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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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.

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.

Ventspils

Ventspils (pop. 39 000) is a massive port and the commercial hub of northwestern Latvia (Courland).

The docks are seamlessly integrated into city downtown, ships mooring right next to the historic buildings, never allowing one to forget that this is one of the Baltic Sea’s largest ports.

Ventspils main square with Lutheran church
Ventspils main square with Lutheran church. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Such status is impressive, given the city’s small population. Still, in the gone-by eras the influence of Ventspils was even greater, as it was the naval heart of Courland-Semigallia duchy that partook in the colonization of Americas and Africa.

Ventspils port buildings as visible accross the river from Old Town
Ventspils port buildings as visible accross the river from Old Town. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Ruled by a single mayor Aivars Lembergs since 1988 Ventspils has been keen on establishing itself as a “pretty city” worth travelling for.

It boasts some of the Baltic States’s nicest landscaping: “flower sculptures” (in summer), decorated cow statues. Even prosaic buildings (such as port warehouses) are well illuminated, arguably surpassing even Riga in that sense.

One of Ventspils cows in front of the port administration building in Old Town
One of Ventspils cows in front of the port administration building in Old Town. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The most unique Ventspils publicity stunt is the Vent currency. It is possible to “earn” it virtually by doing various online activities (such as answering quiz questions about Ventspils). The banknotes may then be withdrawn from account once in Ventspils, and may be used to pay (in part) various local expenses such as museum tickets.

Livonian order castle interior, representing eras gone-by (partly payable by Vents)
Livonian order castle interior, representing eras gone-by (partly payable by Vents). ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Much of Ventspils attractions are located in Seaside Ventspils. Built up in 19th century with elaborate wooden villas and homes, the area has been successfully repurposed for modern seaside tourism.

One of the historic Ventspils villas
One of the historic Ventspils villas. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The wide sandy beach is far from the only attraction of Ventspils and the city is regularly constructing new ones. Among them is the artificial hill for skiing (creating one was a big task in lowland Latvia). It is located in the Soviet districts which, together with suburbs, also have interesting historic sights, such as a massive Soviet radar.

One of the main streets of Old Town Ventspils
One of the main streets of Old Town Ventspils. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Jelgava

Jelgava (pop. 60 000) is the largest city in Semigallia region and Latvia’s 4th largest city.

It served as the capital of rich Duchy of Courland and Semigallia (1561-1795) which was rich enough to partake in the colonization fo Americas. Baroque Jelgava Palace (1772) is thus espeially massive and impressive from the outside, however its interior has been destroyed. Only the Ducal crypt may still be visited (offering a collection of elaborate sarcophagi). Rundale Palace (a very similar one to Jelgava and owned by the same dukes of Courland-Semigallia) has surviving interior and park and is merely 36 km from Jelgava.

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

Before their fall to Russian annexation in 1795 the dukes of Courland-Semigallia also funded a Baroque Academia Petrina. Even after the collapse of the country it served as alma mater to many famous people of the entire Baltic region (such as president of Lithuania Antanas Smetona).

Academia Petrina of Jelgava
Academia Petrina with Russian Orthodox church of St. Simeon and Anna on the left. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Several churches (Russian-built St. Simeon and Anna Orthodox and a gothic revival Catholic) are located near Academia Petrina. Medieval Holy Trinity church between the Academia and the Palace was destroyed by Soviets but they left the tower (50 m) standing (observation platform and museum now available inside).

Roman Catholic church of Jelgava
Roman Catholic church surrounded by post-WW2 Soviet residentials. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

While some other stately buildings also remain, Jelgava has been greatly rebuilt under Soviet occupation, giving it a largely nondescript look.

A surviving 19th century building in Jelgava
A surviving 19th century building in Jelgava. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

A rather large intact area of 18th-19th century small buildings known as Old Town is located in the West of Jelgava. The streets there have been re-cobbled and some buildings restored (though others remain abandoned and the zone seems “died out”). Informational plaques have been built. St. Anne Lutheran church (the oldest building of Jelgava) is nearby.

Old Town of Jelgava
Old Town of Jelgava. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

A short distance from Riga (45 km to the downtown) made Jelgava a kind of semi-suburb.