15 Facts About Latvia You May Not Know

Are you interested in learning about Latvia? These facts about Latvia cover aspects of its history, culture, and landscape. They also touch upon some of its points of interest.

Discover facts about Latvia you didn’t know, and learn more about this Baltic country.

1. Latvia Celebrates Two Independence Days

Latvia, like Lithuania and Estonia, celebrates two independence days. Why? The Baltic countries first declared independence in 1918 after WWI. But they were eventually “annexed” by the USSR. So in the early 1990s, they declared independence again.

That means that one independence day (November 18) is a day of original independence and the second day (May 4) is that of independence from the Soviet Union. Both are causes for celebration and important to the country’s history.

A closeup of the Latvian Freedom Monument, a woman with her arms raised and holding three gold stars
The Latvian Freedom Monument represents Latvian Independence. Photo 8002986 © Jorisvo | Dreamstime.com

2. Latvia Was Once a Part of the Russian Empire

The Baltics and Russia have long had a close relationship. Before Latvia was absorbed into the Soviet Union as well as prior to a brief period of independence, Latvia was a part of the Russian Empire.

One of the most striking artifacts left over from this period is the grand Rundale Palace, built by Rastrelli, the architect that was responsible for the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. Though modest (comparatively!) in size to the St. Petersburg palaces, Rundale nevertheless has trademark imperial details, such as painted ceilings, elaborate relief work, parquet flooring, and silk wallpaper.

A recent version of War and Peace was filmed here, as was some of the miniseries Catherine the Great starring Helen Mirren.

The entrance to a palace with a yellow facade
Rundale Palace is a reminder of the era of the Russian Empire. Photo 151067926 © Alexey Belov | Dreamstime.com

3. Latvians Speak a Baltic Language

The Baltic languages are a rare and precious branch of the Indo-European language tree. Prussian has completely died out, and Lithuanian is so conservative and slow evolving that it’s considered the closest European language to Sanskrit.

Latvian lies somewhere in between. It has changed more quickly than Lithuanian—so much so that the two languages, though they share similarities, are not mutually intelligible.

However, it must also be noted that they are unlike the Slavic languages of nearby countries or Estonian, which is a Finno-Ugric language and unrelated to Latvian.

4. Latvians Remain Close to Their Pagan Roots

Latvia converted to Christianity relatively late, in 13th century. However, Latvia enjoys close ties to its pagan roots, celebrating the summer solstice, maintaining a closeness with nature, and preserving folk culture. Baltic paganism lives on in this northern country.

people gather around bonfires at night for the Midsummer holiday
Midsummer is a pagan holiday Latvians still celebrate. Photo 47008336 © Ints Vikmanis | Dreamstime.com

5. Latvia Produces Wine

Did you know that Latvia, despite its northern climate, produces wine? It’s one of the lesser-known facts about Latvia! Though climate change has shifted the zones where wine grapes can now be grown, Latvia once boasted to having the northernmost winery in the world.

Now, conditions for growing wine grapes are still tough, but it can—and is—done in Latvia. The southern Latgale region has seen the most success at producing wine.

More traditionally, Latvia produces wines from fruits and berries, which tend to be on the sweeter side.

Bottles of Latvian wine - Latvia's wine production is one of the facts about Latvia
Latvia produces both traditional grape wine as well as berry and fruit wine. Photo 78585900 © Erix2005 | Dreamstime.com

6. Latvia Is Rich in Nature

Latvians are very proud of their nature, and national parks, lakes, marshes, sea coast, and diverse flora and fauna are testaments to why. Broad swatches of the country remain untouched by human habitation.

However, Latvians also take care of their green country. As far back as the 16th century, Latvians began being interested in protecting their country’s nature—10% of the country’s forest and other land is under state protection.

Many people who visit Latvia do so to enjoy active holidays or those spent enjoying the green areas of the country. Of course, Latvians also take significant advantage of living in such a clean, green territory.

A woman stands in a sunny Latvian forest with a mossy ground
Latvian forests are known for their quiet beauty. Photo by Krišjānis Kazaks on Unsplash

7. Latvia Has About 140 Medieval Castles

One of the most interesting facts about Latvia is that medieval castles can be found throughout the country. However, they are in various states of preservation, with many little more than ruins. On the other hand, some ruins maintain the grandness of the original appearance. Other castles have been maintained in good condition or have been renovated.

Therefore, travelers who are interested in medieval history or castles will find their itch scratched in Latvia.

Sigulda, Cesis, and Turaida castles are some of the most-visited and best-known castles in Latvia, but those intent on exploring this aspect of Latvian history will find many other examples, even if what remains are only foundations.

An aerial view of Latvia's red brick Turaida Castle
Turaida Castle is one of Latvia’s medieval castles. File ID 6696666 | © Kessu1 | Dreamstime.com

8. Riga Is an Art Nouveau Center

Riga’s Art Nouveau architecture makes it special. Art Nouveau was a style of art, interior design, and architecture from the early 19th century that incorporated organic lines, floral motifs, and—depending upon the location—motifs that reflected local culture and symbols.

A building boom in Riga coincided with the rise in the popularity of the Art Nouveau style. That is why Riga has so many beautiful specimens of well-preserved Art Nouveau architecture.

Also popular is an Art Nouveau museum with a gorgeous winding staircase and rooms decorated to reflect the aesthetic of the time.

An Art Nouveau-style facade with decorations
Many excellent examples of the Art Nouveau style can be seen in Riga, Latvia. Photo 135510734 © Anna Artamonova | Dreamstime.com

9. Latvia Produces a Black Alcoholic Drink

Latvia’s famous herbal bitter is called Riga Black Balsam. This viscous, dark liquor comes in several flavors, the original flavor as well as flavors such as black currant, cherry, and espresso. It’s often seen as a challenge to visitors to try this surprising drink.

While most people would say its flavor is indescribable, the official website of Riga Black Balsam indicates that valerian, wormwood, pepper, and ginger contribute to its unique flavor profile.

Riga Black Balsam is packaged and sold in natural clay bottles, the chemistry of which interacts with the liquid inside, further developing the product to give it its distinctive character.

bottles of Riga Black Balsam on a shelf
Riga Black Balsam comes in a variety of flavors, even if the color remains intimidating. Photo 171910300 © Alexandr Blinov | Dreamstime.com

10. Latvians Claim the First Christmas Tree

While Estonia also makes the claim to have had the first Christmas tree, Latvia’s claim is perhaps better known. It is said that the Brotherhood of Blackheads, a merchants’ guild, erected the first Christmas tree decorated with flowers in the square in front of their building.

Though researchers say it’s unlikely the first Christmas tree was put up in either of these places, the legend has given fodder to tourism bureaus wishing to tempt travelers with the magic of Christmas.

A Christmas tree, much like that legend of old, continues to be placed in the square in front of Riga’s House of Blackheads every year. Christmas trees also decorate Christmas markets throughout Latvia.  

A nighttime scene of a lighted Christmas tree in the old town of Riga
The Christmas tree in front of the House of Blackheads in Riga perpetuates the legend of the first Christmas tree having been displayed here. Photo 12388660 © Alfredo Ragazzoni | Dreamstime.com

11. Riga Was Once a Part of the Hanseatic League

The Hanseatic League was a group of towns involved in trade and merchant guilds that was established in Germany during the Middle Ages and spread outward to other regions. The league gave participating traders and towns certain rights and protections and it also enabled mutual benefit between the members of the league.

Riga’s was a port city on the Baltic Sea and a midway point between Russia and Germany. Such location meant that membership in the Hanseatic League led to prosperous trading relationships. Riga’s importance rose noticeably in the 13th and 14th centuries as a result.

12. Cole Porter Was Singing About Latvians When He Mentioned Letts

The 1928 song by Cole Porter called “Let’s Fall in Love” mentions Letts, as in the line “Lithuanians and Letts do it—let’s do it, let’s fall in love.” Letts are, simply, the indigenous people of Latvia. Letts are Latvians.

Why have Latvians sometimes been called Letts? Lettland was one word for Latvia. Hardly anyone uses the term Letts anymore—people from Latvia are typically called Latvians today.

13. Latvia Is a Land of Songs

Folk songs have long been an important part of Latvia’s heritage. These songs encapsulate generations’ worth of belief, wisdom, and ritual. They are tightly linked to Latvian identity.

Latvian song festivals, though a “newer” tradition, still date back to the latter half of the 19th century, during the Latvian national awakening.

Traditional songs also featured strongly during the Baltic states’ push for independence from the Soviet Union in what was known as the Singing Revolution.

Today, Latvia’s song festivals have been inscribed into UNESCO’s list of intangible heritage.

A group of people in traditional Latvian folk costume sing as they walk down the street
Folk song is an important part of Latvian culture. Photo 39704005 © Irabel8 | Dreamstime.com

14. Latvia’s Flag Is One of the Oldest

Due to its mention in the Livonian Chronicle, Latvia’s flag is considered one of the oldest in the world. According to this document, during a 13th-century battle, a Latvian tribe from Cesis, which can still be visited today, fought under a red flag bearing a white stripe.

The present-day iteration of this red-and-white flag was designed in 1917, right before Latvia’s first declaration of independence. It’s one of the flags of the Baltic countries, recognizable for its striking two-color design.

The Latvian flag, with its white stripe on a red background, flies from a building
The Latvian flag is one of the oldest flags in the world. Photo 203092196 © Gints Ivuskans | Dreamstime.com

15. Latvia Has the Widest Waterfall Europe

Latvia’s Venta Rapid, located in Kuldiga, is a waterfall over 800 feet across, the widest in Europe. However, the waterfall does not fall from a great height—it’s only between 5 and 7 feet tall.

Nearby is the longest brick bridge in use in Europe.

Europe's widest waterfall is seen in winter with snow
The Venta Rapid is Europe’s widest waterfall. Photo by Sabīne Jaunzeme on Unsplash

Of course, a list of facts about Latvia could go on much longer. However, if you’re planning to travel through the Baltics, this information may enrich your experience. A bit of understanding about Latvia’s history, culture, sights, and attractions can go a long way to planning and enjoying your trip.

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