Riga is the biggest city in the Baltic states, and the third-biggest of the Baltic region. It is an elegant and often surprising city—one moment you may be lamenting its drab Soviet-era housing blocks, the next you may be admiring a stunning Jugendstil manor or gliding on a boat upon the Old Riga canal. Riga's old town area of Vecrīga is a treasure-trove of beautiful architecture in a variety of styles, but especially Gothic, Art Nouveau, and National Romanticist.
The city as a whole features many wide-open spaces, parks, lakes, and even wooded areas. That said, its most attractive neighbourhood remains the culture-rich old city centre, where most expats are likely to seek residence. (A few alternative neighbourhoods might be the artsy Andrejsala or the wealthy garden-city suburb of Mežaparks.)
Riga is a city of ancient origins. It formed along a sheltered natural harbour a short distance from the mouth of the great Daugava River—an important trade route since the 2nd century. The Vikings operated a trading centre here in the medieval era, and in the early 13th century, the Livonian Brothers of the Sword came out of Germany in a crusade to establish Christianity—and their dominance—within the region.
Riga remained a bastion of the Baltic Germans until the mid-1900s, despite the many wars and political changes the region experienced over the centuries. A Latvian National Awakening began gaining strength in Riga from 1868 onwards, and German stopped being the city administration's official language in 1891. It was, however, replaced by Russian, as Latvia was part of the Russian Empire up to the early 20th century.
After a brief period of independence, Latvia was enveloped into the Soviet Union from 1945 to 1991. Towards the end of the Soviet era, from the 1980s to the early '90s, many sections of Riga experienced modern urban development—basically meaning the construction of mid-rise concrete blocks of flats with a decidedly proletarian flair. Many of these Soviet-style housing blocks endure to this day, especially in the Purvciems and Pārdaugava neighbourhoods, and parts of the Latgale district.
Riga is divided into six city districts. Four of them are named after traditional Latvia regions: Kurzeme, Latgale, Vidzeme, and Zemgale. The other two districts are Central and Northern Riga.