Until fairly recently, Latvia was swallowed up by the mighty Russian Empire - now one of the many small new countries of East Europe. Latvia is only just emerging from the shadow of big brother, the erstwhile USSR, and tasting independence after the collapse of communism. The Latvian countryside is a beautiful one, with scenic vistas, dense forests, and sunny beaches, and a long history.
Latvia became a republic in 1994 and things began to change; today, life is more relaxed and free in Latvia. There are cafes; bars, cinema halls, museums, and palaces, finally open to the public. Shops are full of local produce, and the government is trying its best to replace the old economic system with a new, more dynamic, and free-market economy. Most importantly, tourism is recognized as an important sector of this new economy.
Latvia's landscape is characterized by wide beaches as well as dense, sprawling forests. Latvia’s capital is Riga, home to notable wooden and art nouveau architecture, a vast Central Market, and a medieval Old Town with St. Peter's Church. Riga's museums include the Latvian Ethnographic Open-Air Museum, showcasing local crafts, food, and music.
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LATVIA QUICK FACTS
- Capital: Riga
- Currency: euro (EUR)
- Area: 64,589 sq km
- Population: 1,92 million (2019)
- Language: Latvian (official), Russian (widely spoken, especially in Riga and Daugavpils), English (widely spoken in Riga), others
- Religion: Lutheran, Catholic, Muslim, Russian Orthodox, Jewish
- Electricity: 220V/50Hz (European plug)
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LATVIA PUBLIC HOLIDAYS
- 4 May, Restoration of Independence (1990)
- 18 November, Independence Day (1918)
FESTIVALS IN LATVIA
Latvian Song and Dance Festival
One of the key cultural events in Latvia with a history starting back in 1873 as a singing festival. Now the festival involves live performances of various choirs, folk dance groups, brass bands, etc. Competitions, exhibitions, concerts, parades, and joint concerts are some of the cultural events. Riga is full of people wearing traditional costumes and cheerful people from all of Latvia. It is held once in five years.
BEST TIME TO VISIT LATVIA
The best time to visit the Baltic States is late spring or summer when there’s usually enough fine weather to allow you to stroll around the cities and make significant forays into the great outdoors. On the whole, though, the only thing that’s predictable about the Baltic climate is the deep, dark winters – in all other seasons, the weather can be changeable in the extreme.
Summers are relatively short (roughly mid-June to late August), and although you may well experience a string of hot, dry days during this period, showers and chilly nights are equally likely. Remember to pack a waterproof jacket and warm sweater alongside your T-shirts.
Temperatures cool down rapidly from mid-September onwards, although autumn can be an extraordinarily beautiful season in which to visit, with the golden brown leaves of deciduous trees contrasting with the dark-green pines.
The first snowfalls can come as early as mid-November and by early to mid-December winter sets in with a vengeance. Average daytime temperatures can remain below zero right through until March, plummeting to minus 15–20°C in particularly cold spells. Winter can of course be a magical time, with lakes, rivers, and large expanses of the Baltic Sea freezing over, and crunchy snow cover adding an air of enchantment to medieval city centers.
Even when the spring thaw sets in, the countryside can remain grey and barren until well into April (or even May in northern Estonia), when a sudden explosion of colour transforms the landscape. The countryside takes on a green lushness, drawing cattle and horses out from their winter barns, while city-dwellers indulge in a frenzied stampede for the pavement cafés.
June to August - Summer starts with an all-night solstice romp; then it’s off to the beach.
September - Refusing to let summer go, Rīgans sip lattes under heat lamps at alfresco cafes.
December - Celebrate the festive season in the birthplace of the Christmas tree.
SPORT & ACTIVITIES
SNOW SPORT IN LATVIA
The snow sports season in Latvia can start early in December and last until the end of March.
HIKING & CYCLING IN LATVIA
The best time for outdoor activities in Latvia is from September to May as the forests can be full of mosquitoes during the summer months.
BEACH OPTIONS IN LATVIA
Latvia has some beautiful beaches with their short summer beach season stretching from the beginning of June to the end of August.
SURFING IN LATVIA
The surf season in Latvia is unfortunately not during the summer, but rather during the cooler Autumn and even Winter months.
KITESURF IN LATVIA
Latvia only has a 50% chance of winds good enough for kitesurfing from April to December, leaving kitesurfing possible but not all that probable!
LATVIA TRAVEL COSTS
If you’re on a tight schedule, it’s easy to get a taste of the Latvian countryside on day trips from Rīga. Within 75km of the capital are two national parks, the country’s grandest palace, and long stretches of flaxen beach.
Riga’s affordable prices, bustling nightlife, and beautiful scenery (both architecture and people) make it an ideal location for budget travellers… except that it’s located away from the normal budget traveller’s trail. However, you can find cheap flights to Riga from most major cities if you book ahead.
LATVIA TRAVEL TIPS
Attractions in Riga are affordable and often free but some free sites may ask for a donation. We suggest taking a walking tour to learn about the city’s history.
Food can be very affordable in Riga but you’ll want to do a little research to find the best quality. However, if you plan on eating in Castle Square, you’re going to pay a premium, so watch out for that. Many places offer “business lunch,” which is a fixed-price menu that consists of a starter, a main, and a drink. Expect to pay anywhere from €5-€8.
SIGHTS & HIGHLIGHTS OF LATVIA
Admire the menagerie of gargoyles, beasts, goddesses, and twisting vines that inhabits Rīga’s art nouveau architecture.
Clatter along cobblestones, climb church spires, and generally enjoy the gingerbread trim that is Old Rīga.
Explore the castle by candlelight and stroll the historic streets of Cēsis.
Trek from castle to castle amid the forested surrounds of Sigulda.
Indulge in aristocratic decadence as you wander the intricate interiors and gorgeous gardens of Rundāle Palace.
Case out the castle, then laze on the long and glorious stretch of beach at Ventspils.
Hobnob with Russian jet-setters in the swanky beachside spa town of Jūrmala.
Latvia's dynamic capital, the historic city of Rīga, is a great place to spend some time. Rīga isn't a 'wallop you over the head with grand sights' kind of city. Its charms are much more subtle than that, coalescing around its laid-back riverside vibe, a compact historic heart and ramshackle suburbs of wooden houses. Most impressively, Rīga has the largest array of art nouveau architecture in Europe! It boasts a truly lovely old quarter, full of magnificent Jugendstil architecture, winding cobblestoned lanes and many steeples. Yet, it is a modern, metropolitan city with a vibrant nightlife and a strong economic impulse. Riga's vibe gets under many travellers' skins, perhaps for the strong contrasts between old and new or maybe because of the seemingly painless blend of Latvian and Russian cultures, as almost half of the city's inhabitants are of Russian origin. To get a sense of the city, wander through its large, manicured parks, stroll through the historic quarter and then kick back in one of the many cafés or outdoor terraces. Among Riga's best sights are the impressive Riga Cathedral, St. Peter's Church and the bustling Central Market.
Although Riga is by far the country's main tourist destination, there are a bunch of other places well worth a visit. At just 40 km from the capital is Sigulda, with its reconstructed Turaida Castle, an interesting castle museum as well as the deep Gutmanis Cave. The town is located in the beautiful Gauja valley - called the "Switzerland of Latvia" for its steep cliffs and banks. It's known for its winter sports opportunities and makes a great base for explorations of the fine nature around it. Sigulda is a magical mix of scenic walking and cycling trails, extreme sports and 800-year-old castles steeped in colourful legends
The Baltic's version of the French Riviera, Jūrmala is a long string of townships with grand wooden beach houses belonging to Russian oil tycoons and their supermodel trophy wives. Even during the height of communism, Jūrmala was a place to see and be seen. On summer weekends, jet-setters and day-tripping Rīgans flock to the resort town for some serious fun in the sun. If you don't have a car or bicycle, your best bet is to head straight to the townships of Majori and Dzintari, the heart of the action. A 1km-long pedestrian street, Jomas iela, connects the two and is considered to be Jūrmala's main drag.
The coastal city of Liepāja is known to Latvians as "the city where the wind is born", for the sea breeze it constantly enjoys. It has a nice beach and a charming town centre with a colourful mixture of architectural styles, from wooden houses and spacious parks to Art Nouveau and concrete, Soviet-era apartment buildings. Liepāja's neighbourhood of Karosta was built in the late 19th century as a naval base for Tsar Alexander III and was later used by the Soviet Baltic Fleet. Its splendid sea side panoramas, former military prison and fortress remain now make it a popular tourist sight.
Fabulous amounts of oil and shipping money have given Ventspils an economic edge over Latvia's other small cities, and although locals coddle their Užavas beer and claim that there's not much to do, tourists will find a weekend's worth of fun in the form of brilliant beaches, well-maintained parks and museums.
Cesis is one of the country's oldest towns and has a charming centre with cobblestoned lanes, historic wooden building and a few impressive castles.
If Kuldīga was a tad closer to Rīga it would be crowded with day-tripping camera-clickers. Fortunately, the town is located deep in the heart of rural Kurzeme, making its quaint historic core the perfect reward for more intrepid travellers. Kuldīga boasts Europe's widest (249m), though at two meters high unspectacular, water fall - the Ventas Rumba. It's part of the Venta Rapid, one of Latvia's natural monuments and despite its limited height it's still a nice sight and the town itself is well worth exploring too.
WHAT TO EAT IN LATVIA
For centuries in Latvia, food equaled fuel, energizing peasants as they worked the fields and warming their bellies during bone-chilling Baltic winters. Pork, herring, boiled potatoes, sauerkraut, and black bread are the traditional standbys, pepped up with dill, cottage cheese, and sour cream. Black bread is an extremely important part of Latvian food and you will find many types around the country. They are believed to be much healthier than white bread - try Lacu or Liepkalni for an authentic taste!
In Latvia, the whole concept and meaning of words Cafeteria (Kafejnīca), Canteen (Ēdnīca) and Restaurant (Restorāns) are rather different than in many other countries. A Cafeteria or Kafejnīca is not just a coffee shop. Usually, you can have all meals that you would probably expect in a restaurant. The difference is that in Kafejnīca you sometimes bring your food to your table yourself. However, some Kafejnīcas will have waiters, but these are then something in between of Kafejnīca and Restorāns. Restorāns is usually a more or less top class place (however, some fast food establishments, in keeping with foreign naming conventions, refer to themselves as such). Ēdnīca is a name for canteens of schools, universities, factories, etc. They tend to serve traditional Latvian/Soviet era foods and are often perceived by locals to have a high quality/price ratio, but sometimes these venues limit access to outside customers.
Other local tastes to look out for include the following:
Mushrooms - Not a sport but a national obsession, mushroom picking takes the country by storm during the first showers of autumn.
Smoked fish - Dozens of fish shacks dot the Kurzeme coast – look for the veritable smoke signals rising above the tree line.
Black Balzām -The jet-black, 45%-proof concoction is a secret recipe of more than a dozen fairy-tale ingredients including oak bark, wormwood, and linden blossoms. Many locals swear by its medicinal properties, and at the least, the alcohol content will let you forget about what ails you until the next morning.
Alus - For such a tiny nation there's definitely no shortage of alus (beer) – each major town has its own brew. You can't go wrong with Užavas or Valmiermuižas.
LGBTQ IN LATVIA
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in Latvia face legal and social challenges not experienced by non-LGBT residents. Same-sex sexual activity is legal in Latvia, but Latvia does not recognise same-sex marriage or any other type of partnership, including registered partnerships. The Latvian Constitution prohibits the recognition of same-sex marriages.
There a small gay scene in the capital, Riga. Only a very small minority of the population is LGBTQ accepting.