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.
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.
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.
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 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.”
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
How to get to Latvia
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.
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.
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.
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:
- Lonely Planet Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania
- DK Eyewitness travel guide Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania
- Latvia Bradt travel guide
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.