The Shire of the Latvian Middle Earth, Kurzeme generates the true Latvian spirit which cosmopolitan Rīgans feel the urge to connect to in times of celebration and despair. Nationalism apart, Kurzeme is miles and miles of jaw-dropping natural beauty. The region’s sandy strands of desolate coastline are tailor-made for an off-the-beaten-track adventure.
Gauja National Park
A stunning stretch of virgin pines, this national park (www.gnp.gov.lv) extends from castle-strewn Sigulda to quiet Valmiera, passing industrial Līgatne and picture‑perfect Cēsis along the way. Founded in 1973, Latvia’s first national park protects a very leafy hinterland popular for hiking, biking, backcountry camping, canoeing and a slew of offbeat adrenalin sports.
With a name that sounds like a mythical ogress, it comes as no surprise that the gateway to the Gauja is an enchanting spot with delightful surprises tucked behind every dappled tree. Locals proudly call their town the ‘Switzerland of Latvia’, but if you’re expecting the majesty of a mountainous snow-capped realm, you’ll be rather disappointed.
Fabulous amounts of oil and shipping money have turned Ventspils into one of Latvia’s most beautiful and dynamic cities. The air is brisk and clean, and the well-kept buildings are done up in an assortment of cheery colours – even the towering industrial machinery is coated in bright paint.
Latvia is a maritime nation, but what do you find if you venture deep inland? More water! Latvia southeast, known as Latgale, is dissected by the mighty Dauagava and dotted with scenic lakes hiding in the depths of a thick pristine forest. If staying in a log cabin with no cars and people in sight is your kind of a holiday dream, then this is the place to go.
Liepāja doesn't fit any cliche – a port city of gritty red-brick warehouses, moored torpedo boats and an old prison for the main attraction, it also boasts one of the country's most beautiful beaches, and it has generated a totally disproportionate number of major Latvian musicians.
The lovely old Kuldīga would be a hit even if didn't have its own Niagara of sorts, with salmon flying over its chute for good measure. Home to what Latvians brand 'the widest waterfall in Europe', Kuldīga is also the place where your immersion into the epoche of chivalry won't be spoiled by day-tripping camera-clickers – the place is simply too far from Rīga.
The Baltic’s version of the French Riviera, Jūrmala (pronounced yoor-muh-lah) is a long string of townships with Prussian-style villas, each unique in shape and decor. Even during the height of communism, Jūrmala was always a place to 'sea' and be seen. These days, Russian tycoons and their glamorous wives comprise a visible part of the population.
Latvia's second-largest city is actually so small you can see the surrounding countryside from any of its several vantage points, along with the Daugava River upon which it stands. Predominantly Russian-speaking, Daugavpils has the undeserved reputation of a grim Soviet Gotham City – mostly among Latvians who have never been to it.
With its stunning medieval castle, cobbled streets, green hills and landscaped garden, Cēsis is simply the cutest little town in the whole of Latvia. There is a lot of history there, too. The place started eight centuries ago as a Livonian Order's stronghold in the land of unruly pagans and saw horrific battles right under (or inside) the castle walls.
This pleasant, if unremarkable, university town often features as the start or end point of boat trips on the Gauja River. If you have happen to be here, check out St Simon’s Church, which dates to 1283 and shelters a fine 19th-century organ. You can climb its church tower for a donation.
Once a medieval war zone, peaceful Talsi, 115km from Rīga, is the commercial centre of northern Kurzeme and the gateway to western Latvia’s desolate Cape Kolka. Locals are ferociously proud of the nine small hills that guard the city’s cobbled lanes and nearby lakes, but there’s very little that would appeal to a tourist.
A secret realm of greens and blues, Latvia’s land of enchanting lakes has stolen the hearts of many. Hidden runes suggest that the region was first settled at the end of the Stone Age when wandering hunters, captivated by the area’s serene beauty, paused along Lake Lubāns, Latvia’s largest, covering 82 sq km.