Most of Latvia is an undiscovered wonderland of medieval castles, pristine forests, and centuries-old buildings in all sorts of styles. Here are our picks for the 10 most beautiful towns.
Riga is so stunning and has so much to offer the seeker of urban beauty. The old town, which is registered on the UNESCO World Heritage list, has all the winding streets and cobblestones that you could possibly want. A walk through the Art Nouveau district will give you some of the best examples of that architectural style in the whole continent. If you happen to be around on a sunny day, the soaring grandeur of the Freedom Monument will blow you away.
Heading west from Riga into the Abava Valley in the Talsi region, you’ll soon find Sabile. This is a town dating back to the 13th century that is home to the northernmost open-air vineyard in the world. The residents of Sabile celebrate their vineyard with an annual Wine Festival that takes place every July – just in case you need help deciding when to visit. Another draw of this charming little town is the Open Air Museum at the Pedale Manor, which was created by Latvian sculptor Ojars Feldbergs. It is where they exhibit modern art installations and hold various cultural events. The Abava Valley is also a fascinating site for those interested in exploring archeological sites, as there are many old burial sites and cemeteries.
Going farther towards the Baltic sea, you will eventually come upon Kuldiga, which is known throughout the country for its beautiful architecture. In it you’ll find the Old Town, built up to join the Kuldiga Castle in the 17th and 18th centuries. This has the Aleksupite River running within its walls. The river itself offers several sites worth visiting. One of these sites is the Venta Rapid, the widest natural rapids in Europe where fisherman used to catch salmon throwing themselves up in the air. There is also a waterfall that, at 4.5 meters high, is the tallest in the country and the Kuldiga brick bridge, where they have an annual naked race to coincide with the light Midsummer nights.
First mentioned in writing in 1230, Kandava is a city where it’s easy to feel the history of the place as you meander around the old center. While the fort that it was built up around has now been reduced to ruins, there is a tower that remains from the 14th century. The Old Town Square and adjoining Promenade, where you can easily find comfortable cafes and craftsmen selling their wares, are the best places to go to feel the spirit of the city. Kandava also has its fair share of notable architecture, including a very high concentration of stone buildings and a number of Neo-Gothic townhouses.
Talsi, in Latvia’s western region, is a place where natural and manmade beauty meld to form an inviting site for any visitor. Often called the Town of Nine Hills, Talsi was built up to incorporate both the hills that grant it its nickname and the two lakes that give it some of its peaceful atmosphere. There are a number of well-maintained parks with fruit trees, which are ideal places to spend warm summer afternoons or witness the changing of the leaves in autumn. Talsi keeps its cultural heritage very close, so there are frequent performances by the Talsi Folklore Group. There is also a lovely midsummer celebration held every year.
First built in the late 1800s by a German baron, Pavilosta grew and developed first as a manufacturer of ships and later as a fishing harbor. The Baltic Sea is never more than a few minutes away in this cozy seaside town. It’s one of the best places you can go to get delicious fish, either fresh or smoked in the traditional fashion of the fishermen whose ancestors have lived in the region for centuries. This is also one of the sunniest areas in Latvia, even during the winter when the days don’t last so long. The city underwent some difficulty during the communist period in the 20th century, but it has since rebounded to become a fishing center and worthwhile place to visit.
A town in central Latvia not to be missed is Cesis. Originally planned and built in the 13th century, Cesis is full of important Latvian history and fascinating historical sites. The Cesis Castle, which has had many owners over the centuries, is now the site of the Cesis History Museum. You can also visit the castle park, a relaxing place to wander around and enjoy the outdoors. You can find medieval remnants of the original old city in the town, including St John’s Church from the 13th century and the ruins of the Livonian Order’s castle. Perhaps most importantly for Latvians, the town holds the memory of the 1919 Battle of Cesis. This is where Latvian and Estonian forces came out victorious over the Germans in the Latvian War of Independence.
With archeological evidence showing that Dobele has been inhabited continuously since the Stone Age, it is perhaps no surprise there are numerous places of interest in this town in Latvia’s Zemgale region. You can check out the ruins of the Dobele Castle or the town’s old churches. But, it is possibly best to plan your visit around one of its famous festivals. They really like an opportunity to celebrate in Dobele no matter what the season. You can go to the Lilac Festival in spring to give your sense of smell a real treat. Alternatively, try the Ancient Castle Festival in the summer, the Apple Festival in the autumn, or the whimsical Snowmen Parade in the winter.
You can find Kraslava on the southeast border that Latvia shares with Belarus, not far from beautiful nature reserves and parks. Originally built up as a hill fort in the 13th century, Kraslava eventually became a Jesuit and Catholic stronghold in a mostly Protestant area Craftsmen in the area produced goods that were in high demand across Poland and Germany. The Latgale region, of which Kraslava is a part, is also worth a look just because of its cultural heritage. They speak Latgalian, a dialect of Latvian, and it is worth exploring here soon, while the region’s particularities are still fairly apparent.
Ludza, the oldest town in the whole country, is fascinating from a cultural point of view. Mentioned in historical chronicles dating as far back as the 10th century, Ludza is home to the ruins of the once-great Ludza Castle. This functioned as the far eastern outpost of the Livonian Order. As it is very close to the Russian border, this was a crossroads for people of many different ethnic groups, including Latgalians, Belarussians and Poles. There was even a group of Estonians who emigrated in about the 17th century and managed to retain their Estonian language and cultural traditions. If you’re interested in the area’s history, check out the Ludza History Museum, including the open-air section.
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