A tapestry of sea, lakes and woods, Latvia is best described as a vast, unspoilt parkland with just one real city – its cosmopolitan capital, Rīga. The country might be small, but the amount of personal space it provides is enormous. You can always secure a chunk of pristine nature all for yourself, be it for trekking, cycling or dreaming away on a white-sand beach amid pine-covered dunes.
Having been invaded by every regional power, Latvia has more cultural layers and a less homogenous population than its neighbours. People here fancy themselves to be the least pragmatic and the most artistic of the Baltic lot. They prove the point with myriad festivals and a merry, devil-may-care attitude – well, a subdued Nordic version of it.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Latvia.
Like a huge painting that you can spend hours staring at, as your eye detects more and more intriguing details, this must-see Rīga sight is in fact a rather functional street with residential houses, restaurants and shops. Art nouveau, otherwise known as Jugendstil, is the style, and the architect responsible for many of the buildings is Mikhail Eisenstein (father of filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein).
Pilsētas kanāls, the city’s old moat, once protected the medieval walls from invaders. Today the snaking ravine has been incorporated into a thin belt of stunning parkland splitting Old and Central Rīga. Stately Raiņa bulvāris follows the rivulet on the north side, and used to be known as ‘Embassy Row’ during Latvia’s independence between the world wars.
Turaida means ‘God’s Garden’ in ancient Livonian, and this green knoll capped with a fairy-tale castle is certainly a heavenly place. The red-brick castle with its tall cylindrical tower was built in 1214 on the site of a Liv stronghold. A museum inside the castle’s 15th-century granary offers an interesting account of the Livonian state from 1319 to 1561; additional exhibitions can be viewed in the 42m-high Donjon Tower and the castle’s western and southern towers.
Haggle for your huckleberries at this vast market, housed in a series of WWI Zeppelin hangars and spilling outdoors as well. It's an essential Rīga experience, providing bountiful opportunities both for people-watching and to stock up for a picnic lunch. Although the number of traders is shrinking, the colourful abundance here activates visitor's foraging instincts. The best way to enjoy the market is to simply do your best to get lost amidst the bounty and browse away the day.
Founded in 1211 as the seat of the Rīga diocese, this enormous (once Catholic, now Evangelical Lutheran) cathedral is the largest medieval church in the Baltic. The architecture is an amalgam of styles from the 13th to the 18th centuries: the eastern end, the oldest portion, has Romanesque features; the tower is 18th-century baroque; and much of the rest dates from a 15th-century Gothic rebuild. The glazed black bricks are a symbol of the Hanseatic architecture.
Built in 1344 as a veritable fraternity house for the Blackheads guild of unmarried German merchants, the original house was bombed in 1941 and flattened by the Soviets seven years later. Somehow the original blueprints survived and an exact replica of this fantastically ornate structure was completed in 2001 for Rīga’s 800th birthday.
Rīga’s lavishly restored 1852 stock exchange building is a worthy showcase for the city's art treasures. The elaborate facade features a coterie of deities that dance between the windows, while inside, gilt chandeliers sparkle from ornately moulded ceilings. The Asian section features beautiful Chinese and Japanese ceramics and an Egyptian mummy, while the main halls are devoted to Western art, including a Monet painting and a scaled-down cast of Rodin's The Kiss.
Bauska Castle sits on a picturesque hillock squeezed between two rivers – the Mūsa and Mēmele – that flow parallel to each other. It is actually two castles melded together. The oldest part is in ruins and dates to the Livonian Order in the 15th century. The newer portion is a fortified manor house built by the Duke of Courland in the 16th century and is mostly intact. A museum covers the entire tangled history of the castle and the region.
This impressive riverside citadel is enjoying an ongoing renovation that's recreating its historic atmosphere. Look for the restored Nicholas Gate near the excellent Mark Rothko Art Centre. Built on the orders of tsar Alexander I on the eve of the Napoleonic wars, the fortress served as an imperial stronghold during two Polish insurrections in the 19th century and as a home away from home for tsars exploring their realm. It's a 3km walk northwest of the centre along the river.