Latvia is a pretty small nation (only just over 2 million people) in northeastern Europe that doesn’t attract much attention on the global stage. Nonetheless, it is an amazing country, full of warm people, delicious food, great stories and sites, and a long, colorful history. Here are some interesting facts to help you get to know this Baltic country better.
1. The Latvian Flag
The Latvian flag, those gorgeous, deep red stripes sandwiching a white one, is actually one of the oldest flags in history. Well, of course there were flags for thousands of years before this one, but the Latvian flag is one of the oldest which is still in use today. There are written references to the flag from way back in the 13th century, and the shade of red used in the flag is so distinct that some people have referred to it as “Latvian red.”
The red-white-red of the Latvian flag was first mentioned (at least this is as far as historians have discovered) in the Rhymed Chronicle of Livonia, a chronicle written in the 1300’s detailing the history of modern day Estonia and Latvia from the 12th century to that point. One Latvian legend that attempts to explain the meaning behind the colors of the flag states that a Latvian leader was wounded in battle, and the white sheet that wrapped his wound soon had his blood covering it, save for a strip in the middle. This story seems similar to an Austrian legend regarding their flag – a flag that is almost exactly the same as the Latvian one.
Source: Latvian Consulate in New York
2. Riga So Old
Riga, the nation’s bustling capital of about 800,000 people (also 1/3 of the entire country), is said to be the oldest existing medieval city in Latvia. Founded in 1201, the historic center of Riga has been placed on the United Nations’ UNESCO World Heritage List. For a good taste of some of the old buildings, the Old Town, or Vecrīga (Old Riga), offers a look into the city’s past.
Also, Riga still has, standing, about 4000 wooden buildings; no other European city has as much wooden architecture left over (and in good shape!) from previous centuries.
3. Baltic Amber
Latvians are proud of their amber (dzintars). Amber is prehistoric, fossilized tree resin, and it can be found all over the world, but the Baltic coast’s brand is unique. Termed succinite, Baltic amber is much higher (around 8%) in succinic acid than other kinds of amber, and often leads to its clear, honey-gold coloring, as opposed to the darker forms of amber, such as shades of red and orange and brown, found elsewhere. Without Baltic amber, the findings, or at least the descriptions, of dozens of species of flora and fauna would have been incomplete – or, worse yet, undiscovered.
4. Art Nouveau
Part of the reason that Riga’s historical center was placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List was for its plentiful examples of art nouveau architecture. This style of architectural design, characterized as art trying to harmonize with the natural environment around them, was quite popular in Riga during the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. The status of the buildings of this style and period in Riga is so renowned, in fact, that the United Nations WHL even states: “It is generally recognized that Riga has the finest collection of art nouveau buildings in Europe.”
Other Latvian cities with great examples of this style include Liepāja and Jūrmala. Oh, also the world-famous architect, Gunnar Birkerts, was born in Riga.
Source: UNESCO World Heritage List
5. Mark Rothko
Latvian artistic innovation is not limited to the architecture in its capital city. You may have heard of Mark Rothko, a painter who can legitimately be considered a household name. Though he was considered an American painter, arriving at New York City’s Ellis Island during his childhood, he hailed from modern-day Daugavpils, Latvia, at the time Dvinsk of the Vitebsk Governorate of the Russian Empire. Rothko’s work has set many price records, the most famous being in 2012 when his 1961 painting “Orange, Red, Yellow” sold at Christie’s in New York for $86.9 million, setting the record for a postwar painting at a public auction. In May, 2015, Rothko’s “No. 10” was sold at Christie’s for $82 million, anchoring a record $1 billion week at the auction giant.
6. Uljana Semjonova & Latvian Women
Latvian women are known for often being quite tall, compared to those from other nations. One perfect example of that is Uljana Semjonova, the great women’s basketball player of the 70’s and 80’s. Though it was under the Lithuanian SSR of the Soviet Union at the time, she was born in Daugavpils, Latvia. Uljana was 2.1 meters tall, or 6 feet 11 inches, and she had feet to match: her shoe size during her career was a European men’s size 58 (US men’s size 21)! Uljana went on to win two Olympic golds and was also the first woman from outside of the United States to be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
If you are into women, you might be pleased to note that Latvia has the one of the greatest gender imbalances (if not the greatest) of any country – there are 8% more women than men in Latvia. This disproportionate ratio is so apparent, in fact, that the BBC even wrote an article (see “Source 2” below) titled “Latvian man shortage leaves women lost for love.” And, if you are into women, the cherry-on-top is that, apparently (I’ve no hard facts), Latvia has one of the highest rates of fashion models.
One last woman to note is Milda, the name of a Baltic goddess of love and freedom, as well as the name of the famous Latvian Freedom Monument in Riga. And just like Uljana, she is quite tall!
The Freedom Monument (Brīvības piemineklis) is 42 meters (138 ft) high with the namesake woman standing atop holding three stars over her head. Located in the center of Riga, on “Freedom Boulevard” (Brīvības bulvāris), Milda celebrates the country’s victory in the Latvian War for Independence, which took place from 1918 through 1920. (Please don’t mention to them that they were soon after under the yoke of the Soviet Union, and not free again until 1990/1991.)
Related Read: Latvian Holidays: Important Events & Days Off for Latvia
8. Natural Beauty
Latvia might be a small nation, but it is full of natural beauty all around. The widest rapids in Europe, the Venta Rapid, also features the widest waterfall in Europe, the Ventas Rumba in Kuldīga, Latvia. This waterfall is 110 meters wide (~361 ft) but only 2 meters in height (6.5 ft). Latvia is also teeming with trees, more so than its neighbors, as it currently has about 42% of its land as forests.
And Latvia doesn’t just abound with scenic beauty, but they also take good care of it. Latvia consistently ranks quite high in the Environmental Performance Index, a ranking of nations developed by Yale University; in 2012, Latvia ranked 2nd, though they’ve dropped down somewhat (to 40th) for the 2014 year.
9. Celebrating the Greatest Liar
The infamous German fibber (please take a breath before you attempt to even think his name), Hieronymus Karl Friedrich Freiherr von Münchhausen, is known as the world’s greatest liar. He told numerous doubtful stories of riding on cannonballs and traveling to the moon and especially of his great service during the Russo-Turkish War. He’s the namesake of Munchausen syndrome, characterized as a patient who feigns illness or disease in an attempt to draw attention, sympathy, or for self-reassurance.
What does this have to do with Latvia, you ask? Well, apparently, there is an entire museum dedicated to him, Munchausen’s World, in Duntes Muiža, where he used to live with his first wife. They say people in the area are still telling his stories, and the museum has turned that into a tourism opportunity. Also, the National Bank of Latvia even issued a commemorative coin in 2005 to celebrate this national hero’s 285th birthday!
Source: Munchausen’s World
10. Latvian Innovations
Latvians have had their fair share of contributions as far as inventions and discoveries; some have been comical in their uselessness, while others continue to be a staple around the world. Here’s just a few of the Latvians and their contributions:
- Valerian Abakovsky – He is known for his invention of a high-speed train, dubbed the Aerowagon, which had an aero engine and propeller traction.
- Jacob W. Davis – Born in Riga, he invented denim after immigrating to the U.S. We wouldn’t have modern jeans without him!
- Juris Hartmanis – Also born in Riga, Juris won the coveted ACM Turing award in 1993 “in recognition of their seminal paper which established the foundations for the field of computational complexity theory”.
- Esther Takeuchi – An American professor whose parents hailed from Latvia, Esther invented the Li/SVO battery, a lithium battery utilizing vanadium pentoxide (SVO) which is used in many medical situations because of its resistance to abuse.
- Juris Upatnieks – As a pioneer in the field of holography, Juris, who was born in Riga, holds about 20 patents, including one for a holographic gun sight.
- Paul Walden – Born as Pauls Valdens in what is now Pīpēni, Latvia, Paul “invented the stereochemical reaction known as Walden inversion and synthesized the first room-temperature ionic liquid, ethylammonium nitrate.”
- Frīdrihs Canders – Born in Riga, he designed the first liquid-fueled rocket to be launched in the Soviet Union, the GIRD-X.
- Aleksandrs Laime – Famous Latvian explorer who is most noted for being the first recorded human to reach Angel Falls, Venezuela, by foot.
- Friedrich Wilhelm Ostwald – Born as Vilhelms Ostvalds in Riga, Wilhelm is credited as one of the modern founders of physical chemistry. He received the 1909 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on chemical equilibria and reaction velocities.
Source: Don’t be lazy (as I am), Google them if you don’t believe me 🙂
Want More of Latvia?
As you can see, Latvia delivers in all areas. If you haven’t been there, you really should go; I assure you that you’ll have a blast. From the beauty of its forests and Baltic coastline, to the food and history that make up the Latvian identity, to the great nightlife in cities such as its capital Riga, Latvia is a place you won’t forget.
What do you think of these Latvia facts? Got any more to add to this list? If you do, leave a comment below, and if it checks out, we’ll gladly add it to the list!
Also, if you’re interested in further learning about Latvia, check out our Latvia travel guide for stories, photos, information, and more facts.