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History of Riga

The historical centre of Riga is the Old Town. The history of Riga in its 800 years of existence has been, indeed, diverse. Believe it or not, Riga used to be the largest Swedish city and the industrial centre of the Russian Empire.

It is surprising, but Riga  is one of the oldest European capital cities and since its foundation it has been the largest city in the Baltics, a centre of culture and industry, and one of the most prominent ports in the eastern region of the Baltic Sea.

The city of Riga started developing more than 800 years ago on the right bank of the Daugava at the estuary of the Rīdziņa River into the Daugava, where an ancient Kurshi village was located (the current Alberts Square).

In the second half of the 12th century German traders and crusaders started arriving in the vicinity of Riga, and in 1201 Bishop Albert started to build the city. 1201 is also the year of the foundation of Riga. Riga developed rapidly; in 1282 it joined the Hanseatic League of North German merchant cities. Trade flourished in Riga and it became one of the main intermediaries between the west and the east. Riga’s prosperity grew fast.

As a result of the Livonian war (1558-1583) in 1581 Riga came under Polish rule. However, when Poland fought a war with Sweden (1600-1629), Riga, after fierce resistance, in 1621 was occupied by the Swedish army. It is interesting to note that soon afterwards Riga became the largest city in Sweden! But after the Nordic War (1700-1721), when Russia and Sweden fought for impact in the Baltic Sea, after a prolonged siege and an epidemic of plague, Riga in 1710 became part of the Russian Empire.

At the end of the 18th century Riga experienced fast industrial growth and was one of the main port cities in the Russian Empire. At the end of the 19th century Riga was the second largest city in the western part of the Russian Empire after St. Petersburg. When the revolution broke out in Russia in 1905, Riga was one the main centres of this revolt, and during World War I (1914-1918) Riga turned into a frontier town.

At the end of World War I in Riga on 18 November 1918 the independent Republic of Latvia was proclaimed and the liberation war started, during which Riga suffered great damages. After the war Riga developed fast, however, its growth was interrupted by World War II. During this period the Old Town of Riga suffered, but after the war Riga became one of the largest industrial centres of the western part of the U.S.S.R.

In January 1991 inhabitants of Latvia revolted against the Soviet regime, built barricades and gained the right to restore the independence of Latvia. Now Riga is again the capital of independent Latvia, the largest city in the Baltic States, a contemporary and well-cared for metropolis of the European Union, with its own special, historical atmosphere which has been safeguarded over the course of numerous wars and changes.

Last updated: 
15.07.2014