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Latvia is one of the three Baltic countries located between Lithuania and Estonia along the Baltic Sea in Northern Europe. Although Latvia is small, those who have had visited this country are fascinated by its beautiful nature, medieval castles and unique culture.
Latvia’s beautiful capital city of Riga is worth a visit alone, but there are many other charming towns and even beachside destinations to explore. This country of 1.92 million residents is one of Europe’s hidden gems.
Latvia was occupied by the USSR from 1940 to 1991. Before the occupation, Latvians made up the majority of the country’s population. Today, a significant number of Russians live in this country as well. That being said, Latvian is not the only language spoken, although it is the official language in Latvia. Some people also speak Russian, while some speak both, plus English.
Even though most people adhere to Christianity (Lutheranism and Catholicism), about one-quarter consider themselves nonreligious. Latvians value their personal space and may come off as a bit reserved, but most people are happy to help if you have trouble getting around.
Riga Old Town, Gauja National Park and the Soviet legacy are important stops on an adventure through this beautiful Baltic beauty. Let’s take a road trip through Latvia, from Jurmala’s resorts in the west to the Latgale region in the east of Latvia.
1. Explore the Cultural and Historical Sights of Riga
Established in the 13th century, Riga is where the Daugava River and the Baltic Sea meet. Today, Riga is the capital of Latvia, and with 600,000 inhabitants, it is the largest city of all three Baltic states.
More than 800 Art Nouveau-style buildings were built in Riga at the beginning of the 20th century. You can see most of these buildings on Alberta Street. The beautiful architecture will leave a remarkable impression on you in Old Town Riga. It is a historic part of the city with cobblestone streets and many buildings have the status of cultural heritage landmarks.
St. Peter’s Church is the most attractive for tourists. Its 72-meter-(236 feet)-high tower offers a beautiful view of the city. Take some time to visit the House of the Blackheads, an impressive 14th-century building that was demolished during World War II but later rebuilt. Today, various events, concerts and conferences are held at this building. It also holds an extensive collection of silverware and ceiling paintings.
Another photo-worthy stop is Three Brothers. Legend says that three brothers from one family constructed three buildings next to each other in medieval times. These buildings nowadays have substantial historical significance.
Riga is also home to one of the largest markets in Eastern Europe. The picturesque Riga Central Market has several halls featuring stalls with fruits, vegetables, fish, cheeses and spices. It is located near the Riga International Bus Terminal and Central Railway Station, on the Daugava River banks. Riga Central Market has been on the UNESCO World Heritage List since 1998.
While Riga has beautifully preserved its historic buildings, the city has a young, modern vibe, with excellent restaurants, free city wi-fi, flower-filled parks and more.
2. Visit Top Museums in Riga, Latvia
Because of the occupation, Latvians had to struggle to preserve their cultural heritage. Religious and folkloric festivals were banned, and the mid-19th century is considered the onset of the country’s cultural awakening. The country carefully preserved its heritage and culture, which you can experience for yourself in the music at popular clubs like Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs in Riga or during the Midsummer Festivals in summer.
Today, Riga has several excellent museums which explore that heritage. If you want to see how Latvians lived in different periods and different parts of the country, you can explore the Latvian Ethnographic Open-Air Museum. It’s just 30 minutes from Riga. The Latvian National Museum of Art has a collection of more than 50,000 works of art from the 18th century to the present day.
In the spring of 2021, Riga will become richer for another exciting museum. A new Museum of the World Freemasonry will present a collection of 1,500 Masonic artifacts from all over the world. Visitors will find out which celebrities were Freemasons and what Nazi anti-Masonic propaganda looked like, as well as the rooms where rituals were held.
if you like the automotive industry, you can visit the Riga Motor Museum. In the center of Riga is the Freedom monument. That 42-meter (138-feet)-high symbol of independence, freedom and national unity was built with Latvians’ donations as a memorial for all those who gave their lives for freedom.
Among other interesting places worth visiting in the Latvian capital are the Riga Zoo and the Latvian National Opera and Ballet. Also, you can visit the somber Corner House, also known as the KGB Building. The building was the former KGB Headquarters in Riga and is now a museum. Part of the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia, it takes a hard look at the difficult times Latvia endured during the Soviet occupation.
3. Discover Magical Waterfalls and Caves Near the Town of Kuldiga
In the west of Latvia, the town of Kuldiga will charm you. It has only 13,000 inhabitants and is a quiet destination where you can relax and enjoy a walk along the river or through the city. Kuldiga is called the Latvian Venice because of the numerous canals of the Alexupite River that flow through the city.
Near the town of Kuldiga, you can see the widest waterfall in Europe on the Venta River. The Ventas Rumba waterfall width varies from 250 to 270 meters (820 to 885 feet), and it’s only 2 meters (6 feet) high. Since 1997, Ventas Rumba has been under protection as a natural monument. It used to be an essential river junction, so a nearby settlement was created – the town of Kuldiga. Venta River is a popular location for sport fishing as it is abundant with various species of fish.
Another important tourist attraction is the Kuldiga Brick Bridge, located near the waterfall. It was built in the 19th century. The bridge is 164 meters (538 feet) long and 8 meters (26 feet) wide and is probably the longest functional brick bridge in Europe. Every year more than 100,000 people visit this attractive location in the west of Latvia.
Near the town of Kuldiga is the longest cave in Latvia. Riežupe Sand Caves is a man-made labyrinth created in the 18th century. The tunnels are 2 kilometers (1.24 miles) long, but only 460 meters (1,509 feet) are available to visitors. You can visit this place only as part of a guided tour.
4. Enjoy a Summer Resort on the Baltic Coast
About 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) west of Riga is the city of Jurmala. It became famous in Soviet times as a resort often visited by prominent Soviet politicians. With 30 kilometers (18 miles) of coastline, sandy beaches and numerous wooden houses, Jurmala is one of the most popular destinations in the Baltics.
The Livu Aquaparks is one of the biggest tourist attractions in this part of Latvia. With as many as 300,000 visitors each year, 10 swimming pools, 20 water slides and spa facilities, Livu Aquaparks is one of the largest water parks in Northern Europe.
If you love nature, Kemeri National Park will delight you. Dzintari Forest Park is also worth visiting because of the lovely walking paths, children’s playgrounds, sports fields and beautiful pine forests.
When you come to Jurmala, you should visit Ragakapa Nature Park, an 800-meter (2,624 feet)-long natural dune created by the wind. The River Lielupe, more than 100 kilometers (62 miles) long, is a paradise for those who love kayaking and canoeing.
The urban part of Jurmala is also attractive. You can enjoy walking through Jomas Street, a pedestrian zone with restaurants, boutiques and souvenir shops.
5. Discover the Natural Beauty of Gauja National Park
Gauja National Park is the largest national park in Latvia. It is named after the Gauja River, whose valley it encompasses. The park is known for its significant biological diversity, natural springs and important cultural and historical monuments.
The biggest attractions in Gauja National Park include sandstone cliffs created 350 million years ago, caves and caverns. The Zvartes Rock, Erglu Cliffs and Sietiniezis Ridge are places worth seeing. The Zvartes Rock is also considered a place with the most scenic sandstone outcrops in Latvia.
Interestingly, there are more than 500 cultural and historical monuments in Gauja National Park. Here you can see churches, brick castles and watermills. The Turaida Museum-Reserve, which includes the Turaida Castle with a stunning view of the entire valley, is also worth visiting. The Ungurmuiza Manor complex is an excellent example of Baroque architecture.
6. Sigulda is a Paradise for Adventurers
About 55 kilometers (34 miles) from Riga, there is a popular tourist destination visited by about 600,000 people every year. The Sigulda District consists of the city of Sigulda and three parishes, with a total population of only 18,000.
Sigulda is a fantastic destination for adventure enthusiasts and adrenaline junkies: It features the largest open-air adventure park in the Baltics, with a platform at the height of 20 meters (65 feet). Aerodium is also a big attraction and the first vertical wind tunnel in Eastern Europe. After the briefing with the instructor and a warm-up, you will experience the unique feeling of flying in an air tunnel.
You will have the best view of the Gauja Valley and Sigulda’s medieval castles, Krimulda and Turaida, from the cable car 43 meters (141 feet) above the Gauja. The length of the cableway is 1,200 meters (3,937 feet), and you can enjoy the ride every half-hour. The beautiful surroundings will leave you breathless. For total adrenaline freaks, bungee jumping and ziplining are available during the summer season.
If you have more time to explore Sigulda, visit Gutman’s Cave, the widest and highest cave in the Baltic states. Also, you can visit Safari Park More, where you can see red deer, white deer and fallow deer, and take pictures with them.
This area’s most significant cultural heritage is the Sigulda Castle Complex from the 18th century, built in the Neo-Gothic style. Today, art workshops are held here where artisans create unique products that you can buy as a souvenir.
7. Visit the Most Beautiful Palace in Latvia
The magnificent Rundale Palace was built in the 18th century in the Zemgale region of southern Latvia. The palace was made for the Dukes of Courland and was later used as a hospital for Napoleon’s army during Russia’s French attack.
In the 20th century, the palace was used as the Ministry of Agriculture’s headquarters and even as a school run by the Ministry of Education. This baroque palace is also recognizable by its beautiful parks, a French garden, and rose garden.
Today, Rundale Palace is one of the leading tourist destinations in Latvia and a place where the world’s highest-ranking officials stay when visiting this Baltic country. Several parts of the palace are open to visitors, such as the White Hall, the Gilt Hall and the Great Gallery.
Wedding ceremonies, concerts and presentations are also held in the halls of Rundale Palace. Since 1972 when the Rundale Palace Museum was established, its mission has been to research Latvian history, create collections and organize exhibitions.
8. Spend the Night in an Abandoned Prison in Liepaja
Liepaja is the third-largest city in Latvia and an important port on the Baltic Sea, with blue flag beaches. You will have a beautiful view of the city and its surroundings if you climb to the top of the tower of the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity.
Liepaja boasts the modern Great Amber Concert Hall, which opened in 2015. The futuristic-looking building houses three halls of outstanding acoustics where music events are held.
The main tourist attraction is the old military prison, the only one that’s open to the public. Karosta Military Prison was founded in 1900, and no one ever managed to escape from it. Thanks to the prison museum, you can learn many details from World War II and the period of the Soviet regime rule.
If you want to try something unique, this place offers plenty of fun. You can participate in the “Extreme Night” show by getting a specific role and spending the night in a prison cell. In Karosta Prison, you can also play in two Escape Rooms, where, with the help of logic and teamwork, you can solve puzzles and escape within 60 minutes.
You can take a guided tour of the Naval Port’s Northern Forts to learn more about the Liepaja fortification system. You will explore the underground labyrinths and see firsthand the importance of the Liepaja fortress for the city’s defense at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century.
9. Uncover the Beauties of Daugavpils
The Latgale region occupies the eastern part of Latvia, north of the Daugava River. The mentality and language differ from other Latvia regions, and the dominant religion is not Lutheran but Catholic.
The city of Daugavpils is the tourist pearl of the Latgale region. The biggest attraction and symbol of the city is Daugavpils Fortress. It was built in the 19th century as part of the defensive line against the oncoming Napoleonic army. Later, it was used as a warehouse, and today it represents the last fortification of that kind in Europe.
If you love art, you’ve probably heard of the painter Mark Rothko. His original name is Marcus Rothkowitz, and he was born in Daugavpils. When he was 10, he moved with his family to the U.S. and built a career as a great artist. Today, there is a Mark Rothko Art Center in his hometown.
This art and cultural center is located in the Arsenal building of the Daugavpils Fortress and is the only place in Europe where original works by Mark Rothko can be seen. Also, here you can see exhibitions of other world-famous contemporary artists. For a complete experience of the Latgale region, take the time to visit Daugavpils Tarzans Adventure Park that features six obstacle tracks with different difficulty, Latgale Zoo, Devil’s Lake, Dubrovin Park and the city of Rēzekne.
The St. Peter’s Church and the Daugavpils Museum are also worth visiting.
10. Explore Ligatne Nature Trails and Secret Soviet Latvia Bunker
Ligatne is a small town on the Gauja River in the northwestern part of Latvia. As it practically represents the Gauja National Park entrance, this place is excellent for nature lovers.
Ligatne Nature Trails include 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) of trails, especially a delight for animal lovers. Many animals from various parts of Latvia are found here and could not survive elsewhere. With organized excursions in Latvian, English, German and Russian, you can enjoy watching all those birds, bears, deer and other wild animals in a beautiful setting.
Another winning outdoor location is Lustuzis Cliffs. These are impressive sandstone cliffs with caves that the locals used as a pantry for groceries.
Ligatne also preserves a part of Latvian history from the time of the occupation. During the Cold War, a secret Soviet bunker was built, 9 meters (29 feet) underground.
It was intended to protect prominent politicians of the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic in a nuclear war. Today, in organized tours, you can see the passages and rooms, some of which had power generators and a direct telephone connection with Moscow.
11. Admire the Charm of the Medieval City of Cesis
Cesis was founded in the 13th century. With a history of 800 years, it is one of the most important medieval cities in the Baltic. You can climb the tower of the Cesis Medieval Castle from which you will have a beautiful view of Cesis Old Town and the beautiful park.
St. John’s Church, city hall and other buildings housing boutiques and workshops in the Cesis Old Town are worth seeing. You can explore the 18th-century Cesis New Castle. Today, this castle houses the Cesis History and Art Museum.
Near Cesis are Ciruliši Nature Trails with three routes for walking and enjoying unique natural creations like Ciruliši cliffs.
As you can tell, Latvia is a country of rich history and culture, beautiful architecture and breathtaking natural sights. It’s one of the greenest countries in Europe, and a destination well worth the visit.
IF YOU GO:
READ MORE: Roots in Riga, A Latvian-American’s Story
Author’s Bio: Marija Stojanovic Petkovski – Based in Serbia in Europe, Petkovski realizes that writing about the most beautiful places in the world is something that inspires her. She is sure that a pint of good craft beer perfectly accompanies a tasty home-made lasagne. In her spare time, she enjoys playing with her children and spending time outdoors with her family.