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How to spend a weekend in Latvia's wild and windswept west

Pair a city break to Riga with a trip through western Latvia, home to unspoilt Baltic beaches, wartime history and wooded waterways.

Cathedral Square and St Peter’s Church in Riga’s medieval old town.

Photograph by Alamy
Published 5 Oct 2021, 15:00 BST

Latvia’s breathtaking geography and colourful cultural patchwork are enough to tempt any traveller seeking unknown adventures. In the cosmopolitan capital, Riga, Baltic and Nordic sensibilities meld with the village-like atmosphere of the Old Town, while grand monuments stud the Soviet-built boulevards. But head west out of the city and the hinterland hits you almost immediately. Forests of oak, birch and linden come right up to the road, the sound of folk songs drifts over wildflower meadows, and white storks soar overhead en route to nests in the highest branches of native pine and spruce trees.

You’ll get the landscape largely to yourself here — little wonder, in a country with only two million citizens. When driving through this western corner of the country, the coast is never far away, and summer days are long and bright, giving you even more time to enjoy the unspoilt, golden-sand beaches that look out across the Baltic Sea towards Estonia and Sweden. It’s easy to cover a good swathe of it in a weekend, and — even better — it won’t cost the world.

Walkers explore Kemeri National Park, west of the city of Jūrmala.

Photograph by Purvubrideji.lv/Kristaps Kiziks

Day one: history & hideaways 


Morning
Take a stroll through Riga’s Esplanāde park, dotted with domed churches and monuments, before exploring the cobbled old town (Vecrīga). St Peter’s Church, with its gothic tower, is surrounded by tight, lamplit streets that lead across the canal to Riga Central Market. All of Riga convenes here — babushkas at the market stalls, hipsters nibbling crescent-shaped piragi bread rolls, and families huddled over bowls of pork dumplings. Out in the marketplace, where vendors hawk flowers and matroyshka dolls, you’ll find grand Gogola Street, where the ruins of the Great Choral Synagogue stand. Back in the centre, and surrounded by parkland, is the Museum of the Occupation, tracing Latvia’s history from the Nazi and Soviet eras to independence in 1991. 

Afternoon
It’s an easy drive across the Daugava River and out of town, heading west on the A10 motorway. With spruce and birch forests to either side, the road winds around the Gulf of Riga to the former resort town of Ķemeri and its eponymous national park. From the rustic welcome lodge, timber boardwalks span miles of ancient bogs splayed out among the reeds. A striking silence percolates through the deserted wilderness, interrupted only by the twittering and pecking of birds. From the lookout tower it’s easy to spot cranes and sandpipers wading in the same mires where Nazi soldiers sank so many tanks during the Second World War; they’re still down there, somewhere. Linger a while to watch the sunset over the marshes. 

Evening
Latvia’s beaches are delightfully undeveloped, and Jūrmala Beach, in the nearby city of Jūrmala, to the west, is one of the longest and loveliest. Rigans of means have long gravitated to the city’s calm, adjacent suburb, Bulduri. 

A century ago, well-to-do Latvians built elaborate clapboard cottages on the leafy streets set back from the sea — some are available for holiday rental, but all are beautiful just to look at on a slow neighbourhood drive. Jūrmala is a fine spot for dinner, too: 36. Line does deliciously light herring sushi, and steamed Baltic Sea mussels cooked in a in white wine sauce. After dinner, carry on an hour west to Kukšas to bed down in Kukšu Manor, a 16th-century menor stuffed with Russian antiques and fine art.

Goldingen Room, a restaurant in Kuldiga that serves wood-fired pizza.

Photograph by Alise Lieldaudziete

Day two: cascades & cuisine


Morning
The best way to enjoy the diverse landscape of western Latvia is by car. From Kukšas, the road unfurls past windmills, stone farmhouses, waterfalls and former train depots where children play among the poplars. Hints of civilisation appear here and there, in the neighbouring villages of Vāne, with its white stucco church, and Kabile, where an elegantly peeling manor is home to a boutique winery. The road here is usually almost empty, and without much warning, the town of Kuldiga appears before you on the Venta River. Look to your left as you cross the red-brick bridge and you’ll see the Venta Rapid waterfall. It’s around 7ft at its highest point but over 200 metres wide — making it the widest waterfall in Europe.

Afternoon
In spring and autumn, Latvia’s Baltic salmon seem to defy gravity attempting to clear Venta’s rapids. The spectacle musters quite a crowd on Kuldīga’s waterside cafe terraces, and some people even climb down and walk along the waterfall ridge — a slippery endeavour. Next, head to the old timber village up on the bank, once a key Hanseatic trading port.Centuries ago, when this land was part of the Duchy of Courland, the people of Kuldīga (a town in the west) colonised Tobago in the Caribbean, and spent their newly acquired riches building sprawling villas and red-roofed townhouses, now magnificently restored. Spot the finest around the main drag, then stop for a wood-fired pizza at the Goldingen Room. 

Evening
Back in Riga, the place to stay is the Dome Hotel, a former merchant’s house in the old town. Expect sumptuous bed linen, a traditional sauna where staff swat you with branches, and a top-rated restaurant run by a veteran of Copenhagen’s Noma. Another dining option, set in a former barracks, is 3 Pavāru Restorāns (‘three-chef restaurant’). It’s named for the trio of Latvian chefs who do magical things here with all manner of ingredients, such as ostrich, smoked catfish and octopus. Dinner starts with your server literally painting the tabletop à la Jackson Pollock with five different dipping sauces for your bread, and ends with dessert wine that arrives in a cloud of dry ice.

The forest meets the beach at Jūrkalne, a village a short drive west of Kuldīga.

Photograph by Alamy

Three more Pilgrimage trails in Latvia


Latvia has created its own stretch of the Camino de Santiago — Camino Latvia — which runs diagonally across the country. Mostly flat, it can be tackled in 18 stages from Valka, bordering Estonia, to Žagarė, across the Lithuanian border. Here are three of the best. 

Riga to Jaunmārupe
Riga sits two-thirds of the way along the 350-mile pilgrimage route. Still, most international visitors will start here and dip into the final six stages through western Latvia. The first 10-mile stretch leaves Riga’s St Jacob Catholic Cathedral and slices across the pretty, pastel-hued old town before crossing the Daugava River. Pedestrian and bicycle paths weave through the leafy residential suburbs that segue into hobby farms. Soon they meet up with the Mārupīte River and hug the riverbanks toward Jaunmārupe, a town of Soviet-style brutalist architecture and asymmetric, modernist houses. 

Jaunmārupe to Tīreļi
Serious walkers might opt to tackle the 16 miles onwards to Tīreļi. The path ducks into the woods just outside Jaunmārupe and crosses acres of birch forest in the Cenas Tīrelis nature reserve. Halfway along, it meets a former First World War battlefield, where Latvian soldiers vanquished the Germans at Christmas in 1916. Near Tīreļi, on a gravel path amid fields of wildflowers, is an observation tower with views over the treetops to the sea, while pin-straight paths stretch through the woods to the town’s crossroads. Just beyond Tīreļi, walk across the Lielupe River on a truss bridge overlooking the countryside.

Līvbērze to Dobele
The easiest section of the Camino unfolds 11 miles from the sleepy village of Līvbērze, an hour’s drive from Riga. Start at the town’s only crossroads and follow the old trackway to the artfully peeling one-room church in Bērze. Empty country roads carry on across the plains — just off-piste in a heritage farmhouse is the Pikšas museum, devoted to agricultural livestock and farm implements. After a few hours, Dobele emerges from the grasslands. The gothic ruins of Dobele Castle — built in the 14th century during the Livonian Crusade — rise dramatically over a bend in the River Bērze.  

A change of tune

Call-and-response folk singing is a custom of Latvia’s Suiti people, a Catholic minority. Proceeding like a rap battle, one might begin, ‘You’re not wearing socks, you must be poor!’ and a possible response could be, ‘Your nostrils are so wide, you can smell someone a mile off!’

Riga Black Balsam is a potent herbal brew in ceramic bottles loved by the locals in Riga, the capital of Latvia.

Photograph by Alamy

Top 3 Latvian tipples


1. Bitters
When toasting with a hearty ‘priekā!’, Latvians look less often to the mighty grape than to spirits infused with birch, cranberry and other local flora. Most bartenders keep a bottle of the local vodka-based, black balsam-infused bitters, and serve it with heated blackberry juice and cinnamon for a version of the hot toddy. 

2. Wine
Latvia’s largest winery, family-run Abavas, 40 miles west of Riga, offers tours and tastings of its sweet rhubarb wines and slightly fizzy ciders. They pop up on menus across the country, in upmarket establishments such as Barents wine bar in Riga. 

3. Beer
One of Latvia’s top microbreweries, Labietis produces 40 varieties of beer, classified by their strength, from the simple Grey Family of 5% ABV lagers and ales to the 10% Purple Family. Labietis operates in a former factory enclave off trendy Miera Iela road that’s recently emerged as a hub for beer halls. 

Five scenic walks in Latvia


1. Abava valley Nature Park
In western Latvia, trails veer off the road between Kandava and Renda and head into the Abava Valley. The prettiest connects the town of Sabile and the village Rumbciems, along the Abava River. Also located here is Zviedru Cepure, a popular Nordic skiing spot in winter.

2. Bulduri
Half an hour from central Riga, the neighbourhood of Bulduri, in Jūrmala, offers a 15-mile sandy beach. You can admire the sunset well into the night here (after 10pm in summer), as well as explore the ornate wooden houses on the streets behind the beach.

3. Priedaine
Quieter and more rustic than neighbouring Bulduri, Priedaine has a three-mile trail anchored by a sauna at one end and a giant dune at the other. The pine forest thins out in sleepy Vārnukrogs, where you can take a dip in the Lielupe River.

4. Kalnciema Iela  
In the past few decades, many of the wooden Victorian buildings on Kalnciema Iela — the main drag in Riga’s Āgenskalns neighbourhood — have been restored, with some now cafes or craft beer pubs. On Saturdays, an artisan market pops up halfway along its length.

5. Miera iela 
Start at the twin cemeteries in Riga’s Brasa neighbourhood — one for Russians, one for Baltic Germans — and stroll south along Miera Iela. The street is a veritable timeline of Latvian architecture, home to ramshackle wood churches, art nouveau mansion blocks and art deco shopfronts. It’s also where bohemian Riga comes to eat, drink and shop. 

More info

Katkevich
latvia.travel

How to do it

AirBaltic flies direct to Riga from Heathrow and Gatwick. To explore the countryside, it’s essential to hire a car (try Holiday Autos, from £13 a day). 

In Riga, double rooms at Dome Hotel start at £150, B&B. Double rooms at Kukšu Manor start at £162, B&B.  

Love food and travel? Taste the world at the National Geographic Traveller Food Festival, our immersive culinary event taking place on 16-17 July 2022 at London’s Business Design Centre. Find out more and book your tickets.

Published in the October 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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