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.
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.
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.
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 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a major center of the Livonian Order and then Duchy of Courland and Semigallia, but the castle did not survive and has been replaced by a Castle park.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.
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.
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).
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”).
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.
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.
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 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.
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 (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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Bauska (pop. 11 000) is a town in southern Latvia on a major road between Riga and Lithuania.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.