Regions of Latvia

Regions of Latvia: What to See

Regions: Introduction

Latvia consists of four regions. They had a separate history prior to being unified into a single Latvia in 1918. This allowed them to have separate cultural traits.

Vidzeme (Northern Latvia) is the largest region, famous for its scenery and castles near Sigulda and Cēsis. Ruled by Sweden 1621-1721 and Russia 1721-1918 (with limited autonomy), it gradually became the most ethnically Latvian region.

Central fortification of Medieval Cēsis castle
Medieval Cēsis castle in Vidzeme that once served as the residence of Livonian Order grand master. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Latgale (Eastern Latvia) is the most ethnically diverse area and the only one to have a Catholic majority. It was the only area of Latvia to be ruled directly by Poland-Lithuania (1562-1775) and Russia (1775-1918). Polish nobles, Russian Old Believer refugees, Russian Orthodox settlers and Russia’s Jews moved in throughout that era of foreign regimes. Some towns remain minority-majority. Even many Latvians there speak in a unique Latgallian dialect sometimes considered a language on its own.

Aglona Basilica
Aglona Basilica, the heart of Catholic Latgale (and Latvia). ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Courland (Western Latvia) is the coastal region with two historic port cities (Liepāja and Ventspils), fishing villages and nice empty shorelines. It spent 1562-1795 era as the naval heart of Courland-Semigallia, a sea-minded German-ruled duchy.

Kuldīga, one Courland's surviving authentic towns
Kuldīga, one Courland’s surviving authentic towns. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Semigallia (Southern Latvia) was the administrative center of Courland-Semigallia (1562-1795) and it has Latvia’s prettiest palaces that once housed the local dukes (Rundale and Jelgava).

A small part of massive Jelgava palace
A small part of massive Jelgava palace in Semigallia. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Riga is located in Vidzeme, but its status as the capital effectively made it a region of its own. The pace of life in Riga is faster than in all the regional cities while its culture includes all regional cultures as well as migrants from abroad. If the suburbs such as Jūrmala resort are included, Riga’s population is almost equal to that of the four remaining regions put together.

The most famous square of Riga Old Town
The most famous square of Riga Old Town. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The regions of Latvia are rather similar in size and each has a population of approximately 300 000 inhabitants. Riga (if put together with Jūrmala and suburbs) alone has some 850 000 people.

Courland

Courland (Latvian: Kurzeme) covers the entire Western shore of the nation. It is sparsely populated and has a strong ethnic Latvian majority (75,9%), mostly Lutherans.

The region‘s rugged empty beaches are joined by two port cities: Liepāja and Ventspils, where stately buildings remind of past importance. In the 17th century, the Dukes of Courland dispatched colonists to America from these cities, using a navy that was 1/3rd of the legendary Spanish Armada. 200 years later there was a Liepāja-New York direct steamship service as the old ports were revitalized by railways.

Historic port warehouses in Liepāja
Historic port warehouses in Liepāja. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The ports are still extremely important, but Courland has also used its uncrowded seaside to attract tourists. Good modern tourist infrastructure and entire districts of 19th-century wooden villas built for the elite of the day are both a reminder of that.

An abandoned villa
An abandoned German villa in Ventspils. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Courlandian hinterland includes multiple pretty towns: Kuldīga, Talsi, and Kandava. Smaller than the cities they seem to be just as old. Many of the pretty buildings have been constructed by Germans, who were the local lords and made 15%-50% inhabitants in most cities and towns until the 20th century.

Main square of Kuldīga with old brick buildings, typical for Courland main towns
The main square of Kuldīga with old brick buildings, typical for Courland main towns. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

In the 19th century, Courland served as the westernmost land of former enormous Russian Empire, making it a natural military outpost – and now a great location for exploration by military buffs. Liepāja hosts an entire „military city“ of Karosta, where Imperial Navy was once stationed. Soviets too left their crumbling installations, such as Skrunda-2 military town (now abandoned) or a massive radar near Ventspils.

A tower in Karosta of Liepāja
A tower in Karosta of Liepāja. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Luckily, Courland was saved from Soviet destruction during World War 2. Nazi Germany held Courland until its leaders surrendered. That is, Soviet flag was already waving over Berlin but German troops still guarded Liepāja and Ventspils. Therefore Courlandian cities and towns remain much as they did before the war, with pretty brick buildings and elaborate wooden contraptions.

The lack of post-war growth also helped to conserve the looks: Courland today has as many inhabitants as it had before World War 2, so there was little modern construction. The towns and cities are surrounded by pristine nature, such as at the northernmost tip of Courland known as the Liv Coast, famous for its unique Liv indigenous minority. Courland forms the bulk of Latvian shoreline.

Steep sandy shores are common in Western Courland
Steep sandy shores are common in Western Courland. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Latgale

Latgale (Eastern Latvia) is the least Latvian region of Latvia. Centuries of foreign (Russian and Polish) direct rule led to a great diversity of ethnic and religious communities here.

Today, Latvians make only 46,2% of the population, as there is a hundred thousands ethnic Russians (39%) as well as smaller historic minorities of Poles (in southern Latgale, 6,9%), Belarusians (in eastern Latgale, 5%) and Jews (in Latgalian towns, 0,1%). Cities are multiethnic in all Latvia, but Latgale alone also has minority-majority villages.

Lutheran and Catholic churches at the religious center of Daugavpils
Lutheran and Catholic churches stand side-by-side in Daugavpils, also next to Russian Orthodox and Old Believer churches. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Even the Latvians of Latgale are different from those of all other regions, however, speaking a unique Latgalian dialect some consider to be a separate language altogether.

Moreover, unlike the rest of Latvia, Latgale has a Roman Catholic majority as it was influenced by Polish and Lithuanian thought. Aglona (the main Catholic pilgrimage site in Latvia) is located in Latgale, as are multiple old white Baroque churches funded by the Polish-Lithuanian nobility.

Aglona chruch, monastery and square for pilgrims
Aglona Chruch, monastery, and square for pilgrims. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Still, the region is extremely heterogeneous religiously with most towns having as many as four small old churches rather than a single large one. In addition to the Lutheran and Catholic there are also Orthodox and Old Believer ones, catering to the Russian community.

While the Russian Orthodox people are mostly Russian Imperial and Soviet settlers, the Old Believer community dates to the 18th century when they came as refugees (fleeing persecutions in Russia for their “schismatic” faith).

Daugavpils (pop. 100 000) is the largest city in Latgale. Predominantly Russian-speaking, it is famous for its military heritage with an entire 19th-century fortress surviving in a pretty good shape.

Gate of Daugavpils Fortress
Gate of Daugavpils fortress adorned with Russian emblem, inscription and czar’s name is one of many locations that show Russian influence in Latgale. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Rēzekne (pop. 30 000) is considered to be the capital of Latgale but it has been greatly altered by World War 2.

Some small towns with their glorious baroque churches and palaces (once funded by the local nobles) are of more interest. One example of such is Krāslava.

Krāslava baroque church
Krāslava baroque church. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Equally picturesque is the string of Latgalian lakes. Lubāns is the largest one while Rāzna has the largest volume and is protected as a national park. Lakeside villages have tourist camps and hotels.

Today Latgale is considered to be Latvia’s poorest region and the average age is higher as many younger people have left. Latgale’s economic backwardness is nothing new and it dates at least to the 19th-century Russian direct rule. In the late 19th century, for example, merely 50% of Latgale’s population was literate, while in the rest of Latvia the rate stood at 90% at the same time.

Lake Rāzna
Lake Rāzna, one of many Latgalian lakes. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Vidzeme

Vidzeme (northeast Latvia) is the nation’s heartland: its largest and most ethnically Latvian (~85%) region. It was the location where Latvians first moved from villages into towns, asserting their culture. While Vidzeme was also the first Latvian land to be conquered by Russians (this happened in 1721), it was far from the worst affected one.

Old buildings at central Cēsis
Old buildings at central Cēsis. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Gauja River (the longest one that starts and ends in Latvia) and the surrounding national park may be the first image of Vidzeme most would recall. The area’s lowlands, sandstone caves, and forested hills are a good image of typical Latvian nature. Multiple castles on hills remind of the Latvia‘s role as the vanguard of crusades against pagans. Vidzeme was the epicenter of the major Livonian Order of Knights that ruled vast tracts of modern-day Baltic States.

A ferry accross Gauja river in Gauja National Park in winter
A ferry across Gauja river in Gauja National Park in winter. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The main castle of the Livonian Order still stands in Cēsis, which is also a Hanseatic town still retaining its Medieval grid. Sigulda area has three more castles. Both are easily accessible from Riga (50-100 km) and became popular summer destinations for hundreds of thousands Riga residents.

Castle-like 19th century Cēsis palace, with ruins of Medieval castle on the right
Castle-like 19th-century Cēsis palace, with ruins of a Medieval castle on the right. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Beyond these Vidzeme is more laid-back and the distances are greater, small towns (not a single one larger than 30 000 inhabitants) separated from each other by vast tracts of plains and forests. There are some gems in these lands, however: massive castle-like 19th-century manor palaces (such as Cesvaine), Latvia’s last narrow gauge railway (Gulbene area), old churches.

Castle-inspired Alūksne manor palace
Castle-inspired Alūksne manor palace. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Valmiera is considered to be the capital of Vidzeme, however, it is not the region’s primary sight.

Daugava valley is the most urbanized area, as the river served as a trade thoroughfare for centuries, becoming a hub for towns. Now tamed by three hydroelectric power plants, Daugava has lost parts of original appeal, but the surrounding reservoir may have made Koknese castle even more romantic. Krustpils town is still located where Daugava is not artificially widened.

Koknese castle ruins
Koknese castle ruins in flooded Daugava valley. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

While Riga (the capital) and Jūrmala (the nation‘s top resort) are historically part of Vidzeme, they now effectively belong to Latvia-as-a-whole and are here not considered as being in Vidzeme.

Semigallia

In 16th-18th centuries Semigalia served as the center of Duchy of Courland and Semigallia, a small-yet-rich statelet that participated in American colonization.

As such, it boasts numerous castles and palaces. The most famous amongst them (and all the Baltic palaces is the Rundale Palace and its park.

Rundale Palace in Semigallia
Rundale Palace. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Jelgava (the region’s largest city) has another massive palace with crypts of the dukes. The interior there is destroyed, however.

The Dukes of Courland and Semigallia were ethnic Germans, and much of what remains in the area‘s cities has an inherent German feeling. Well into the 19th century Germans still made some 33% of Jelgava inhabitants.

German manors were located outside of the main towns as well, and the prettiest string of such buildings stands in Western Semigallia.

The Germans initially came as crusaders who Christianized the Latvian nation. A crusader castle remains are available near Bauska, which is a nice small town.

Lutheran church of Bauska
Lutheran Church of Bauska dating to Courland-Semigallia era. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

While retaining a strong Latvian majority, Semigallia has significant ethnic minorities in some locations. Jēkabpils, with its old houses of worship of 7 different faiths, is arguably Latvia’s most traditionally multi-ethnic and multi-religious town.

Southern Semigallia hosts many Lithuanians, while the areas close to Riga have many Russian-speakers. That Riga hinterland was effectively transformed into suburbs recently, becoming the site of such locations as Cinevilla, a Riga movie studio backlot that’s also firm on Latvia’s tourist sight list.

Riga: Introduction

Riga (pop. 650 000) is the largest city in the Baltic States. Together with suburbs, it contains almost half of Latvia’s inhabitants. Nearly all major Latvian businesses are headquartered in Riga and foreign representations to the entire Baltic region are usually located in Riga.

Riga is both a major entry point to the Baltics region (its airport is the largest) and a major tourist destination of its own with one of the world’s best collection of art nouveau buildings, wooden residentials and a Medieval Old Town (UNESCO World Heritage).

Alberta street in Centrs district of Riga
Alberta Street in Centrs district of Riga, famous for its art nouveau architecture. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Late 19th and early 20th century were the prime periods of Riga expansion, creating its romantic current look. However, the city was initially developed by German knights and merchants in the Medieval era when its cute Old Town was built.

The most famous square of Riga Old Town
City hall square of Riga Old Town with St. Peter church rising above it. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The 20th century was especially bloody for Riga as the Soviet occupation transformed the city and murdered thousands of its people while settling the city with Russians. While Riga is now a modern Western metropolis with Soviet past little visible for those who don’t seek it, the inhabitants of Riga remain bitterly divided between once-oppressed ethnic Latvians (~43% of the population) and a largely Russian-speaking remainder (privileged while under Soviet occupation).

Riga is divided by geographic features into:

1.Old Town (Medieval district surrounded by moat and Daugava)

2.Downtown (19th-century districts, surrounded by railway and Daugava, consisting of the massive art nouveau Centrs and more prosaic Eastern Downtown, as well as the largely modern Northern Downtown)

3.Eastern new districts (districts beyond the railway, developed in 20th century or as 19th-century suburbs. They include a former industrial hub of Sarkandaugava, multiethnic Maskavas suburb that has become a shabby version of Downtown, interwar district Teika, and a historic wooden villa suburb of Mežaparks where main Riga cemeteries are also located)

4.Pardaugava (the areas west of Daugava river, where the districts closer to Old Town – Āgenskalns, Kipsala – have been built over in the 19th century and are now undergoing transformation into a new city center. Further away lay the Soviet districts).

Wooden 19th century apartment buildings in Pardaugava
Wooden 19th-century apartment buildings in Pardaugava. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Each of the famous 19th-century districts is a collection of four distinct types of buildings:

1.The largest and most lauded ones are 5 story edifices where elaborate art nouveau style predominates.
2.Then there are smaller and simpler (2-4 floor) brick buildings.
3.Wooden 2-floored residentials are another icon of Riga, although they are not so prestigious.
4.And, at the „smallest end“ there are single-floored detached homes and somewhat larger villas.

The Centrs neighborhood is nearly entirely built of the 5-floored residentials, but the further you drift from the Centrs, the less such buildings (and the more buildings of the smaller types) there you will find.

Soldiers memorial in Riga
A fragment of independence war soldiers memorial – one of the key interwar projects when city asserted its Latvian identity. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Daugavpils

Daugavpils (pop. 93 000) is Latvia’s second largest city and the main metropolis of Latgale (Eastern Latvia).

Uniquely, ethnic Latvians make up only 20% of the population here, making the city seem distant and disloyal to many Latvians. Russian is the lingua franca of Daugavpils. While the city is ethnically diverse (Russians – 54%, Poles – 14%, Belarusians – 7%, Ukrainians – 2%) the Soviet Russification drive has ensured that even to most non-Russian locals Russian is also the native tongue.

Skyline of Daugavpils
Skyline of Daugavpils with churches of various ethnicities and denominations visible. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Daugavpils became a large city after Russian Empire has developed a massive fortress here (1810-1876) as well as laid primary Saint Petersburg-Warsaw road (1834) and railroad (1860) through the city. While the regular Downtown street grid dates to that era of rapid growth, many of the buildings are newer as the city was devastated during World War 2 and subsequent Soviet regime.

A typical straight street in Daugavpils downtown
A typical straight street in Daugavpils downtown. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Daugavpils Downtown is where the shopping, restaurants, and nightlife are concentrated, but the most iconic districts lie beyond it. These are the Fortress (Cietoksnis), which is now inhabited, and the Churches Hill area where churches of 4 Christian denominations stand side by side, signifying Daugavpils’s and Latgale’s multi-religious history. The nearby Varšavas street has some pretty villas that miraculously survived World War 2 bombings.

Daugavpils fortress entrance
Daugavpils fortress entrance. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Other parts of Daugavpils are the off-the-beaten-path suburb of Grīva beyond the river that still retains some 19th century atmosphere and the mostly Soviet and post-Soviet New Daugavpils in the east.

While Daugavpils is somewhat infamous as poor, these days it looks much better than it did a decade ago.

Loading map...

Loading

Liepāja

Liepāja (pop. 77 000) is the westernmost Latvian city. For centuries it has been a major seaport and competed for the status of Latvia’s second city.

As Liepāja has less inhabitants today than in it did in 1911, the “new” is is still overwhelmed by the old. To this day Liepāja is full of picturesque turn-of-the-20th-century buildings when the city was a major naval hub of the Russian Empire, being important to many ethnic groups.

Picturesque buildings in Liepāja Old Town
Picturesque buildings in the Old Liepāja. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Liepāja consists of three parts, separated from each other by old shipping canals:

The southernmost is Old Liepāja is the historic downtown with old churches, art nouveau edifices and hundreds of wooden apartment buildings. It was here where Liepāja’s original glory began in 17th century when it took part in the colonization of Americas and Africa. Little of that era remains, having been replaced by 19th century, when rapidly expanding city needed to house the Latvian and Lithuanian workers as well offer seaside places to build villas for the German elite. Old Liepāja continues to be the main hub of nightlife and is considered the downtown.

Typical wooden building of Old Liepāja
Typical wooden building of Old Liepāja. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

New Liepāja is the geographic center of Liepāja that hosts its bus and train stations. It offers some shopping and entertainment opportunities. Developed in the 19th century it also has some pretty buildings, however, it is not usually treated as a tourist sight.

In the north Karosta is becoming Liepāja’s symbol in spite (or likely because of) being mostly abandoned. That was an entire military city of the Russian Empire that hosted tens of thousands soldiers and officers in its now-crumbling red-brick buildings.

Karosta prison in Liepāja
Karosta prison. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Liepāja is surrounded by sea and lakes. Grobiņa suburb has a lakeside castle ruins and Viking graves.

Rundale Palace

Rundale Palace is the leading palace of the Baltic States both by size and extravagance, making it one of Latvia’s top tourist sights.

Rundale Palace
Rundale Palace. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The Baroque edifice has been built in 1736-1768 as a summer residence of the dukes of Courland and Semigallia.

Many opulent rooms may be visited inside on the second floor. Restorations are ongoing and much of what haven’t survived has been restored. First floors houses temporary exhibitions.

Formal garden in front of the palace with its straight paths and a fountain is another pinnacle of the visit.

An Eastern-style pavillion in Rundale garden
An Eastern-style pavilion in Rundale garden. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Unlike all other noble families of Poland-Lithuania who would merely own their lands as freehold, the dukes of Courland-Semigallia (Kettler and Biron dynasties) had their own semi-sovereign duchy, leading to unmatched importance and riches. Courland even participated in the colonization of Americas, colonizing Gambia and Tobago island in the 17th century where a geographical feature is still named Great Courland Bay.

The Rundale palace is the main reminder of this small-yet-rich country, as the Dukes’ primary residence in Jelgava had its interior looted and burned by the Russian forces in 1918.

Entrance to Rundale palace
Entrance to Rundale palace. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Both Rundale and Jelgava palaces were created by Bartolomeo Rastrelli – the favorite architect of Russian czars who was behind the Winter Palace (Hermitage) and Tsarskoye Selo Palace near St. Petersburg.

Kuldīga town

Kuldīga (pop. 12 000) is one of the most atmospheric towns in Courland and Latvia.

Kuldīga famous for its picturesque old town with 17th-18th centuries riverside buildings. As the town population today is similar to that before World War 1, and the destruction witnessed minuscule, nearly all buildings in the Old Town are at least a century old.

Main streets both for enjoying old buildings and activities are Liepajas (pedestrianized) and Baznicas. The main City Hall square is between them.

Kuldīga downtown
Crossing the Liepajas street in Kuldīga downtown. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Kuldīga once served as a major center of the Livonian Order and then Duchy of Courland and Semigallia, but the castle did not survive and has been replaced by a Castle park. Only some cellars have been reused by the Kuldīga museum. The museum operates in a large wooden building that has been brought in from EXPO 1900 in Paris where it served as Russian pavillion. Playing cards of the world are also exhibited there.

Kuldīga has the Europe’s widest waterfall (width 249 m) known as Ventas Rumba. However, it is only 2 m in height. Downriver from the falls Venta river is crossed by a historic brick bridge (1874), one of the longest surviving brick bridges in Europe. A disused water mill provides more scenic water views with its 4,5 m tall dam.

Kuldīga old bridge
The brick bridge of Kuldīga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Among the old small buildings of Kuldīga stand rather massive houses of worship of four religions: St. Catherine’s Lutheran, St. Ann Lutheran, Holy Trinity Catholic, Russian Orthodox (built under Russian rule in 1871 when Orthodoxy was promoted). Synagogue is now closed and hosts a city library.

St. Anne Lutheran church
St. Anne Lutheran church is the largest among Kuldīga churches. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The forest 5 km north of Kuldīga has Riežupe “sand caves” underneath. Originally excavated in order to get high quality sand they are now used for tourism. Candle-carrying excursions visit a quarter of 2 km cave labyrinths; various attractions are offered. The caves are closed in winter for hibernating bats (some of them come to sleep earlier and may be seen).

Kuldīga sand caves
Kuldīga sand caves. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Ventspils

Ventspils (pop. 39 000) is a massive port and the commercial hub of northwestern Latvia (Courland).

The docks are seamlessly integrated into city downtown, ships mooring right next to the historic buildings, never allowing one to forget that this is one of the Baltic Sea’s largest ports.

Ventspils main square with Lutheran church
Ventspils main square with Lutheran church. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Such status is impressive, given the city’s small population. Still, in the gone-by eras the influence of Ventspils was even greater, as it was the naval heart of Courland-Semigallia duchy that partook in the colonization of Americas and Africa.

Ventspils port buildings as visible accross the river from Old Town
Ventspils port buildings as visible accross the river from Old Town. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Ruled by a single mayor Aivars Lembergs since 1988 Ventspils has been keen on establishing itself as a “pretty city” worth travelling for.

It boasts some of the Baltic States’s nicest landscaping: “flower sculptures” (in summer), decorated cow statues. Even prosaic buildings (such as port warehouses) are well illuminated, arguably surpassing even Riga in that sense.

One of Ventspils cows in front of the port administration building in Old Town
One of Ventspils cows in front of the port administration building in Old Town. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The most unique Ventspils publicity stunt is the Vent currency. It is possible to “earn” it virtually by doing various online activities (such as answering quiz questions about Ventspils). The banknotes may then be withdrawn from account once in Ventspils, and may be used to pay (in part) various local expenses such as museum tickets.

Livonian order castle interior, representing eras gone-by (partly payable by Vents)
Livonian order castle interior, representing eras gone-by (partly payable by Vents). ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Much of Ventspils attractions are located in Seaside Ventspils. Built up in 19th century with elaborate wooden villas and homes, the area has been successfully repurposed for modern seaside tourism.

One of the historic Ventspils villas
One of the historic Ventspils villas. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The wide sandy beach is far from the only attraction of Ventspils and the city is regularly constructing new ones. Among them is the artificial hill for skiing (creating one was a big task in lowland Latvia). It is located in the Soviet districts which, together with suburbs, also have interesting historic sights, such as a massive Soviet radar.

One of the main streets of Old Town Ventspils
One of the main streets of Old Town Ventspils. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Sigulda town, castles and Gauja national park

Sigulda (pop. 17 000) is a town famous for its castles and picturesque natural surroundings which form the Gauja National park (nicknamed “Switzerland of Latvia”).

Sandstone caves in Līgatne
Sandstone caves in Līgatne. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Castles and palaces of Sigulda

Three Medieval castles are located in the area, once built and owned by the German conquerors. At the time German bishops of Riga would compete for domination of Latvia against German knights and the borderline between to powers ran at Gauja river, leading to them building castles here.

Livonian Order Medieval castle of Sigulda
Livonian Order Medieval castle of Sigulda. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The red brick Turaida castle (1214) of Livonian Order is the most famous as it is seamlessly integrated into the landscape. Although heavily damaged later, some walls and two towers have been reconstructed in the 20th century. They offer great views of the Gauja national park. Turaida Lutheran church (1750) is located nearby, most famous for a tragic legend about a pretty girl nicknamed “Rose of Turaida” and her tragic death (she is buried nearby). Both may only be easily seen after getting a park ticket.

The grey Sigulda Medieval Castle is now semi-ruined. Originally built in 1207 it became the residence of Livonian Order Land Marshal in 1432. It offers various historic events.

The nearby Sigulda New Castle is actually a 1878 palace of the local nobility. It has been known as a castle because of its gothic revival castle-like style.

The 'New Sigulda Castle'
The ‘New Sigulda Castle’. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Krimulda Castle (built by bishop of Riga in 14th century) is nearly completely ruined in 1601 war. These days the nearby Krimulda manor is often referred to as castle, but it is really a 1848 Neo-Classical building of the local nobility.

Active tourism in Sigulda

Sigulda is also a major location for active tourism, which includes a bobsleigh track and skiing track (limited altitude means a short season however).

The most unique is (out of town boundaries) the Aerodium where visitors are raised into air by a massive ground fan. Celebrated as a Latvian invention Aerodiums were featured in Latvian pavilions of the global EXPO exhibitions.

Surrounding forests offer multiple hiking routes.

The green (in summer) panoramas may be witnessed from a pricey cable car (43 m height) which also offers bungee jumps.

Līgatne village

Līgatne 19 km east of Sigulda is popular both for its nature (sandstone caves and forests that surround the town) as well as its unique history. The town has been built as a late 19th century workers’ community of the local Paper factory. The factory owners built wooden terrace homes for the workers, as well as hospital, school and other institutions. The factory still operates in the same historic buildings and may not be visited, but the streets around it are accessible.

Līgatne paper mill worker's village municipal building'
Līgatne paper mill worker’s village historic municipal building. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

In the Cold War era the forests of Līgatne were chosen for a bunker that would have been used to evacuate Latvian communists in case of a nuclear war. As the US-Soviet confrontation never turned “hot”, it is now a tourist attraction.

Additionally, Gauja is spanned by an engine-less river ferry in Līgatne, loved by buffs of rare transportation.

Sigulda is easily accessible from Riga (60 km), making it a popular destination for city dwellers wishing to “escape to the nature”. It is also located near Cēsis (40 km), famous for yet another Livonian Order castle.

Cēsis town and castle

Cēsis (pop. 18 000) is a one-glorious medieval Latvian town famous for its castle.

The Medieval Castle is the reason why Cēsis gained its importance. Originally commissioned in 1209, served as the residence of the Gand Master of German Livonian Order which came to Christianize the Latvians. From here vast lands within modern day Latvia and Estonia were ruled. While now ruined, Cēsis castle still has austere some interiors to explore, among them the Grand Master cabinet inside a defensive tower with a high vaulted ceiling. The castle was known as Wednen which was also the German name of the town itself.

Central fortification of Medieval Cēsis castle
Central fortification of Medieval Cēsis castle. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The nearby New Castle is actually a 19th century manor, built in then popular romantic castle style. Currently it serves as a rather vast regional museum, exhibiting Cēsis history as well as some authentic interiors once used by its rich owners (office, library) and offering panoramas from its tower. The nearby Castle garden was laid in 1812 by the New Castle owners.

Baron's office at the Cēsis 'New Castle'
Baron’s office at the Cēsis ‘New Castle’. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Around the all-important castles a Medieval town developed, that attracted merchants from all over the Baltic region (especially Germany). Massive Lutheran church of St. John the Baptist, seemingly far too large for a small provincial town Cēsis is today, dates to the Livonian Order era (early 1200s). Its floor is still covered in Livonian Order knight plaques.

Central square of Cēsis
Central square of Cēsis, with Lutheran St. John church on the background. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

While the medieval street grid remains all over the Old Town (centered at the market square in front of the church), most of the period buildings were destroyed in wars after the decline of Livonian Order. Cēsis was a location of one of Europe’s largest mass suicides as ~300 town inhabitants killed themselves there in 1577 not willing to get into Russian hands during siege.

As such, Cēsis Old Town is dominated by 19th century buildings, but many of them are pretty nevertheless. There are several small churches of religious minorities, among them Catholic and Russian Orthodox. While religiously diverse, Cēsis is one of the most ethnically Latvian towns.

The fringes of Cēsis Old Town are built over with low-rise 19th century brick buildings
The fringes of Cēsis Old Town are built over with low-rise 19th century brick buildings. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Cēsis has been especially important for Latvian history. Back in 13rd century the Latvian flag was used here for the first time. Moreover, it served as the location for a key Latvian War of Independence battle in 1919, allowing the independence to be achieved. A monument now reminds of this battle.

The Cēsis area has been inhabited by Baltic tribes long before the German crusaders came. A prehistoric 10th century village has been rebuilt at Āraiši lake based on archaeological excavations. Replicas of Stone Age and Bronze Age huts of the area have been also built there, next to the remains of a Livonian Order castle that used to guard the entrance to Cēsis.

Āraiši lake village
Āraiši lake village. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Cesvaine Palace

Cesvaine Palace is one of the largest and prettiest castle-styled palaces of 19th century Latvia.

Cesvaine Palace
Cesvaine Palace. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Built by a rich Von Wulf family in 1896 it followed the trend to copy German and British palace architecture, especially borrowing on Tudor style.

Nationalized in the 20th century and long used as school, much of Cesvaine palace has been now opened for visiting, its authentic interiors still remaining. Sadly, the upper part of the palace was greatly damaged by fire in 2002. Reconstruction is ongoing but especially slow, with only the exterior fully restored.

However, an empty, damaged Cesvaine palace is arguably an even more atmospheric place to see, as it is not a museum but rather an authentic visitable old building with much details still the same as when originally planned (e.g. ingenious windowsills and heating system with furnaces next to every room that used to be fired by servants who walked in back-corridors).

One of the rooms of Cesvaine Palace
One of the rooms of Cesvaine Palace. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The palace is surrounded by other buildings of the era that once housed the servants, horses and property of the Cesvaine manor. Cesvaine town has a population of 3000.

~30 km north of Cesvaine there are several more Von Wulf palaces, in the Gulbene area.

Jelgava

Jelgava (pop. 60 000) is the largest city in Semigallia region and Latvia’s 4th largest city.

It served as the capital of rich Duchy of Courland and Semigallia (1561-1795) which was rich enough to partake in the colonization fo Americas. Baroque Jelgava Palace (1772) is thus espeially massive and impressive from the outside, however its interior has been destroyed. Only the Ducal crypt may still be visited (offering a collection of elaborate sarcophagi). Rundale Palace (a very similar one to Jelgava and owned by the same dukes of Courland-Semigallia) has surviving interior and park and is merely 36 km from Jelgava.

A small part of massive Jelgava palace
A small part of massive Jelgava palace. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Before their fall to Russian annexation in 1795 the dukes of Courland-Semigallia also funded a Baroque Academia Petrina. Even after the collapse of the country it served as alma mater to many famous people of the entire Baltic region (such as president of Lithuania Antanas Smetona).

Academia Petrina of Jelgava
Academia Petrina with Russian Orthodox church of St. Simeon and Anna on the left. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Several churches (Russian-built St. Simeon and Anna Orthodox and a gothic revival Catholic) are located near Academia Petrina. Medieval Holy Trinity church between the Academia and the Palace was destroyed by Soviets but they left the tower (50 m) standing (observation platform and museum now available inside).

Roman Catholic church of Jelgava
Roman Catholic church surrounded by post-WW2 Soviet residentials. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

While some other stately buildings also remain, Jelgava has been greatly rebuilt under Soviet occupation, giving it a largely nondescript look.

A surviving 19th century building in Jelgava
A surviving 19th century building in Jelgava. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

A rather large intact area of 18th-19th century small buildings known as Old Town is located in the West of Jelgava. The streets there have been re-cobbled and some buildings restored (though others remain abandoned and the zone seems “died out”). Informational plaques have been built. St. Anne Lutheran church (the oldest building of Jelgava) is nearby.

Old Town of Jelgava
Old Town of Jelgava. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

A short distance from Riga (45 km to the downtown) made Jelgava a kind of semi-suburb.

Koknese castle and valley

Koknese is a Daugava valley town famous for its crusader castle ruins (1209).

This castle once crowned a hill at the confluence of Daugava and Perse rivers. However the construction of Pļaviņas dam (1965) flooded the river valleys leaving the castle to rather uniquely stand in a peninsula, seeming as if raising out of water (the foundations are in fact underwater).

Koknese castle
Views from Koknese castle. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

One Daugava island in Koknese was chosen as the location for a massive Garden of Destiny. Under development to commemorate Latvia’s 100 year anniversary (1918-2018) the garden consists of multiple highly symbolic zones.

Still years away from completion (and decades away from its full splendor when trees will be tall) the garden is nevertheless worth visiting. The most interesting sports include the amphitheater that is surrounded by a “River of tears” (representing Latvia’s tragedies) and , the peninsula offering vistas into Daugava river, Koknese palace and church, wish wall where everyone may put on his wishes and appletree alley (symbolizing love), paved in tiles that have name of Garden’s benefactors chiseled.

Garden of Destiny peninsula
View from the Garden of Destiny peninsula. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Between the Garden of Destiny and the castle there is an old Lutheran church stands (built 1687). Other than that, Koknese town has little of interest, having lost some other pretty buildings to warfare (e.g. Koknese manor destroyed in the early 20th century).

Koknese church
Koknese church (as visible from the Garden of Destiny. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Bauska town

Bauska (pop. 11 000) is a town in southern Latvia on a major road between Riga and Lithuania.

Buildings at Bauska main square near Riga-Vilnius road
Buildings at Bauska main square near Riga-Vilnius road. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

For centuries Bauska has been a multiethnic town of trade. Its downtown still emits that atmosphere. The main square is crowned by a recently-rebuilt town hall and is surrounded by buildings at least 100 years old. Several old churches as well as a 19th century brewery stands in the area.

Bauska town hall
Bauska town hall. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Like many Latvian towns Bauska is proud of its Livonian Order castle. Parts of it are ruined and parts have been rebuilt, while the nearby park is used for festivals. The castle once guarded confluence of Mūsa and Memele rivers. After joining the two rivers form Lielupe (Latvia’s second largest river) at Bauska.

Remains of Bauska castle
Remains of Bauska castle. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Bauska was developed by German knights and craftsmen. It became Jewish majority in 19th century and Latvian majority in 20th century. Lithuanians have always been part of the local admixture.

Bauska is a good stop en-route to Rundale palace.

Latgale lakes and villages

Rural Latgale is one of the prettiest Latvian landscapes, famous for its lakes and multi-religious villages.

Rāzna national park was established to protect Lake Rāzna and nearby lakes. Rāzna is the 2nd largest lake in Latvia.

Lake Rāzna
Lake Rāzna, the anchor of eponymous national park. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The Latvia’s largest lake Lubans is some 50 km away. There are more picturesque lakes closer to Rāzna.

The villages and towns of the area are adorned by churches of multiple religious communities. Baroque 18th century Roman Catholic churches and monasteries are likely the most famous. Wooden Russian Orthodox and Old Believer village churches are no less romantic however.

Liv Coast (Slītere NP)

Liv Coast covers the northwestern tip of Latvia. This forested thinly populated area is notable for its animals and pristine nature, organized into a Slītere National Park.

However it is arguably even more famous for its indigenous population, the Livs (Livonians). They used to speak a language very different from Latvian. Unfortunately, assimilation made the language to disappear (the final native speaker died in 2013), but the remaining Livs still cling onto their heritage (a Liv community home stands in Mazirbe village). Government policy discourages settlement of non-Livs in the area as well as opening tourist institutions, hoping that by limiting outsider influence more of the Liv culture could be saved (although this policy may have came too late).

Liv community house in Mazribe, one of historic Liv villages, opened in 1938, is one of the few remaining Liv institutions
Liv community house in Mazribe, opened in 1938, is among the the few remaining Liv institutions. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The line of Liv villages ends in the Cape of Kolka. It is a popular location for camping and fishing. It is also interesting to stand at the cape and look back at two very different coastlines: one with a large beach on the northern bank and a constantly eroded one at the western bank (more and more trees fall into the sea every year). Parking near Kolka cape is paid and somewhat expensive, however.

Trees getting washed as the sea slowly erodes the shoreline near Cape of Kolka
Trees getting washed as the sea slowly erodes the shoreline near Cape of Kolka. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Talsi town

Talsi (pop. 11 000) is a town in Courland famous for its location on nine hills that surround two lakes. The lakes reflect old homes and are adorned by a fountain in summer, while the hills provide great vantage points (although most are covered by trees in summer).

Old Town of Talsi
Old Town of Talsi resplending in a lake with the Lutheran church above. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The Old Town has many old buildings. Liela street is the old main street. The crude-looking Lutheran church (1567) stands on a nearby hill providing the pinnacle for Talsi townscape. It once served as the heart of the town.

Talsi Main street
Liela street, the old high street of Talsi. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The current main streets are Krišjāņa Valdemāra and Brīvības which are wider than Liela but still historic.

Further from the center Firck Palace, built by Baron von Firck (one of the German nobles who effectively ruled Courland well into 20th century) in 1883 now houses Talsi regional museum. Open-air scene for concerts is nearby.

Manor of Talsi
Firck Palace in Talsi. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.