Can you think of a place during the holidays that everyone seems to stop at, as they drive to and from their getaway? Somewhere to grab lunch or just pause at to break up the long drive? Well in Latvia, that stop is the small town of Kuldiga. Not exactly halfway between the popular beaches on Latvia’s southern coast and the capital Riga, Kuldiga seems like the nation’s premier rest stop. But geography isn’t the real reason people stop here. No, the real reason they stop is to admire and soak in the incredible Venta Waterfalls.
Found in Latvia’s west, Kuldīga may only be a small town but it packs a fair punch. Kuldīga only has roughly 13,000 residents but it was once an important regional town and even the capital of a Duchy for a time. Today it is one of the main tourist destinations within the region of Kurzeme, thanks to the Venta Rapids, but also its old town charm.
Let’s cut to the chase, shall we? Kuldiga’s number one attraction and the reason so many tourists stop there, is the Venta Rapids. Known in Latvian as Ventas Rumba, these falls may not be the highest or have the greatest volume, but they are the widest falls in Europe. At 249 metres wide, these rapids span the width of the Venta River that flows out to the Baltic Sea.
It’s not just the width of the rapids that makes it beautiful. Firstly, the rapids flow through thick patches of reeds and grassy rocks, making for quite a vibrant scene. There’s also the annual opportunity to watch fish try to leap the rapids swimming up-stream during the breeding season.
Just downstream of the rapids is the grand Old Brick Bridge, a red brick bridge that spans the river and leads into Kuldiga. This bridge is actually the longest of its type in Europe and really adds some manmade character to the beautiful natural scene by the river.
Aside from admiring the Venta Rapids from the many viewpoints or the distinguished bridge nearby, visitors are actually quite keen to cross them. While some are content to go for a swim beneath them, many adventurers souls choose to march through the water and cross to the bank closest to town. I wimped out and didn’t cross the rapids, in part because I had my camera with me and didn’t want to risk it.
It is for all these reasons that so many people stop at Kuldiga on their way to and from the southern seaside. Sadly it seems not that many visitors choose to actually venture into town. From what I saw, many people simply park at the rapids, spend time there, grab some food and head on their way again. But trust me, there is other things to see in Kuldiga.
Somewhat overshadowed by its neighbouring attraction but still impressive is the Alekšupīte Waterfall. At 4.5m high, the waterfall is the highest in Latvia and lies near where the Alekšupīte River flows into the Venta River. This artificial waterfall has a bit of an industrial feel to it as it used to service the now abandoned mill. Still, it has a certain feel to it that complements other parts of town.
Upstream, the Alekšupīte River is far smaller than the Venta and flows mostly unobtrusively through town. Every once in a while as you wander about, you’ll find it sneaking between houses. If you keep coming across it in a short time, it almost give the town a sense of a series of canals like you’d find in the Netherlands or somewhere.
An aspect of Kuldiga that I think gets overlooked is the architecture and atmosphere you find walking through its old town. While there are fringes of modernity in Kuldiga, the centre of town is very much its old town. With a combination of red brick and traditional wood panel houses, Kuldiga actually gave off a bit of a frontier feel to me.
Walking down Liepājas ilea, the main pedestrian street, a lot of the architecture made me think of towns in the old west or maybe more gold rush places like Sovereign Hill in Victoria, Australia. It’s honestly hard to put my finer on why, perhaps they’re from similar eras, but that’s the vibe I was getting.
Either way, I’m always happy to explore somewhere that makes me think and try to figure out its era or influence. I particularly liked the use of the red brick in town, especially for the little bridges, as they seem to pop out at you a little.
When you get into the back streets of Kuldiga, you start to come across some of the more world-weary buildings. In other places this might seem like somewhere to avoid, but I often like finding these parts where everything has that “lived-in” quality. I think one of the great things about visiting Kuldiga is that it gives you such a contrast to Riga, with its immaculate Art Nouveau buildings. Here you find more humble buildings immersed in a nice natural environment and it has a charm all of its own.
At the end of Liepājas ilea you’ll find the lovely town square, complete with fountain for kids to play in. On the square are some of the most elegant buildings in town, including the town hall and tourist information centre. Just off the square are also several cafes and restaurants with outdoor seating areas where you can get a coffee or lunch.
Overlooking the banks of the Venta River are the elegant and peaceful Castle Park. Where once a castle stood in Kuldiga, now you can find a park that runs over the contours the castle left behind. The castle dated back to 1242, but today there are only some fragments of the stone walls left behind. The park also contains a local museum, water jets in the moat and some manicured floral gardens.
Staying in Kuldīga
Despite many visitors choosing to only pass through Kuldiga on their road trips, I have to say I do think it warrants an overnight stay. Spending a night in Kuldiga means you’ll have time to visit the Venta Rapids but also see the town itself and its smaller sights at a leisurely pace.
Given the size of the town, there aren’t a huge number of options available for travellers. Thankfully, Jēkaba Sēta where I stayed was affordable and comfortable. Situated on the main street and only a short walk from the bus station, your perfectly positioned to explore town. While there are several cafes and restaurants in town, Jēkaba Sēta also has its own restaurant which was also great value.
If you aren’t driving to Kuldiga, there are multiple buses daily between the town and cities like Riga, Ventspils and Liepaja. Timetables and information can be found here.
Have you heard of the town of Kuldiga in Latvia? If not, what would most attract you to visiting this little town? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
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