Ventspils of Latvia

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

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 The banknotes may then be withdrawn from account once in Ventspils, and may be used to pay (in part) various local expenses such as museum tickets.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.

History of Ventspils

In many times of history the importance of Ventspils port far surpassed what its population numbers could have suggested.

Ventspils within German duchies (1314-1795)

Originally chartered in 1314 it was an important mercantile city of the German Hanseatic League. At the time Livonian Order was the ruling power, having built a castle in Ventspils center. Germans used to call the city “Windau”.

Ventspils castle in 13th-16th centuries
Ventspils castle as it looked in the city’s heyday (13th-16th centuries), before renovations and repurposing.

In 1565 the Order secularized becoming the Duchy of Courland and Semigallia. Ventspils importance remained however as the Duchy relied greatly on its naval power, attempting to establish colonies in America and Africa. Ventspils was the Duchy’s primary port and many ships have left in the 17th century on colonial adventures. The local shipyards not only constructed the Courland-Semigallian navy but also built ships for sale to Western Europe.

One of the Courland-Semigallia ships manufactored in Ventspils
One of the Courland-Semigallia ships manufactured in Ventspils.

That old Ventspils has been devastated by 18th century wars and plague, however. The importance of Courland-Semigallia itself dwindled until it was annexed by Russia in 1795.

Ventspils in the Russian Empire (1795-1918)

The new overlords Russians saw no use for Ventspils port for a long time. By 1863 Ventspils had merely 4000 inhabittants, some 50% of them the descendents of Courland-Semigallia’s German elite.

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Ventspils in 1814 painted by H.F. Waeber. It had little more beyond the castle

The tides of fortune turned again in 1890s as railway from Riga reached Ventspils, allowing the port to be used to export goods from the entire Russian Empire. An era of rapid expansion followed, during which the city grew to 29000 inhabitants as it needed to staff the swiftly growing port.

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Ventspils Russian Orthodox church soon after it was built in 1901. Russian Orthodoxy was the state religion of the Empire and every city of importance had to have such church built for taxpayer’s money.

Nearly all the newcomers were Latvians from surrounding villages. Such massive migration greatly altered the ethnic composition of the city, making Ventspils Latvian majority (58%) for the first time in history by 1897.

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Colorized postcard of Pils Street of Ventspils on the eve of World War 1. Recently developed downtown buildings are still covered in Russian-only signs

Much of the large buildings that still adorn Ventspils Old Town have been constructed in 1890s-1910s. The old city limits were not enough however: to accommodate the new workers a new district of Ostgals has been constructed west of Old Town, while in the southwest a suburb of pretty wooden villas was developed near the beach.

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A late 19th century wooden villa in seaside Ventspils

Ventspils in free interwar Latvia (1918-1940)

After Latvia became independent (1918) Ventspils continued to be one of the most ethnically Latvian cities. By 1935 some 84% of its population were Latvians (Germans – ~7%). However, independent Latvia may have had too many ports for what was a rather small country. With less need for freight shipping the number of Ventspils inhabitants declined to 16000.

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Kuldiga street in Ventspils during interwar period, with some cars and all signs in Latvian

Ventspils under Soviet occupaton (1940-1990)

In 1940 Ventspils was overrun by Soviet Union forces, only to be taken by Germans in 1941. Interestingly, by the time Berlin fell in 1945, German troops still held Ventspils, sparing the city from destruction associated with Soviet reconquest. After German surrender Soviets received the city peacefully.

Latvians evacuate from Ventspils in 1945
Fearing to suffer Soviet Genocide Latvians evacuate from Ventspils after German surrender started to seem imminent in 1945.

The main use Soviets had for Ventspils port was that of oil export. They also established a major radar installation in the suburbs. Nearly all ethnic Germans and many Latvians were deported, but thousands of Russians were moved in, growing Ventspils population to 27000 by 1959 (60,4% Latvians) and 51000 by 1989. New concrete slab districts have been constructed in the south to accommodate the new settlers. By 1989 Latvians made up merely 43% of population and the city was predominantly Russian speaking.

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Ventspils oil pipeline. Completed in 1968 it helped Ventspils become an oil export port

Ventspils in restored Latvia (1990-)

After Latvia regained independence (1990) Ventspils became its success story. One of the richest cities, it is also extremely stable politically (having had the same mayor since 1988). The port became one of the most important in the Baltic Sea. Vast resources and ideas have been unleashed in order to bring tourists into Ventspils, ranging from a local “tourist currency” publicity stunt to creating an artificial hill for skiing.

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Ventspils Vents banknotes, all depicting the cow statues of Ventspils on obverse

As many Russians left after independence, the Latvian share of population rebounded from its nadir and now stays at 56%.