Up and coming Latvia has much to offer travelers with an interest in traditional folk arts and culture, but is also especially appealing to those who have fallen under the spell of Europe's cities, with their special blend of the medieval and modern. The capital city of Riga, founded in the 12th century, enjoys an enviable location along the Daugava River and boasts some of Europe’s (and indeed the entire world's) finest examples of art nouveau architecture, as well as lush parks and dynamic nightlife. Charming ‘Old Town’, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is dotted with cozy cafes and shops that offer Latvian porcelain, wood carvings, and amber jewelry. Almost as delightful as the whimsical architecture of Old Town is the fanciful names of the edifices, including the Three Brothers, the House of Cats, the Bell of the Wretched Sinners and the House of Blackheads.
Latvians have a rich and well preserved cultural heritage and identity. There are numerous national festivals celebrated on a grand scale, the most important being the Midsummer Solstice festival (Jani), which starts with the Grass Market in Riga on June 22. A quadrennial Song and Dance festival has been organized in Riga since 1873, and draws tens of thousands of singers and dancers from all over Latvia. For opera lovers, Riga annually hosts an International Opera Festival, which fans from all over the world.
Riga's Christmas market is also a well-established tradition. Beginning in the last week of November, the market attracts visitors from around Europe with delightful handmade arts and crafts, textiles, jewelry and specialty food items, such as hot mulled wine, gingerbread and other treats.
Outside of Riga, visitors to Latvia should not miss Rundale Palace. A fine example of the baroque style, this 18th-century palace is Latvia's version of Versailles and was designed by the architect responsible for the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia. Gauja National Park, known as "Little Switzerland," is famous for some of the most beautiful scenery in all of Latvia. Numerous caves pierce the red sandstone cliffs and the park is home to the legendary Turaida and Sigulda Castles.
The Baltic Riviera, or Jurmala, stretches along the Baltic Sea coastline of Riga Bay and is Latvia's most famous resort town. With its broad white sandy beaches, distinctive wooden cottages with intricately carved décor and a fashionable promenade it makes a nice day trip from Riga. A tour of the Patarei Sea Fortress reveals the turbulent history of the Soviet KGB era. Built as a sea fortress in 1840, Patarei served as a Soviet prison from 1919 until its closure only a few years ago.
Interested in exploring Latvia or the other Baltic countries? Please contact our Elegant Journeys team for additional information.
Photos courtesy of: Lindblad Expeditions and Latvia Tourism Board