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
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
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.
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
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.
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 Jā and Nē 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
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
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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