The middle child of the Baltics is perhaps most famed for the hedonistic party joints of its gloriously Gothic and Art Deco capital, or the happening coastal strips of Jurmala just along the coast.
But delve a little deeper into Latvia’s backcountry and you’ll discover Teutonic castles, tsarist palazzos and wild woodlands peppered with bucolic towns.
Check out these best places to visit in Latvia:
Top of the menu for any first-time travelers making their way across the Baltic, Riga is certainly one of the great urban treasures of the region as a whole.
It straddles the channels of the Daugava River on the northern edges of the country, boasting a labyrinthine Old Town area which is considered one of the most handsome in Europe.
Here, the cobbled streets are overshadowed by the dagger-like spires of the mighty St Peter’s Church, while the famously reconstructed House of the Blackheads stands definitely elegant after the tumult of Soviet domination over the city.
Art Nouveau is the name of the game in the city’s outer districts, with masterworks lining the pavements of Alberta iela.
And then – of course – there’s Riga’s legendary nightlife; a medley of hedonistic basement bars and thumping clubs that host locals and stag dos and hen parties aplenty.
Stretching for nearly 30 kilometers along the curved coastline of the Riga Gulf, sun-kissed, breezy Jurmala is the place to go during the hotter months of the year.
With their unique microclimate and salty air, the various towns that form the so-called ‘Latvian Riviera’ here are known for their mineral mud pools and range of curious holistic health treatments.
Beach wise, there are worthy sands running right the way along the breadth of the region, with Majori and Bulduri hailing in as the favourites with their Blue Flag ratings and opportunities for water sporting, collections of shore-side cafes and beach volleyball competitions.
No wonder the likes of Brezhnev and Khrushchev came here to unwind!
The birthplace of one Mark Rothko is now something of the antithesis to Riga in the north.
Nestled between the hills and lakes of the Daugava River valley, the town ticks over to a Russian tune (this is the heartland of Latvia’s Russian-speaking population), and boasts a glorious historical core that is all refined 19th-century architecture courtesy of St Petersburg.
The looming bulwarks of the great Daugavpils Fortress mark one of the militaristic hubs of the Russian Empire too, while the golden-hued onion domes and Orthodox cupolas of the Saints Boris and Gleb Cathedral mimic Kiev and St Basil’s atop the skyline of the town.
It’s easy to see why the Latvian locals have so many legends about Sigulda.
For one, the hills around town come topped with the keeps, bulwarks and crumbling crenulations of one Turaida Castle – Latvia’s answer to Bran of Romania.
Then there are the misty woodlands and groves of the Gauja Valley; a veritable gem of the nation’s backcountry that comes crisscrossed by meandering rivers and meandering hiking trails, dotted with caves (check out the massive caverns of the Gutmanis system) and undulating hills.
Meanwhile, Sigulda itself blooms with cherry trees and pretty regal architecture from before Latvian independence, and offers a chance for skiing and Nordic walking in the winter.
First came the Knights of the Livonian Order, who fortified the small islets that sit washed over by the tree-fringed channels at the start of the Lielupe River.
Then came the dukes of Courland and the imperial tsars of the Russian state, who raised an altogether new fortification here: the one now commanding the middle of the town with its curious whitewashed walls and red-tiled roofs.
But rich and militaristic history aside, Bauska also boasts a charming backwater character, with the river ways flowing through the heart of town lined by ad hoc allotments and farmlands, crossed by tenuous suspension bridges and one pretty market square bustling with local life. Nice.
6. Slitere National Park
Slitere National Park is considered the great natural jewel of the Kurzeme region.
Part cultural museum part hinterland, the area encompasses the beautiful Blue Hills and great stretches of undeveloped coastland, rolling sand dunes and sloping yellow sands washed over by the whitecaps of the Baltic Sea.
The park juts out into the ocean with the beaches of Cape Kolka, while deep virgin forests cover the interior in groves of fir, elm and rare Baltic ivy.
The Slitere National Park also comes dotted with oodles of historic fishing villages, many of which have remained truly off-the-beaten-track and rustic because of the presence of an off-bounds military base in the area during Soviet times.
A picture of traditional Latvian town planning, Cesis has retained all its medieval glory.
Its center is lauded as one of the best-preserved historic districts in the country, coming complete with wide cobblestone streets, pretty, painted timber facades done out in the classic Baltic style, stuccoed churches (check out the gorgeous St John’s Church and its tombs of the Livonian Order knights) and worn courtyards where once Middle Age markets would have thrived.
The piece de resistance of the town has to be Cesis Castle; a formidable medley of palisades and gatehouses that’s shrouded by forests close to the center.
Here, visitors can discover 800 years of history and tales of Swedish, Russian, Slavic and Polish invaders alike.
8. Rundale Palace
A onetime gift from the Russian empress Catherine the Great, the Rundale Palace is the most elegant remnant of imperial rule from Petersburg left in Latvia.
It can be found encircled by blooming rose gardens and English-style lawns close to the town of Bauska.
The designs of the façade and grounds are flamboyant and extravagant in the extreme, oozing with all the Italian-esque opulence and eccentricity you’d expect of a piece by the celebrated architect of the Russian court, Bartolomeo Rastrelli.
Today, thousands of people flock to tour the interior rooms and gardens at Rundale, weaving between the exhibitions of the Palace Museum and spotting visiting luminaries around the grounds.
Facing the trodden seaside strips of Jurmala across the waters of the Riga Gulf, Saulkrasti is Latvia’s lesser-known summertime retreat.
Quieter and more laid-back than its sun-splashed counterpart on the other side of the bay, it hosts mile upon mile of winding cycle tracks, beautiful ivory sands at the resort town of Pabazi (like Jurmala, Saulkrasti is actually a collection of several towns and villages along the coast) and gorgeous clifftop walking trails through seaside forests.
The 18-meter-high White Dune also rises here on the edge of the River Incupe, offering prime sunset viewing and top-notch picnic spots in the shade of swaying linden and fir trees.
Just a short jaunt out of the castle-topped town of Cesis, travelers will find the ancient cultural landscape of Araisi.
The most visited and best open air museum in the country, the spot chronicles the lifestyles of the early Middle Age tribes of the Baltic region, who made their home on the lake banks here in timber lean-tos and wooden cottages.
There are also the ruins of a castle courtesy of the German Livonian Order on the site, along with oodles of archaeological finds that showcase everything from 14th-century fashion trends to advances in farming and agriculture during the 1300s.
In short, this fascinating reconstructed settlement is perfect for anyone eager to unravel Latvia’s deeper past.
Walkers, mountain bikers, campers, horse riders, wildlife lovers and Nordic skiers alike all flock to the small and forest-shrouded town of Ligatne.
As the gateway to the famed Gauja National Park, travelers can expect to uncover striking sandstone gorges and fir-forest-topped escarpments of Devonian rock, the caves of Gutmanala, the beautiful contours of the Erglu Cliffs and countless nature trails that delve deep into the woodlands on the edge of the town.
Ligatne itself is a small and sleepy affair, complete with the curiously out-of-place remnants of a paper-making industry boom and lines of pretty cottages topped with corrugated roofs.
The home of the best-preserved Livonian Order castle in the country – which rises against the cobbles of the Old Town here in pretty, yellow-washed facades – and one of the most bustling ports in the Baltic region, Ventspils offers the perfect balance of history and modernity.
Along with its charming Market Square and historic homes on Skolas Street, the city is also known as the flower capital of Latvia.
The moniker is honoured from springtime onwards, with blooming beds of flowers and bulbs erupting all around town and along its portside, seaside promenades alike.
Situated just down the courses of the mighty Daugava River as it carves its way into the very heart of Latvia, the town of Ogre has a history dating all the way back to the early years of the 1200s.
While overlooked by many travelers making their way through the Baltic region, the spot is perfect for those who want to sample raw, day-to-day Latvian life, seeking out stories of regional oppression in the town museum and wondering at monuments to the victims of the communist regime.
Ogre is also worthy of note because of its place on the edge of the pretty Dendrological Park Lazdukalni; a fine reserve for exploring the sheer variety of flora decorating these fringes of Northern Europe.
Old World charm oozes from every crooked cottage and cobblestone lane of Kuldiga; a chocolate box of an historic core that makes its home in the very heart of the Kurzeme.
Timber homes dating from the 1700s form some of the most attractive sights in the city, while arched brick bridges and the elegant Baroque finish of the St Catherine’s Church belie the town’s boom time during the years of the Courland duchy.
And then there are the roaring waterfalls of the Venta River on the outskirts of town, which gush and flow around the verdant riparian habitats and winding tunnels of the Sand cave of Riezupe alike.
A patchwork of Art Nouveau and Russian Orthodox, bustling portside industry and blue collar working neighbourhoods, the 90,000-strong city of Liepaja makes for an interesting and immersive visit just a stone’s throw north from the Lithuanian border.
The Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, with its soaring spire and colossal organ installation, and the bustling daily markets are two of the major draws here, while the former city of Karosta – a onetime clandestine settlement of Soviet military types on the edge of the modern city – is a must.
Here, the old remnants of tsarist and USSR forts are now being converted into art galleries and cafes, while windswept stretches of beach hug their way along the coast to boot.