A Complete Guide To Cesis, Latvia

A Complete Guide To Cesis, Latvia

Cesis is a lovely well kept medieval town located in the North East of Latvia, in the region of Gauja. The first mention of Cesis dates back to 1206. Thanks to its vicinity to the Gauja River, this small town was a well known trading port and it even became part of the Hanseatic League.

Mostly famous for its beautiful castle, Cesis is a very pleasant place to visit and at such a short distance from Riga that, if you are planning to travel to Latvia, you should make it a point to go.

This small town can be easily visited on a day trip from Riga. However, I actually recommend spending a couple of days there to take in the fantastic, relaxing atmosphere and to visit all that the city and its gorgeous surroundings have to offer.

Continue reading this post to discover the many things to see and do in Cesis, Latvia, and to get some tips on how to plan your trip there.

For more things to do in Latvia, read my post “A Guide To The Things To Do In Latvia.”

Cesis Castle

The Medieval Castle is one of the unmissable sights of Cesis

10 Nice Things To See And Do In Cesis

Explore the beautiful Castle of Cesis

Cesis Castle is the most famous sight in town and the main reason people visit Cesis – and for a very good reason! Incredibly well preserved, the Castle is a beautiful sight from the outside, and if you take the time to do a guided tour you will discover its incredible and interesting history.

The Castle of Cesis was built in 1214 and back at the time it was the residence of the Knights of the Livonian Brothers of the Sword. The Castle fell in 1577 when it was put under siege by the Russian army of tsar Ivan the Terrible, but continued being used as a residence until the end of the 17th century. It was abandoned after the Great Northern War and it was finally turned into a national monument in the 19th century.

Although you can explore the Castle of Cesis on your own, I wholeheartedly recommend joining a guided tour. This goes around the premises where various workshops have been established to show traditional crafts of the time when the castle was flourishing, as well as the vegetable and herb garden that once served the people living in the castle.

Once you are done visiting the outer parts, the guide will take you inside the actual castle, where you will be handed a candle lantern that you will need to illuminate your way through the darkest rooms and passages.

The guided tour costs €8 and lasts between one and one and a half hour – depending on how many questions you have for the guide.

Cesis Manor

The beautiful tower of Cesis New Castle

Visit the exhibition in Cesis Castle Manor House

Next to the medieval castle of Cesis there is a more modern one, known as Cesis new castle. This is a manor house that was built around 1761 and that was used as a residence by the Siever family until 1920. The castle now  hosts Cesis History and Art Museum. It only costs €3 to visit, so it is a nice and easy addition to the medieval castle.

Walk around Castle Park

Once the Siever family built the new castle, the head of the family, Count Carl von Sievers, also required the creation of a park around the castle that could be used as a recreation area. The park is free to enter since 1917 and it’s one of the most pleasant places to visit in Cesis. This is where festivals, concerts and other kind of performances take place. It’s a lovely place to spend some time finding refuge from the sun on hot summer days or – I can only imagine – appreciating the gorgeous foliage colors in the fall.

Admire St John’s Church

Currently under renovation, St. John’s Church is one of the unmissable places to visit in Cesis. It was built at the end of the 13th century and it’s the country’s largest basilica outside of Riga. The view of the Castle and the Old Town from the tower of the church are meant to be gorgeous. Unfortunately I was unable to climb there due to the renovation works – but if you visit when these are over, make sure to do so and confirm the information!

Cesis Latvia

The Old Man of Time is one of the symbols of Cesis

Take a look at the statue of the Old Man of Time

The statue of the Old Man of Time is the most curious sights in Cesis. Located right by St. John’s Church, the statue represents a hunchback monk holding a lantern, which according to legend he used to light other lanterns around town so that by illuminating the city at night he could keep watch over the safety of the town’s inhabitants.

Go to the railway station

Whether you travel to Cesis by train or not, make sure to spend some time admiring the beautiful building of Cesis railway station. I went there as there was a temporary exhibit of the Wabadus (Freedom), aka the Historic Armoured Train which was used during the Independence War, between 1918 and 1920, and which included a hospital wagon, a sleeper wagon and a combat wagon.

The exhibit ended on 22 June, but the station remains a beautiful building and a pleasant place to walk around for a little but.

Cesis Latvia

The lovely center of Cesis

Wander around the narrow streets of the Old Town

One of the nicest things to do in Cesis is wandering around aimlessly through the narrow cobbled alleys of the Old Town. This part of town is packed with beautiful, colorful, well kept buildings in traditional style and while most of the medieval buildings have long been gone, the layout of the city has been retained. Make sure to take notice of the beautiful buildings of the City Hall, the Merchant House, and the Princess House.

Pass by the Monument of Victory

Built in honor of Latvian and Estonian soldiers that fell during the Independence War of Latvia, the Monument of Victory was first placed in Cesis main square in 1924. It was then destroyed in 1952, when it was replaced with a statue of Lenin. This was dismantled in 1990 and in 1998 the Monument of Victory returned to its original status. You will walk by this monument on your way from the Old Town to the railway station, so it is virtually impossible to miss it.

Gauja National Park

One of the many gorgeous views along the bike ride from Cesis to Valmiera

Bike (or hike) from Cesis to Valmiera

If you are spending a couple of days in Cesis, you should make it a point to further explore Gauja National Park. One of the best ways to do so is by bike – a ride from Cesis to Valmiera will take you through some of the most iconic sights in the region, including the gorgeous sandstone cliffs; some tiny, quirky museums; the thick pine forest that runs along the Gauja River, and the gorgeous Latvian countryside.

The itinerary, which you can view here, runs for 45 km and it will take you around 6 hours to complete, depending on how often you stop. It’s a moderate to strenuous ride, as in some parts it goes through the forest where you will be biking over the thick roots of the trees.

You can follow the orange marks on the trees, rocks or on the ground, or the wooden signs with a bicycle symbol. You can even download Enter Gauja app on your smartphone so that you can always check where you are on the map.

Practical Information

You can rent bikes for the day at Ezi shop, which is located right outside Cesis Old Town, and return them in the Ezi shop in Valmiera. It costs €8.50 to rent the bike for a day, plus €3 more for the helmet.

From Valmira, you will have to get the bus to get back to Cesis. Buses depart regularly from the bus station. The ride lasts around 40 minutes and costs €1.60.

TIP: You can get a map of the itinerary at the Info Point in Cesis.

TIP: You will need to bring enough water and food for the day – there are no shops along the way!

TIP: If you aren’t into mountain biking, you can walk this trail – it will take you two days and you can spend the night near Sietiniezis cliff, where there is a camping site and a shed where you can stay in case of rain. You will have to bring enough food and water for the two days.

To find out more about Gauja National Park, head over to my postA Guide To Visiting Gauja National Park, Latvia.”

Admire the building of the oldest brewery in Northern Europe

Originally, Cesis’ brewery was located in the castle, where it was established in 1590. The brewery, which was moved to other premises, is called Cēsu Alus, is thought to be the oldest one in the Baltic countries. In 2001, the brewery was finally moved to its location in Palmu iela 13, while the old building is not in use anymore – it’s mean to become an exhibition and art center.

Railway Station

The beautiful building of the Railway Station

Practical Tips To Organize A Trip To Cesis

Where to stay and eat in Cesis

There are some excellent accommodation and eating options in Cesis and in the region of the Gauja. I have spent a few days there and stayed and ate at a few good places that I wholeheartedly recommend. Here they are:

  • Hotel Karlamuiza, is located in Kārļi, at about 10 km and 15 minutes drive from Cesis. This is a fantastic, family run countryside hotel with very large, comfortable rooms and that splendid countryside charm that will make you fall in love with it. The staff is extremely friendly and helpful. All rooms have a view of the countryside and the area is so peaceful that you are guaranteed quality sleep. Guests can enjoy a home cooked, delicious meal – usually a traditional Latvian dish. Enquire beforehand about dietary requirements. Click here for the latest rates and here for reviews.
  • Hotel Vanadzina Maja is located in the main street in the historic center of Cesis. The comfortable rooms are decorated in modern Scandinavian style, so they are plain and extremely cozy. They all face a small courtyard. There is an on site restaurants known to be one of the best in Gauja. Click here for the latest rates and here for reviews.

Priede Café is a lovely small café right in one of the beautiful squares of Cesis. It has a fantastic selection of light and healthy as well as more earthy meals. Make sure to try the keto bowl.

How to get to Cesis

By public transportation

You can easily get to Cesis from Riga via public transportation.

By bus

Bus line 7730 leaves regularly from the center of Riga and takes about one hour and 50 minutes to reach Cesis bus station. The ticket costs €4.15.

By train

There also are regular trains that connect Riga to Cesis. Depending on the train, the ride lasts between one hour and 15 minutes and two hours. The ticket costs €3.50.

By car 

Since there is so much to see and do not just in Cesis but also around town, you may want to consider driving there. You can’t really park the car in the city center – there are strict time limits – but there is a large parking lot right outside. You can check the prices of car rental here.

Spending time in Riga? Make sure to read my post “A Guide To The Things To Do In Riga, Latvia.”

Other useful information

I recommend getting a good travel insurance for all your trips, including that to Latvia. Get yours here.

Check out my post Why You Need A Good Travel Insurance.”

For more readings about Cesis and Gauja National Park, or for more about Latvia in general, you should consult the websites of the Tourism Board of Latvia and of that of Gauja. You can check one of these books:

Legal Disclaimer: I was a guest of the Tourism Board of Latvia and of Enter Gauja during my time in Cesis and I wish to thank them for welcoming me and for helping me organize a fantastic trip to this part of Latvia. Needless to say, the views expressed in this post remain my own.

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Discover what to see and do in Cesis Latvia - via @clautavani

 

A Guide To The Things To Do In Riga, Latvia

A Guide To The Things To Do In Riga, Latvia

There are many incredible things to do in Riga. The capital of Latvia is a fantastic mixture of history, tradition and modernity, to which you should add a buzzing cultural scene, fantastic dining opportunities and great nightlife.

This is the country’s biggest city: about a third of the total population of Latvia lives in Riga. In fact, it’s the most populated city of the three Baltic States. It has kept its identity while welcoming tourists as well as new residents who decided to move there.

Exploring Riga, you will be able to uncover the many layers of its history. Latvia has seen Swedish, Russian, Nazi and Soviet occupation and you’ll find hints of the occupation history across the city center. You will notice that next to medieval buildings there are some art nouveau ones that that back to the time when Riga started expanding beyond what is now known as Vecrīga, the Old Town.

Scattered around town there are many beautifully kept parks where locals and tourists alike enjoy spending time when the weather is nice. And the river that flows through the city is a perfect place to go for a walk or a bike ride.

In this post, I highlight some of the things to do in Riga, Latvia – keep in mind that this is only a selection based on my experience, and that more will be added once I visit the city again. At the end of the post you will find some tips on how to plan a trip there.

If you wish to join a guided tour of Riga, I have selected some of the best for you below:

things to do in Riga

A fantastic view of Riga

25 Fabulous Things To Do In Riga, Latvia

Go for a walk in the Old town

Riga Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Much of the Old Town was destroyed during World War II, but after Latvia’s independence it was almost completely restored.
Vecrīga, as the locals call it, is a maze of narrow, cobbled alleys packed with colorful buildings, beautiful squares, and churches. There, you will be able to find some of the best museums in town as well as lovely small shops, restaurants, cafés and bars.
It’s a lovely part of town to wander around and get lost for a day, exploring aimlessly and just taking in the atmosphere, discovering the main sights as well as the most hidden corners – that’s why I recommend starting your exploration from there.
Once you got a good feel for the Old Town, you should explore it more in depth and visit the most famous attractions, which I am highlighting below.
If you’d rather go on a guided tour of Riga Old Town, this is a good selection from which you can pick:

Climb to St. Peter’s Church viewing platform

One of the best things to do in Riga is seeing it from above. Now, this is easier said than done in a country where the highest peak is 311 meters and in a city that is virtually flat. However, rumor has it that the best views of Riga are from the viewing platform of St. Peter’s Church. This church, located in the heart of the Old Town, is one of the most iconic buildings in the city.
The church is open Monday to Saturdays from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm, and 12:00 pm to 6:00 pm on Sundays (or 7:00 pm in the summer months). The entry fee is €9 and this gives access to the church, the exhibit and the platform from where you can take in the incredible views of the city.
TIP: If you are keen on getting inside and on the viewing platform make sure to check that St. Peter’s church is open on the day of your visit. Keep in mind that it is closed on national holidays – I wasn’t actually able to get on the viewing platform as I happened to be there on 23 June, which is a public holiday for the celebration of the summer solstice.
things to do in Riga

The lovely Cathedral of Riga

Visit the Cathedral of Riga

Riga is packed with churches – I think I lost count of how many I walked by when I was visiting. The Cathedral is in the Old Town, so there is no excuse to miss it.
Built in the 13th century, the church is famous for the beautiful wooden organ that was installed in the 1880s. It is the seat of the Archbishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia. It underwent several modifications throughout the centuries.
what to see in Riga

The Three Brothers are among the most iconic sights in Riga

Find the Three Brothers

Another iconic spot in Riga is the Three Brothers, which are located in Mazā Pils Street. These are three buildings that are thought to be among the oldest complex of houses in town – they were built between the 15th and the 17th century.

The houses are honestly impossible to photograph because they are located in a very narrow street – you will need a very good wide angle lens if you want to take a good photo. But they are a nice sight nonetheless. Inside you will find a museum of architecture.

Admire the House of the Blackheads

One of the most beautiful buildings in Riga is the House of the Blackheads, which was built around 1330 century by an association of unmarried merchants which used it as a meeting place and for social gatherings.

The buildings underwent various modifications in the 16th and 19th century and it was almost completely destroyed during a raid by the German forces in 1941. It was only rebuilt after the end of the Soviet occupation, and finished in 1999.

what to do in Riga

The beautiful House of the Blackheads, in Town Hall Square

Hang out in Town Hall Square

One of Riga’s landmarks is the Town Hall Square, where the beautiful House of the Blackheads is located. The square has been completely rebuilt as it was destroyed during WWII. This is the place where Riga used to light its Christmas tree for centuries – now, a stone remains to show where the tree used to be located, but unless you know it is there you won’t really notice it. It’ also where the Town Hall is located.

Located in the Town Square you will find the famous House of the Blackheads which I have mentioned above, and the Museum of the Occupation, which I will talk about more in depth below. You’ll also see the statue of a knight which intends to represent the Medieval privileges which Riga used to have.

Riga Latvia

The Swedish Gate is one of Riga’s prettiest sights

Pass through the Swedish Gate

When you visit Riga, make sure to pass by the Swedish Gate, which is located in the Old Town. This takes its name from the time during which Latvia was under the control of Sweden. Back in Medieval times the city was protected by a wall and protective towers were built around it. There were various gates to enter the city, and the only remaining one is the Swedish Gate, which was actually built in 1698.

As the city expanded, the old walls and towers were of no use so they were destroyed – but right by the Swedish Gate there used to be the apartment of the city executioner, who according to legend would place a red rose on his window any time there was an execution.

Black Balsam

You have to try Black Balsam!

Try Black Balsam 

Black Balsam is one of the national drinks of Latvia. It’s a very strong liquor made with a mixture of various herbs, which in the past was used for medicinal purposes (hence the name balsam). The taste reminded me a bit of that of Jägermeister, and brought back memories of the glorious days in which I could hold my drink (just one, really!).

The best place to try Black Balsam is Black Magic, which used to be a pharmacy and now is a lovely chocolaterie and patisserie where you can enjoy a good tea or hot chocolate, a couple of pralines and – obviously – the country’s favorite liquor. You can even try a Black Balsam cocktail. It’s open from 10:00 am to 10:00 pm every day.

Riga Latvia

The Latvia War Museum is located in the Powder Tower

Walk by the Powder Tower

One of the most intriguing sights in Riga is the Powder Tower. This tower got its name in the 17th century when it was used to store gunpowder. It’s more than 25 meters tall and it has a diameter of more than 14 meters. The tower was also used as a prison and torture chamber, and to store weapons until 1883. If you observe carefully you can also see the cannon balls that were walled in the tower to remember the Second Northern War.

Annexed to the Powder Tower there is a wing that hosts the Latvian War Museum, which is a military history museum. This is open daily from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm (or 6:00 pm in the summer months) and it admission is free.

Riga Central Market

Riga Central Market is a must see – mind you, it’s huge!

Shop at the Central Market

I always say that visiting a city’s market is a fantastic way to get to know it and the Latvian capital is no different. There is no doubt that one of the coolest things to do in Riga is visiting the Central Market. Located south of the Old Town, the building that now hosts the Central Market dates back to the 1920s.

Mind you, it is huge – factor in at least one hour to explore it. This is where you should go to buy food, to admire the colorful stalls and to try some local specialties.

The market is open Mondays to Saturdays from 8:00 am to 6:00 pm and on Sundays from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm. Beware of national holidays, when the market is either completely closed or not nearly as busy as you’d hope for.

If you want, you can even join a guided tour of the Central Market. You can book it here.

things to see in Riga

The Freedom Monument is one of the symbols of Riga

Pass by the Freedom Monument

East of Riga Old Town and by a gorgeous park you’ll find the Freedom Monument, which was erected in honor of the soldiers killed during the Latvian War of Independence between 1918 and 1920. The monument dates back to 1935 and the area is where commemoration ceremonies take place.

Visit the Church of the Nativity of Christ

Not far from the Freedom Monument there’s the Church of the Nativity of Christ, which is very different from all other churches in town. First of all, it is an Orthodox church – so it is mostly used by the residents of Riga who are of Russian origins. The construction of the church started in 1876. You will be able to see its golden domes from a distance.

The church is currently under renovation but you can still visit it.

TIP: If you with to walk inside the church, make sure to dress modestly.

things to do in Riga

The Church of the Nativity of Christ as seen from the Skyline Bar – you can even see the National Library in the distance

Take in the views from the Skyline Bar

Other than the viewing platform of St. Peter’s Church, another excellent place for views of Riga is the Skyline Bar. This is located on the 26th floor of Radisson Blu Hotel on Elizabetes, minutes walk from the Church of the Nativity of Christ. You will have to ride the panoramic elevator and then you can walk around the bar to take in the breathtaking views.

It is free to enter, but I honestly recommend sitting at one of the tables and grabbing a drink – it’s not one of the cheapest bars in town (at least not by Latvian standards!) but totally worth it.

TIP: Walk to the toilets for floor to ceiling glass windows overlooking the city.

Visit the Museum of Occupation

I am a strong believer that traveling doesn’t have to be just merry and fun, but that it should also imply learning about the history and culture of a place, no matter how strikingly different from ours that may be; and no matter how violent or disturbing it may be. That’s why I encourage people to visit places such as Chernobyl, in Ukraine (though now it appears like it’s becoming the backdrop of pictures of insensitive so-called influencers – which I find extremely upsetting).

Discover more about Chernobyl in my post Everything You Need To Know To Visit Chernobyl.”

If you visit Latvia, you really should make it a point to learn about its difficult past. There are a few places in town where you can do that, and you should visit at least a couple. The Museum of Occupation, which is located in the Town Hall Square, is where you can learn more about the history of the Latvia between 1940 and 1991, when it was first under Soviet occupation, then under Nazi rule and once again under Soviet occupation.

At the Museum of Occupation you will be able to browse through documents and other artifacts that testify of the difficult times during which political opponents where subject to torture, imprisoned, deported to Siberia and brutally executed.

The museum is open daily from 11:00 am to 6:00 pm. There is no entry fee but you have to pay a small fee for a guided tour.

what to do in Riga

If you visit just one museum in Riga, it has to be The Corner House

Take a tour of The Corner House

If you have time to visit just one museum when you are in Riga, then it has to be The Corner House. This is what to see in Riga if you want to learn about the time of the occupation.

The Corner House is the former KGB building, and takes its name from the entry location – right on the corner of a street in the center of Riga. It’s a building that was first used by the Nazi and then by the Soviet regime to interrogate, torture, imprison and kill anybody who was suspected to be a political opponent.

Relatives of people who had disappeared would go to The Corner House to enquire about their loved ones, but it was a well known fact that the majority people who entered that building would never exit it – not alive at least.

The Corner House is open every day from 10:30 am to 5:30 pm. You can enter the permanent exhibition on the ground floor for free; but for a more in depth visit you need to join a guided tour which costs €10 and lasts little over one hour. I recommend booking it in advance here, as it is often sold out.

Keep in mind that much like other museums in town, The Corner House is closed on national holidays.

For more places to visit in Latvia, check out my post “A Guide To The Things To Do In Latvia.”

Admire the Art Nouveau scattered around town

Walking around Riga you’ll often notice people staring up, looking at buildings. If you look in the same direction, you’ll quickly realize that they are staring at one of the 800 Art Nouveau buildings scattered around town. In other words, Riga is an Art Nouveau extravaganza and if you like this style, you’ll be in for a treat.

Most Art Nouveau buildings in Riga date back to the time when the city started expanding beyond the Old Town, thanks to an incredible financial growth. The new upper middle class was looking for buildings to show off their wealth and they invested in gorgeous homes with curved doorways and windows, floral reliefs and statues of women and all the typical traits of this artistic trend.

Most Art Nouveau of Riga can be found north and east of the Old Town. Some of the best examples are on Elizabetes street.

If you are into Art Nouveau, I recommend joining a guided tour to make the most of what Riga has to offer. These are some excellent tours:

what to see in Riga

Riga is Art Nouveau extravaganza

Especially in Albert Street

If you want to see a huge concentration of Art Nouveau, head straight to Albert Street. It’s a small street, really – you can walk it in a matter of a couple of minutes. Unless you end up marveling at the many examples of Art Nouveau that all seem to be located there.

The street dates back to 1901 and most of the buildings were designed by Mikhail Eisenstein. Among the palaces you should observe there are those located on civic numbers 1 (built in 1901), 2a (built in 1906), 4 (built in 1904), 8 (built in 1903) and 12.

Visit Žanis Lipke Memorial

This small museum is located on the small Ķīpsala island in Riga. It was opened in 2012 to commemorate the life and doings of Žanis Lipke, who saved a number of Jews from deportation by hiding them in a shelter (first a woodshed then an actual bunker) right next to his house.

The museum is open Tuesdays to Sundays from 12:00 to 6:00 pm and it stays close on national holidays.

TIP: Make sure to check whether the museum is open on the day you intend to visit. Žanis Lipke Memorial is honestly a bit hard to find and out of the center of Riga, and you may discover upon getting there that it’s actually closed. To get there, follow the signs on the wooden planks scattered around Ķīpsala island.

Riga Latvia

Riga Radio and TV Tower as seen from Kengaraga Promenade

Marvel at the National Library building

Walking along the Daugava River you can spot a building in the shape of a sail. I kept wondering what it was until I actually went to check it out, and discovered it’s the building of the National Library. If the building is cool to look at, the views of Riga from it are just as great.

You will need to get a temporary pass to get in, but then can wander around the various floors and rooms that have stunning views of the city.

Stare at the Radio and TV Tower in the distance

Another building you will notice as you walk along the River is a tall antenna-looking building. This is Riga Radio and TV Tower, which is located at Zaķusala and was built between 1979 and 1989 – though it first started broadcasting in 1986 (however, documents revealed that its existence was thought necessary since 1967).

With its 368 meters, Riga Radio and TV Tower is the highest one in the European Union, and a sight you will notice pretty much no matter where you are in town.

Walk along Kengaraga Promenade

One of the things you will definitely appreciate in Riga is how much nature there is within the city, which is packed with beautifully kept parks that regularly attract local families, young couples and tourists alike.

If city parks are nice places to hang out, one of the things to do in Riga is going on a walk along Kengaraga Promenade. It’s a nice, long walk that goes along the river and goes to one of Riga’s prettiest neighborhoods (Kengaraga). You can get there from the Old Town if you follow the foot and bike path along the river, going south.

You will see lots of small river hangouts – places where the locals enjoy a bit of sun and fresh air and feel a million miles away from the city. Chances are you will be the only tourist around – if anything, because there is no information about it in English online!

Bike around

Though public transportation in Riga works well, the best way to move around is by bike. Bike lanes are pretty much everywhere and drivers seem to be quite aware of the presence of bikes. Biking is a fast, easy, budget and environmentally friendly way to go from one place to the other and visit all the main tourist attractions in town.

There are several places where you can rent bikes in Riga, and there even is an app called Nextbike that you can use to locate the nearest bike to rent. I don’t recommend the app though, as it is still in its developing stages and quite glitchy.

visit Riga

The famous Iron Bridge of Riga

Cross the gorgeous bridges

The Daugava River flows through Riga, and with it come several gorgeous looking bridges from where you can catch a beautiful view of the city and which are an impressive sight in and of themselves. My favorite ones are the Iron Railway Bridge, which was first inaugurated in 1914 and shelled during WWI and WWII and rebuilt each time – it’s  600 meters long; and Vanšu Bridge, a cable-stayed bridge which is 595 meters long and connects downtown Riga with Ķīpsala island.

Have a fabulous meal

There are plenty of good restaurants in Riga and if you feel hungry you are bound to find something for you. The Central Market is the perfect place to entertain your taste buds trying some local bites, but if you are looking for something a bit more filling you should sit down at one of the many beautiful restaurants in town.

Here are some places I have tried, tested and approved: 

Paviljons Ziedoņdārzs, in Aleksandra Čaka iela 100 is located at the center of a beautiful park. You will find many local staples cooked with a modern twist. Service is quick and the staff incredibly friendly.

Fazenda, in Baznīcas iela 14, is a nice, quirky looking restaurant with extremely friendly staff. You will find a great selection of local staples and international cuisine. The atmosphere is very easygoing – I loved the background music!

Kas dārzā, in Radio iela 1, has an extensive menu of Latvian and international cuisine, with ample choice to satisfy any kind of palate. You will also find an incredible selection of cocktails and a good wine list. It’s located at the side of a beautiful park, so in the summer time you can grab a table outside.

Fat Pumpkin, in Grēcinieku iela 11 in the heart of Riga Old Town, is a 100% vegan restaurant where you will find a selection of burgers and other ethnic food, as well as good desserts. It’s a bit more expensive than the local average, and service is a bit slow – but it’s worth waiting.

Street Burgers is a local chain and you will find several locations scattered around town. You can pick among the many burgers – they even have vegetarian and vegan options – or build your own. It’s budget friendly, quick, and extremely tasty.

Gauja National Park

You can visit Gauja National Park on a day trip from Riga

Get out of town to explore Gauja National Park

Riga didn’t give me the impression of a particularly stressful city, but it’s nevertheless nice to get out of the city for a day (or more) to enjoy everything else that Latvia has to offer.

One of the best places you can go for an easy day trip from Riga is Gauja National Park, which is the largest national park in the country, with several access points and can be reached in around one hour from Riga. Gauja National Park is a great place to hike, bike and just spend time in the pristine nature and enjoy clean air.

For more information about Gauja National Park read my post A Guide To Visiting Gauja National Park, Latvia.” Make sure to also read my post A Complete Guide To Cesis, Latvia.”

Practical Information To Organize Your Trip To Riga

Where to stay in Riga

Riga has some very good accommodation options and you won’t have a hard time finding something to suit your needs and budget. I have tried a few places in town and they were all good – though I have my preferences.

Here are a few places I recommend:

  • Tallink Hotel is located a bit outside Riga Old Town. It’s a large business style hotel with comfortable modern rooms and an excellent breakfast buffet. For an additional price, you can have brunch on Sundays. Click here for the latest rates and here for reviews.
  • Art Garden Rooms is a lovely small bed and breakfast located at about 15 minutes walk from Riga Old Town. Rooms are all different, very large and comfortable and the overall place is spotless. Breakfast is scrumptious – much better than hotel breakfast. It would be my first choice if I travel to Riga again. Click here for the latest rates and here for reviews.
  • Tree House is a nice, well kept hostel in Riga Old Town. There is a twin and even a family room and a selection of dorms, all of them very clean. It’s perfect for travelers on a smaller budget. Click here for the latest rates and here for reviews.
Vanšu Bridge Riga

Clear sky and warm temperatures – and beautiful views of the Vanšu Bridge of Riga

Best time to visit Riga

I visited Riga in June and enjoyed the long, sunny days and pleasant temperatures. If you are looking to enjoy the outdoors, that is a perfect time to visit Latvia and spend some time in Riga.

The atmosphere is supposed to be truly magic in the winter, when it snows, and I am curious to experience that as well. All in all I think any time is a good time to visit Riga!

How to get to Riga

By plane

Riga International Airport is at about 13 km and 20 minutes drive from the center or Riga. The airport is well connected to the rest of the Europe and the world via regular and budget flights, with direct flights to most European capitals as well as Russia, Turkey and Israel.

By ferry

There are regular ferry connections between Stockholm and Riga.

By train or bus

Riga is connected via a web of bus routes to other cities in the Baltic as well as to Russia and Belarus by trail.

How to get to Riga City Center from the airport

You can easily reach Riga City Center from the airport. Below are all the options you have.

By taxi

Once you exit the main terminal, you will find taxis waiting for passengers to be taken to the city. The ride lasts about 20 minutes. Make sure to check the fares which are usually written outside the vehicle.

By private transfer

Another way of getting to Riga from the airport is by private transfer. Prices vary depending on the size of the group, and hardly ever go over  €35. You can check the fares here.

By bus

Several buses connect Riga airport to the town center. You can use bus n. 22 and minibuses n. 322 and 241. You can buy the ticket in advance (it costs €1.15) or directly on the bus (where it costs €2). There is a bus every 15 minutes with more frequent buses during peak hours.

How to move around Riga

The best way to explore Riga is on foot, and the city if very pedestrian friendly with very large pavements. Alternatively, you can rent a bike and make use of the excellent web of bike lanes.

Other useful information

As always, make sure to get a good travel insurance for all your trips. Get yours here.

Check out my post Why You Need A Good Travel Insurance.”

For more readings about Riga and Latvia in general, head over to the website of the Tourism Board of Latvia. You can also check one of these books:

Legal Disclaimer: I was a guest of the Tourism Board of Latvia when I visited Riga and I wish to thank them for showing me all the classic sights and the most undiscovered and unique places. Needless to say, the views expressed in this post are my own.

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A Guide To The Things To Do In Latvia

A Guide To The Things To Do In Latvia

There are many incredible things to do in Latvia. This small Baltic country is blessed with gorgeous nature; a unique and fascinating history; culture and traditions that deserve to be discovered; and a multitude of charming towns and villages.

I got to spend a week in Latvia in June and I can say I barely scratched its surface – I am bound to go again to explore it more in depth and discover more of what it has to offer. One thing for sure, though: whatever your travel taste, Latvia won’t disappoint you and you can be certain that you will find something – many things – that will keep you entertained for days.

Another reason I fell in love with Latvia is the atmosphere. It’s a country that still retains all its local character. Indeed, I found Latvia to be still very much undiscovered – at least, this is what it looks like to someone who comes from a country (Italy) that at times gets terrifyingly congested with tourists. You won’t find tourist crowds here – just the odd group in Riga, but that will hardly bother you.

This won’t last long though: a country that has so much to offer is bound to get in the tourist radar very soon! So, make sure to visit as soon as possible!

So, if you are planning a trip to this part of the world, continue reading this post to discover some of the things to do in Latvia that you simply can’t miss. I will also share some tips to plan your trip to this beautiful country.

things to do in Latvia

The House of the Black Heads is one of the unmissable sights in Riga

15 Unmissable Things To Do In Latvia

Walk around Riga Old Town

Riga is the obvious starting point to explore Latvia, and a fantastic city that has an incredible array of traditional as well as unique attractions. The Latvian capital is very spread out, and it will take you a few days to explore its main highlights.

However, if you have limited time in the country, I’d say that one of the unmissable things to do in Latvia is exploring Riga Old Town. This is a beautiful maze of narrow cobbled alleys, splendid squares, colorful buildings, beautiful churches and charming little cafés.

Places you should not miss when in Riga Old Town are the House of the Black Heads, St. Peter’s Church (make sure to get to its dome for breathtaking views of the city), Riga Cathedral, the beautiful Three Brothers (three adjacent colorful buildings) and the lovely Swedish Gate – which takes its name from the time when Latvia was under Swedish occupation.

Let me stress that these are just some of the places you should visit in Riga. For more, check out my post A Guide To The Things To Do In Riga, Latvia.”

Enjoy nature within the city in Riga

One of the things I immediately noticed about Riga is how much nature there is within the city. There are many large, very well kept park; a beautiful river with a fantastic waterfront – with a proper bike and running lane if you care to do some exercise. You will find several spots where the locals like to enjoy the sun – small beaches along the river, places where they can relax and just get out of the busy city life but still within the city!

Make sure to hit Kengaraga Promenade – a nice promenade in Kengaraga, a residential part of Riga. It’s a beautiful walk along the river where you’re likely to only meet locals enjoying a day out!

TIP: The best way to explore nature within Riga is by bike – in fact, it’s the locals’ favorite way of getting around. There are several spots in town where you can rent it – in fact, you can rent it in one place and return it in another.

what to do in Latvia

If you want to learn about Latvia’s difficult past, the Corner House is a must!

Learn about Latvia’s difficult past

I always recommend visiting at least one museum to get a proper understanding of a country’s history – which generally helps grasp aspects of its present and its culture as well. You should do the same in Latvia, and you have a great selection of places in Riga where you can do that.

I wholeheartedly recommend going for a tour of The Corner House in Riga as what to do in Latvia to learn about its difficult past. This is a building that through the course of last century was used by the regimes that succeeded themselves in Latvia – first the Nazis, then the Soviet regime – to interrogate, torture, imprison and often kill their opponents.

The Corner House is open every day (except on national holidays) from 10:30 am to 5:30 pm. You can visit the exhibition on the ground floor, which is free, and join a guided tour through the building for €10. I recommend booking in advance here as it is often sold out. Calculate around one and a half hour for your visit.

visit Latvia

Walking in a bog is a lot of fun – but it’s challenging!

Gor for a bog walk

One of the most fun things to do in Latvia is walking in a bog! I (accidentally) walked through one when in Ushuaia, in Tierra del Fuego, and it was such a messy fun that I was thrilled to find out that there are many bogs in Latvia. Make sure to visit at least one!

I went to Babite, which is at about 45 minutes drive from Riga. It is not the biggest bog in the country, but it surely is a lot of fun. You will need to hire a guide – it is extremely easy to get lost in a bog, and you need to wear proper gear or else you won’t be able to walk around and make the most of the gorgeous, unique scenery. I visited with Purvu Brideji, a local company that does regular tours and whose guides are very knowledgeable. They offer various experiences, including dinner in the bog!

Cesis Castle

The castle of Cesis is an interesting place to visit

Explore Cesis

Cesis is a lovely small town at about one hour drive from Riga, in the region of Gauja. Some people visit on a day trip from Riga, but I recommend to factor in at least a couple of nights in the area to make sure you appreciate all that it has to offer.

If you like castles and stories, one of the unmissable things to do in Latvia is visiting Cesis Medieval Castle. You can explore by yourself or – better – go on a guided tour that in about one and a half hour will share plenty of details about the history of the castle throughout the centuries. It costs just €8 and it is totally worth it.

There also is a castle museum and a modern castle all in the same complex that are also worth visiting.

Other notable places in Cesis are the historic center, with its well kept buildings and cobbled streets; St. John’s Church – which is currently under renovation; and the beautiful railway station building.

Make sure to read my post A Complete Guide To Cesis, Latvia.”

Latvia hiking

The uniquely shaped Zvartes Rock

Go for a hike in Gauja National Park

Cesis is an excellent access point to explore the gorgeous Gauja National Park. This is the largest national park in Latvia, famous for its biodiversity, for the many species of mammals and birds living there, for the unique historical sites scattered in it and the various river that run through it.

When in Gauja, make sure to go on a hike in the national park. There are several trails you can follow. If you want to admire the beautiful sandstone cliffs, make sure to follow the Amata trail, which runs along Amata river. The trail starts in Karlamuiza Hotel, at 10 km from Cesis, and runs for little over 15 km all the way to Veclauču Bridge.

It’s a moderate hike during which – aside from the cliffs and the fantastic forest – you will be able to spot some beautiful traditional Latvian homes, various meadows, and the famous Zvartes Rock, a beautiful sandstone rock formation under which you will also find a nice natural swimming hole – perfect to refresh yourself during hot summer days!

Although the trails in Gauja National Park are very well marked and mostly easy to follow, I don’t recommend hiking alone. Check out my post 11 Reasons Why Hiking Alone May Be A Bad Idea.”

Or for a mountain bike ride

One of the most fun things to do in Latvia to properly appreciate nature is going mountain biking. Gauja National Park is a perfect place to do so. You will have the chance to completely disconnect from the stress of city life and admire the gorgeous forests and countryside of Latvia.

I recommend renting bikes in Cesis and ride all the way to Valmiera – follow this itinerary. It’s a 45 km bike ride that will take you about 6 hours, during which you can stop to admire the characteristic sandstone cliffs, and visit some unique museums (more about it below, in this same post).

TIP: The itinerary that goes from Cesis to Valmiera can be done by bike or, alternatively, you can walk it in around 2 days.

Read my post “A Guide To Visiting Gauja National Park, Latvia” for more a more in depth guide to the things to see and do in the region.

visit Latvia

The small yet interesting Chair – makers museum

Visit a quirky museum

One of the places I enjoyed visiting the most during my time in Latvia was the Chair-makers museum. I stumbled upon it during my bike ride from Cesis to Valmiera and decided to stop and see what it was about. It’s a tiny place – just a small room – entirely dedicated to chair making, which used to be one of the main occupations in the area. The visit costs only €3 and you get an hour of detailed description of the history of the area and of how chairs were made – from getting the right material to selling them at the market.

Sugulda midsummer

A flower crown in preparation of Sigulda Midsummer festival

Participate in the Midsummer celebrations in Sigulda

If you happen to visit Latvia around mid June, make it a point to hang there a bit longer and join the Midsummer (Ligo) celebrations in Sigulda.

On the evening of 21 June people from Sigulda, Gauja region and in fact from all over Latvia head to Turaida to take part in a festival that lasts until after sunrise.

It’s the longest day of the year, and locals welcome summer making and wearing flower crowns, and with a night of singing popular songs around bonfires, traditional dances, and a variety of other rituals such as that of burning the dried flower crowns from the previous year.

What’s impressive is that you will find people of all generations – from elderlies to parents with very small children, and even lots of well behaved dogs; all of them enjoying the celebrations in a very friendly atmosphere; all of them connecting to nature and showing maximum respect for it.

Visit Ligatne

Ligatne is one of the most interesting places to visit in Latvia. It’s a very small village where there once was a paper mill (which is not in use anymore and which can’t be visited while it’s decided what to do with it) – in fact, the village was built in the early 29th century to provide proper housing, education and health care facilities to the people working in the mill.

You’ll also be able to spot many small caves and cellars carved in the rock – they were used (in fact, some are still in use) to store household goods or for industrial needs.

countryside in Latvia

A road trip is an excellent way to appreciate Latvian countryside

Go on a road trip

One of the best things to do in Latvia is renting a car and go on a road trip. You can drive for hours through the beautiful countryside and the gorgeous, thick forest, stopping here and there to marvel at the stunning views or to visit small villages, pretty towns and hidden gems.

TIP: Make sure to respect the speed limits. Latvians are very responsible drivers, and you should be too!

For more information on how to plan a road trip, make sure to read my post 13 Road Trip Essentials For The Perfect Road Trip.”

Spend a night in the lovely Karlamuiza Hotel

If you are in need of good sleep, head straight to Karlamuiza Hotel, at around 10 km from Cesis. It’s a gorgeous small countryside hotel with just a handful of rooms, all of them very large and comfortable, with gorgeous views of the countryside. The area is incredibly quiet and peaceful and you are guaranteed an excellent night’s sleep! You’ll also be able to get an excellent home cooked dinner, and a scrumptious breakfast. Click here to check out Karlamuiza Hotel rates.

food in Latvia

A refreshing summer dessert

Enjoy local food

Traditional food in Latvia is very earthy and very seasonal. It uses a few, simple ingredients that are carefully picked and cooked to create delicious meals. Potatoes and pork are ever present, as well as dry curd cottage cheese. Red berries are commonly used in the summer months to create delicious desserts. And don’t get me started about the bread – so rich, moist and full of texture, perfect at any time of day.

For more specialties to try in Latvia, check out this article.

And drinks

You can’t leave Latvia without having tried Black Balsam. This very strong liquor will remind you of Jägermeister, though I am quite sure that it’s even stronger than that. The name “balsam” refers to the fact that it in the past it was used for medicinal purposes – after all, it is made of a mixture of herbs!

The best place to try it is Black Magic, once a pharmacy and now a beautiful bar full of historic charm in Old Town Riga. You can drink it straight or have a cocktail with it. Though straight Black Balsam is probably too strong for anybody not used to it, I recommend trying it in that form first and only then opt for a cocktail.

people in Latvia

Sigita, my guide in Gauja National Park and now a friend

Meet the lovely locals

People in Latvia are absolutely kind and welcoming. In Riga, you’ll get more of a city vibe – it’s fast paced and international, but people are always friendly. Yet, it’s outside of Riga that you’ll get to fully appreciate how nice the locals can be. My guide for the Amata hike in Gauja National Park was one of the most fun, kind hearted and easy to get along person I have met throughout my travels. In fact, at the end of the day I felt like I had been on a hike with a friend rather than on a guided hike.

Most people in Latvia speak at least some English. Even those that don’t really speak will make an effort to make themselves understood, and they do so with a huge smile on their face. Enjoy!

Practical Information To Organize A Trip To Latvia

When to visit Latvia

Any time is a good time to visit Latvia. I went in the second half of June and was blessed with gorgeous sunny, warm days (if anything, they were on the verge of hot!). Since it is so far north in Europe, days in June are very long with the sun raising as early as 4:30 AM and setting after 10:00 PM. It’s a perfect season to stay out and enjoy the countryside.

I have a plan to go back in  the winter, to explore the country when it is completely white and covered in snow – days will be shorter and temperatures very cold, but I am looking forward to experience the country under a different light.

The fall is a perfect time to visit if you wish to experience foliage and the fall colors – with the amount of forests Latvia has, it is bound to be spectacular!

transportation in Latvia

Public transport in Latvia works well – but road trips are fun!

How to get to Latvia

By plane

Riga is the main international airport in Latvia, and it is very well connected to the rest of the Europe and the world via regular and budget airlines. There are direct flights to all European capitals as well as to Russia, Israel and Turkey.

By ferry

If you are based in Sweden, you can even take the daily ferry that connects Stockholm to Riga.

By train or bus

There are good bus connections to other Baltic countries and trains from Russia and Belarus.

How to get from Riga International Airport to Riga City Center

Riga City Center can be easily reached from the airport in a variety of way.

By taxi

There are plenty of taxi outside Riga airport arrivals terminal. The journey to the city center takes about 20 minutes. Make sure to check the taxi fares before getting on – they should be written on the back right door of the vehicle.

By private transfer

Several companies run private transfer services between Riga and the airport. The price of the transfer varies bases on the size of the group but it never costs more than €35. You can check the fares here.

By bus

Bus n. 22 and minibuses n. 322 and 241 connect Riga International Airport to the center of the city. The ticket costs €1.15 if you buy it in advance or €2 if you buy it directly on the bus. The bus leaves roughly every 15 minutes, but rides are more frequent during the peak hours.

How to move around Latvia

Public transportation works well in Latvia, and you can easily move around by bus or – depending on where you want to go – by train. Having said so, this is a country that calls for road trip, and it is extremely easy to drive around, with local drivers actually being very respectful of the rules and road conditions generally good – though you may often encounter roadworks. You can check the prices of car rental here.

Other useful information

I always recommend getting a good travel insurance for all your trips. Get yours here.

Check out my post Why You Need A Good Travel Insurance.”

For more readings about Latvia in general, you should consult the website of the Tourism Board of Latvia; for specific information about Gauja National Park check the website of the Tourism Board of Gauja. You can also check one of these books:

Legal Disclaimer: I was a guest of the Tourism Board of Latvia and of that of Gauja during my trip to Latvia and I wish to thank them for their organizing a fabulous trip. Needless to say, the views expressed in this post are my own.

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Find out what to do in Latvia - via @clautavani

 

Discover the things to do in Latvia - via @clautavani

A Guide To Visiting Gauja National Park, Latvia

A Guide To Visiting Gauja National Park, Latvia

During a recent trip to Latvia, I had the chance of spending a few days in Gauja National Park. If you happen to visit the country, you should make it a point to go as this is a place where nature is pristine and at its best, and where you can completely unwind from the stress of life in the city and challenge yourself with some great nature walks, bike rides and much more.

In this post, I will share some background information about Gauja National Park, and share some tips and ideas on how to make the most of it.

For more things to do in Latvia, check out my post A Guide To The Things To Do In Latvia.”

Fun Things To See And Do To Make The Most Of Gauja National Park

Gauja National Park is the largest park in Latvia, famous for its biological diversity, for its forest of virgin pines which take up to around 50% of its territory, and for being a great combination of incredible nature as well as historical and cultural sights. The park, which takes its name from the Gauja river that flows through it, was established in 1973.

There are many things to see and do in Gauja National Park, including hiking, mountain biking, canoeing and camping. There, you will find a whopping 900 species of plants, around 150 different species of birds and 50 mammals. There also is a very high number of monuments of historical and cultural relevance – forts and castles, churches, old manors, windmills, small and quirky museums and architectural gems.

This national park is so vast (it stretches from Sigulda to Valmiera, and includes the city of Cesis and the town of Ligatne) that a day will hardly be enough to appreciate all that it has to offer.

Continue reading to discover the park’s main highlights and the best things to do there.

Gauja National Park cliffs

Some of the beautiful cliffs in Gauja National Park

The beautiful cliffs and rock formations

The main highlights of Gauja National Park are the beautiful sandstone cliffs, which are of a typical red, yellow and grey color and which date to around 350 million years ago. Scattered across the park there are several caves and rock formations.

Among the best known cliffs there are the Ainavu cliff; Eagles cliff (locally called Erglu cliff) – which is a great landing for canoes and reaches a height of 22 meters and from where you can enjoy majestic views of the River Gauja valley; Sietiniezis cliff, which reaches 15 meters in height and is about half km long, and where you can observe various kinds of sandstones.

Rock formations include the Ķaubju rocks which is a beautiful 45 meters high rock under which you’ll find a gorgeous swimming spot; and Zvartes rock, which with its 44 meters height is quite impressive.

Needless to say, the best way of admiring the cliffs and the rock formations is on a hike or bike ride.

Cesis Castle

The beautiful medieval castle of Cesis is one of the many historical sights of Gauja National Park

Cultural and historical sights

One of the things I appreciated the most in Gauja National Park is the huge amount of places of historical and cultural significance. There is a plethora of places that all deserve to be visited – some famous and easy to reach, other smaller and a bit more off the beaten path. There are watermills, castles, manor houses and much more.

Among the most famous castles, there are those of Sigulda and Cesis. Turaida Museum Reserve is located a bit out of Sigulda and it’s the place where the Midsummer celebrations take place.

Cesis Castle (in fact, there are two castles! One is a medieval castle and the other one is known as the new castle) is right at the heart of the Cesis Old Town and can be visited on extremely interesting guided tours.

For more about Cesis, read my post A Complete Guide To Cesis, Latvia.”

Other sights include Amata river hydroelectric station, which was founded in 1925 and is one of the oldest ones in Latvia and has been placed where there once was a watermill. Not far from the hydroelectric station there is Kārļu fish breeding farm, one of the oldest in Latvia and which played an important role in the preservation of salmons and salmon-like fish.

There also is a Paper Mill Village in Ligatne – the mill is actually closed at the moment, and it’s unsure what will be of it, but the village is a very interesting site and a great example of early 20th century village developed around a factory in an attempt to make the living conditions of the workers more comfortable. Another thing you’ll spot in Ligatne is the many caves and cellars carved in the rock, which have been used (and in many cases are still used) for storage for household and even industrial needs.

Exploring Gauja National Park you’ll also find Viļņi, a pretty country home located in a gorgeous meadow; and Vieļas, which is a barn that has been recently restored and been brought back to its original splendor.

One of the  most interesting and quirkiest places is the Chair-makers museum. It’s nothing more than a small room packed with antique work instruments that were used to make chairs – apparently one of the most viable businesses in the area until mass production took over. It’s a private museum, and visiting costs just €3. The owner, a lovely old lady, will take you through the local history and explain how chairs were made, and how important they were for the locals who lived in the area.

TIP: The Chair-makers museum is literally only opened when visitors are around, so make sure to call in advance to say you plan to visit. You may want to make sure you visit with someone who speaks Latvian, as the owners doesn’t speak English so you may need someone translating for you. The overall visit lasts about 1 hour.

Gauja river

Gauja river is perfect for boat rides

Boat rides

Flowing through Gauja National Park there are a few rivers, including Gauja, Ligatne and Amata, and many freshwater springs (I truly loved Gulbju avots – Swan spring, with water so clean that you can drink it there and then!). The Amata river is known as the fastest river in Lavia. I haven’t actually rode a boat or a canoe during my visit, but my guide Sigita stressed several times that the park is a very popular place for boating, and that every spring, when the water levels are higher, the park is crowded with boats and people celebrating the good weather.

As I visited at the end of June, the water levels weren’t so high – yet I was able to spot several people on canoes, enjoy the cool waters of the river and then docking to explore more of the park.

Gauja sights

One of the gorgeous sights I came along while hiking the Amata trail

Hiking trails

There are many hiking trails in Gauja National Park. Mind you, Latvia highest “mountain” is just 311 meters high, so this isn’t hiking as you know it. But it has its challenges and it definitely has its charm, and I surely enjoyed hitting the trails there. I walked the Amata trail, which proved to be just the kind of workout and views I needed.

Amata trail

Technical info

Length: 15.5 km

Duration: up to 5 hours, depending on the number of stops

Difficulty: moderate

The Amata Trail starts from the fabulous Hotel Karlamuiza, located in the outskirts of a village called Kārļi, all the way to Veclauču Bridge. The trail is about 15.5 km long and it takes up to 5 hours to complete, depending on how many stops you make to take photos, swim in the river, and just catch your breath.

During the hike we stopped at some of the most famous spots in Gauja National Park, such as the Amata river hydroelectric station; Viļņi and Vieļas complexes of country homes in traditional Latvian style; and some of the most famous cliffs in the region, including Ainavu cliff and the gorgeous Ķaubju, Dzilnas, Zvartes and Lustūzis rocks.

I actually joined a guided hike with with Cesis Inside, a local company which runs excellent guided hikes in the region in a variety of languages and counts with great, knowledgeable guides. My guide was the lovely Sigita, who made sure that I had a real blast!

By all means, although Amata Trail is fairly easy to follow: it goes along the river and you need to follow the red markings on tree trunks. You won’t risk getting lost at all. However, I recommend not walking it alone as there really isn’t anyone on the trail and it goes deep into the very thick forest. I think that we met a total of two persons towards the very end of the hike!

Check out my post 11 Reasons Why Hiking Alone May Be A Bad Idea.”

The hike isn’t the strenuous kind you’d encounter in Patagonia, but it is actually more challenging than you may expect, with several steep downhill and uphills. You also have to consider the season in which you hike. Autumn and early spring may be the best seasons, with mild temperatures, gorgeous colors and not so many leaves on the trees so that you can admire all the cliffs that made Gauja National Park so famous. I hiked in the summer time, and the weather was incredibly hot!

TIP: Hotel Karlamuiza can only be reached by car. Alternatively, you can start the Amata Trail hike at Melturi Bridge, which is easy to reach via public transportation.

TIP: There are no kiosks, shops or water fountains along the trail, so make sure you bring enough water and food for the duration of the hike.

TIP: If you are hiking in the summer months, it may be a good idea to take a swimsuit and a light towel with you so that you can enjoy a refreshing dip in one of the many swimming spots!

views of Gauja National Park

The stunning views of the forest in Gauja National Park

Biking itineraries

I love mountain biking – I have done it in many places (San Gil, in Colombia, and Luxembourg, to name just a couple). If you like it as much as I do, you’ll be thrilled to know that there are many incredible biking trails in Gauja National Park. I recommend the trail that goes from Cesis to Valmiera.

Biking from Cesis to Valmiera

Technical info

Length: 45 km

Duration: up to 6 hours, depending on the number of stops

Difficulty: moderate, with some strenuous sections especially through the forest. Appropriate biking gear is recommended.

This biking trail that goes from Cesis to Valmiera crosses some of the most beautiful landscape in Latvia. It goes along the Gauja river, through the thick forest, and it allows you to admire some of the most beautiful cliffs of Latvia, as well as some of the most unique places (that’s how I came across the Chair-makers museum which I described before). You’ll also be crossing some beautiful meadows and have the chance to admire the local flora and fauna.

It’s a 45 km route that can be tricky to follow in parts – make sure you keep an eye on the orange marks on trees, rocks or even on the ground, or on the wooden signs that have a bicycle symbol. You can even download the Enter Gauja app on your smartphone which will give you all the trails and maps you can follow – this is one of them. You can even download the itinerary here.

You can rent the bikes for the day at Ezi shop, in Cesis, and return them in the Ezi shop in Valmiera. Bike rental for a day costs €8.50 and there is an additional €3 for the helmet.

You can then return to Cesis by bus: there are regular services departing from Valmiera bus station. The bus ride lasts around 40 minutes and costs €1.60.

TIP: Before hitting the trail stop at the Info Point in Cesis to get a physical map of the itinerary, and make sure to carry a powerbank to charge your smartphone on the go – the app doesn’t work offline!

TIP: Make sure to bring enough water and food for the day as you won’t find any shop along the way!

TIP: You can also hike this trail: it will take you two full days, and the best place to spend the night is near Sietiniezis cliff, where there is a camping site as well as a shed where you can stay in case of rain.

Cesis Inside

With my guide Sigita during the hike. I am not sure what I was looking at!

Pratical Information About Gauja National Park

When to visit Gauja National Park

I visited Latvia at the end of June and I was incredibly lucky with sunny, long days. If anything, it was a bit warmer than I had expected! Having said so, I’d say that any time is a good time to visit Gauja National Park. In summer, you’ll be able to enjoy very long and mostly sunny days, but the trees will be in full bloom so the views may be obstructed.

If you visit in the spring, temperatures won’t be as hot and, at the beginning of the season, you’ll get beautiful unobstructed views. I can only imagine that the place looks gorgeous with the fall foliage colors, and it probably looks magic when covered in snow, in the winter time (by the way, it is supposed to be a great skiing destination!).

Needless to say, what you wear when visiting the park varies greatly depending on the season. By all means, make sure to always wear comfortable clothes that you can wash easily and that give you full mobility as this is a place that calls for active people! If you visit in the summer, take a swimsuit with you so you can jump in the river; and if you plan to go hiking, hiking boots are a must!

Make sure to read my post The Perfect Hiking Packing List For A Long Distance Trek” for more ideas on what to pack when planning a hiking trip.

meadows in Guaja National Park

Walking through the meadows in the national park

How to get to Gauja National Park

Public transportation is quite efficient in Latvia, and you can easily get from one place to the other by bus or train.

You can travel by bus from Riga to Cesis, Sigulda or Valmiera, which are all great access points to the national park, and you can use the bus to move from one place to the other.

Having said so, Latvia is a place that calls for a road trip – and driving is extremely easy as the road conditions are quite good. And in order to reach some isolated places (ie Hotel Karlamuiza, where the Amata hiking trail starts), a car will be necessary. So, I recommend renting a car to move from one place to the other. You can check the prices of car rental here.

Make sure to read my post A Guide To The Things To Do In Riga, Latvia.”

Entry fee

There is no fee to enter Gauja National Park.

Cesis, Gauja

Cesis is one of the prettiest towns in the Gauja region

Where to sleep and eat in Gauja National Park

You will have plenty of choice for accommodation and eating options in the Gauja National Park region. I have spent a few days there and I have found a few good places for you. Here is a selection:

  • Hotel Karlamuiza, in Kārļi, is a wonderful countryside hotel with very large, comfortable rooms and a unique countryside charm. The staff is incredibly friendly and helpful. Rooms face the countryside and the area is incredibly quiet, guaranteeing excellent quality of sleep. There is an onsite restaurant where guests can take their meals, that serves traditional Latvian food. Click here for the latest rates and here for reviews.
  • Hotel Vanadzina Maja is located in the historic center of Cesis. Rooms are decorated in Scandinavian style, so they are plain and extremely comfortable. They all face a lovely internal courtyard. The on site restaurants is one of the best in the regions. Click here for the latest rates and here for reviews.
  • Hotel Sigulda is located in the center of Sigulda, in a really quiet area. Rooms are extremely spacious. There is a nice small pool and a sauna and spa center that all guests can enjoy and there is an on site restaurant. Click here for the latest rates and here for reviews.

In Cesis, Priede Café is a lovely small café right by one of the main squares. It has a good selection of light and more earthy meals. The keto bowl is delicious!

In Sigulda, Osvalds Pupa at the newly opened Jāņa Tirgus is a nice place for a pizza (Latvian style) or some daily specials.

Other useful information

Remember to get a good travel insurance for all your trips. Get yours here.

Check out my post Why You Need A Good Travel Insurance.”

For more readings about Gauja National Park or Latvia in general, you should consult the websites of the Tourism Board of Latvia and of that of Gauja. You can check one of these books:

Legal Disclaimer: I was a guest of the Tourism Board of Latvia and of Enter Gauja during my visit of Gauja National Park and I wish to thank them for their incredible support and for helping me visit this splendid part of the country. Needless to say, the views expressed in this post remain my own.

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A Guide To The Most Unique Buddhist Temples In Sri Lanka

A Guide To The Most Unique Buddhist Temples In Sri Lanka

There are many beautiful Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka. Buddhism is a huge part of Sinhalese culture and way of life, which explains why so many temples can be found scattered around the country. Most people who travel there already know about the famous Temple of the Tooth in the sacred city of Kandy. 

Indeed, some temples in Sri Lanka are very famous and among the best known tourist attractions in the country. Others are lesser known but equally interesting to visit. Some are absolutely majestic and full of surprises; others are real hidden gems. Some have been built ad hoc; others have been carved in the rock. All of them deserve a mention and all of them are good enough reasons to visit Sri Lanka.

In this post, I highlight the nicest Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka and share some tips to make the most of them upon visiting.

Are you planning a trip to Sri Lanka? Make sure to read my post 13 Fabulous Places To Visit In Sri Lanka.”

Temples in Sri Lanka

The Temple of the Tooth in Kandy is the most famous Sri Lanka temple

7 Beautiful Buddhist Temples In Sri Lanka You Absolutely Have To Visit

Temple of the Tooth (Kandy)

Locally known as Sri Dalada Maligawache, the Temple of the Tooth is thought to be one of the holiest places in Sri Lanka and it’s the main reason why tourists and locals alike go to Kandy. This is a very important pilgrimage destination for Buddhists, as it is the place that holds a tooth that is supposed to have belonged to Buddha. This tooth was thought to have a strong political value, as whoever held the relic was meant to become governor of the country.

The temple is located in the heart of of the city, in the Royal Palace complex, where you’ll find also other temples and museums. The tooth relic is guarded in a gold casket – you actually won’t be able to see the tooth, but just the casket that holds it.

The prayer (puja) takes place three times per day – one at dawn, one at midday and one in the evening. That’s when the Temple of the Tooth attracts most local visitors, and those are times you really should avoid if you are not a fan of the crowds.

Practical information

It costs $10 USD to enter the temple complex. This is one of the most expensive temples in Sri Lanka for travelers, but worth visiting given how important it is for the Buddhist faith.

Make sure to dress modestly for your visit. Both men and women should cover their knees and shoulders, and take off their shoes once inside the temple.

TIP: Make sure to be dressed appropriately upon visiting. Both men and women should cover their legs and shoulders, or else they will be denied entry.

The Nanumura Mangallaya, a ceremony during which the relic is bathed with an herbal preparation of scented water and flowers, takes place on Wednesdays.

For more information about Kandy, make sure to read my post “A Complete Guide To Kandy, Sri Lanka.” 

Temples in Sri Lanka

Embekka Devale is one of the lesser visited temples in Sri Lanka

Embekka Devale (Kandy)

The Sri Lanka temple of Embekka Devale is located a bit outside of Kandy and makes for a nice day trip out of the city. It’s a lovely small temple where you will find almost no tourists, but lots of locals praying and making their offers – so the atmosphere is very relaxed and pleasant.

The temple was meant to be a three story buildings, but unfortunately throughout time the two upper floors collapsed. It has three main sections. The Sanctum of Garagha is where the statue of god is located. The Dance Hall is dedicated to the wife of the king who ordered the construction of the temple. The third section is the most beautiful one, which is the Drummers Hall, where you can observe beautiful wood carvings.

While I don’t recommend attending the puja at the Temple of the Tooth, I think you can and should do so in Embekka Devale, as it won’t be nearly as crowded and it is a much more local experience.

Practical information

There is a very small fee for visiting – in the range of $1 USD or so. Make sure to be dressed modestly. You will have to leave your shoes at the entrance.

temples in Sri Lanka

Lankatilaka can be seen on a day trip from Kandy

Lankatilaka Vihara (Kandy)

You can visit Lankatilaka Vihara temple the same day you also visit Embekka Devale. This is one of the most scenic temples in Sri Lanka, in terms of setting. You can walk there from the bottom of the road, but as it often rains in the region you may be better off asking a tuk tuk to take you all the way up.

You can see the temple emerging from the lush vegetation from the road below, as you approach it.

The temple was built in the 14th century and has two main sectors – the Buddha image one and the Temples of the Gods. The Buddha Image house has beautiful walls all covered in paintings that date back to the time during which the temple was being built. At its center, there is a large golden statue of a sitting Buddha.

Practical information

There is a small fee for visiting, but most of the time there is nobody collecting money or checking tickets. You can enter the temple from two gates – one facing the village and one on the side of the hill (known as the rock) on which it is built. Both of them involve a flight of stairs, but if you approach from the rock the views of the surrounding countryside are incredible.

If you’d rather go on a day trip to all the Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka that are located right outside of Kandy, you can book it here.

Dambulla Cave Temple

Dambulla Cave Temple is one of the most famous in Sri Lanka

Dambulla Cave Temple (Dambulla)

Dambulla Cave Temple is thought to be one of the best preserved cave temples in Sri Lanka. So beautiful and unique it is that it’s been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s a place of pilgrimage that you shouldn’t miss during your trip to Sri Lanka.

Dambulla is located at around 20 minutes drive from Sigiriya, and while the town itself is not really worthy of a mention, the temple is.

Known as the Golden Temple of Dambulla, there are over 80 caves in this location, though the biggest attractionis the five caves that are packed with intricate carvings, statues and paintings of Buddha. There are 153 statues and murals which are meant to represent the story of Buddha.

Practical information

The entry fee to Dambulla is $10 USD. As the site can be visited en route to Sigiriya, you may have your luggage with you. You can leave it in storage at the bookstore at the main gate for a small fee.

Make sure to be dressed modestly or you will be denied entry – both men and women should cover their legs and shoulders. You will also be required to take off your shoes – there is a deposit you can use for a very small fee, or else you can put them in your bag.

I recommend hiring a guide to take you around the temple and share information about its religious and cultural significance.

These are some good guided tours of Dambulla:

Make sure to read my post “A Guide To The Things To Do In Sigiriya Sri Lanka.”

Temples in Sri Lanka

The stunning view from Pidurangala

Pidurangala Royal Cave Temple (Sigiriya)

Pidurangala is located right in front of the more famous Sigiriya, it costs about a tenth of the price to visit, and it’s a beautiful place. From up there, the views of the surrounding countryside and those of the rock of Sigiriya are simply breathtatking. This is one of the best places in Sri Lanka to admire sunset.

More than that, Pidurangala also is one of the most unique temples in Sri Lanka. This Buddhist temple was carved in the rock, and subsequently refurbished by King Kashyapa who donated it to the Bhikkhus who used Sigiriya for their meditation after he had requested them to move.

Practical information

It costs around $3 USD to enter Pidurangala. Once there, you have to follow a trail where in parts you will find uneven steps, and in parts just a basic trail on uneven terrain. Make sure to wear good shoes – sandals or flip flops are not recommended – as the trail is slippery in parts. Bring a jacket along as it gets very windy at the top, and it often rains.

Mihintale (Anuradhapura)

Mihintale is a Buddhist pilgrimage site located at around 11 km from Anuradhapura and a great place to visit on a day trip from there. Thought to be the cradle of Buddhism, this is where King Devanampiyatissa converted to Buddhism under the influence of Mahinda, the son of an Indian emperor.

Mihintale is packed with monasteries, stupas and cave temples. The most impressive structure there is a staircase built around the side of a mountain. If you follow that, you’ll get to the first level of the complex of Mihintale. Once there, you will be able to enjoy 360 degrees views of the gorgeous surroundings.

Practical information

It costs $3 USD to visit Mihintale, to which I recommend adding the fee of a guide to take you around and help you make sense of all there is to see.

Mihintale can be reached from Anuradhapura by tuk tuk. Plan to visit in the morning to avoid the intense afternoon heat. You can also book a guided tour to Mihintale online here.

For more places to visit in Anuradhapura, read my post “A Great Guide To Anuradhapura Sri Lanka.”

Sri Lanka temple

Buduruwagala is one of the lesser visited temples, yet worth going

Buduruwagala (Wellawaya)

Buduruwagala is one of the nicest and most hidden Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka. It is located at around 7 km south of Wellawaya, and at around 30 from the famous Ella, and it is quite off the main tourist route.

The name means “the rock of Buddhist sculptures” and is an accurate description of what the temple looks like. This Sri Lanka temple consists of seven Buddha figures which have been carved in the rock. The temple, which belongs to the Mahayana school of thought, dates back to the 10th century.

The setting of the temple is idillic, as it is entirely surrounded by the forest. It’s very quiet, the only noise you’ll hear that of the wind sweeping the trees. The temple gets more animated at puja time, when locals arrive to place their prayers, but even then it is hardly a crowd.

Practical information

It costs less than $2 USD to visit Buduruwagala. You can reach it by tuk tuk from Wellawaya or by bus and a short tuk tuk drive from Ella. The bus from Ella to Wellawaya takes around 45 minutes.

You can visit Buduruwagala on a day trip from Yala or from Ella, or even en route from Yala to Ella. These are some good tours:

For more off the beaten path places to visit in Sri Lanka, read my post Sri Lanka Off The Beaten Path.”

What are your favorite temples in Sri Lanka?

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