Resorts of Latvia

The Best Resorts in Latvia

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).

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.

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.