Friday, June 14, 2013

The Top 15 Travel Destinations in Latvia

Latvia has seen a steadily increasing flow of western tourists since it joined the European Union in 2004, but almost ninety percent of visitors still never get beyond Riga, the flamboyant capital and largest city. This means the rest of the country is still largely unexplored and just waiting to be discovered by those prepared to venture a little further afield. Distances are relatively small, and there are many worthwhile destinations within day trip distance of Riga by public transport. For those intent on exploring the countryside the tranquil town of Sigulda and the Gauja valley national park is an obvious starting point with crumbling castle ruins to clamber on and sporty outdoor activities galore, while windy Cape Kolka is the best place to find your own stretch of Baltic beachfront to go for a stroll. For those eager to get a taste of Latvia's Soviet past there are several top sites, particularly the Irbene radio telescope and the 'hotel' located in a former KGB prison in Liepaja.
1. Riga - As the biggest city in the Baltic states Riga draws plenty of tourists with its photogenic good looks. The assortment of medieval and art nouveau architecture will have you straining your neck skywards trying to take it all in with a camera lens. Heaps of cultural attractions and museums could keep you busy here for weeks, while the gastronomic scene is constantly evolving with flashy new restaurants opening at a hectic pace. Give Riga at least a few days to rub off on you, but then hop on a bus and go and see the rest of the country, you won't regret it!

2. Sigulda - A lovely historic town with castles overlooking the Gauja valley and walking trails to caves along the valley floor. Thrill seekers can try out the Olympic-standard bobsleigh track in a real bobsleigh for a cool rush in the winter, or in a wheeled model in the summer months.

3. Jurmala - The main beach resort in Latvia with long sandy beaches which draw sun seekers from nearby Riga. The many art-nouveau wooden houses that line the main boulevards are another prime attraction to take a peek at after getting sand between your toes.

4. Cesis - Often called 'The Most Latvian Town', Cesis has a picturesque collection of old wooden houses surrounding a 13th-century castle in its historic quarter. Close proximity to attractions in the Guaja Valley National Park make Cesis a good base for exploring the area.

5. Rundale Palace - A baroque palace designed by Rastrelli in the 1730's, which today is one of the grandest palace complexes in the Baltic states. Its location near the southern border makes it a convenient stopover for those heading south from Riga into Lithuania.

6. Cape Kolka and the northern Kurzeme coast - A beautiful and desolate stretch of wind-battered coastline which fills with swimmers and sunbathers during the summer months. The small villages of the Kurzeme coast are full of rustic wooden cottages, fishing nets, and the smell of smoked fish. Learn about the Livs and the endangered Livonian language, a small ethnic group found in this region.

7. Kuldiga - This is one of the most attractive small towns in Latvia, boasting narrow streets and 17th and 18th century wooden buildings. The town's other claim to fame is for having the widest waterfall in Europe, though don't be expecting a mighty torrent cascading down a mountainside.

8. Ventspils - This busy port has done well for itself economically in the past two decades and as a result its historic centre has been spruced up considerably. The city draws summer visitors to nearby beaches and water parks, and the waterfront also features an outdoor maritime museum. The city's castle of the Livonian order also contains a fascinating museum on the history of the region.

9. Irbene Soviet radio telescope - For those interested in cold war history, this should be an essential stop. Once upon a time this was a Soviet radar station used to spy on western communications transmissions, and today it is used by Latvian astronomers to study the universe. Guided tours of the facility can be arranged, including the chance to climb up near the giant dish.

10. Liepaja - This coastal city is the third largest urban centre in Latvia and its central streets feature an array of art nouveau buildings. Latvians think of Liepaja as a great place to let their hair down and have a good time, and its series of summer events and music festivals are a popular draw with visitors from across the country. Stay for a night in the former KGB prison in the suburb of Karosta for an uncomfortable taste of reality tourism.

11. Ligatne Soviet nuclear bunker - This cold war site is found halfway between Sigulda and Cesis, and can be easily combined into a day trip to these towns from Riga. The bunker was intended to house the leaders of the Latvian communist party in the event of a nuclear attack, and today it has been preserved in its original appearance for visitors to see.

12. Salaspils - This World War Two concentration camp just outside Riga is a sombre reminder of the thousands of Jews who died here during the Nazi occupation.

13. Talsi - This tiny town is worth a brief stop on the way north towards Cape Kolka. The hills surrounding the town are a rarity in this part of the Baltics and add a backdrop to the set of cobbled streets and handful of historic houses.

14. Kemeri National Park - This park just west of Jurmala features small fishing villages with bog land and forests in the interior. It is best known for mud baths and mineral water treatments at the park's spa resort.

15. Tukums - A few kilometres from this small town in Kurzeme region is one of the country's most-visited attractions (at least by Latvians), a theme park historic town called "Cinevilla" which was constructed for a movie made in 2004.


  1. Thanks a lot for sharing on this wonderful travel guide for sure your idea is working best for me.

    Travel Advise

  2. Can only agree about the top 2. Really enjoyed Sigulda during a visit last summer. Amazing nature and old castles only an hour away from Riga. :)

    Will try to visit some of the other places next time in Latvia.