Dark tourism – tourism that involves travelling to places associated with death and suffering. Although dark tourism sounds like a new kind of travelling (especially after the recent Netflix documentary series of the same name – ”Dark Tourism”), it is in fact nothing new. Every time one visits the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam, the 9/11 memorial, Chernobyl’s fallout zone or the sites of massacres, one is actually engaging dark tourism. And surprisingly there are lots of people who seek the thrill of visiting scary, spine-chilling places rather than spending their vacation on the beach or beautiful surroundings. If you are one of them, keep reading. You can find dark tourism in Latvia, too and it can get scary.
I often hear surprising stories and interesting anecdotes from travellers who have visited Riga. Many people are surprised to find a city that is completely different from the one they had imagined. Many visitors expect Riga to consist of a lot of massive grey buildings, but instead they find a bustling European city rich in pastel colours, historic statues and beautiful buildings. Riga is quite simply a wonderful weekend destination that is becoming more and more popular each year. Quite a few people I know have said they have experienced amazing weekends in Riga, enjoying its great restaurants (many of which are inexpensive for the quality of cuisine on offer), sightseeing and shopping. In 2017 Business Insider named Riga the best value destination in Europe for Christmas shopping, and every shopaholic will be happy about wonderful goods – and wonderful prices – to be found in the shops of Riga. And with its vivid nightlife, many bars and inexpensive prices, Riga remains a popular party destination.
Visitors to Latvia often think of Riga as the number one place to visit, but this fascinating country offers a wide range of charming towns, exciting attractions and spectacular sights that are well worth checking out – and, luckily, some of them are only a short drive from the capital. October is the perfect time to see Vidzeme in all its autumn glory. Every year my Facebook newsfeed fills up with amazing pictures of the beautiful natural landscapes around Vidzeme: Sigulda, Cēsis, and Valmiera. Vidzeme is the most beautiful place to enjoy a sunny autumn weekend. If you haven’t visited the region before, you might be surprised how many beautiful, easily accessible places Vidzeme has to offer.
Just an hour’s drive from the capital Riga you will find Sigulda, with its breathtaking views of the River Gauja valley. Sigulda is the perfect destination for hiking, romantic walks or bike rides. There are also plenty of modern attractions designed to appeal to more adventurous travellers. You can test your strength and courage at the Mežakaķis and Tarzāns sky playgrounds, slide down a real bobsleigh run or even fly in a wind tunnel at the Aerodium.
Gūtmaņala Cave. The biggest cave in the Baltic States features ancient inscriptions dating back to the 17th century. And legend has it that the spring that flows out of the cave has healing powers.
Travelers who love to explore and are not afraid of getting close to the river can snap some dramatic photos of the numerous sandstone outcrops, cliffs, and rocks on the banks of the Gauja River. The photo below, for example, was taken at the Velnakmens cliffs.
You can also take a ride on the cable car that affords fantastic views of the valley of the Gauja River, Turaida Castle, and Krimulda Manor. And for those looking for even more of an adrenaline rush, bungee.lv offers bungee-jumping from the cable car.
Turaida Museum Reserve is very close to the Gūtmaņala Cave. Here you will find a remarkable heritage exhibition that charts life in Vidzeme from the 11th century. The tower offers magnificent views of the valley below. Admission fee: 5 EUR adults, 3EUR students.
#2 Gauja National Park
Another noteworthy destination. Gauja National Park protects the most beautiful section of the Gauja Valley – along the Gauja River between Valmiera and Sigulda – and is a wonderful place for weekend hiking and long walks. This is the largest and oldest National Park in Latvia and is a hiker’s heaven that features wildlife and views that will live long in the memory.
The charming town Cēsis is where the ancient meets the modern. This little town has always been a popular destination for locals as well as for travellers. The town started as a Livonian Order stronghold and is now home to Cēsis Castle – a site that preserves the town’s significant cultural heritage. Cēsis Castle Complex also offers interesting excursions through halls that have witnessed everything from medieval feasts to battles waged against the invading armies of the Russian Emperor Ivan The Terrible.
Admission fee for the medieval castle: 4 EUR adults, 2.50 EUR students.
Have you ever seen black swans? Just make your way from the Cēsis Castle to the Castle Park and you will see two graceful and rather arrogant black swans that happily pose and preen for your photos. Trust me, they love attention!
#4 Dikļu Palace
A lovely Neo-Baroque palace that hosts a 4-star hotel, restaurant, and eco-spa. It is also one of the most welcoming places I have visited! The host of the palace was kind enough to take time to tell us about the history of the palace and even showed us a photo album charting the castle’s latest renovations. The restaurant serves a delicious coffee and food, making the palace well worth a visit place even if you’re not planning to stay overnight.
Admission fee: 2 EUR
#5 Bīriņu Manor
Located in a beautiful place near the lake, the Neo-Gothic Bīriņu Manor reminds me of a fairytale castle. During the spring, summer and early autumn it is possible to rent boats and take a tour around the lake. Or perhaps you’d prefer to rent bicycles or even ride horses. A really nice place for a peaceful walk through charming sights. You can stay overnight in the castle or in the guest house, or just explore the castle and the surroundings.
Admission fee: 2 EUR (4 EUR if you want to visit the castle) and 1.50 EUR for parking the car inside the castle territory,
This cozy place in Vidzeme is all about good vibes and is very popular among the locals for its truly excellent Latvian beer – non-filtered and authentic (you cannot buy non-filtered beer in a shop, so this is your chance to try some). There is regular live music on offer and the view from the terrace is amazing (if it’s warm enough to risk sitting outside!).
The brewery also houses a lovely souvenir shop where you can buy authentic Latvian products from wines, beers, sweets to clothing and cosmetics. You can also book a tour of the brewery. Because it is a small brewery you can get really close to the process of beer-making.
#7 Veczemju cliffs
This beautiful beach with its red, orange and brown cliffs and roomy caves is definitely a secret gem. I can promise you amazing sights and quirky pictures.
Parking fee: 3 EUR
There are four regions in Latvia – Kurzeme, Zemgale, Vidzeme and Latgale. And Kurzeme has always been my favourite. Perhaps it’s because my parents and grandparents come from the area. Or maybe it’s because I’ve always been drawn to the waves, and Kurzeme is washed by the Baltic Sea. Latvia has a 500 kilometers long coast line of white sand beach along the Baltic Sea. One can find especially nice beaches – as well as adventure and history – in Liepaja and Ventspils. Then there’s Jurkalne, with its pretty seashore bluffs and quiet white sand beach. In between, you’ll find numerous old fishing villages selling fish smoked according to age-old traditions. And in the middle of Kurzeme you’ll find Kuldīga and its charming narrow streets and red tile roofs – surely the most romantic city in Latvia. Keep reading to find out the highlights of Kurzeme.
#1 Port cities
A port city with white sandy Blue Flag beach. During summer here you will find cafes, volleyball and football fields, as well as playgrounds for kids and a surfer’s beach with all the necessary facilities. Ventspils is also home to Livonian Order Castle, which is one of the oldest medieval fortresses in Latvia.
If you want to get a feeling for life in a historical fishing village, visit Seaside Open Air Museum. Then you’ll find fishermen’s homesteads, barns, windmills, boats and traditional household items. But probably the most beloved feature of the museum is the small, narrow gauge steam train ‘Mazbānītis’.
Take a leisurely stroll through neat Ventspils and you will see many parks, gardens, fountains, and… cows. Cows?! Yes, you read it correctly. If you look hard enough, you will find 17 full-size fiberglass cows that were a part of two very successful charity auctions called Cow Parade 2002 and Cow Parade 2012. 26 such cows were turned into artistic pieces in 2002 and 24 in 2012. If you feel like tracking all of them down, you can find the walking map here. (My favourite is Sailor Cow!) The city also boasts a ‘children’s town’ and numerous others adventure parks in it – perfect for those visiting with families. Lastly, my top tip for dining is Jūras Brīze, with its tasty Latvian food!
The third biggest city in Latvia and another port city. Because there was a famous Latvian song devoted to Liepaja with lyrics ‘City where the wind is born,’ this is how Latvians still describe the Liepāja. But it also is a city that is home to many talented Latvian musicians and singers, so sometimes it is referred to as the Rock’n’Roll city. It even has its own hall (well, alley!) of fame for famous musicians. Liepaja also preserves a military heritage. Karosta (direct translation port of war) is home to an old prison that is the main attraction in Liepaja. Here, the brave can voluntarily go to prison and ‘enjoy’ the harsh attention of prison guards. For some reason, this is a popular attraction not only for tourists but also for bachelor parties.
Liepaja also has an amazing Blue Flag beach and Seaside Park. During summer, Liepaja is home to music festivals, such as the Summer Sound Festival and the Fontaine Festival. If you prefer the classics, visit Great Amber Concert Hall, which hosts cultural events, such as the symphony, ballet, and jazz concerts. It is also a great modern architectural attraction.
#2 Pretty coastal landscapes
Where the Baltic Sea and Riga Gulf meet. The cape is a dangerous place for boats and ships and numerous boats have sunk there in the past, which makes the place especially attractive for divers. Legends tell that in the past, locals made huge bonfires to warn sailors from this dangerous place, but bandits moved the fires to the Zilie Kalni (Blue Hills) from time to time and the misguided ships ran ashore, where the robbers stole the cargos and killed the sailors. Indeed, there is a belief that Kolka name comes from Livian words Kuol-ka (which means then die!). Despite all this, Kolka is a popular place for windsurfing, as is Pavilosta.
Jūrkalne seashore bluffs.
This very pretty landscape on a coast of Baltic Sea makes a great background for your Instagram photos. It is also an ideal place for a slow stroll on the shore, as the sea is very calm there.
#3 Find romance and castles in Kurzeme
The most romantic town in Latvia. Kuldīga – or Goldingen, as it was known at the time – was the capital of Duchy of Courland and Semigallia between 1561-1795. This charming town preserves wooden buildings and urban planning elements from 13th-19th century. You can enjoy a beautiful view of the waterfall from the red brick bridge over Venta River. The Old Brick bridge is the longest of a kind in Europe – 165m.
Ventas Rumba or Venta Waterfall is my favourite spot in the town. Being 240m wide, it is the widest waterfall in the Europe and in springtime attracts many tourists eager to see vimbas and salmon jumping over the waterfall. The locals call it The Flying Fish Show.
My favourite place for dining is Goldingen Room, located in the historical center of town, a few meters from City Hall and very close to the old brick bridge. But if you are in a mood for something small and sweet, visit Makkabi for tasty cupcakes and coffee.
A town which is home to a pretty 17th-century manor Durbes pils (see the picture below) and its beautiful park. Only 14 km from Durbes pils you will find Jaunmoku pils (Jaunmoku castle), a great example of Neo-gothic architectural style featuring Art Nouveau elements. Venture 15 km out from Tukums and you can wander around the Cinevilla Studios backlot to witness how movies are made – or experience how Riga looked like centuries ago.
#4 Recreation and leisure
Piena Muiža Berghof (Milk Manor Berghof)
One of the greatest, most divine spa rituals I have ever enjoyed in my life! Rose and milk bath, herbal tea, long very relaxing massage for two, body scrub and spa treatment for all body… Heaven. You can also stay in one of the manor’s elegant rooms, which will make you feel like living in an old-time movie. And if you feel hungry, just pop down to the restaurant.
Baskāju taka (Barefoot Path)
It is the first barefoot path in the Baltic States and has become very popular among nature lovers. The 2.9 km long path and its ever-changing surfaces can be a challenge – with pebbles, boulders, millstones, moss, cones, seaboard sand, reeds, rough pine trunk, clay and even glass to navigate. That is a true sensation for your feet and body!
#5 Try Latvian wine
Sabile Wine Hill is the world’s most northern open-air vineyard (as mentioned in Guinness Book of Records!)
Sabile Wine Hill is the world’s most northern open-air vineyard (as mentioned in Guinness Book of Records!) and a notable place to tick off your bucket list. And if you want to know more about how Latvian wine is produced, take a trip down to Abavas Ģimenes Vīna darītava (Abava Winery) for a wine tasting. Abava Winery is run by Mārtiņš and Liene Barkāni who offer a lovely wine tasting session complemented with a very interesting two-hour history of wine production in Latvia. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and even bought a bottle of their wine in the airport!
There is a lot more to tell about Kurzeme, but let’s keep it for next articles. I hope you enjoyed reading about my favourite region of Latvia. Stay tuned to hear more about other regions.
I have always believed that traveling is the essence of life. It doesn’t matter if the destination is an exotic country, a romantic getaway spot or going just 50 miles away from home. It is about craving adventures, tasting amazing food and broadening the horizon of one’s knowledge. And have you noticed how nice it is to return home after a trip? Life just seems better!
Discover a new destination – Latvia
But how to choose the travel destination? It is never an easy decision. Many of us have chosen to travel to France, Italy, Greece or Spain and there is a reason why – all these places have a truly amazing cultural heritage. A La Dolce Vita vibe! A fiesta feeling! But how about being one of the first one of your friends finding a hidden gem and discover something you haven’t seen before? Something so familiar, but yet still so unknown – Latvia. Many of us have heard its name, but it is rare to meet anyone who actually knows something about Latvia and you probably wonder – what to see in Latvia?
Latvia is a secret gem
Over the last decade, more and more tourists have chosen Latvia as their destination and I can tell you why… Because they have found the secret gem. It is a small, charming country that has too long kept itself secret. Latvia has it all – beautiful sandy beaches, great weather, charming small towns, beautiful castles, manors and an attractive capital that is sometimes called the ‘Paris of the North’. All that and it is so compact that you can see almost all of it within a few days! You can find refreshing spa offers and rustic-chic restaurants that will make you feel special and not break the bank. Enjoy hiking and nature? Great! Latvia is the perfect spot for you, over 50% of the country consists of forests and it boasts 494 km of coastline. And that’s not all – this small country can amaze you with more than 2250 lakes and five times more rivers. Perfect for sailing away from the routine. Did I mention that during July temperature can go up to +36 degrees and there are only 2 days a year on average when the sun is not shining?
Come and enjoy. And keep in mind what they say about Latvia– it is best enjoyed slowly.
I hope you will like my blog about what to see in Latvia. Bon voyage!