About 45% of Riga's population are Latvians. The share of Russians is about the same, and there are also Belarussians, Ukrainians and Poles. The Latvians are predominantly Protestant, while the Russians are Eastern Orthodox.

Riga was founded in the 12th Century by German merchants and missionaries who were eager to convert the locals to Christianity. The merchants created a trading outpost, while a monk of the name of Meinhard built a monastery about 1190. In 1201, Bishop Albert arrived with 23 ships and 1500 armed crusaders, establishing the order of the Livonian Brothers of the Sword which later became a branch of the Order of the Teutonic Knights. Livonia became part of the Holy Roman Empire, and shortly converted to Protestantism. As an important gate to trade with Russia and the Baltic tribes, Riga became a member of the Hanseatic League in 1282, an important factor for the city's long-term economic stability, even after the Hansa's decline. As the Teutonic knights came off the scene, Riga spent two decades as a free city, then came under the influence of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (1581), found itself under Swedish rule in 1621, and fell to the Russian Tsar Peter the Great in 1710, becoming an industrial center and port of the Russian Empire.

Latvia became an independent state in 1918, and the period between the two wars saw the introduction of a democratic parliamentary system. The state was admitted to the League of Nations. Its main trade partners were Germany and the United Kingdom. At that time, Riga was a grand and flourishing city, referred to as 'Paris of the North'. However, with World War II came Soviet occupation, followed by German occupation, and again Soviet occupation at the end of the war. The Baltic Germans, descendants of the original German merchants who had founded the city, were forcibly repatriated to Germany. Thousands of Latvians perished in the war or fled abroad. The Soviet government made Russians from other parts of the country settle in Riga on a mass scale. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Latvia was able to declare its independence in  1991 and has since become member of the United Nations, NATO and the European Union.

Riga is remarkable for its Art Nouveau architecture, and the historical city center is on the UNESCO list of World Cultural Heritage. Its Dome Cathedral is the largest church in all Baltic states. Dating back to the 13th Century, reconstructed repeatedly through the ages, it is remarkable for its splendid 19th-century organ. St Peter's church is adorned by a 123 metre-high tower. An elevator takes visitors to a height of 72 metres to enjoy the panorama. The Powder Tower is all that has been left of the city walls. (They were demolished in the 19th century and replaced by a beautiful green belt.) The tower houses the Latvian War Museum. Riga Castle on the river bank was originally built in the 14th Century, was reconstructed several times, and serves today as the residence of the Latvian president.

Riga has a University and a Technical University. It was the home town of a number of famous people: dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, philosopher Isaiah Berlin, movie director Sergei Eisenstein, philosopher and writer Johann Herder, and Nobel prize winner for whemistry Wilhelm Ostwald. Richard Wagner spent two years in Riga as musical director of the German Theatre.