9 Things to Know Before Visiting Latvia

Kuldiga Town

Admittedly, I knew very little about the Baltic country of Latvia before finally deciding to visit that part of Europe last July. I knew where it was on a map and that my primary school music teacher was from there. Basic research confirmed what I already knew – I should visit Riga. But as is my style, I wanted to see more of the country than just its capital and after close to 2 weeks there, came away with a love for the place.

As I shared at the start of the year, Latvia was one of my favourite countries I visited in 2016. Part of that is probably due to it blowing any expectations I had out of the water. Latvia is a country with incredible depth, and my list for Round Two is doing pretty well. Travelling around Latvia was actually pretty damn easy and so this list has fewer warnings or vital tips than usual, but more reasons why you should definitely visit. With that said, let’s get amongst it.

 

1. Not Only Riga

Sigulda Manor, Visiting Latvia

Overwhelmingly, when people visit Latvia they see Riga and then leave. It seems to be a common curse in the Baltic – people don’t know what else the country has to offer. And the truth is, Latvia had a lot more going on than just Riga. Without a doubt, Riga is a beautiful, entertaining city that will more continue to attract more and more tourists in years to come.

And yet, with just a few more days, inquisitive visitors could see so much more of this country. Riga is perfectly positioned as a transport hub, making many spots easy to get to from there. Within a couple of hours, you can reach Sigulda and all its nearby castles across the Gauja Valley.

Just a little further along the valley is charming Cēsis with its quaint streets and own impressive castle. In the other direction, there’s Kuldīga and the remarkable Venta Rapids. Continue on to the coast and you reach beaches galore like at Liepāja and Karosta; there’s simply so much to see.

 

2. Entry and Visa

As a member of the European Union and the Schengen Zone, entry to Latvia is just as straightforward as most of Europe. If you are travelling within the Schengen Zone, you’ll benefit from the ability to freely move between member countries, which include neighbouring Estonia and Lithuania. Essentially, if you have a European passport it should be insanely simple.

For those that are able to get a 90 day Schengen Visa on arrival like Australians, visiting Latvia is like if you were visiting Germany or Italy. The list of countries eligible for that can be found here. For those not coming from the EU or from the previous list, you can find more information on Latvian visas here. As always, ensure you know your visa requirements before visiting.

 

3. Getting Around

Sigulda Train Station

Latvia is probably a much bigger country than most people suspect, and yet it is actually quite straightforward to get around. Despite being off in the country’s west, Riga is very much a transit hub, from which you can reach most places.

The country is connected by both train and bus networks. While I only took the train between Riga and Sigulda, it was cheap and efficient. Trains also run to towns and cities like Daugavpils, Tukums and Ogre. Latvia’s various bus networks cover the gaps in the train network and are of a high quality. The premium network is Lux Express with some of the nicest buses I’ve ever been on. While they may be a little more expensive, the value you get is considerable.

Bus and train information across companies can be found here.

 

4. Money

A rather recent development for Latvia is the adopting of the Euro, which became the country’s official currency on 1 January 2014. This is just another reason why visiting Latvia is easier than you probably realise as it cuts the hassle out of getting a new currency out and inevitably trying to use it all up before you leave.

Regarding expenses and budgeting, while it many not be as cheap as say the Balkans, Latvia is definitely more affordable than Western and Central Europe. Things like getting coffee (1-2€), local public transport (<1€), intercity transport (2-7€) and accommodation can be pretty good value for money. Entrance fees to places like castles, panoramic views and cable cars are probably only a little under the European average. Even dining out (6-18€) can be pretty cheap, especially with No. 8 below. Essentially, if you’re on a budget, visiting Latvia’s a pretty good pick.

 

5. Fascinating History

Turaida View near Sigulda

If you’ve been following this blog a while, you’ve probably picked up on the fact that I’m a bit of a history-buff and am always keen to learn the history of places I visit. As mentioned earlier, I knew little about Latvia or its history but it turns out Latvia has a pretty fascinating past.

While the area has been settled for millennia, a big change occurred in the 12 and 13th centuries when German Crusaders came to the region to convert the pagan locals. It was these Germans that founded Riga and through the Livonian Brothers of the Sword, and their successors the Livonian Order, occupy the country. They were the ones that built castles like those found at Cēsis, Sigulda and Turaida, leaving the land with some incredible fortresses.

The region passed from power to power until 1710 when it was occupied by the Russian Empire, and which it belonged to right up until the Russian Revolution. This chaos in Russia provided the right circumstances for Latvia to oust the Russians, declaring independence on 18 November 1918 and after 2 years fighting was recognised globally as an independent nation in 1920. The museum at the New Castle in Cēsis covers this period quite well.

This independence was short-lived however, with the country falling under the control of the Soviets, then the Nazis and then back to the Soviets during WWII. While it was stayed under Soviet control for almost 50 years, Latvia was able to reclaim independence in 1991 and marked 25 years of independence last year.

 

6. Language

The national language of Latvia is mysteriously known as…Latvian. Unlike Estonian, Latvian is a Baltic language and one of only two remaining Baltic languages spoken today, the other being Lithuanian. Its more distant cousins are the Slavic languages, e.g. Russian, Polish, Czech and you may hear some similarity when spoken (or you may not be able to tell one way or another, depending on your familiarity with languages).

All that being said, I did find that many people spoke some degree of English, with German and of course Russian not being uncommon either. Somewhere like Riga you’ve got great odds as it is a city that sees plenty of tourists, especially Brits. Somewhere smaller like Liepāja for example, a bit less likely.

Some useful phrases to know include Sveiki which is ‘Hello’; Paldies which is ‘Thank you’, Lūdzu for ‘Please’; and  and  for ‘Yes’ and ‘No’. You’ll notice that Latvian uses letters like ū, ā and ē, but don’t fret too much about them.

 

7. Awesome Architecture

Art Nouveau in Riga, Visiting Latvia

A welcome, yet unexpected surprise was learning of all of Latvia’s amazing architecture. It started when I read about the couple of blocks in Riga that boasted pristine Art Nouveau buildings. As it turns out, there are actually plenty of eye-catching buildings throughout the capital beyond those few streets, but they are surely some of the most majestic and elegant.

And while it may not be Art Nouveau, many of the country’s towns have their own architectural charms. From quaint seaside houses in Jūrmala, to the brick and wood panel buildings of Cēsis and Kuldīga, few places in Latvia came across as bland or boring; there’s always something to appreciate as you explore.

 

8. LIDO Cafeterias

What would you think if I said that eating at a self-service cafeteria was a must when visiting Latvia? It may seem like an odd recommendation, but cafeterias and the LIDO brand are an institution in Latvia. The LIDO chain, plus plenty of smaller independent cafeterias, are a common lunch and dinner spot for many Latvians and a great budget option for travellers. For roughly 7€ you can get a tasty main (including veggies!), drink and even dessert. It may not be fine dining, but definitely a cheap, warm meal that will leave you satisfied. While I only found the LIDO brand in Riga, I did come across local ones like Zalumnieku Piestatne in Sigulda.

 

9. Baltic Beaches

Karosta Coast, Visiting Latvia

I have to admit, I never really thought of the Baltic countries as beach destinations. And yet, I was blown away by the beauty of their beaches and Latvia’s in particular. While the water may have been chilly, the long and wide sand beaches found up and down its coast were gorgeous and quiet. On top of that, in the case of both Jūrmala and Karosta, the back drop was serene forest and what more could you ask for?

While I never managed a proper beach day, some of my favourite moments were spent down by the beach. Of course, the stand out has to be walking along the deserted beaches of Karosta in search of the Northern Forts. Honestly, if I’d gone for a swim and laid on a towel for a bit, that could have been a perfect day.

 


Have you been to Latvia before? What would be your advice to people planning on visiting? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

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9 Things to Know Before Visiting Latvia, via @travelsewhere


This post is part of The Weekly Postcard over at Two Traveling Texans. Please head on over for more great posts.
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23 Comment

  1. Anisa says:

    I had heard great things about Riga, but really not much about anything else so nice to hear there is more to see. I am pretty impressed with those beaches too and the architecture looks lovely. Sounds like a great place to spend two weeks. Thanks for sharing on #TheWeeklyPostcard

  2. Ruth says:

    I have not been to Latvia but it is a country on my radar. I am one of those who do not conform to visiting only capitals, so, if I stop by, I would make the efforts to see more. It is good that the prices are kind of decent (like that). I am planning a trip to Germany and I am seeing a big difference when compared to Spain or Central Europe. #TheWeeklyPostcard

  3. Kat says:

    The Baltic nations are now appearing on the tourism radar which is fantastic. Based on the few articles that I have read about Latvia, you’re right, tourists tend to leave Latvia after visiting Riga. Don’t think I have read articles that mention at length the other destinations within the country. Thanks for giving us some insights 🙂 #TheWeeklyPostcard

  4. paulandcarolelovetotravel says:

    Useful information for visiting Latvia, somewhere Paul visited on a stag weekend, but didn’t venture further than Riga or the bars!! Great post. #feetdotravel

  5. While I vaguely remember Riga and visiting beaches in Jurmala, I can’t remember much more about my visit to Latvia as a kid. I really want to go back and following your blog has really given me some great ideas! I’ve been looking at flights to Latvia ever since your first post! Hopefully they still speak Russian there which would make it slightly easier to get around! Great tips for visiting the country and hopefully I will get to use them some day soon!

  6. Oh it would be silly to just go to Riga and see nothing else! If I went all the way up there, I would go big or go home! #TheWeeklyPostcard

  7. Latvia did seem a bit too hard in the past so thanks for the heads up re currency, visas and transport out of Riga. The architecture and beaches are a definite drawcard.

  8. What a great adventure. The history is fascinating and I like how the country is connected by a train and bus network. The currency and visa information is a plus to know but I do love the empty beaches and stunning architecture. Great photos…. Thanks for sharing!

  9. Thanks for sharing a useful post about Latvia. The history seems to be really interesting and the architecture too. We will keep your ideas and tips in mind if we visit Latvia when we go to Europe this summer! Keep up the great work, it’s always a real pleasure to read your articles! Very informative and useful:)
    Patrick and Cécile from http://www.travel4lifeblog.com

  10. Arthur Denis Krautman says:

    I visited my cousins in Latvia way back in 1995.It was a country in transition from the old Soviet past to a new vibrant independance.The things I enjoyed were going to the farmers markets, picking mushrooms and hazelnuts in the pine forests with my cousins.One of the highlights was having a sauna then running naked and jumping into the crystal clear freezing lake to cool off,then running back to the sauna.I don’t know what it is like now but where ever we travelled in Latvia people were so kind and open and amazed we travelled all that way to see their country especially with a one year old.

  11. As I have a friend from Latvia, I have found your posts most interesting! I didn’t know they moved to the Euro, how terrible of me! Fantastic to hear that it is easy to travel around though, it certainly makes getting out of Riga and seeing more of the country more appealing and you are right, people should get out and about and see what else this country has to offer, I know I can’t wait to visit and follow your example. Thank you for all the fabulous information, stories and history you have provided, pinned for the future. #feetdotravel

  12. rikssondors says:

    don’t be surprised, if somebody does not hear any language, except Russian.

  13. Aija says:

    One more important thing about Latvia is how outdoor adventurous it is – with barefoot hikes, agility courses for young and old, built in woods, extensive bike lines. Maybe for your next trip. Also- very kids friendly, most restaurants have kids play areas and toys, park rentals for ride on toys and many advanced playgrounds, especially outsided Riga-it’s not uncommon to have a whole city block dedicated for various kids things

  14. Great information… I hope I get to visit one day.

  15. Indra says:

    Latvia gained independence November 18, 1918, not in 1920. We are getting ready for Latvia’s 100th birthday next year.

    1. David says:

      Thank you for your comment Indra. I was going off the end of the War of Independence, so I’ve updated it to be clearer.

  16. Enjoy photo slideshow around Latvia.

    http://www.seelatvia.com

    .

  17. I would also have never imagined Latvia to have beautiful beaches. Now we want to go check out the beaches and architecture based on your beautiful pictures 🙂

  18. The Art Noveau building looks so beautiful. Latvia seems like a great place to visit and easy on the pocket. Thanks for sharing.

  19. Latvia seems to be a great travel destination, too bad that not many tourists are going there. I wasn’t aware they have euros – this is another reason why I should visit it. Thank you for sharing all of this useful information, I will save it for future reference.

  20. Kreete says:

    It’s so true what you say about people only visiting the Baltic capitals as they don’t know what else to do. I must say I am guilty of not exploring that much further than Riga when it comes to Latvia, yet I think I’ve seen more than most. Every Estonian knows and goes to the Jurmala waterpark in Latvia as its one of the biggest in the area.

  21. I love the types of place you visit 🙂 Definitely off the conventional tourist trail! And your articles are on point for tips and info! love it 😀

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