Historic Centre of Riga
Commercial town and religious mission headquarters.
Location and site
Riga is situated at the south end of the Gulf of Riga, a bay of the Baltic Sea. Its historic centre is on a peninsula at the confluence of the Daugava (the western Dvina) and Ridzene Rivers.
The zone described in the World Heritage listing is very large. It includes the medieval centre, the old eighteenth and nineteenth century suburbs that were laid out on a grid plan, and a semi-circle of boulevards dating from the nineteenth century. From the thirteenth century the majority of Riga’s buildings were stone, reflecting the wealth of the medieval city. The old city has conserved many of these buildings with their narrow façades, such as the fifteenth century “House of the Three Brothers.” There are several medieval churches in the old city. The cathedral, begun in 1211, was subject to numerous additions and renovations in the late Middle Ages and the modern era, which explains the mix of Roman, Gothic, Mannerist, Baroque, Classical and Neolithic elements to be seen in it today. Another medieval church, dedicated to Saint Peter, was badly damaged during World War II but its remarkable spire still marks the city’s skyline.
As in many European towns, the medieval ramparts were pulled down in the mid nineteenth century. They were replaced with an extensive belt of boulevards and public gardens that surround most of the old city. At the end of the twentieth century, new suburbs were built according to a grid plan, and many splendid Art Nouveau mansions were built. Latvian architects, who were influenced by Finland, brought an original touch to this style which gave birth to movement of romantic nationalism. The historic centre of Riga includes elements from every historical era, all of which form a priceless treasure of urban heritage.
With its medieval structure and urban fabric relatively intact, Riga’s historic centre is of exceptional universal value due to the quality and quantity of Art Nouveau/Jugenstil architectural features, which are unique in the world, as well as its wooden nineteenth century structures (criteria i and ii).
- The Livs and the Kurs, local tribes, established themselves in this site at the end of the eleventh century.
- Towards the end of the twelfth century, the Germanic thrust to evangelize and colonize the Baltic countries reached the area. The founding of Riga in 1201 is attributed to a missionary bishop.
- The Germanic colonists wasted no time in building a fortified town including two fortresses: one an episopal palace and the other a castle for the Teutonic Knights, surrounded by a ring of ramparts.
- In 1221 a citizens’ revolt against the religious authorities led to the establishment of a municipal council in Riga, and the recognition of citizens’ rights associated with the status of a free town.
- Riga developed at an astonishing rate and became the third largest commercial centre on the Baltic Sea (after Lübeck and Gdansk). The town’s prosperity was doubtless due to its role as the first port of landing for commercial produce arriving from Russia.
- In 1282, Riga became a member of the Hanseatic League, an alliance that contributed to its economic and urban growth. Many public and commercial buildings as well as churches bear witness to its wealth in medieval times.
- The Lutheran Reform began in 1521 at Riga, which always resisted any tendencies of the Counter-Reformation.
- From 1559 onwards, Riga was successively incorporated into the Russian, Polish, and then Swedish Empires. Tsar Ivan the Terrible took Riga in 1559 but had to cede it to the Polish-Lithuanian State in 1581. After the war between Poland and Sweden, Riga was annexed to the Swedish Kingdom and even declared the “second capital of Sweden.”
- In 1710 Peter the Great reconquered Riga, and it remained part of Tsarist Russia until 1918, birth date of the first Republic of Latvia. The period between 1850 and 1880 was notable for industrial development which brought about radical changes in the urban layout and led to the introduction of Art Nouveau in Riga.
- During the Second World War, Riga first fell to the Russians and then was occupied by German troops between 1941 and 1944.
- After the war, Riga was re-annexed to the Soviet Union until the Latvian independence movement established an independent democratic state in 1991. The influences of its various occupants have left their mark on the town’s physiognomy, blending with other indigenous elements.
Ms. Linda Pukite
Project Coordinator Foreign Affairs Office
Riga City Council
Mrs. Baiba Buka-Vaivade
Foreign Affairs Office
Ms. Sandra Liepina
Head of International Cooperation and Coordination Division
Foreign Affairs Office