Latvia has been on my holiday ‘bucket list’ for a long time so I decided to take the plunge. It’s an overlooked Baltic destination which has many of the ingredients of a great holiday.
It is a country famous for its forests, lakes and castles as well as boasting a lovely coastline with fabulous beaches which go on for mile after and mile.
Day One – Towns and Beaches
Our flight from Leeds took us to Latvia’s capital, Riga on RyanAir – it’s a short two hour hop across the North Sea. Getting up at 3am on a Sunday morning to catch an early flight wasn’t the best experience in the world but at least it meant we arrived by lunchtime.
Riga airport is pretty relaxed so it wasn’t long before we were sitting in our hire car setting off on our Latvian adventure.
We were too early to check into our hotel so killed time by heading to the beach at nearby Jurmala, 10 miles away. After all, the weather was glorious and we were in full holiday mode – and Jurmala is famous for having a huge beach which stretches for miles. It seemed like the perfect plan.
What we hadn’t banked on was getting stuck in Latvia’s worst traffic jam, a giant queue which moved at snail’s pace towards the coast for over an hour. To make things worse, we hadn’t realised that the whole of Latvia’s 1.8 million population seemed to be heading there too because it was the last day of their summer holidays.
Things went downhill further when we realised that there is a new toll system on the motorway to Jurmala and we had no coins to pay for a ticket in the unmanned ticket machines. There were also huge, haphazard queues which were completely out of control.
Anyone buying a ticket had to leave their car and risk life and limb to buy one from the machines which were in the path of oncoming traffic. Terrifying!
Finally, 90 minutes later, we escaped from the terrible melee and were back on the road to Jurmala, shaken and stressed.
The signs to the beach ran out and we overshot the town by about two miles. Luckily the beach is so long that we managed to find a quieter section, park up in a residential street and take a shortcut through woodland down to the golden sands.
Although it’s a lovely spot, the sight of several thousand people stripped almost naked made us feel like we’d gatecrashed a nudist party. But we joined the fun, enjoyed a large ice cream and the world instantly seemed like a better place… even though we were wearing far too much clothing.
The restorative power of ice cream is pretty amazing – so we flopped on a seat with great sea views and a gentle Baltic breeze.
Day Two – Riga Street Life
Our car trip back to Riga was surprisingly straight-forward, but it wasn’t long before we were having yet another stress-out over Latvia’s traffic system.
Riga is not a great place to take a hire car because the Old Town is almost completely pedestrianised – and guess where our hotel was located? Slap bang in the middle of the Old Town.
Nor do I recommend dragging two heavy suitcases half a mile across cobbled streets but that was the only option. In the meantime my partner Tony was driving in ever decreasing circles trying to find a parking space on a busy weekend when the only people not sunbathing at Jurmala were shopping in Riga.
A laughing parking attendant also tried to charge us £400 to leave the car for a week. Not a good start…
We’d almost despaired of finding anywhere to park when the hotel suggested trying the waterfront free parking area. Bingo! Forty minutes later, Tony and I were reunited at the hotel in our beautiful room which made us forget the parking stress.
We breathed a huge sigh of relief and decided that we needed a large bottle of wine and a giant plate of Latvian food to reduce our stress levels. Our holiday had finally begun.
Over the road from the hotel was a lovely restaurant called Domini Canes where we sat outside, enjoyed the Riga vibe and laughed the night away. A large plate of duck cooked in Latvian berries and a juicy, fruity sauce arrived and it was just the ticket.
Next morning, we took to the streets of Old Town Riga where I walked myself into the ground. A tour of the Old Town Square and the wonderfully named House of the Blackheads left me in need of a coffee and cake.
Riga has lovely parks with a canal running through the heart of the them, so it was time to watch the world go by from the comfort of a quiet canal-side cafe.
I toyed with the idea of paddle boarding on the canal but instead we took a detour to see if the hire car was OK. To our horror, it was blocked in by a dozen cars.
Trying to avoid further stress, we shrugged our shoulders, laughed and walked back to the hotel via the fringes of the Old Town, passing the down-at-heel castle (being restored), town wall and city gates.
Back at the hotel, we rested our weary feet before hitting the town for dinner in yet another Latvian restaurant with an outdoor terrace.
Latvian food is a mix of healthy and fatty so I tried to choose wisely to keep the calories in check. They’re keen on deep fried ‘cheese and bread’ dishes plus ‘zeppelins’ which are giant meat-stuffed potato dumplings in a sour cream, onion and bacon sauce.
But I ignored those fatty foods and went for the healthy option, trying the pan-fried ostrich breasts. The waiter explained how Latvia is investing heavily in ostrich farming. I guess that it makes a change from pork, another much featured Latvian staple.
The ostrich dish was excellent and we washed it down with a couple of beers. Wine in restaurants is expensive in Riga so we opted for local crafts beers instead.
Day 3 – A Trip to the Countryside
Day Three was supposed to be a gentle trip to the Latvian countryside but we were worried about being able to move our blocked car.
Fortunately we managed to liberate the vehicle but not before ringing two owners who’d left mobile numbers on their car windscreens. A bit annoying.
Today’s destination was Kemari National Park, a few miles south west of Riga. It’s a nature lovers’ dream with its mixture of woodland and wetlands whilst the nearby town of Kemari is famous for its mud baths and springs.
Kemari park is renowned for its otherworldly scenery and pristine boggy habitats… it’s one of Latvia’s most famous tourist sites and is highly ‘Instagrammable’, especially at sunset.,
This road trip proved more successful and we managed to get there without any major incidents, apart from missing the turn off. The Kemeri Bog is not well signposted so, if you take this trip, make sure to check the exact location on local maps and don’t trust your GPS.
There’s a choice of two boardwalk trails – a short, quick route and the more rewarding, 3-km circular walk which takes around 50-60 minutes to complete. We took the longer route which takes you through a remarkable landscape of woods, stunted trees, raised bogs and reed beds.
In spring you can see the many berries which Latvia is famous for, including cranberries, blueberries, crowberries and cloudberries. Suddenly I realised why Latvian food comes with berries on almost every dish.
Summer isn’t the best time to see the berry bushes but you’ll discover a wealth of other plants and vegetation here, mostly small and low on the ground .
The highlight of the bog walk is the panoramic view from the observation tower deck from where you can pick out the various ponds, lakes and stunted, scrub-like trees.
I’m told that this is a great spot to watch birds but we were too late for the cranes who’d migrated south – and too early for the flocks of geese which winter here.
We did spot a single jay – yes, just one bird!
We headed back to Riga later that afternoon – a 45 minute drive – and took a small detour to Kipsara located near the Vansu Tilts bridge into Riga Old Town.
It lies on the opposite side of the River Daugava and boasts many fascinating, old wooden houses overlooking the waterfront and a small marina.
Nearby is the Zanis Lipke Museum which is hidden behind these riverfront houses – look out for its tiny back lane entrance. The impressive modern museum building is built on the site of the original house where the Lipke family provided a shelter and escape rooms for Riga’s Jews during World War Two.
After returning to the hotel from the Jewish museum, I wanted to find the synagogue in Riga Old Town so I walked through a maze of back streets to find this old building.
It’s built in Art Nouveau style and jammed into a tight corner along an alley way. Fortuitously, this is why the synagogue survived the Nazi occupation of Latvia.
The Nazis destroyed the main Jewish synagogue but this building survived because it was ‘cheek by jowl’ with the Old Town and the Germans feared they’d burn down the city centre, if they torched it.
At this point, the weather turned nasty, the heavens opened and there was a huge thunder and lightning storm. I ran for cover but got drenched and managed to loose my expensive sunglasses.
The only thing to do was to meet Tony for an early evening drink at the local Sports Bar where we watched the torrential rain whilst drinking Latvian beers.
Fortunately, this was the only bad weather on our trip but I still feel sore about my sunglasses which were washed away in the deluge!
Whilst sitting in the bar, I made the startling discovery that Riga is famous for inventing the Christmas tree. Back in 1510 local merchants decorated a tree with artificial flowers in the market square and the townsfolk took to dancing around it… and the rest is history.
Day 4 – Drive to Daugavpils
Day four and it’s time to explore further afield – our destination is Daugavpils, the country’s second city which lies a three hour drive to the south east.
Daugavpils is known as the most Russian city in Latvia, lying close to the border, and we’re keen to discover how it differs from Riga.
For once, the traffic is light and the car journey takes us through mile upon mile of coniferous forests and lush farmland dotted with tiny villages. It’s an easy drive.
It feels like we’ve reached ‘the back of the back of beyond’. But it’s no surprise that Latvia has a serious rural depopulation problem in this area, known as Latgate.
The country has lost nearly half of its population, mainly young people, since it joined the European Union. Latgate has been one of the worst hit areas because it is so remote.
We arrive on the edge of Daugavpils and enter a very strange military zone through what a huge series of walls and tunnels . We gasp at the remarkable landscape… it’s as if time has stood still.
This is the former Citadel or fortress originally built in 1810 by the Russians to defend the city against attack from Napoleon’s army.
Today the old fortress remains an impressive sight with its star-shaped battlements, drained moat and abandoned buildings. The impressive arsenal building has been converted into the brilliant Mark Rothko Centre in honour of the city’s most famous son
Rothko was born in Daugavpils and emigrated to the USA with his family when he was 10-years-old but he always remembered how Latvia shaped his life as a boy.
The Rothko Centre is a striking gallery, beautifully presented and featuring many clever interactive exhibits. We spent a couple of hours looking around its galleries including the five original Rothko works on display. There are also changing exhibitions by other contemporary artists.
The biggest surprise was that we seemed to be the only visitors looking around this massive complex – there’s no annoying queues like The Louvre or The Met in NYC.
After checking into our hotel room at the Rothko Arts Centre (yes, you can stay there!), we enjoyed a quick beer in the lovely Arsenal bar nearby. Prices in Daugavpils are a lot cheaper than in Riga which was a bonus.
Later that evening, we walked a couple of hundred metres to the tram stop outside the fortress walls and took the short ride into Daugavpils ‘new town’.
The trams looked like they were straight out of a Russian spy novel with no advertising, old-fashioned seating and tons of Soviet era character.
But the tram conductor was friendly and we seemed to hit it off with the locals who sounded very Russian compared with those we’d met in Riga.
Daugavpils has a slightly dowdy look by night and feels quite dark so we dived into an underground cellar restaurant and bar recommended on Trip Advisor.
Gubernators is a fun place, decorated with Soviet era and memorabilia, and boasting a massive menu which majors in Latvian and Russian cuisine.
The ‘Gubernators’ Special’ turned out to be a Latvian take on the Teesside ‘Parmo’ – deep fried braided pork fillet smothered in cheesy sauce and cream with paprika. Delicious!
Day 5 – Hidden History
Today we’re back on the road again. Waking up with the sun streaming into my bedroom at the Mark Rothko Centre Apartments was like a dream come true. This was only bettered by my breakfast – ‘out of this world’ banana and berry pancakes with sour cream, a local speciality.
But it was almost time to say goodbye to Daugavpils so we took a quick drive into the city centre to discover the old Dvinsk of Mark Rothko.
You can still see the boulevard where his family lived – Shosseynaya Street – now largely derelict. Over the road there’s a sculpture to the great Latvian-American painter which overlooks the River Daugava. These old streets are pretty much untouched – there’s barely any tourist information.
Back in the car, we headed back to Riga but took one last look at the town’s waterfront, driving over the bridge onto a road which follows the flood defences.
There are great views but we become aware of a very strange vibe – it’s not long before I realise why when we see a small Jewish memorial on the roadside.
When I got out the car to look around, a chilling feeling struck me because this was the site of the concentration camp where thousands of Jews were taken and exterminated in World War Two. Today it’s a high security prison with a high perimeter wall that snakes around the huge complex.
It is a terrifying sight and a shameful hidden piece of Holocaust history in Latvia.
Back on the road, we decided to make a detour – into Lithuania. This was only because Tony wanted to add a new country to his list so he could remain ahead of me in our ‘how many countries we’ve visited’ competition!
We dived back over the border – and were surprised to discover very little red tape. We even spoke to one of the friendliest border guards ever. I got the impression that they don’t get many visitors around these parts.
Our next stop was Biržai, a charming small town with a lake, manor house and historic brewery. After a quick trip to a local shop, we ate artisan bread and Lithuanian cheese by the lakeside – a relaxing place for a stop-off.
Then we headed back over the border to Latvia on our homeward run to Riga. This time there was no police checkpoint and we flew across the open border, hardly noticing the change of country.
After dumping the car in another slightly dodgy parking area, we enjoyed a long nap back at our hotel. Tired but keen to enjoy the nightlife, we staggered out to one of the nearest local restaurants – a chain called Ogle.
On the outside terrace, you can ogle the passers-by which is perhaps how it got its name? The food is decent and reasonably priced although, like everywhere else, the service can be a bit slow – this time we waited an hour for our food to arrive.
Day 6 – Discovering a KGB Nuclear Bunker
Earlier in the week, we’d booked ourselves onto a tour of the KGB bunker at Ligatne, an hour’s drive from Riga. Another trip out of town in the car was perhaps a little over ambitious but it was too late to change our plans.
I became over excited and suggested we drove even further out of Riga to a historic town called Cēsis which is famous for its lovely medieval castle.
The traffic was very busy getting out of Riga and then we hit a scary section of roadworks where the A2 contracted and swerved into weird directions with little notice. At one point it turned into a rubble track before rejoining the main highway. This went on for mile after mile.
Exhausted, we parked by the roadside and reviewed our plans. Going to Cēsis looked like it was going to take another hour or two – and we couldn’t face the stress. Instead, we turned off the A2 and hit the country lanes of Gauja National Park which at one point turned into dirt roads… but we ploughed on despite the terrible rutting sound as the car bounced around.
Eventually we arrived in Līgatne, a picturesque village with an old paper mill and strange caves carved into its rocky hills. We spent an hour ‘decompressing’ after the awful drive before eating lunch by the village pond and having a quick wander around its wine caves.
Our next stop was the former KGB nuclear bunker, a few miles up the road. We’d been advised to book -“English tours run every Friday at 3” said their receptionist when we rang up, but it was unclear if we’d booked or not. It was ‘lost in translation’.
We arrived early, bought tickets for the tour and spent 20 minutes waiting in the lobby which is actually the entrance to a health rehabilitation centre with people staggering by on crutches and zimmer frames. Completely surreal.
This had been the Russians’ ruse… hide your nuclear bunker underground, below a health centre with grannies sitting outside in wheelchairs, and nobody will notice!
When you go below ground, it’s like walking back in time to the Cold War… the Soviets left everything when they departed after Latvia won its independence.
The guided tour is incredible and I can’t recommend it too highly. Spending an hour in the bunker’s maze of corridors and war rooms is an amazing experience.
Trying on the KGB hats and original gas masks left behind by the Russians is one of the most’s surreal experiences you’ll ever take part in.
Back outside, the fresh air felt invigorating after the stuffiness of the bunker… but sadly it was time to drive back to Riga.
We took a different route home through some beautiful countryside with more bumpy but well-maintained roads. Reaching a river, we drove onto an ancient-looking floating pontoon operated by a local whose sole job is to be ‘bridge keeper’.
He uses hand power to propel the platform across the water with just one car being taken across at a time. Magnificent.
The journey back to Riga was less stressful and we arrived back in time for another siesta – something I can recommend after a driving tour of Latvia.
We were so tired that we returned to our local restaurant, Ogli, for another meal, a bottle of wine and yet more people watching. The end to a busy but surprising day, even though we never got to Cesis and its historic sights.
Day 7 – Out of Town Riga
It’s our final day and we’re hell-bent on seeing everything that we might have missed, starting with the world famous Art Nouveau quarter just outside Riga Old Town.
Riga has one of the best collections of Art Nouveau buildings in Europe so I set off to complete the ‘grand tour’ on foot – and on my own. Tony was feeling like he’d endured too much ‘driving around’ and “looking at stuff” so he stayed back in the hotel for a well-deserved rest,
It’s an easy walk to the other side of town where the Art Nouveau quarter boasts highly decorated houses and buildings. There are three main streets and you can”t miss them because they’re always jammed with coach parties.
I avoided the crowds by diving into an authentic Art Nouveau House which has been converted into a small museum. Its grand entrance hall boasts an impressive spiral staircase which takes you up to an apartment once lived in by a famous Latvian artist.
You can see the artist’s studio but the rest of the house is very disappointing and could do with refurbishment and better curation. It only takes about 10 minutes to see the whole apartment.
I rejoined Tony later at the Freedom Monument where we caught a local bus to the Riga Motor Museum on the outskirts of town.
This is a fantastic museum with a beautifully presented collection of vintage cars and interactive exhibits in English – it’s great fun, especially if you’re a motor head.
The highlight is the KGB Car Collection with a selection of vehicles used by Soviet ‘big wigs’ during the Russian occupation of Latvia. The stories behind the cars are also incredible.
After Latvian lunch in their smart cafe, we decided to make a small detour to the Jewish memorial before catching the bus back from the nearby Bikernieki Forest
It took us about 20 minutes to walk there and almost as long to find the Jewish memorial which I really wanted to see. It isn’t signposted so we were totally reliant on Google and local maps on our phones. What could possibly go wrong?
Needless to say, it’s harder to navigate to the memorial than we’d thought… but we did get there eventually after taking a few wrong turns. We knew that we’d gone wrong when we found ourselves on the motor sports racing track which snakes through the middle of the woods.
Fortunately it wasn’t a racing day and we were able to take a short cut across the track!
Back in the woods, we found a few clues to the Jewish memorial’s whereabouts – a series of markers and grassy pits with large memorial stones. This was where thousands of Jews were taken and exterminated during World War Two.
It’s chilling to stand here and reflect on the horrors of the Holocaust – this was one of the worst war crimes perpetrated by the Nazis. I wondered what the local dog walkers felt as they strolled by, looking indifferent to what happened here.
Returning to the main road, we realised that we were lost and spent ages trying to find a bus stop, only to discover it was the wrong one as our number 41 sped by without stopping.
After a half hour ‘huffy spell’ and a 15 minute walk in silence, we found the proper tram stop down a residential street.
The Key To Latvia
That night, we reflected on our adventures over dinner at the ‘Key to Riga’ where a traditional lute band played a few folksy tunes and we tucked into ‘olde worlde’ food.
We laughed about the terrible driving experiences, reminisced about our favourite places and talked about what had surprised us about Latvia.
Was it the continuing legacy of the Russians? The quiet countryside – and the fact that half the country is covered by forests’? Or the many rural villages with Jewish massacre memorials?
Perhaps it was the whole experience of being in a small country where culture and heritage matters more than almost anything else. A place where freedom and independence is valued so heavily that they love being part of the European Union…
Latvia is undoubtedly a good place for a holiday, but there’s much more to ponder if you open your eyes to what we can learn from this country’s history.
This is a nation which has been overrun by so many different countries – Poland, Germany, Sweden, Russia and the USSR, to name a few.
Being part of the latest stage in Latvia’s journey as it grapples with being independent is something to treasure as you catch your flight back home.
It’s a great place to go on a journey of discovery, if you’re exploring the Baltic countries… just don’t hire a car if you want a stress free holiday!