Cities of Latvia

Cities of Latvia: Riga, Liepāja, Daugavpils and more

Kipsala

Kipsala is an island in Daugava river that is now a prestigious neighborhood. Built-up by low rise wooden homes ~1900 and still having an atmospheric cobbled street Kipsala is just beyond the bridge from Old Town. Thus it is a great choice for those who seek both relative privacy and a downtown location for their homes. ~1100 people live in Kipasala and there is little activity beyond an out-of-the-beaten-path walk. The views are pretty, however, Old Town is partly obscured by a major bridge and less interesting (though still historic) port districts are visible instead.

The cobbled Daugava bank street in Kipsala
The cobbled Daugava bank street in Kipsala. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The island also had some industry, although it has been converted into lofts by now.

Āgenskalns

The historic part of left bank Riga, Āgenskalns is just beyond the Daugava river from the Old Town.

As such, the once-empty river banks have been used for key buildings of modern Riga after independence, such as Saules Akmens office tower (tallest in the city) and pyramid-shaped National Library.

National library of Latvia in Riga
National library of Latvia. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The historic Āgenskalns is further from the river however. It has many large buildings and is especially famous for old wooden residentials.

Old large buildings in Āgenskalns
Historic buidings in Āgenskalns. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Renovated Kalnicems district is among the most advertised as it is used for art sales and projects. Upmarket Saturday markets are its most famous event. However, the wooden buildings there are far from the largest. For architecture and atmosphere buffs it may be more rewarding to walk some of the smaller streets of Āgenskalns to see unrenovated wooden architecture.

Kalnciems district of Riga
Kalnciems district. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Āgenskalns also hosts the most controversial part of Riga – the “Victory park” with its massive Soviet monument. This propaganda place was built under the Soviet occupation to celebrate Soviet World War 2 victory – which sealed the fate of Latvians as an occupied and oppressed nation. As such Latvians tend to hate the monument and what it symbolizes. However, it is seen as their ethnic symbol by Riga‘s Russians (a privileged community during the Soviet occupation) who host Victory day celebrations there.

Soviet Victory monument in Riga is a focal point for Russian celebrations.
Soviet Victory monument in Riga is a focal point for Russian celebrations.

Population: 28 000

Mežaparks

Lauded as one of the first „garden cities“, Mežaparks is a district of picturesque art nouveau villas standing amidst lakeside forest. Once they housed the German elite of the city.

Villas of Mežaparks
Villas of Mežaparks standing amidst trees. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

After the Soviet 1940 many became derelict, but after 1990 they were repaired as the possibility to own a large home both in nature and not far from downtown appealed to modern-day Latvian businessmen.

The main Kokneses street looks like its in a city, but one has just to turn to side streets such as Hamburgas or Lībekas and Mežaparks begins to seem like a forest with houses built here and there. Entire Mežaparks district is built against a massive park where many gigs and events take place. It is the most famous for its Song festival ground where the UNESCO-inscribed events of tens of thousands singing Latvian songs are held every 5 years.

Latvian soldiers memorial in Riga
Entrance to the Mežaparks park with a song festival monument. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

In addition to this “garden city”, Mežaparks surroundings has three additional very different „green areas“: the Riga zoo (opened 1912, the oldest in Northern Europe), Latvia‘s first 18-hole golf course, a massive cemetery, most famous for its stately and vast interwar memorial for Latvian troops who died in wars of independence.

Latvian soldiers memorial in Riga
Soldiers memorial at graves near Mežaparks. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Another “green area” is further to the east of Mežaparks itself. It is the Riga skansen (ethnographic open-air museum) where old wooden 18th-19th century buildings have been brought in from all over Latvia. A forested park now includes huts, churches of multiple denominations, mills, warehouses, barns and other authentic utility buildings. Some have internal exhibits and others have handicraft shops but generally outside festivals the museum is quite static, best suited for a leisurely walk through its large 87 ha territory. The museum was established in the interwar period when the lifestyle presented was still alive – and has been continuously expanded ever since.

An old farmstead of Courland fishermen moved into Riga skansen
An old farmstead of Courland fishermen moved into Riga skansen. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Population: 5 000

Soviet districts of Riga

Like every Soviet-ruled city Riga received a fair share of dull and same-looking district of medium-to-high-rises filled with small flats. ~60% of inhabitants there are Russian settlers and their descendants. Churches are almost non-existent despite high population densities. There is little work there as the districts were meant just to house workers who would commute to factories, using crowded trams and (trolley)buses.

As independent Latvia became post-industrial, the commute is more commonly to the Centrs in a private car. Such change now stuffs the once-empty yards of Soviet buildings. Also, Soviet districts received some entertainment of their own. Spice shopping mall in Western Soviet districts is among the largest in Riga.

A Soviet district in southern Riga
A Soviet district in southern Riga with a church hastily constructed near Soviet apartment blocks after independence. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

However, just like when they were constructed in 1960s-1980s, they have very little to see.

Soviet districts essentially surround the historic Riga like a horseshoe, marking the city‘s Western, Southern and Eastern limits.

The western Soviet districts are crossed by many foreigners on their root to downtown as Riga International Airport is located there. A small aviation museum of mostly old Soviet aircraft is next to the airport (it may be visited on long layovers).

Riga aviation museum
Riga aviation museum. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Interestingly, Riga has another aviation museum located in Spilve airport not far away. Spilve was used as Riga’s main airport until 1973 and its somewhat derelict building (completed in 1956) is a good example of what Stalinist airports looked like, built to look as opulent as railroad stations of years gone-by yet with the romantic splendor replaced by communist symbols.

Spilve Airport where Stalinist times seemingly stands still
Spilve Airport where Stalinist times seemingly stands still. Even the hammer and sickle in the fronton is intact. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Seaside Riga

While Riga appears to be located on the Baltic Sea (Riga Gulf is even named after it), the downtown is actually further inland, using Daugava as a shipping artery. Most of the Seaside Riga is relatively empty, having a suburban feel. There is little point to overuse Riga‘s beaches after all when Jūrmala prime resort is merely 20 km away on a six-lane highway.

Among the more interesting places of Seaside Riga is Ziemeļblāzma culture palace. Constructed in 1913 using art nouveau style it still offer free concerts. The surrounding park has a nice art nouveau lookout tower (ticket required) and some folly landscapping.

Ziemeļblāzma culture palace
Ziemeļblāzma culture palace.

Vecāķi suburb on the right bank of Daugava offers walks in seaside forest and on the Riga port breakwater. One may view the vessels arriving and departing Riga port from there. One concrete ship wreck lies submerged near the beach. The area may be accessed by bus but a walk will still be needed.

A stroll on Riga breakwater
A stroll on Riga breakwater.

Daugavgrīva suburb on the east side of Daugava has remains of former fortress, but they are off-limits as a naval school is now open there.

History of Riga

Throughout its millennium-long history, Riga remained the main metropolis and trade center of East Baltic.

Medieval age: Crusaders to Merchants (until 1581)

Riga’s location on the mouth of Daugava (Baltic region’s longest river) first came to prominence as a trade location in the Viking era. But the current city was founded German Christians in their fervor to Christianise the Balts, at the time Europe’s largest remaining pagan population. It became a bishop’s seat. Anchored in Riga, Christianity indeed soon prevailed over Latvia. Not everything was rosy, however, and the bishop of Riga often found himself fighting against the fellow Christians Livonian Knights who controlled areas south of Riga.

Riga in 1400
A map of Riga in 1400, consisting of just a part of today’s Old Town (Daugava is at the bottom).

These conflicts were, however, pretty minor as the main Crusader forces moved southwards into still-pagan Lithuania. Surrounded by relative peace, Riga became a major Baltic trading city, part of the famous Hanseatic union. While its hinterland was inhabited by Latvians, the city itself was largely German (like many new Eastern European cities at the time). Germanic town law was adopted and its unique form known as Riga law evolved.

Where to see the era today? The main churches of Riga Old Town (Catholic and Lutheran Cathedrals) and some other key buildings there date to this era.

Foreign rule age: Poles, Lithuanians, Swedes and Russians (1581-1867)

When Lithuania Christianised in 1385, the crusading knights no longer had a reason to stay in the area. Still, they refused to leave. However, the tides of war were increasingly unfavorable for them and Riga fell to joint Polish-Lithuanian forces in 1581. The German city-state was replaced by a foreign rule, which would continue uninterrupted for over three centuries.

Medieval Riga
Medieval Riga

Poland-Lithuania lost Riga to Sweden in 1621 and Sweden had to relinquish it to Russia in 1710. However, Riga has never been a mere frontier outpost. In fact, it was the largest city in Sweden (surpassing Stockholm) and one of the largest cities in Russia. Regardless of the ruling great power, the economy remained in the hands of the local German community, the “Baltic Barons”. As late as 1867, German-speakers comprised 43% of Riga‘s population of 103 000 (Russian-speakers – 25%, Latvian-speakers – 24%). The local laws that made it impossible for non-Germans to become craftsmen, for example, stayed unrepealed for centuries after Germans have lost the political control of the city.

Riga suburbs burning in 1812
Riga suburbs set alight in 1812 by Russians, as part of their scorched earth policy against Napoleon invasion

Where to see the era today? Much of the Riga Old Town dates to this era.

Golden age: Industrialization to Awakening (1867-1918)

When a belated industrial era reached Russia, Riga became one of the Russian Empire’s largest industrial cities. Massive new districts of large buildings sprung up nearly overnight, hundreds of now-famous 5-6 floors art nouveau edifices were constructed filled with rental apartments. Exploding growth increased the population from 170 000 people in 1881 to nearly 600 000 in 1913. This number was much more impressive in that era than it is today as the cities generally used to be smaller.

Port of Riga in 1910
Port of Riga in 1900, adorned by large new buildings, instrumental at exporting the products of Rigan industry

As the center of a major region, Riga attracted so many people of other ethnicities that it had a larger number of Lithuanians than every city in Lithuania, for example (and even this meant just 7% of the total Riga population). Still, Latvians from villages were the majority of “new Rigans” and Riga more than ever became the heart of the Latvian nation, then undergoing a sweeping National Awakening. The Latvian-speakers share in total population increased from 24% in 1867 to 45% in 1897. At the same time, the German share declined from 43% to 22% as there were no rural Germans in Latvia who could participate in the urbanization.

Vilhelms Ķuze chocolate factory in 1910
Vilhelms Ķuze chocolate factory in 1910, one of Riga’s pre-WW1 industrial powerhouses

Despite all this glory, Riga lacked political importance. All the major decisions were made in Saint Petersburg far north. Public signs in Riga were Russian rather than either Latvian (the local plurality language) or German (local elite language).

This was soon to change as World War 1 led to the defeats of both Russia and Germany.

Workers of the Riga Union factory
Mostly Latvian workers of the Riga Union factory (all males, some of them in mid-teens) posing for a photo in 1906. They were numerous and aspiring for importance and after World War 1 they got their own free Latvia

Where to see the era today? As this was the prime era of Riga’s expansion it is not difficult to see. Centrs, districts east of Centrs, Maskavas suburb and Āgenskalns all were built to house new Rigans during the National Revival / Industrial revolution era. Sarkandaugava was the industrial heart of the times while Mežaparks hosted villas of the elite.

Freedom age: Capital of the nation (1918-1940)

With all the major empires weakened by war, Latvians seized the opportunity to crown their National Awakening with an independence declaration (1918). After a hard fight against various Russian forces (pro-czar Bermontians and the communist Bolsheviks), in 1918-1920 Latvians established a firm control over Riga and it was destined to become their capital.

Riga Castle under Bermontian occupation in 1919
Riga Castle under Bermontian occupation in 1919. Led by Pavel Bermondt, these troops sought to restore czarist Russia with Latvia within it.

The city lost a third of its people as many Russian officials went back to Russia while most Lithuanians and Poles moved to develop their own newly-independent homelands.

In 1935, Riga had 385 000 inhabitants, 63% of them ethnic Latvians. This was the only time in history Latvians were the majority of Rigans. German share stood at 10% and Russian share at 9%. Both of these minorities were surpassed by the Jews (11%) who arrived from towns (as the Russian Imperial limitations on Jewish settlement were scrapped by independent Latvia).

Latvian sogng festival taking place in 1931
Latvian song festival taking place in 1931. After independence, the Song Festivals transformed from a grassroots cultural movement into a state-sponsored mass extravaganza

However, “The Paris of the Baltics” more than compensated its population decline by the power it had gained, attracting diplomats and celebrities, as well as undertaking major projects such as the Freedom fighters memorial and Skansen. Riga was destined to become a global city, but all the interwar glory was cut short by the Soviet Russian occupation in 1940: buildings were destroyed, grand projects canceled, and the ones responsible for building the Riga of 1930s were murdered.

Riga city hall project, 1939
Riga city hall, one of the many interwar projects meant to give Riga that feeling of ‘seat of power’ (never built due to Soviet occupation).

Where to see the era today? Teika district is the only area of Riga built up during interwar independence era. The Soldiers memorial and Skansen near Mežaparks are some of the greatest projects of that era when the Latvian culture prevailed. Freedom statue near Centrs may look small but its symbolic value far outweighs its size.

Bloody age: Occupations to Genocides (1940-1990)

The Soviet occupation of Riga (1940) began as the “Year of Terror”. Tens of thousands Rigans were murdered or expelled to Siberia where further thousands perished. All the properties were nationalized and looted. Never before was Riga subjected to such brutality. The Soviet terror was so great that when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, most Latvians greeted the Germans as liberators.

Latvians attempt to recognize the mutilated bodies of their relatives who were murdered by Soviets in Riga
After the Soviet army was rooted out of Latvia, Latvians attempt to recognize the mutilated bodies of their relatives who were murdered by Soviets in Riga.

Not the Riga’s Jews, however, many of whom had collaborated with the Soviets. The Soviet genocide of Latvians was replaced by a new German genocide of Riga’s Jews (the majority of them either perished or fled).

In 1944-1945 the Soviets came back and the targets shifted back again. Not willing to wait for their death, many Latvian and German citizens of Riga evacuated to the West. Those who didn’t were to suffer a terrible fate.

Riga after Soviet re-occupation with parts of Old Town destroyed in order to create open fields or be rebuilt in a Soviet style
Riga after Soviet re-occupation with parts of Old Town destroyed in order to create open fields or be rebuilt in a Soviet style.

The Riga German community was destroyed while the Latvian population severely reduced. Throughout the Soviet occupation, Russian settlers would be sent to live in Riga in the apartments that belonged to the Latvians, Germans or Jews recently killed or expelled. By the 1980s, Riga already had a Russian-majority, with Latvians making just 37% of the population. Even the Latvian language grew increasingly rare in public as ethnic Latvians had to communicate in Russian with the people of the other ethnicities (at that time, most neighbors and co-workers would have been non-Latvian). Two-thirds of Riga’s schools used Russian as the language of instruction, making Russian the primary language of most non-Latvian Riga’s kids.

People squeezing into Riga trams in 1950s
Russians and Latvians squeezing into Riga’s trams in the 1950s. Throughout the Soviet occupation, cars remained a luxury and most had to rely on unbelievably crammed public transportation instead.

The life itself in Riga was similar to that anywhere else in the Soviet Union with massive shortages of goods and long queues, extremely limited foreign travels, KGB surveillance and few entertainment opportunities. In the 1940s-1950s, massive Stalinist buildings were constructed in the downtown. In the 1960s-1980s, some concrete slab boroughs have been built in the West. However, Riga grew little: so many people perished in the genocides that even after the massive Soviet settlement Riga was not that much more populous than before World War 1. The population peaked at 910000 in 1989.

Concrete slab building in Riga with Soviet propaganda
Concrete slab building in Riga with Soviet propaganda poster that was typical then, declaring (in Russian only): ‘Wherever there is the [Communist] party, there is progress, there is victory’.
In the late 1980s, Gorbachev’s perestroika/glasnost allowed limited freedoms and the Latvians of Riga soon dared to speak publicly in favor of restoring independence. “Now or never” – they thought as the independence was likely to become impossible after another decade or two of further Russian settlement leading to an even firmer Russian majority.

Riga metro project, 1989
Riga metro project, one of the targets of late 1980s protests. As only the cities of 1 million inhabitants were allowed to have subways in the Soviet Union, the metro project was seen as an evidence of planned further Russian settlement.

Where to see the era today? The Soviet pompousness may be seen in key edifices they built near the downtown, such as Stalinist Latvian Academy of Sciences in Maskavas suburb and the Soviet victory monument in Āgenskalns. The main residential expansion of Riga happened westwards as concrete slab districts such as Imanta were built; little has changed there after the Soviet times, save for construction of new shops. It is best to learn about the genocides and occupations at the Museum of Latvian occupation (Old Town) or the KGB museum (Centrs)

Modern age (1990 onwards)

In 1990, Latvia declared independence and Russian attempts to curb it failed as the Soviet Union totally collapsed. ~150 000 Russian settlers and officials moved out and Riga once again had a slight Latvian plurality (41% in 2000). Latvian became the sole official language for all the public inscriptions and advertisements but it took another decade before Latvian became the most common language you would hear in Riga streets. The communities remained bitterly divided. This was visible on many occasions, even at the World War 2 veteran commemoration, when ethnic Latvians would celebrate the Latvian Legion Day (anti-Soviet) while Russophones would celebrate the Soviet Victory Day.

Deleted Russian street name in Riga
After independence, Russian street signs of Riga were removed or overpainted with only the official Latvian names remaining. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Businesses brought international trends and ideas to Riga. At first, these companies were largely local but later foreign investments came in. The first modern skyscrapers were constructed in the 2000s.

After a difficult decade of transition (the 1990s), Riga reasserted its role as the “Capital of the Baltics” with the most representative offices of foreign corporations and embassies among the Baltic States, and the most destinations out of its international airport.

2006 World Ice Hockey championship in Riga became the first event of such scale to be hosted in the city
2006 World Ice Hockey championship in Riga became the first event of such scale to be hosted in the city.

Where to see the era today? As the market economy returned in Latvia businessmen became keen to build over some of the empty or run down places that were skipped by the Soviet development despite being located at good locations. The western bank of Daugava (Āgenskalns near downtown) thus received its fair share of modern architecture, while shopping malls and supermarkets adorned key roads and district centers.

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. On the corner of Turaidas and Jomas streets, a Russian Orthodox church destroyed by the Soviets in the 1960s is being reconstructed (in a different style).

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 in-between.

One side of the Western Jūrmala boulevard, with the other side beyond the home pictured
One side of the Western Jūrmala boulevard, with the other side beyond the home pictured. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

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.

The beaches there are emptier. They lack the Blue flag status but are nonetheless clean and sandy.

Western Jūrmala beach
Western Jūrmala beach. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

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.

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.

Ventspils Old Town

Old Town is the heart of Ventspils. It has many magnificent buildings (although not to the size of Riga’s edifices), among them the Livonian Order Castle. While the Castle has largely lost its original Medieval looks in later reconstructions, the modern museum it hosts is still of interest. It tells the story of Ventspils through modern means such as screens and projectors.

Livonian Order castle of Ventspils
Livonian Order castle of Ventspils. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Other key buildings of Ventspils old town includes the Creativity House (housing a digital planetarium), the Lutheran church at the main square. Most restaurants and bars are located in or around Kuldīgas street, which also boasts some pretty turn-of-the-20th-century architecture.

Ventspils planetarium with an interesting assymetric illumination
Ventspils planetarium with an interesting assymetric illumination. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Like it has been for centuries, Old Town still makes a single whole with the port. Vessels are still moored right in front of the historic facades in the Venta river. A modern river bank promenade offers a fine walk watching the ships and the opposite bank where cargo activities take place. Transbaltic ferries to Germany and Sweden depart from the Old Town itself.

Transbaltic ferry moored in Venta river next to a modernized ferry terminal
Transbaltic ferry moored in Venta river next to a modernized ferry terminal. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Seaside Ventspils

Seaside Ventspils was developed in 19th century when the city expanded Westwards. Rising popularity of beach holidays gave birth to a villa district, while a district of dockworkers was built near the port.

Ostgals (“Port end”) district west of Old Town is a collection of low rise homes. Some of them are especially old (as are the narrow cobbled streets). Once the district was inhabitted by dock workers, but today it is also liked by the local elite. The only draw there (beside the atmosphere) is the Ventspils theater.

A street in Ostgals of Ventspils
A street in Ostgals of Ventspils. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

South of Ostgals 19th century elite has constructed numerous elaborate wooden and brick towered villas, hugging a tree-lined Vasarnīcu boulevard. Some are restored as hotels, some are unfortunately abandoned.

An abandoned villa
An abandoned villa. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Seaside open air museum has been built next to the villas. It consists of numerous local peasant homes moved in from different locations of Courland. An attraction here is a narrow gauge railway (600 m) that offers journeys around the nearby park in summer.

Open-air museum of Ventspils
Open-air museum of Ventspils. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The seaside park itself offers an open-air free exhibition of old anchors and children play zone. Most people just pass by however in order to reach the beach beyond it. Sea may be experienced in ways alternative to swimming or sunbathing however. There are two lookout towers. Southern breakwater provides a popular recreational walk. It ends at a lighthouse – visitors there may be splashed by waves when there are heavier winds.

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. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Ventspils Soviet districts and suburbs

Ventspils has some interesting sights beyond its downtown.

An artificial hill Lemberg’s hat has been created for hill skiing in the southern districts. As Ventspils is in lowland area this was a tremendous effort. In non-snowy days the hill may be accended for panorama, although it is not impressive as the downtown is far.

Lemberg's hat skiing hill outside of snowy season
Lemberg’s hat skiing hill outside of snowy season. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

North of the city stands the VIRAC radioastronomy station, once a secret Soviet military territory. One of Europe’s largest antennae is still accessed by a concrete road appropriate for military vehicles. There are numerous abandoned and vandalized buildings that once housed the Soviet military and the gate still has Soviet symbols, but today VIRAC is occupied by a community of benevolent scientists and excursions are also possible.

VIRAC radar in Ventspils suburbs
VIRAC radar in Ventspils suburbs. ©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.

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.

Getting to Riga

Riga is the hub of Latvia. Therefore, it is always easy to get from Riga to anywhere in Latvia, and your trip to Latvia will most likely start and end in Riga.

Railway is the primary public transportation from Riga to the nearby cities and towns (Jūrmala, Jelgava, Sigulda, Lower Daugava valley). It may also be used to go to the Eastern Latvia (e.g. Daugavpils) and further east into Russia.

Railway access to Riga
Railway access to Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

For such long-distance routes, however, air traffic has partly outcompeted railways. Riga International Airport is the largest in the Baltic States, offering convenient connections both eastwards and westwards. There are no domestic flights, however, as Riga is now effectively Latvia’s only passenger airport.

Buses are the primary form of transportation to go from Riga to Western Latvia (e.g. Liepaja, Ventspils) where trains are non-existent or few and far between. They are also used to go the other Baltic capitals (there are no train routes), although here the direct flights provide a good, although more expensive, alternative. International buses and flights are often priced the same way – the earlier you buy, the cheaper you may buy a ticket.

If you are going to Riga from the other side of the Baltic sea, you may also choose ferries which transport both passengers and cars from Germany and Sweden.

Ferry to Riga
Ferry to Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

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.

Grobiņa

Grobiņa is a suburb of Liepāja, accessible by city bus.

It has the Liepāja’s agglomeration sole surviving Medieval castle, built in 1253 by the Order of Livonian Knights. It is relatively small and now ruined, but can be picturesque.

Grobiņa castle remains
Grobiņa castle remains. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Grobiņa is also famous for its Viking-era graves of Scandinavians who disembarked on Baltic’s Eastern shore. One would have to be interested in prehistory and archaeology to be able to enjoy them however.

History of Daugavpils

Daugavpils, also known as Dinaburg (German), Dvinsk (Russian) and Daugpilis (Lithuanian) had a turbulent history of rapid population growths and declines. All the major increases took place under foreign regimes due to non-Latvian newcomers, while each regime change would have sent the population down as people of ethnicities associated with the previous regime would leave for their homelands.

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13th-century crusader castle near Daugava river that gave the city its name (‘Daugavpils’ means ‘Daugava castle’). Nothing remains of it however as the city has been built twice over it.

Russian Imperial Daugavpils and its end (1810-1944)

The first growth of Daugavpils took place under Russian Imperial regime when the Empire constructed a fortress here (1810-1878) while businessmen established industry in what was a major rail junction on Saint Petersburg-Warsaw line (laid in 1860).

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Daugavpils fortress as seen in a World War 1 reconnaissance photo.

The city increased in size from 3000 in 1825 to 113000 in 1914 mainly because of migrants from the rest of Russian Empire. Many were Russians but even more were Jews as Daugavpils was one of the few Imperial cities where Jews were permitted to freely settle. As such, it has gained a Jewish plurality (47%).

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Massive 19th-century train station of Daugavpils that triggered the growth of the city as an industrial center. The station building has been since replaced by a Soviet one

By 1897 merely 2% of locals were ethnic Latvians, surpassed also by Russian settlers (30%) and Poles (16%) who came from Latgalian towns (where they had strong communities since the area was ruled by Poland-Lithuania in 16th-18th centuries). Daugavpils downtown was built up with red brick buildings around straight streets, while each religious community erected its own temples, creating an iconic “Churches hill” where prayers would have resounded in a multitude of languages every day. Each ethnicity even had its own name for the city: to Russians, it was Dvinsk, to Jews – Dineburg.

Daugavpils religious centre in 1912
Daugavpils religious center (Churches hill) pictured by Russian Empire’s color photographer Prokudin-Gorskii in 1912, several years before Latvian independence.

After World War 1 and Latvian independence (1918), many non-Latvian inhabitants have left Daugavpils and its population declined to 51000 in 1935. Daugavpils lost the title of Latvia’s second largest city to Liepāja. Ethnic Latvians now made a plurality (34%), but the city continued to be shared by four main ethnic groups (25% Jews, 20% Russians, 18% Poles).

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A new Old Believer church under construction in 1928, showing that minority religious and cultural life continued to thrive throughout the Latvian independence era

As a hub of Eastern Latvia, Daugavpils received a fair share of development, such as the massive Unity House with halls for theater and concerts.

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One of many halls in Unity House built in the 1930s to be the center of Daugavpils culture

Perhaps Daugavpils would have been slowly transformed into a Latvian city but that was not to be. World War 2 occupations proved to be a major upheaval that put a final nail in the coffin of that 19th-century city, destroying the majority of its buildings and people. It is often claimed that by late 1940s merely 20000 people remained in the city, wiping out the population growth of past 70 years.

World War 2 destruction of Daugavpils
World War 2 destruction of Daugavpils.

Soviet Daugavpils and its end (1944-)

In the place of old Daugavpils Soviets essentially constructed a new city after 1944. Historic Downtown buildings were often replaced by Soviet ones (Stalinist grandeur in the 1950s, shabby edifices later). Many former districts were turned into empty fields with propaganda sculptures.

Soviets have also sent in thousands of settlers from Russia to repopulate Daugavpils after World War 2, launching the second major period of population growth. By 1959 Daugavpils had 65000 inhabitants. For the first time in its urban history, it had a single majority ethnicity: Russians (55,9%). Latvians now made just 13,2% of locals, Jews – merely 3,4%, both declines a testament to World War 2 genocides.

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Daugavpils residents building a tram line by hand in 1947. Trams were to become the backbone of public transport in Soviet Daugavpils

While the Polish community seemingly remained strong (18,4%) such strength was superficial. Like all the ethnic minorities of Soviet Latvia (Jews, Ukrainians, Belarusians), Poles of Daugavpils were slowly Russified. There was close to no media, education, culture or entertainment available in any language besides Russian, so parents ceased to teach their children the “useless” ethnic languages. By 1989 only about a quarter of these minorities still spoke “their own” languages, most of them elderly.

As such, the Soviet Daugavpils (unlike the Russian Imperial Daugavpils before it) was not really a multicultural city. Rather, it became a city of a single (Russian) language and arguably a single religion (atheism).

Hotel Latvija and Lenin sculpture in Daugavpils
A new but already shabby Soviet hotel in Daugavpils (1975) and Lenin sculpture.

So, Daugavpils was a utopia to Russian communists: a location where a single Soviet nation was almost born. But it was also a dystopia to most Latvians: a reminder of what all Latvia could become, should the Soviet occupation and state-sponsored Russian immigration continue.

These fears helped reignite the pro-independence movement in the late 1980s. While Daugavpils did not participate in it that actively, many of its Russians and Poles were also fed up with the economically backward militarist Soviet regime, coming to believe that maybe independent democratic Latvia would do better. In 1991 referendum on Latvia’s independence thus only a quarter of Daugavpils residents have actually voted “Against”.

Many of those likely left Daugavpils soon afterward, as the city population declined from its peak of 125000 in 1989 to 115000 in 2000.

However, unlike elsewhere in Latvia, Russians retained the majority (54%) and the city remained Russian-speaking, many of its inhabitants refusing to learn Latvian. In independent Latvia where Latvian slowly replaced Russian as lingua franca, this became a hindrance. In addition to direct disadvantages, the Soviet settlers who spoke no Latvian received no citizenship, rendering a third of Daugavpils inhabitants stateless.

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A bilingual advert for Latvian Speedway championship in Daugavpils, 2003. World championship races were also organized in the city.

Perhaps due to all this Daugavpils became visibly poorer than other Latvian cities in the 1990s and early 2000s, its iconic fortress turned into a kind of tamed slum for the poor people. In the mid-2000s however, as Latvia’s spectacular growth increasingly went beyond Riga, Daugavpils also received modern malls and downtown renovations.

Daugavpils fortress (mark Rotho art museum) undergoing renovation in 2012
Daugavpils fortress undergoing renovation in 2012 (building on the left later became Mark Rothko art museum). ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Still, the non-Latvians of Daugavpils grew increasingly disillusioned with independent Latvia, while ethnic Latvians increasingly saw Daugavpils as disloyal. Both facts were epitomized in two referendums when Daugavpils became the sole large Latvia’s city to vote against European Union membership (2003) and for an official status to the Russian language (2012). To many ethnic Latvians this (especially the 2012 proposition) amounted to treason, an attempt to “turn back the time” and “turn Latvia towards Russia”. For the Russian-speaking population of Daugavpils however, modern post-Soviet Russia may often seem to be a much more understandable and culturally acceptable place than either Latvia or the European Union.

Russian graffitti 'USSR' (Soviet Union) and 'LSSR' in 2015 Daugavpils.
Russian graffiti meaning ‘USSR’ (Soviet Union) and ‘LSSR’ (Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic) in 2015 Daugavpils. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.