Barracks, Swedish Gate, Arsenāls museum, Riga Castle, The Three Brothers.

Distance: 4 km. Duration: 1/2 - 1 day. Weather: any weather.

Our Hotel (for 5 nights) was the Wellton Hotel and Spa, Vaļņu iela 49, Rīga. Although the hotel was fully-booked - it was very quiet. Good breakfast. The dining hall (floor -1) might be busy around 08.00 in the mornings (groups of tour companies). Rich variety of food. Coffee is average. Angela in the reception - was wonderful and very helpful. We LOVED the hotel. Location - optimal. The #22 bus to the airport is several steps from the hotel entrance (1.5 euro if you buy the ticket in advance in the Marvesen kiosks or 2 euros on board). The same holds for: the railway station (7 minutes walk), the central bus station (3 minutes walk), the central, famous market (5 minutes walk) and shopping malls (5 minutes walk. Supermarket (Idi) is also nearby. The room is comfortable. 2 or 3 foreign TV channels. AC is less than average.

Riga is a very pleasant city. Allow, at least, 3 days for exploring it. Most of the youngsters speak or understand English. Many people understand and communicate in Russian. There is a lot to see in this welcoming city. The roads, sidewalks, public transport and other services still suffer from the long effect of the Soviet era in Latvia. BUT, we were surprised to see how Latvia (which suffers from negative emigration - 3%-5% decrease in population every 5 years) develops very quickly and gives the tourist - a very comfortable, pleasant and valuable experience during his or her stay in Riga). Riga still owns the charm of the old world. The Art Nouveau buildings are magnificent. Every tourist, still has space and feels relaxed. No pressure. No noise. No place is packed with loads of visitors. No air pollution. The city is clean. We think the water is drinkable - but most of the people told us that is better to drink bottled water. Prices are reasonable. A bit more expensive than Lithuania and far less expensive than the Scandinavian countries. One of the highlights of staying in Riga is the experience of shopping in Supermarkets: a huge variety, quality of vegetables and fruits is high and prices are reasonable (not cheap...). Plenty of buses and trams. Public transport is efficient and cheap (1 euro or 1.5 euro with city lines 2-3 euros for short-distance railway rides). We didn't see smiling Latvians. But, they are polite, welcoming, honest and helpful. No problems in English with the young population. Riga offers many attractions. Plenty of museums, parks, magnificent buildings, canals and rivers and architectural highlights. From September to June you can enjoy the Ballet or Opera performances. During the summer months there are a few festivals and several organ concerts. Try to avoid stays in Riga when the temperature is above 30°. 

How to arrive: we took the Lux bus from Vilnius. 4 hours ride. Reliable, comfortable and reasonably-priced service. 

How to depart: take the #22 bus to the airport. Service every 15-20 minutes,starting at 05.30 and last bus at 23.15. It takes 25-30 minutes to arrive to the (small) airport of Riga. Taxis are 15-20 euros. Book your taxi from your hotel. Do not pick-up a cab from the city roads. 

Meals: Your breakfast in an average hotel in Riga will suffice for most of the day. For lunch or dinner - our suggestion is one word - LIDO. Search the nearby Lido restaurant. There are 8-9 branches of Lido in Riga. You choose your portions. Every portion has its own price tag. Overall, it is a delicious food, budget prices, generous portions in busy dining-halls and in central locations. The food is always fresh, typical east-European, attractive-looking, filling and tasty.

From Wellton Riga Hotel & SPA, Vaļņu iela 49, Centra rajons, Rīga - we headed north on Vaļņu iela toward Audēju iela, 450 m. Turn right onto Kaļķu iela, 70 m. Cross Zigfrīda Annas Meierovica bulvāris and the Laima Clock is on your right at Aspazijas bulvāris 20. The Laima Clock was completed in 1924 and is named after the Laima Chocolate company advertisement it first carried in 1936. "Laima" is one of the most important chocolate producers in the Baltics (their chocolates are quite tasty). Its location between the Old Town and the Centre commercial district has made it a landmark of the city. This clock near the Freedom monument used to be the favourite romantic meeting point for couples. The brown clock in front of the Freedom Monument is used very often as a meeting point in the centre of Riga since it was erected in 1924, so people wouldn't have an excuse for being late to work. After the Second World War the clock during long period of time was used as political information stand. In 1999 the clock has gone through the total reconstruction, brining back the looks it had in 1930s. The famous clock was renovated at the end of 2017 and now also includes a digital countdown clock to Latvia's centenary on November 18, 2018. It also plays one of Latvian maestro Raimonds Pauls' sugary tunes every hour.

We continue wa;lking north-east along Kaļķu iela (actually, a bridge over the river) to arrive to the Freedom Monument. The Freedom Monument is honouring soldiers killed during the Latvian War of Independence (1918–1920). It is considered an important symbol of the freedom, independence, and sovereignty of Latvia.[1] Unveiled in 1935, the 42-metre high monument of granite, travertine, and copper often serves as the focal point of public gatherings and official ceremonies in Riga. The sculptures and bas-reliefs of the monument, arranged in thirteen groups, depict Latvian culture and history. The core of the monument is composed of tetragonal shapes on top of each other, decreasing in size towards the top, completed by a 19-metre high travertine column bearing the copper figure of Liberty lifting three gilded stars. Designed by Kārlis Zāle, the friezes around the base of the sculpture depict Latvians singing, working and fighting for their freedom. The motto "For the Fatherland and Freedom" is inscribed upon the base. At the top a young woman holding three stars above her head - representing the three historical regions of the country: Kurzeme, Vidzeme and Latgale. The front of the monument features two travertine reliefs "Latvian Riflemen" and "Latvian People: the Singers"; the other groups depict the Latvian basic values — "Work", "Guards of the Fatherland", "Mother — Family Guard", and "Scholars". On the sides, the travertine panels bear reference to the Russian Revolution of 1905 and Latvian War of Independence. The middle block symbolises the nation's ideals and striving for freedom — "Latvia" is ready to defend the Motherland, "Chain Breakers" try to break free from their chains, "Lāčplēsis" (an epic Latvian folk hero) encourages to fight against evil powers, while "Vaidelotis" (a Baltic pagan priest) symbolises spiritual strength. Locals are always placing flowers at the base of the monument, an act for which people were deported to Siberia in Soviet times. A two-man honor guard stands at the base of the monument, symbolizing Latvia’s sovereignty. When the weather is favourable the honour guard changes every hour on the hour from 10.00 - 16.00. They also 'stretch their legs’ every half hour. The show lasts for 5 minutes only. We passed through the monument several times - The monument is stunning - at any time of day. The whole gorgeous surrounding, with its double-lined of trees avenue - reminds you of Paris:

Return and with your back to the monument (your face to the south-west) walk 60 m. along Kaļķu iela (crossing again the river over the bridge) and turn right (north) onto the the Bastion Park (Bastejkalna Park). A surprisingly pretty and well maintained park in the heart of Riga. This park right next to the Freedom Monument is named after the Bastion Hill. It is a peaceful park to visit and walk around. There are many lovely paths with small bridges, water cascades, fountains, colorful flowers, manicured flower beds, several sculptures, and benches to take a rest. It is your best bet in Riga summer hot days (shady, cool, quiet). In autumn, the colours of the trees are spectacular and a real treat to see. It is terrific to walk around even on a drizzly day. A very peaceful respite in the middle of the city - worth a stroll.

In the centre of the bastion Park - there is the Bridge of Love. Newly-weds place locks, most with their names and the date, on the metal rails of this bridge. The locks are the type that require two keys to open. Then the couple tosses one key into the canal. The idea is that just as the padlock cannot be unlocked, the couple cannot be separated. A guide said the city comes along every few years and cuts the locks off, to make room for more:

There is a canal going through the park, where you can see ducks and swans. At summertime, it is possible to take a river cruise from a dock located in the park. The canal boat tour which takes you down the City Canal and the Daugava River lasts 1 hour and costs 18€:

Sculpture of Alfrēds Bruno Jānis Kalniņš in the southern entrance of the park. Kalniņš was a Latvian composer, organist, pedagogue, music critic and conductor; the founder of national Latvian opera:

Your next destination would be the Bastion Hill at the western part of the bastion park. A steep hill in the middle of the park. It takes 5 minutes to walk up, but the view is not that great. We thought the park to be better than the hill. Starting to climb (first, you have several convenient stone steps) - you see this bronze horse on your right:

The highlight of this small hill - is the view over the park and the Freedom Monument (in the far south-east):

Bastion Hill was created from 1857 - 59. It is a pleasant hill with a small stream and waterfalls. But there is much more than a nice view to this park. on its top are memorial stones ("The Benches") to five people killed by Soviet bullets during the January 1991 disturbances, during the Latvian struggle for independence from the Soviet Union. Among the dead were two camera men documenting the events; they filmed their own deaths:

After visiting the Bastion Hill (which is, more or less, in the western part of the Bastion Park) - descend down and search, in the eastern part of the park (between the Pilsetas Canal and the Reina bulvaris) (cross the central stone bridge of the park) - a sculpture dedicated to Latvian playwright, poet, writer and journalist Rudolfs Blaumanisk. Designed by Teodors Zaļkalns (until 1930 Teodors Grīnbergs) , a Latvian sculptor. Blaumanis is sitting on a chair with a book in his lap:

A bit south (with your face to Blaumanis sclupture, on your right) - you see a sculpture of three dancing women:

We return to the western part of the Bastion Park and exit the park through one of two paths leading west or south-west to Smilšu iela. Immediately, after entering Smilšu iela - we see on our right a yellow, decorative wall  "The centenary of the Latvian city and region" with coats of arms of the Latvian counties. From January 3, 2011, Latvia is divided into 110 counties and nine republican cities as a result of the administrative territorial reform. It was painted by internationally renowned Latvian artist Leonards Laganovskis. The coat of arms of the composition is crowned with the coat of arms of the state capital, Riga, and the internationally recognized emblem of Jelgava, the capital of the Duchy of Courland. In the next line are the republican city coats of arms, followed by the coat of arms of the provinces in alphabetical order:

Several steps more westward you can see, on your right the Powder Tower and part of Riga walls. The Powder Tower (Pulvertornis) is part of the War Museum and originally a part of the defensive system of the town. The first tower on this place for protection of Riga has been constructed in 13th century. In documents for the first time this place has been mentioned in 14th century by the name of Sand tower. The modern tower has been constructed on a boundary of 15th and 16th centuries. in the 17th century it was named the Powder Tower due to gunpowder stored there. Its present appearance was set in 1650. Sometimes the tower collapsed and was restored. The height of the tower is 25.6 metres, diameter - 14.3 metres and wall thickness - 3 metres. The Powder Tower was restructured in the years 1937 to 1940 when it was included to the structure of the Latvian War Museum. The powder tower is the only preserved up to the present day, the fragment of the defense system of Riga. There were 11 cannons placed in the tower, and also a "cannon ball "catcher". You can see cannon balls in the tower that were walled in to remember the Second Northern War. Later, there was a prison and torture chamber in the tower, and weapons were stored there until 1883. When the War  Museum (see below) was opened in the tower, a museum’s wing was built where to display the exhibition. The tower is very impressive and your best bet for taking photos is during the morning or early evening hours:

The Latvian War Museum located in the Powder Tower in Old Riga is the biggest military history museum in Latvia with an extensive and impressive collection. In 1919 the War Museum was established into the Powder Tower. In 1937–1939, an annex building was added according to a project by an architect A. Galindoms. The museum’s collection has more than 25,400 items which are systematized in individual collections and chronological exhibitions, having a large number of documents, orders, weapons, photos, uniforms and other objects. FREE. Opening hours: MAY - SEP: 10.00 - 18.00 WED-SUN, OCT- APR: 10.00 - 17.00 WED-SUN. We did NOT visit the museum. Visitors had to be accompanied by a guide and the whole "Tour " lasts 2 hours. We did not have two hours to spare so we did not venture inside. Do NOT miss the outer (southern) wall of the museum with the soldiers' helmets:

With your face to the Powder Tower sharp left onto Torņa iela. The Old City Walls are visible on the left side

If you turn left at Trokšņu iela and, again, left (east) along the walls (on your left) - you see some excavations done around

and the "Ghost" opposite the old walls:

Further west along Torna iela are  Jacobs’ Barracks (Jēkaba kazarmas) on the right. Just opposite the Swedish Gate and the largest fragment of the old city walls you’ll see three long yellow buildings with orange tile roofs that are collectively known as James’ Barracks (or Jacob's Barracks). The barracks were built in the 18th century at the base of the city fortifications and since then they were restored several times. The Great Northern War saw Latvia moving from occupation by Sweden to occupation by Russia in 1710 and resulted in Riga’s fortifications and barracks being severely damaged. In 1739 the RigANS obtained permission from Russia to build a military barracks that would house one thousand men on this site along Torna Street. Four wooden barracks were soon constructed. By 1772 the wooden structures had been replaced by the stone structure of the present day Jacob’s Barracks. In addition to housing troops, over the years Jacob’s Barracks have been home to various government agencies, schools and stores and in the 1920/30s there were unfulfilled plans to convert them into a hotel and theatre. During the subsequent Soviet occupations of Latvia the Barracks housed the Nahimova War School and the Supreme Command Centre of the Soviet Army’s Construction Department for the Baltic States.  They stretch for roughly 230m from the Powder Tower until Jēkaba iela. Now it's a long street full of atmospheric, posh restaurants and reasonably-priced souvenir shops but it's worth a stroll and appreciate the fact that Latvia is now a country very much at peace with its neighbours and with itself:

Walk left through the Swedish Gate, Atgriežu iela. The Swedish Gate (Zviedru vārti) was erected 1698 as a part of the Riga Wall to provide access to barracks outside the city wall. The Swedish Gate was also as one of the few entrances to the town, providing access to barracks outside the city wall and was built in 1698 after the Polish-Swedish War was over and Swedish Kingdom took over the city, starting a reign which was called as the Swedish Times (“Zviedru Laiki“) over 1629-1721. This gate has a legend too: "Back in the days in the place of the Swedish Gate, there was a house that belonged to a rich merchant. Like any other merchant at that time he had to pay a tax to bring goods into the town of Riga. As he was a clever merchant, he thought 'instead of paying, I’d rather get rid of the house and build a gate'. And so he did. And that’s how the Swedish Gate got erected…". Since the wall has been gradually falling apart, several restoration works took place over 1980s and 1990s. This is visible by the colour of the bricks that you can easily notice. However, the Swedish Gate is the only structure in the Old Town of Riga that preserved its original look. The Swedish Gate is one of the most popular places where tourists are going for a genuine experience of the old Europe and is, frequently, packed - making it difficult to take photos. We liked the atmosphere, music and energy around:

The Swedish Gate from Torna iela:

The Swedish Gate from Atgriežu iela:

Do not miss the souvenirs shop adjacent to the gate (with your back to the gate - on your left). In the shopping hours - note its magnificently decorated wooden doors:

Return to Torna iela. If you continue to walk more westward along this road, crossing Jēkaba iela on your right and left - you'll see the northern facade of the Izstāžu zāle "Arsenāls", Torņa iela 1 -  exhibition hall of national art museum, featuring modern Latvian artwork & cultural events.  There is no permanent display. there are regular exhibitions on the ground floor of works from the museum. The hall also hosts exhibitions of conceptual art, international projects and solo exhibitions by Latvian and foreign artists. The Arsenals museum is located in a customs warehouse or arsenal built at the beginning of the 19th century in the late Russian Classicism style. It was adapted for museum use in the second half of the 1980s. Opening hours: MON- closed, TUE-WED: 11.00-18.00, THU: 11.00-20.00, FRI: 11.00-18.00, SAT-SUN: 12.00-17.00. Prices: adult - 3 euros, stdents and seniors - 2 euros:

We walk along Torņa iela until its west end and turn left (south) to Pils laukums  (Castle Square) (partial restricted usage road). The church with the light blue colour is the Our Lady of Sorrows. We arrived to Riga Castle. Today it houses the residence of the President of Latvia. The formal Latvian brochures and web sites state that there is always an armed guard standing out front. We saw nothing. Riga Castle still stands on the right bank of the River Daugava for more than 700 years. Through the centuries, it has seen severe destruction, numerous rulers, and wars. The foundation stone was laid in 1330. The castle was destroyed several times. The last major reconstruction took place in 1515. From 1330 to 1562, the castle served as the residence of Master of the Livonian Order. The Livonian War (1558–1583) was fought for control of Old Livonia (in the territory of present-day Estonia and Latvia), when the Tsar of Russia faced a varying coalition of Denmark–Norway, the Kingdom of Sweden, and the Union (later Commonwealth) of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Kingdom of Poland. The first Riga Order Castle, which once stood in the current territory of Convent Court in Riga Old City, was destroyed by citizens of Riga during the civil war against the Livonian Order. The city of Riga had to rebuild the caste under a peace treaty concluded after the Livonian civil war. The second Riga Order Castle was built in the 14th century on the bank of the River Daugava from where it was possible to control ship traffic in the river. In the 15th century, the second Riga Order Castle was completely ruined as a result infighting in the Livonian Confederation. The third Riga Order Castle was constructed on the old castle’s foundations at the beginning of the 16th century. The following centuries after dissolution of Livonian feudal states, Riga Castle was taken over by Polish, Swedish and Russian administrations and institutions. In 1922 it became the residence of the President of the Republic of Latvia; while during the Soviet Era the castle housed the Young Pioneer organisation and became known as Pioneer Castle. One of the largest medieval castles in Latvia with a long and exciting history. Riga Castle is a typical sample of late Classicism architecture. The building of the Riga Castle has been very plain from the very beginnings; this can be explained by the military nature of the castle and its frequent destructions/damages. Initially, Riga Castle featured regular planning and three small towers at the corners. In the 15th century, two round towers were added — the Tower of the Holy Ghost and the Lead Tower, which now hold the Flag of Latvia and the Standard of the President. The ground floor was used for household needs and the castle guard, the first floor accommodated apartments, and the second floor was the arms’ floor with narrow windows once used as cannon holes. The spacious basement features underground passageways. The last significant reconstruction took place in early 20th century under the direction of architect Eižens Laube. The entrance hall was updated, a spacious and splendid Festival Hall was built and the Three Star Tower was constructed. The President's apartments in the Riga Castle occupy most of the castle-front building constructed during the 16th century. The bay tower has been constructed in the Early Baroque style and several rooms in the castle have Art Deco style interiors. Today, the castle has six towers: the Holy Ghost Tower, the Lead Tower, the Piper Tower and the Northern Tower in the corners, as well as the Ecker Tower and the Tower of the Three Stars. The walls of the castle are approximately three meters thick. Underground passageways have been discovered leading in various directions from the castle. Artworks of the 1920s and 1930s, such as the painted ceiling of the Hall of the Ambassadors and the gate of the castle, are especially valuable features of Riga Castle. You may, probably, see the castle only from the outside as we did. Roof was damaged in a large fire in 2013 and the castle is closed to the public during repairs. We first saw part of the castle from its eastern side (the Castle Square or the old town side). Some sides of the castle look neglected. It is better seeing the 'castle' from the riverside. Go around to the side away from the river (through daugavas Gate) and, from there, you can appreciate the castle mighty appearance. The whole building is closed and there are no tourists around. its not worth spending to much time on it:

We continued south along Pils iela. The road turn to and continues south-east. On our right is the St. Saviour's Anglican Church. The neo-Gothic church was designed by Johann Felsko. The foundation stone was laid in 1857 and the church was dedicated on 26 July 1859. The church operates a soup kitchen for homeless people and supports a club for the elderly:

From Pils iela Turn left onto Mazā Miesnieku iela, 50 m. Turn right onto Mazā Pils iela, 10 m. and you arrive to the Three Brothers, Mazā Pils iela 17. The Three Brothers is a building complex consisting of three houses freely visible and open to the public. The houses together form the oldest complex of dwelling houses in Riga. The houses are situated at the addresses 17, 19 and 21 Maza Pils Street (Mazā Pils iela), and each represents various periods of development of dwelling house construction. The Three Brothers complex today houses the State Inspection for Heritage Protection and the Latvian Museum of Architecture. For visiting the Latvian Museum of Architecture, go to the backyard of the Three Brothers and the hall with a reconstructed model of a room from the 15th-18th century and a renovated fireplace with a chimney of the 15th-16th century. They have been called the Three Brothers for centuries stemming from a legend that they had been built by three men of one family. In the medieval times, Maza Pils Street was located in the outskirts of Riga and craftsmen lived there. FREE. Open 09:00-17:00, MON 09.00-18.00, FRI 09.00-16.00. Closed: SAT, SUN. Since, the main attraction are the houses' facades - you can visit this site every time of the day and year. 

Oldest brother: The building in 17 Maza Pils Street is the oldest, dating from the late 15th century. This building was built around 1490 – the time when Riga established close links with Dutch merchants and the city’s architecture showed influences of Dutch Renaissance architecture. The exterior of the building is characterised by crow-stepped gables, Gothic decorations and a few early Renaissance details. The building is decorated with Gothic niches and a stepped pediment, while the portal made in 1746 has been moved to the middle brother during restoration. The house had one big room where the work, trade and everyday life took place, and it has retained its original appearance. The house was restored in 1955–57 by architect P. Saulitis:

Middle brother: The next house, in 19 Maza Pils Street, has an exterior dating from 1646, with a stone portal added in 1746. The style of the building shows influences from Dutch Mannerism. The middle brother is the richest one of the three.It is one of the most typical, but also most modern dwelling houses of the 17th century. There is an inscription "Soli deo gloria!" (“Glory to God alone!”) above the entrance. In contrast to the oldest building, this one had a spacious room with large windows above the ground-floor hall, and there were special residential premises in the yard side of the building:

The young brother: The last house of the three, located in 21 Maza Pils Street, is the narrowest and the smallest one of the three brothers. It is a Baroque building which was built in the second half of the 17th century and had small apartments on each floor. The youngest building has a very interesting facade element - a mask, which, according to the owners of the building, protected its inhabitants from evil spirits:

during the day - expect to find masses of tourists in front of the Three Brothers. If you are lucky, you'll enjoy a concert of amateur players looking for your donation: