A non-stop Latvia itinerary exploring the city of Riga, medieval castles, the Baltic coast, and idyllic towns.
Highs & Lows
Vecrīga is a beautiful place to explore
It was the middle of summer yet chilly every single day
This was a trip I took with my partner to his home country, where we were shown around by his family. The time was split between the capital of Riga and the western countryside, with a day trip to a neighboring town almost every day. Also included are stops in Lithuania and Iceland.
We spent the first couple days wandering around Riga and Mežaparks, a massive, wooded park with a zoo, concert venue, cafes, and playgrounds. Mežakaķis is a fun zipline and ropes course in the park.
Riga is a sizeable city split in half by the Daugava River, so it's not easy to get everywhere on foot. We'd take the tram or a Bolt into the city center, where the historical district of Vecrīga is.
Vecrīga, or Old Riga, is the perfect place to explore. It's easy to walk around and there are many historical buildings as well as bars and restaurants that cater to tourists. Close to Vecrīga is Riga Central Market: the largest market in Europe, housed in old zeppelin hangars.
For dinner, family drove us to Jelgava, a beautiful little city on a river. The Holy Trinity Church tower is the oldest building in Jelgava, and provides sweeping views of the city.
We rented a car to take a day trip to Sigulda, and visited two medieval castles on opposite sides of a valley. Both were fun, but Turaida Castle was better preserved and had more to explore than Sigulda Castle, so if you have to choose one, go for Turaida.
Sigulda was my favorite place we visited in all of Latvia. It's a beautiful town on the Gauja River, with an adventure park, Ferris wheel, castles, and the largest cave in the Baltics. Outside of Riga, this is the place to visit in Latvia.
We took the train to the village of Carnikava to visit with family, who made us a huge home-cooked meal. Afterwards we walked down to the mouth of the Gauja River.
After returning from Carnikava, we were picked up by another family member who drove us to Saldus, a small city in Latvia's western countryside. We stopped by the family farm for a while to eat, pick wild mushrooms, and see the land. It was later in the evening when we returned to Saldus, but we were still able to go "out on the town" by having drinks at their two casinos.
We stopped at Kuldīga for lunch on the way to our next destination. The town overlooks Venta Rapid, the widest waterfall in Europe.
My partner's extended family reserved three cabins in an area close to the Baltic Sea for a reunion. Latvia is known for its amber due to the number of trees in the country, so we looked for amber along the beach.
We were close to the Lithuanian border, so we made a day trip to the city of Palanga. It's nestled on the Baltic Sea, with plenty of sand and mild surf for beachgoers. The main drag leading up to the boardwalk is full of tourist traps and restaurants with menus translated into English and Russian. You can rent a bike and explore the area, but keep in mind you will only be able to take it on smaller side streets and trails.
Before heading back to Saldus, we stopped at another coastal city for some more sights. Liepāja has a concert hall nicknamed "Great Amber," because of the many panes of red-orange glass on its facade. There is also the Monument to the Sailors & Fishermen Lost at Sea, a towering sculpture looking out over the Baltic. On the monument is a special plaque commemorating US Navymen who were shot down off the coast of Liepaja by Soviets in 1950.
If you want to go to Liepāja, many restaurants and places are closed on Sundays.
We spent another night in Saldus before driving back to Riga the next day. The area is beautiful, and you can tour old Soviet missile silos leftover from when Latvia was a satellite nation of the USSR.
My partner and I wanted to explore Vecrīga further, so we found an Airbnb right in the heart of it. We went out both nights. There are plenty of bars in the area, and many are located beneath street level. They were great places to socialize with locals and other travelers.
During the daytime we visited the House of the Black Heads, a medieval structure whose patron saint is a Black martyr. It was rebuilt after a WWII bombing.
If you go to Freedom Square (where the Freedom Monument is located) at the right time, you'll get to see the changing of the guard.
There are many vendors in some of Vecrīga's courtyards, and they mostly sell the same things. Check around for the prices before buying something; I saw the same magnet going for €4, €3, and €2.50 at three different tables. Some vendors will also try to pass off fake amber as real, so make sure you know what to look for if shopping for amber.
As if the rest of the trip wasn't enough, we wanted to squeeze in a day exploring as much as we could of Iceland. We saw the famous Blue Lagoon geothermal springs, Krysuvik's sulfur pools, numerous lakes, coastal cliffs, whale bones, and bright fuchsia Arctic thyme blooming everywhere. One of the bigger landmarks was the Bridge between Continents, a rift between two tectonic plates that grows wider by the year. It's also one of the many places you can find Iceland's fine, jet-black sands.
As a Big Lebowski fan, it was a requirement to eat at Lebowski Bar in Reykjavik. They have typical bar food (and White Russians, of course).
Q & A
What would you have changed?My partner wanted to show me around the coastal city of Ventspils, but we didn't have the time.
Anything go wrong during the trip?We had a weird experience booking the Airbnb in Old Riga and would not stay with that host again. We didn't feel very comfortable leaving our things in the living areas while we were out so we locked our belongings in the bedroom. We had chosen one of the cheapest Airbnb's so I would say it's worth it to spend a few more dollars a night if you're going through them.
Restaurant recommendations?Latvian food shares many similarities with its surrounding countries. Chicken karbonāde (similar to schnitzel) and sausages are very popular. Dill is a common herb seasoning, and boiled potatoes are a common side. You may also encounter a variety of "salads," but they're closer in appearance to potato or egg salads than the leafy-green kind. (When I was there, I tried a salmon salad and another mysterious dish that was only described to me as "cheese salad.") For those who imbibe, there are two alcoholic drinks to try in Latvia: kvass and Black Balsam. Kvass is a popular type of beer enjoyed throughout much of northeastern Europe, while Black Balsam is a liqueur that originated in Riga. Check out the Black Magic Bar in Old Riga (Vecrīga) to enjoy cocktails and chocolates made from the drink. If you're consuming it straight, skip the original and go for their blackcurrant flavor. Apsara is a charming tea house on the river in Riga. You order on the ground level and then take a spiral staircase up to lounge on cushions and enjoy 360-degree views of the park. In Sigulda, Mr. Biskvits is the cafe to try.
Tips you would give a friend?Russian speakers can get by in Latvia easily, but it’s not impossible for English speakers to navigate the country either. Most younger Latvians are fluent in English, while older generations are fluent in Russian. High-tourist places may have English translations available, and in cities like Riga, you are very likely to find someone who speaks English and can help you with things like ordering off a menu, or buying a train ticket. (Usually, it's the person helping you with the service.)
Packing tips?Pack a good jacket! I had lightweight jackets only and ended up borrowing from kind family members the whole time. For our luggage, we thought we could get by with a carry-on and a personal bag, but we ended up having to check our carry-ons nearly every flight due to various airline rules. We had several flights both there and back so it was a pain to deal with every time. Always double check the bag limits on every single flight!
Transportation Tips?Bolt is the rideshare app used in Latvia, but Uber may also be available there now as well. For traveling around Riga, a bus ticket is inexpensive, and it's nice to take the train into one of the neighboring cities.
Any surprises?Latvia is beautiful in the summertime, and being so far north the days are long. You can still see daylight at 11:30pm and the sun will start rising before 4am. Knowing this, I can only imagine how harsh and dark the winters there are. I'd only recommend traveling there in summer (but still...bring that jacket).
Booking details?We were fortunate to stay with family for most of the trip; the two Airbnb reservations we made in Old Riga and Iceland were night and day in comparison to each other.