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.

Resorts

Latvian resorts became nearly synonymous with Jūrmala. Jūrmala is not only the largest Latvian resort, but also the largest resort town at the Baltic Sea.

With some 20 km of uninterrupted golden sand beach and 51 000 inhabitants (many of whom work to help the even-more-numerous summer vacationers feel even more welcome), Jūrmala is indeed hard to surpass. For those tired of the sea, it offers calm forests for hiking, pretty century-old wooden villas to admire and various gigs and restaurants (especially at the “center village” of Majori). All that is easily accessible from Riga airport.

A former spa in Jūrmala beach
A former spa in Jūrmala beach. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

However, Jūrmala can get pricey in summers while the beach may be crowded. While avoiding Jūrmala center may be one option, seeking for other resorts may be another as the long Latvian shorelines have much to offer.

Top alternatives for Jūrmala are the coastal cities of Liepāja and Ventspils. They are not really resorts, but they have fine long beaches and many hotels. In fact, their seaside districts are like little Jūrmalas. Ventspils has been working especially hard to get tourist attention, launching various publicity stunts.

Latvians on a beach
Latvians on a beach. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

For those wishing to get further out-of-the-beaten-path, there are many coastal villages that offer just a single hotel in a natural location. Latvia is well endowed with sandy beaches as they follow its entire shoreline. So there is never a question whether some coastal village has a beach. However, if you need things such as beach cafes, then you’d better stick to the coastal cities and Jūrmala.

If the sea is not your cup of tea altogether, the top Latvian resort destination is Sigulda. It offers a great amount of various non-sea-related activities, from hiking in forests to alpine skiing in winter (the hills are small, however).

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.

Karosta of Liepāja

Karosta (Military port) is the unique and very eerie northernmost part of Liepāja. This is a semi-abandoned former major Russian Imperial naval base (actually, entire military city which once housed 30 000 inhabitants). Its red brick elaborate late 19th century barracks now stand derelict amidst forests. They are joined by Soviet apartment blocks of Soviet soldiers who also used the base and some of these are also empty.

The most appealing are the public buildings of the military city. Russian Orthodox Naval Cathedral (1903) has now been restored to full splendor after decades of Soviet use as a warehouse.

Russian Orthodox Naval Cathedral of Liepāja
Russian Orthodox cathedral (right) and a typical Soviet residential building for military base (left). ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Also of interest are water tower (1905), now-roofless festival edifice (1903) and the pigeon mail station (built for 450 pigeons at the time military still relied on pigeon mail; now a residential home).

Festival building of Karosta
Festival building of Karosta. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The area’s history may be explored in a unique attraction Karosta military prison (where “bad soldiers” would be condemned to several days of severe hazing). It can be visited as a museum or as a weird hotel to spend a night at. In both cases the local “guide” will seek to make visitors feel uncomfortable.

Karosta prison exhibits in Liepāja
Karosta prison exhibits. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

For those prefering natural beauty with some military remains a walk on expansive 2 km long Northern Breakwater into the sea will be most rewarding. Semi-destroyed fortifications built to defend Karosta from the sea are nearby. One nearby street is named after Tobago island where Courland-Semigallian dukes sent their navy to from Liepāja, establishing a colony there known as New Courland.

Former pigeon mail tower at Karosta
Former pigeon mail tower at Karosta. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Karosta is accessed from from the New Liepāja by a picturesque green truss Oskars Kalpaks bridge, completed in 1906. It is some 4 km on foot from the Old Liepāja, therefore it is better to use a city bus.

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Jūrmala

Jūrmala (pop. 51 000) is the largest resort in the Baltic States, located next to Riga.

Jūrmala is a peninsula between a famous wide sandy beach of the Riga Gulf and Lielupe river. It was the popularity of this location for summertime rest which transformed former fishing villages into a swimming resort over 100 years ago. Boulevards were laid and picturesque wooden towered villas constructed to become summer residences of Riga’s rich.

A former spa in Jūrmala beach
A former spa in Jūrmala beach. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

A lot has changed, and the calm “elite seaside rest” of the old times has been joined by the mass chill of gigs and nightclubs in summer, while the buildings once built by German nobility and businessmen were supplemented with apartment blocks for the new Latvian and Russian middle class.

However, Jūrmala is simply massive, spanning some 20 km of prime Latvian seaside. This means that there is a Jūrmala for everybody: it still possible to find both an atmosphere of 19th century resort and the one of 21st century Riga suburb.

Even if the old villages have integrated into a single city, their names still appear on the maps and each still has a somewhat different feel.

People enjoying summer in a main street of Majori village
People enjoying summer in a main street of Majori village. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Majori village is the heart of Jūrmala, its Jomas street the main street for shopping and expensive restaurants, while Turaidas street the main sea access route, famous for interwar concert hall that still hosts the Jūrmala’s best events. Many other key pre-WW2 buildings are also located here.

Eastern villages of Dzintari and Bulduri are calmer, their pretty historical edifices and some modern buildings lining the boulevards that run parallel to the sea. The number of restaurants and hotels is more limited. Some half of the area is left as pristine forests, giving the feeling of a forest city. In the east Jūrmala is limited by the mouths of Lielupe.

Western villages of Pumpuri and Melluži seem to be like a mirror image of Dzintari and Bulduri, although they have less historic buildings and less greenery.

Main Jomas street out of season
Main Jomas street out of season. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

At the Westernmost end of Jūrmala stands Ķemeri that has developed separately as a spa town. It is famous for its massive spa center, one of largest projects undertaken by interwar Latvia.

As the Latvian climate can be chilling in winter, the holiday season of Jūrmala is effectively summer-only (May-to-September with a noticeable July-August peak). However, Jūrmala still has much more activities in winter than any other Latvian city of comparable size. Some restaurants remain open year-round and gigs are offered. There is also a year-round indoor water theme park.

Moreover, Jūrmala has effectively became a suburb of Riga, its homes inhabited year-round by people who commute every day by a 25 km long 6 lane highway (interestingly, from Eastern Jūrmala Riga downtown is closer than the other end of Jūrmala itself). The popularity among the rich has rejuvenated Majori and the seaside, but numerous old wooden villas further on are now abandoned.

Train stattion near Lielupe in Majori
Train stattion near Lielupe in Majori. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Public transport access is easy from Riga, with nearly every of Jūrmala’s villages having its own station for frequent Riga-bound trains. The railway spans the entire city, together with its main street that is used for driving.

Jūrmala is especially popular among Russian tourists.

Cinevilla movie studio backlot 20 km West of Jūrmala is a popular day trip.

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.

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.

Seaside Ventspils

Seaside Ventspils was developed in 19th century when the city expanded Westwards. Rising popularity of beach holidays gave birth to a villa district, while a district of dockworkers was built near the port.

Ostgals (“Port end”) district west of Old Town is a collection of low rise homes. Some of them are especially old (as are the narrow cobbled streets). Once the district was inhabitted by dock workers, but today it is also liked by the local elite. The only draw there (beside the atmosphere) is the Ventspils theater.

A street in Ostgals of Ventspils
A street in Ostgals of Ventspils. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

South of Ostgals 19th century elite has constructed numerous elaborate wooden and brick towered villas, hugging a tree-lined Vasarnīcu boulevard. Some are restored as hotels, some are unfortunately abandoned.

An abandoned villa
An abandoned villa. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Seaside open air museum has been built next to the villas. It consists of numerous local peasant homes moved in from different locations of Courland. An attraction here is a narrow gauge railway (600 m) that offers journeys around the nearby park in summer.

Open-air museum of Ventspils
Open-air museum of Ventspils. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The seaside park itself offers an open-air free exhibition of old anchors and children play zone. Most people just pass by however in order to reach the beach beyond it. Sea may be experienced in ways alternative to swimming or sunbathing however. There are two lookout towers. Southern breakwater provides a popular recreational walk. It ends at a lighthouse – visitors there may be splashed by waves when there are heavier winds.

Southern pier of Ventspils during a storm, as seen from a lookout tower
Southern pier of Ventspils during a storm, as seen from a lookout tower. ©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.

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.