Not many people know that Riga in Latvia is the Art Nouveau architecture capital of the world. I think most people would say the Art Nouveau capital was Barcelona or Paris, but they’d be wrong… Around a third of Riga’s city centre buildings are in the Art Nouveau style, making it the city with the highest concentration of Art Nouveau architecture in the world – and a very handsome city to explore. So if you love Art Nouveau, you should be thinking of Riga for a city break. This article will help you find some of the best Art Nouveau examples in the city by following my Art Nouveau walking tour.
Why does Riga have so much Art Nouveau architecture?
One of the reasons Riga is such an Art Nouveau hot spot is that the city expanded a lot in the 1900s, when Art Nouveau was a popular style. There was also a lot of home-grown architects who put their stamp on the city. The most famous is Mikhail Eisenstein, father of the Soviet early film director, Sergei Eisenstein.
There are a number of different Art Nouveau styles in Riga, including Eclectic, Perpendicular, National Romantic and Neo-Classical. Most of the Art Nouveau architecture is a semi-circular ring outside the old town of Riga, and just outside the pretty canal area. Luckily, it is a small city, so it is easy to walk around and see most of the sights on foot. It is also very pleasant to walk around, as there are plenty of parks and green areas to wander through or take breaks in.
How long does the Riga Art Nouveau Walking Tour take?
In this walking itinerary, I’ll suggest seven stunning examples of Art Nouveau architecture around the city centre, plus the streets where you can discover many more. Purely to walk the route will take around 30 minutes, so adding in time in the museum and stops, I estimate this tour will take a minimum of 1.5 hours, but longer if you want to linger a while or to take any of the detours I suggest. Now, full disclosure: I have also included a couple of stops that are not Art Nouveau, but they are so delightful and they fall along the route, that I couldn’t not recommend them.
Map of the Riga Art Nouveau Walking Tour
Here’s a view of the whole walking tour route:
And here’s an interactive map:
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1. Starting point: Hotel Monika
I suggest you start your Art Nouveau architecture walking tour at the Hotel Monika on Elizabetes Iela (Elizabetes street).
You could stay there of course, or grab a drink in the lobby bar, but I’m recommending it for the impressive architecture. It stands proudly on the corner of Elizabetes Iela and Pulkveža Brieža Iela. It has a grand pink and white façade – and it is a great place to start your tour.
2. Riga Art Nouveau Museum (Riga Jugendstila Centrs)
Once you’ve had your fill of admiring Hotel Monika, walk up Strelnieku Iela one block to the Riga Art Nouveau Museum, which is on the corner of Alberta Iela.
The museum is an important stop on the tour because not only is it in a building that is a really charming example of Art Nouveau architecture, but it features an apartment fully furnished and decorated in Art Nouveau style.
The building was built in 1903 as the home of the famous Latvian architect Konstantīns Pēkšēns who designed it with Eižens Laub. In 1997 it was designated UNESCO World Heritage site for its significance to Art Nouveau. You can tour the preserved apartment and enjoy not only the interior Art Nouveau style, but you’ll get an insight into how life was loved in the 1900s.
My favourite part of the museum was the stunning spiral staircase, with gorgeously intricate patterns painted on the ceiling.
It costs 5 Euros to enter the museum, but there are discounts for students and pensioners and children under 7 go free. I’d suggest you allow 30 minutes to tour the museum.
3. Rasols Café
After you’ve explored the Art Nouveau Museum, you might want a little refreshment, and there is a café just across the street called Rasols. It isn’t strictly Art Nouveau, but it has an eclectic mix of vintage décor, including some Art Nouveau pieces – so it is a fitting place to take a break before continuing your tour.
4. Alberta Iela
Alberta Iela is a street with a lot of Art Nouveau architecture, so take your time enjoying the details of the mansions as you wander along, heading east away from the Art Nouveau Museum, which is at the west end of the street.
My favourite building on this street is number 8 Alberta Iela: it has a blue and white façade with an ornate lion crest at the top. It is very pretty.
5. Elizabetes Iela
At the end of Alberta Iela, turn right on to Antonijas Iela and then left on Elizabetes Iela, which is another street with a wealth of impressive Aet Nouveau designs.
My favourite, and in fact my favourite in the whole of Riga, is at number 10b Elizabetes Iela. It is another blue & white mansion, and this one has an even more ornate crest, featuring neo-classical faces. It really is spectacular. But it is hard to photograph because the building is big, the street is narrow and it is in shade in the afternoon. So my top tip is to come in the morning to catch the light on those glorious faces.
Optional detour: Elizabetes Iela is a long street with many examples of Art Nouveau architecture, so you could walk all the way along it to make sure you don’t miss anything.
6. Nativity of Christ Orthodox Cathedral
However, even if you do take the detour along all of Elizabetes Iela, I do recommend you stop at the Nativity of Christ Orthodox Cathedral, which sits on the edge of the Esplanade park south of Elizabetes Iela.
It is not Art Nouveau (its design is neo-Byzantine) BUT it is really gorgeous. It has gold plated domes, which glisten in the sun and demand your admiration.
7. German embassy, Raiņa bulvāris
Whether you walk the whole length of Elizabetes Iela and then double back, or leave it after the Cathedral, you should head south along the Brīvības bulvāris and then turn left onto Raiņa bulvāris. Right on the corner, you will find the impressive-looking German embassy. You can’t miss it: it has an angular peachy-coloured façade with arched windows and flags flying outside. It is very grand.
Optional detour: If you’re keen, you could detour all the way down Raiņa bulvāris (both left and right) to check out all the Art Nouveau buildings on this street. Or, if you’re in a hurry, go straight onto stop 8.
8. Freedom monument
Very close to the German Embassy is a tall monument called the Freedom Monument, which honours those killed during the Latvian War of Independence (1818-1820). It is in the National Romantic style and depicts Latvian culture in reliefs around the base. On top of the column is a copper statue of Liberty holding up three stars.
The monument was considered for demolition during the Soviet occupation of Latvia – but it endured and became a symbol for independence, especially during the 1980s, when there were rallies at the monument, so it carries a lot of meaning.
Optional detour: if you have time, you could catch a boat on the picturesque canal nearby and take a river tour of Riga. The route follows the canal through the leafy park and then into the huge Daugava River, past Riga Castle and then back into the canal. This has nothing to do with Art Nouveau other than you will pass a couple more Art Nouveau buildings on the way – the main reason I’m recommending it is simply that it is a really lovely way to see more of Riga!
There’s also a restaurant and bar near the Freedom Monument, called Kolonade – this could be a good place to stop if you need a drink (or somewhere to come back to for dinner). They have an outdoor terrace, which is once if the weather is good.
9. The Cat House in the old town
From the Freedom Monument, carry on south into Riga old town. At 10/12 Meistaru Iela, there is a yellow building known as the Cat House. The design takes some inspiration from medieval times, but it was built in 1909 and is a somewhat plainer example of Art Nouveau in Riga compared to some of the other buildings.
However, a big reason it is included in this tour is its two whimsical cat sculptures on the roof, so make sure you look up to see them peering over the edge of the roof.
After this, feel free to explore the old town. There’s less Art Nouveau architecture to see in this area, but there are still plenty of interesting buildings in older styles, including the House of the Blackheads and several cathedrals and churches.
However, if you are into really romantic European old towns, I’d suggest you check out Ljubljana, with its fairytale castle.
Enjoy your Art Nouveau tour of Riga!
So that’s the route I recommend. I hope you enjoy it! I’d also love to hear where else in the world you can find great Art Nouveau – let me know in the comments.