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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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 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).
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.