Castle of Light – Riga, Latvia - Atlas Obscura

Castle of Light

Latvia's symbolic mountain-shaped national library is home to millions of cultural tomes. 


In Latvian literature and folklore, a “castle of light” is a metaphor for lost wisdom that can be reclaimed after the people overcome the symbolic darkness of war, invasion, and occupation. It comes from an old legend in which a mystical castle symbolizing culture and knowledge sinks in a lake but will one day be rebuilt.

It’s thus a fitting name for the striking modern structure that now houses the cultural archives of the former Soviet-occupied nation. The Castle of Light, as the National Library of Latvia (Latvijas Nacionālā bilbiotēka) is locally known, was opened in 2014 on the banks of the Daugava River. The building, designed by Latvian-American architect Gunnar Birkerts, is shaped like a large mountain with a glass flame atop the structure. The glass flame makes up the 11th and 12th floors and offers a magnificent panorama of Old Town Riga on the river.

The library includes an open space in the center of the building that allows visitors to look up at floors of books, manuscripts, sheet music, and other cultural treasures. The space claims to house more than 1,000 places to read, and shelf space for more than six million items. There is also an auditorium, gift shop, and excellent cafe.

A permanent exhibition takes a look at both the history of books in Latvia and how these works have shaped and influenced the Latvian culture. The major collections focus on items in Latvian or about the country and its people, including children’s literature, science, technology, music, and cartography. 

Know Before You Go

Information on visiting is available on the library website, but as of July 2018 visitors can explore portions of the library daily, although levels 11 and 12 are only open on Saturdays. Stop at the welcome desk to register for the visit. Tours are also available and can be set up through the library for a small per person fee.

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