Cities of Latvia

Cities of Latvia: Riga, Liepāja, Daugavpils and more

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.

Riga: Introduction

Riga (pop. 650 000) is the largest city in the Baltic States. Together with suburbs, it contains almost half of Latvia’s inhabitants. Nearly all major Latvian businesses are headquartered in Riga and foreign representations to the entire Baltic region are usually located in Riga.

Riga is both a major entry point to the Baltics region (its airport is the largest) and a major tourist destination of its own with one of the world’s best collection of art nouveau buildings, wooden residentials and a Medieval Old Town (UNESCO World Heritage).

Alberta street in Centrs district of Riga
Alberta Street in Centrs district of Riga, famous for its art nouveau architecture. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Late 19th and early 20th century were the prime periods of Riga expansion, creating its romantic current look. However, the city was initially developed by German knights and merchants in the Medieval era when its cute Old Town was built.

The most famous square of Riga Old Town
City hall square of Riga Old Town with St. Peter church rising above it. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The 20th century was especially bloody for Riga as the Soviet occupation transformed the city and murdered thousands of its people while settling the city with Russians. While Riga is now a modern Western metropolis with Soviet past little visible for those who don’t seek it, the inhabitants of Riga remain bitterly divided between once-oppressed ethnic Latvians (~43% of the population) and a largely Russian-speaking remainder (privileged while under Soviet occupation).

Riga is divided by geographic features into:

1.Old Town (Medieval district surrounded by moat and Daugava)

2.Downtown (19th-century districts, surrounded by railway and Daugava, consisting of the massive art nouveau Centrs and more prosaic Eastern Downtown, as well as the largely modern Northern Downtown)

3.Eastern new districts (districts beyond the railway, developed in 20th century or as 19th-century suburbs. They include a former industrial hub of Sarkandaugava, multiethnic Maskavas suburb that has become a shabby version of Downtown, interwar district Teika, and a historic wooden villa suburb of Mežaparks where main Riga cemeteries are also located)

4.Pardaugava (the areas west of Daugava river, where the districts closer to Old Town – Āgenskalns, Kipsala – have been built over in the 19th century and are now undergoing transformation into a new city center. Further away lay the Soviet districts).

Wooden 19th century apartment buildings in Pardaugava
Wooden 19th-century apartment buildings in Pardaugava. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Each of the famous 19th-century districts is a collection of four distinct types of buildings:

1.The largest and most lauded ones are 5 story edifices where elaborate art nouveau style predominates.
2.Then there are smaller and simpler (2-4 floor) brick buildings.
3.Wooden 2-floored residentials are another icon of Riga, although they are not so prestigious.
4.And, at the „smallest end“ there are single-floored detached homes and somewhat larger villas.

The Centrs neighborhood is nearly entirely built of the 5-floored residentials, but the further you drift from the Centrs, the less such buildings (and the more buildings of the smaller types) there you will find.

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.

Daugavpils

Daugavpils (pop. 93 000) is Latvia’s second largest city and the main metropolis of Latgale (Eastern Latvia).

Uniquely, ethnic Latvians make up only 20% of the population here, making the city seem distant and disloyal to many Latvians. Russian is the lingua franca of Daugavpils. While the city is ethnically diverse (Russians – 54%, Poles – 14%, Belarusians – 7%, Ukrainians – 2%) the Soviet Russification drive has ensured that even to most non-Russian locals Russian is also the native tongue.

Skyline of Daugavpils
Skyline of Daugavpils with churches of various ethnicities and denominations visible. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Daugavpils became a large city after Russian Empire has developed a massive fortress here (1810-1876) as well as laid primary Saint Petersburg-Warsaw road (1834) and railroad (1860) through the city. While the regular Downtown street grid dates to that era of rapid growth, many of the buildings are newer as the city was devastated during World War 2 and subsequent Soviet regime.

A typical straight street in Daugavpils downtown
A typical straight street in Daugavpils downtown. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Daugavpils Downtown is where the shopping, restaurants, and nightlife are concentrated, but the most iconic districts lie beyond it. These are the Fortress (Cietoksnis), which is now inhabited, and the Churches Hill area where churches of 4 Christian denominations stand side by side, signifying Daugavpils’s and Latgale’s multi-religious history. The nearby Varšavas street has some pretty villas that miraculously survived World War 2 bombings.

Daugavpils fortress entrance
Daugavpils fortress entrance. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Other parts of Daugavpils are the off-the-beaten-path suburb of Grīva beyond the river that still retains some 19th century atmosphere and the mostly Soviet and post-Soviet New Daugavpils in the east.

While Daugavpils is somewhat infamous as poor, these days it looks much better than it did a decade ago.

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Daugavpils Downtown

Daugavpils downtown of straight 19th century streets may be too much altered by Soviet rebuilding drive to retain that old charm it must have had, but it is nevertheless the center of the city.

A grand Stalinist Soviet cinema, now a nightclub
A grand Stalinist Soviet cinema, now a nightclub. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Finding shopping, nightlife and accommodation opportunities is the easiest here, and access to most sights beyond downtown is also trivial. Daugavpils train and bus stations are both located in the downtown. Unlike many Western cities, the main malls of Daugavpils are right at its center.

A mall in downtown Daugavpils
A mall in downtown Daugavpils. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

While many old buildings have been demolished and replaced by nondescript Soviet parks or boring new edifices, many still remain to be found while exploring Daugavpils streets. The city is especially famous for its red brick edifices where bricks are formed into ornaments to beautify facades.

Elaborate red brick building in Daugavpils downtown
Elaborate red brick building in Daugavpils downtown. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The heart of Downtown Daugavpils is the Unity Square which hosts an art deco Unity House (1937; a project of interwar Latvia), the theater and a Latvian home museum of pre-modern handicrafts.

Unity House
Unity House, still housing all the main cultural institutions of Daugavpils: theater, concert hall, library and now also tourist information. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Rigas Street, the main pedestrianized street of Daugavpils connects Unity Square to train station, offering some old facades.

Riga pedestrian street in Daugavpils
Riga pedestrian street. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Downtown Daugavpils also have multiple houses of worship from the pre-WW2 era, though they are small as the city used to be religiously fragmented. These are the St. Peter Catholic Church (1934) and Synagogue (1850). The Russian Orthodox church has been imploded by the Soviets in 1969 and only a small chapel was rebuilt in its place after independence.

St. Peter Catholic church
St. Peter Catholic Church modeled after the St. Peter Basilica in Rome, with a colonnaded circular square in front (however, it is so small it looks more of a chapel than parish church). ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Two main parks of downtown Daugavpils are the Dubrovin park (laid in the 19th century and named after the mayor of the time) and Central Park (a larger one that includes sports facilities and an ice hockey hall nearby). Dubrovin park has a fountain, an old towered firefighters building and a Soviet WW2 memorial which is still welcome by primarily Russian Daugavpils residents.

World War 2 memorial in Dubrovin park
World War 2 memorial in Dubrovin park. 1944 is the date of Soviet re-occupation of Daugavpils, a tragedy to Latvians yet viewed with ethnic pride by Russians. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Daugavpils downtown also hosts a regional museum offering information on local fauna and cultural history,

To the south Daugavpils Downtown is limited by a 6 km long dike which safeguards the city from Daugava floods, a 19th-century engineering marvel.

Dike of Daugavpils
Dike of Daugavpils. It is higher than both Daugava and the homes beyond it. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Churches hill and Varšavas street

Located just north of Downtown, Church Hill and Varšavas street had some of their iconic buildings spared of (post-)WW2 destruction.

Surviving old villa in Varšavas street
Old building in Varšavas street (now a Polish consulate helping the city’s massive Polish minority). ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The Church Hill is crowned by historic houses of worship four different Christian denominations that stand side by side, signifying the multireligiousness of both Daugavpils and Latgale.

Russian Orthodox Cathedral of SS Boris and Gleb on the Churches hill
Russian Orthodox Cathedral of SS Boris and Gleb on the Churches hill. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The churches are Lutheran Cathedral (1893), Roman Catholic Church of Blessed Virgin Mary (1905), SS Boris and Gleb Russian Orthodox Cathedral (1905; once a garrison church), Old Believer Church (1928).

Lutheran and Catholic churches at the religious center of Daugavpils
Lutheran and Catholic churches at the religious center of Daugavpils. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Nearby Varšavas street hosts multiple 19th-century villas and a lead shot factory with period technology saved by Soviet economic backwardness and now converted into a tourist-oriented place of industrial heritage, with regular guided excursions available every day.

A lead shot machine in Daugavpils
One of the outdated machines still used for lead shot production in Daugavpils. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The factory still uses its Lead shot tower, where pieces of lead are thrown from above in order to attain a perfect form because of gravity before hitting the ground. Back in the 19th century, this was a commonplace lead shot production but it seems like out of this world these days.

Varšavas street with lead shot tower
Varšavas street with the lead shot tower. A massive effort was needed to wash its interior from metal pollution before opening up for tourists. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Between the churches and lead shot factory Varšavas street hosts a Russian culture center where information about various aspects of Daugavpils Russian culture are presented (Othodox and Old Believer faiths, Daugavpils fortress history).

Daugavpils Fortress (Cietoksnis)

The Imperial Russian fortress (Cietoksnis) is a unique part of Daugavpils. It is essentially a residential district entirely surrounded by 19th-century fortifications, walls, and gates.

Nikolai entrance to the Daugavpils fortress
Nicholas entrance to the Daugavpils fortress, adorned by a Russian eagle. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Commissioned after Napoleon’s invasions (1810) and expanded until 1878 the star fortress the importance of fortress went beyond just defending Russia from Western invasions. As Daugavpils was on both the road and railroad from Saint Petersburg to European capitals, the Fortress was also used by the Russian czars to spend a night.

Currently abandoned building of Daugavpils Fortress
Currently abandoned building of Daugavpils Fortress. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The former glory is somewhat ruined as the obsolete fortress was turned into apartment blocks. Many original buildings remain (some are abandoned), but Soviets also constructed their own plain apartment blocks in-between, which are no less shabby.

Lines of old fortress buildings converted into apartment blocks
Lines of old fortress buildings converted into apartment blocks. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Fortifications themselves are of interest – they may be ascended. The Nicholas gate was restored, once again adorned by the Russian coat of arms.

Arsenal building of Cietokšnis has recently been converted into Mark Rothko art museum. This Jewish abstract painter was born in pre-WW1 Daugavpils. However, the overpriced museum hosts merely a few of his works with the rest of largely empty halls dedicated to his life story or temporary (non-Rothko) exhibits.

Fortress building that now houses Mark Rothko art center
The fortress building that currently houses Mark Rothko art center. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Other interesting locations include the Daugavpils fortress information center (near Mark Rothko museum) in a former Water Tower building, the buildings at the main park which includes former Fortress Commander office and a military hospital as well as the gates. Multiple monuments and graves exist in the area for warlords of various nationalities, however, they are not architecturally appealing.

Cietoksnis (Fortress) is located a couple kilometers west of downtown and may be accessed by bus.

A fortress cemetery located some 2 km northwest of the fortress is difficult to reach without a car or a longer hike. Few gravestones there are elaborate fortress era ones (with many new civilian burials and a section for WW2 Soviet soldiers). However, the cemetery is worth a visit primarily for its small Orthodox church of St. Alexander Nevskiy (1897), which boasts one of the most ornamental wooden facades in Latvia.

Daugavpils Fortress cemetery church of St. Alexander Nevskiy
Daugavpils Fortress cemetery church of St. Alexander Nevskiy. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Liepāja

Liepāja (pop. 77 000) is the westernmost Latvian city. For centuries it has been a major seaport and competed for the status of Latvia’s second city.

As Liepāja has less inhabitants today than in it did in 1911, the “new” is is still overwhelmed by the old. To this day Liepāja is full of picturesque turn-of-the-20th-century buildings when the city was a major naval hub of the Russian Empire, being important to many ethnic groups.

Picturesque buildings in Liepāja Old Town
Picturesque buildings in the Old Liepāja. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Liepāja consists of three parts, separated from each other by old shipping canals:

The southernmost is Old Liepāja is the historic downtown with old churches, art nouveau edifices and hundreds of wooden apartment buildings. It was here where Liepāja’s original glory began in 17th century when it took part in the colonization of Americas and Africa. Little of that era remains, having been replaced by 19th century, when rapidly expanding city needed to house the Latvian and Lithuanian workers as well offer seaside places to build villas for the German elite. Old Liepāja continues to be the main hub of nightlife and is considered the downtown.

Typical wooden building of Old Liepāja
Typical wooden building of Old Liepāja. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

New Liepāja is the geographic center of Liepāja that hosts its bus and train stations. It offers some shopping and entertainment opportunities. Developed in the 19th century it also has some pretty buildings, however, it is not usually treated as a tourist sight.

In the north Karosta is becoming Liepāja’s symbol in spite (or likely because of) being mostly abandoned. That was an entire military city of the Russian Empire that hosted tens of thousands soldiers and officers in its now-crumbling red-brick buildings.

Karosta prison in Liepāja
Karosta prison. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Liepāja is surrounded by sea and lakes. Grobiņa suburb has a lakeside castle ruins and Viking graves.

Old Liepāja (Southern Liepāja)

Southern Liepāja hosts the historic town center Old Liepāja. Large churches of various denominations there tower above old apartment buildings. Baroque Holy Trinity Lutheran Cathedral (1758) is famous for having a 7000 pipe mechanical organ, while Gothic Revival St. Annes (1893) has a great baroque altair (unfortunately, the churches are usually closed).

Holy Trinity Lutheran Cathedral in Liepāja
Holy Trinity Lutheran Cathedral. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The area also has multiple pedestrianised streets and old marketplaces. Typical buildings there are two floored wooden residentials and impressive art nouveau edifices. Some of the advertised local sights are the Peter I house (where the Russian czar once stayed) and Latvian music avenue of fame – however these are unlikely to amuse non-locals.

Liepāja gymnasium, one of the industrial era buildings
Liepāja gymnasium, one of the industrial era buildings. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

West side of southern Liepāja is framed by a massive beach and an adjoining park. The nearby streets (Dzintaru, Liepu, Vites) are lined by lovely villas of pre-WW1 era German rich (many of them wooden and; unfortunately but atmospherically, a large number seemingly abandoned). One such villa has been transformed into Liepāja museum which houses old things and historical data.

Liepāja German villa that was turned in city museum
Liepāja German villa that was turned in city museum. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

To the south of these historic areas lies a sprawl of single family homes and beyond that a small Soviet district. The city ends with remains of 19th century fortifications that once protected its southern flank.

New Liepāja (Central Liepāja)

The central part of Liepāja is called the “New Liepāja” and it has been constructed in the 19th century.

Old port warehouses stand alongside the canal that separates it from the Old Town. A new esplanade has been constructed (on the Old Liepāja side).

Port warehouses of the New Liepāja as visible from the Esplanade
Port warehouses of the New Liepāja as visible from the Esplanade. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The original 19th century southern side of New Liepāja is architecturally appealing but has quite little to do. As the location of bus and train stations however it is an introduction of Liepāja most travelers pass through. Moreover, some big shopping centers and sports arenas are located here.

The northern side of New Liepāja consists of single family homes, Soviet apartments and industrial buildings. It has little to offer, except for being located en-route to Karosta.

Karosta of Liepāja

Karosta (Military port) is the unique and very eerie northernmost part of Liepāja. This is a semi-abandoned former major Russian Imperial naval base (actually, entire military city which once housed 30 000 inhabitants). Its red brick elaborate late 19th century barracks now stand derelict amidst forests. They are joined by Soviet apartment blocks of Soviet soldiers who also used the base and some of these are also empty.

The most appealing are the public buildings of the military city. Russian Orthodox Naval Cathedral (1903) has now been restored to full splendor after decades of Soviet use as a warehouse.

Russian Orthodox Naval Cathedral of Liepāja
Russian Orthodox cathedral (right) and a typical Soviet residential building for military base (left). ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Also of interest are water tower (1905), now-roofless festival edifice (1903) and the pigeon mail station (built for 450 pigeons at the time military still relied on pigeon mail; now a residential home).

Festival building of Karosta
Festival building of Karosta. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The area’s history may be explored in a unique attraction Karosta military prison (where “bad soldiers” would be condemned to several days of severe hazing). It can be visited as a museum or as a weird hotel to spend a night at. In both cases the local “guide” will seek to make visitors feel uncomfortable.

Karosta prison exhibits in Liepāja
Karosta prison exhibits. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

For those prefering natural beauty with some military remains a walk on expansive 2 km long Northern Breakwater into the sea will be most rewarding. Semi-destroyed fortifications built to defend Karosta from the sea are nearby. One nearby street is named after Tobago island where Courland-Semigallian dukes sent their navy to from Liepāja, establishing a colony there known as New Courland.

Former pigeon mail tower at Karosta
Former pigeon mail tower at Karosta. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Karosta is accessed from from the New Liepāja by a picturesque green truss Oskars Kalpaks bridge, completed in 1906. It is some 4 km on foot from the Old Liepāja, therefore it is better to use a city bus.

Grīva

On the southern bank of Daugava the Grīva suburb was once a separate city.

Grīva is mostly built up with private family homes. While those surrounding main streets are generally new, make a few turns and you may appear at what seems to be a 19th century suburb with old wooden homes and unpaved streets.

Old wooden homes in Grīva
Old wooden homes in Grīva . ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Built as a separate town, Grīva also has petite houses of worship of all the Latgale’s main denominations. Red brick Catholic Church of Blessed Virgin Mary (~1885) is the prettiest. Orthodox church is quite elaborate and interesting for the old wooden homes and atmosphere of 19th century that surrounds it. There are also two Old Believer churches as that community was traditionally especially numerous in Grīva.

Catholic Church of Blessed Virgin Mary
Catholic Church of Blessed Virgin Mary. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Grīva Fortress is a massive 19th century military installation on the oposite bank of Daugava from the Daugavpils fortress. Both fortreses were meant to function together. Unfortunately unlike its “brother fortress” the Grīva Fortress may not be visited as it houses a prison now. But this makes it seem just more mysterious and dark. A memorial stone in front of it commemorates that a Jewish ghetto was established there under Nazi German occupation.

A small part of Grīva Fortress
A small part of Grīva Fortress. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Given that Grīva sights are relatively spread, 10-20 minutes is enough to visit each of them and much of the rest is not that interesting, it is probably best option to visit Grīva only if one has a car.

New Daugavpils

New Daugavpils (east of the city) consists of districts mostly built up by Soviet apartment blocks and post-Soviet individual homes. While pretty much devoid of what to do in Soviet times, the districts have received new churches, supermarkets and else after independence. Nevertheless, people typically go downtown to satisfy their more elaborate needs. In fact, all the Daugavpils tram lines generally link eastern districts to downtown.

New Daugavpils is essentially made of multiple parts, three of them having the word “New” in their names.

Jaunbūve (New buildings) is the main part, consisting of Soviet apartment blocks. A major place of entertainment there is Lokomotiv stadium where the local speedway team plays its home games. Having some 10 thousand seats it is one of largest speedway-specific stadiums in Europe and has hosted world championship events.

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

Forštate (The Suburb) beyond the railway consists of two areas. Old Suburb (Veca Forštate) mostly an area of private residential homes. Some are old and small, others are the “built for generations style” of the early 1990s. New Suburb (Jauna Forštate) consists of Soviet apartment blocks

Old and new private homes with post-independence church in the New Suburb
Old and new private homes with post-independence church in the New Suburb. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Jaunie Stropi (New hives) is an upscale area next to a large Stropu Lake. Many buildings there are large edifices owned by Latvian nouveau-riche, surrounded by a forest. beaches are available, though they are pretty derelict and mainly used by locals.

Prestigious lakeside home in Jaunie Stropi
Prestigious lakeside home in Jaunie Stropi. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Jūrmala

Jūrmala (pop. 51 000) is the largest resort in the Baltic States, located next to Riga.

Jūrmala is a peninsula between a famous wide sandy beach of the Riga Gulf and Lielupe river. It was the popularity of this location for summertime rest which transformed former fishing villages into a swimming resort over 100 years ago. Boulevards were laid and picturesque wooden towered villas constructed to become summer residences of Riga’s rich.

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

A lot has changed, and the calm “elite seaside rest” of the old times has been joined by the mass chill of gigs and nightclubs in summer, while the buildings once built by German nobility and businessmen were supplemented with apartment blocks for the new Latvian and Russian middle class.

However, Jūrmala is simply massive, spanning some 20 km of prime Latvian seaside. This means that there is a Jūrmala for everybody: it still possible to find both an atmosphere of 19th century resort and the one of 21st century Riga suburb.

Even if the old villages have integrated into a single city, their names still appear on the maps and each still has a somewhat different feel.

People enjoying summer in a main street of Majori village
People enjoying summer in a main street of Majori village. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Majori village is the heart of Jūrmala, its Jomas street the main street for shopping and expensive restaurants, while Turaidas street the main sea access route, famous for interwar concert hall that still hosts the Jūrmala’s best events. Many other key pre-WW2 buildings are also located here.

Eastern villages of Dzintari and Bulduri are calmer, their pretty historical edifices and some modern buildings lining the boulevards that run parallel to the sea. The number of restaurants and hotels is more limited. Some half of the area is left as pristine forests, giving the feeling of a forest city. In the east Jūrmala is limited by the mouths of Lielupe.

Western villages of Pumpuri and Melluži seem to be like a mirror image of Dzintari and Bulduri, although they have less historic buildings and less greenery.

Main Jomas street out of season
Main Jomas street out of season. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

At the Westernmost end of Jūrmala stands Ķemeri that has developed separately as a spa town. It is famous for its massive spa center, one of largest projects undertaken by interwar Latvia.

As the Latvian climate can be chilling in winter, the holiday season of Jūrmala is effectively summer-only (May-to-September with a noticeable July-August peak). However, Jūrmala still has much more activities in winter than any other Latvian city of comparable size. Some restaurants remain open year-round and gigs are offered. There is also a year-round indoor water theme park.

Moreover, Jūrmala has effectively became a suburb of Riga, its homes inhabited year-round by people who commute every day by a 25 km long 6 lane highway (interestingly, from Eastern Jūrmala Riga downtown is closer than the other end of Jūrmala itself). The popularity among the rich has rejuvenated Majori and the seaside, but numerous old wooden villas further on are now abandoned.

Train stattion near Lielupe in Majori
Train stattion near Lielupe in Majori. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Public transport access is easy from Riga, with nearly every of Jūrmala’s villages having its own station for frequent Riga-bound trains. The railway spans the entire city, together with its main street that is used for driving.

Jūrmala is especially popular among Russian tourists.

Cinevilla movie studio backlot 20 km West of Jūrmala is a popular day trip.

Old Town of Riga (Vecrīga)

In the heart of Medieval Riga, the labyrinthine pedestrianized streets of Old Town are still outflanked by massive church spires and guild houses. They date to the Middle Ages when Old Riga was a place of peaceful religion and trade, independent of nearby militarized states.

Livu squre in Riga
Livu squre in Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Old Riga is surrounded by a moat-like „City canal“ and a park on three sides, with Center district lying beyond them. The Canal has replaced city wall. On the West side Old Riga faces the mighty Daugava estuary. While freight vessels are now anchored closer to the sea, the views of Riga Old Town are still arguably the most magnificent from an embankment on the opposite shore of Daugava.

Riga Old Town from the opposite side of Daugava
The multireligious spires of Riga Old Town from the opposite side of Daugava. Left -to-right: Russian Orthodox, Anglican, Catholic and Lutheran. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The life in Riga Old Town revolves around three squares, each of them having a very different atmosphere.

City Hall square area (South)

The serene Rātslaukums (City Hall square) is dominated by a magnificient facade Black Hat house, one of many medieval merchant guilds. The particular house is new however, faithfully rebuilt after independence. Like some other gems of Old Riga it was destroyed by the Soviets – and contemporary Rigans try to reassert that lost history. Likewise, the once-destroyed City Hall was rebuilt.

Black Head House in Riga
Black Head House in Riga at night during Christmas period, with Christmas tree (allegedly a Rigan invention) on the right. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The atmosphere of the square is however still marred by a bleak black Soviet building that now serves as the Museum of Latvian occupation (originally built to display information about Latvian Red Riflemen).

City Hall square itself is rather devoid of life, lacking cafes and entertainment. Those are plentiful in surrounding streets. One home hosts Mecendorf museum that presents mural-clad interiors of an 18th century rich Baltic German’s home (less impressive than it sounds).

Mecendorf House in Riga, a survivor from the oldest times among somewhat newer buildings
Mecendorf House in Riga, a survivor from the oldest times among somewhat newer buildings. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Rising over the entire area is Ss. Peter’s church tower. Its multi-tiered wooden crown, burnt down and rebuilt, now serves as a good vantage point over the city (72 meters, elevator available).

First floor of St. Peter church
First floor of St. Peter church. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Cathedral square area (North)

Cathedral square (Doma laukums) is the most authentic and stunning square of Old Riga.

Impressive buildings at Cathedral square
Impressive buildings at Cathedral square. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The streets around it host many stately red-brick churches of various denominations, once frequented by foreign merchants and local craftsmen. After all, Riga was part of the Hanseatic trading league in the Medieval era, which has spanned as far west as England. So the city even has a St. Savior Anglican church (current building dates to 1857). A Catholic Our Lady of Sorrows church (1785) is nearby.

Our lady of sorrows Catholic church
Our lady of sorrows Catholic church. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Cathedral square itself is dominated by a massive Lutheran Cathedral (1211 with many modifications). The Catholic minority have their own smaller St. James Cathedral (1225). Both churches would be passed from Lutherans to Catholics and back during history and their ownership was even contested in two Latvia-wide referendums.

Lutheran Cathedral of Riga at Cathedral square
Lutheran Cathedral of Riga at Cathedral square. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Although Old Riga is some 800 years old, most residential buildings are in fact newer (having replaced their forerunners during the 19th century boom). Therefore “Three Brothers” homes, the earliest dating to 15th century, are especially famous.

Three Brothers
Three Brothers. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The northwestern side of Riga Old Town hosts a crusader castle (heavily rebuilt into palace since) and the sole surviving fortifications such as the Gunpowder tower (now a war museum). Latvian parliament and National theater are also located nearby.

Gunpowder tower of Riga
Gunpowder tower of Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The political importance of the area made it a target of Soviet military attack in 1991, when Soviets attempted to quash the restored Latvian independence. Latvians hastily built barricades to prevent tanks from coming and would spend days waiting around makeshif fires to keep warmth. Upcoming days resulted in some deaths but Latvia would not fall. These heroic times when armless struggle toppled the struggling Soviet regime are reminded by a small-but-quite-ingenious Barricades museum.

A model of Riga Cathedral square in 1991 at the Barricades museum
A model of Riga Cathedral square in 1991 at the Barricades museum. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Livu square area (East)

Unlike its two cousins, Livu square is not historic: it was created by Soviets who leveled historic neighborhoods that stood in its place.

However, hedonistic visitors seem to care little about it, spending time in Livu Square’s many open-air cafes as well as restaurants and nightclubs of surrounding streets.

A square in Riga
A square with restaurant on the right. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Two magnificent guild halls that survived Soviet occupation help to forget the square’s origin. Nearby House of cat has a curious story: the small cat sculpture had its backside turned at the guilds after the house’s Latvian owner was not admitted to join them by German peers (but it was turned around after a court reversed its decision).

Guild halls in Riga
Guild halls in Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

While Livu square area is the leisure center of Old Town (and Old Town itself – the hub of Riga), noisy entertainment and high prices have almost evicted people from the district. Merely 3 000 Rigans continue to live in the Old Town, although some 23 000 work in the area.

Centrs (Center) of Riga

The Center of Riga is a living monument to the city‘s golden age of the late 19th century and early 20th century. At that time industrialization had made Riga one of the 5 largest cities of the massive Russian Empire and among the great European metropolises.

The population increased to some 600 000 and construction crews worked ceaselessly to build ever-prettier 6-floored edifices. Then-popular art nouveau style would prevail, making Riga one of the best cities to witness this type of architecture, itself an attempt to create a new style in the era when most other architects just copied the past.

Part of art noveau facade in Alberta street
A fragment of Art Nouveau facade near Alberta street. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Spanning the whole Centrs and continuing to eastern suburbs, Brīvības (Freedom) street is the main artery of both the district and Riga as a whole. It has some of the most massive turn-of-the-20th-century buildings.

A fragment of Brīvības street
A fragment of Brīvības street with a mid-19th century St. Gertrude Old Church (center), turn-of-the-century art nouveau apartment building (right) and a post-independence office block (left visible. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

However, the title of the prettiest art nouveau street is usually awarded to a much smaller Alberta street where famous architect Eisenstein created his masterpieces. Nearby Art nouveau museum allows catching a glimpse of opulent art nouveau staircase and apartment interior. Despite the Soviet destruction, these are still quite common in the Center of Riga (although most are only accessible to residents and their guests).

Art nouveau staircase interior leading to Riga art nouveau museum
Art nouveau staircase interior leading to Riga art nouveau museum. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Alberta street is in the northern reaches of Centrs, beyond the Krišjāņa Valdemāra street which has some of Riga’s most important late 19th century public buildings, including the National theater and what is now the Museum of (Latvian) fine arts. These have been built imitating historical styles rather than Art Nouveau.

Neo-Baroque National Theater of Riga
Baroque-inspired National Theater of Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Riga Centrs is anchored on straight wide streets that emit „big city feeling“. At the time of its inception, three different ethnicities vied for power over Riga and Latvia.

A fragment of a facade in Riga
A fragment of a facade in Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

There were German „Baltic barons“, for centuries the elite of the city who paid the bills for many of its greatest buildings. Gothic revival St. Gertrude Old church (1869) was built and belonged to the community.

A typical long straight street of Riga Centrs, surrounded by large old buildings
A typical long straight street of Riga Centrs, surrounded by large old buildings. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

There were Russians, since 1710 the political leaders, their role still visible in the massive Neo-Byzanthine Russian Orthodox Nativity Cathedral (1883) that stands in the district’s largest park Esplanade and earlier neoclassical St. Alexander Nevskiy church (1825).

Nativity Cathedral in Riga
Nativity Cathedral in Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

And there were Latvians, for millennia the majority of surrounding villages, who began migrating to industrialized Riga in their hundreds of thousands, asserting the city as their future capital and dwarfing the other communities. Their national awakening is reminded by places such as Krišjānis Barons museum – this was the Latvian who collected long-neglected Latvian folksongs that later became the essence of the nation. Like many of Riga Center house-museums, it is interesting both for the personality that lived there and for its turn-of-the-century interior.

Church in Riga Centrs
Brīvības street with St. Gertrude New church in Riga Centrs built by Latvian ex-parishioners of St. Gertrude Old church. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Additionally, Latvian architects would commonly add details inspired by Latvian culture and mythology to their contraptions (patterns and even sculptures), leading to the creation of unique distinctive sub-type of “Latvian national romantic art nouveau“.

A national romantic art nouveau building, adorned by ethnic patterns and a tall gabled roof
A national romantic art nouveau building, adorned by ethnic patterns and a tall gabled roof. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

After Latvia achieved its independence in 1918, Centrs of Riga became its political hub. In a symbolic place between Centrs and Old Town the Freedom statue was erected, symbolizing the unity of Latvia. Miraculously escaping Soviet demolition it remains *the* national symbol.

Freedom monument between Center and Old Town of Riga
Freedom monument between Center and Old Town of Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

During the occupations, Centrs served as a base for anti-Latvian institutions such as KGB, whose former HQ was transformed into a KGB museum (entry free to the introduction area, but in order to visit the cells where Latvians were tortured and murdered a paid guided tour is needed).

KGB prison in Riga
The prison zone of KGB building in Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Eastern fringes of the Centrs, where the large buildings slowly give up place for the smaller wooden apartment blocks of the Eastern downtown, has been reborn as a rather artistic place. Miera street now hosts various studios, a large mural of Latvian song festivals has been created near the intersection of Talina and Krišjana Barona streets.

The mural of Latvian song festivals ir Central Riga
The mural of Latvian song festivals ir Central Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Total population of Centrs: 35 000, but some 100 000 work in offices there.

Eastern Downtown (Avoti, Grīziņkalns, Brasa)

The neighborhoods of Riga’s Eastern Downtown are at least 100 years old but more varied and laid back than the Center itself.

Pretty restored art nouveau buildings are joined there by smaller historicist edifices, wooden countryside-like homes and empty lots used for parking cars.

A building in Grīziņkalns
Abruptly ending lines of large edifices are a common sight east of Centrs, the empty walls often used for adverts. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Had the early 1900s „Riga golden age“ continued longer all the remaining smaller buildings in those neighborhoods would have been surely replaced by stately art nouveau edifices. However, World War 1 all but stopped that expansion of Riga, ceasing the transformation of Eastern Downtown where it was, half-completed. These neighborhoods lag behind Center in housing prices and a few of the buildings are abandoned.

However, these districts are still residential, not yet taken over by tourists and businesses. If one would like to discover hidden gems of Riga architecture without getting surrounded by crowds and expensive cafes, Eastern Downtown is the best place.

A street in Grīziņkalns
A street in Grīziņkalns with St. Paul church at the end. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Eastern Downtown lacks top government and public edifices, but even mundane buildings constructed before World War 2 are of great architectural value (e.g. the gas reservoirs that once supplied the city with gas).

Gas reservoirs of Riga
Gas reservoirs of Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Gothic revival St. Paul Lutheran church (1887) is the spiritual heart of Eastern Downtown for Lutherans while the Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox cathedral and monastery (1902) is for the Russian Orthodox.

Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral in Riga
Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral in Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The most eerie sight is the Great Cemetery in Brasa. Once among the prettiest sights of Riga full of elaborate gravestones and crypts built by 19th century German elite of the city, the cemetery was destroyed by vengeful Soviets. Officially the cemetery is a park now, but gravestones and pretty family crypts survive here and there, not allowing to forget the past. There is nobody to care for them, however (as the local Germans were killed or expelled in 1940s) and the graves thus remain desecrated, vandalized with swastikas and satanist symbols.

Abandoned crypts in Brasa cemetery
Abandoned crypts in Brasa cemetery. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Eastern Downtown is officially split into districts of Avoti (south), Grīziņkalns (east) and Brasa (north).

Total population: 46 000.

Northern Downtown (Skanste, Andrejsala)

Areas north of Riga Downtown have been relatively sparsely inhabited, even empty. As such they have been used for some modern developments that needed both space and a downtown location.

For example, Arena Riga (used for ice hockey, basketball and concerts), modern offices and flats have been constructed here.

New residential buildings around Riga Arena
New residential buildings around Riga Arena. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Western parts of the Northern Downtown have been used as the main port of Riga. While they are still used as such, less area is now needed, and some of the former port zones of Andrejsala have been converted into a small district of restaurants and clubs.

Total population: 6 000

Maskavas Suburb

Maskavas Suburb is the melting pot of Riga‘s different ethnicities. The district was developed in 19th century on the road to Moscow (hence the name). It is a mish-mash of large brick edifices and two floored wooden apartment buildings (together with art nouveau the reason of Riga‘s UNESCO inscription). Many are abandoned as Riga suffered a population decline, especially among its Russophone population.

Abandoned apartment building of ~1900 in Maskavas Suburb
Abandoned apartment building of ~1900 in Maskavas Suburb. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Despite the departure of some Russians after 1990, Latvians are still a minority in the Maskavas suburb. The district has houses of worship of 5 denominations.

Russian Old Believer Grebenščikova church and monastery with its golden dome is among the largest churches in the world of this Russian schismatic community which escaped the persecutions by taking refuge in Latvia.

Grebenščikova Old Believer monastery
Grebenščikova Old Believer monastery. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Jesus Heart Catholic church is Latvia‘s biggest wooden building. Neoclassical St. Alexander Nevskiy Russian Orthodox church (1825) is among Latvia’s oldest Orthodox churches.

Jesus Heart octagonal church
Jesus Heart octagonal church in the middle of traffic roundabout. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

There is also a ruined synagogue reminding of the time when Nazi Germany forced Riga‘s Jewry to live in the Maskavas suburb, eventually killing many of them (names of Latvians who helped to save some of the Jews are written in the synagogue).

Another famous sight is the Riga’s bazaar-like Central Market, established in 1930 in disused airship hangars.

Nearby Špikeri district reused old port warehouses for more upscale trade (though they are still quite empty).

Špikeri district of old port warehouses in Riga
Špikeri district of old port warehouses. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Soviets used Maskavas Suburb for the tallest building in Latvia. 108 m tall Latvian Academy of Sciences dates to 1961 the Stalinist policy of erecting massive buildings of Soviet historicist style in the capitals of Soviet Republics, dedicating them to the „glory of science“. While formally respected, science was heavily censored in the Soviet Union, with many of its achievements made secret or regarded as unworthy. In summer, it is possible to ascend to the top.

Academy of Sciences in Riga
Academy of Sciences in Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

At 368 m Riga TV Tower is still the tallest structure in the Baltics and the entire European Union. Located in a Daugava island in front of Maskavas Suburb, it is not formally part of it but within an easy reach. While it had a panorama restaurant, the tower‘s pyramid-like form meant that the now-closed observatory is located merely at 93 m, leading to its unpopularity.

Riga TV tower rising above the Maskavas suburb
Riga TV tower rising above the Maskavas suburb. The picture was made from the Academy of Sciences observatory. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

More attractive is the nearby LIDO recreation center on the Daugava shores, famous primarily for its massive restaurant-canteen-bar, but also for a child-oriented funfair. One of the first legal post-Soviet Latvian businesses (started in 1987 when independence still seemed impossible) LIDO has a somewhat legendary status. When constructed in 1999 the Recreation center indeed felt like a miraculous addition to a Riga that still lacked malls and amusement opportunities. And while LIDO has since lost momentum and has been outflanked by other growth (much of it also adorning the shores of Daugava), it is still always full of Rigans.

Lido recreation centre with the iconic folly mill
LIDO recreation centre with the iconic folly mill (once LIDO owned specialized workshops to produce follies). ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Population: 32 000

Sarkandaugava

The centre of 19th century Rigan industry, Sarkandaugava has many old buildings, both industrial and residential. There are many less inspiring Soviet additions as well. Extensive railways and a nearby section of Daugava river were the reason why industrial district had been developed here.

The main avenue is north-south Ganibu Dambis.

In an area close to pristine Mežaparks the 1936-1940 president of Latvia Kārlis Ulmanis had his small palace, known as Dauderi. Now it is a museum.

Dauderi palace in Riga
Dauderi palace. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Population: 20 000.

Teika

As Riga largely ceased to expand after World War 1, Teika is unique as the only neighborhood developed at the time of independent interwar Latvia.

VEF factory, just beyond the railroad ring, used to be crown gem of interwar Latvian industry. Located in some pretty buildings that look more like palace than factory (as well as more prosaic later edifices) VEF used to manufacture world‘s smallest pre-WW2 camera (Minox), radios, phones, even aircraft.

Historic buiildings of VEF factory
Historic buildings of VEF factory. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Unfortunately during the Soviet occupation technology lagged so far behind the West that VEF was unable to compete with Western goods after independence, folding in 1999. Currently the massive premises are rented out.

Further east by Brivibas street you may find extensive districts of interwar and postwar (mainly Stalinist) residentials.

Interwar residential homes in Teika
Interwar residential homes in Teika. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Total population: 30 000.