Latvia – a hidden gem with many delights

From beaches to bogshoeing, this Baltic state has everything that makes it a must-go destination

by

Husain Rizvi

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View from St. Peter's Church. Photos by Husain Rizvi
View from St. Peter's Church. Photos by Husain Rizvi

Published: Wed 15 Nov 2023, 8:17 PM

When we think of a getaway in Europe, it's seldom that a country like Latvia pops up in our minds. One of the three Baltic states, Latvia shares its borders with Lithuania to the south, Estonia to the north, Russia and Belarus to the east and south-east respectively. Here you'll find everything you seek of nature - from beachside towns to the countryside surrounded by sprawling forests.

And when you've had your fill of nature, there is Riga, Latvia's capital and its largest city, which is filled with notable wooden and art nouveau architecture, a vast central market, and a medieval Old Town with its highlight being the St. Peter's Church. All these make Latvia one of the best hidden, or so far undiscovered and out-of-the-ordinary places in Europe.


Fun Fact: Latvia has the tallest women in the world

AirBaltic serves as the primary carrier for direct flights from the UAE, with the flight duration just a tad over or under seven hours. At this time of the year, which is termed as the peak season, AirBaltic has five flights per week to Latvia, and thrice a week in the off season.


In this guide, we'll cover three prominent Latvian cities/towns for you to visit on your next European getaway.

RIGA

Riga (pronounced Reega), inhabits a third of Latvia's population, and houses a lot of interesting hotspots across the city.

Old Town

Visitors can ideally start their tour with a visit to Old Town, a district of historical and geographical significance, featuring medieval-era buildings and cobble-stone streets, with a history of 800 years.

Among the 500 buildings built in various architectural styles are some of the most renowned ones like House of the Blackheads, a site of historical significance, which was once the largest building in Riga, and a trio of historical buildings called The Three Brothers by the locals. Don't forget to check out and spread your arms on Rozena Street, the narrowest street in the city, where you can touch opposite walls at once. Instagram feed, here we come!

House of the Blackheads
House of the Blackheads

In the streets and squares, you will be spoiled for choice with coffee houses, restaurants, and even bars packing the place. If you're feeling hungry, check out Kalku Varti, a restaurant in Old Town, placed in historic buildings from the 17th century. In this restaurant featuring modern interiors, Chef Inga Cirule takes foodies through the richness of Latvia's countryside, forests, and waters. From appetisers, salads, soups to main course, desserts and an extensive beverage menu, the restaurant is a good spot for lunch or dinner.

But the grandest view of all comes from the observation deck of the 72-metre high St. Peter's Church. From up there, you can see the stunning Riga, its colourful and historical buildings, and even the Daugava River.

As you exit (or enter) Old Town, you will see a statue standing 42.7 metres tall. The Freedom Monument, made from copper and granite, symbolises Latvian statehood, national unity, independence, and freedom. The motto “For Fatherland and Freedom” is inscribed at the base of the monument. At the top, the young woman holding three stars above her head, symbolises the three historic provinces of Latvia, and national unity.

Located right next to the monument is Bastejkalna Park. (Thanks to our tour guide from 'Riga Free Tour', we got an interesting piece of trivia: A group of beavers inhabit the park and it is advised to not come in their way.)

Riga Canal
Riga Canal

At the park, you can also board 'Darling', a hundred-year-old boat and go sightseeing in the waters of Riga Canal, which is connected to the Daugava River. Take out your camera and be on the hunt for some good shots because you will get many opportunities as you sail across the canal. Don't forget to wave to the ducks on the way.

Alberta Street

Riga, Northern Europe's Art Nouveau capital, has earned its spot on the UNESCO World Heritage List, thanks to its stunning architecture. Not only medieval buildings, but also magnificent historical Art Nouveau buildings are located in Riga, especially on Alberta Street where you'll find an entire length of such buildings. Eight of these buildings have been recognised as architectural monuments of state significance.

Agenskalns Market

Agenskalns Market, the largest and oldest market in the neighbourhood, has the status of a national cultural monument. Here, visitors can buy local products from farmers, home producers, and traders. The market, open since 1898, also houses cafes and bars on the top floor if you want to grab a quick bite. Agenskalns Market also occasionally turns into a stage for cultural and educational events as well as theatrical performances.

Riga Motor Museum

Riga Motor Museum, a 30-minute drive from the city centre, is the largest antique vehicle museum in the Baltics. With modern interactive storytelling, the museum showcases more than 100 unique antique vehicles. Showcasing a noteworthy collection of racing and record-breaking cars, or an unparalleled collection of magnificent soviet cars or the Kremlin collection, Riga Motor Museum is a must-visit spot for motor enthusiasts.

Hotel recommendation

The Grand Poet by Semarah, a five-star hotel is situated right in the heart of Riga. Featuring stylish and superior accommodations, spa treatment, and an indoor pool, this hotel has it all. A 10-minute walk to Old Town through the Bastejkalna Park, The Grand Poet by Semarah makes for an ideal stay for all tourists as it is in the centre of everything you can do in Riga.

SIGULDA

In this eastern part of Latvia, you're surrounded by nature. So put on your hiking boots and get ready for some adventure around Sigulda, a country-side town with the best of nature. Latvia is well-connected with its railway, so getting to Sigulda shouldn't be tough. By road, it is nearly an hour's drive from the capital city of Riga.

Aerodium

We're pretty sure you've seen Tom Cruise free-falling from the sky in his movies. What if you had the chance to experience something similar? Aerodium, a vertical wind tunnel (open-air, unlike the ones in the UAE) allows you to glide in the air, giving you the feel of free-falling from the sky. A first in Eastern Europe, the tunnel requires no wings, just some adjustment in the body's position, and an Avengers-like gear, and you're good to fly.

Fun fact: around 54.87 per cent of land in Latvia is covered with forests.

Taking the cable car over Gauja river

While Sigulda is covered with forests, there's also the Gauja River Valley you can cross using cable cars. The cable car trip offers a breathtaking view of the landscapes surrounding the town, including Sigulda and Turaida castle, Krimulda manor house, the Bobsleigh and luge track Sigulda, as well as a bear clinging to the top of the tree (only if you can spot the creature).

After a brief excursion on the other side of the valley, you can check out the castles you could see from your cable car ride. Or, alternatively, you could grab lunch at Kungu Rija, a country estate offering a mix of traditional Latvian meals and international cuisine. Do take a moment after lunch and sit outdoors to take in the breathtaking view — the endless forest, cloudy skies, and a mini pond.

Turaida Castle Museum Reserve

One of the best places to explore Latvian history is the Turaida Museum Reserve near Sigulda. The most-visited museum in Latvia offers a collection of historical buildings in its open-area setting, with the medieval Turaida Stone Castle being the main attraction. In the museum, you can immerse yourself in Latvian archaeology, culture and art with events dating back as far as to the 11th century. The top-most section of the Main Tower at the castle, although quite a climb, is worth every single step. Up there, you get a beautiful panoramic view of the museum as well as Latvia beyond the museum's boundaries - the endless forests and the spectacular Gauja river.

The New Castle of Sigulda

This landmark had its exterior built in 1878, retaining its neo-Gothic style. The interiors, though, became a pearl of national romanticism in 1937 when it hosted the Latvian Union of Writers and Journalists. Now, you can find plenty of workshops here, from arts and crafts to letter-writing, crafting, and much more. You can leave with a souvenir of your own (you get to craft your own design on coins), and some delish ice cream.

Hotel recommendation: Malpils Manor

If you decide to stay in the countryside for the vibes, it is vital you complete the package with a stay or a visit to Malpils Manor. This 19th century Classical architecture features an extensive Baroque style park, picturesque landscape, and a pond with a bubbly fountain and water lilies. The in-house restaurant is also considered as one of Latvia's best.

JURMALA

When you've had your fill of countryside tranquility and city buzz, head to Jurmala, a seaside city, just west of Riga. Here, you can find the beach, its wooden and art nouveau villas, and several other landmarks.

The Great Kemeri Bog

Have you heard of bogshoeing? This is one of the most popular activities in Latvia for both residents and tourists. Explore the bog and its inhabitants in this world of moss, small pine trees, deep pools, tiny dark lakes, and the smell of wild rosemary. Put on the special bogshoes for a stroll in the swamps and bogs, accompanied by a guide. If you're lucky, you'll be in the presence of Axel the guide dog.

Kemeri Resort Park and Watchtower

Kemeri Resort Park is one of the oldest and major public parks in Latvia. Its primary highlights include the Kemeri Hotel and the Watchtower, with the latter being one of the historical sites at the venue. The 42-metre high tower was built in 1929 and makes for an amazing vantage point for a view from the top.

Now, if you've plans for a destination wedding, you may find one of, if not the best spots for the same. Kemeri Hotel, while not operational, has grand lawns that can make for a wedding site. If you've seen it, you're picturing it already. If not, it still makes for a picturesque picnic spot. So grab the sandwiches and some coffee and relax in the lawns of the Kemeri Resort Park. Talking about food, you must check Jurmala's 36Line restaurant, a haven for seafood lovers. This simple beachside restaurant offers an exquisite menu which combines quality local and foreign seasonal items, courtesy Chef Lauris Aleksejevs.

Jurmala Golf Club and Hotel

Fancy swinging? Jurmala Golf Club and Hotel is the first Nicklaus Design golf course in the Baltic states with a restaurant, boutique hotel, and training facilities. Just a 15-minute drive from the Riga Airport, this hotel can prove to be an ideal stay for visitors from the Middle East for reasons more than one, though the primary reason remains its availability of bidets in all its restrooms. Yes, it can't get any better in Europe.

Hotel recommendation

Located directly on the shore of the Baltic Sea, Baltic Beach Hotel and Spa is a five-star beachside hotel and the go-to for many tourists in Latvia. With all its facilities and more than 400 relaxation, beauty, detox, and weight management options, this property tailors to every individual's needs, making it one of the best spots to stay in the entire country.

husain@khaleejtimes.com



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