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.
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.
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.
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 the 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.
Rundale Palace is the leading palace of the Baltic States both by size and extravagance, making it one of Latvia’s top tourist sights.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Cesvaine Palace is one of the largest and prettiest castle-styled palaces of 19th century Latvia.
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).
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 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).
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.
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).
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.
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”.
Palaces of Western Semigallia are palaces of the 19th century mostly German nobility. A long time of peace allowed them to construct especially elaborate edifices.
The most famous among these palaces are those of Jaunpils (Neuenburg, 1906), Mežotne (Mesothen, 1802) Jaunmokas (Neu-Mocken, 1901), Šlokenbeka (Medieval castle repurposed in late 18th century).
Unfortunately, the palaces lost their interiors during the Soviet occupation (1940-1990). Pretty exteriors and courtyards are still nice to view however. Currently the castles are used for unrelated museums (that of roads in Šlokenbeka and that of forests in Jaunmokas) or as hotels (Jaunpils and Mežotne).
Grobiņa is a suburb of Liepāja, accessible by city bus.
It has the Liepāja’s agglomeration sole surviving Medieval castle, built in 1253 by the Order of Livonian Knights. It is relatively small and now ruined, but can be picturesque.
Grobiņa is also famous for its Viking-era graves of Scandinavians who disembarked on Baltic’s Eastern shore. One would have to be interested in prehistory and archaeology to be able to enjoy them however.