There’s plenty to see and do within striking distance of Latvia’s capital, whether you’ve forked out for a hire car or not. Here's our top five destinations within 90 minutes' driving time of Rīga.
The most obvious day-trip destination, Jūrmala is simultaneously the closest to Rīga, the easiest to reach by public transport and the most famous of the five on our list. Latvia’s premier beach resort has been fascinating the fashionable set since the heyday of the Russian Empire. It’s actually not just one town, but a long string of little seaside villages that long ago bled into a continuous sprawl of holiday homes. It was awarded city status in 1959.
The beach is the lure, a 33km-long stretch of silky sand backed by more than 4000 historic wooden houses. Visitors come to laze by the water and to stroll or cycle the surrounding streets, admiring the chocolate-box homes along the way. One of Latvia’s best restaurants, 36.Line, sits on the sand’s edge at the eastern end of the beach, but you’ll need a car or bike to reach it.
From Rīga, it’s only a 30-minute train ride (€1.50), with two to three trains departing for Majori station every hour. If you’re travelling the 15km by car, make sure you stop to pay the €2 toll on the way. Another option is to travel one way by boat; the New Way ferry departs the Old Rīga riverfront at 11am daily on a 2½ hour journey to Majori, with the return service leaving at 5pm.
2. Ķemeri National Park
Forest, bogs, lakes and beaches are the natural hallmarks of the Latvian countryside and Ķemeri National Park has them all.
The main park office is near Ķemeri, a faded spa town that reached its apogee between the 1890s and the 1930s, when people used to swarm here to sip the sulphurous waters and soak in mud baths. It’s certainly seen better days but it’s still an interesting place to explore, with a shabbily photogenic selection of decaying buildings, including a creepy 12-storey, 1200-bed sanatorium, abandoned along with communism in the 1990s.
From the park office there are two easy 600m-long loop walks, one heading through the forest and the other following boardwalks around a bog; come armed with insect repellent. In the summer, head to the drowsy fishing villages along the coast for a serving of smoked fish from one of the markets or roadside shacks.
If you have a car, the national park can be easily tacked onto a day-trip to Jūrmala. Otherwise take the one-hour train ride from Rīga to Ķemeri station (€2). You’re best to stock up on maps in Rīga before you set out; the station is 2.5km from the park office and you may struggle to find it otherwise.
3. Rundāle Palace
Think palaces and Latvia doesn’t immediately spring to mind, but this lavish 138-room baroque pile holds its own with Europe’s best. Rundāle Palace is often called ‘the Versailles of the Baltic’, which is mostly a reference to its grand formal gardens, inspired by Le Notre’s work at the Sun King’s pad near Paris.
Rundāle was built for the Duke of Courland between 1736 and 1740 in what, in hindsight, were the dying days of the duchy (Courland would be swallowed up by Russia in 1795). One of the most famous architects of the time, Bartolomeo Rastrelli, was enlisted, fresh from working on the Tsar’s mighty Winter Palace in St Petersburg.
Today, visitors can wander around the gardens and 40 of the palace’s grandest rooms, all of which have been sumptuously restored. The ‘short route’ leads through the state rooms (including the spectacular White Hall, Gold Hall and Great Gallery), while the marginally more expensive ‘long route’ also includes the Duke’s living rooms and the Duchess’ apartments.
The palace is best visited by car or on an organised tour. Travelling by public transport requires a change of bus at the town of Bauska, which would be time-consuming for day-trippers.
If you’ve been harbouring a secret fantasy to bungy-jump naked from a cable car or to hurtle down an Olympic bobsled track at 80km per hour, then Sigulda is for you. But you don’t need to be teetering on the edge of insanity to enjoy this little town; walking, cycling and canoeing are also popular activities.
Sigulda serves as the main gateway to Gauja National Park, a 917 sq km expanse of forest cuddling up to the Gauja River. One of the best local walks takes in the remains of three medieval castles and a large cave, completely covered with graffiti dating as far back as the 16th century.
Public transport will deposit you here from Rīga in just over an hour. Buses depart hourly and there are also 10 trains per day (the trains take a bit longer but they're also slightly cheaper).
Also in Gauja National Park, sweet little Cēsis is our pick for the title of prettiest town in Latvia. It’s sometimes described as Latvia’s most Latvian town, but visitors familiar with the English counties might feel a sense of familiarity walking its cobbled streets, set around a Gothic church, an imposing castle and an ornamental lake.
Visiting the castle is quite an experience; upon arrival you’re presented with a candle-powered lantern to assist your exploration of the west tower. Wonderful views await at the top, stretching over the castle lake and the sky-blue onion domes of a Russian Orthodox church, and to the forest beyond. Castle admission is included with a ticket to the interesting Cēsis History & Art Museum, housed in the adjoining 18th-century manor house known as the ‘new castle’.
If you’ve got a car, it's easy to tack Cēsis on to a day-trip to Sigulda. If not, hourly buses and at least four trains a day travel here from Rīga, taking around two hours (the trains are both a little cheaper and a little quicker than the buses, but they’re much less regular).