Vidzeme of Latvia

Vidzeme (Northern Latvia): Cities, Towns and Sights

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.

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.

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.

Gulbene-Alūksne area

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.

Ruined Gulbene Palace
Ruined Gulbene Palace. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

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.

Stameriena Palace
Stameriena Palace. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

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.

Stameriena Orthodox church near a lake
Stameriena Orthodox church near a lake. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

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”.

Narrow gauge train about to leave Gulbene
Narrow gauge train about to leave Gulbene. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Salaspils and Lower Daugava

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.

People on the shore of Riga HES reserovoir at Ikškile.
People on the shore of Riga HES reserovoir at Ikškile. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Salaspils

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.

Part of Salaspils memorial.
Part of Salaspils memorial. One of the men has his arms in the ‘Rot Front’ sign, a interwar German communist analogue of ‘Sieg Heil’. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

In the Daugava island near Salaspils, a Daugava museum is open in Dole manor. However, it lacks non-Latvian explanations.

Dole Manor.
Dole Manor. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Beyond Salaspils

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.

Uldevens castle in Lielvarde.
Uldevens castle in Lielvarde. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

A road further on from Lielvarde continues to Koknese.

Northeastern shore of Latvia

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.

The sandy beach of Saulkrasti looking from a high dune
The sandy beach of Saulkrasti looking from a high dune. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

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.

The fishing bridge of Salacgrīva
The lamprey fishing bridge at Salacgrīva. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.