Daugavpils, Latvia: Modern Art and Military History

Daugavpils, despite its long and interesting history and former prominence, is often overlooked as a place to visit. But Daugavpils shouldn’t be missed as a destination when you’re visiting Latvia or traveling around the Baltic countries.

Daugavpils’s reputation as a city associated with industry and the military has done it no favors. The Soviet era also left its mark. But if you visit Daugavpils, Latvia, today, you will see evidence of its growing attraction to tourists. And the people you encounter who are working to put this city on the Latvian tourist map are happy to share their enthusiasm and knowledge.

Daugavpils has many surprises to charm and intrigue you if you give it a chance. The Mark Rothko Art Center and the Daugavpils Fortress are good places to start. You can concentrate your efforts here if you are just passing through. However, you may find that more time spent in Daugavpils will reveal unexpected surprises and that it will be in the top entries on your list of things to do in Latvia.

A sign in the shape of a heart with the word Daugavpils in front of a fall tree and a church
Daugavpils is a Latvian city with heart. Photo by The Northern Vox

Table of Contents

Where is Daugavpils, Latvia?

Located near the Latvian border with Belarus and Lithuania, Daugavpils has enjoyed a multicultural history. It’s the largest city in the Latgale region of Latvia, positioned in the southeast part of the country.

Incidentally, Latgale is known for its pottery and ceramics tradition, which you’ll notice is an emphasis in art galleries and the Mark Rothko Art Center, a major draw.

Daugavpils’s Changing Names

If you know anything about Latvia, you might recognize that Daugavpils’s name shares similarities with an important Latvian river, the Daugava. In fact, Daugavpils’s current name combines the name of the Daugava with the Latvian word for castle.

However, like many cities in the Baltic region, Daugavpils has had various names depending upon which country held power at the time. Its first designation was Dünaburg, named for the castle that was built there in the late 13th century by the Livonion Order of knights.

Under Russian rule, Daugavpils was called Borisoglebsk. It was also known as Dinaburg and Dvinsk, until it got its modern name of Daugavpils shortly after Latvia’s first independence in the early 20th century.

Jewish Daugavpils

Daugavpils was historically an important Jewish center, with over 40 synagogues. Tragically, like so many Jewish centers in the region, WWII saw decimation of the Jewish population, with thousands of Jewish inhabitants sent to the ghetto or murdered.

Various memorials and other Jewish-heritage sites can be found on the Jewish heritage driving route. The Jewish Synagogue Kadish contains a museum that tells the story of Jewish life in Daugavpils and the surrounding area since 1935.

Mark Rothko and Daugavpils, Latvia

Mark Rothko is one of Daugavpils’s Jewish sons, having been born there when the city was a part of the Russian Empire in 1903. Originally, he was called Markus Yakovlevich Rothkowitz, which he shortened after his family immigrated to the United States. Rothko was ten years old when he and his family arrived in the US.

Despite his roots, Rothko is known as an American artist. He is most famous for his abstract works that exhibit bold swatches of colors, often warm colors, that, due to the size of the canvas, easily consume the viewer’s whole area of vision. Today, his paintings are worth millions of dollars.

Mark Rothko never returned to Daugavpils. However, the Mark Rothko Art Center is an important feature of the city. With the support of Rothko’s children, the center is able to feature original works by Rothko, which you can see if you visit.

In addition, the center draws attention to Rothko-inspired artists or his contemporaries, hosts temporary exhibitions, and dedicates part of its space to showcasing the work of ceramic artists. Located in part of the Daugavpils Fort, the center helps to generate tourist interest in this Latvian city.

It’s recommended to get a guided tour of the Mark Rothko Art Center—you’ll learn about Rothko and his contemporaries or those inspired by him, learn a little about ceramic art in the Latgale region, and get an introduction to the Daugavpils Fortress grounds.

A long yellow building with a picture of artist Mark Rothko in sunglasses on it
The Mark Rothko Art Center is a thriving attraction. Photo by The Northern Vox

Daugavpils Fortress

Daugavpils Fortress is a roughly star-shaped fort set on the Daugava River northwest of the historic center of the city. Built by Tsar Alexander I in 1810 as a response to the threat of invasion by Napoleon, it has been preserved largely in original form since its establishment.

In fact, the fortress has been used throughout the years by various militaries, including the Soviet military. You’ll see evidence of both its original use and more recent usage as you explore the fortress grounds.

As part of a guided tour of the Mark Rothko Art Center, you’ll get an overview of the fortress as well. Alternatively, visit the Daugavpils Fortress Culture and Information Center, based the former water supply tower, where you can find out more about the fortress and its history.

You can also stroll the fortress gardens, where some of its cannons can still be seen today.

A fortress building follows the line of a path shaded by fall trees
The Daugavpils Fortress is a main sight. Photo by The Northern Vox

Other Daugavpils Sights and Attractions

Head to the Daugavpils historic center to get a feel for how Daugavpils looked in the 19th century. On Rigas Street, you’ll see the Unity House, which contains the Daugavpils Theater, a tourist information center, and the Latvian Cultural Center. It also contains the Shmakovka Museum, dedicated to locally produced moonshine, traditionally made from apples or vegetables and stored in oak barrels.

For a one-of-a-kind experience, book an appointment to see the Lead Shots Museum, which is one of the only working factories remaining in existence that produces lead shots according to a century-old technique. You’ll be shown how the lead shots are produced, learn about the history of the factory and production in Daugavpils, be taken into the tower that is the symbol of the lead shots factory, and can even try your hand at shooting cans with the very lead shots produced there.

an old sewing machine sits by a bowl of lead shots and a black-and-white photo is posted on the wall
The Lead Shots Factory Museum is an unusual and interesting Daugavpils attraction. Photo by The Northern Vox

Cultural Centers

Daugavpils’s population and heritage have roots in various nationalities. If you’re curious about these different cultures’ presence in Daugavpils, you may visit the Belarusian Cultural Center, the Polish Cultural Center, the Russian Cultural Center, and the House of Traditions

Museums, Galleries, and Exhibits

It’s possible you’ve arrived in Daugavpils especially to see what the Mark Rothko Art Center has to offer—it’s intentionally a big draw for art lovers. However, Daugavpils has a variety of other art-related facilities, such as:

  • The Daugavpils Art Clay Center
  • The Smith Edgar Vronskis workshop for art metal work
  • The PUTRA Art Studio for graphic design
  • Baltais Zirgis Art Gallery, the first establishment of its kind in Daugavpils
  • The Daugavpils Regional Studies and Art Museum

Museums and exhibitions not related to art include:

  • The WWI Museum
  • The RetroGaraz-D Retro Cars Museum
  • The Medical Exposition of Birth Control Items
  • The Exposition of Medical History
A grouping of three red ceramic vessels
Ceramics is an important aspect of the Daugavpils and Latgale area cultural tradition. Photo by The Northern Vox

Green Spaces

Daugavpils is full of green spaces. Both Central Park and Dubrovin Park are beautiful for strolling and taking a peaceful moment along landscaped paths and among trees.

For water lovers, the Lelais Stropu Lake Promenade and the Central Beach are both options. Of course, it’s also possible to take a boat trip down the Daugava River. The Daugavpils Tarzan Adventure Park is a series of obstacle, climbing, and elevated paths geared towards a variety of skill and age levels, from kids to adults. 

Churches

Head to Church Hill to see a cluster of houses of worship from various denominations in Daugavpils. Here, you’ll find a Catholic, a Lutheran, an Old Believers, and an Orthodox church. The Lutheran church has a viewing platform over the city, which may be worth the climb up to. Other various churches can be viewed throughout the city, including the prominent St. Peters in Chains Roman Catholic Church.

A white church with the word Daugavpils in blue
Daugavpils shows pride in its heritage wherever you turn. Photo by The Northern Vox

So whether you are into art and ceramics, military history, or Latvian history and culture, Daugavpils is worth including in your visit to Latvia or your greater travel in the Baltic countries.

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