All posts by Augustinas Žemaitis

Culture: Introduction

Latvian Baltic culture is older than most European cultures. However, it has been greatly altered by a history of alternating Eastern (mostly Russian) and Western (mostly German) foreign domination.

The greatest divisions in the Latvia’s society are ethnic. While the historic “Westerner” (German) communities did not survive the tribulations of the 20th century, indigenous Latvians themselves have arguably became imbibed with their cultural legacy and pro-Western views. On the opposite side of the spectrum, there are the “Easterners”, mostly Russians, who look eastwards and look to the Soviet past rather positively, and who are regarded with suspicion by local Latvians.

Language differences are an extension of ethnic differences, as Latvians generally speak Latvian natively, while most “Easterner” minorities speak Russian (a result of Soviet minority russification).

Latvia is especially colorful religiously, with many Christian denominations represented. Here too the main division is between “Western” denominations (German-inspired Lutheranism and Polish/Lithuanian-inspired Catholicism), which are followed by ethnic Latvians, and “Eastern” denominations (Russian Orthodoxy and Old Believe), followed by “Easterner” Russophone ethnicities. However, the largest “Eastern” influence on religion have been a great demise of its importance under the Soviet atheist regime, which left large numbers of atheists or non-practicing Christians even among ethnic Latvians.

The ratio between indigenous and Eastern populations is approximately 63%-37%, as it has rebounded from nearly 50%-50% in 1989.

Sights: Introduction

Latvia excels in historical sights built throughout its history as a constant battleground between East and West, whereby local Latvians were often sidelined but still contributed greatly.

The main square of Riga Old Town
The main square of Riga Old Town. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Among the top sights are Latvia’s cities, especially Riga. They were developed as major trading ports and strongholds over the centuries and influenced far beyond the boundaries of Latvia well into the industrial revolution.

Some smaller towns are also especially picturesque, retaining the atmosphere of past importance.

Many cities and towns have ruined castles that were constructed by German Crusaders back in the Medieval era. In later, more peaceful epochs, the descendants of same German rulers have built extremely opulent palaces and gardens.

The 'New Sigulda Castle'
The ‘New Sigulda Castle’ (actually a palace standing next to a Medieval castle). ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Pristine nature is another draw to Latvia. It lacks breathtaking places, but the low population density and a lack of “private property” signs allow to enjoy Latvia’s lowlands, lakes, forests and rivers more thoroughly than in many other places of the world.

Religious heritage of Latvia is also worth checking, with many cities and towns boasting old churches of various Christian denominations – from austere Lutheran to more rich Catholic to golden-domed Russian Orthodox.

Lake Rāzna
Lake Rāzna, the anchor of eponymous national park. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Resorts of Latvia makes a good use of nation’s long coastline, which is essentially one neverending sandy beach with swimming possible in its every location.

Religions: Introduction

Latvia is a multidenominational Christian nation.

Lutherans are its largest community, followed by 25%-35%. It predominates in the Western and Central Latvia.

Catholicism is the faith of 20%-25% of Latvia‘s inhabitants and the prime religion of Latgale (Eastern Latvia).

Russian Orthodox faith (18%-22%) is mostly followed by Russophone Soviet settlers and their descendants.

Old Believers (schismatic Orthodoxes who came as refugees to Latgale ~17th century) have ~1,7% as their followers.

There are many smaller, mainly protestant Christian denominations that are all together followed by 1,5%-2,5% of Latvia‘s population.

Largest non-Christian faiths are neo-Pagan Dievturi, Jewish and Muslim (in that order) but they are each followed by just 0,01%-0,05% of total population.

Under the Soviet occupation, atheism was promoted by the state, while the religious were discriminated. This hit some communities more than others, with the Lutheran, Old Believers and Jewish share declining the most. In total, ~18% of Latvia‘s population is now irreligious.

Note that the Latvian censae do not record religion and the official statistics are based on self-reporting by religious organizations, which may use different systems to record the numbers of their followers. As such the percentages may have a big margin of error and vary among sources.

Resorts

Latvian resorts became nearly synonymous with Jūrmala. Jūrmala is not only the largest Latvian resort, but also the largest resort town at the Baltic Sea.

With some 20 km of uninterrupted golden sand beach and 51 000 inhabitants (many of whom work to help the even-more-numerous summer vacationers feel even more welcome), Jūrmala is indeed hard to surpass. For those tired of the sea, it offers calm forests for hiking, pretty century-old wooden villas to admire and various gigs and restaurants (especially at the “center village” of Majori). All that is easily accessible from Riga airport.

A former spa in Jūrmala beach
A former spa in Jūrmala beach. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

However, Jūrmala can get pricey in summers while the beach may be crowded. While avoiding Jūrmala center may be one option, seeking for other resorts may be another as the long Latvian shorelines have much to offer.

Top alternatives for Jūrmala are the coastal cities of Liepāja and Ventspils. They are not really resorts, but they have fine long beaches and many hotels. In fact, their seaside districts are like little Jūrmalas. Ventspils has been working especially hard to get tourist attention, launching various publicity stunts.

Latvians on a beach
Latvians on a beach. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

For those wishing to get further out-of-the-beaten-path, there are many coastal villages that offer just a single hotel in a natural location. Latvia is well endowed with sandy beaches as they follow its entire shoreline. So there is never a question whether some coastal village has a beach. However, if you need things such as beach cafes, then you’d better stick to the coastal cities and Jūrmala.

If the sea is not your cup of tea altogether, the top Latvian resort destination is Sigulda. It offers a great amount of various non-sea-related activities, from hiking in forests to alpine skiing in winter (the hills are small, however).

Accommodation in Latvia

Cities are the primary locations to spend a night in Latvia. The larger the city, the more expensive is the accommodation.

Riga has the most accommodation options, ranging from hostels to the most expensive global hotel brands (just like in any global city). However, rather bad Latvian roads mean that it is usually impossible to just stay in Riga and visit other locations from there (except for nearby locations such as Sigulda, Cēsis or Jūrmala).

In smaller cities there are typically hotels ranging from little-renovated Soviet style ones (cheaper) to modern ones, sometimes established within historic buildings. In seaside locations there are more offers (especially Jūrmala), but some may close down in winter.

Short-term apartment rental is often possible through Air BnB and Booking.com but may require collateral and have limited check-in / check-out hours and are comparatively expensive. They are more useful for larger groups or families.

In the countryside a lot of former palaces and manors that have been converted into hotels. They may offer a poetic location and pretty decorated buildings amidst old parks. However, most of the palaces lack authentic interiors as they were destroyed by Soviets to whom palaces were a symbol of former regimes. Palace or manor hotels typically have the word “pils” or “muiža” in their name.

However, not every muiža hotel will be within an impressive building and location, as some of the nobles weren’t especially rich and their “manors” did not differ that much from ordinary 19th-century homes. So, if you want to spend a night within a building built for the richest, you have to read beyond official comments at booking websites.

Restaurants in Latvia

In cities the array of places to eat is rather large, the most so in Riga, where there is catering for every taste and wallet size.

All cities have fast food chain restaurants typically located on the outskirts or in the shopping malls. McDonald’s here has been dwarfed in the number of outlets by its regional (Finnish) competitor Hesburger, which offers similar albeit somewhat cheaper fare. Pizzerias are also somewhat popular, many of them owned by Lithuanian chains such as Čili Pizza. They often actually offer various food, not only pizzas.

Cafeterias are especially popular, offering both coffee and various cakes.

More traditional Latvian restaurants are located in the downtowns. Except for Riga, downtown location does not mean inflated prices. In summer, downtown restaurants often add open-air sections.

An open air cafe in central Riga
An open air cafe in central Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

In smaller towns, there are usually just a couple restaurants offering standard Latvian cuisine. In weekends they may be hired for wedding celebrations and therefore closed.

Cities: Introduction

Latvia’s cities have nearly the same number of inhabitants today as they did 100 years ago. Because of this, most cities are dominated by old buildings and streets and there are relatively few dull modern buildings. Some cities, however, have been heavily damaged by World War 2 and Soviet destruction.

The cities of Latvia

There are three tiers of Latvia’s cities.

On the top tier is Riga alone. With 650 000 people, it is the largest metropolis in the Baltic States, surpassing Latvia’s second largest city 7 times. Riga is the only true center of politics, business, and infrastructure and has more sights than the remaining cities combined.

The main square of Riga Old Town
The main square of Riga Old Town. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The “second tier” consists regional centers with populations of 35 000 – 100 000 each. They serve as local shopping, entertainment, and infrastructure hubs. Each of them has enough sights for 1-2 days visit. These cities are:

Daugavpils (pop. 93 000), the Russian-speaking hub of Latgale. It has an image of being poor and somewhat disloyal, but it has some sights such as the Russian Imperial fortress.

Liepāja (pop. 77 000) is Latvia’s westernmost city and one of its largest ports. Historically the port was even more important, and the entire derelict Russian Imperial 19th-century naval military city (Karosta) is a key attraction.

Festival building of Karosta
Abandoned soldiers festival building of Karosta, Liepāja. Latvian cities have many buildings reminding of their past importance to militaristic Russian and Soviet empires. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Jelgava (pop. 60 000) once served as the capital of Courland-Semigallia giving it a massive palace and nice churches.

Jūrmala (pop. 51 000), the Latvia’s top seaside resort and now effectively a suburb of Riga. Once separate fishing villages joined to become a single city, offering a long sandy beach and lots of summer entertainment.

Ventspils (pop. 39 000) is a historic port city in the northwest, famous for its well maintained old town, pretty landscaping and tourist-friendly attitude.

Southern pier of Ventspils during a storm, as seen from a lookout tower
Southern pier of Ventspils during a storm, as seen from a lookout tower. Ports and beaches are a key part of the seaside cities, providing jobs and entertainment. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The third tier of Latvian cities (under 35 000 inhabittants) may have city status, but they are more correctly referred as towns. Some of the more historic towns, such as Kuldīga, Tālsi, Bauska and Cēsis have pretty old towns and other sights.

Districts and buildings

A Latvian city is often centered around a Medieval castle (ruined or repaired) or an 18th-19th century palace that housed the local overlords. Otherwise, the central square may be near one of local churches. Due to religious diversity, there are usually many historic churches of different Christian denominations in a single city or town.

Jelgava palace
Jelgava palace that once housed the ethnically German dukes of Courland and Semigallia. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

While a few cities (such as Riga) have extensive Medieval districts, in many others, ruined castles are among the only remaining buildings that old. The bulk of downtown buildings date to the urbanization era of the 19th century but they are none less pretty. Typical edifices of the era are apartment blocks, ranging from 2-floored wooden ones to elaborate historicist or art nouveau buildings dating to ~1900. Pretty natural areas that were once suburbs are full of well-decorated 19th century villas standing amidst trees.

Part of art noveau facade near Albet street
Part of Art Noveau facade in Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Depending on World War 2 and later damage, city downtowns may have some Soviet buildings. However, Soviet districts of dull and similar concrete slab buildings are mostly located beyond the downtown. They are smaller than in many ex-Soviet nations because the prime era of urbanization predated the Soviet occupation in Latvia.

An abandoned villa
An abandoned seaside villa in Ventspils. Under Soviet regime , various old picturesque buildings were abandoned in favor of new apartment blocks. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Common post-independence buildings include shopping malls, which were built after the Soviet shortages ended and now serve as shopping hubs. Modern apartments and private buildings are another symbol of new Latvian affluence.

More spiritual locations in every city are churches. The Russian Orthodox ones typically date to 19th-century Russian Imperial era, Lutheran and Catholic ones may be both older and newer. The churches of Soviet districts are usually very recent, as their construction was banned during the Soviet occupation.

Lutheran and Catholic churches at the religious center of Daugavpils
Iconic Churches hill of Daugavpils, with two out of four churches of different denominations (constructed ~1900) that stand next to each other visible. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Another important site is the “Brotherly graves” (Brāļu kapi), which is a name given to the graves of soldiers who fell for Latvia in World War 1, World War 2 and the wars of independence. More controversial are graves of the Soviet occupational soldiers, which often become rallying sites for local Russophones.

Regions: Introduction

Latvia consists of four regions. They had a separate history prior to being unified into a single Latvia in 1918. This allowed them to have separate cultural traits.

Vidzeme (Northern Latvia) is the largest region, famous for its scenery and castles near Sigulda and Cēsis. Ruled by Sweden 1621-1721 and Russia 1721-1918 (with limited autonomy), it gradually became the most ethnically Latvian region.

Central fortification of Medieval Cēsis castle
Medieval Cēsis castle in Vidzeme that once served as the residence of Livonian Order grand master. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Latgale (Eastern Latvia) is the most ethnically diverse area and the only one to have a Catholic majority. It was the only area of Latvia to be ruled directly by Poland-Lithuania (1562-1775) and Russia (1775-1918). Polish nobles, Russian Old Believer refugees, Russian Orthodox settlers and Russia’s Jews moved in throughout that era of foreign regimes. Some towns remain minority-majority. Even many Latvians there speak in a unique Latgallian dialect sometimes considered a language on its own.

Aglona Basilica
Aglona Basilica, the heart of Catholic Latgale (and Latvia). ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Courland (Western Latvia) is the coastal region with two historic port cities (Liepāja and Ventspils), fishing villages and nice empty shorelines. It spent 1562-1795 era as the naval heart of Courland-Semigallia, a sea-minded German-ruled duchy.

Kuldīga, one Courland's surviving authentic towns
Kuldīga, one Courland’s surviving authentic towns. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Semigallia (Southern Latvia) was the administrative center of Courland-Semigallia (1562-1795) and it has Latvia’s prettiest palaces that once housed the local dukes (Rundale and Jelgava).

A small part of massive Jelgava palace
A small part of massive Jelgava palace in Semigallia. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Riga is located in Vidzeme, but its status as the capital effectively made it a region of its own. The pace of life in Riga is faster than in all the regional cities while its culture includes all regional cultures as well as migrants from abroad. If the suburbs such as Jūrmala resort are included, Riga’s population is almost equal to that of the four remaining regions put together.

The most famous square of Riga Old Town
The most famous square of Riga Old Town. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The regions of Latvia are rather similar in size and each has a population of approximately 300 000 inhabitants. Riga (if put together with Jūrmala and suburbs) alone has some 850 000 people.

Latvian cuisine

Latvian cuisine is relatively high on fat and not spicy.

Pork is the favorite meat. Pork dishes range from the common mostly shared with neighboring countries (e.g. Karbonāde schnitzel) to “weirder” ones such as pig’s feet, head or ears.

Potatoes are a popular side-dish, and they are prepared in many versions (boiled, fried, mashed). Cabbage are also a popular side dish, both hot and cold.

Black rye bread is the staple food.

Latvian cuisine has been influenced by German cuisine due to centuries of German rule. It has also subsumed the Livonian cuisine as Livonians became a small minority. The most ubiquitous Livonian food is Sklandrausis sweet pie made of rye dough with potato and carrot paste.

Sklandrausis on offer during a fair
Sklandrausis pies on offer during a fair. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Riga Black Balsam (45%) is considered to be the national alcoholic beverage, having entire souvenir shops dedicated to it in Riga. This herbal liquor has been brewed since the 18th century. However, beer is more popular for local consumption, with vodka also popularized by Russians. Among non-alcoholic beverages, kvas is popular, however, it faces tough competition from Western soft drinks.

Riga Black Balsams
Assortment of Riga Black Balsams bottles at a window of a specialized shop in dowtown Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Sports in Latvia

Latvian national sport is Ice hockey. Many towns have their own ice hockey halls where local clubs play in two leagues. The passion of the entire nation is, however, its National team and Riga Dinamo Club that plays against mostly Russian opponents in the KHL Eastern European league.

While moderately successful (for instance, in 2002-2014 the national team participated in four Olympic games in a row), Latvian ice hockey players have yet to bring back any major medals or cups back from International tournaments, finishing 7th-8th at best. Even in 2006 when the World Championship was held in Riga the local team failed to reach playoffs.

Such lack of success is likely because of Latvia’s small population: it is difficult to amass a hockey team of some 20 world-class players.

Riga Dinamo plays a nearly sold out KHL game against Saint Petersburg ASK in Riga
Riga Dinamo plays a nearly sold out KHL game against Saint Petersburg ASK in Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Latvians fare better in individual sports, especially luge, skeleton and bobsleight, where they won 7 Olympic medals since 2006.

Latvia has no summer disciplines where it would produce good results regularly, however, talents come and go in many of them. The recent star is BMX cycler Māris Štrombergs who won gold medals in two Olympics in a row.

Football and basketball are also popular in Latvia, despite a lack of recent top achievements.

In basketball, Latvia regularly plays at European championships but has never qualified for World Championships or Olympic games after 1990 independence. It has won European gold medals in 1935 and silver in 1939, but those times of Latvian basketball glory seems to have ended with Soviet occupation. Latvia also has basketball clubs that play in the regional leagues. The main clubs are “Ventspils” and “VEF Riga”.

In football (soccer) Latvia’s only success was a qualification to the European Championships of 2004. Football is especially popular among ethnic Russians; in 2004 nearly all field players of Latvia’s national team were ethnic Russians or Russophones.

Speedway is another locally popular sport (primarily in Daugavpils), and Latvia hosted World championship events a few years in a row.

Speedway event in Daugavpils
Speedway event in Lokomotiv stadium. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Novuss is sometimes considered the national game of Latvia. It is vaguely similar to billiard although its “checkers” (rather than balls) that have to be pushed into holes and the table is square. It has been invented in interwar Latvia and survived the Soviet occupation but lost some popularity after independence as various foreign games became accessible.

Climate of Latvia

The climate in Latvia is temperate continental. The population density is lower than in much of Europe and large parts of Latvia are covered by forests and agricultural pastures. It is possible to see wild animals roaming around if you drive enough around Latvia.

The climate (continental humid) is comparable to cities such as Moscow and Toronto. It has four distinct seasons, each associated with different tasks and colors.

Daytime temperatures in Riga range from an average daily high of +21,7 in July to average daily high of -2,3 in January.

Nighttime temperatures in Riga range from an average daily low of +12,3 in July to average daily low of -7,8 in January.

Kuldīga church in Autumn
Kuldīga church in Autumn when trees turn yellow, giving it a romantic touch. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Latvia is a small country, so there are little temperature variations. However, the climate in the West is generally milder (warmer winters, cooler summers) than in the East.

Winters are traditionally considered “white” although there may be periods of thaw. January and February are the coldest months. Several weeks every year may be very cold, going under -20 at nights or even days. Throughout winter the interiors are heavily heated (by public heating, the bills of which make it controversial).

Snowy and icy road during winter
Snowy and icy road during winter. There may be little or delayed snow cleaning, leading to hazardous driving conditions. ©Augustinas Žemaitis

Summers are warm, but a few weeks may get very hot (above +30). Air conditioning is nevertheless limited with most homes and public buildings having none. Summers are the key period for seaside holidays.

Water temperature in the Baltic Sea is around 18 C in summer and considered especially warm if 20 C. In lakes and rivers, it gets significantly hotter.

Latvian terrain is extremely flat (all country under 350 m), meaning there are no altitude-induced climate differences.

June-to-September period has more precipitation but the difference is low with no real “wet period”. Considerable droughts may take place even during these months, but typically Latvia has more than enough water all year. February and March are the driest months.

Skyline of Daugavpils in summer
Skyline of Daugavpils in summer when the trees are green. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

If you come from outside Europe it may surprise you that Lithuania is very far to the north: further north than any US, Canadian, Japanese or Chinese major city. While the warm Gulf Stream supports its temperate climate and never allows Latvian ports to freeze, it could not change day/night cycle. High latitudes mean that in the deep winter the days are quite short (7 hours) whereas in mid-summer they are very long (17 hours), with nautical twilight lasting the whole night. Daylight savings time means that winter sunset is even earlier, getting dark ~4 PM.

The time zone for Latvia is UCT+2 in summer and UTC+3 in winter (due to daylight savings time). In reality, the sun rises and sets some 30 minutes earlier in the easternmost reaches of Latvia than in the westernmost.

There are no natural disasters like volcanoes, earthquakes or tornadoes (although the Western coast may get windy). Forest fires do happen, but they are minor. The cold in winter takes its toll sometimes but this is limited to the homeless. Heavy rains and strong winds do some damage, but usually only to the property and crops and this damage is minor compared to places like the United States.

Architecture

For centuries Latvia was a land of forests, and traditional Latvian architecture was wooden. Peasant homes were all built with architectural details that existed often meant to serve a practical purpose. Some of such homes still exist in villages and museums.

An old farmstead of Courland fishermen moved into Riga skansen
Wooden building of Latvian vernacular architecture now located in Riga open-air museum. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

German knights who came to Christianize Latvia built the first cities, bringing with them brick buildings, Western European styles. Throughout the next centuries, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque styles influenced the key buildings of Latvia: castles, churches and townhouses. Baroque was especially influential in Eastern Latvia where Catholic faith prevailed as well as for palaces. Some of Latvia’s best known buildings are built in these styles.

Jelgava palace
Austere yet massive St. Peter gothic church in Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The face of Latvia was changed by the 19th century urbanization. In building the new cities, larger than ever before, architects borrowed ideas from previous styles, firstly creating a Neo-Classical stule (imitating Antiquity) and then other Historicist styles (imitating every previous period). Cities have also received wooden buildings, ranging from simple apartment blocks of the workers to elaborate seaside villas for the rich.

Historicist buildings in Liepāja
Historicist buildings in Liepāja. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

By ~1900 the use of former architectural styles was replaced by an invented new one: the Art Nouveau. Riga is considered one of the most excellent repositories of Art Nouveau buildings, the Riga Art Nouveau falling into multiple substyles, one of them National Romantic which epitomized the Latvian national revival.

A former spa in Jūrmala beach
Art nouveau spa in Jūrmala beach. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

During the interwar independence Latvia lost population, limiting the architecture of the period to just a few districts in Riga. The few key projects of the era that were constructed were designed to epitomize the newly-born Latvia, showing that it is no more merely a province of some large empires. They borrowed on Art Deco and other then-popular styles.

Soldiers memorial in Riga
A fragment of independence war soldiers memorial – one of the key interwar projects when city asserted its Latvian identity. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The independence was cut short by a bloody Soviet occupation. In architecture, it started with rather impressive Soviet historicism (a.k.a. Stalinism, Socialist realism) as the only legal style. The style gave controversial buildings of gray/brown grandeur to Latvian downtowns.

Academy of Sciences in Riga
Academy of Sciences in Riga (1951-1961), the most famous Soviet historicist building in Latvia and for long the tallest. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

It was however later (~1955) replaced by massive districts of cheap and nearly identical Soviet modernist apartment blocks. While often despised, the Soviet modernism still forms the essence of many city districts.

Skrunda-2 main street
Soviet apartment blocks of 1960s at Skrunda-2. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

After independence, Latvia constructed the buildings of once-neglected uses (e.g. Office blocks, shopping malls) using modern Western styles and materials, such as steel and glass.

Post-independence concert hall in Liepāja built in a form and color of a piece of amber
Post-independence concert hall in Liepāja built in a form and color of a piece of amber. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Towns

Latvian towns are usually centered at a Medieval castle or a later manor, from where they were once ruled. A church, or more often churches, stand nearby.

Castle-like 19th century Cēsis palace, with ruins of Medieval castle on the right
Castle-like 19th-century Cēsis palace, with ruins of a Medieval castle on the right. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The largest and oldest one is typically Lutheran, while Catholic and Russian Orthodox ones are smaller and dating to the 19th-20th century.

The small old town consists of single or double story wooden and brick buildings, once inhabited by the German elite and craftsmen. The towns became ethnically Latvian throughout the 19th-century urbanization.

Main square of Kuldīga with old brick buildings
The main square of Kuldīga with old brick buildings. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Under Soviet occupation, new boring apartment blocks were constructed in larger towns. Some of the towns have their faces altered considerably, losing their identity. However, many of the Latvia’s towns still retain their picturesque old towns.

The prettiest towns of Latvia are Kuldīga, Cēsis, Bauska, Talsi, Kandava.

Sigulda, Gulbene, Alūksne and Jēkabpils, Koknese have a few pretty locations each, mainly castles, palaces and churches.

An old Baroque church in Kraslava. Churches are typically the oldest surviving buildings in Latvian towns
An old Baroque church in Kraslava. Churches are typically the oldest surviving buildings in Latvian towns that remain in original use. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Skrunda-2 is a unique abandoned Soviet military town.

History of Latvia: Introduction

Latvians are the descendants of Baltic tribes that arrived at the area ~4000 years ago, making them one of the oldest European nations in the current location. For several millennia modern-day Latvia was largely untouched by outsiders, away from the main migration and trade routes, worshiping is own gods.

However, as the rest of Europe adopted Christianity, pagan Balts increasingly became seen as an anachronism. German crusaders came to redress this ~1200, conquering Latvians and making them adopt Catholicism.

Germans remained the local overlords, establishing their theocracies such as the Livonian Order. As the entire region became Christian, these crusading statelets lost their reason to exist. With European support for crusades dwindled, Latvia was conquered by Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1562. However, even after the annexation, local Germans retained their cultural domination.

At the time Catholic Church faced new struggle from within as the Reformation movement started. Protestant ideas became popular among Latvia’s German nobility who converted to Lutheranism. Latvian peasants generally followed suit. This was the golden age for German-ruled Duchy of Courland-Semigallia, which despite the status of Polish-Lithuanian vassal was rich enough to partake in the colonization of Americas.

By the 17th century, the power of Poland-Lithuania was waning as two new regional powers were rising: Sweden and Russia. Sweden managed to capture Riga and Vidzeme (Northern Latvia) in 1621, but its greatness proved to be temporary. Russia, on the other hand, continued to dominate Eastern Europe ever since. Russians managed to conquer whole Latvia in a series of wars between 1700 and 1795.

After modern technologies belatedly reached the Russian Empire, Latvia became an industrial heartland in 1860-1914, with Riga one of the largest imperial cities. For the first time, ethnic Latvian peasants were moving to the cities in large numbers, staffing the factories. In what was known as the Latvian National Awakening some of them excelled in art, business and urban jobs, at the same time beginning to respect their own culture and language.

As the cities became Latvian-majority ~1890s the Revival leaders increasingly called for independence, believing that only then would Latvian culture be not sidelined by Russian nor German counterparts. Freedom became possible in 1918 when both Russia and Germany lost World War 1.

Two decades of prosperous independence followed where Latvians achieved their place among European nations. However, Russia and Germany were back in World War 2 (1940), both occupying Latvia and perpetrating genocides. The Soviet Union won the war and stayed until 1990. The occupation severely altered Latvia’s demography and held its economy decades behind the West.

In 1990 Latvians declared independence and the Soviet Union collapsed soon after. Latvia has since looked westwards to ensure its defense from any new Russian attacks.

Castles and Palaces: Introduction

Latvia has numerous medieval castles.

They date from the era of Baltic Crusades when German knights (Livonian Order) subdued the local pagan Latvians. They later continued their fight by attacking Lithuanians further south. In order to do this, they have heavily fortified Latvia.

Crusader castles remain in Sigulda, Cēsis, Koknese, Bauska, Riga, Ventspils and other locations. Many of them have been partly restored and host museums today.

Cēsis Medieval Castle, the seat of Grand Master of Livonian Order
Cēsis Medieval Castle, the seat of Grand Master of Livonian Order. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

As the era of crusades ended, the nobility moved from fortified castles to opulent palaces. Latvia has some of the Baltic States prettiest palaces in Rundale and Jelgava which once housed the Dukes of Courland and Semigallia.

Jelgava palace
Jelgava palace. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

As Latvia was conquered by the Russian Empire in the 18th century it once again was near a borderline of civilizations (Eastern Orthodox and Western). Russians constructed the fortress of Daugavpils and an entire naval military city in Liepāja. Both are well preserved (although partly abandoned) and popular among Latvia’s visitors who see beauty in 19th-century military architecture.

Daugavpils 19th century fortress entrance
Daugavpils 19th century fortress entrance. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

However, actual wars in Europe were rare in that era. Before World War 1 (1914), Latvia had spent some 100 years without any warfare on its soil. That allowed local German and Russian nobility to develop large manors centered around extravagant new palaces. These were often built to remind Medieval castles. Some of the prettiest ones stand in Cesvaine, Gulbene area, and Western Semigallia. Unfortunately, many of them had their interiors gutted by Soviets who nationalized them, but the restored exteriors give a nice touch to the Latvian landscape. Many of these palaces have been converted into hotels or public buildings.

Castle-inspired Alūksne manor palace
Castle-inspired Alūksne manor palace. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

State symbols of Latvia

Latvian flag

Latvian flag is the best-known symbol of Latvia. It is considered one of the oldest flags in the world, as it has been described as early as 1271 in Livonian Chronicle as a battle flag used by local tribes. That said, with Latvian independent state extinguished for centuries, the flag was forgotten and not used. It was only rediscovered and readopted in the 19th century when Latvian National Awakening took place and intellectuals searched for symbols that could epitomize the nation. After Latvia became independent in 1918 there was no question anymore on what flag should be used, and it remained in use ever since.

Flag of Latvia
Flag of Latvia.

Latvian coat of arms and heraldry

As Latvians had no medieval states, they also lack a historic coat of arms. A new one was thus devised soon after independence, following the European heraldic tradition. The coat of arms united many earlier patriotic symbols that are also still used on their own sometimes.

Three stars above the coat of arms represent the unity of Latvia, each star standing for a region that had a separate history of the 1621-1918 era but was unified into Latvia afterward. The three regions are:
*Vidzeme (Polish-Lithuanian rule 1581-1621, Swedish rule 1621-1721, semi-autonomous Russian rule 1721-1918)
*Latgale (direct Polish-Lithuanian rule 1561-1775, direct Russian rule 1775-1918)
*CourlandSemigallia (fief of Poland-Lithuania 1561-1795, semi-autonomous Russian rule 1795-1918)

Largest (left) and smallest (right) versions of the Latvian coat of arms
Largest (left) and smallest (right) versions of the Latvian coat of arms.

Unlike Latvia as a whole, the separate regions have historic heraldry, now also appearing on the national coat of arms: the lion represents Courland-Semigallia while the griffin represents Vidzeme.

The rising sun was the symbol of World War 1 Latvian riflemen regiment within the Russian Imperial forces. As the independence was achieved during World War 1, memories of the battles were still potent enough to warrant its inclusion.

The coat of arms has multiple versions (from smaller to largest), and the larger versions also include a flag-colored ribbon and oak leafs (national tree) under the shield.

National anthem of Latvia

Latvian national anthem is a hymn “Dievs, svētī Latviju!” (“God Bless Latvia”) by Kārlis Baumanis.

Dievs, svētī Latviju!
by Kārlis BaumanisDievs, svētī Latviju!
Mūs’ dārgo tēviju
Svētī jel Latviju
Ak, svētī jel to! (repeat)Kur latvju meitas zied
Kur latvju dēli dzied
Laid mums tur laimē diet
Mūs’ Latvijā! (repeat)
God bless Latvia
English translation ©Augustinas Žemaitis.God Bless Latvia!
Our dear Fatherland
Bless Latvia
Oh, bless it!Where the Latvian daughters are pretty
Where the Latvian sons are strong
Let us dance there out of joy
Within our Latvia!

As the hymn was composed while Latvia was deep under Russian Imperial rule, word “Baltic [sea coast]” was used to be sung instead of Latvia, that way avoiding a ban on the song.

Other symbols of Latvia

Freedom Monument of Riga itself is a potent symbol, both as a place for key national festivals and as an embodiment of Latvia. The fact that it was one of the very few Latvian monuments not to be demolished by the Soviets likely increased its importance to the national psyche. Three stars symbol forms part of the composition.

Freedom monument in Riga
Freedom monument in Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Swastika has been used extensively in Latvia since prehistoric times. It was prevalent in pre-WW2 Latvian symbolism, often associated with Latvian folk culture. Banned by the Soviet Union together with all the patriotic symbols, swastika saw just a limited return after independence, as non-locals often mistakenly associate it with Nazism. Many Latvians believe that “swastika should be reclaimed” but to avoid misunderstandings they sometimes use more stylized forms of the symbol today.

Swasticas adorning the Barons's collection of 'Latvian folk songs' (published in 1920s), a work inscribed by UNESCO into its 'Memory of the world' list
Swastikas adorning the Barons’s collection of ‘Latvian folk songs’ (published in the 1920s), a work inscribed by UNESCO into its ‘Memory of the world’ list. Image ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Other things and practices held as “national” by significant parts of society (none of these – except for language – are enshrined in law so it is purely traditional):

National bird: White wagtail
National tree: Oak and linden
National flower: Daisy
National insect: Ladybird
National language: Latvian
National religion: Christianity (Lutheranism and Catholicism)
National sport: Ice hockey
National alcoholic beverage: Riga’s Balsams
National “mineral” (jewelry): Amber

Latvian folk costume is used today mainly when singing folk songs, but it is nevertheless a potent national symbol.

Getting around Latvia

Latvia is a “single city country”. Approximately half of its population lives in Riga and suburbs, with the rest of the country inhabited relatively sparsely.

As such, transportation opportunities beyond Riga are somewhat limited.

Locations around Riga and those in Eastern Latvia are best accessible by trains (if you have no car). The network there is extensive but there are no high-speed railroads. Nearly every Latvian passenger train route either begins or ends at Riga. In the areas close to Riga, the passenger railway traffic is especially frequent, with a train in each direction every 20-60 minutes between morning and almost midnight. It gets progressively scarcer further from Riga however, with just 2-4 daily trains each way to the most distant cities such as Daugavpils. To some cities, there are merely two trains a week (on Friday and Sunday, mostly aimed at students getting home). While Latvia seemingly has an extensive railroad network, it should be noted that the passenger services have been scaled down or removed on many tracks.

The map of Latvian passenger railways
The map of Latvian passenger railways. ©Augustinas Žemaitis

Areas around Riga are considered suburbs as far as railways matter and the tickets are sold by zones akin to subways.

Buses are the best public option of traveling where the passenger trains don’t reach or are scarce. They reach pretty much everywhere, however unlike railways they are operated by many companies making exact timetables more difficult to find.

A typical tarred road between Latvian cities
A typical tarred road. Due to Latvia’s low population density, forests are very common and towns are occasional. ©Augustinas Žemaitis

Given rare public transport, having a car is advisable if going beyond main cities and Riga surroundings. Outside of Riga suburbs, there are no highways. The trunk roads are tarred, but they still have just two lanes. The other roads are surfaced in gravel. 90 km/h is the highest allowed speed, reduced to 50 km/h in towns.

While driving from Riga to Liepāja, Daugavpils and Ventspils may take ~3 hours, there are no internal flights as the ones that existed proved to be unprofitable due to the thin population outside Riga.

Gravel road connecting Bauske to Jelgava, both relatively large towns
Gravel road connecting Bauske to Jelgava, both relatively large towns. ©Augustinas Žemaitis

Beautiful nature

Latvia is a sparsely inhabited lowland country. The population density is 34 people per square kilometer, but most of that is concentrated around Riga.

As such, the remainder of Latvia consists of vast areas of quite pristine forests, rivers and lakes with a town here and there.

A ferry accross Gauja river in Gauja National Park in winter
A ferry across Gauja river in Gauja National Park in winter. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The most typical natural sights have been amalgamated into National Parks. The most famous among those is Gauja National Park around Sigulda, easily accessible from Riga. It surrounds the valley of the longest river that starts and ends in Latvia. In addition to landscapes it the park offers Crusader castles and active entertainment.

Less easily accessible other national parks include the one around Lake Raznas in Latgale (a region famous for its numerous lakes) as well as Slītere National Park near Kolka Peninsula that is the end of Western Latvia. In addition to forests (where beasts live), it boasts a unique indigenous Liv culture.

Steep sandy shores are common in Western Latvia
Steep sandy shores are common in Western Latvia. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Gulbene-Alūksne area is also famous for its natural views.

Famous Latvians

The Latvian nation is not big enough to have many worldwide celebrities or people who influenced the world.

However, in Latvia itself, there are numerous well-known historical figures.

Among the best known are the 19th-century people who led the Latvian National Awakening. This is understandable: without their work Latvian nation would perhaps be already assimilated.

The work they have begun was safeguarded by Latvian freedom fighters and politicians who led the nation into independence.

As the nation was reborn, numerous Latvian writers and poets surfaced who would be writing in Latvian. Some of them became key pillars for Latvian nation and its independence, others have collaborated with various occupational authorities.

Before the 19th century, Latvians were mostly uneducated peasants and lacked any influence. The Latvian language was also nearly unused outside the family sphere. As such, it is difficult to classify the pre-19th-century figures as Latvians. Even if they were born in Latvia, most of them were of foreign origin, especially German.

Getting to/from Latvia

Latvia is best accessible from further countries by plane.

Riga International Airport is the largest passenger airport in the Baltic States (it serves as many passengers as Vilnius and Tallinn airports put together). The national airline airBaltic offers flights to destinations all over Europe. While there are several routes beyond Europe, traveling there usually requires a transfer in larger European hubs. Riga is the only airport to offer scheduled flights.

airBaltic planes at the Riga International Airport
airBaltic planes at the Riga International Airport. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Roads lead to Latvia from Lithuania, Estonia, Russia, and Belarus. There are no customs nor border checks between Latvia and two other Baltic States, offering good opportunities to visit the three Baltic States by car in one trip. Borders with Russia and Belarus, however, may take multiple hours to cross and in almost all cases a visa will be needed.

As Latvia uses broad (“Soviet”) railroad gauge, the railroad access is limited to rather slow Russia-bound trains. There are no trains between the three Baltic capitals: while these would be technically possible, they would likely be too slow to outcompete buses.

As such, buses are the prime mode of transportation between Latvia and the neighboring countries. Longer distance buses fell out of fashion as the aircraft connections improved. While there are also numerous flights to Tallinn and Lithuania, these are too expensive to be competitive for non-business customers.

Latvia has three major ports: Riga, Ventspils, and Liepāja. Each of them offers different opportunities to cross the Baltic Sea in a ferry, with routes available to Stockholm (Sweden), Germany and St. Petersburg (Russia). These routes typically depart in evening (or afternoon) and arrive the following morning (or afternoon). One may hire a cabin.

Germany-bound ferry moored in Ventspils passenger port
Germany-bound ferry ‘Stena Flavia’ moored in Ventspils passenger port. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Additionally, Cruise ships visit Riga in summer.