Abandoned places of Latvia

Abandoned places, buildings and cities

Abandoned buildings and towns

Latvia is one of the best countries in the world for the fans of the abandoned buildings and ghost towns.

Turbulent Latvian history of growths and declines, occupations and genocides meant that many locations, buildings and even entire settlements became useless and abandoned as the times went by.

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

There are diverse abandoned locations in Latvia:

Soviet military installations. As the westernmost land ruled by the Soviet Union (1940-1990), Latvia was heavily fortified, and these installations became obsolete after Soviet troops departed. The highlight is the entirely abandoned Skrunda-2 ghost town (once home to 5000), but other sights includes the repurposed VIRAC radar near Ventspils (the surrounding buildings are abandoned) and a former nuclear war bunker for Soviet elite near Sigulda (now a paid attraction).

Abandoned Soviet military town Skrunda-2
Abandoned Soviet military town Skrunda-2. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Russian military barracks. Before Soviet Union and brief independence, Latvia was ruled by the Russian Empire (until 1918), which had also heavily militarized it. The highlight of the era is an entire Karosta navy town north of Liepāja (once home to 30000), now half-abandoned (ex-prison reopened as a museum). Another former Russian installation with numerous abandoned buildings is the Daugavpils fortress. Unlike Soviet barracks, Russian Imperial barracks are of quite elaborate architecture.

Former festival grounds for Russian Imperial soldiers in Karosta
Former festival grounds for Russian Imperial soldiers in Karosta. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

German wooden villas, palaces and cemeteries. Germans once made up the majority of population in most Latvian cities, but the community was destroyed by World War 2 and Soviet Genocide. Many of the elaborate buildings of the rich Germans, such as wooden villas at the seaside cities (e.g. Jūrmala) and entire romantic castle-like palaces remain either fully abandoned (e.g. Gulbene palace) or partly abandoned (e.g. burnt-out Cesvaine castle). Riga great cemetery, partly destroyed by Soviets and vandalized, is also impressive-though-sad.

A derelict crypt of a rich German family in Soviet-desecrated great cemetery of Riga
A derelict crypt of a rich German family in Soviet-desecrated great cemetery of Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Jewish heritage. Latvian towns, especially those of Latgale, once hosted a significant minority of Jews, but it was decimated by emigration and Holocaust. Small numbers of remaining Jews no longer need many buildings, and thus many synagogues became abandoned (although they are now being repaired).

Kandava Synagogue
Kandava Synagogue. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

City buildings. Latvian cities suffered a decline of population recently due to emigration and before that due to Soviet genocide. Population of ethnic Latvians is at its lowest for 100 years. As such, many buildings in the cities such as Riga are abandoned as well, e.g. apartment blocks. Large public Soviet buildings are even more prone to abandonment, as they often have little use in market economy where smaller institutions may be more profitable.

Abandoned apartment building of ~1900 in Riga
Abandoned apartment building of ~1900 in Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

While many abandoned buildings in Latvia are out-of-bounds for visitors, many of the best ones are either accessible or impressive even from the outside.

The sheer numbers of abandoned structures have been controversial in Latvia. Many people have preferred them renovated or destroyed, but both are costly. However, these days it became popular that key abandoned and semi-abandoned locations are treated as tourist sights on their own, even without renovations. This means, however, that if a location is open, tickets were often introduced for visitors (e.g. to Skrunda-2 town or Cesvaine palace).

Partly burned out interior of Cesvaine palace
Partly burned out interior of Cesvaine palace. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Despite of this, hundreds of tourists come to key abandoned sights in Latvia every day including foreigners. They visit the abandoned 19th and 20th century buildings in the same fashion as they would visit abandoned medieval castles, of which Latvia also has many.

Karosta of Liepāja

Karosta (Military port) is the unique and very eerie northernmost part of Liepāja. This is a semi-abandoned former major Russian Imperial naval base (actually, entire military city which once housed 30 000 inhabitants). Its red brick elaborate late 19th century barracks now stand derelict amidst forests. They are joined by Soviet apartment blocks of Soviet soldiers who also used the base and some of these are also empty.

The most appealing are the public buildings of the military city. Russian Orthodox Naval Cathedral (1903) has now been restored to full splendor after decades of Soviet use as a warehouse.

Russian Orthodox Naval Cathedral of Liepāja
Russian Orthodox cathedral (right) and a typical Soviet residential building for military base (left). ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Also of interest are water tower (1905), now-roofless festival edifice (1903) and the pigeon mail station (built for 450 pigeons at the time military still relied on pigeon mail; now a residential home).

Festival building of Karosta
Festival building of Karosta. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The area’s history may be explored in a unique attraction Karosta military prison (where “bad soldiers” would be condemned to several days of severe hazing). It can be visited as a museum or as a weird hotel to spend a night at. In both cases the local “guide” will seek to make visitors feel uncomfortable.

Karosta prison exhibits in Liepāja
Karosta prison exhibits. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

For those prefering natural beauty with some military remains a walk on expansive 2 km long Northern Breakwater into the sea will be most rewarding. Semi-destroyed fortifications built to defend Karosta from the sea are nearby. One nearby street is named after Tobago island where Courland-Semigallian dukes sent their navy to from Liepāja, establishing a colony there known as New Courland.

Former pigeon mail tower at Karosta
Former pigeon mail tower at Karosta. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Karosta is accessed from from the New Liepāja by a picturesque green truss Oskars Kalpaks bridge, completed in 1906. It is some 4 km on foot from the Old Liepāja, therefore it is better to use a city bus.

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Cesvaine Palace

Cesvaine Palace is one of the largest and prettiest castle-styled palaces of 19th century Latvia.

Cesvaine Palace
Cesvaine Palace. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Built by a rich Von Wulf family in 1896 it followed the trend to copy German and British palace architecture, especially borrowing on Tudor style.

Nationalized in the 20th century and long used as school, much of Cesvaine palace has been now opened for visiting, its authentic interiors still remaining. Sadly, the upper part of the palace was greatly damaged by fire in 2002. Reconstruction is ongoing but especially slow, with only the exterior fully restored.

However, an empty, damaged Cesvaine palace is arguably an even more atmospheric place to see, as it is not a museum but rather an authentic visitable old building with much details still the same as when originally planned (e.g. ingenious windowsills and heating system with furnaces next to every room that used to be fired by servants who walked in back-corridors).

One of the rooms of Cesvaine Palace
One of the rooms of Cesvaine Palace. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The palace is surrounded by other buildings of the era that once housed the servants, horses and property of the Cesvaine manor. Cesvaine town has a population of 3000.

~30 km north of Cesvaine there are several more Von Wulf palaces, in the Gulbene area.

Skrunda-2 Soviet ghost town

Skrunda-2 is an abandoned Soviet military town which hosted ~5000 inhabitants. It is one of the most easily accessible abandoned towns in the world.

Skrunda-2 main street
Overgrown main path of Skrunda-2, surrounded by Soviet apartment blocks of 1960s. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

During the Cold War Skrunda-2 it served a radar base to track Western space communication and possible nuclear missile launches.

While the radars themselves have been destroyed as Russian soldiers retreated in 1998, the former residential buildings, school, water tower, officer’s Club and other installations remain.

Skrunda-2 residential building interior
Ransacked interior of residential building with interiors of flats visible. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Skrunda-2 initially after closure used to be guarded. Later it became unguarded and, even though technically prohibited to enter, it attracted increasing amount of tourists, up to ~50-100 people at any given time every summer weekend. Currently (since 2016) it is officially legal to enter, but a fee must be paid at entrance.

Unfortunately, vandals have came together with visitors, leaving no windows in Skrunda-2 intact
Unfortunately, vandals have came together with visitors, leaving no windows in Skrunda-2 intact. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

What makes Skrunda-2 especially appealing is the fact that all the doors are left open, allowing full exploration (including basements, roofs, etc.). While anything of value has been removed (e.g. metal radiators), many small mementos of the life that used to go on there remain (e.g. somebody’s collection of bubble gum stickers). While the town was within Latvia it was mainly Russian, as evidenced in Russian-only inscriptions and newspapers.

It is advisable to walk carefully as there may be some open shafts.

Skrunda officers club
Partly burned out Skrunda-2 officer’s Club with Soviet five-pointed star decor. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.