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.”