Latvia is one of three small countries, sandwiched between the Baltic Sea and almighty Russia. It was the last of the Baltic states to regain its independence after Soviet occupation on 21 August 1991. Approximately 20% of Latvia are protected (and 56% of the country are forests) – hence our recommendation to experience Latvia’s great outdoors.
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Three reasons why you should visit Latvia
- Not only is the historic centre of Latvia’s capital Riga a UNESCO world heritage site, but with more than 800 Art Nouveau buildings, Riga (not Barcelona) is also considered the Art Nouveau capital of Europe.
- Only a short trip outside of Riga, grand wooden seaside homes and ancient Teutonic castles are just waiting to be explored.
- Latvia has four outstanding National Parks (two of which feature in our itinerary). Sounds wonderful? Well, it is.
Suggested Route and Destinations
Our itinerary assumes that you travel to Riga overland from Lithuania (or arrive in Riga by plane). If you don’t have time to continue your travels to Estonia, your closest airport to return home is Riga (88 kilometres / approximately 2.5 hours southwest of Cēsis).
But first, let’s talk about what there is to see and do…
Highlights of Riga (and surrounds)
Day 1 – Riga
As with Lithuania‘s capital Vilnius and Estonia‘s capital Tallinn, we recommend starting your first day in Riga with a free walking tour around the Old Town. The tour starts at 1000h in front of St Peter’s Church and takes just under 2 hours.
For lunch, head to Salve in the Old Town, to one of the Lido Bistro outlets or Riga’s Central Market in the old Zeppelin hangars opposite the bus station where you arrived. That market alone would be a reason for us to move to Riga.
If you enjoyed the Old Town walking tour and have a soft spot for architecture, Riga Free Tours now also offers a walking tour that takes you around Riga’s Art Nouveau treasures.
If you’re more into art than architecture, you may want to check out the Latvian National Museum of Art.
- at the Museum of Latvia’s Occupation (Raiņa Bulvāris 7) or
- at The Corner House (Brīvības Iela 61) – the former KGB building, which houses an exhibition about the KGB operations in Latvia.
For more details, check out the museum’s website.
First up, head to the historic seaside resort of Jūrmala, 40 kilometres / approximately 30 minutes west of Riga. The main sights are in the suburb of Majori, so if you take the minibus or train alight there.
If you drive and visit between 01 April and 30 September, you need to buy an entry pass (EUR2 per vehicle). Ticket machines are at the town entrance and in Majori itself. In turn, all municipal parking lots are free of charge. The quaint seaside town is easy to explore on foot.
Your next stop is the Ķemeri National Park (11 kilometres/20 minutes by car or 30 minutes by bus/train). The National Park offers many flat trails and boardwalks. So before you go, check out the park map online or head into the Tourist Information Centre opposite the train station in Majori. Also, make sure you bring insect repellent.
If you didn’t hire a car, take the minibus or train to the township of Kemeri. If the distances don’t bother you, you can, of course, walk all trails from the train station/bus stop. Alternatively, you can hire bicycles in Kemeri (right at the station – the shop is called Velo Noma) or in Majori – including electric bikes (for example, at ABC Grupa or ZLX). Be aware though: The ride from Majori to Kemeri, while flat, is just over 20 kilometres one-way (or 40 kilometres return).
As for trails, our recommendations are
- Great Ķemeri Bog Boardwalk: The larger boardwalk loop is about 3.5 kilometres from the parking lot (or 11 kilometres return from Kemeri train station)
- Lake Sloka Path: From the car park at Lake Sloka, the circular route is approximately three kilometres. If you are walking or cycling, it is approximately five kilometres from Kemeri train station to the parking lot at Lake Sloka (or ten kilometres return).
If you have time for a little detour after finishing the Lake Sloka Path you can add the Black Alder Swamp Boardwalk, which starts at Meža Māja, approximately three kilometres from Kemeri train station (or alight at the bus stop Meža Māja). If you walk the Lake Sloka Path, you pass Meža Māja anyway. The loop itself is less than one kilometre long.
Food and Drinks in Latvia
- To try Latvian cuisine at reasonable prices, head to one of the Lido Bistros in Riga. For traditional dishes in a more refined environment, check out Salve in Riga’s Old Town.
- For delicious modern Korean dishes and sunset views over Riga visit the Skyline Bar at the Radisson Blu Hotel.
- While staying in the historic Hotel Sigulda might be a bit too expensive, the restaurant serves delicious food made from fresh local produce.
Highlights of Gauja National Park
The Gauja National Park is just over an hour by train or bus east of Riga. While you could visit Sigulda or Cēsis (the two main vantage points for the park) on a day trip from Riga, we recommend you stay in either or both to really experience the National Park and all it has to offer. You can hike, kayak or bike past colourful sandstone formations and enjoy beautiful vistas over the Gauja River valley.
You can hire bikes and boats in both Sigulda and Cēsis:
- Sigulda: There is a bike rental shop opposite the train station and an e-bike rental shop by the cable car station. A number of companies also offer boat rentals.
- Bike rental in Cēsis is available near the entrance to the Cēsis Castle and Museum. Boat rental in Cēsis is offered by Žagarkalns, approximately 6 kilometres west of the township.
The Gauja National Park not only offers a ton of options for nature lovers. You can also bungee jump from the cable car across the Gauja river in Sigulda or zip line on the cable car’s cableway.
You can also visit the old castles of the Livonian Order (Teutonic Knights who settled in the area at the beginning of the 13th century). Our favourite was the Cēsis Castle and Museum:
- With the help of old-fashioned lanterns, you are free to explore the castle’s western tower by yourself.
- From May to September, workshops and a kitchen garden are staffed by locals dressed in medieval clothing who explain medieval crafts (for example, woodblock printing by the very passionate Viesturs Aboltins or straw hat making), traditional games and armour.
- Finally, a sizeable and super interesting museum awaits in the Manor House, explaining the history of the castle, of Cēsis and Latvia (make sure you use the leaflets provided in additional languages).
We spent several hours in the castle complex.
Have you visited Latvia? What other things to see and do would you recommend? Please leave a comment below.