A to Z Travel Blog - Latvia
Latvia located on the Baltic Sea in between Lithuania and Estonia. Has long spawling beaches and dense forests. The capital Riga has lots to see and do from visiting one of its many galleries, museums, wandering around its medieval old town and admiring the 360-degree views from St Peter's Church. Did you know it is also known for it's Amber, Black Balsam and wellness spas? Here's what you need to know about Latvia.
A to Z Travel Blog - Latvia
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Getting to Riga
I flew from London Gatwick but there are also direct low-cost flights available from Edinburgh and other regional and international airports. Baltic Airways offers a no-frills experience on there 2 hours and 45-minute flight.
For the best available fares with all airlines to Riga visit Trip Advisor.
There are several accommodation options available in Riga and the surrounding areas. I stayed for 10 days and was looking to experience not only the city from a visitors perspective but also from a local's.
So I opted to stay at an Airbnb. I must say this was the best one I have ever stayed at. The hosts had thought of lots of little things like breakfast, transport and activity folder. They even left me some chocolate!
The apartment had a city view with outdoor terrace and was only 10 minutes by bus or tram to the old town.
Would you like to experience Airbnb? Here is £34 off with your first Airbnb trip.
Welton Centrum Hotel & Spa
"Located at the edge of the Old Town, the Welton Centrum Hotel & Spa is the perfect base to explore the city. As Riga’s Old Town is car-free, you have to consider this when choosing a hotel. The best part about the Welton Centrum Hotel & Spa is that the taxis can still stop in front of the hotel. The tram stop is just a block away and the train and bus stations are located within a walking distance.
I’ve stayed in Welton when visiting Riga for a long weekend. My room was quite comfortable and spotlessly clean. The hotel has a few small rooms with single beds, which makes it an affordable option for solo travellers. If you want to splurge in a bit of luxury, you can do so in the hotel’s very own spa centre. The hotel has also an indoor swimming pool.
The breakfast – a mixture of continental, English and traditional Latvian options – was also very good.
However, the biggest asset of Welton is its staff! The ladies at the reception desk were very polite and professional, and always ready to help me if I had questions. I absolutely enjoyed my stay and I would gladly recommend this hotel.
If you are travelling as a couple or with kids, the hotel also offers double rooms, triple room and junior suites. When booking a room you can choose an option with free access to the spa or you can book a spa stay at the place." - Daniela, Ipanema Travels
Travelling Around The City
Travelling around Riga and the surrounding areas couldn't be any easier. On arriving at the airport you might like to purchase a travel card with a certain number of journeys already pre-loaded.
Each journey you just scan the card at the machine on-aboard. Or you can pay more on-board in cash directly with the driver.
There are also local taxis. Have you heard of Bolt? It's similar to Uber but very popular in Riga. Why not download the app before you go and be ready for when you arrive at the airport. I wish I had heard of it, as the bus is very small and doesn't have any additional space for luggage. Here is the code for your first free trip (up to 5 Euros) with Bolt.
Where To Eat & Drink
Radisson Blu Latvija Conference & Spa Hotel
Take the panoramic lift up to the 26th floor of this 90-metre tall modern building. Its the perfect place to enjoy an evening meal or a refreshing cocktail. While watching the sunset or seeing the twinkling evening lights through the large glass windows. Even a visit to the ladies room has spectacular views!
The Herbarijs concept rooftop restaurant and bar is really something to experience. As well as the amazing views, everyone is friendly and the food delicious!
What are you waiting for?
Lido Atputas Centrs
Lido is a Latvian chain of fast food cafes and restaurants. We visited Lido Atputas Centrs outside Riga city centre. The grounds at Christmas are just lovely with small market stalls, activities and a very tall Christmas tree.
Each evening there is live music, you can buy the traditional alcoholic Black Blasam drink and enjoy traditional Latvian cuisine at the Buffett. I can highly recommend the pancakes and the coffee/tiramisu style dessert. You might also like to try the draft beer made on site. It's fantastic value for money and great for all the family. Very easy to reach via public transport but a taxi is a lot faster. We took a Bolt taxi and it was only a few euros.
What Not To Miss
Architecture/City Walking Tour
I always find it easier to navigate a new city/destination after having taken a walking tour. Not only that but I would probably walk by things not knowing anything about them. This one was guided by the knowledgeable and friendly Juris. Certified by LiveRiga and can speak Latvian, English and Russian.
The two-hour interesting and informative tour took us along the Art Nouveau district, Opera House, Old Town & St Peter's Church, Cat House, House of Blackheads, the incredible Zepplin Hangers and on to Stalin's Birthday Cake. One of the tallest vantage points to enjoy 360-degree views of the city.
The buildings are incredible! With no less than 250 designed by architect Konstantīns Pēkšēns (1859 – 1923), including the iconic 12 Alberta. Once home to Konstantīns Pēkšēns, today it is the Riga Art Nouveau Museum. An incredible opportunity to step back in time and see inside. Closed on Mondays.
There are over 800 Art Nouveau buildings scattered all over Riga’s historic centre. The most striking examples can be found along Elizabetes Iela and Alberta. These include buildings by Mikhail Eisenstein the father of the famous director Sergei Eisenstein.
One of the stories that captured me was the fact that the Mikhail Eisenstein designed the facade of 2a Albert Street, Riga, Latvia before Tutankumn tomb's had even been discovered in Egypt. That took place in 1922. He was ahead of his time in the world of architecture.
For more walking and cycling tours in Riga.
Latvian National Opera
The original Latvian National Opera building opened in 1863 but after a major fire and then an extensive renovation including new lighting and ventilation systems. In the 19th century, it was deemed more space was required. In 2001 the new annexe was completed and compliments the original standing building.
The new hall with 300 red velvet seats has a large chandelier and ornate carvings which are covered in gold leaf. The worst seat would you believe is the presidential box, with limited views and the best seat in the house being located in the central stalls. I was lucky to see both sides of the Latvian National Opera. The behind the scenes tour covers both inside the new hall and also extending into other rooms and of course the stage area. It was really interesting to hear the stories and see the workings of back stage. A few days later I was to get the last ticket to see Sleeping Beauty. What an incredible performance, costumes, dancing and the whole Disney cast was invited to the wedding!
The tickets are sold very quickly, as the prices are very affordable from only 6 euros for a standing ticket.
Did you know Riga has over 100 craft beers? On the Riga Beer District walking tour, we visited five different locations but there are many more on the two and a half kilometre route.
Which microbreweries will you visit? One of my favourites was Ziemelu Enkurs. There is a beer for every taste. Decorated in sea memorabilia, from anchors to ship bells and ropes. It brought back fond memories of my seafaring past.
Do you love beer? Have you heard about the Riga Craft Beer Weekend? Taking place at the Latvian Railway Museum, Riga 21st - 22nd February 2020.
The foodie tour lead by the famous Lativian chef MĀRTIŅŠ SIRMAIS of 3 Pavaru restorans The three chefs restaurant „Tam labam būs augt” (The good must grow in English) was really interesting. Discovering the different local produce, what they can be used for and also how they taste.
Taking place inside Riga Central Market, which comprises of five Zepllin Hangers built in the 1920s. Each hanger is dedicated to a variety of produce. Fish, meat, baked goods, fruit and vegetables.
At the end of the tour visiting The three chefs restaurant to try the colourful and delicious sauce appetiser. It was like a piece of modern art, too good to eat!
Did you know Riga has one of the world's oldest manufactured chocolates? The history dates back to 1870. With its original chocolate candy bar - Serenade being produced in 1937.
Discover Laima chocolate museum located on the tram line - Laima. For 7 Euros enjoy chocolates, discount for the shop and a hot chocolate drink followed by exploring the museum with interactive exhibitions and the opportunity to capture fun photos or videos at the booth. Don't forget to book in advance for the chocolate workshop.
Bog Walking Tour
The Wild Latvian Boglands is a natural treasure protected in Latvia. Covering 10% of Latvia, there are five bogs to visit. This time we visited the Great Kemari Blog part of The Kemeri National Park covering 38,165 hectares. I have known for many years since training in horticulture that bog lands are a hot topic. The challenge is that no comparative alternative is available to make really good compost. Though I understand how important it is to the landscape, environment and also to the wildlife. Some of the natural species you can see are the Latvian bird species, such as the Common crane, Wood Sandpiper and European Golden Plover. There is also a wide range of diverse plants including orchids, lichens and mosses. Did you know that some even harvest wild cranberries?
It was an exciting activity to try! While I was a bit wary, and knowing how deep the bog is. I still really enjoyed it. Though It is not advisable to visit on your own and to pay close attention to the guide. The scenery was beautiful and the location so tranquil.
Why not try some bog shoeing across this incredible landscape? Don't forget your wellies.
On your return to Riga, you might also like to stop for lunch at Hercogs. The food and service were outstanding.
Here are some alternative tours to The Great Kemeri Bog.
The Ethnographic Open-Air Museum of Latvia
The oldest outdoor museum, The Ethnographic Open-Air Museum in Latvia is just 30 minutes by car from Riga city centre. Home to traditional thatched roof dwelling houses, craft workshops and a 13th-century wooden church. See how people used to live, watch traditional handcrafts being made such as candle making, horseshoeing and weaving. Throughout the year there are also local festivals, enjoy the beautiful scenery, if visiting later in the day witness incredible sunsets over the lake and in the winter possibly some ice fishing! It is a very tranquil location even on a busy holiday, with lots of space in a natural pine forest and buildings to explore.
While in Latvia, Mind Your Manors
"Latvia is a country of manor houses—those grand residences of the past that were home to the nobility and reflected status and wealth. Some have been preserved, some have been reconstructed, and others have been given new life, but all maintain a sense of majesty and mystery that makes them tempting attractions or as hotels and event venues.
The Women In Travel Summit, held in Riga, Latvia, in November 2019, gave attendees the opportunity to visit some of Latvia’s manors during an all-day tour. The tour included three sites: Rundāle Palace, Mazmežotnes Manor, and Abgunste Manor. Each was beautiful in its own way, from grand and elaborate, to quaint and tidy, to eclectic (or perhaps even a bit eccentric). Though they may be a bit worn around the edges, their survival teaches us about a bygone Europe as well as the way Latvians are reclaiming that history to suit modern trends.
Rundāle Palace is legendary in the region: it was built by Rastrelli, the same architect known for the Catherine Palace and the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, and more recently, it has been used for miniseries such as War and Peace and Catherine the Great. And while this palace may be smaller than those used by the Russian emperors, it doesn’t feel small at all—particularly when you get a tour by costumed guides who show you around as if you were an 18th-century guest and not a 21st-century tourist.
Our guides—bewigged and corseted to reflect the styles fashionable at the time the palace was built—led us through the apartments of the former duke and duchess, around the ballroom where we were treated to an era-appropriate dance demonstration, down the dining hall (30 meters long with the ability to seat 65 people), and into studies, game rooms, and even bathrooms that were luxurious for the time. The palace, having undergone decades of renovation that is still underway, is a trove of beautifully painted ceilings, delicate porcelain, antique furniture, stoves in rhythmic tilework patterns, and silk wallpaper, the latter of which continues to be made by masters in Moscow, just as some materials were sourced there in the 18th century for the residence of the Dukes of Courland.
In addition to our tour, we were given a crash course on court culture: the language of fans in past times was used to flirt and pass on information to lovers or potential lovers with subtle gestures to indicate a lurking husband, the expectation of a gift, or the message sender's affection. The lesson gave new meaning to the exhibition of fans found in the palace’s dining hall—lacy, gilt, ivory, or silk, these delicate accessories may have signalled the beginning or end to affairs, provided encouragement to a shy gentleman, or stirred juicy gossip.
Mazmežotnes Manor has a different feel. With its warm woods, compact size, and down-to-earth interior choices, its image as lovely and comfortable countryside hotel is solidified. So lovely and comfortable is this manor house that Helen Mirren and members of the Catherine the Great cast stayed here while filming on location at Rundāle Palace. Stepping into the grandest room of the house, you could imagine the empress of acting herself lounging in the claw-foot tub (perhaps with a young man to serve her a sparkling beverage), reclining on the gauze-draped four-poster bed, or having breakfast by the French doors that overlook the yard from the upper floors.
It was at this manor that we were treated to a buffet-style meal of meats, fish, potatoes, vegetables, and local cheeses—all indicative of the quality kitchen and thoughtful menu offerings at the Mazmežotnes—that filled our stomachs as all that we had seen had filled our eyes. The hall in which we were situated was festooned with lights and was complete with a stage perfect for weddings or gatherings of other sorts.
Our last stop was Abgunste Manor, a property auction save with a fairytale story to match its storybook interior. The couple that runs the manor, which is open for guests and events, took a risk when they bought the property without seeing the inside. Now, it’s a shabby-chic palace populated by lucky cats and, in addition to hosting staying visitors, cooperates with artists and produces some art of its own. We got a taste of this encouragement of creativity as half of our group wove flower crowns out of complementary materials and the other filed into the textile workshop to make fabric prints.
A tour of Abgunste demonstrates its Instagrammability: vases, abundant bouquets of flowers, interesting knickknacks, and even an old Victrola occupy corners where mismatched chairs crowd around equally mismatched tables. Handmade details thoughtfully integrated into the overall aesthetic make it one of a kind, while fragrant oil and burning candles infuse the air with perfume.
The manor houses in Latvia, as well as in neighbouring Estonia and Lithuania, have an interesting history. Built by local gentry, often of German heritage, these manors have sometimes fallen into disrepair or seen alternative use, particularly after these countries were annexed by the Soviet Union and their high-status symbolism was sublimated for a public purpose. They were used as schools and hospitals, for storage, or as offices, their decorations sometimes degraded, stripped away, or painted over, their utilitarian functions taming their intended grandeur.
But manor houses like the ones described above are seeing a renaissance. Enterprising owners are finding potential underneath the ruins and resurrecting the dignity of these historic homes. When you travel through the Baltics, you can visit or stay in these remnants of a former era, wander through their parks, or sit peacefully on a terrace as you enjoy thoughtfully arranged scenery. In Latvia, the manor houses will welcome you, teach you something about history, and, most of all, charm you with their dignity, elegance, and endurance" - Kerry Kubilius is an American living in Vilnius, Lithuania. She blogs at winesburglt.com and offers editing services through thesilvervox.com.
Sigulda & Gauja National Park
You can take an organised tour to Gauja National Park but if your up for an adventure, why not go on your own independent tour?
It's really easy to take the train from Riga to Sigulda. You can pay for your ticket on the train and when you get there, take the bus to The Turaida Museum Reserve. Again you can pay on the bus. We took the early train to make the most of the daylight hours then spent the day exploring the reserve, visiting the castle, Gutmanala Grotto with the oldest inscription dating to 1667 and walking over the Gauja River. Enjoying a late lunch/early dinner at Cafe Doma.
Did you know you can get great value city break packages from Wowcher? Check out this one for six nights Riga & Tallinn from £189 inc flights, accommodation and transfers.
I hope you enjoyed reading the A To Z Travel Blog - Latvia and inspired to visit. As always, I would love to read and answer any comments/questions you may have. You can reach me via email, Twitter, and Instagram.
Until next time, happy travels:) x