All posts by Augustinas Žemaitis

Getting around Latvian cities

Latvian cities have a comprehensive system of public transport.

A modern tram in Riga
A modern tram in Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

There are no subways or elevated trains, meaning this transport can be slow. In areas around Riga, however, suburban trains serves as a rapid transit system, connecting Riga to Jūrmala and Jelgava and having multiple stops in those cities.

In the largest cities (Riga, Daugavpils, Liepāja), the local public transport is anchored on trams which serve main routes. Buses are also available. In the smaller cities, buses are effectively the only form of public transport.

Daugavpils tram
An old tram in Daugavpils. These Latvia-manufactured units still form the bulk of a rather outdated Latvian tram network. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Vehicle rental is readily available in Riga, including the airport. Fuel prices are rather large (as per European Union requirements, the total taxes of over 100% for every liter sold), while parking is especially costly in Riga but cheaper in other cities.

Warnings and dangers

Latvia is a safe country.

Crime levels in Latvia are relatively small. The murder rate is on par with the USA. However, crime is spread much more evenly in Latvia than in the West, meaning there is no division into “dangerous ghettos” and “suburbs where nothing bad ever happens”. Instead, all the areas are safe if taking the usual precautions such as not leaving bags openly in cars.

No natural disasters have ever happened in Latvia, as it is well beyond the danger zone for earthquakes, tornadoes or volcanoes. However, the few coldest weeks of the year sometimes take its toll among the homeless. With good clothing and ability to spend nights inside there is no danger even during harshest of winters.

The biggest historic danger to Latvia came from its aggressive neighbors which have murdered hundreds of thousands of locals over the course of 20th century. Most Latvians still feel a danger that Russia could reoccupy their land, possibly launching a campaign of looting and killing. However, the probability that this would happen at any given time is low, especially as Russia is now pre-occupied with wars elsewhere.

Small immigration from war zones means that terrorism danger is extremely low. No people have died in terrorist bombings throughout the Latvian history.

There may be scams in Latvian nightclubs and taxis. However, Latvian people are quite reserved and don’t come to solicit, so it is possible to avoid the scams by avoiding services where they are more common. Public transport or rental car may be preferable to taxi.

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 include 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 the 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 the 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 the 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. The 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 a 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 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.


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 the 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 revitalized 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% inhabitants in most cities and towns until the 20th century.

Main square of Kuldīga with old brick buildings, typical for Courland main towns
The 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 (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 the 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 the 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 the 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. Latgale’s economic backwardness is nothing new and it dates at least to the 19th-century Russian direct rule. In the late 19th century, for example, merely 50% of Latgale’s population was literate, while in the rest of Latvia the rate stood at 90% at the same time.

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


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 Medieval grid. Sigulda area has three more castles. Both are easily accessible from Riga (50-100 km) and became 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 a 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.


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 the 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.

Politics of Latvia

Latvia is a democratic republican country. President is the head of state, but he holds few real powers. The main power is vested in the unicameral parliament Saeima (100 members), which also elects the Latvian government.

Administratively, Latvia is divided into 110 municipalities (that cover town and rural areas) and 9 republican cities. The municipalities range from 1 300 to 40 000 in population, while the republican cities range from 25 000 to 650 000. Each of the administrative units has its own elected council but since Latvia is a unitary country (non-federal) their powers are limited to local affairs.

Political parties in Latvia

Latvian political life is largely divided among the “Latvian” and “Russian” party blocks. While a person may often change his vote among the parties within the block, few people of Latvia would switch between these blocks.

Latvian parties greatly value the local Latvian traditions and history. Their primary goal is to safeguard them. Often, alignment to the West is seen as the main mean of ensuring this goal as Russian invasions and occupations have typically been the most destructive to the Latvians and their culture so far. The most pro-Latvian party is the National Alliance, while the somewhat more popular Greens/Farmers and (even more so) Unity are more prone for compromises. Their inspirations include Latvian nationalism, free market economy, modern Western values.

On the contrary, Russian parties prefer alignment to Russia. They often campaign for an increased role of the Russian language. They regard the Soviet occupation positively or neutrally. Typically, the Russian parties are also more leftist economically than their Latvian counterparts. Their inspirations include Russian Nationalism, Socialism.

Such difference is rooted in the different experience of the party supporters. While the Latvians (who vote for the Latvian parties) suffered a genocide under the leftist Soviet occupational regime, the Russians enjoyed a privileged status which elevated their minority language and culture above that of the majority Latvian. In fact, it was the Soviet policies that encouraged Russophone voters to move into Latvia in the first place. Understandably, such a minority-rule situation could not be expected to return democratically, so the Russian parties typically campaign for some smaller “concessions” instead, effectively turning Latvia from a Latvian state into a “multiethnic” state.

Historically, pan-Latvian coalitions preclude Russian parties from entering governing coalitions. However, while the Russian share in Latvia has been declining after the independence, the share of citizens did not decline as the generation of Russians who spoke no Latvian and thus failed to get citizenship is replaced by a new generation of born-in-Latvia Russians who are citizens. This meant that the influence of the Russian parties grew somewhat, even gaining the rule in Riga.

In a sense, “conservatism” is applicable both to the Latvian and Russian parties. However, these are different conservatisms: while the Latvian parties seek to continue and restore the pre-occupation (pre-1940s) culture, Russian parties seek to continue the 1940s-1990s situation.


Daugavpils (pop. 93 000) is Latvia’s second largest city and the main metropolis of Latgale (Eastern Latvia).

Uniquely, ethnic Latvians make up only 20% of the population here, making the city seem distant and disloyal to many Latvians. Russian is the lingua franca of Daugavpils. While the city is ethnically diverse (Russians – 54%, Poles – 14%, Belarusians – 7%, Ukrainians – 2%) the Soviet Russification drive has ensured that even to most non-Russian locals Russian is also the native tongue.

Skyline of Daugavpils
Skyline of Daugavpils with churches of various ethnicities and denominations visible. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Daugavpils became a large city after Russian Empire has developed a massive fortress here (1810-1876) as well as laid primary Saint Petersburg-Warsaw road (1834) and railroad (1860) through the city. While the regular Downtown street grid dates to that era of rapid growth, many of the buildings are newer as the city was devastated during World War 2 and subsequent Soviet regime.

A typical straight street in Daugavpils downtown
A typical straight street in Daugavpils downtown. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Daugavpils Downtown is where the shopping, restaurants, and nightlife are concentrated, but the most iconic districts lie beyond it. These are the Fortress (Cietoksnis), which is now inhabited, and the Churches Hill area where churches of 4 Christian denominations stand side by side, signifying Daugavpils’s and Latgale’s multi-religious history. The nearby Varšavas street has some pretty villas that miraculously survived World War 2 bombings.

Daugavpils fortress entrance
Daugavpils fortress entrance. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Other parts of Daugavpils are the off-the-beaten-path suburb of Grīva beyond the river that still retains some 19th century atmosphere and the mostly Soviet and post-Soviet New Daugavpils in the east.

While Daugavpils is somewhat infamous as poor, these days it looks much better than it did a decade ago.

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Daugavpils Downtown

Daugavpils downtown of straight 19th century streets may be too much altered by Soviet rebuilding drive to retain that old charm it must have had, but it is nevertheless the center of the city.

A grand Stalinist Soviet cinema, now a nightclub
A grand Stalinist Soviet cinema, now a nightclub. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Finding shopping, nightlife and accommodation opportunities is the easiest here, and access to most sights beyond downtown is also trivial. Daugavpils train and bus stations are both located in the downtown. Unlike many Western cities, the main malls of Daugavpils are right at its center.

A mall in downtown Daugavpils
A mall in downtown Daugavpils. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

While many old buildings have been demolished and replaced by nondescript Soviet parks or boring new edifices, many still remain to be found while exploring Daugavpils streets. The city is especially famous for its red brick edifices where bricks are formed into ornaments to beautify facades.

Elaborate red brick building in Daugavpils downtown
Elaborate red brick building in Daugavpils downtown. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The heart of Downtown Daugavpils is the Unity Square which hosts an art deco Unity House (1937; a project of interwar Latvia), the theater and a Latvian home museum of pre-modern handicrafts.

Unity House
Unity House, still housing all the main cultural institutions of Daugavpils: theater, concert hall, library and now also tourist information. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Rigas Street, the main pedestrianized street of Daugavpils connects Unity Square to train station, offering some old facades.

Riga pedestrian street in Daugavpils
Riga pedestrian street. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Downtown Daugavpils also have multiple houses of worship from the pre-WW2 era, though they are small as the city used to be religiously fragmented. These are the St. Peter Catholic Church (1934) and Synagogue (1850). The Russian Orthodox church has been imploded by the Soviets in 1969 and only a small chapel was rebuilt in its place after independence.

St. Peter Catholic church
St. Peter Catholic Church modeled after the St. Peter Basilica in Rome, with a colonnaded circular square in front (however, it is so small it looks more of a chapel than parish church). ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Two main parks of downtown Daugavpils are the Dubrovin park (laid in the 19th century and named after the mayor of the time) and Central Park (a larger one that includes sports facilities and an ice hockey hall nearby). Dubrovin park has a fountain, an old towered firefighters building and a Soviet WW2 memorial which is still welcome by primarily Russian Daugavpils residents.

World War 2 memorial in Dubrovin park
World War 2 memorial in Dubrovin park. 1944 is the date of Soviet re-occupation of Daugavpils, a tragedy to Latvians yet viewed with ethnic pride by Russians. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Daugavpils downtown also hosts a regional museum offering information on local fauna and cultural history,

To the south Daugavpils Downtown is limited by a 6 km long dike which safeguards the city from Daugava floods, a 19th-century engineering marvel.

Dike of Daugavpils
Dike of Daugavpils. It is higher than both Daugava and the homes beyond it. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Churches hill and Varšavas street

Located just north of Downtown, Church Hill and Varšavas street had some of their iconic buildings spared of (post-)WW2 destruction.

Surviving old villa in Varšavas street
Old building in Varšavas street (now a Polish consulate helping the city’s massive Polish minority). ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The Church Hill is crowned by historic houses of worship four different Christian denominations that stand side by side, signifying the multireligiousness of both Daugavpils and Latgale.

Russian Orthodox Cathedral of SS Boris and Gleb on the Churches hill
Russian Orthodox Cathedral of SS Boris and Gleb on the Churches hill. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The churches are Lutheran Cathedral (1893), Roman Catholic Church of Blessed Virgin Mary (1905), SS Boris and Gleb Russian Orthodox Cathedral (1905; once a garrison church), Old Believer Church (1928).

Lutheran and Catholic churches at the religious center of Daugavpils
Lutheran and Catholic churches at the religious center of Daugavpils. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Nearby Varšavas street hosts multiple 19th-century villas and a lead shot factory with period technology saved by Soviet economic backwardness and now converted into a tourist-oriented place of industrial heritage, with regular guided excursions available every day.

A lead shot machine in Daugavpils
One of the outdated machines still used for lead shot production in Daugavpils. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The factory still uses its Lead shot tower, where pieces of lead are thrown from above in order to attain a perfect form because of gravity before hitting the ground. Back in the 19th century, this was a commonplace lead shot production but it seems like out of this world these days.

Varšavas street with lead shot tower
Varšavas street with the lead shot tower. A massive effort was needed to wash its interior from metal pollution before opening up for tourists. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Between the churches and lead shot factory Varšavas street hosts a Russian culture center where information about various aspects of Daugavpils Russian culture are presented (Othodox and Old Believer faiths, Daugavpils fortress history).

Daugavpils Fortress (Cietoksnis)

The Imperial Russian fortress (Cietoksnis) is a unique part of Daugavpils. It is essentially a residential district entirely surrounded by 19th-century fortifications, walls, and gates.

Nikolai entrance to the Daugavpils fortress
Nicholas entrance to the Daugavpils fortress, adorned by a Russian eagle. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Commissioned after Napoleon’s invasions (1810) and expanded until 1878 the star fortress the importance of fortress went beyond just defending Russia from Western invasions. As Daugavpils was on both the road and railroad from Saint Petersburg to European capitals, the Fortress was also used by the Russian czars to spend a night.

Currently abandoned building of Daugavpils Fortress
Currently abandoned building of Daugavpils Fortress. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The former glory is somewhat ruined as the obsolete fortress was turned into apartment blocks. Many original buildings remain (some are abandoned), but Soviets also constructed their own plain apartment blocks in-between, which are no less shabby.

Lines of old fortress buildings converted into apartment blocks
Lines of old fortress buildings converted into apartment blocks. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Fortifications themselves are of interest – they may be ascended. The Nicholas gate was restored, once again adorned by the Russian coat of arms.

Arsenal building of Cietokšnis has recently been converted into Mark Rothko art museum. This Jewish abstract painter was born in pre-WW1 Daugavpils. However, the overpriced museum hosts merely a few of his works with the rest of largely empty halls dedicated to his life story or temporary (non-Rothko) exhibits.

Fortress building that now houses Mark Rothko art center
The fortress building that currently houses Mark Rothko art center. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Other interesting locations include the Daugavpils fortress information center (near Mark Rothko museum) in a former Water Tower building, the buildings at the main park which includes former Fortress Commander office and a military hospital as well as the gates. Multiple monuments and graves exist in the area for warlords of various nationalities, however, they are not architecturally appealing.

Cietoksnis (Fortress) is located a couple kilometers west of downtown and may be accessed by bus.

A fortress cemetery located some 2 km northwest of the fortress is difficult to reach without a car or a longer hike. Few gravestones there are elaborate fortress era ones (with many new civilian burials and a section for WW2 Soviet soldiers). However, the cemetery is worth a visit primarily for its small Orthodox church of St. Alexander Nevskiy (1897), which boasts one of the most ornamental wooden facades in Latvia.

Daugavpils Fortress cemetery church of St. Alexander Nevskiy
Daugavpils Fortress cemetery church of St. Alexander Nevskiy. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.


Liepāja (pop. 77 000) is the westernmost Latvian city. For centuries it has been a major seaport and competed for the status of Latvia’s second city.

As Liepāja has less inhabitants today than in it did in 1911, the “new” is is still overwhelmed by the old. To this day Liepāja is full of picturesque turn-of-the-20th-century buildings when the city was a major naval hub of the Russian Empire, being important to many ethnic groups.

Picturesque buildings in Liepāja Old Town
Picturesque buildings in the Old Liepāja. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Liepāja consists of three parts, separated from each other by old shipping canals:

The southernmost is Old Liepāja is the historic downtown with old churches, art nouveau edifices and hundreds of wooden apartment buildings. It was here where Liepāja’s original glory began in 17th century when it took part in the colonization of Americas and Africa. Little of that era remains, having been replaced by 19th century, when rapidly expanding city needed to house the Latvian and Lithuanian workers as well offer seaside places to build villas for the German elite. Old Liepāja continues to be the main hub of nightlife and is considered the downtown.

Typical wooden building of Old Liepāja
Typical wooden building of Old Liepāja. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

New Liepāja is the geographic center of Liepāja that hosts its bus and train stations. It offers some shopping and entertainment opportunities. Developed in the 19th century it also has some pretty buildings, however, it is not usually treated as a tourist sight.

In the north Karosta is becoming Liepāja’s symbol in spite (or likely because of) being mostly abandoned. That was an entire military city of the Russian Empire that hosted tens of thousands soldiers and officers in its now-crumbling red-brick buildings.

Karosta prison in Liepāja
Karosta prison. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Liepāja is surrounded by sea and lakes. Grobiņa suburb has a lakeside castle ruins and Viking graves.

Old Liepāja (Southern Liepāja)

Southern Liepāja hosts the historic town center Old Liepāja. Large churches of various denominations there tower above old apartment buildings. Baroque Holy Trinity Lutheran Cathedral (1758) is famous for having a 7000 pipe mechanical organ, while Gothic Revival St. Annes (1893) has a great baroque altair (unfortunately, the churches are usually closed).

Holy Trinity Lutheran Cathedral in Liepāja
Holy Trinity Lutheran Cathedral. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The area also has multiple pedestrianised streets and old marketplaces. Typical buildings there are two floored wooden residentials and impressive art nouveau edifices. Some of the advertised local sights are the Peter I house (where the Russian czar once stayed) and Latvian music avenue of fame – however these are unlikely to amuse non-locals.

Liepāja gymnasium, one of the industrial era buildings
Liepāja gymnasium, one of the industrial era buildings. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

West side of southern Liepāja is framed by a massive beach and an adjoining park. The nearby streets (Dzintaru, Liepu, Vites) are lined by lovely villas of pre-WW1 era German rich (many of them wooden and; unfortunately but atmospherically, a large number seemingly abandoned). One such villa has been transformed into Liepāja museum which houses old things and historical data.

Liepāja German villa that was turned in city museum
Liepāja German villa that was turned in city museum. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

To the south of these historic areas lies a sprawl of single family homes and beyond that a small Soviet district. The city ends with remains of 19th century fortifications that once protected its southern flank.

New Liepāja (Central Liepāja)

The central part of Liepāja is called the “New Liepāja” and it has been constructed in the 19th century.

Old port warehouses stand alongside the canal that separates it from the Old Town. A new esplanade has been constructed (on the Old Liepāja side).

Port warehouses of the New Liepāja as visible from the Esplanade
Port warehouses of the New Liepāja as visible from the Esplanade. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The original 19th century southern side of New Liepāja is architecturally appealing but has quite little to do. As the location of bus and train stations however it is an introduction of Liepāja most travelers pass through. Moreover, some big shopping centers and sports arenas are located here.

The northern side of New Liepāja consists of single family homes, Soviet apartments and industrial buildings. It has little to offer, except for being located en-route to Karosta.

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.


On the southern bank of Daugava the Grīva suburb was once a separate city.

Grīva is mostly built up with private family homes. While those surrounding main streets are generally new, make a few turns and you may appear at what seems to be a 19th century suburb with old wooden homes and unpaved streets.

Old wooden homes in Grīva
Old wooden homes in Grīva . ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Built as a separate town, Grīva also has petite houses of worship of all the Latgale’s main denominations. Red brick Catholic Church of Blessed Virgin Mary (~1885) is the prettiest. Orthodox church is quite elaborate and interesting for the old wooden homes and atmosphere of 19th century that surrounds it. There are also two Old Believer churches as that community was traditionally especially numerous in Grīva.

Catholic Church of Blessed Virgin Mary
Catholic Church of Blessed Virgin Mary. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Grīva Fortress is a massive 19th century military installation on the oposite bank of Daugava from the Daugavpils fortress. Both fortreses were meant to function together. Unfortunately unlike its “brother fortress” the Grīva Fortress may not be visited as it houses a prison now. But this makes it seem just more mysterious and dark. A memorial stone in front of it commemorates that a Jewish ghetto was established there under Nazi German occupation.

A small part of Grīva Fortress
A small part of Grīva Fortress. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Given that Grīva sights are relatively spread, 10-20 minutes is enough to visit each of them and much of the rest is not that interesting, it is probably best option to visit Grīva only if one has a car.

New Daugavpils

New Daugavpils (east of the city) consists of districts mostly built up by Soviet apartment blocks and post-Soviet individual homes. While pretty much devoid of what to do in Soviet times, the districts have received new churches, supermarkets and else after independence. Nevertheless, people typically go downtown to satisfy their more elaborate needs. In fact, all the Daugavpils tram lines generally link eastern districts to downtown.

New Daugavpils is essentially made of multiple parts, three of them having the word “New” in their names.

Jaunbūve (New buildings) is the main part, consisting of Soviet apartment blocks. A major place of entertainment there is Lokomotiv stadium where the local speedway team plays its home games. Having some 10 thousand seats it is one of largest speedway-specific stadiums in Europe and has hosted world championship events.

Speedway event in Lokomotiv stadium
Speedway event in Lokomotiv stadium. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Forštate (The Suburb) beyond the railway consists of two areas. Old Suburb (Veca Forštate) mostly an area of private residential homes. Some are old and small, others are the “built for generations style” of the early 1990s. New Suburb (Jauna Forštate) consists of Soviet apartment blocks

Old and new private homes with post-independence church in the New Suburb
Old and new private homes with post-independence church in the New Suburb. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Jaunie Stropi (New hives) is an upscale area next to a large Stropu Lake. Many buildings there are large edifices owned by Latvian nouveau-riche, surrounded by a forest. beaches are available, though they are pretty derelict and mainly used by locals.

Prestigious lakeside home in Jaunie Stropi
Prestigious lakeside home in Jaunie Stropi. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.


Entertainment in Latvia is diverse and quality, but relatively cheap. Regular spectator events are especially cheap, but you may expect good deals elsewhere too. Latvia excels in some particular types of entertainment: ice hockey spectating, winter sports, sandy beaches. Foraging (berries/mushrooms) in summer/autumn and under-ice angling in winter are other local traditions you may try.

Urban entertainment: Culture, Nightlife, Sport

Traditional culture (theaters, opera, concert halls) is concentrated in the city downtowns. Theater plays are mostly Latvian while the music is more international. There are also Russian-language venues.

Best nightlife is in the Old Town of Riga. In sunny summers Jūrmala resort outcompetes urban clubbing, with its Basanavičiaus street becoming one large crowded multi-stage gig area every evening.

Latvian urban entertainment became popular with foreigners for weekend trips, especially for bachelor parties. The prices are generally lower, the plane routes are plentiful and many local companies specialise at such services.

A pedal-powered moving bar in Riga, popular for bachelor parties
A pedal-powered moving bar in Riga, popular for bachelor parties. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

“Modern entertainment”, such as cinemas, bowling and pool, are most easily found at the largest shopping malls of the main cities. Each Akropolis mall also includes a public ice rink. Some casinos are also in the malls, but many are in the downtowns.

Top spectator sport in Latvia is ice hockey, the modern city arenas providing local teams’ home games. Riga team plays international games at the KHL league (mostly covering ex-Soviet Union) while the town teams are limited to the local leagues. Football and basketball are also popular, though the quality is generally lower.

The arenas also host irregular major concerts, although in summer they move to open air (parks and stadiums). Moreover, out-of-city music festivals are especially popular in summer.

There are no permanent theme parks but temporary funfairs visit in summers. A large indoor water park stands at Jūrmala.

Recreation: Nature, Parks and Active Tourism

Foraging (mushroom and berries), angling and hunting are traditional entertainment. Recently it was done for subsistence and if you wouldn’t eat the fish you caught you would still raise quite a glimpse. Some Latvian city-dwellers even own suburban agricultural land plots where they enjoy growing food, but this is something a foreigner wouldn’t experience.

Fishing in coastal Riga
Fishing in coastal Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The five National parks are the best introduction to Lithuanian nature. Roaming is generally free of “private property” signs as they are limited by law.

Winter sports is relatively popular in Latvia, even though the country have somewhat limited natural conditions, having no hills. However, short Alpine skiing tracks exist, while many fields are converted for ice hockey in winter. There are also good bobsleigh tracks available.

Extreme sports have also been rapidly growing in popularity since 2000s, such as BMX biking.

In the seaside resorts there are opportunities for boat trips to the sea and one may also rent water bikes. Sunbathing is however the main activity for tens of thousands resort visitors as the beaches are all sandy, wide and free-to-use. There are various beach cafes right on the sand in major resorts such as Jūrmala.

Summer bike rentals are available in the cities, and the quality of bicycle paths is improving.

Many companies offering active recreation lack English websites. It is possible to order through a travel agency but this may increase prices several times. It may be the best to come up without reservation in such cases, although this is possible only in some places (cities/resorts).