At three and a half hours each way, Latvia's third biggest city is just out of reach of a daytrip from the capital. This is a good thing. On the Baltic coast, with a good collection of hostels and one of the country's best stretches of white-sand beach, Liepaja is a place that deserves a more leisurely look.
For short-term visitors the city can be split into three sections: the beach and seaside park, the compact Old Town a few hundred metres inland, and Karosta, a run-down suburb four kilometres north that was once a self-contained naval base. The train and bus stations are right next to each other in the direction of Karosta, eight hundred metres north of the Old Town. Follow the tram lines down Rigas iela to the centre, crossing over the old military shipyards, now converted to house the Fontaine Hotel, the city's busiest nightclub and a 24-hour takeaway restaurant.
Musical notes in the pavement guide you around the centre's main sights, though there's not much in the way of must-see places to visit: a wooden building where Peter the Great once stayed, some red-brick churches and Latvia's biggest guitar, mounted on a plinth in front of the First Rock Cafe. You can walk around most of them in half an hour. Slightly more interesting is the Liepaja Museum, on Kurmajas prospekts halfway to the beach, which is free to get into and has an eclectic collection of sculptures in its grounds. South of the centre, the Liepaja During the Occupation Museum is even smaller than the one in Riga, and only worth seeing if you've got time on your hands.
Liepaja's beach is almost worth the bus ride on its own, a long, quartz-white strip of flat sand backed with dunes and the occasional wind turbine. It's been awarded an EU blue flag for cleanliness for each of the past eight years, though you'd have to be hardy to fancy a dip in the sea even at the height of summer.
But it's Karosta that really makes Liepaja unique. Built on the orders of Tsar Nicholas and used by the Latvian navy, the Nazis and the Soviets, it's a bleak open-sore of a place, a peek into life behind the Iron Curtain. Empty apartment buildings line the roadside, old men sit on bus stop benches, speaking Russian as if the Empire had never fallen. St Nicholas's Maritime Cathedral towers above a dusty wasteground. Nearby, Karosta Prison is the one thing in Liepaja that you really must see.
It's a quiet place, Liepaja, lacking the nightlife of Riga, the natural beauty of Sigulda or the traveller friendly vibe of Ventspils. But it'd be a shame to miss it.