Latvia is beautiful, rustic and ‘real’. Much of the Baltic State’s recent history has been spent under German and Russian occupation, with the Museum of Occupation in Riga providing insight to these periods. Having recently gained independence (1991) from the Soviet Union, there is still a strong feel of emergence from a bygone era.
The relatively small land mass of Latvia (65,000 sq km) makes it a perfect for road trips or shorter day trips from the capital. The roads are mostly well maintained but the speed limits seemed oddly restrictive (many highways we traveled on had a limit of 70 km/hour in large sections). However, all the towns mentioned below can be reached in under 2 hours. Here’s the rough itinerary we had for our recent long weekend in Latvia- including tips on what we loved and some places you could miss and not be too sad about!
Day 1: Friday – Enjoy Riga’s Art Nouveau district & Old Town
We stayed in Riga’s Art Nouveau area which was perfect, as there are so many stunning buildings and a plethora of wonderful cafes, restaurants, bars and unique shops. The district is also walking distance to the world heritage listed old town. I’ve written a separate post specifically about Riga and some of my favourite things to do there.
Day 2: Saturday – Daytrip to Kuldīga
We serendipitously stumbled onto one of the best markets in Latvia on the way out of Riga. Located on the opposite side of the river to Riga’s old town, the Kalnciema Street Market is a beautiful farmer’s market with craft stores and is open from 10am-4pm on Saturdays. It’s the perfect stop for breakfast and to stock up on local supplies for the road.
After indulging at the market, the drive west to Kuldiga should take a little under 2 hours. Kuldiga is known for Ventas Rumba- the widest waterfalls in Europe (at 240m wide), as well as it’s beautiful old town. It’s the perfect destination for a Saturday drive as there’s often a sprawling market along the river bank and gorgeous little cafes for a relaxed lunch. Nearby Riežupe Sand Caves are also a highlight, with 460m of sandstone tunnels to explore by candle light.
We then continued north west to the port town of Ventspills. While this town may be more lively in the peak of summer, it was very much a ghost town when we visited and I would highly recommend spending more time in Kuldiga rather than venturing further to Ventspills. If you do make the trip then there’s a 13th century castle of the Livonian Order which is now a museum. We didn’t go inside as the cost seemed a little high but from the outside it didn’t look like a 700 year old castle!
Day 3: Sunday- Castle Hunting in Gaujas National Park
An hour north of Riga is the beautiful Gaujas National Park with a mix of stunning natural scenery and historic castles and churches. Perfect for either a leisurely lunch and lazy afternoon of wandering or a whole day of energetic exploring on foot, this area has something for everyone.
We first ventured towards the top of the National Park to Cēsis where we stopped for lunch at Cafe2Locals (Rīgas iela 24a). This cafe is perfectly located in the relaxing and beautiful sunny town square and has plenty of alfresco dining. From there it was a short walk past the old church of Svētā Jāņa baznīca to the 800 year old Cēsis Castle, which also boasts beautiful park style gardens.
From Cēsis we traveled back south west through the National Park to Sigulda. You could definitely spend several hours walking between the attractions in this area, namely two castles on opposing valley hills either side of the Gauja river- Turaida and Sigulda. There’s also a large cave (Gutmanis Cave) near the Turaida Castle which in itself is nothing special but is lined with carvings all over it’s sandstone walls which date back hundreds of years. The story of the Rose of Turaida also centers around this cave. I’d recommend parking at the information center opposite Gutmanis Cave and exploring the area on foot.
A kilometer or so up the valley from Gutmanis cave is Turaida Castle. The paths leading through the forest to the castle and to various look out points are beautiful, peaceful and the most relaxing thing I did in Latvia. At the top of the forest is Turaida Castle, a red-brick construction typical of the Baltic crusading orders. Built in 1214 much of the original castle was destroyed in an 18th century fire, so the buildings today are heavily reconstructed.
On the opposite side of the Gauja river is Sigulda Castle. Also built in the early 13th century, this castle is made from pale stone and is in much more of a rustic condition that Turaida!
If you have a little more time…
Rundāle Palace in Pilsrundāle is a beautiful 18th century palace an hour and 10 minutes south of Riga. We mainly spent our time in the large palace gardens which were full of colourful tulips. In summer, the rose garden would be even more stunning. On the way to Rundāle be sure to stop at Rauska which has another fairy-tale like castle perched above the junction of two rivers.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this insight to our long weekend in Latvia and that it gives you some inspiration to visit this beautiful country!