Top image: Turaida Castle, Sigulda, Latvia © Ksenija Toyechkina/Shutterstock
Encompassing a diverse range of flora and fauna, Gauja National Park (wwww.gnp.lv) covers over 920 square kilometres of near-pristine forested wilderness, bisected by the 425-kilometre Gauja River. The valley is ideal for exploring by bike, as most of the hiking trails are accessible to cyclists. 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, arrange overnight canoeing and rafting trips.
A 20-kilometre string of small seaside resorts lining the Baltic coast west of Rīga, Jūrmala was originally favoured by the tsarist nobility and later drew tens of thousands of holiday-makers from all over the USSR; it continues to be a popular beach resort today. Its wide, clean, sandy beach is backed by dunes and pine woods, and dotted with beer tents and climbing frames. It pulses with sun worshippers during the summer, especially during the week-long music festival in July.
Jomas iela, the pedestrianized main street running east from the station square, teems with people and has a number of excellent restaurants and cafés, as well as craft stalls and art exhibitions. A few paths lead to the beach from Jūras iela, north of Jomas iela. The beach aside, Jūrmala’s attractions include the wonderful new interactive Jūrmala City Museum which charts the town’s history as a popular beach resort. Upstairs is reserved for excellent temporary art and photography exhibitions. Another Jūrmala gem is the “Inner Light” art gallery at Omnibusa iela 19. Local artist Vitaly Yermolayev specializes in the use of eerie glow-in-the-dark paint. Near the beach, you’ll find the Dzintari, an open-air, 2000-capacity concert venue which hosts regular music events in the summer.
One of the architectural wonders of Latvia, Baroque Rundāle Palace (Rundāles Pils) is 77km south of Rīga. Its 138 rooms were built in two phases during the 1730s and 1760s and designed by Bartolomeo Rastrelli, the architect responsible for the Winter Palace in St Petersburg. It was privately owned until 1920 when it fell into disrepair, but has largely been returned to its former glory through meticulous restoration. Each opulent room is decorated in a unique fashion and there are changing art exhibitions both inside the palace and in the vast landscaped gardens.
The concentration camp at Salaspils, 14km southeast of Rīga, is where most of Rīga’s Jewish population perished during World War II. One hundred thousand people died here, including prisoners of war and Jews from other countries, who were herded into the Rīga Ghetto after most of the indigenous Jewish population had been liquidated. The site is marked by monumental sculptures, with the former locations of the barracks outlined by white stones. Look for the offering of toys by the children’s barracks and the bunker, inscribed with the words “Behind this gate the earth groans” – home to a haunting exhibition about the camp.
Aerodium (wwww.aerodium.lv) lets you experience the intense adrenaline rush of skydiving without jumping out of a plane. You hover atop an air current created by a powerful wind tunnel; beginners fly up to 5m above the fan, while professionals reach heights five times that. Book your time slot online.
Dotted with parks and clustered above the southern bank of the River Gauja around 50km northeast of Rīga, Sigulda is Gauja National Park’s main centre and a good jumping-off point for exploring the rest of the Gauja Valley.
From the train station, Raiņa iela runs north into town, passing the bus station. After about 800m a right turn into Baznaca iela brings you to the impressive seven-hundred-year-old Sigulda Church (Siguldas baznīca). Sigulda is home to three castles: Krimulda Castle (Krimuldas pilsdrupas) and Sigulda Castle (Siguldas pilsdrupas), a former stronghold of the German Knights of the Sword, from which you can see Turaida Castle (Turaidas pilsdrvpas), the most impressive of the three.
West of the train station along Ausekļa iela is the bobsleigh track where you can hurtle down a concrete half-tube at 80km per hr during the summer months, try the exhilarating professional winter bob or check out the view of the Gauja Valley from the top of the tower.
The most impressive of Sigulda's three castles, Turaida Castle (Turaidas pilsdrvpas) was built on the site of an earlier stronghold by the bishop of Rīga in 1214, the castle was destroyed when lightning hit its gunpowder magazine in the eighteenth century. These days, its cellar exhibitions chart the castle’s history and it’s possible to climb up the main tower for 360 degree views of the valley below.
You can reach the castle by bus #12 (for Turaida or Krimulda) from Sigulda bus station. Alternatively, take the cable car across the Gauja River (daredevils can bungee jump from the cable car; bungee.lv) to Krimulda Castle, descend the wooden staircase signposted “Gūtmaņis Cave”, then follow the path past the cave – the setting for a legend of “star-crossed lovers”. The path turns to the right before rejoining the main road just short of Turaida itself.
An attractive seaside city, Ventspils, 200km northwest of Rīga, is also Latvia’s biggest port and strategic naval settlement since the twelfth century until the end of Soviet occupation in 1991. The city’s Old Town with its cobbled streets, its beach – the best in Latvia – and handful of museums make Ventspils a great place to while away a couple of days.
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. Still, it’s so big that you needn’t jostle other beachgoers for elbow space even at the height of peak season. In Jūrmalas parks near the beach, you’ll find the popular Beach Aquapark and also the open-air museum, its ethnographic expositions featuring traditional fishermen’s dwellings and equipment.
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. Other cow sculptures are found along the Ostas iela promenade that leads east towards the ferry port; don’t miss the Travelling Cow, shaped like a giant suitcase. South of the promenade lies the Old Town, with its Art Nouveau buildings and its attractive main square, overlooked by the jolly yellow Nicholas Evangelical Lutheran Church and featuring a giant quill sculpture due to the town’s popularity with international writers. The Old Town’s most interesting feature is the thirteenth-century Castle of the Livonian Order, home to an excellent interactive museum featuring the history of the city and port and a disturbing exhibit on the Soviet prison in the barracks.
To really get away from it all, take a trip to the village of Kolka at the northernmost tip of Cape Kolka, where the Gulf of Rīga meets the Baltic Sea, passing through pine forest and numerous coastal villages along the way. Kolka is part of Slītere National Park, former Soviet military base turned protected nature reserve and there are a number of nature trails to be hiked, not to mention the seemingly endless expanse of virtually deserted beach. In 2005, the coast suffered from an enormous storm and the tangle of fallen trees, strewn across the deserted beach, is testimony to that. Even at the height of summer, you’ll have the place almost to yourself.