Tourism is changing, many people no longer want the tired-feeling, soulless holidays they once had and the annoyingly overcrowded destinations they once frequented. They are now searching for trips to destinations that are unique, authentic, uncrowded, and have the ability to energize our mind and spirit. Rather than ‘value for money’, you might call it ‘value for the soul’.
Latvia is a destination that ticks all of these boxes for many people; a country with incredible pristine nature, rich culture and centuries-old traditions that offers unforgettable experiences that leave first-time and returning visitors feeling like they have discovered the genuine heart and soul of this Baltic nation. There are countless amazing things to do in Latvia. And to help visitors decide how best to spend their time here, we have put together a list of what we consider to be some of the highlights of Latvian Tourism:
We believe the best thing about Latvia is its incredible nature and green tourism! Latvia is a nature lover’s wonderland, home to lynx, deer, wild cats, elk, brown bears, wolves, and wild boars, to name but a few!
It is acknowledged by scientists, doctors, and psychologists that spending time in the forest has a hugely positive effect on psychological healing and well-being in terms of recovering from stress, lowering our heart rate and blood pressure, reenergizing our immune system, and boosting happiness. Immersing oneself in the middle of a forest improves our psychological state; something that is significantly more beneficial for people who spend most of their time in urban environments. There is even a term for it today: ‘forest bathing’.
“At an astounding 55 per cent of its territory, Latvia has the fifth highest proportion of land covered by forest in the European Union”
Well, if you want to escape to the forest, then you have come to the right place! At an astounding 55 per cent of its territory, Latvia has the fifth highest proportion of land covered by forest in the European Union. Compare this to 10% in Holland and 13% in the UK. Also consider that in Holland and the UK, the population density is 420 and 275 people per square kilometre, respectively, compared to a far more agreeable 30 people per square kilometre in Latvia!
Water, water everywhere!
Being close to water is also proven to be incredibly therapeutic and good for the soul. Latvia has 530 kilometres of coastline, 12,500 rivers, and 2,500 lakes.
Latvia’s spectacular coastline of white sand beaches and dunes is almost completely undeveloped. Indeed, many world travellers, who have been to all of the world’s continents, will tell you that you will often find cleaner and more beautiful untouched beaches scattered all over Latvia than you can find in some of the world’s established beach destinations.
One of the undoubted highlights is Kolka and the Livonian coast. Cape Kolka, the northernmost tip of Latvia stretches whimsically out into the sea, surrounded on either shore by the Baltic Sea to the west and the Gulf of Riga to the east. Hiking this coastline is one of the most popular things to do in Latvia, especially during the summer.
The coast sweeps southeast from here for 100 miles, past numerous fishing villages towards Jurmala and the Latvian capital Riga. To the west, meanwhile, is the Livonian Coast, home to Liv fishing villages with their distinctive net warehouses, wooden 18th-century buildings, lighthouses, upturned hulls of fishing boats and the distinctive smell of smoked fish wafting through the air and mingling with the sea breeze.
Protecting the land for all
According to Latvia’s Nature Conservation Agency, there are 706 state-level protected natural areas in Latvia: four national parks, one biosphere reserve, 42 nature parks, nine areas of protected landscapes, 260 nature reserves, four strict nature reserves, 355 nature monuments, and seven protected marine areas, all of this covering some 20 per cent of Latvia’s total land area. No wonder Latvia is considered by many to be one of the greenest countries in Europe!
Latvian Tourism boasts four outstanding national parks and 42 nature parks. The largest of these is the Gauja National Park, sometimes referred to as the ‘little Switzerland of Latvia’. Established along and around the Gauja River Valley, at the last estimate there were around 1000 plant species, 150 bird and 50 mammal species resident within the national park territory. Not surprisingly for a nation that is home to so much forest cover, almost half of the Gauja National Park is covered with trees. This fascinating national park is also a culture lover’s paradise with six medieval castles and dozens of manor houses, as well as hillforts and centuries-old churches found throughout its territory. Two of Latvia’s loveliest towns – Cesis and Sigulda – are also found within the national park territory.
One of the best things to do in Latvia is kayaking down the Gauja river, taking in the unique landscape of cliffs, caves and 350 million-year-old rock outcrops is an unforgettable experience (May to October), as is hiking through forest trails; not another soul in sight. During the winter months, this park is the best place in Latvia for downhill skiing. But this is a year-round destination with countless outdoor activities during spring and summer. Come here in autumn to witness an explosion of colours, or deep winter when the valley is covered in snow and ice.
Within the park, you will also find Turaida – an authentic natural setting and more than 40 hectares of protected wonders. A visit here, locals will tell you, is one of the best things to do in Latvia.
Eco-tourism is growing in Latvia
Peatland (bogs, marshes and fens) and the unique ecosystems that exist within them, account for around 10 per cent of Latvia’s territory. With most of this wilderness untouched, it provides a perfect refuge for flora and fauna. When considering what to do in Latvia, a visit to one of these bog lands is highly recommended! Kemeri National Park is a magical place to escape from it all. A well-maintained wooden boardwalk leads visitors over and through the bogs. The best time to vist is during the working week when, if you are lucky, you won’t see another soul around! Sunrise and sunset are two other very special times to enjoy the birdsong, But, truthfully, this is an amazing escape any time of the year or indeed day.
Peatland (bogs, marshes and fens) and the unique ecosystems that exist within them, account for around 10 per cent of Latvia’s territory.
Think wildflowers and berries, insects buzzing, birdsong and warm fresh clean air in the spring and summer; resplendent autumnal colours in October. This peaceful wilderness is bleak, peculiar and almost otherworldly at other times. There’s an observation tower to take in amazing views of the bogs and the Baltic coast beyond and it’s also an amazing spot to observe life on the wing in this bird watchers paradise. One of the more unusual things to do in Latvia is to try out bog-shoe walking! Special footwear enables visitors to access the bogs and get up close and personal with nature.
As we have already mentioned, Latvia has 530 kilometres of gorgeous coastline. And, with most of it completely untouched, there is no shortage of seaside towns for visitors to enjoy:
The most famous of these is Jurmala, an 18th-century spa town with 33 kilometres of pine-tree backed white-quartz sands. Jurmala is actually classed as a city that is made up of a collection of more than a dozen small resorts that dot the seashore. Jurmala is a wonderful escape just 40 minutes by train from the capital, with miles and miles of summer cottages and millionaire mansions, dozens of miles of forest walking and cycling trails, and spa hotels to suit every pocket. Dzintari Forest Park deserves special mention for its wonderful forest setting and outdoor activities for all of the family. For many first-time visitors that fall in love with Jurmala, this is the holiday resort you always dreamt of but never knew existed.
Pavilosta is relatively unknown to tourists from abroad. This small west coast fishing town is known for its chilled-out vibes and small surfing community. Many yachts and speedboats now pay this town and its surrounding beaches a visit, while Pavilosta is also popular as a weekend escape from Latvia’s urban areas for foodies, hippies and anyone who enjoys the laid back vibes of this small seaside community. Spending time in this popular town is a great way to meet locals, who will no don’t tell you about the great things to do in Latvia.
Back in the nineteenth century, Liepaja was the first place in all of the Russian empire to have trams. It also had passenger services to the United States and underwater cables to Scandinavia! Today this fascinating port town boasts stunning architecture, gorgeous blue flag beaches, and one of Latvia’s best music scenes. It is also home to some rather quirky attractions (Internal link needed), which we will come to later!
Ventspils is a west coast town that has benefited from huge investments from its long-time mayor. This immaculate town is reminiscent at times of Scandinavia and is popular as a family destination. Its highlights include an open-air seaside museum, a narrow-gauge train, blue flag beaches, and a restored 17th-century old town.
Latvian culture is rich and unique. One of the joys of Latvian tourism is spending time discovering the country’s magical medieval towns, manor houses, palaces and countryside castles!
Kuldiga is Latvia’s most beautiful and atmospheric town. On the UNESCO heritage candidate list, the only wonder is how it has not been recognized by UNESCO for decades already! Kuldiga is a perfectly preserved Latvian town full of baroque buildings, cobblestone streets, centuries-old churches, and timber houses. What’s more, this fairytale town is situated in the middle of the gorgeous green countryside with the Venta river flowing by the town, spanned by a 19th-century brick bridge. Kuldiga is the kind of settlement that it’s hard to believe still exists in the 21st century and a visit here is most certainly one of the best things to do in Latvia.
Lord and lady of the land!
Latvia is home to a fascinating array of countryside castles, palaces and manor houses. Pride of place is Rundale Palace, designed by Francesco Rastrelli, the world-famous architect who also created what is now the world’s greatest museum building: St. Petersburg’s Hermitage. This wonderfully restored Baroque masterpiece is a must when it comes to what to do in Latvia!
There are more than 100 palaces and manor houses in Latvia, the majority of which can be visited while a considerable number can be overnighted in. Today, many Latvians get married at these grand old buildings with their spectacular country gardens. Mezotne Palace, Jelgava Palace, Janunpils and Birini are just a few of the highlights that can be visited or where you can enjoy an unforgettable overnight stay. (Link to manor house stay)
Cesis, dominated by its well-preserved castle ruins, is a romantic little town of winding cobbled streets, half dilapidated wooden houses and protected historical buildings. Its castle is arguably Latvia’s most impressive and best-preserved. It dominates the town centre and plays host to a number of outdoor operatic, theatrical and contemporary music concerts and festivals in the summer months.
A country within a country
Latgale is an off the beaten track region which borders Russia and Belarus and has its very own distinct regional identity. It even has its own language – Latgalian. This is a rural idyll home to vast forests, hundreds of hidden lakes and an atmosphere completely different from the rest of Latvia. You might almost call it a country within a country. Most of the population here are Catholic and eastern Orthodox in what is an otherwise predominantly Lutheran country. Latgale’s geography, close to Belarus, Russia and Lithuania also has a strong influence on the culture of this region.
Latgale’s regional capital and Latvia’s second city is Daugavpils. Despite its second city status, many Latvians have never visited this fascinating city! Which is a shame because amongst its delights is eastern Europe’s best-preserved early nineteenth-century fortress! (Internal link)
Other regional highlights include the fascinating ancient town of Ludza and its medieval castle ruins, numerous historical churches and the nearby scenic lake. Aglona, meanwhile, is Latvia’s premier religious destination and once saw 300,000 pilgrims attend mass with Pope John Paul II here.
As well as its natural and cultural delights, Latgale is a fantastic destination for gastronomy fans, with most locals preferring natural, locally-sourced products and traditional cooking being handed down from generation to generation.
Capital pleasures of Riga
Those in the know will tell you that Riga is one of the world’s most beautiful and fascinating capital cities. The Latvian capital boasts a UNESCO world heritage old town full of 14th-century buildings and cobblestone streets, the world’s finest and most extensive collection of art nouveau architecture (Alberta Street has the most famous collection of these), unique centuries-old wooden architecture, and Europe’s largest and most unique central market with its 3000 market stalls and five fully functioning 1920s zeppelin hangars, used as food courts and pavilions.
For a country known for its gorgeous nature, it’s not surprising to discover that Central Riga is blessed by several immaculate, landscaped city parks full of flower beds and tree-lined walkways, an extensive tourist-navigable canal, while the River Daugava – Latvia’s longest river – cuts a swathe through the heart of the city. Meanwhile, on the outskirts of the city is the wonderful Mezaparks forest park, full of forest trails, cycle paths and situated next to a pretty lake.
Back in the city centre and this world-class city is home to high-class dining, cosy cafes, sun-drenched beer terraces and gardens, and the best nightlife in the Baltics. You can also attend opera and ballet at the stunning national opera house or hang out close to the 800-year-old imposing Dome Cathedral and its gorgeous square.
Visiting Riga is one of the top things to do in Latvia. And as Riga is a destination in its own right, you can read more about this incredible city in our things to do in Riga page.
The downright unusual things to do in Latvia
If you are a fan of quirky or unusual attractions then Latvia won’t fail to disappoint.
Ligatne nuclear bunker
Located nine metres under the innocuous-looking Ligatne rehabilitation centre is this 1980s built nuclear bunker which would have become home for the local first secretaries of the Communist party in the event of an American nuclear strike on Latvian territory. This site was only declassified in 2003 and a visit here is a unique opportunity to step back in time to a former Soviet-era Cold War facility, much of which remains as it was at the height of tensions between the Soviet Union and the West. As one of the most popular things to do in Latvia, tours sell out fast and are much better with a local guide.
This 400 acre 1920s film set is rather reminiscent of an American spaghetti western cowboy town. Complete with a town pub and tram lines, this ghost town is a place where you can almost literally touch the walls and they might fall down. It is possible to stay here overnight when filming is not taking place.
Karosta is the former home of the USSR’s main naval base in the Baltics. Built by Imperial Russia, during Soviet times, Karosta was a closed city within a city; home to 30,000 military personnel, a submarine warren, and nuclear weapons. It is even possible to stay overnight here at what was an active naval port prison until 1997. Indeed, until recently, it was the only military prison open to the public in all of Europe.
The northern fortress is a collection of abandoned concrete bunkers dating back to Tsarist Russia. Located close to the city of Liepaja, these bizarre, apocalyptic looking seaside ruins give the visitor the sense of being inside the pages of a dystopian novel.
Irbene Radio Telescope
The Irbene astronomical radio telescope is the world’s eighth-largest radio telescope. During the Cold War, it was used to eve’s drop on the west. Nicknamed the starlet, Irbene’s 32-metre wide telescope was used to intercept NATO radio signals and telephone conversations. Nowadays, it is a curious Latvian Tourism site and is otherwise used by modern-day astronomers to look deep into outer space. Tours to the telescope are one of the most in-demand things to do in Latvia.
Skrunda was once a secret Soviet military site that disappeared from the nation’s collective consciousness after the collapse of the Soviet Union. This former base with more than 50 buildings is a time trap ghost town where vestiges of the 1980s and 1990s Soviet Union remain.
Daugavpils’ 19th-century military fortress remains largely unknown across Europe despite being the only early nineteenth-century fortress in eastern Europe that remains almost totally unchanged and as it originally stood. This incredible site, which dates back to 1810, includes eight bastions and a moat. Mark Rothko was born in Daugavpils and his foundation is active and in the process of helping to put the city of Daugavpils back on the map (internal link).
A million things to do in Latvia!
They say life is all about experiences. We are entering a time when we are beginning to recognise that collecting experiences and memories is a far better pursuit in life than the futile consumerist lifestyle of collecting things. When considering things to do in Latvia, the options for activities are literally incredible! Latvian tourism offers visitors the opportunities for zip lining, cycling, hiking, mountain biking, zorbing and even learning how to cook!
If none of these activities appeal, then how about some typically Latvian pastimes such as Berry and mushroom picking, cross country skiing, or enjoying a traditional Latvian sauna? These are some of the most traditional things to do in Latvia.
Those thinking about what to do in Latvia who enjoy more extreme sports can bobsleigh down an Olympic track, Kayak the ancient waterways of Latvia or the Gulf of Riga, go off-road, bungee jump near a medieval castle, or experience the thrill of flying at Latvia’s world-famous Aerodium vertical wind tunnel. You can even experience Latvia from above with it possible to fly in a Tiger AG-5B over the gorgeous Latvian countryside seeing its lakes, dunes and swamps from above.
Other pursuits that take visitors closer to nature include husky dog sledging, horse riding, and the wonderful and slightly surreal experience of Alpaca walking in the Latvian countryside! And did we mention you can also play golf in Latvia at either of the country’s two fantastic 18 hole courses?
Life’s a party
Finally, we couldn’t put together a detailed list of things to do in Latvia without mentioning festivals!
The biggest day of the year in Latvia isn’t Christmas Day or Easter but the Midsummer Festival, known as Jāņi. Almost the entire population of Latvia spends this three-day centuries-old festival gathered around bonfires in the countryside eating, drinking and singing. This is the quintessential Latvian experience, and one of the stand out things to do in Latvia if you are lucky enough to be in the country around June 21-24.
Another summer festival that shouldn’t be missed is the annual Positivus Music Festival, held over three days in forests and beaches adjacent to the sea in what must surely be one of the most magical festival settings in Europe. Now into its 13th year, Positivus has attracted many of the world’s leading musicians over the years and is now attended by 30,000 festival-goers.
Other festivals that should not be missed and are highlights of things to do in Latvia include the Riga City Festival, the Staro Riga Light Festival (when the Latvian capital is decked out in weird and wonderful lighting) and, of course, the two (yes two!) Christmas festivals which see Christmas markets all over Latvia for the Lutheran/Catholic December period and the Russian Orthodox January Christmas.