Cities and Towns
The development of Latvian cities commenced in the 900's - 1100's, as it did in the rest of Northern Europe. During this time wide settlements developed, particularly in significant farming and trading centres, more often near a harbour. These are considered to be the earliest Latvian cities, some of which had areas of up to 15 hectares (at the castle mounds of Daugmale, Jersika, and Mežotne). The development of these cities was cut short by the invasion of the crusaders in the 1200's, the development of new political and social organisations, and the introduction of a new culture.
The 1200's were a time when the foundation of the oldest still existing city, Rīga, took place. It acquired city status in 1201. In the Middle Ages city status was granted to 11 inhabited settlements. Of these, 8 were also members of the most significant Northern European trading organisation - the Hanseatic League. 24 new cities were founded in the centuries that followed till 1918. This period of time was characterised by countless wars and power changeovers. With the creation of an independent Republic of Latvia the number of cities doubled. City status was granted to 30 inhabited places in a period of 20 years. During the 50-year period of annexation to the USSR only 4 new cities were established. After the renewal of independence in 1991, however, city status was granted to 21 inhabited areas.
Today the life of each Latvian city revolves around its own local government, according to the legislation concerning local government passed in 1991. Latvian cities are differentiated by their status: 9 cities of the Republic (Rīga, Daugavpils, Liepāja, Jelgava, Jēkabpils, Valmiera, Ventspils, Jūrmala and Rēzekne), and regional towns.
Inhabitants and Economy
Today the larger part of Latvia's population resides in city areas - that is 1 540 998 inhabitants or approximately 68 % of the population. Latvian cities differ greatly in size. 21 cities have a population of over 10 000, the largest of these being Rīga (population 713 016), Daugavpils (population 104 857), and Liepāja (population 84 747). However the smallest Latvian towns are Durbe (population 648), Subate (population 1105) and Pāvilosta (population 1111).
The nation's largest and most famous manufacturing concerns like the stock companies "Aldaris", "Laima" and others are concentrated in the cities. Latvia's largest manufacturing centres are in Rīga, Ventspils and Daugavpils. There are 3 significant harbours - in Rīga, Ventspils and in Liepāja. Through these harbours there is movement of Latvian export and import, as well as a large portion of Russian- European transit.
Cultural Life in Latvian Cities
Rīga is the capital of Latvia, and has been visited in previous centuries by many politicians and monarchs. Also many famous scientists and artists such as the enlightened philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder, and the composer Richard Wagner. Today there are professional theatres in Rīga, Liepāja, Valmiera, and Daugavpils. Every regional town has a museum, and in Rīga the museums number more than 50 - the Museum of History and Shipping founded in 1773, being the oldest in the Baltic.
Internationally recognised festivals regularly take place in Rīga, the film festival "Arsenals" (in Rīga), the Middle Ages music festival (in Rīga and Bauska), and the ballet festival (in Rīga). Latvian choirs and folk dance troupes take part in a song and dance festival every 4 years, and have achieved a high level of recognition at Scandinavian song and dance festivals. Jūrmala is a favourite holiday-place in Latvia, well known for its health resorts, which are slowly regaining their former status.
Cultural Heritage in Latvian Cities
Even though there are architectural similarities amongst Latvian cities, each has its own unique charm. Archaeological monuments in some cities are testimony to their former importance. Majestic and attractive castle mounds can be found in Limbaži, Alūksne, and Saldus, in Grobiņa, a unique Scandinavian cemetery and castle mound (600's - 700's). The Middle Ages had introduced stonewalling to Latvian architecture. The first stone wall building to be built in Latvia was the Ikšķile church, in 1185, which still exists today on a small island in the river Daugava. The most important element of the Middle Age town was the castle of its noblemen. Many Latvian towns of the Middle Ages featured stone castles, however the only surviving reconstructed examples remain in Rīga and in Jēkabpils. Ongoing reconstruction of Middle Age castles is taking place in Cēsis, Turaida and Bauska. Smaller remains are to be found in Dobele, Limbaži, Valmiera, Rēzekne and Ludza.
The most impressive baroque castle is to be found in Jelgava, designed and built by Rastrelli. The 200 or so art nouveau structures in Rīga are of exceptional importance to the architecture of this century and it is with good reason that Rīga can be called the art nouveau capital of the world.
It is structures from the last 100 - 200 years that mostly survive in Latvian cities, including churches whose beginnings can be attributed to the Middle Ages. Works of famous artists adorn Latvian churches, for instance, the altar painting by J.K.Dorn from Koenigsberg (painted 1742-1758) in the Liepāja Holy Trinity church. The architecture of Latvia's small towns is singularly beautiful, formed by its one and two store structures, soviet apartment blocks, and city centres. More than 20 town centres are protected by law as a part of Latvian national heritage, and in 1997 the historical centre of Rīga was included in the UNESCO heritage list of the world's most important cultural and natural sites.
Rīga - the Capital
Rīga, the oldest city in Latvia, has developed into an important economic, political and cultural centre since the Middle Ages. When the formation of an independent Latvian Republic occourred in 1918, Rīga became the capital. Today more than half of Latvia's population lives in Rīga, as well as the country's largest manufacturing concerns, as well as central government and administration boards. Amongst the 50 museums to be found in Rīga the oldest and largest are the Museum of History and Shipping, the Museum of Natural Sciences, the Museum of Latvian History, the National Art Gallery, and the Latvian Ethnographic open-air-museum. The National Opera and Latvia's most professional theatres are also situated in Rīga.
Rīga's 800 - year history has left its mark on the face of the city, where Middle Age dwellings and church towers coexist with art nouveau and eclectic architecture. Rīga's park land boulevard zone and the wooden buildings of the Pārdaugava region emit a unique charm. The value of Rīga's cultural and historical significance has been verified by the fact that its old city centre has been included in UNESCO's list of the world's most important cultural and natural sites.
Ventspils - Harbour in the Baltic Sea
Ventspils is one of the oldest cities in Latvia, first mentioned in documents in 1378. In its very beginnings Ventspils was a harbour city as it also is today. It is one of Latvia's most important harbours through which passes a great deal of shipping transit. In 1996 Ventspils gained free - port status. In 1997, due to intensification of education in regional areas, the Ventspils University was founded, including Economics, Business Management and Translation faculties. The old city centre of Ventspils, with its Middle Age castle and romantic small town buildings, has recently undergone a facelift, and compliments the dynamic city it is today.
If you live in Rīga, the city of Liepāja is the ultimate setting for a weekend getaway. But more recently, the biggest fans of the “city where the wind was born” have been out-of-towners ready to rock out at live shows, dance till dawn at endless after-parties, and then unwind in luxurious hotels. Liepāja is not only the third largest city in Latvia and a major Baltic port. It is also the country’s official party town the go-to spot for good times on the amber coast.
Many residents of the Latvian capital treat this coastal town like their own private honeymoon retreat - the perfect place to spend a romantic weekend for two, indulging in the city’s many cozy corner cafes, charming bed and breakfasts, and beautiful seaside location. High-culture aficionados appreciate the bounty of classical-music concerts, by the excellent Liepāja Symphony Orchestra, and the wealth of theater productions, by the esteemed Liepāja Theater, in what is fast becoming Latvia’s cultural second city. But more recently, the biggest fans of the “city where the wind was born” - as Liepāja was immortalized by its most famous native son, the Latvian composer Imants Kalniņš - have been out-of-towners ready to rock out at live shows, dance till dawn at endless after-parties, and then unwind in luxurious hotels. Liepāja is not only the third largest city in Latvia and a major Baltic port. It is also the country’s official party town - the go-to spot for good times on the amber coast.
On the Waterfront
Ground zero for fun in Liepāja is undoubtedly the area alongside the commercial canal near the center of town, only a couple kilometers from the open sea. The waterway itself is populated by a row of barnacle-encrusted fishing boats, carrying bundles of tall multi-colored flags and emblazoned with names like Rūta and Ausma. These are interspersed with ominous gray coast-guard ships topped by massive loudspeakers and whirling radar antennas, which look as if they just steered out of central casting for a World War II epic. And stretched between these sea-bound vessels is a seemingly endless string of fisherman, who huddle day and night atop overturned buckets, casting their lines into the murky waters, which yield an abundant supply of smelt, a tiny fish that smells like cucumbers and, in nearby Lithuania, where fishing for these creatures has been outlawed, fetches upwards of five lats a kilogram. This maritime backdrop is the setting for two venues recently unveiled in the former warehouses and factories along the bustling canal: the five-star Promenade Hotel and the Fontaine entertainment complex. A mixing and matching of these two canal-side establishments, along with the garden of earthly delights that awaits in the narrow winding streets of the Old City, makes for an excellent weekend of exuberant and stylish fun in historic Liepāja.
Cool Incarnate At the Promenade
After the three-hour bus or car ride from Rīga, across the vast empty plains of Kurzeme, the sudden appearance of Promenade Hotel—to the right of the bridge that carries you into the Old City - is like the emergence of a dazzling mirage. This new five-star establishment, completed in 2007 by Latvian star architect Agris Padēlis-Līns, is housed in a former waterfront grain warehouse that dates back to 1770. The building’s original red-brick walls now constitute the foundation and external carcass of this luxurious architectonic tour de force, which Padēlis-Līns has ingeniously lined and topped with additional space, enclosed by dark glass, while preserving the shape and contours of the eighteenth-century structure. The foyer of the hotel continues the trend of tastefully blending natural materials with classy contemporary finishings: the vaulted brick ceilings and rough-hewn boards lining the inner walls contrast elegantly with the plush oriental rugs and leather couches in the lobby, which doubles as an art gallery. Further inside, the earth-toned, carpeted hallways are bestrewn with ornately carved antique wooden furniture, purchased by the owners of the hotel at auctions throughout Europe. And the forty-two rooms themselves - one of which, on the top floor, features a freestanding claw-footed bathtub in the middle of the bedroom, with a view of the sea in the distance - effortlessly mix modern amenities, like heated bathroom floors and flat-screen TVs, with rustic touches, such as exposed beams, iron radiators, and armchairs upholstered in dyed linen.
A Royal Good Time
Next door to the Promenade Hotel, visitors to Liepāja have a second option for waterfront accommodations - the fifty-room Fontaine Royal Hotel, also unveiled in 2007. This distinctive inn is the domain of Danish rock musician Louis Fontaine and his locally born wife, Ivonna Kalita, whose first establishment in Liepāja, a quaint bed and breakfast called Fontaine Hotel, opened several years ago in a small two-story wooden house just around the corner. Their latest endeavor, the massive Fontaine Royal, is set up in the former headquarters of a Soviet-era fishing fleet, erected in 1964. After securing rights to the property, which had been abandoned since the late nineties, Fontaine and his wife dressed the drab three-story concrete-and-brick edifice in a skin of black wood, illuminated the façade with strings of bright lights, and adorned the front with an elongated terrace and deck. Next, they swathed the interior in endless layers of bright primary colors and rows of Spanish tiles and outfitted their palace with scores of bejeweled chandeliers, oriental rugs, freestanding Ionic columns, enormous plaster lions and camels, and, everywhere you look, opulent faux-Victorian tables, chairs, and couches edged with gold-painted trim. The result is an exuberantly glittery and kitschy party paradise - the serious and refined Promenade Hotel’s fun-loving cousin - decked out in the signature Fontaine style of glitzy glamour and rock ‘n’ roll chic.
Exploring the Old City
After thoroughly investigating the area along the canal, take a walk over to Liepāja’s Old City, only a few minutes away. This section of the historic, seven-hundred-and fifty-year-old town is like a cross between Reykjavik, certain gentrifying neighborhoods in the outer boroughs of New York City, and the more stylish parts of East Berlin. The low-slung, brightly-painted wooden buildings, as well as the entire mood of nautical calm, calls to mind the Icelandic capital. The sense of not knowing just what you’ll find around every corner - an otherwise silent street yields up an elegant restaurant, an artist’s workshop materializes in a quiet courtyard, and a stylish pizzeria sits in a crooked building beside an empty plaza - is reminiscent of the Red Hook and Bushwick sections of Brooklyn, formerly rundown industrial areas that, in recent years, have been converted into bastions of hipness. And the general atmosphere of grungy cool - the dusty fin de siècle masonry buildings covered in graffiti, the large open squares, and the colorful local characters roaming the streets - will appeal to those who like the Friedrichshain neighborhood of Berlin.
Of course, the city also has its own distinctive traits: an even, seaside light that permeates the narrow cobblestone streets; the smell of woodsmoke rising from rooftop chimneys and backyard bonfires; the functional green water pumps on residential street corners; and a fairy-tale mingling of gabled wooden houses, labyrinthine courtyards, and teetering shacks holding piles of firewood. In the middle of this haphazard jigsaw puzzle lies the colossal, sprawling St. Joseph’s Cathedral. This hulking gray structure, built in 1762, is paired, right across the street, with the intricately turreted and corniced Peter’s Market - an ornate Art Nouveau building, erected in 1910, which feels like a tidy and airy German train station and is surely a source of deep envy for visiting chefs.
School of Rock
As you wander about the Old City, you’ll inevitably stumble upon what has become the city’s best-known architectural and cultural landmark - Latvijas 1. Rokkafejnīca, Latvia’s First Rock ‘n’ Roll Café, established in 2002. This celebrated three-story establishment - which encompasses two full bars, a restaurant, a concert stage, and basement night club - is fronted by a wall of sheer glass that lets the brightly lit space intermingle with the spacious piazza out front, where a large stainless steel statue of a Fender Stratocaster glistens in the sun. The interior of the restaurant, a homespun version of the Hard Rock Café, is filled with Latvian rock ‘n’ roll memorabilia - everything from vintage guitars and gaudy stage outfits to signed records and an old Soviet-era motorcycle. The Rokkafejnīca celebrates Liepāja’s contribution to Latvian music: the seaside city was the birthplace of musical legends such as the rock bands Līvi and Tumsa; musicians Fēlikss Ķiģelis, Ivo Fomins, Guntars Račs, and Tomass Kleins; and composers Zigmars Liepiņš and Imants Kalniņš, all of whom have been immortalized on Liepāja’s Walk of Fame, right outside the entrance to the restaurant.
In addition to the bar and dining areas on the first and second floors, the Rock Café also offers several billiards tables, and, in the summertime, a rooftop terrace, which further expands the borders of this sprawling rock and roll paradise. At night, the ground floor of the restaurant is transformed into a concert venue, where top Latvian bands, as well as hometown musicians, take the stage, and the crowd brushes shoulders with the steady stream of revelers heading downstairs to the throbbing night club in the basement.
The Grand Musical Tour
The best way to enjoy the various establishments the city has to offer is to take them all in at once, in true rock and roll fashion - achieving a near symphonic cacophony of different styles and impressions. After dinner at Latvia’s First Rock Café - where the large and inexpensive menu includes a vast array of traditional Latvian “soul” food, like pork chops, barley porridge, and creamy salads, as well as more universal fare, such as pizza and burgers - head back to Piano, the elegant restaurant on the first floor of Hotel Promenade, for some coffee and dessert, to the accompaniment of live piano music. Then, after leaving your jacket in your room upstairs (to avoid saturating it with the cigarette smoke that fills most of the pubs and clubs in Liepāja), skip over to the rollicking bar in the lobby of Fontaine Royal for some post-prandial drinks. Next, get some fresh air by trekking back to the First Rock Café, to catch the first set of the evening on the first-floor stage. After dancing to a few old favorites in the basement night club, Pablo, make a beeline for Fontaine Palace, on the waterfront, for the evening’s concert. This first-rate rock club, located between the Hotel Promenade and Fontaine Royal, is split into two levels - a dark, cavernous bar on the ground floor and a barn-like performance area, fronted by an enormous stage, upstairs. Nightly events range from concerts by European indie rock and hardcore punk bands to film nights and special theme parties led by guest DJs. On a recent Saturday evening, the headlining band, which took the stage long after midnight, was a group of seven besuited young men from Rīga, who called themselves Septiņi Pieauguši Vīrieši (“Seven Grown Men”) and performed a version of their own self-styled “choral rock,” belting out raucous tunes like “Sauciet mani par Raimondu Paulu” (“Call me Raimonds Pauls”), in honor of the eminent Latvian composer and former culture minister. Following the show, line up at the twenty-four-hour Deli Snack shop, adjacent to the Palace, for some post-concert snacks; the remarkably cheap fast-food menu offers everything from burgers and pizzas to Mexican food and Chinese take-out fare, which, during the summer, can be wolfed down in the barbecue area out back.
At one point, all of this rocking and rolling will take a toll on your body and soul - you wouldn’t be in Liepāja if it didn’t. Fortuntaly, the miles of untouched white beaches that have made Kurzeme famous are only minutes away from any spot in town. So take a stroll down to sea, lie down in the soft sand, gaze at the twinkling ships on the distant horizon, soak up the starlight, and let the city’s famous wind whistle a tune in your ears. After all, this is where it was born.
© Text : Rihards Kalniņš / Baltic Outlook
© Text: Dr. Andris Šnē, The State Inspection for Heritage Protection, 1999-2009
© The Latvian Institute
This fact sheet can be freely printed from homepage of the Latvian Institute, distributed and cited, on condition that the Latvian Institute is acknowledged as the source. The Latvian Institute promotes knowledge about Latvia abroad. It produces publications, in several languages, on many aspects of Latvia.