Kurzeme is home to Latvia’s westernmost coastline, but it’s much more than just a coastal region. Historical towns, beautiful nature parks and incredible cuisine await you.
Kurzeme is the western region of Latvia. This region boasts more than 300 kilometres of almost completely untouched coastline extending along the Gulf of Riga before meeting with the Baltic Sea in dramatic fashion at Cape Kolka. From the Cape, the gorgeous Kurzeme coast runs in a south-westerly direction past the two major cities of Ventspils and Liepaja until the Lithuanian border. There are more than 100 rivers in the region’s sparsely populated interior as well as 100 square kilometres of lakes, countless swamps, wooded dunes, and vast forests of spruce, birch and pine. The climate here is noticeably milder and wetter than in the rest of the country.
This region has a distinct culture from the rest of the country with it originally being the land of the Pagan tribe known as the Curonians. Later it was part of the semi-autonomous Duchy of Kurland. This was effectively an independent country that even had foreign territory in the Caribbean and Africa for a short while.
Meanwhile, the Livonian coastal region is host to an ethnically and culturally separate group of people known as the Livs. The Liv people have lived on the land which is now modern-day for centuries and are considered the only indigenous group remaining in Latvia aside from Latvians. In the 2020s, a community of around 170 Livonians live mostly in the Liv villages along the northern coastline. These fishing villages are recognisable by their distinctive upturned fishing boats, warehouses and lighthouses, while the people are recognised as being Livonian in their passport. A handful of them still continues to keep the language alive, although the last native speaker died in 2013.
For those interested in towns and cities, Kuldiga and Liepaja are the must-sees. The former boasts the only remaining original ensemble of 18th and 19th-century architecture in the Baltic states – an enchanting mix of Baroque and wooden buildings, cobblestone streets, centuries-old multi-faith churches and many other architectural styles in a delightful setting high above Europe’s widest waterfall. In fact, it remains a surprise that Kuldiga has not yet been given UNESCO protection, something that finally came a step closer recently when this remarkable ancient town was added to the UNESCO tentative list.
Liepaja, one of the most interesting cities in the Baltics, boasts blue-flag white-sand beaches and a quirky combination of realities you won’t find in any other European city. The city has a unique history that includes it having been part of the Livonian Confederation, the Duchy of Kurland, and a principal port of the Russian Empire. As well as this, Liepaja was once a closed naval city during Soviet times, the former Latvian capital (1919), and one of Europe’s most significant emigration embarkation ports (the 1900s). All this incredible history and the architecture that reflects it (Art Nouveau, red-brick warehouses, 19th-century fortifications and Soviet Union military infrastructure) make this city feel different.
Other towns worth investing time in are Ventspils, Kandava, Sabile, Tukums and Talsi.
The coastal town of Ventspils – often considered Latvia’s most modernised town thanks to oil transit money – is ideal for visiting families with its restored old town, many amenities, and the Osta promenade with its fine views of the river and the old port area.
Kandava and Sabile are quirky ancient towns, which feel stuck in centuries past as well as being home to what was the world’s most northerly vineyards (until Norway stole that crown). Underrated Talsi has a gorgeous lakeside setting (complete with promenade), nine hills and antique architecture to explore while Tukums is deserving of at least a passing visit for its attractive old town area which includes a very pleasant square.
As you travel north up the coast from Jurmala towards Kolka you will begin to see smoked fish being sold by the roadside. Smoked fish is also commonplace in the Liv villages on the Baltic Sea coast. Regional delicacies include Sklandrausis (mashed carrot-potato tart made from rye flour), Biguzis ( rye bread dessert with whipped cream), and Bukstiņputra (barley-potato stew).
Drubazas Winery in Sabile and Avabas Winery nearer to Riga are two of the regional destinations offering wine tours and tasting.
Kurzeme is an absolute delight for anyone who wishes to experience a unique holiday.
From hiking the incredible untouched coastline to world-class birdwatching on Lake Engure in spring and autumn, this region is a destination in itself. The west coast offers surfing opportunities while fishing trips are popular throughout the region’s many lakes. Military heritage tours offer a glimpse of the country’s Soviet past while aerial tours of the region by Tiger AG-5B offer a bird’s eye perspective of Kurzeme quite unlike any other.
As well as ensuring you spend some time in the half dozen interesting towns in the region there are also opportunities to stay overnight at ancient renovated manor houses, enjoy wine tours of the world’s most northerly vineyards, learn new crafts such as ceramics, or fully emerge yourself in nature on a bog walk!
Buses link Riga to all of the major towns in the region while the train services beyond Tukums are sketchy at best. Many visitors choose to cycle through the region, hire a car, or join organised tours to visit the more remote destinations in combination.