Things to see and do in Latvia
Latvian Tourism Information Bureau in the UKAddress: Westminster, 72 Queensborough Terrace, London, W2 3SH
Telephone: +44 20 7229 8271
Attractions in Latvia
Basilica of Aglona
A place of pilgrimage for Catholics from all over Latvia and beyond, this immense white cathedral near Daugavpils, with its twin spires, is worth visiting even if you are not religious (tel: + 371 2918 8740; www.aglona.travel). To see the basilica at its most atmospheric, visit during the Feast of the Assumption (15 August) when around 150,000 worshippers take part in a torch lit procession celebrating the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Birdwatching in Pape
Latvia's coast, wetlands and traditionally cultivated farmland attract significant populations of interesting and uncommon birds. Pape, near Liepāja along the Kurzeme coast, is on the migration route for seabirds, wildfowl and other species – 200 breeds total. It is also a haven for songbirds and raptors. Cape Kolka is another good spot for birdwatching. Local operators can arrange birdwatching trips upon request. For more information, contact the Latvian Ornithological Society (tel: + 371 6722 1580; www.lob.lv).
The windswept beach at Cape Kolka, part of the Slītere National Park, is a breathtaking spot where the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Riga crash together. It’s also a good place for a brisk walk along the shore and a great spot for birdwatching. The skyline features the wooden Kolka Lighthouse, originally set aglow in June 1875 and still luring visitors to the cape today (tel: +371 2914 9105; www.kolkasrags.lv).
Old wooden buildings, cobbled streets, attractive churches and impressive castles transport you back through layers of history in Cēsis (www.turisms.cesis.lv). One of Latvia's oldest towns, it was first inhabited in the 13th century. Cēsu, one of Latvia’s best-known beers, has been brewed in the well-preserved medieval city since the 16th century. The town even has an annual arts festival that celebrates traditional and contemporary Latvian culture.
Daugavpils Mark Rothko Centre
The great 20th century abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko was born in Daugavpils, in southeast Latvia. The Daugavpils Mark Rothko Art Centre, housed in a renovated arsenal building dated 1833, is a multi-functional institution of culture, arts and education. Featuring the main exhibition “Mark Rothko: Life and Art,” the centre houses original Rothko works and shows a digital exposition on the artist’s career. 2013 marked the 110th anniversary of Rothko's birth. (www.rothkocenter.com)
Ethnographic Open-Air Museum of Latvia
Just outside Riga and alongside Lake Jugla is the Ethnographic Open-Air Museum of Latvia (tel: +317 6799 4106; www.brivdabasmuzejs.lv). Established in 1924, it is one of the oldest and best preserved outdoor museums in Europe. It boasts historical dwellings, workers' homesteads, a tavern and windmills, all gathered from across Latvia. Masters of 18 different crafts demonstrate their work at this artisan community.
Fly high in Sigulda
The cable car from Sigulda to Krimulda features a birds-eye view of the Gauja River Gorge. For adrenaline junkies, bungee jumping can be arranged from the cable car when it stops some 42m above the river itself (tel: +371 2838 3333; www.bungee.lv). Krimulda also has a ruined castle and a sprawling landscape that can be absorbed on the seven-minute aerial ride (tel: +371 2802 0088; www.cablecar.lv).
Not only is this vaulting statue at the heart of Riga, it also commemorates the hardships that Latvian citizens have endured over the years and serves as a poignant symbol of nationhood. That it survived communist rule at all is a miracle. It stands over 42m tall and is topped by the figure of a woman holding three gold stars, symbolizing Latvia’s three cultural regions: Kurzeme, Latgale and Vidzeme.
Hiking in Gauja National Park
Latvia's national parks and protected areas boast myriads of hiking trails. Gauja is the country's biggest and oldest national park, covering an area of nearly 900 sq km (340 sq miles) around the River Gauja. It features caves, rocks and dense woods, and plenty of wildlife. One of the most popular trails is the 5km Līgatne nature trail, where visitors can see many species of wild mammals native to Latvia (tel: +371 2832 8800; www.visitligatne.lv). Visit in spring if you want to see the mass of wild cherry trees blooming along the Gauja River valley. Latvia has four national parks – the others are Ķemeri, Slītere and Rāzna (the country’s newest).
This attractive town proudly promotes itself as the home of Europe's widest waterfall. While the gushing torrent is impressive when the Venta River runs high, Kuldiga (www.visit.kuldiga.lv) is an attractive historic settlement well worth exploring year-round. The city also hosts a “traditional nude run” every Summer Solstice.
Latvian Song and Dance Festival
Held only once every five years and dating back to 1873, the Latvian Song and Dance Festival is one of the country’s greatest musical and cultural events. Along with the Song and Dance festivals in neighbouring Estonia and Lithuania, this week-long celebration is inscribed on the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage. From vibrant folk costumes to intricate choreography and harmonies, the event combines the talent of some 30,000 dancers, singers, artists and musicians.
Its old town buildings may be a little faded but Liepaja (www.liepaja.lv) still boasts attractive architecture, including many art nouveau buildings. It has the largest concentration of preserved wooden houses in Latvia, some dating back as far as the 17th or 18th centuries. The real highlights, though, are its seaside park and sandy EU Blue Flag beach. In Karosta, a former Russian naval base, you can take a tour of a KGB prison museum (tel: +371 2636 9470; www.karostascietums.lv).
Riga's art nouveau architecture
Riga boasts one of the finest collections of art nouveau buildings in the world, accounting for around a third of the properties in the city centre. Riga is also famous for its old town, which has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. With its attention to detail and push toward modern design, Riga’s art nouveau buildings are an architectural site to behold. Be sure to stroll down Alberta Street and visit Riga’s Art Nouveau Centre (tel: +371 6718 1464; www.jugendstils.riga.lv).
The chic, 26th-floor Skyline Bar at the Radisson Blu Hotel Latvija (tel: +371 6777 2282; www.radissonblu.com) offers epic 360-degree views over Riga. The same dramatic views can even be enjoyed from the toilets. An extensive drinks menu with over 100 cocktails complements the vistas, and weekend DJ performances feature the newest dance music.
Spas in Jūrmala
Spa holidays are all the rage in Latvia, especially in Jūrmala (tel: +371 6714 7900; www.visitjurmala.lv). The ever-growing number of spa hotels in this Baltic resort are backed up by a seemingly endless sandy beach. Indulge in an aromatherapy massage or something a bit more unusual, like a salt chamber.
Stay in the land of the Blue Lakes
It’s possible to rent log cabins amidst the Latgale forest, which boasts 2,000 of Latvia’s 3,000 total lakes. Some properties are located next to lakes where the hearty can take a swim, while others have their own saunas. The peaceful retreat of “Laimavoti” – meaning the spring of happiness – offers an intimate look at Latvia’s natural beauty (tel: +371 2755 9999; www.laimavoti.lv). Built on a peninsula and surrounded by Cārmanis lake, the resort sits along the borders of Belarus and Russia.
Turaida Museum Reserve
One of Latvia's most popular attractions throngs with tourists and Latvian school children who come to ramble around Turaida Castle, one of the country’s most attractive citadels. There are striking views over the Gauja National Park from its ramparts, while the landscaped grounds boast several oversized esoteric sculptures. It was specially commended in the European Museum of the Year Awards in 1996 (tel: +371 6797 2376; www.turaida-muzejs.lv).
Watersports on the Gauja River
The winding Gauja River in beautiful Gauja National Park offers plenty of opportunities for watersports, from white-water kayaking to river rafting. Anyone seeking an extended watery adventure can stay at one of the national park's 23 campsites. In the Strenči district of Gauja, Latvians hold an annual Raftsmen Festival that includes two days of rafting and an immersive cultural history of the area. For more information, visit Latvia’s tourism board on water activities (www.latvia.travel).