Liepaja is, for me, Latvia’s most charming city. This might seem a strange thing to say – it certainly doesn’t have the grandness or cultural richness of Riga, or the pastel-coloured, semi-rural allure of country towns like Cesis or Kuldiga. By comparison, Liepaja, Latvia’s third-largest conurbation, does at points seem industrial, grimy, tacked-together. But charm doesn’t reside in attractiveness alone, as any number of aesthetically disfavoured seducers know, but an indefinable something, a raffishness or a swagger that draws you in and makes you want to stick around. And Liepaja has that in spades. I don’t know if it’s something about the miles of sandy beach that cushions the town from the roaring Baltic Sea; the fact that it’s swaddled from cares and worries by vast swathes of forests and fields (there’s not another large town for over 100 km), or just the long-standing allure it has had for creative types. Whatever it is, people in Liepaja seem a good deal more easy-going and whimsical than just about anywhere else in the Baltics, and the whole odd mixture seems to draw people in and make it hard for them to leave.
Snagged on a narrow spit of land down towards Lithuania, Liepaja is a city that seems to want everything: simultaneously a beach town, a port, an industrial city, and a bohemian enclave. Although a relatively old city (it was first recorded in the 13th century as “Lyva”), it was late to rise to prominence compared to Latvia’s other main cities; it was not until the 18th century, as the sea trade became more important that it began to grow to major-city dimensions. Now, it’s Latvia’s Hamburg or Liverpool: a tough, bluff, likeable city whose existence is largely dependent on the crashing waves that are audible from much of the town. This was not always a blessing – following the Soviet occupation, it became a strategically important naval base on the Baltic Sea, and was made a closed city, where special passes for access were needed for anyone not a resident. To get a bit of a sense of that time, just visit Karosta, the weird district on the edge of town that was the most closed bit of the whole closed city; it’s been suspended almost in amber since the Soviet collapse, full of ragged, semi-abandoned apartment blocks formerly home to Soviet navy employees – as close as you’ll come to Chernobyl without the radioactivity.
This is not to say it’s not an attractive city – the largely German-constructed wooden mansions and town houses that cluster along the seashore and the adjacent parks are both appealing and a little absurd – overdone concoctions of twisting balustrades and precarious jutting balconies. Parts of the city also have a strikingly Teutonic air (the city had the same architect for almost forty years), punctuated by elegant, if faded Jugendstil and National Revival constructions, and if the centre itself is a rather antiseptic Soviet concoction, much of surrounding Vecliepaja (Old Town) has been preserved – a mix of sober, elegant trading buildings in the shapely, tasteful German style and rickety, brightly-painted buildings dating from earlier centuries.
As the largest city and unofficial capital of Latvia’s western region of Kurzeme, it punches above its weight culturally as well, with its own theatre, newspaper and annual music festivals. It’s three and a half hours from Riga, but sees itself more than just a remote port city – like its counterparts in Lithuania and Estonia, Klaipeda and Parnu, it’s distant from the rest of the country but closer to the rest of the world. This has led to an enduring rivalry with Kurzeme’s only other significant town, the wealthy oil terminal city of Ventspils, 100 miles north, which Liepajans disdain as moneyed but soulless.
Although first mentioned in documents in the 14th century, Liepaja spent most of its existence as a sleeping fishing village in the shadow of the castle city of Grobina, around ten km away and now with a population of just a few thousand. Liepaja can really thank Russia for the sudden reversal of roles that happened in the early 19th century; it owes its present pre-eminence largely to Tsar Alexander II. If his predecessor Peter the Great had conquered the Baltics because he wanted a “window on the West” with a good view, Alexander was determined to make sure it was a double-glazed reinforced one. Liepaja’s strategically significant position as Latvia’s closest city to Sweden and Western Europe made it an obvious candidate for a military port. Not unrelated to this military significance, it has always had a much larger Russian population than any other cities in heavily Latvian Kurzeme, but until the Second World War, it was the Baltic Germans who controlled almost everything.
Their stranglehold on the city’s commerce and society has left its marks – many of the red-brick, sort-of-Gothic buildings in Liepaja could easily slip into towns in the north of Germany without anyone dropping their bratwurst in shock. The fact that it had the same town architect for over thirty years, the great Paul Max Bertschy, during the period of its fastest rise, led to an unusual coherence and sympathy between the buildings of Liepaja, almost the creation of a city style, so to speak, one that even subsequent misfortunes have only broken up, not destroyed. Liepaja also gained a certain kind of significance as the final point of their homeland that many people would have seen in their life – during the early part of the 20th century, it became the most common departure point for émigrés from the Russian Empire dreaming of new lives in North America: at one point tens of thousands were leaving every year from the port.
The chaos after World War I also profoundly affected the city; indeed, Liepaja served as the acting capital for some time during the Latvian War of Independence, after Karlis Ulmanis’s provisional government was driven west from Riga – they even had to take refuge on a British warship just off the coast for a month after being driven out of the city itself. Latvian independence was not especially kind to Liepaja specifically, however: Ulmanis’s government, while achieving a degree of economic success elsewhere, directed attention away from industry and towards agriculture, leaving Liepaja if not quite a ghost town, then a shadow of what it had been.
World War II devastated the city and region once again, almost totally wiping out the city’s previously significant Jewish population, and the eventually victorious Soviet Union stamped its dreary mark in the city in the form of grey, template apartment blocks and pompous colonnaded municipal buildings. It became an even more heavily industrial city – at its peak, Liepajas Metalurgs, the primary employer, was producing around 3% of Latvia’s entire GDP by itself. Although heavily Russified during these decades – by 1989, the population was almost 70% Russian-speaking – it was one of the centres of eventual Latvian resistance to the Soviet occupation in the late 1980s. The human rights movement Helsinki-86 was formed in the city, and began the first acts of open resistance to the Soviet occupation in all of the Baltic States, openly flaunting the banned national flag and commemorating deportations to Siberia and the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. The Russian military withdrawal (which did not take place until three years after the restoration of Latvia’s independence) affected Liepaja more than probably any other city in Latvia, dropping over 20,000 residents in the ten years following independence, as the sailors packed up and left.
Occupying a little spit of land pinched between Liepajas Ezers (Liepaja lake) and the Baltic Sea, Liepaja is a long, thin city. As such, it’s one that is pleasing to see by tram. Liepaja’s rattling, clanking old dinosaurs might not compare to Riga’s sleek, soundless new machines for convenience or comfort, but they certainly have atmosphere, and a ride on the city’s single tramline from the train station to its terminus at the city limits is a satisfying way to watch history develop – from the stolid, often brightly-painted wooden shacks of the hilariously named Jaunliepaja (New Liepaja), over the canal, through the semi-Sovietised city centre, past the pompous, colonnaded Stalinist university building, passing by the later equally wooden houses and sand-swept streets that border the old town and ending by the Soviet “sleeping district” of Ezerkrasts, with its lakeside ranks of towers that mark the end of the line. It’s true there’s not a whole lot to do in Ezerkrasts once you’re there, but on a nice day a walk by the lake is a pretty wonderful thing.
The Courland Pocket
Although Latvia, and the rest of the Baltic States, were forcibly annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940, they did also undergo three years of Nazi occupation after the breaking of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the German invasion of Russia the following year. Riga, and most of central and northern Latvia, was recaptured by the Red Army in autumn of 1944, but aided by the remoteness and rural nature of western Latvia, not to mention the fact that after the Soviet victory in the siege of Memel (Klaipeda) on the Lithuanian coast, they literally had nowhere else to go apart from into the sea, forces in the more distant reaches of Kurzeme around Liepaja continued to fight on until the German capitulation in May 1945 – and longer; so isolated were they from central German command, that some sources say that a number of units there did not surrender until 10 May – a week and a half after Hitler’s suicide and a full two days after Germany’s official capitulation.
What to do
Liepaja Museum (Kurmajas Prospekts 16)
Just about every town and village in Latvia has a museum, but most are a fairly dreary bunch, boasting little but mediocre watercolours, chips of pottery and poorly translated generalisations. Liepaja Museum, housed in an elegant Art Nouveau building, five minutes’ walk from the sea, is a cut above. It gives a good overview of the town’s development up to the 20th century, where it rather breaks off. There is also an interesting selection of temporary exhibitions, mostly concerned with aspects of traditional Kurzeme life. The sculpture garden outside is delightful, if a little disordered.
Liepaja Occupation Museum (Klava Ukstina iela 7/9)
Being at the western edge of Latvia, Liepaja has often been among the first cities in Latvia to fall to western invaders and the last to those from the east. It was the scene of one of the most dreadful events of the Holocaust in Latvia when over 3,000 of Liepaja’s Jewish community were executed in horrifying scenes on the beaches north of Karosta, where a memorial now stands. The museum also does a good job of collating everyday items and newspapers so you can track the changing zeitgeist in Liepaja. There’s a good selection of photos and accounts of the Latvian National Awakening in the 1980s as resistance to Soviet rule increased among the local population. During the January events of 1991, Liepaja was one of only three Latvian towns where barricades were also constructed to protect sites of national importance from Soviet troops, as they had been in Riga.
Then there’s Karosta (literally “war port”), possibly the most visually stunning relic of Soviet occupation in all the Baltics. It’s like a palimpsest of all that the Russians have given to Liepaja – originally constructed as a result of Tsar Alexander’s determination to turn the Baltic into a Russian-held sea, then further strengthened, reinforced and padlocked to outsiders under the Soviets. The once-fine turn-of-the-century houses that line the main roads pay testament to the fact that it was once a place that the officer class were happy to live, looking to contain at least twenty or thirty rooms, although they’re now mostly abandoned and almost all have been knocked around. Some of the more mistreated ones seem almost to be gazing in astonishment, at the walls of apartment blocks that the Soviet Union subsequently gifted the place. These have, if nothing else, added a fierce incongruity to the area. One of the most spectacular Orthodox cathedrals in the Baltics, St Nikolai’s Sea Cathedral, is unmissable, anchored right in the centre of the district. The image of its gilded bulbs rising above Karosta’s looming grey apartment blocks is one that is hard to forget.
The prison, which was used in turn by Russians, Soviets and under independent Latvia to punish errant sailors, and at points political prisoners, is a fascinating, if horrifying experience. A guided tour will illuminate, as well as make you very grateful you were not one of those at the receiving end of this corrective treatment . It also doubles as a hostel for those who are true gluttons for punishment.
Karosta is at the northern extreme of Liepaja, and it takes a good half hour or so to get there by bus, so do allow some time.
Liepaja’s wonderful beach may not be why the town developed in the first place, but for most visitors, especially in summertime, it is their real reason for being there. The city swells with visitors at this time of year, and bars pop up in otherwise abandoned buildings on and around the strip of sand itself, and Liepaja seems as laid-back and easy-going as a Latvian town could conceivably be. It is more of an acquired taste in the winter, when the sky seems like a mirror of the ghostly sands and the line of the horizon fades into conjecture, but still has an eerie appeal. More ragged round the edges than Jurmala, but immeasurably more appealing.
While there is a great deal of wooden architecture throughout the city, the most dramatic and elegant examples can be seen within a stretched oblong that runs between Kurmajas Prospekts and Jurmalas iela, and between Uliha iela and the sea, including around the edge of the lovely Jurmalas Parks. Here the waves are never out of earshot, even if they are generally out of view. Along Kurmajas Prospekts in particular, you’ll be treated to a fair few buildings that look like they’ve spent a good while at the bottom of the sea and are none the less attractive for it.
Church tower (Liela iela 9)
While Liepaja’s central square, Rozu laukums, is a functional creation unrecognisable from photos of its elegant pre-war incarnation, there is one constant in Liepaja’s centre, which is the Sveta Trisvienibas Catedrale, rising up in ever more precarious segments like an elongated wedding cake. Slightly knobbly and top-heavy, its paint peeling a bit, but a survivor, no doubt about that. Featuring, rather surprisingly, the largest manual organ in the world, featuring 131 separate parts; Liepaja are pushing for it to be included in the World Heritage List. There are excellent views from the top of the tower, which is open at unpredictable times.
Liepaja Old Cemetery (access from Kalju iela)
Liepaja has more than its fair share of cemeteries, and they’re a sobering and evocative reminder of its history as one of the most multicultural cities in Latvia – the last one I went to, I found Latvian, German, Russian, Hebrew and Lithuanian inscriptions. This one, by the Tirdznieciba Canal, is a particularly visually striking example, as factory chimneys backdrop everything, casting the mostly German crosses and headstones into particularly grim relief. The mistreated and gaping red-brick crypt on the slight hill overlooking the canal makes for a particularly atmospheric image during winter.
Where to eat
Darbnica (Liela iela 8)
Liepaja is not over-stocked with cafes where people can work, but luckily Darbnica (literally, more or less, workshop) does the trick, offering a calm, sleek interior and more powerpoints than tables. A pleasantly odd selection of local art and photography on the walls, which changes monthly. Good, heavily dressed salads – even if the burgers are a bit sparse; a preposterously reasonable lunch menu, and a great selection of Latvian beers. Gets very busy in the evening, so stake out a table early.
Boulangerie (Kursu iela 2)
Owner and Liepajan Mikus lived in Paris, London and Milan, working as a photographer before returning to his hometown to raise a family and open up this charming cafe, which if it wasn’t for the friendliness and cosiness, could be in some French backstreet. They’ll even do you snails if you’re odd or French enough to be into that kind of thing. Not really somewhere to go for a full meal, but the best coffee – and freshest bread – in Liepaja hands down, all to a soundtrack of French jazz and classical music and incessant chirping from the birdcage at the far end.
Pastnieka Maja (Frica Brivzemnieka iela 53)
“The postman’s house” occupies a well-scrubbed wooden house set back from Rozu laukums – Liepaja’s central square. It has quite a lot of charm: the menu will tell you an affecting, if not especially well-translated, story about the rather lonely life of the postman who once lived here. A good place to find Liepaja’s signature dish, Liepajas menciniem, (described as its “national food”, by a possibly slightly confused Latvian newspaper) a thick stew prominently incorporating fish and potatoes, and served in a sturdy little tureen. Other food is bloody good too.
Latvian Musician’s Walk of Fame (Zivju iela)
Perhaps it was the easy access to other distant shores, and the variety of music available there, but Liepaja has always been known among Latvians for its music. The city even has its own anthem, written for it by Latvian music legend Imants Kalnins – “City Where the Wind is Born”, a sentiment anyone visiting the city between October and April will easily appreciate. Liepaja now boasts a starry Hollywood-style Walk of Fame a couple of minutes’ walk long – although its significance may be lost on most international visitors. The city’s heritage pops up elsewhere as well – in Jurmalas Park by the beach a silver, metal statue of a “ghost tree” has been constructed to pay tribute to the Latvian hard rock group Livi, for reasons that probably only fans of Latvian hard rock can truly appreciate.
Where to go out
Louie Fontaine (not his real name) is like the guardian angel of Liepaja – and appropriately for this slightly disreputable port town, he’s a beer-swigging, well-worn kind of angel, as well as being Danish. Watch the campaign video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IN4e_gzYLq8) he made to support his bid to get onto the city council to get a flavour of how Liepaja likes its politics – drinking Jim Beam in a bath and swaggering around on a roof shooting at imaginary enemies might not have seemed the best advert for political competence, but, well, he was elected. Many residents comment that Fontaine has lost some of the cool and raffishness it had a few years ago, and on a bad night Fontaine Palace certainly can seem like any large, sticky club with bad acoustics, but at the right time, it’s a really special mix of good people and good music. His canalside empire also stretches to a comically over-the-top hotel, a vaguely ‘50s-esque fast food joint specialising in burgers with slightly unusual combinations of ingredients (you’re unlikely to find a better burger in Riga; now with branches in Riga and Jelgava) and the prison bar, which is more or less what it sounds like.
Kursas Putni (Fricas Brivzemnieka iela 28)
Still less than a year old, this bar/cafe is possibly the friendliest spot you’ll find in the whole country. Hearty Latvian business lunches, a family feeling, cheery staff and frequent musical nights – as well as a few quirks, like a Novuss table and a wide selection of Soviet-era Latvian music – make this a welcome addition to one of Liepaja’s most rickety backstreets.
Grillbar Bruno (Rigas iela 7/9)
The outside may look like a rather dodgy betting shop, but inside this is a tremendously cosy kind of place. A great place to hibernate in winter with a good selection of Latvian beers.
Nearby trips (contributed by Geoff Chester)
Grobiņa is one of the oldest settlements in Latvia with old castle ruins and Viking burial mounds/runestones.
Aizpute is a charming historic countryside town with one of Latvia's oldest churches.
Pavilosta is the surfing capital of Latvia (dead in the winter)
Palanga/Klaipeda: The Lithuanian Riviera and the Curonian Spit are only an hour or two away.
Pape: The famed nature park with its wild horses and excellent birdwatching.
For kids: Ciruli branch of Riga zoo, boasting 37 breeds of Latvian fauna including blue cows. (Ideal for half-way point between Riga and Liepaja)
Why is Liepaja special?
Geoff - Liepaja is a living monument to Latvia's turbulent history, every district showing the ups and downs of the past century. The city itself, probably due to its proximity and tense coexistence with the sea has a sense of freedom and cosmopolitanism mixed with faded grandeur in every corner which is easily felt wandering around the city in the summer.
Stina - Liepaja just has a really great vibe. It's a small town that has a completely different pace to Riga. But for a small town, there is still a lot happening (Fontaine, the theatre, the uni and all the student life). I love walking around the streets of Liepaja, especially the ones near the seaside. They've got lovely old wooden buildings, some of them are quite colourful and bright.
Aya - Liepāja is special to me because of the indescribable feeling of freedom its incessant wind in my hair gives me
Ksenia - The empty streets make it easy to imagine living in a city a hundred years ago. I love all the untouched historical bits of Liepāja, Karosta the most, especially the melancholia of that place.
Visit Liepaja’s tourist information office at Rozu Laukums 5/6 for further information.