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 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

17 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 Old Sigulda Castle

The Castle of Sigulda was built in the 13th century by the Livonian Brothers of the Sword. It was meant to protect Sigulda from attacks that may be coming from the Gauja River. You can now visit the castle and climb the North Tower as well as the Main Gate Tower for impressive views of the surrounding areas.

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.

And Ligatne Secret Soviet Bunker

Ligatne Bunker was built to protect the Soviet elite in case of a nuclear attack. Though it started being built in the 1960s, it was only completed in 1982. A sanatorium was built above it so that the bunker would be best hidden. The bunker had state of the art (well, for that time) equipment. There was a shallow pool which in reality was meant to be a helicopter pad.

Once the Soviet control over Latvia ended, the bunker was passed under the control of Latvian authorities and it was open to the public for visits in 2003.

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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Read about the things 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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Find out everything you should know about Gauja National Park, Latvia - via @clautavani