Jūrmala of Latvia

Jūrmala, Latvia: What to See, Where to Go, What to Know

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.

Downtown Jūrmala (Majori and Dubulti)

Majori serves as Jūrmala downtown, and it is the only district that has a feeling of a city.

Pedestrianized Jomas street is Majori’s main artery, famous for its upscale restaurants and shopping. In summers it is full of holidaymakers. Jomas street connects the Majori train station to Turaidas street.

Main Jomas street
Main Jomas street outside season. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

At the station square stands the famous towered Majori hotel (now closed).

Turaidas street is the Jūrmala’s main gala beach access route. It has numerous elaborate historic hotels and the famous Dzintari concert hall. Built in 1938 it has remained the heart of Jūrmala’s cultural life ever since, offering regular summer gigs and some winter events. The old wooden building has been extended by an open-air “summer estrada” in the Soviet occupation era.

Dzintari Concert Hall
Dzintari Concert Hall at Turaidas street. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Jūras street (parallel to the sea and Jomas street) has some of Jūrmala’s most impressive pre-war villas. They are generally in good condition as exorbitant real estate prices here have ensured that only the richest people would acquire them.

Jūras street at Majori
Jūras street at Majori. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Out of all parts of Jūrmala, Majori is the one most closely intertwined to the sea. Some of its buildings have been constructed right on the beach, serving as hotels and restaurants. That is something extremely rare in the Baltic region. Marienbade spa (constructed 1870 at the narrowest point of “Jūrmala peninsula”) was among the area’s first tourist buildings that have effectivelly launched Jūrmala as a seaside destination. However, it was partly rebuilt by the Soviets. Another, more authentic wooden spa stands where Pilsonu street meets the sea.

Old villa at Majori
Old villa (hotel) near the Turaidas street Access to the sea. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Like in the rest of Jūrmala, the through traffic largely uses a wide avenue further from the sea. Alongside this road one may find two museums. The Jūrmala city museum is free and offers a nice selection of memorabilia from the era the resort was born and developed. Another museum is dedicated to Aspazija, who was a famous Jūrmala-born interwar poetess.

Aspazija museum in Dubulti
Aspazija’s former home and museum in Dubulti. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Jūrmala Downtown also has the city hall (a boring Soviet building) and Latvian president’s summer residence (invisible to passers-by).

A diorama of beachgoers in Jūrmala museum
A diorama of beachgoers in Jūrmala museum. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

These buildings are actually in Dubulti, another central village of Jūrmala located just to the west of Majori. While easily accessible on foot from Majori, Dubulti offers considerably less entertainment. The prettiest building is the local Lutheran church (1903), the largest house of worship in Jūrmala, built in German national romantic style. Dubulti also has a separate train stop near the church.

Austere (for the era) Lutheran interior of Dubulti church in Jūrmala
Interior of Dubulti church in Jūrmala. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Being the downtown, Majori has also expanded south of the railroad. These areas are less impressive and more derelict however, as they are further from the sea and thus have fewer tourism opportunities. Even the old Majori manor is now abandoned.

Eastern Jūrmala (Dzintari and Bulduri)

Dzintari and Bulduri districts (“villages”) of Jūrmala feel as if the city would be married here with a forest. All the streets are well shaded by trees, while entire swatches of pristine forest remain among the developed zones. Also, trees separate Dzintari and Bulduri from its main draw: the sea, which is always easily accessible.

Historic brick villa
Historic brick villa. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Both districts have been developed in the early 20th century. With seaside holidays getting more popular, more and more Rigans sought to have a summer residence in Jūrmala. Thus, the regular grid of Dzintari (then known as Edinburgh) and Bulduri boulevards was laid.

A villa in Bulduri
A villa in Bulduri. The year on its facade is ‘2005’, but historical inspired styles were adopted. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The area is vast, spanning 6 km from its east end at Lielupe mouths forests to the west end at Majori (Jūrmala downtown). A walk to traverse the entire Dzintari and Bulduri would be long, and bike may be preferable.

There are few actual wonders, but most of many turn-of-the-century towered wooden villas are interesting to look at. There are also restaurants and shops, although they are relatively few and far between. Bulduri is the newer and more regular of the two eastern areas. Two parallel boulevards there are bisected by numbered streets. At the time no new community (even that of summer homes) would have been imagined without a church, so a small but lovely Bulduri Lutheran church has been built in 1889.

Bulduri Lutheran church, surrounded by a forest park
Bulduri Lutheran church, surrounded by a forest park. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

In parts of Dzintari closer to Majori, modern market needs meant that many of the lots have been converted into multi-story buildings, primarily expensive apartments aimed at both Latvians and Russians.

New or renovated buildings in Bulduri closer to the center
New or renovated buildings at Bulduri seaside boulevard closer to the Jūrmala center. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Still, many pre-WW1 buildings remain even there, while pristine lands are not built up. One example is the Dzintari forest park, which has an observation tower offering very green vistas. In fact, Jūrmala city is almost invisible from there, so small are the buildings and so dense are the high surrounding trees.

Dzintari as it is visible from the observation tower
Dzintari as it is visible from the observation tower. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Less impressively, some abandoned large Soviet spas and hotels stand amidst these natural areas. Even the ones that are still used arguably ruin the landscape with their megalomaniac forms.

Soviet sanitarium Belarus, one of the renovated ones
Soviet sanitarium Belarus, one of the renovated ones. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Southern Bulduri is the main access point of Jūrmala as cars and trains arrive from Riga across two bridges. A rest area that includes a major indoor water theme park as well as gas station and a supermarket serves the arriving visitors near the car bridge.

Indoor water theme park in Jūrmala
Indoor water theme park in southern Bulduri. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

At the easternmost tip of Jūrmala the Lielupe “village” is where Lielupe river enters the Baltic Sea. Separated bya forest from Bulduri it has a few old buildings but most of the developments are modern apartment blocks. One exception is the Outdoor museum. opened in 1970 it offers an opportunity to see how a premodern (i.e. pre-tourism) life in the area looked like back in the 19th century.

Turn-of-the-20th century townhouses in souther Bulduri, following the towered architecture common in Jūrmala villas
Turn-of-the-20th century townhouses in Southern Bulduri, following the towered architecture common in Jūrmala villas. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The area is served by train stops (from east to west) Lielupe, Bulduri and Dzintari. Lielupe train stop is actually located in southern Bulduri as the mouths of Lielupe area lack a railroad.

Western Jūrmala (Pumpuri and Melluži)

The villages of Western Jūrmala are built around the major road which has different names depending on the “village”: Asaru in the eastern Asari, Mellužu in Melluži, Dubultu in Pumpuri and Jaundubulti.

In Jaundubulti and Pumpuri the main street becomes a boulevard with buildings and a park inbetween.

Western Jūrmala has a multitude of historic buildings, although the most impressive ones stand elsewhere. Many of the homes here are new, built during the Soviet occupation or by the modern elite.

Train stops (from the west to the east) Vaivari, Asari, Melluži, Pumpuri and Jaundubulti serve the area.

Ķemeri spa resort

Ķemeri town is now part of Jūrmala, but for decades before 1957 it was considered to be a separate location. Standing further away from the sea, Ķemeri concentrated its tourist industry on “curing” mineral springs that have been especially popular in 19th century Europe.

While the legend of Ķemeri may have appeared back then, it was in the interwar period when the town reached its zenith. One of the Latvia’s top interwar projects – the Ķemeri spa alongside a massive park – has been constructed here.

Ķemeri spa
Ķemeri spa. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Getting to and around Jūrmala

Jūrmala is easily accessible from Riga by a six lane highway. However, this highway is paid in summer. After paying Jūrmala entry fee one may in theory park freely there, but in practice those free parking places are often filled with cars in summer weekends.

An alternative is going to Jūrmala the traditional way – by train. It takes from 20 to 40 minutes from Riga depending on at which of many Jūrmala train stops you will exit. While the trains stop at every station, some of them turn around earlier than the Western reaches of Jūrmala so if you go somewhere beyond the center see if your train goes there. The trains are fequent (at least 1 in 30 minutes ar Central Jūrmala, save for nights) and may also be used for local transportation. However, vans also traverse Jūrmala.

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A train arrives to Dubulti station in Jūrmala. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Jūrmala is narrow, so basically everything revolves around rail and the main street. However, Jūrmala is unusually long for a city with size, a whooping 31 km in length, making walking and even biking often impractical (if the goal is beyond district). Bike rent, is, however, readily available.

E.g. distance from Majori to Ķemeri spa is 21 km, and from Majori to the skansen at Lielupe – 9 km.

Cinevilla movie studio

Cinevilla, nicknamed “Latvian Hollywood”, is the sole movie studio backlot in the Baltic States. It is located 20 km west of Jūrmala.

The original “Cinevilla town” is a collection of World War 1 era building facades, bridges over “Daugava river” (actually a grassland), old trains and cobbled streets. Everything was built to film “Defenders of Riga” (2007), the most expensive Latvian movie ever.

Old Latvian street in Cinevilla
Old Latvian street in Cinevilla. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

After filming ended the area opened as a kind of laid-back theme park with temporary art exhibits, a cafe and various additional forms of pre-ordered entertainment among the fake buildings.

Furthermore, Cinevilla is continuously expanded as props for new Latvian films are being built. More often than not these “props” are actually real buildings, built with the intention to be reused as wedding halls, hotels and otherwise.

Currently Cinevilla also hosts a farmstead, old Soviet cars (which may be brought in as props should a director need them), a church like ones in Latvian villages and more.

Movie costumes for rent in Cinevilla
Movie costumes for rent. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

History of Jūrmala

Jūrmala, the Riga’s Seaside (1870-1918)

Jūrmala was a string of fishing villages well into 19th century. While some people would come here from Riga already in the 18th century, 25 km distance was too big for regular traffic in the era of horses and carriages.

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Steam trains arrive at Edinburgh station (now Dzintari).

All that changed after the railway line from Riga to Tukums was completed in 1877. Each village received its own station where every warm summer day many holidaymakers from Riga would disembark, heading for the beaches. The villages closer to Riga then became known as “Rigas Jūrmala”, which means “Riga’s Seaside” in Latvian.

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Maiori beach before World War 1 with chairs for shade and a pier.

First major seaside buildings for tourists have been built, such as the Marienbade spa. The atmosphere of Jūrmala was more conservative then, with men and women swimming at separate hours until the 1890s, when the town became the first in Russian Empire to end segregated swimming.

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Women in gowns stroll at Jūrmala beach, ~1900.

Jūrmala expanded swiftly, with new straight streets laid amidst trees, all lined up by impressively decorated towered villas (mostly wooden) owned by the Riga’s elite (mainly ethnic Germans) as their “summer homes”. Small churches of various denominations, hotels, and restaurants were also built to cater for the tourists. The number of local inhabitants increased rapidly from 2000 in 1897 to 11000 in 1925.

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Late 19th century Jūrmala beaches offered many possibilities for more ‘graceful’ or ‘discrete’ swimming, among them such swimming cabins – people would remain inside them as horses would drag them into the sea.

Meanwhile, Ķemeri was not considered part of Riga’s Jūrmala (it was both too far from Riga and the coast), but it developed a tourist industry of its own, based around its mineral springs. In the 19th century, every nation developed such resorts as the craze of belief in impressive healing powers of mineral waters swept across Europe.

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Main Jomas street of Jūrmala in pre-WW1 era

Jūrmala, the Interwar Latvia’s top resort (1918-1940)

After Latvia became independent in 1918 Jūrmala became its top resort. The government attempted to promote the area abroad as the “Baltic Riviera” with some success.

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A map of Jūrmala on an English brochure for foreign tourists, 1930s.

Ķemeri received a massive spa, one of the biggest interwar Latvia’s building projects. Dzintari concert hall has been built in 1936, becoming the hub of summer concerts ever since. Latvian names have been adopted for resorts that had German ones: Edinburg became Dzintari, Karlsbade became Melluži.

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Ķemeri spa soon after it had been constructed in 1938.

The population stood at 13000 in 1935 and 86% were ethnic Latvians.

Jūrmala, the Soviet Union’s Baltic Riviera (1940-1990)

After Latvia was occupied by the Soviet Union in 1940 many pretty villas and hotels were nationalized. Some were demolished, giving way to massive concrete sanitariums and hotels, but much of the “Old Jūrmala” remained and the city retained its charm. The numbers of tourists became larger than ever. The old “elite” atmosphere disappeared together with beach recliners, umbrellas, swimming cabins and much else. A Soviet beach was about squeezing in with your own mat for sunbathing, and this alone was no easy deal in unbelievably crowded summer weekends.

People rushing for a reopened Riga-Jūrmala train line in the 1950s
People rushing for a reopened Riga-Jūrmala train line in the 1950s. The train, like much in Jūrmala, was covered in Soviet symbols and more Russian than Latvian signs.

In 1959 the string of “villages” (including Ķemeri) was officially unified as Jūrmala city, becoming the Baltic Sea’s largest resort. “Riga” was dropped from its name, as the “Seaside” was not just Riga’s, but also entire Latvia’s or even Soviet Union’s. Despite its size, Soviet Union lacked year-round tropical resorts, so Jūrmala, imbibed in a more Western-feeling Latvian culture, became popular among Russians and Belarusians as well (260000 spent their holidays there in 1980). The local population was exploding as the Soviet Union would send in thousands of mostly Russian permanent inhabitants. Jūrmala had 14000 people in 1935, 38000 in 1959, 61000 in 1989. Latvian share declined from 86% in 1939 to 44% by 1989, nearly surpassed by Russians (42%).

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Extremely crowded Jūrmala beach with restaurant ‘Jūras Perle’ visible on the right, 1970. Unlike most Soviet buildings in Jūrmala ‘Jūras Perle’ looked gracefully rather than megalomaniac. However, it too became unneeded after independence and was torn down.

Modern Jūrmala in free Latvia (1990-)

After Latvia restored its independence in 1990 the economic transition back to capitalism has changed the face of Jūrmala once again. New small private hotels and restaurants sprung up, often outcompeting the massive Soviet edifices, which in turn became abandoned. Tourism from the East declined both due to a difficult economic situation there and the visa regime. At the same time, Latvians were now allowed to spend holidays abroad – and the warm climate of Egypt or Turkey made it easy for these destinations to outcompete Jūrmala.

By the 2000s, however, Jūrmala regained some of what it had lost. While Latvians would continue to spend their holiday weeks abroad, many would visit Jūrmala on summer weekends. Tourists from ex-Soviet countries slowly returned, driven both by nostalgia, few cultural/linguistic barriers (Russian is still the most common second language) and Latvia’s economic miracle that made Jūrmala feel more advanced than whatever was available in Russia or Ukraine. In order to attract “Eastern tourists”, Jūrmala also hosted regular events such as the “New Wave” Russian pop music festival (2001-2014). In 2006 the city attracted 125000 longer-term holidaymakers.

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Jury votes on ‘New Wave’ songs during the 2014 contest (a screenshot of Ukrainian TV broadcast).

Furthermore, Jūrmala firmly achieved the role of Riga’s suburb. Owning a car ceased to be a luxury and became a norm in Latvia, allowing many Rigans to move to Jūrmala and commute to downtown every day. This became especially popular among the middle class and the rich. Some have acquired dilapidated opulent buildings of 19th century Baltic Germans and brought them to new life, others built modern private edifices. Because of this trend, the population of Jūrmala did not fall as much as that of Riga itself, standing at 56 000 in 2011. Rigans moving to suburbs replaced some Russians who have left Latvia after independence (Russian share declined to 37% in 2000 with Latvian share increasing to 50%)

After Latvia joined the European Union in 2004 it began giving right of abode to everybody who owned an expensive real estate in Latvia. As the right of abode automatically allowed visa-free travel within the European Union, many rich Russians used up the opportunity to buy second homes in Jūrmala, thereby gaining both a place for summer vacations and a right to freely travel to Europe. This practice encouraged construction boom in Jūrmala and real estate prices skyrocketed.