Another one of the Baltic states that was formerly controlled by the Soviet Union for much of the 20th century, Latvia has been a free country since the 1990’s, growing rapidly and dynamically since that time.
With a long storied history encompassing the medieval period, Soviet times, and the modern era, those who gravitate to cultural attractions will find plenty to love about this pocket-sized country.
Nature lovers will also enjoy their time here, as a lengthy frontage on the Baltic Sea contains plenty of sandy and wild beaches, and the low overall population density will seldom result in you feeling crowded and overwhelmed by a crush of people.
Long being a cosmopolitan place where people have worked together towards the common goal of prosperity and peace, Latvia will prove to be an interesting and enriching place to visit.
Languages: Latvian, Russian, English
What To Do
Long being an important trading point on the Baltic Sea, starting with the amber trade in the Middle Ages, it should come as no surprise that the Old Town of Riga is as well developed with attractive building stretching back numerous centuries. Recognized by UNESCO as a world heritage site, most of the buildings of note were constructed in the 19th century though, with influences from across the continent that led to this city serving as a stand-in for Western European cities such as Berlin, Rome, and even Paris in movies filmed in the Soviet Union.
Many churches and museums of note exist within the boundaries of the Old Town, including the unmissable Museum of the Occupation, which deals with Latvia’s 50+ year occupation at the hands of the Soviets.
Outside of Riga, Rundale Palace should be the next stop on your tour of Latvia. Situated 12 km outside of Bauska, this hall of opulence once hosted the dukes of Courland, as Latvia was then known. Built in the Baroque style, Rundale Palace changed hands to the Russian empire in the 19th century, and was used as a command post and field hospital by the Germans in World War I. With lush gardens on the spacious exterior grounds, breathtaking interior finishes that include stuccoes, gilded trim on the walls, and intricately sculpted stonework on the statues and the architecture of the building itself, much of your day will be taken up by this monument to aristocracy.
Many who dared to rail against the totalitarian rule of the Soviets were thrown into dank jails like Karosta Prison during the decades spent behind the Iron Curtain. It is certainly one thing to imagine the mental, emotional and physical suffering to be jailed for your political beliefs, but only by experiencing it via re-enactment can you only truly begin to understand it. Indeed, at Karosta, a program exists where you can be subjected to stone faced and brutal “Soviet guards”, who demonstrate what conditions were like inside the depressing confines of this place during the days of the USSR.
Those pining for relics from the age of kings and queens will love visiting Turaida Castle, which was constructed in the 13th century at the behest of the archbishop of Riga. It served its purpose admirably until the 17th century, when it became obsolete from a defensive standpoint. In 1976, extensive reconstruction work restored it partially to its former glory, with other portions remaining in ruin, giving the visitor a sense of the past, while also paying homage the reality of decay.
During the summer season, the heat may have you craving some down time in a cool ocean somewhere, with a fresh sea breeze to match. While much of Latvia sits along the Baltic Sea, Jurmala is perhaps the best place to experience it, possessing two spectacular beaches within close proximity.
Granted blue flag designation by the UN, both Majori and Jaunķemeri Beaches are noted for their cleanliness, as well as their powdery white sand, enabled by its quartz origins. Aside from time spent lounging by the seaside, Jurmala also is host to spas, a well-loved aqua park perfect for families, as well as numerous museums detailing the history of this Baltic city.
What To Eat
Not to be confused with Pierogies, Piragi is a meat-filled bun that is enjoyed by many Latvians. This palm-sized treat contains bacon and onion within its yeasty embrace, making it a snack that you will likely seek out more than a few times on your travels!
Soup fans should actively seek out Frikadelu Zupa, which is a Latvian soup that is made with beef meatballs, potatoes and carrots. They are simmered together for about an hour, which makes the most wonderful smell and a perfect way to chase away the chills on a cold day here.
When dessert time rolls around and you are lucky enough to find yourself having a meal with Latvian locals, there’s a good chance you’ll be digging into Kiselis for your final course. This veggie friendly sweet finish is made by stewing fruits, often cherries and rhubarb, until they are soft and warm, and ready to place an exclamation point upon the meal you just ate!