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.
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 Little of that era remains, having been replaced by 19th century, when rapidly expanding city needed to house the Latvian and Lithuanian workers as well offer seaside places to build villas for the German elite.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.
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.
Liepāja is surrounded by sea and lakes. Grobiņa suburb has a lakeside castle ruins and Viking graves.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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).
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 (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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
Liepāja was born out of a wish of a small Duchy of Courland and Semigallia to become a major naval power. For this it needed ports, and Liepāja located on a great location between sea and lake was granted city rights in 1625. Ships left its shores to colonize Gambia and Tobago, while the port was constantly expanded (in 1697 artificial lake-to-sea shipping canals have replaced a local river). While the majority of Courland-Semigallia population was ethnically Latvian, its leadership and elite were German. As such, the new Liepāja was overwhelmingly German, who called the city Libau.
The plan of colonization may have been too big for the small Duchy. After losing multiple wars, Courland-Semigallia had to relinquish its American and African colonies in the 18th century and ceased to be a naval power. Liepāja’s importance plummeted together with that of its owner-state, which slowly came under Russian influence.
Westernmost city of the Russian Empire (1795-1918)
In 1795 Russia annexed Courland-Semigallia, acquiring Liepāja. However, little did actually change in the city for another half a century. Ethnic Germans retained the majority (still at 63% in 1863) while the growth was slow.
All that started to crumble as railway reached Liepāja (1871), allowing development of factories. Liepāja expanded as Russia’s westernmost port. It received a direct steamship service to New York and was used for cargo export. It was the starting point of Russia-USA Transatlantic telegraph (est. 1906). The population increased from 10000 in 1863 to 84000 in 1911.
The “unsafe” location of what has by now become an important city troubled the Russian czar (German border was merely 70 km to the south). In 1890 he commissioned an unprecedented all-new naval military city north of Liepāja-proper. Now known as “Karosta” the military port had its own splendid Russian Orthodox church, multiple fortifications, a shipping canal spanned by a rotating bridge, pigeon mail station and even an internal narrow gauge railway. Numerous red barracks were the staple housing for Russian soldiers and officers.
The new seat of Russia’s military might did little to prevent the societal changes that ultimately led to the demise of Russian rule over Latvia. Latvians were moving into Liepāja in massive numbers from nearby villages to staff the burgeoning industry. Their population share increased from 16% in 1863 to 43% in 1911. After becoming more educated and imbibed in the urban lifestyle, Latvians started to treat their own culture and language with respect, demanding more rights (or even independence) for their nation.
In fact, Liepāja was at the epicentre of not one, but two national awakenings. Located next to Lithuanian ethnic lands (also Russian-ruled at the time) the city attracted thousands of Lithuanians for work and educational opportunities (which were limited back in Lithuania due to Russia’s anti-Lithuanian and anti-industrial policies there). Some estimates claim that on the eve of World War 1, Lithuanians made up to a quarter (25%) of the entire Liepāja’s population. Lithuanians who had graduated from Liepāja gymnasium participated heavily in their own Lithuanian National Awakening. Many key figures of the early 20th century Lithuania had spent their formative years in Liepāja.
Interwar Latvia’s 2nd city (1918-1940)
World War 1 gave the opportunity to realize the goals of both national revivals as Germany and Russia were defeated. Lithuania and Latvia declared independence in 1918. While there was a brief dispute on which country should receive Liepāja, arbitration ruled in favour of Latvia (1922). The city even briefly served as Latvia’s capital while Riga was occupied by Russians during the Latvian War of independence.
Thousands of Lithuanians, Poles and Russians left for their own now-separate homelands, bringing Liepāja’s population down to 50000 by 1925.
Germans largely remained as they always did, but by the 20th century, they were already a spent force as there were no rural Germans who would migrate into the city. Therefore German share declined every year as non-Germans poured in. By 1925 it was already down to 10%. On the other hand, the numbers of Latvians grew constantly. By 1935 Liepāja was 68% Latvian with a total population of 57000; it became Latvia’s second largest city.
Forbidden Soviet military city (1940-1990)
World War 2 brought a major upheaval to Liepāja. German population was destroyed due to Soviet occupation (who had also killed many Latvians) while the Jewish population (13% in 1935) was decimated by Nazi German occupation.
Those who died were swiftly replaced by people from the Soviet Union, especially ethnic Russians. By 1959 Liepāja was already larger than before WW2 (71000 inhabitants). By 1979 Russians became the largest ethnic group in the city. Liepāja’s population peaked at 114000 in 1989 (at the time, merely 38,8% of locals were Latvians and 43,1% were Russians).
Additionally, Soviets have repopulated the old Russian Imperial Karosta naval base, staffing it with 26000 soldiers and officers (this was one-fourth of Liepāja’s inhabitants). As every Soviet city of military importance, Liepāja was closed: no person from outside city limits could have visited it without a government permit.
As Liepāja used to be a comparably large city even before World War 1, relatively little expansion was needed. Only a few Soviet districts were added, helping Liepāja retain that “old wooden city” atmosphere of the 19th-century industrial boom. Slower growth led Liepāja to lose the status of Latvia’s second largest city to Daugavpils.
Modern Liepāja seeks identity (1990-)
The restoration of Latvia’s independence (1990) led to the final departure of Russian soldiers and officers by 1994. This was especially welcomed by Liepāja’s citizens. However, it once again sent the population on the decline (89000 in 2000). Many of the Liepāja’s old buildings were abandoned. This was especially true in Karosta, the proportions of which were meant to serve a massive empire rather than a small Latvian navy. The “naval military city” became nearly entirely abandoned, its red barracks slowly crumbling into oblivion.
In order to revitalize the city, a free economic zone was established in 1997, attracting businesses from abroad. New tourist attractions were opened, gentrifying the main canal shoreline and even (somewhat) the Karosta, which became a popular location for dark tourism.
Given its reclaimed Latvian plurality (49,4% in 2000, a larger share than in either Riga or Daugavpils) the city was believed to be especially livable by ethnic Latvians. However, it was plagued by difficult access. Latvia’s lack of highways mean that some 3 hours are needed to go to Riga; the attempts to open Liepāja airport for passenger traffic failed while Liepāja port is behind those of Riga and Ventspils.