Riga was founded in 1201 and is a former Hanseatic League member. Riga's historical centre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, noted for its Art Nouveau/Jugendstil architecture and 19th century wooden architecture. Riga was the European Capital of Culture during 2014, along with Umeå in Sweden. Riga hosted the 2006 NATO Summit, the Eurovision Song Contest 2003, the 2006 IIHF Men's World Ice Hockey Championships and the 2013 World Women's Curling Championship. It is home to the European Union's office of European Regulators for Electronic Communications.
In 2016, Riga received 2.3 million visitors. It is served by Riga International Airport, the largest and busiest airport in the Baltic states. Riga is a member of Eurocities, the Union of the Baltic Cities and Union of Capitals of the European Union.
One theory about the origin of the name Riga is that it is a corrupted borrowing from the Liv ringa meaning loop, referring to the ancient natural harbour formed by the tributary loop of the Daugava River. The other is that Riga owes its name to this already-established role in commerce between East and West, as a borrowing of the Latvian rija, for threshing barn, the "j" becoming a "g" in German — notably, Riga is called Rie by English geographer Richard Hakluyt (1589), and German historian Dionysius Fabricius (1610) confirms the origin of Riga from rija. Another theory could be that Riga was named after Riege, the German name for the River Rīdzene, a tributary of the Daugava.
The river Daugava has been a trade route since antiquity, part of the Vikings' Dvina-Dnieper navigation route to Byzantium. A sheltered natural harbour 15 km (9.3 mi) upriver from the mouth of the Daugava — the site of today's Riga — has been recorded, as Duna Urbs, as early as the 2nd century. It was settled by the Livs, an ancient Finnic tribe.
Riga began to develop as a centre of Viking trade during the early Middle Ages. Riga's inhabitants occupied themselves mainly with fishing, animal husbandry, and trading, later developing crafts (in bone, wood, amber, and iron).
The Livonian Chronicle of Henry testifies to Riga having long been a trading centre by the 12th century, referring to it as portus antiquus (ancient port), and describes dwellings and warehouses used to store mostly corn, flax, and hides. German traders began visiting Riga, establishing a nearby outpost in 1158.
Along with German traders also arrived the monk Meinhard of Segeberg to convert the Livonian pagans to Christianity. Catholic and Orthodox Christianity had already arrived in Latvia more than a century earlier, and many Latvians baptised. Meinhard settled among the Livs, building a castle and church at Ikšķile, upstream from Riga, and established his bishopric there. The Livs, however, continued to practice paganism and Meinhard died in Ikšķile in 1196, having failed his mission. In 1198, the Bishop Berthold arrived with a contingent of crusaders and commenced a campaign of forced Christianization. Berthold was killed soon afterwards and his forces defeated.
The Church mobilised to avenge. Pope Innocent III issued a bull declaring a crusade against the Livonians. Bishop Albert was proclaimed Bishop of Livonia by his uncle Hartwig of Uthlede, Prince-Archbishop of Bremen and Hamburg in 1199. Albert landed in Riga in 1200 with 23 ships and 500 Westphalian crusaders. In 1201, he transferred the seat of the Livonian bishopric from Ikšķile to Riga, extorting agreement to do so from the elders of Riga by force.
The year 1201 also marked the first arrival of German merchants in Novgorod, via the Dvina. To defend territory and trade, Albert established the Order of Livonian Brothers of the Sword in 1202, open to nobles and merchants.
Christianization of the Livs continued. In 1207, Albert started on fortification of the town. Emperor Philip invested Albert with Livonia as a fief and principality of the Holy Roman Empire. To promote a permanent military presence, territorial ownership was divided between the Church and the Order, with the Church taking Riga and two-thirds of all lands conquered and granting the Order a third. Until then, it had been customary for crusaders to serve for a year and then return home.
Albert had ensured Riga's commercial future by obtaining papal bulls which decreed that all German merchants had to carry on their Baltic trade through Riga. In 1211, Riga minted its first coinage, and Albert laid the cornerstone for the Riga Dom. Riga was not yet secure as an alliance of tribes failed to take Riga. In 1212, Albert led a campaign to compel Polotsk to grant German merchants free river passage. Polotsk conceded Kukenois (Koknese) and Jersika to Albert, also ending the Livs' tribute to Polotsk.
Riga's merchant citizenry chafed and sought greater autonomy from the Church. In 1221, they acquired the right to independently self-administer Riga and adopted a city constitution.
That same year Albert was compelled to recognise Danish rule over lands they had conquered in Estonia and Livonia. Albert had sought the aid of King Valdemar of Denmark to protect Riga and Livonian lands against Liv insurrection when reinforcements could not reach Riga. The Danes landed in Livonia, built a fortress at Reval (Tallinn) and set about conquering Estonian and Livonian lands. The Germans attempted, but failed, to assassinate Valdemar. Albert was able to reach an accommodation with them a year later, however and, in 1222, Valdemar returned all Livonian lands and possessions to Albert's control.
Albert's difficulties with Riga's citizenry continued; with papal intervention, a settlement was reached in 1225 whereby they no longer had to pay tax to the Bishop of Riga, and Riga's citizens acquired the right to elect their magistrates and town councillors. In 1226, Albert consecrated the Dom Cathedral, built St. James's Church, (now a cathedral) and founding a parochial school at the Church of St. George.
In 1227, Albert conquered Oesel and the city of Riga concluded a treaty with the Principality of Smolensk giving Polotsk to Riga.
Albert died in January 1229. He failed in his aspiration to be anointed archbishop but the German hegemony he established over the Baltic would last for seven centuries.
In 1282, Riga became a member of the Hanseatic League. The Hansa was instrumental in giving Riga economic and political stability, thus providing the city with a strong foundation which endured the political conflagrations that were to come, down to modern times.
As the influence of the Hanseatic League waned, Riga became the object of foreign military, political, religious and economic aspirations. Riga accepted the Reformation in 1522, ending the power of the archbishops. In 1524, iconoclasts targeted a statue of the Virgin Mary in the Cathedral to make a statement against religious icons. It was accused of being a witch, and given a trial by water in the Daugava River. The statue floated, so it was denounced as a witch and burnt at Kubsberg. With the demise of the Livonian Order during the Livonian War, Riga for twenty years had the status of a Free Imperial City of the Holy Roman Empire before it came under the influence of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth by the Treaty of Drohiczyn, which ended the war for Riga in 1581. In 1621, during the Polish–Swedish War (1621–1625), Riga and the outlying fortress of Daugavgriva came under the rule of Gustavus Adolphus, King of Sweden, who intervened in the Thirty Years' War not only for political and economic gain but also in favour of German Lutheran Protestantism. During the Russo-Swedish War (1656–1658), Riga withstood a siege by Russian forces.
Riga remained the largest city in Sweden until 1710, a period during which the city retained a great deal of autonomous self-government. In that year, in the course of the Great Northern War, Russia under Tsar Peter the Great besieged plague-stricken Riga. Along with the other Livonian towns and gentry, Riga capitulated to Russia, but largely retained their privileges. Riga was made the capital of the Governorate of Riga (later: Livonia). Sweden's northern dominance had ended, and Russia's emergence as the strongest Northern power was formalised through the Treaty of Nystad in 1721. Riga became an industrialised port city of the Russian empire, in which it remained until World War I. By 1900, Riga was the third largest city in Russia after Moscow and Saint Petersburg in terms of the number of industrial workers and number of theatres.
During these many centuries of war and changes of power in the Baltic, and despite demographic changes, the Baltic Germans in Riga had maintained a dominant position. By 1867, Riga's population was 42.9% German. Riga employed German as its official language of administration until the installation of Russian in 1891 as the official language in the Baltic provinces, as part of the policy of Russification of the non-Russian speaking territories of the Russian Empire, including Congress Poland, Finland and the Baltics, undertaken by Tsar Alexander III. More and more Latvians started moving to the city during the mid-19th century. The rise of a Latvian bourgeoisie made Riga a centre of the Latvian National Awakening with the founding of the Riga Latvian Association in 1868 and the organisation of the first national song festival in 1873. The nationalist movement of the Young Latvians was followed by the socialist New Current during the city's rapid industrialisation, culminating in the 1905 Revolution led by the Latvian Social Democratic Workers' Party.
The 20th century brought World War I and the impact of the Russian Revolution of 1917 to Riga. In consequence of the battle of Jugla, the German army marched into Riga on 3 September 1917. On 3 March 1918, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed, giving the Baltic countries to Germany. Because of the Armistice with Germany of 11 November 1918, Germany had to renounce that treaty, as did Russia, leaving Latvia and the other Baltic States in a position to claim independence. Latvia, with Riga as its capital city, thus declared its independence on 18 November 1918. Between World War I and World War II (1918–1940), Riga and Latvia shifted their focus from Russia to the countries of Western Europe. The United Kingdom and Germany replaced Russia as Latvia's major trade partners. The majority of the Baltic Germans were resettled in late 1939, prior to the occupation of Estonia and Latvia by the Soviet Union in June 1940.
During World War II, Latvia was occupied by the Soviet Union in June 1940 and then was occupied by Nazi Germany in 1941–1944. The city's Jewish community was forced into the Riga Ghetto and a Nazi concentration camp was constructed in Kaiserwald. On 25 October 1941, the Nazis relocated all Jews from Riga and the vicinity to the ghetto. Most of Latvia's Jews (about 24,000) were killed on 30 November and 8 December 1941 in the Rumbula massacre. By the end of the war, the remaining Baltic Germans were expelled to Germany.
The Soviet Red Army re-entered Riga on 13 October 1944. In the following years the massive influx of labourers, administrators, military personnel, and their dependents from Russia and other Soviet republics started. Microdistricts of the large multi-storied housing blocks were built to house immigrant workers. By 1989, the percentage of Latvians in Riga had fallen to 36.5%.
In 2004, the arrival of low-cost airlines resulted in cheaper flights from other European cities such as London and Berlin and consequently a substantial increase in numbers of tourists.
In November 2013, the roof of a supermarket collapsed, possibly as a result of the weight of materials used in the construction of a garden on the roof. At least 54 people were killed. The Latvian President Andris Berzins described the disaster as "a large scale murder of many defenceless people".
Riga was the European Capital of Culture in 2014. During the Latvia's Presidency of the Council of the European Union in 2015 the 4th Eastern Partnership Summit took place in Riga.
Riga's administrative divisions consist of six administrative entities: Central, Kurzeme and Northern Districts and the Latgale, Vidzeme and Zemgale Suburbs. Three entities were established on 1 September 1941, and the other three were established in October 1969. There are no official lower level administrative units, but the Riga City Council Development Agency is working on a plan, which officially makes Riga consist of 58 neighbourhoods. The current names were confirmed on 28 December 1990.
The climate of Riga is humid continental (Köppen Dfb). The coldest months are January and February, when the average temperature is −5 °C (23 °F) but temperatures as low as −20 to −25 °C (−4 to −13 °F) can be observed almost every year on the coldest days. The proximity of the sea causes frequent autumn rains and fogs. Continuous snow cover may last eighty days. The summers in Riga are cool and humid with the average temperature of 18 °C (64 °F), while the temperature on the hottest days can exceed 30 °C (86 °F).
The head of the city government in Riga is the mayor. Incumbent mayor Nils Ušakovs, who is a member of the Harmony party, took office on 1 July 2009.
The city council is a democratically elected institution and is the final decision-making authority in the city. The Council consists of 60 members who are elected every four years. The Presidium of the Riga City Council consists of the Chairman of the Riga City Council and the representatives delegated by the political parties or party blocks elected to the City Council.
With 639,630 inhabitants in 2016 as according to the Central statistical administration of Latvia, Riga is the largest city in the Baltic States, though its population has decreased from just over 900,000 in 1991. Notable causes include emigration and low birth rates. Some have estimated that the population may fall by as much as 50% by 2050. According to the 2017 data, ethnic Latvians made up 44.03% of the population of Riga, with the percentage of ethnic Russians at 37.88%, Belarusians at 3.72%, Ukrainians at 3.66%, Poles at 1.83% and other ethnicities at 9.10%. By comparison, 60.1% of Latvia's total population are ethnic Latvians, 26.2% are Russians, 3.3% are Belarusians, 2.4% are Ukrainians, 2.1% are Polish, 1.2% are Lithuanians and the remaining 4.7% are accounted for by other ethnicities.
Upon the restoration of Latvia's independence in 1991, Soviet era immigrants (and any of their offspring born before 1991) were not automatically granted Latvian citizenship because they had migrated to the territory of Latvia during the years when Latvia was part of the Soviet Union. In 2013 citizens of Latvia made up 73.1%, non-citizens 21.9% and citizens of other countries 4.9% of the population of Riga. The proportion of ethnic Latvians in Riga increased from 36.5% in 1989 to 42.4% in 2010. In contrast, the percentage of Russians fell from 47.3% to 40.7% in the same time period. Latvians overtook Russians as the largest ethnic group in 2006. Further projections show that the ethnic Russian population will continue a steady decline, despite higher birth rates, due to emigration.
Riga is one of the key economic and financial centres of the Baltic States. Roughly half of all the jobs in Latvia are in Riga and the city generates more than 50% of Latvia's GDP as well as around half of Latvia's exports. The biggest exporters are in wood products, IT, food and beverage manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, transport and metallurgy. Riga Port is one of the largest in the Baltics. It handled a record 34 million tons of cargo in 2011 and has potential for future growth with new port developments on Krievu Sala. Tourism is also a large industry in Riga and after a slowdown during the recent global economic recessions, grew 22% in 2011 alone.
Riga hosted the biannual 2014 World Choir Games from 9–19 July 2014 which coincided with the city being named European Capital of Culture for 2014. The event, organised by the choral foundation, Interkultur, takes place at various host cities every two years and was originally known as the "Choir Olympics". The event regularly sees over 15'000 choristers in over 300 choirs from over 60 nations compete for gold, silver and bronze medals in over 20 categories. The competition is further divided into a Champions Competition and an Open Competition to allow choirs from all backgrounds to enter. Choral workshops and festivals are also witnessed in the host cities and are usually open to the public.
The radio and TV tower of Riga is the tallest structure in Latvia and the Baltic States, and one of the tallest in the European Union, reaching 368.5 m (1,209 ft). Riga centre also has many great examples of Art Nouveau architecture, as well as a medieval old town.
It is generally recognized that Riga has largest collection of Art Nouveau buildings in the world. This is due to the fact that at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, when Art Nouveau was at the height of its popularity, Riga experienced an unprecedented financial and demographic boom. In the period from 1857 to 1914 its population grew from 282,000 (256,200 in Riga itself and another 26,200 inhabitants beyond the city limits in patrimonial district and military town of Ust-Dvinsk) to 558,000 making it the 4th largest city in the Russian Empire (after Saint-Petersburg, Moscow and Warsaw) and its largest port. The middle class of Riga used their acquired wealth to build imposing apartment blocks outside the former city walls. Local architects, mostly graduates of Riga Technical University, adopted current European movements and in particular Art Nouveau. Between 1910 and 1913, between 300 and 500 new buildings were built each year in Riga, most of them in Art Nouveau style and most of them outside the old town.
Riga has a rich basketball history. In the 1950s ASK Riga became the best club in the Soviet Union and also in Europe, winning the first three editions of the European Cup for Men's Champions Clubs from 1958 to 1960.
In 1960, ASK was not the only team from Riga to take the European crown. TTT Riga clinched their first title in the European Cup for Women's Champion Clubs, turning Riga into the capital city of European basketball because for the first and, so far, only time in the history of European basketball, clubs from the same city were concurrent European Men's and Women's club champions.
In 2015, Riga was one of the hosts for EuroBasket 2015.
Riga, with its central geographic position and concentration of population, has always been the infrastructural hub of Latvia. Several national roads begin in Riga, and European route E22 crosses Riga from the east and west, while the Via Baltica crosses Riga from the south and north.
As a city situated by a river, Riga also has several bridges. The oldest standing bridge is the Railway Bridge, which is also the only railroad-carrying bridge in Riga. The Stone Bridge (Akmens tilts) connects Old Riga and Pārdaugava; the Island Bridge (Salu tilts) connects Maskavas Forštate and Pārdaugava via Zaķusala; and the Shroud Bridge (Vanšu tilts) connects Old Riga and Pārdaugava via Ķīpsala. In 2008, the first stage of the new Southern Bridge (Dienvidu tilts) route across the Daugava was completed, and was opened to traffic on 17 November.
The Southern Bridge was the biggest construction project in the Baltic states in 20 years, and its purpose was to reduce traffic congestion in the city centre. Another major construction project is the planned Riga Northern Transport Corridor; its first segment detailed project was completed in 2015.
The Freeport of Riga facilitates cargo and passenger traffic by sea. Sea ferries currently connect Riga Passenger Terminal to Stockholm operated by Tallink.
Riga has one active airport that serves commercial airlines—the Riga International Airport (RIX), built in 1973. Renovation and modernization of the airport was completed in 2001, coinciding with the 800th anniversary of the city. In 2006, a new terminal extension was opened. Extension of the runway was completed in October 2008, and the airport is now able to accommodate large aircraft such as the Airbus A340, Boeing 747, 757, 767 and 777. Another terminal extension is under construction as of 2014. The annual number of passengers has grown from 310,000 in 1993 to 4.7 million in 2014, making Riga International Airport the largest in the Baltic States.
The former international airport of Riga, Spilve Airport, located 5 km (3.11 mi) from Riga city centre, is currently used for small aircraft, pilot training and recreational aviation. Riga was also home to a military air base during the Cold War — Rumbula Air Base.
Public transportation in the city is provided by Rīgas Satiksme which operates a large number of trams, buses and trolleybuses on an extensive network of routes across the city. In addition, up until 2012 many private owners operated minibus services, after which the City Council established the unified transport company Rīgas mikroautobusu satiksme, establishing a monopoly over the service.
Riga is connected to the rest of Latvia by trains operated by the national carrier Passenger Train, whose headquarters are in Riga. There are also international rail services to Russia and Belarus, and plans to revive passenger rail traffic with Estonia. A TEN-T project called Rail Baltica envisages building a high-speed railway line via Riga connecting Tallinn to Warsaw using standard gauge, expected to be put into operation in 2024.
Riga International Coach Terminal provides domestic and international connections by coach.