Latvia is a gorgeous country with an intriguing history. They originally declared independence in 1918, only to be occupied by the Russians, then the Germans, and then the Russians again. After living under Soviet rule for decades, the Eastern Baltic countries had enough. On August 23, 1989, approximately two million people joined hands to form a human “Chain of Freedom” that stretched across Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania (approximately 420 miles).
That was one of the events that led to Latvia again declaring its independence in 1990. Today you can see remnants of German influence, Soviet architecture, and of course, Latvian culture. Old medieval castles sit high in the hills above lush valleys. And the bunkers used during the many wars that raged here are crumbling into the sea.
You’ll definitely want to rent a car so that you can check out the 11 not-to-miss highlights of this beautiful country!
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Don’t Miss These 11 Highlights
1. Visit the City of Riga
Riga is the capital of Latvia and the hub of all the action in the country. It’s the perfect mix of old and new – with countless historical buildings to appreciate, as well as plenty of hip bars and restaurants to enjoy. You’ll want to spend at least two days here, wandering around the Old Town and admiring the architecture.
Riga is also a great place to learn a bit about the history of Latvia. It’s a young country, having only declared independence (again) in 1990. There are less than two million people currently living in Latvia, as many had to leave during World War II, then during the Soviet occupation, and finally, during the economic collapse of 2008.
Start your trip to Latvia with a free walking tour around the Old Town of Riga to get your bearings. There are countless architectural highlights down the winding alleyways that you won’t want to miss. Check out our list of 18 Amazing Things to See and Do in the City to help you plan your stay!
2. Lounge on the Beach
Jurmala is a small coastal town, just a 40-minute drive from the city of Riga. It’s where Latvian families go for a little rest and relaxation on warm, sunny days. It may surprise you to learn that Latvia has beautiful beaches with soft, white sand since most European coastlines are rocky.
Latvia is generally quite cold so lounging on the beach isn’t always ideal, but there are plenty of things to see and do in Jurmala besides the beach. Jomas iela street is the main pedestrian area of Jurmala and it is full of cafes and shops. Kids will have a blast at Livu Akvaparks or enjoy the playgrounds of Dzintari Forest Park.
Be sure to enjoy an ice-cold beer at Simply Beach Cafe & Bar situated right on the sand and perfect for people-watching! If you want an afternoon snack, Lido is a cafeteria-style chain restaurant that is our go-to restaurant in Latvia. The food is delicious and you really can’t beat the prices. Their Jurmala location even has occasional live music!
3. Admire the Rundale Pils Palace
The Rundale Pils Palace was built on the property that once belonged to the Grotthus family. The former structure there was known as the Rundale Manor, built at the end of the 15th century. Then, in 1735, Ernst Johann von Biron bought the property and demolished the manor in order to build his palace. But he used remnants of the old home to build the new one.
The palace has changed hands many times throughout the centuries. It has also been destroyed by war and rebuilt several times over the years. It was renovated in 1923 and used as a primary school, then handed over to the Latvian Union of Disabled Veterans. And in 1945, it became a place for grain storage.
Luckily for visitors, the Rundale Palace has been restored to its former glory and was opened to the public in 1981. The complete restoration concluded in 2014. The palace is absolutely spectacular and well worth making a trip to see it. Rooms are covered in lavish cloth wallpaper that matches the heavy curtains. Impressive tile furnaces sit in the corners of the traditionally decorated rooms. The bathrooms are especially interesting, with old bathtubs, toilets, and bidets.
There are two tour options, one is a bit shorter and less expensive. We would recommend springing for the long tour so that you can see the dutchess’ private quarters. And don’t miss the gardens in the back of the palace! Depending on the time of year you visit, you may see colorful tulips or roses blooming. It’s a peaceful place to wander around, enjoying the sunshine and the impeccably manicured gardens.
4. Spend the Night in a Castle
The Jaunpils Castle was built in 1301 as a fortress of the Livonian Order. It was originally inhabited by knights before falling under the ownership of the Recke family in the late 1500s. Rooms were upgraded to house noblemen and barons as they required more luxury. During the 20th century, the castle became a Livestock Breeding School, before finally landing in the hands of the Latvian government.
Today the Jaunpils Castle serves as a tourism hub for Latvia, where visitors can visit the onsite museum, dine at the medieval restaurant, or even spend a night in one of the castle rooms! They also offer a costume rental, medieval games, boat rides, and even cannon firing.
And while it’s worth visiting the Jaunpils Castle even if you can only spare a few hours, the real highlight of the castle is getting the opportunity to spend the night. Rooms range from budget to luxury to fit any budget. And it’s definitely worth splurging for a room with a fireplace so you can relax with a glass of wine while feeling just like medieval royalty!
5. Stroll Along the Ventas Rumba
The Ventas Rumba (also known as Venta Rapid) is the widest waterfall in Europe with the upper cliff measuring 816 feet. You can view this beautiful waterfall from the bridge that crosses the river, or trek down to the wooden walkway that leads along the left side of the river.
Not only is the Ventas Rumba waterfall a beautiful sight to behold in Latvia, but the town of Kuldiga is also worth checking out. Filled with quaint coffee shops, peaceful parks, and a few old churches, it’s the perfect place to spend an afternoon.
Be sure to climb to the top of the Kuldigas Svetas Katrinas Evangelical Church tower where you can enjoy stunning views of the city below. And enjoy a coffee with a view of the waterfall at Cafe Tilts, which shares a space with a lovely local art gallery.
6. Visit the Boat Graveyard
The Mazirbe Boat Graveyard is located in the forested area, just behind the beach in northwestern Latvia, in Sliteres National Park. The boats discarded in the woods during the 1960s and 1970s are now being consumed by Mother Nature. Today there are two large, prominent ships left, and a few others that are almost completely sunk into the ground.
The Google Maps location is close. P125 North becomes a small road that leads to the coast. Just before the beach is a large sign that says “The Seashore” with a path just in front of it. Follow that dirt path (with your feet, not your car) and you’ll find the remaining boat carcasses.
If you head to the beach and follow it north, you’ll also find an old Soviet lookout tower and a few abandoned buildings that are now displaying graffiti. The coastline here is beautiful and desolate, you’re unlikely to see another soul during your visit.
7. Go to Prison
The Karosta Prison is located on the western coast of Latvia, on the Baltic Sea. Used as a military prison during the Soviet Union’s occupation of Latvia, prisoners rarely stayed here for more than a few weeks. Tour guides are incredibly knowledgeable and will entertain you with stories for the entire one-hour tour.
Not only can you get a guided tour of the prison to learn more about the history of the building and the people housed here, but you can even spend a night in the prison! For just €15 per person, you can sleep in an actual cell that once housed military prisoners. Of course, your bed will be more comfortable than theirs was. You’ll need to email them at firstname.lastname@example.org to check on availability. Keep in mind that they won’t allow overnight visitors if the weather is too chilly.
And if you visit with a group, you can arrange to have a full prison experience, complete with a medical examination and a lot of angry yelling. They also have an escape room, a guided underground labyrinth tour, and the opportunity to take photos in military uniforms.
While you’re in town, be sure to check out the ruined Fort de Liepaja with large sections of the bunkers that have fallen into the sea. And the gorgeous golden Naval Cathedral Church of Saint Nicholas is right near the prison, so don’t miss it!
8. Explore the Castles of Sigulda
There are three castles right outside of the town of Sigulda, lining the Gauja River Gorge. They are Turaida Castle, the ruins of Krimulda Castle, and the Castle of the Livonian Order. One can imagine that attacking this region would be a monumental mistake.
Construction of the Turaida Castle began in 1214 at the direction of the Archbishop of Riga. The word “turaida” translates to “garden of god” in the ancient Liv language. You’ll see that the definition is quite accurate in describing this lovely area. The castle has been expertly preserved and reconstructed. Today, it is filled with information about its history. You can enter many rooms and climb the steep stairs to the top of the tower where it was planned that all would gather if attacked. In a separate building, you can climb the stairs to the Archbishop’s former study.
The area around the castle also contains a small church and a beautiful garden filled with sculptures. If you want a snack break, there is a small Mr. Biskvits onsite (there is another one in town with a larger menu) where you can get yummy pastries and coffee concoctions.
There is only a small stone wall of the former Krimulda Castle that is still standing to this day. However, you can see the Krimulda Manor, which was a tuberculosis medical center in the 1920s. If you’d like to take the cable car between Krimulda and Sigulda, it runs every 20 minutes and costs €8 per adult for one-way and €12 per adult for a roundtrip ticket.
Closer in town is the Castle of the Livonian Order (also known as the Sigulda Medieval Castle). It was built in 1207 by the Livonian Brothers of the Sword, who were essentially German “warrior monks”. Their mission was to protect the land in Livonia (historically this was the name of the eastern edge of the Baltic Sea) and to conquer new territories.
As with most of the other castles in Latvia, this one has been destroyed, rebuilt, and destroyed again many times throughout the centuries. But serious research and renovation began in 1962 to restore it to its original layout. Today visitors can climb the North Tower (or take the elevator) for spectacular views of the valley below. The Main Gate Tower is also open to climb.
9. Take a Bobsleigh Ride
During your trip to Latvia, you may notice how proud they are of their athletes. You’ll see billboards of Kristaps Porziņģis all over Cesis or hear about their famous female tennis players. And Latvians are also quite proud of their performance in the Olympic Games.
They first participated in the Olympics in 1924, and between 1952 and 1988, they competed on behalf of the Soviet Union. They returned to the Olympics as an independent country in 1992 and have competed in every game since. Not including the medals won during their time competing for the Soviet Union, Latvian athletes have won 19 medals at the Summer Olympic Games and nine medals at the Winter Games.
The winter medals were in bobsleigh, skeleton, and luge. And the track that is accessible to both professional athletes and visitors is the Sigulda Bobsleigh and Luge Track. Opened in 1986 for practice and competitions, today you can go for an icy ride in the winter or a modified bobsleigh on wheels ride in the summer.
The exhilarating ride lasts for only a minute but you’ll reach speeds of over 50 MPH (with a qualified driver in complete control, don’t worry). It’s sure to be one of your favorite experiences in Latvia!
10. Tour a Secret Soviet Bunker
There is a Secret Soviet Bunker (also known as Padomju Slepanais Bunkers) in the town of Ligatne that was built by the Soviets in the 1980s. It is a massive complex, 30 feet underground constructed to withstand a nuclear attack.
Tours are offered in a variety of languages and last for an hour and a half. You’ll learn all about this bunker that was never actually used, what each room was designed for, and have a few interesting war stories thrown in for good measure. It’s a hands-on, entertaining, and educational experience that both kids and adults will enjoy.
If you’re feeling extra adventurous, contact them to arrange an extreme nighttime adventure. It’s best for large groups and those that don’t scare easily.
11. Visit the Cesis Castle
The Cesis Castle, located just east of the city of Sigulda, is the best preserved medieval castle in all of Latvia. This castle dates back 800 years and was another from the Livonian Brothers of the Sword. The castle went 300 years without being under siege, but in 1577, Ivan the Terrible brought thousands of Russian troops to attack.
The Cesis Castle withstood the heavy artillery until the wall finally gave way five days later. Those trapped inside chose to commit suicide by igniting gunpowder rather than succumb to the enemy.
A visit to the Cesis Castle will involve getting a candlelit lantern for your trip up the pitch black spiral staircase. You’ll see beautiful views below but the real adventure is climbing the stairs by candlelight. You can also check out the new castle as long as you don’t visit on a Monday.
Enjoy your vacation in Latvia!
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