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).
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.
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.
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.
Forming the centrepiece of Rīga’s skyline, this Gothic church is thought to be around 800 years old, making it one of the oldest medieval buildings in the Baltic. Its soaring red-brick interior is relatively unadorned, except for heraldic shields mounted on the columns. A colourful contrast is provided by the art exhibitions staged in the side aisles. At the rear of the church, a lift whisks visitors to a viewing platform 72m up the copper-clad steeple.
The city of Sigulda has done a fine job developing the historic buildings at its core into one unmissable complex. The highlight is the Livonian Order Castle, which was constructed between 1207 and 1209 by the Livonian Brothers of the Sword. Its evocative ruins are being restored and are worth an exploration. Some sections are complete and you can walk along the ramparts and ascend a tower with wonderful views over the forested Gauja Valley.
The old imperial Russian arsenal inside Daugavpils Fortress is now an excellent contemporary art gallery honouring Daugavpils native Mark Rothko. The permanent collection includes hundreds of works by visiting artists, as well as some Rothko originals and displays about the artist's work. It also hosts myriad temporary exhibitions.
Cēsis Castle is actually two castles in one. The moody dark-stone towers belong to the increasingly restored old castle. Founded by Livonian knights in 1214, it was sacked by Russian tsar Ivan the Terrible in 1577. The newer castle, the stolid 18th-century manor house, was once inhabited by the dynasty of German counts von Sievers and now houses a museum that features original fin-de-siècle interiors. In summer there is a demonstration garden showing how people ate 500 years ago.