Situated along the Baltic Sea about 50 kilometers north of the Lithuanian border, Liepaja is the western-most city in Latvia. It is also the third largest city in Latvia, with a population of around 75,000. Liepaja is perhaps most famous (in the Baltics, anyway) for its long stretch of white sand beach which is even less developed than Jurmala. A 70 hectare park abuts the beach, ensuring that no buildings can be erected to spoil the view. This is contrary to everything I know about beach “resorts,” which tend to be over-developed to the point where all ocean-side real estate is covered with glass and steel – Miami and Myrtle Beach, I’m looking at you. But in Latvia, nature takes precedence.
Liepaja is sometimes referred to as the “city where wind was born.” There’s even a sculpture of a wind-blown maiden looking out to sea from atop the grass-covered dunes. But there was nary a trace of this wind during my visit. The sea was still and the waves, if you can call them that, were remarkably gentle.
Some people visit Liepaja only for its beach, but the city has so much more to offer! In addition to being Latvia’s own Windy City, Liepaja is considered the country’s rock and roll capital. It even has its own Walk-of-Fame featuring the hand prints of Latvian musicians. Liepaja has a university-town vibe, with an apparent focus on the arts. The city boasts a beautiful array of historic architectural styles, from 17th-century wood houses to 19th-century Art Nouveau. One of the oldest buildings is a hotel once stayed in by Peter the Great of Russia!
Things To Do in Liepaja
The Liepaja Museum has a surprisingly robust collection of Latvian treasures ranging from wood carvings and medieval weapons to still-life paintings and modern art installations. There is an interesting exhibit on the city’s seafaring history that includes artifacts picked up on journeys around the world. I was stunned to see two pairs of tiny bound-feet shoes from China! The museum was opened in 1924 and is the largest in the region. It’s housed in a striking early-20th century mansion and is worth stopping in for the fabulous interior alone.
Another “must see” is the House of Craftsmen. The red brick building, once used as Soviet army barracks, now houses the workshops for a dozen or more Latvian artists specializing in traditional handicrafts. I was taken on a tour of the building though I only caught about half what the guide was explaining in her rapid-fire Latvian. I was shown many of the individual workshops and saw demonstrations in the arts of basket weaving, pottery making and leather tooling. Another woman showed me how she made traditional textiles using a loom. I was the only visitor there and the ladies seemed delighted at my interest in their work. Once it came out that I was American, they showed me postcards sent to them from relatives in the States. I only wish my Latvian were better so I could have chatted with them some more!
Other cultural riches on display include Latvian national costumes and the largest piece of amber art in the world. There is a marvelous gift shop where the artists sell their creations.
Liepaja has many historic churches, but if you only have time to visit one, make it the Holy Trinity Lutheran Church. While the crumbling 18th century exterior might not look like much, the interior was absolutely breathtaking. (And of course no photos were allowed.) Every surface seemed to be covered in gold and a raised box near the altar looked as though it had been created for royalty – a crown and coat of arms were emblazoned on the front. For a few euros, I climbed the rickety wooden stairs to the top of the church’s spire and was rewarded with lovely views of the city.
Peter’s Market is a lively spot where locals shop for everything from baked goods and fresh produce to flowers and pet supplies. The pretty red brick building was built in 1910, though apparently vendors have been selling their wares from the adjacent square for centuries.
Where To Stay
I spent the weekend at the Promenade Hotel, a beautifully-converted 18th-century warehouse facing the canal. Although parts of the building are several hundred years old, it has been thoroughly modernized to become Liepaja’s premiere luxury hotel. The spacious lobby doubles as a gallery, showcasing works by local artists.
Where To Eat in Liepaja
I ate dinner at the hotel because it was convenient, and would recommend it because the food was delicious. If you try only one local specialty, make it “Liepaja’s Cod.” The deeply satisfying dish consists of pork fillet, potatoes, onions and smoked cod that are simmered in a clay pot with a rich cream sauce. You will want your own bowl.
For a nice meal in the old town, head to the Postman’s House (Pastnieka maja). I just had time for a quick lunch before catching my back to Riga, but would definitely return. My chicken Caesar salad was excellent and I enjoyed sitting on their flower-bedecked patio.
If you’re in need of an afternoon pick-me-up, don’t miss Boulangerie. This charming cafe serves up heavenly macaron confections along with a wide array of beverages. I also hear they have a nice weekend brunch.
While you’re in Liepaja, don’t miss Karosta Prison. This historical correctional facility was used by the Soviet navy to punish and reform its wayward sailors. It’s the only military prison in Europe that’s open to the public! Karosta is located about four kilometers from downtown Liepaja. You can read about my tour of the prison here.
Would you like to visit Liepaja? What’s your favorite little-known city?