Regions of Latvia

Regions of Latvia: What to See

Regions: Introduction

Latvia consists of four regions. They had a separate history prior to being unified into a single Latvia in 1918. This allowed them to have separate cultural traits.

Vidzeme (Northern Latvia) is the largest region, famous for its scenery and castles near Sigulda and Cēsis. Ruled by Sweden 1621-1721 and Russia 1721-1918 (with limited autonomy), it gradually became the most ethnically Latvian region.

Central fortification of Medieval Cēsis castle
Medieval Cēsis castle in Vidzeme that once served as the residence of Livonian Order grand master. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Latgale (Eastern Latvia) is the most ethnically diverse area and the only one to have a Catholic majority. It was the only area of Latvia to be ruled directly by Poland-Lithuania (1562-1775) and Russia (1775-1918). Polish nobles, Russian Old Believer refugees, Russian Orthodox settlers and Russia’s Jews moved in throughout that era of foreign regimes. Some towns remain minority-majority. Even many Latvians there speak in a unique Latgallian dialect sometimes considered a language on its own.

Aglona Basilica
Aglona Basilica, the heart of Catholic Latgale (and Latvia). ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Courland (Western Latvia) is the coastal region with two historic port cities (Liepāja and Ventspils), fishing villages and nice empty shorelines. It spent 1562-1795 era as the naval heart of Courland-Semigallia, a sea-minded German-ruled duchy.

Kuldīga, one Courland's surviving authentic towns
Kuldīga, one Courland’s surviving authentic towns. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Semigallia (Southern Latvia) was the administrative center of Courland-Semigallia (1562-1795) and it has Latvia’s prettiest palaces that once housed the local dukes (Rundale and Jelgava).

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

Riga is located in Vidzeme, but its status as the capital efectively made it a region of its own. The pace of life in Riga is faster than in all the regional cities while its culture includes all regional cultures as well as migrants from abroad. If the suburbs such as Jūrmala resort are included, Riga’s population is almost equal to that of the four remaining regions put together.

The most famous square of Riga Old Town
The most famous square of Riga Old Town. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The regions of Latvia are rather similar in size and each has a population of approximately 300 000 inhabitants. Riga (if put together with Jūrmala and suburbs) alone has some 850 000 people.

Courland

Courland (Latvian: Kurzeme) covers the entire Western shore of the nation. It is sparsely populated and has a strong ethnic Latvian majority (75,9%), mostly Lutherans.

The region‘s rugged empty beaches are joined by two port cities: Liepāja and Ventspils, where stately buildings remind of past importance. In 17th century the Dukes of Courland dispatched colonists to America from these cities, using a navy that was 1/3rd of the legendary Spanish armada. 200 years later there was a Liepāja-New York direct steamship service as the old ports were revitalised by railways.

Historic port warehouses in Liepāja
Historic port warehouses in Liepāja. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The ports are still extremely important, but Courland has also used its uncrowded seaside to attract tourists. Good modern tourist infrastructure and entire districts of 19th century wooden villas built for the elite of the day are both a reminder of that.

An abandoned villa
An abandoned German villa in Ventspils. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Courlandian hinterland includes multiple pretty towns: Kuldīga, Talsi and Kandava. Smaller than the cities they seem to be just as old. Many of the pretty buildings have been constructed by Germans, who were the local lords and made 15%-50% inhabittants in most cities and towns until the 20th century.

Main square of Kuldīga with old brick buildings, typical for Courland main towns
Main square of Kuldīga with old brick buildings, typical for Courland main towns. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

In the 19th century Courland served as the westernmost land of former enormous Russian Empire, making it a natural military outpost – and now a great location for exploration by military buffs. Liepāja hosts an entire „military city“ of Karosta, where Imperial navy was once stationed. Soviets too left their crumbling installations, such as Skrunda-2 military town (now abandoned) or a massive radar near Ventspils.

A tower in Karosta of Liepāja
A tower in Karosta of Liepāja. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Luckily, Courland was saved from Soviet destruction during World War 2. Nazi Germany held Courland until its leaders surrendered. That is, Soviet flag was already waving over Berlin but German troops still guarded Liepāja and Ventspils. Therefore Courlandian cities and towns remain much as they did before the war, with pretty brick buildings and elaborate wooden contraptions.

The lack of post-war growth also helped to conserve the looks: Courland today has as many inhabitants as it had before World War 2, so there was little modern construction. The towns and cities are surrounded by pristine nature, such as at the northernmost tip of Courland known as the Liv Coast, famous for its unique Liv indigenous minority. Courland forms the bulk of Latvian shoreline.

Steep sandy shores are common in Western Courland
Steep sandy shores are common in Western Courland. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Latgale

Latgale (Eastern Latvia) is the least Latvian region of Latvia. Centuries of foreign (Russian and Polish) direct rule led to a great diversity of ethnic and religious communities here.

Today, Latvians make only 46,2% of population, as there is a hundred thousands ethnic Russians (39%) as well as smaller historic minorities of Poles (in southern Latgale, 6,9%), Belarusians (in eastern Latgale, 5%) and Jews (in Latgalian towns, 0,1%). Cities are multiethnic in all Latvia, but Latgale alone also has minority-majority villages.

Lutheran and Catholic churches at the religious center of Daugavpils
Lutheran and Catholic churches stand side-by-side in Daugavpils, also next to Russian Orthodox and Old Believer churches. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Even the Latvians of Latgale are different from those of all other regions however, speaking a unique Latgalian dialect some consider to be a separate language altogether.

Moreover, unlike the rest of Latvia, Latgale has a Roman Catholic majority as it was influenced by Polish and Lithuanian thought. Aglona (the main Catholic pilgrimage site in Latvia) is located in Latgale, as are multiple old white Baroque churches funded by Polish-Lithuanian nobility.

Aglona chruch, monastery and square for pilgrims
Aglona chruch, monastery and square for pilgrims. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Still, the region is extremely heterogeneous religiously with most towns having as many as four small old churches rather than a single large one. In addition to the Lutheran and Catholic there are also Orthodox and Old Believer ones, catering to the Russian community.

While the Russian Orthodox people are mostly Russian Imperial and Soviet settlers, the Old Believer community dates to 18th century when they came as refugees (fleeing persecutions in Russia for their “schismatic” faith).

Daugavpils (pop. 100 000) is the largest city in Latgale. Predominantly Russian-speaking, it is famous for its military heritage with an entire 19th century fortress surviving in a pretty good shape.

Gate of Daugavpils Fortress
Gate of Daugavpils fortress adorned with Russian emblem, inscription and czar’s name is one of many locations that show Russian influence in Latgale. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Rēzekne (pop. 30 000) is considered to be the capital of Latgale but it has been greatly altered by World War 2.

Some small towns with their glorious baroque churches and palaces (once funded by the local nobles) are of more interest. One example of such is Krāslava.

Krāslava baroque church
Krāslava baroque church. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Equally picturesque is the string of Latgalian lakes. Lubāns is the largest one while Rāzna has the largest volume and is protected as a national park. Lakeside villages have tourist camps and hotels.

Today Latgale is considered to be Latvia’s poorest region and the average age is higher as many younger people have left.

Lake Rāzna
Lake Rāzna, one of many Latgalian lakes. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Vidzeme

Vidzeme (northeast Latvia) is the nation’s heartland: its largest and most ethnically Latvian (~85%) region. It was the location where Latvians first moved from villages into towns, asserting their culture. While Vidzeme was also the first Latvian land to be conquered by Russians (this happened in 1721), it was far from the worst affected one.

Old buildings at central Cēsis
Old buildings at central Cēsis. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Gauja River (the longest one that starts and ends in Latvia) and the surrounding national park may be the first image of Vidzeme most would recall. The area’s lowlands, sandstone caves and forested hills are a good image of typical Latvian nature. Multiple castles on hills remind of the Latvia‘s role as the vanguard of crusades against pagans. Vidzeme was the epicenter of the major Livonian Order of knights that ruled vast tracts of modern-day Baltic States.

A ferry accross Gauja river in Gauja National Park in winter
A ferry across Gauja river in Gauja National Park in winter. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The main castle of the Livonian Order still stands in Cēsis, which is also a Hanseatic town still retaining its a Medieval grid. Sigulda area has three more castles. Both are easily accessible from Riga (50-100 km) and became a popular summer destinations for hundreds of thousands Riga residents.

Castle-like 19th century Cēsis palace, with ruins of Medieval castle on the right
Castle-like 19th century Cēsis palace, with ruins of Medieval castle on the right. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Beyond these Vidzeme is more laid-back and the distances are greater, small towns (not a single one larger than 30 000 inhabitants) separated from each other by vast tracts of plains and forests. There are some gems in these lands however: massive castle-like 19th century manor palaces (such as Cesvaine), Latvia’s last narrow gauge railway (Gulbene area), old churches.

Castle-inspired Alūksne manor palace
Castle-inspired Alūksne manor palace. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Valmiera is considered to be the capital of Vidzeme, however it is not the region’s primary sight.

Daugava valley is the most urbanized area, as the river served as a trade thoroughfare for centuries, becoming a hub for towns. Now tamed by three hydroelectric power plants, Daugava has lost parts of original appeal, but the surrounding reservoir may have made Koknese castle even more romantic. Krustpils town is still located where Daugava is not artificially widened.

Koknese castle ruins
Koknese castle ruins in flooded Daugava valley. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

While Riga (the capital) and Jūrmala (the nation‘s top resort) are historically part of Vidzeme, they now effectively belong to Latvia-as-a-whole and are here not considered as being in Vidzeme.

Semigallia

In 16th-18th centuries Semigalia served as the center of Duchy of Courland and Semigallia, a small-yet-rich statelet that participated in American colonization.

As such, it boasts numerous castles and palaces. The most famous amongst them (and all the Baltic palaces is the Rundale Palace and its park.

Rundale Palace in Semigallia
Rundale Palace. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Jelgava (the region’s largest city) has another massive palace with crypts of the dukes. The interior there is destroyed however.

The Dukes of Courland and Semigallia were ethnic Germans, and much of what remains in the area‘s cities has an inherent German feeling. Well into the 19th century Germans still made some 33% of Jelgava inhabitants.

German manors were located outside of the main towns as well, and the prettiest string of such buildings stands in Western Semigallia.

The Germans initially came as crusaders who Christianized the Latvian nation. A crusader castle remains are available near Bauska, which is a nice small town.

Lutheran church of Bauska
Lutheran church of Bauska dating to Courland-Semigallia era. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

While retaining a strong Latvian majority, Semigallia has significant ethnic minorities in some locations. Jēkabpils, with its old houses of worship of 7 different faiths, is arguably Latvia’s most traditionally multi-ethnic and multi-religious town.

Southern Semigallia hosts many Lithuanians, while the areas close to Riga have many Russian-speakers. That Riga hinterland was effectively transformed into suburbs recently, becoming site of such locations as Cinevilla, a Riga movie studio backlot that’s also firm on Latvia’s tourist sight list.

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.