Sights of Latvia

The Best Sights for Latvia travel

Sights: Introduction

Latvia excels in historical sights built throughout its history as a constant battleground between East and West, whereby local Latvians were often sidelined but still contributed greatly.

The main square of Riga Old Town
The main square of Riga Old Town. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Among the top sights are Latvia’s cities, especially Riga. They were developed as major trading ports and strongholds over the centuries and influenced far beyond the boundaries of Latvia well into the industrial revolution.

Some smaller towns are also especially picturesque, retaining the atmosphere of past importance.

Many cities and towns have ruined castles that were constructed by German Crusaders back in the Medieval era. In later, more peaceful epochs, the descendants of same German rulers have built extremely opulent palaces and gardens.

The 'New Sigulda Castle'
The ‘New Sigulda Castle’ (actually a palace standing next to a Medieval castle). ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Pristine nature is another draw to Latvia. It lacks breathtaking places, but the low population density and a lack of “private property” signs allow to enjoy Latvia’s lowlands, lakes, forests and rivers more thoroughly than in many other places of the world.

Religious heritage of Latvia is also worth checking, with many cities and towns boasting old churches of various Christian denominations – from austere Lutheran to more rich Catholic to golden-domed Russian Orthodox.

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

Resorts of Latvia makes a good use of nation’s long coastline, which is essentially one neverending sandy beach with swimming possible in its every location.

Towns

Latvian towns are usually centered at a Medieval castle or a later manor, from where they were once ruled. A church, or more often churches, stand nearby.

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.

The largest and oldest one is typically Lutheran, while Catholic and Russian Orthodox ones are smaller and dating to the 19th-20th century.

The small old town consists of single or double story wooden and brick buildings, once inhabited by the German elite and craftsmen. The towns became ethnically Latvian throughout the 19th-century urbanization.

Main square of Kuldīga with old brick buildings
The main square of Kuldīga with old brick buildings. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Under Soviet occupation, new boring apartment blocks were constructed in larger towns. Some of the towns have their faces altered considerably, losing their identity. However, many of the Latvia’s towns still retain their picturesque old towns.

The prettiest towns of Latvia are Kuldīga, Cēsis, Bauska, Talsi, Kandava.

Sigulda, Gulbene, Alūksne and Jēkabpils, Koknese have a few pretty locations each, mainly castles, palaces and churches.

An old Baroque church in Kraslava. Churches are typically the oldest surviving buildings in Latvian towns
An old Baroque church in Kraslava. Churches are typically the oldest surviving buildings in Latvian towns that remain in original use. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Skrunda-2 is a unique abandoned Soviet military town.

Castles and Palaces: Introduction

Latvia has numerous medieval castles.

They date from the era of Baltic Crusades when German knights (Livonian Order) subdued the local pagan Latvians. They later continued their fight by attacking Lithuanians further south. In order to do this, they have heavily fortified Latvia.

Crusader castles remain in Sigulda, Cēsis, Koknese, Bauska, Riga, Ventspils and other locations. Many of them have been partly restored and host museums today.

Cēsis Medieval Castle, the seat of Grand Master of Livonian Order
Cēsis Medieval Castle, the seat of Grand Master of Livonian Order. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

As the era of crusades ended, the nobility moved from fortified castles to opulent palaces. Latvia has some of the Baltic States prettiest palaces in Rundale and Jelgava which once housed the Dukes of Courland and Semigallia.

Jelgava palace
Jelgava palace. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

As Latvia was conquered by the Russian Empire in the 18th century it once again was near a borderline of civilizations (Eastern Orthodox and Western). Russians constructed the fortress of Daugavpils and an entire naval military city in Liepāja. Both are well preserved (although partly abandoned) and popular among Latvia’s visitors who see beauty in 19th-century military architecture.

Daugavpils 19th century fortress entrance
Daugavpils 19th century fortress entrance. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

However, actual wars in Europe were rare in that era. Before World War 1 (1914), Latvia had spent some 100 years without any warfare on its soil. That allowed local German and Russian nobility to develop large manors centered around extravagant new palaces. These were often built to remind Medieval castles. Some of the prettiest ones stand in Cesvaine, Gulbene area, and Western Semigallia. Unfortunately, many of them had their interiors gutted by Soviets who nationalized them, but the restored exteriors give a nice touch to the Latvian landscape. Many of these palaces have been converted into hotels or public buildings.

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

Beautiful nature

Latvia is a sparsely inhabited lowland country. The population density is 34 people per square kilometer, but most of that is concentrated around Riga.

As such, the remainder of Latvia consists of vast areas of quite pristine forests, rivers and lakes with a town here and there.

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 most typical natural sights have been amalgamated into National Parks. The most famous among those is Gauja National Park around Sigulda, easily accessible from Riga. It surrounds the valley of the longest river that starts and ends in Latvia. In addition to landscapes it the park offers Crusader castles and active entertainment.

Less easily accessible other national parks include the one around Lake Raznas in Latgale (a region famous for its numerous lakes) as well as Slītere National Park near Kolka Peninsula that is the end of Western Latvia. In addition to forests (where beasts live), it boasts a unique indigenous Liv culture.

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

Gulbene-Alūksne area is also famous for its natural views.

Abandoned buildings and towns

Latvia is one of the best countries in the world for the fans of the abandoned buildings and ghost towns.

Turbulent Latvian history of growths and declines, occupations and genocides meant that many locations, buildings, and even entire settlements became useless and abandoned as the times went by.

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

There are diverse abandoned locations in Latvia:

Soviet military installations. As the westernmost land ruled by the Soviet Union (1940-1990), Latvia was heavily fortified, and these installations became obsolete after Soviet troops departed. The highlight is the entirely abandoned Skrunda-2 ghost town (once home to 5000), but other sights include the repurposed VIRAC radar near Ventspils (the surrounding buildings are abandoned) and a former nuclear war bunker for Soviet elite near Sigulda (now a paid attraction).

Abandoned Soviet military town Skrunda-2
Abandoned Soviet military town Skrunda-2. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Russian military barracks. Before the Soviet Union and brief independence, Latvia was ruled by the Russian Empire (until 1918), which had also heavily militarized it. The highlight of the era is an entire Karosta navy town north of Liepāja (once home to 30000), now half-abandoned (ex-prison reopened as a museum). Another former Russian installation with numerous abandoned buildings is the Daugavpils fortress. Unlike Soviet barracks, Russian Imperial barracks are of quite elaborate architecture.

Former festival grounds for Russian Imperial soldiers in Karosta
Former festival grounds for Russian Imperial soldiers in Karosta. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

German wooden villas, palaces, and cemeteries. Germans once made up the majority of the population in most Latvian cities, but the community was destroyed by World War 2 and Soviet Genocide. Many of the elaborate buildings of the rich Germans, such as wooden villas at the seaside cities (e.g. Jūrmala) and entire romantic castle-like palaces remain either fully abandoned (e.g. Gulbene palace) or partly abandoned (e.g. burnt-out Cesvaine castle). Riga great cemetery, partly destroyed by Soviets and vandalized, is also impressive-though-sad.

A derelict crypt of a rich German family in Soviet-desecrated great cemetery of Riga
A derelict crypt of a rich German family in the Soviet-desecrated great cemetery of Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Jewish heritage. Latvian towns, especially those of Latgale, once hosted a significant minority of Jews, but it was decimated by emigration and Holocaust. Small numbers of remaining Jews no longer need many buildings, and thus many synagogues became abandoned (although they are now being repaired).

Kandava Synagogue
Kandava Synagogue. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

City buildings. Latvian cities suffered a decline of population recently due to emigration and before that due to Soviet genocide. The population of ethnic Latvians is at its lowest for 100 years. As such, many buildings in the cities such as Riga are abandoned as well, e.g. apartment blocks. Large public Soviet buildings are even more prone to abandonment, as they often have little use in a market economy where smaller institutions may be more profitable.

Abandoned apartment building of ~1900 in Riga
Abandoned apartment building of ~1900 in Riga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

While many abandoned buildings in Latvia are out-of-bounds for visitors, many of the best ones are either accessible or impressive even from the outside.

The sheer numbers of abandoned structures have been controversial in Latvia. Many people have preferred them renovated or destroyed, but both are costly. However, these days it became popular that key abandoned and semi-abandoned locations are treated as tourist sights on their own, even without renovations. This means, however, that if a location is open, tickets were often introduced for visitors (e.g. to Skrunda-2 town or Cesvaine palace).

Partly burned out interior of Cesvaine palace
Partly burned out interior of Cesvaine palace. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Despite this, hundreds of tourists come to key abandoned sights in Latvia every day including foreigners. They visit the abandoned 19th and 20th-century buildings in the same fashion as they would visit abandoned medieval castles, of which Latvia also has many.

Religious sites: Introduction

Latvia is a multidenominational Christian country, offer a large number of Christian sites of various types.

Aglona is typically considered the holiest place of Latvia, offering a Catholic-style Virgin Mary veneration.

Aglona basilica and monastery
Aglona basilica and monastery. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

However, in both cities and countryside, there are significant locations for each of Latvia’s most popular faiths, as well as pretty houses of worship constructed over the centuries.

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.