An attractive seaside city, Ventspils, 200km northwest of Rīga, is also Latvia’s biggest port and strategic naval settlement since the twelfth century until the end of Soviet occupation in 1991. The city’s Old Town with its cobbled streets, its beach – the best in Latvia – and handful of museums make Ventspils a great place to while away a couple of days.
One of the city’s main draws is the long stretch of clean white-sand beach at the town’s western end – a worthy recipient of the Blue Flag and popular with sun worshippers, volleyball players and kitesurfers in summer. Still, it’s so big that you needn’t jostle other beachgoers for elbow space even at the height of peak season. In Jūrmalas parks near the beach, you’ll find the popular Beach Aquapark and also the open-air museum, its ethnographic expositions featuring traditional fishermen’s dwellings and equipment.
At the northern end of the beach, a long boardwalk, overlooked by a viewing tower, stretches towards the lighthouse. Here you can spot one of several specimens from Ventspils’ bizarre Cow Parade – the Sailor Cow. Other cow sculptures are found along the Ostas iela promenade that leads east towards the ferry port; don’t miss the Travelling Cow, shaped like a giant suitcase. South of the promenade lies the Old Town, with its Art Nouveau buildings and its attractive main square, overlooked by the jolly yellow Nicholas Evangelical Lutheran Church and featuring a giant quill sculpture due to the town’s popularity with international writers. The Old Town’s most interesting feature is the thirteenth-century Castle of the Livonian Order, home to an excellent interactive museum featuring the history of the city and port and a disturbing exhibit on the Soviet prison in the barracks.