Don’t overlook adding Latvia to your list of European travel destinations. This small country in Northeastern Europe is gaining attention as a tourist destination thanks to its interesting architecture, open-air museums, and fascinating landscapes. And as one of the last nations in the region to embrace Christianity, the country has a strong connection of folk traditions to paganism that still exists in the culture, rituals, and local celebrations.
From the exciting capital city of Riga to the chilly Baltic Sea beaches, Latvia has much for the curious traveler to explore, and as a plus, it’s a very budget-friendly place to go. Let this list of what Latvia is famous for pique your interest in adding a trip to this tiny nation on your travel bucket list.
Water lovers will be happy in Lativa, a water wonderland with as many as 12,000 rivers! That means plenty of kayaking, canoeing, and scenic hiking in gorgeous wooded surroundings. In addition to miles and miles of rivers, around 3,000 lakes dot the Latvian countryside. They’re small but large enough for a swim and a peaceful walk around one in the warmer months. Lake Lubāns is the largest, located in the middle of the Eastern Lowland. Razna Lake, surrounded by sandy beaches, is the second-largest, and the most popular thanks to its abundance of local species of fish. And if you visit in winter, you’ll have a chance to try ice fishing.
Among all that water, you’re sure to find some spectacular waterfalls. Latvia doesn’t disappoint, that is unless you’re looking for the tall cascading kind. The most celebrated waterfall is the Ventas Rumba (Rapid) on the Ventas River in Kuldīga. At 249 meters wide, (817 ft), it carries the title of the widest waterfall in Europe. It’s only a couple of meters tall though, so some might find it disappointing. Still, the width is quite impressive, and during the spring floods, Venta Rumba swells to 270 meters (886ft). And it’s quite a sight to watch fish jump the rapids on their way to spawn.
Since it’s located on Europe’s northern coast, Latvia doesn’t exactly have the reputation as a coastal getaway. But it actually features around 330 miles of sandy beaches. Don’t expect the water to have spa-like temperatures, but during the height of summer, with temps as high as 20C (68F), a chilly dip can set you right.
Jurmala, 20 minutes outside of Riga, is the most entertaining, and perfect for an offbeat holiday. The sandy beaches are surrounded by alluring pine forests and quaint traditional houses. Waterparks, spas, and beach bars offer something for everyone. Visitors have been coming to the former clutch of fishing villages for over 200 years to relax by the sea. It’s said to have been a favorite spot for Brezhnev and Khrushchev.
An eclectic mix of medieval and Art Nouveau architecture has labeled Riga, Lavita’s capital as the “Paris of the North.” In fact, the historic centre has the highest concentration of Art Nouveau than any other place on the planet. This architecture, dating back to the early 20th century features geometric patterns, ornamentation, and neo-classical doors and windows. The city’s Old Town section is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s located along the scenic Daugava River. Some sights to look for along the cobblestone streets include St. Peter’s Church, Riga Cathedral, the Baroque Clock Tower, and the Art Nouveau Museum.
Castles and palaces are one of the reasons travelers love Europe, and like other Baltic countries, Lavita has its fair share. They all vary in style and structure because they were built by differing families from differing centuries. The most famous is Rundale Palace and Museum built in a style similar to the Palace of Versailles, a Rococo and Baroque masterpiece. Other fortress and palatial highlights to see include the Turaida Stone Castle, Castle of Cēsis, and the Daugavpils Fortress which now host to the Daugavpils Mark Rothko Art Centre. Some, such as the Rumene Manor and Mezotne Palace offer accommodations. The former home of 17th century”s Duke Jacob, Mezotne Palace is beloved by the locals for its grounds designed to resemble an English garden.
Latvia may have hung on to pagan beliefs longer than other countries, but there is no shortage of sacred and religious sites today. Saint Peter’s Church in Riga is a medieval masonry Luthern church built in the 13th century. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and considered to be one of the most beautiful examples of medieval style in the Baltic region. A 150-meter high steeple with a bell tower was added in the 17th century. A large bell chimes every hour and traditional Latvian music plays five times a day.
Saint Mary’s Dome Cathedral, dating back to 1211 is an iconic part of Riga’s skyline and close to the majestic Daugava River. The Cathedral serves as the seat of the Archbishop of Riga. A now-famous pipe organ was added in the 19th century. Look closely and you’ll see a rooster adorning the tower, an oddity that replaces a traditional cross.
The Lavita landscape is rich in forestland, 20 percent of which is protected. That translates to four national parks, 24 micro reserves, seven protected marine zones, over 40 nature parks, and around 500 nature reserves and monuments. This means great adventures for outdoor lovers. Go between April and September when the weather is warm enough to enjoy the outdoors.
Don’t miss the Great Kemeri Bog Boardwalk inside the Kemeri National Park. It’s very safe, and the perfect way to experience the bogland with its pine trees, mosses, limpid pools, and wild herbs.
Zvartes Rock inside the Gauja National Park is close to several outdoor attractions and hiking trails such as the Witches Meadow and the Amata River where you can hike or go boating.
You can enjoy the art of opera and ballet while appreciating the art of architecture at the Latvian Opera House in Riga. Originally built in 1863 as the Riga German Theatre by Ludwig Bohnstedt, the neo-classical-style building is a work of art itself. Much of the grand building was lost to the great fire of 1882. Reconstruction was led by Reinhold Schmaelin. By 1887, it was the first building of its kind to have electricity from its own power station. Since around 200 performances take place each year, it should be easy to get the chance to attend one.
Ever wondered what prison is like? You can find out in the Latvian town of Karosta without getting arrested. Built in 1900 for military inmates, the Naval Port Prison is now a hostel. It’s the only former military prison in Europe that is open to the public. The cells have been cleared of prisoners since 1997, and you can visit them and the solitary confinement block along with a dedicated museum featuring artifacts from the Second World War and the Soviet Regime. Get the “full prison experience” complete with prison digs, verbal abuse, and organized exercise. Or go for the “Extreme Night” program where you sleep in a cell and eat in the prison canteen.
The whole city of Riga is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, recognized for its major role in the Hanseatic League and gaining prosperity from trade with Eastern and Central Europe from the 13th to the 15th century. Even though many of the structures have been destroyed by war or fire, the medieval center still reflects that prosperity. The wooden neo-classical style later moved to Art Nouveau.
A few sites may soon be added to UNESCO’s list. Currently, Latvia has made the list for one other reason. The Struve Arc is a chain of survey triangulations that stretches from Hammerfest, Norway to the Black Sea passing through 10 countries including Latvia. The survey was conducted by astronomer Friedrich Georg Wilhelm Struve and helped establish the exact size and shape of the earth. The survey was critical in developing topography maps.
Get an idea of what it’s like to skydive in Latvia. The country will always be popular for its architecture and historic sites, but it’s also gaining in tourism by adding some cool new attractions like the Aerodium in Sigulda. It’s the first verticle wind tunnel to open in Eastern Europe. The powerful puff of wind lifts you up to hover inside the tunnel where you can do flips and somersaults. It’s known as Bodyflight or Indoor Skydiving and is one of the world’s fastest-growing sports.
Any trip to Latvia, or Eastern Europe for that matter, is worth a visit to Turaida to the vast Museum Reserve complex featuring historical and archaeological relics among some of Latvia’s most stunning landscapes. The earliest buildings date back to the 11th century! These include the Turaida Stone Castle and the Rose Turaida Memorial. The Rose Turaida Memorial commemorates a young woman from ancient times who sacrificed herself. It’s now an important symbol of love and loyalty.
Latvia natives are using one of their own questionable characters to generate revenue. Hieronymus Karl Friedrich Freiherr von Münchhausen. (Yes, his real name), has the reputation of being the world’s greatest liar and has a museum dedicated to him. He is known for telling tall tales about traveling to the moon and his heroic service in the Russo-Turkish War. In addition to the admittance fee, money was made by issuing a coin to celebrate his 285th birthday in 2005.
Yes, everyone knows that Crocodile Dundee was an Aussie, but as it turns out, he may have had some inspiration from a Latvian. Some sources claim that it came from Arvīds Blūmentāls (or Crocodile Harry). He was born in Dundaga back in 1925 and moved to Australia in 1951 to hunt for crocs in Queensland.
Dundaga is a village in Courland, Latvia known for its castle built by the Archbishopric of Riga in the late 13th century. It was the center of the largest private estate in Courland from the 16th century until 1918. It is the former home of the Baron Osten-Sacken family, a Baltic-German noble dynasty.
Denim is probably the most useful, versatile, and popular material of all time. As you don your favorite pair of jeans, say thanks to Latvian Jacob W. Davis, nee Jākobs Jufess in Riga. As a young man, he immigrated to America in 1854 to work as a tailor. In 1870, he was asked to create a strong pair of trousers for woodcutters. He patented the denim material two years later along with Levi Strauss, and the rest is fashion history.
Anna is the co-owner of expert world travel and can't wait to share her travel experience with the world. With over 54 countries under her belt she has a lot to write about! Including those insane encounters with black bears in Canada.