It's Latvia’s boisterous capital to which most visitors are attracted. However, to experience the true spirit of Latvia you’ll need to head into the spectacularly unspoiled countryside with its lakes, forests and sandy beaches. Here is our pick of the best things to do in Latvia.
The information in this article is inspired by The Rough Guide to Europe on a Budget, your essential guide for visiting Europe.
It pulses with sun worshippers during the summer, especially during the week-long music festival in July. The central resort of the Jūrmala strip, Majori is the best place to get off the train if you’re just here for the day.
Founded in 1997, this 380 sq km (147 sq miles) Kemeri National Park is only a short distance from the sea. Made up of wetlands, swamps, raised bogs, forests and lakes, it is the perfect breeding ground for rare and not-so-rare species of flora and fauna.
Visiting the park is one of the best things to do in Latvia for nature lovers. It offers a variety of different nature trails with bird-watching platforms and several kilometres of wooden boardwalks over the swampy terrain.
Numerous “wild” campsites are located along the river’s banks and major campsites in Sigulda, Cēsis and Valmiera, at the north end of the park, can arrange overnight canoeing and rafting trips.
Old Rīga (Vecrīga), grouped loosely around Town Hall Square (Rātslaukums) and Cathedral Square (Doma laukums), forms the city’s nucleus and is home to most of its historic buildings. With its cobbled streets, narrow lanes and hidden courtyards, it gives the impression of stepping back in time. To the east, Old Rīga is bordered by Bastejkalns Park, beyond which lies the New Town.
A visit to the Latvian National Opera is one of the best things to do in Latvia if you're a fan of the arts. Latvian National Opera offers a wide range of operas, ballets and concerts all year round. In addition to the regular troupe of artists, the theatre also often hosts guest artists from all over the world. Among the most famous performances of the Latvian National Opera are those by Verdi, Mozart, Tchaikovsky and Wagner.
One of the city’s main draws is the long stretch of clean white-sand beach at the town’s western end – a worthy recipient of the Blue Flag and popular with sun worshippers, volleyball players and kitesurfers in summer. At the northern end of the beach, a long boardwalk, overlooked by a viewing tower, stretches towards the lighthouse. Here you can spot one of several specimens from Ventspils’ bizarre Cow Parade – the Sailor Cow.
Kolka is part of Slītere National Park, a former Soviet military base turned protected nature reserve. There are several nature trails to be hiked, not to mention the seemingly endless expanse of virtually deserted beaches - one of the best beaches in the Baltic region.
The Cēsis castle is a chalky-white fortified convent that served as a power base for the Livonian Order. In the castle, you can learn more about ancient Latvian jewellery at the smithy, and enjoy a special workshop on experimental archaeology run by the Master of Applied Arts. A beautiful castle park is a favourite place for a stroll. Look out for a couple of black swans who live at the pond.
In the language of the ancient Livs who first settled this valley, Turaida means “the Garden of the Gods”. Inside the castle, there is a gallery and a small museum charting its history. On the path to the castle is a wooden Lutheran church, the oldest in Vidzeme, and a few yards away, beneath a large linden tree, a black marble slab marks the grave of Maija, the Turaida Rose (Turaidas Roze), a young woman murdered in 1620.
The tracks in the park are accessible to people of all ages and fitness levels, as they are divided into different levels of difficulty. Other activities in the park include archery, paintball and mountain biking. You can also go hiking in the park with a guide and explore the stunningly beautiful forests and landscapes that the area is rich in.
The wall paintings are by the Italians Francesco Martini and Carlo Zucchi and the exquisite decorative moulding is by Michael Graff from Berlin. On the ground floor, there is a collection of period furniture and ornaments. The finest rooms are upstairs, where some interesting Dutch, Flemish and Spanish paintings are hung. The gardens: Rose, French and Dutch Bosquet, still under reconstruction, are also impressive.
On the other side of the river is the Pedvāle Outdoor Art Museum, created in 1992 on a former baronial estate. Visitors can explore 150 hectares (370 acres) of rolling hills covered in sculptures and modern art on a grand scale and can even book a room at the museum’s guesthouse.
The Old Karosta Prison is now a museum, and the years of suffering have supposedly left their mark on the building as it is purported to be haunted. Daring visitors and sceptics of the supernatural can participate in “Behind Bars”, a theatrical performance where tourists are locked up in cells overnight. This can be arranged at the tourist information centre.
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