Aglona (pop. 1000) is considered to be the holiest site of Latvia. At its center stands an imposing white Baroque church and monastery. They are surrounded by a large open grass field that fills with Catholic pilgrims every Virgin Mary Assumption day and Pentecost. The field has numerous religiously-themed sculptures.
This pilgrimage center was established in late 18th century by local counts when Latgale was still contested by Lutherans.
The expansion of Aglona’s religious edifices is still under way. A new Christ the King hill has been completed 3 km east of the church, merging the Christian theme with 21st century neo-folk and land art. It is a massive ensemble of totem-pole-like wooden sculptures, their sizes and positions telling many stories. Trees, flowers, ponds and a chapel also help to convey them.
Skrunda-2 is an abandoned Soviet military town which hosted ~5000 inhabitants. It is one of the most easily accessible abandoned towns in the world.
During the Cold War Skrunda-2 it served a radar base to track Western space communication and possible nuclear missile launches.
While the radars themselves have been destroyed as Russian soldiers retreated in 1998, the former residential buildings, school, water tower, officer’s Club and other installations remain.
Skrunda-2 initially after closure used to be guarded. Later it became unguarded and, even though technically prohibited to enter, it attracted increasing amount of tourists, up to ~50-100 people at any given time every summer weekend. Currently (since 2016) it is officially legal to enter, but a fee must be paid at entrance.
What makes Skrunda-2 especially appealing is the fact that all the doors are left open, allowing full exploration (including basements, roofs, etc.). While anything of value has been removed (e.g. metal radiators), many small mementos of the life that used to go on there remain (e.g. somebody’s collection of bubble gum stickers). While the town was within Latvia it was mainly Russian, as evidenced in Russian-only inscriptions and newspapers.
It is advisable to walk carefully as there may be some open shafts.
Kandava (pop. 4000) is a small town in Eastern Courland, famous for surviving the wars almost intact.
It offers a glimpse of how a pre-WW1 Latvian town looked like. The main market square is surrounded by old buildings: residential, commercial and an old fire fighter depot. A couple of nearby streets are equally old.
Three religions have their houses of worship in Kandava: Lutheran hilltop church, Roman Catholic and Jewish (the Catholic church is however new while the synagogue is closed).
As it was common in the 19th century, the town has a ruined Livonian Order Castle on top of one of its hills. It has been neither completely dismantled for building material, nor rebuilt as happened elsewhere. A model located at the foothill helps re-imagining how the castle looked like when intact.
Another draw to Kandava is its 1873 stone bridge, the oldest in Latvia.
Cinevilla, nicknamed “Latvian Hollywood”, is the sole movie studio backlot in the Baltic States. It is located 20 km west of Jūrmala.
The original “Cinevilla town” is a collection of World War 1 era building facades, bridges over “Daugava river” (actually a grassland), old trains and cobbled streets. Everything was built to film “Defenders of Riga” (2007), the most expensive Latvian movie ever.
After filming ended the area opened as a kind of laid-back theme park with temporary art exhibits, a cafe and various additional forms of pre-ordered entertainment among the fake buildings.
Furthermore, Cinevilla is continuously expanded as props for new Latvian films are being built. More often than not these “props” are actually real buildings, built with the intention to be reused as wedding halls, hotels and otherwise.
Currently Cinevilla also hosts a farmstead, old Soviet cars (which may be brought in as props should a director need them), a church like ones in Latvian villages and more.
Jēkabpils (pop. 29 000) is a town in central Latvia that spans river Daugava.
Historically, it was actually two separate towns, with Jēkabpils standing on the left bank (Semigallia region) and Krustpils on the right bank (Latgale region). As both banks have been united by a bridge (1936) and the unification of Latvia (1918) abolished political differences on the two banks, the municipalities have also been combined into a single Jēkabpils town.
Originally established by Old Believer refugees who were then joined by Lithuanians and Poles, Jēkabpils was always a multiethnic and multireligious city. This is evident in the fact that houses of worship of 7 different faiths still stand, all of them at least 80 years old.
Among the religious buildings the Russian Orthodox Monastery of the Holy Ghost that consists of multiple churches is the most impressive.
Other old churches are Roman Catholic (19th century), Baptist (1930), Old Believer (1889), Uniate (1783), Krustpils Lutheran (17th century), Krustpils Orthodox (1910). Many are rather small as in such a multireligious place relatively few people would belong to each congregation. However, they represent the styles popular in respective religions, with domed Orthodox churches, wooden Old Believer church, simple Baptist and Lutheran churches and relatively posh-looking Uniate and Catholic ones.
Jēkabpils side of Daugava has a main square and a nice promenade on Daugava banks, as well as some old streets.
The main building in Krustpils side of Daugava is Krustpils castle, now serving as the local museum. It was originally built by Archbishop of Riga in Medieval times (when whole Latvia was scrambled by Christian theocracies), but renovated extensively afterwards as it remained in use up to 20th century when Soviet army was stationed there.
Interestingly, Jēkabpils even has a UNESCO World Heritage site. However, it is so small that one would not notice it if not for massive advertisements. UNESCO-inscribed object in question is the 2820 km long Struve geodetic arc – a network of stations the Baltic German geographer built in 1816-1855 to calculate the lenght of Earth meridian. Jēkabpils has one such station, now surrounded by a Struve park. There are many stations like that in Eastern Europe, going from Norway to Ukraine.
Krustpils also serves as the railway hub, having a station with Riga-bound trains. Bus station is however in Jēkabpils-proper.
Gulbene-Alūksne area is a large and rather pristine zone in northeastern Latvia, which is pretty far from much else (by Latvian standards) but nevertheless tends to attract visitors.
Among the main attractions of the area is its palaces, built by German elite of the 19th century Russian-ruled Latvia. One (partly ruined) stands in Gulbene itself.
The area’s prettiest palace is located Stameriena village. Besides it, the village is also famous for its 1904 neo-classical Russian Orthodox church, picturesqually raising above the local lake.
In general, Lakes are another draw to the area in summer. Alūksne town north of Gulbene is located next to a large lake that has castle ruins in its island.
The most atmospheric way to go to Alūksne from Gulbene is by the local narrow gauge railway (Bānītis). It is the last of many such local railways that once traversed the Latvian countryside. Its Cold War-era diesel locomotives became a such a symbol of Gulbene and Alūksne towns that official Latvia’s tourist guides call the entire region to be a “narrow-gauge railroad land”.
Lower Daugava valley is effectively a long suburb of Riga. Unlike in the rest of Latvia, there are few undeveloped places here as the distances between towns are short and people commute to Riga daily. Even Daugava itself seems artificial, as it has been dammed to form two large reservoirs. It’s easy to forget that, but the place is very historic as Daugava was always an important corridor for both trade and warfare.
Closest to Riga Salaspils is mostly known for its military history. It was a location of a massive Salaspils (Kirholm) battle as Poland-Lithuania fought Sweden to determine who would control Riga and thus Latvia (1605).
Newer history is better visible, as a prison camp for Soviet soldiers was established in the local forest by Nazi Germany. After the end of World War 2, the by then destroyed camp became a major propaganda location. A massive monument was built over it, combining respect for those dead with the glorification of communism. After independence, the monument became neglected, while claims of tens of thousands dead in the camp turned out to be untrue. Nevertheless, up to several thousand really died, and the monument is the best surviving example of monumental Soviet propaganda in Latvia.
In the Daugava island near Salaspils, a Daugava museum is open in Dole manor. However, it lacks non-Latvian explanations.
Most attractions beyond Salaspils are rather low-key. Salaspils and Ikškile upriver both have very old churches from the era when Latvia was undergoing Christianization. Ogre has some old buildings in the main street. Ķegums hosts a small hill full of crosses built after visions for a local woman (it is customary to leave own crosses there).
Lielvarde, a mythological home of Latvian hero Lāčplēsis, has a wooden Uldevens castle. No authentic wooden Latvian castles survived so Uldevens is a modern reconstruction done by enthusiasts. The location is fictional (true castles stood on hilltops) and internal buildings inspired by different regions of Latvia. Nevertheless, the pre-crusader lifestyle is somewhat presented and a rickety-looking castle is perhaps a more authentic presentation of Medieval era than romanticized reconstructions in images. However, nobody speaks English there and the inscriptions are Latvian-only.
A road further on from Lielvarde continues to Koknese.
Northeast of Riga lies the long-yet-less-popularized seashore of Latvia that seems miles away in popularity from Jūrmala. If you will drive from Riga to Tallinn or back, you will constantly follow this coast, sometimes able to see the sea from the road.
The towns en-route serve both as low-scale resorts and as motorist stops.
The most famous among them is Saulkrasti, which is popular because of its high sea shores offering pretty views into the sea and the river that enters it at the location. A pedestrian boardwalk is available. Saulkrasti is the last town reachable from Riga by train.
Another possible stop is Salacgrīva close to the Estonian border. It has been made famous by a unique form of lamprey fishing, whereby local fishermen use purposefully-built rickety communal wooden bridges over the local river to take turns to lay down their nets.
En-route between Saulkrasti and Salacgrīva there is a nice sport where the road comes close to a beach and you could thus leave your car next to it. That beach is popular with kite-surfers.
Palaces of Western Semigallia are palaces of the 19th century mostly German nobility. A long time of peace allowed them to construct especially elaborate edifices.
The most famous among these palaces are those of Jaunpils (Neuenburg, 1906), Mežotne (Mesothen, 1802) Jaunmokas (Neu-Mocken, 1901), Šlokenbeka (Medieval castle repurposed in late 18th century).
Unfortunately, the palaces lost their interiors during the Soviet occupation (1940-1990). Pretty exteriors and courtyards are still nice to view however. Currently the castles are used for unrelated museums (that of roads in Šlokenbeka and that of forests in Jaunmokas) or as hotels (Jaunpils and Mežotne).