Latvia travel guide
Officially known as the Republic of Latvia, this small nation was tucked behind the Iron Curtain until the early nineties. Today it is one of the most visited countries in the Baltics and lures visitors with its dramatic landscapes, rich heritage and vibrant capital, Riga.
Declared European Capital of Culture in 2014, the city has one of the most impressive collections of Art Nouveau buildings in the world, not to mention a stunning UNESCO World Heritage old town. The latter is home to medieval churches, grand Renaissance properties and a spectacular market, which is held inside defunct zeppelin hangers from WWII. The old town is dominated by Riga Cathedral, the largest medieval church in the Baltics and one of many attractions in Riga vying for visitors’ attention.
The path beyond Riga is, for now, not quite so well-trodden. However, riches await those pressing further into the country; there’s the rural paradise that is Rundāle Palace, the dramatic fort of Turaida Castle and the charming Latvian Ethnographic Open Air Museum. The beautifully preserved historic towns of Kuldīga and Cēsis also warrant excursions.
Latvia is rich in natural attractions, too, like the Gulf of Riga and the windswept coastline along the Baltic Sea, which is home to seemingly infinite, sandy shores. Jūrmala, just 40 minutes from Riga, could be in the Mediterranean with its 30km (18 miles) golden beach, which is lined with spas, thermal mud pools and seafood restaurants.
Inland, national parks and nature reserves abound, but Gauja National Park is the most famous. This picturesque river valley is a place of unremitting beauty; of rushing rivers, ancient sandstone cliffs and, in spring, a mass of white cherry blossom. Gauja National Park is not only great for hiking, cycling and watersports, but also one of the best birdwatching sites in Latvia, after Pape and Cape Kolka.
While low cost air travel has opened Latvia up to the masses, most visitors are still struggling to stray far beyond the capital. However, those who do find treasure in this country, which, as the tourist board likes to tell you, is “best enjoyed slowly.”
64,589 sq km (24,938 sq miles).
1,955,742 (UN estimate 2016).
29.2 per sq km.
President Raimonds Vējonis since 2011.
Prime Minister Māris Kučinskis since 2015.
230 volts AC, 50Hz. European-style plugs with two round pins are standard.
Last updated: 13 March 2017
The travel advice summary below is provided by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in the UK. ‘We’ refers to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. For their full travel advice, visit www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice.
There have been reports of petty theft and robbery. Beware of pickpockets, avoid unlit streets and parks at night, and be extra vigilant if walking alone. Most thefts have been reported in Riga Old town, Central Market, central train and bus stations. You should remain particularly vigilant in these areas.
Reports of foreign tourists being charged extortionate prices for drinks or having fraudulent transactions debited against credit/debit cards have fallen considerably. You should, however, remain vigilant. Seek recommendations for bars and clubs from trustworthy sources like your hotel or other holidaymakers. When paying by credit or debit card make sure the transaction is completed in your presence and be wary of attempts to make you re-enter your pin number. Don’t leave drinks unattended.
If you feel that you have been a victim call the Riga tourism police on +371 67181818 or the national police on 110.
Be prepared for extremely cold and possibly hazardous weather if you travel to Latvia in the winter (October to March). There is likely to be snow on the ground and temperatures may drop to -25 degrees Celsius or below.
Drivers should carry original vehicle registration documents when crossing the border into Latvia (including motorcycles). If you do not have these documents, you will not be allowed to take your vehicle back out of Latvia.
Take care when driving. In 2015 there were 188 road deaths in Latvia (source: Department for Transport), equating to 9.5 road deaths per 100,000 of population. This compares to the UK average of 2.8 road deaths per 100,000 of population in 2015.
There is a system called a Co-ordinated Accident Statement for use in case of road accidents when only two vehicles are involved in the accident, both vehicles are fit to continue the journey, there are no injuries and no other property has been damaged. Details of this are available from insurance companies. If you are not familiar with this protocol, or if the situation does not conform to the rules, then you should not attempt to move a vehicle that has been involved in an accident, even if it is blocking the road, until the police give permission.
Don’t drink and drive. The legal limit is 0.05% (0.02% for drivers with less than two years of experience). Those found over the limit face a large fine, licence endorsement and probable imprisonment.
Using a mobile phone whilst driving is prohibited unless using a hands-free device.
Winter tyres are required between 1 December and 1 March.
Local law states that drivers must use their headlights at all times, including during daylight hours.
Car theft occurs. Wherever possible use guarded car parks and keep valuables out of sight.
You should use a major taxi company such as Baltic Taxi (+371 2000 8500) or Red Cab (+371 661 83 83). They are generally able to tell you the type, colour and number of the car in advance. If you do pick up a taxi on the street or at the airport make sure you only use official registered vehicles. These display yellow license plates. Even when using official taxis agree the approximate price of the journey before setting off as reports have been received of some taxis using meters which have been adapted to clock up higher rates. Some taxis operating from Riga airport can charge highly inflated prices.