On the map of the World, you might not even notice Latvia – it’s a country with only 2 million residents, but in my humble opinion, Latvia has a lot to offer. Situated in northern Europe, on the shores of the Baltic Sea, this beautiful country can unexpectedly surprise you.
Here you can find Europe’s widest waterfall, Ventas rumba, beautiful golden sand beaches, a large population of white storks, amber jewellery, oversized churches, delectable pastries and astounding castles.
Latvia is part of the Baltic States, cosily sandwiched between the neighbouring countries of Estonia and Lithuania, and just last year, on November 18th, celebrated 100 years of independence.
If on your travels around the World you had a chance to visit Europe’s top destinations such as Venice, Amsterdam or Paris during the peak season, you are aware of how crowded and challenging those places can get.
Latvia is mass-tourism free and still remains a semi-mystery to the rest of the World, and if you work up the courage to leave Riga behind, you might even be the only tourist in the area. For comparison, in 2017, 23 million people visited Paris while Latvia received 2.58 million visitors.
Things To Know Before Visiting Beautiful Latvia For The First Time
Careful planning and hours spent researching everything there is to know about the destination you are planning on visiting, including the main topics such as safety, climate, timezones and required vaccinations can go a long way when it’s time to make travel arrangements.
That’s why, in this article, will share some of the things you need to know before hopping on a plane to explore Latvia.
Is Latvia safe for travellers?
If you are planning to visit, the very first thing you should know about Latvia is that it’s a perfectly safe country to travel through, whether you like to visit its biggest cities or are planning to venture further inland.
Sure Latvia has its fair share of crimes, just like any other country, with crime rates higher in bigger cities than in rural regions. And, there are some areas in Riga that are less safe for visitors.
Don’t forget; you can always talk to your accommodation host or hotel reception about where to go and what areas to skip. To avoid unwanted attention, don’t walk around with your camera and valet on display, don’t flash the cash, be aware of your surroundings and stay away from the city parks at night, this way you’ll avoid opportunistic criminals, like pickpocketers and bag snatchers.
In general, Latvia is safe for all types of travellers, be it single ones, families or large groups. If you haven’t visited yet, this country should be on your radar.
Since gaining independence in 1991, the officially formalised language of Latvia is Latvian, which is part of the Baltic Language. There are actually only two Baltic languages spoken to this day, the other being Lithuanian. If you look back on all the invasions, especially the Soviet one, it’s somewhat miraculous Latvian language has survived.
Note that Latvian isn’t the only language used in the country. Russian is also widely spoken as around 28% of the population are Russians.
Getting by with English in the centre of Riga and everywhere else mostly will depend on who you talk to. The younger generation is well able to speak (or at least understand some English) and can help you with directions.
In public transport, announcements are only in Latvian, but fear not, Latvians are friendly people willing to assist when needed.
If you are passionate about visiting Latvia, then you should be excited about learning some basic Latvian. Greet your host and local people you meet along the way in their home language by learning a few necessary and useful phrases:
• Sveiki or Čau which is Hello,
• Lūdzu (LOO-dzoo) for Please,
• Paldies (PUHL-dyehs) for Thank you.
Arriving in Latvia and getting around
• Riga Airport | If you are travelling to Latvia by plane, you going to come to Riga International Airport, the biggest airport in the Baltic states where airBaltic is the largest national carrier. A taxi ride into the city will set you back at 10-15 euros and depending on the traffic – the journey shouldn’t take longer than 20 minutes.
• Ferries | You can also arrive in Riga from Stockholm, use Tallink to find out everything about connections and timetables.
• Bus 22 | Getting to and from the airport is very easy, simply use the number 22 public bus with direct services to and from the city centre, with multiple stops along the way. It takes around 30 minutes each way, depending on the traffic, and the bus fare is 2 EUR when purchased from a bus driver (cheaper from the vending machines).
• Getting around | Reliable network of trams, buses and trolly buses form public transport in Riga and can be used to travel to different places. Unless you want to be at the mercy of public transport schedules, my advice is to explore Riga on foot.
• Trains | Latvia has a well-developed and reasonably priced train and bus network which you can use to get to most places. The train system is straightforward, inexpensive and can be used to travel to the beautiful resort town Jurmala, to the second largest city Daugavpils and even to Moscow, Russia. Timetables can be found at train stations or online at Pv.lv
• Buses | The buses will take you pretty much to any other part of the country, and they provide excellent value for money. The central bus station in Riga is near The Central Market, and you can find loads of useful information on their leading site.
• Trams and trolleys | Yet another inexpensive way to get around Riga. Check Rīgas Satiksme webpage for more information about routes, schedules and tickets.
Since January 2014 the official currency in Latvia is the euro, a somewhat recent development that makes visiting so much easier. Notes range from 5 euros to 500 euros. Cafes and retail outlets might not accept higher bills such as 100, 200 and 500.
Out of 56 European cities Price of Travel website listed Latvia as the number 9 cheapest country to visit. Regarding expenses, the usual things like entrance fees, intercity transport and accommodation are very affordable.
Latvian food and drink
When it comes to food in Latvia, from first glance, it seems pretty much straight forward-meat, homegrown veggies and heavy black bread. But on top of all the basic stuff – if you wish to heat things up – you’ll also find smoked herring, dumplings, loads of pickles, sklandrausis (sweet carrot pie), cold soups made with kefir; all sprinkled with a healthy dose of fresh dill.
Food is an integral part of Latvian culture and tradition; people still enjoy preparing meals from scratch using locally grown produce.
To sample Latvian cuisine, check out these places:
• Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs | If you are in Riga, for traditional and modern Latvian dishes as well as live music check out Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs where you can try beef shank meat, sauteed in Valmiermuižas dark beer and traditional grey peas.
• Lido | For typical Latvian cuisine, head to Lido. It’s a buffet-style, self-service eatery and the best thing about it; you can take a tray, walk along with the counters and mix and match anything you fancy trying. Expect potatoes, fish, meat, different salads and various desserts
• Kid-friendly | If you are travelling with youngsters, lots of restaurants have play areas, with toys and books, designed primarily for kids. Andalūzijas Suns, located on Elizabetes Street 83 in Riga and Čarlstons situated on Blaumaņa Street are one of the best places to visit.
• Black Balsam | Sample local flavours with a shot of tar-black liquor, bottled in a clay bottle and containing 24 different herbs, roots and spices. While some people find it quite a mouthful – and damn strong – this drink can be found in every local’s cupboard and is often used as cold medicine. Instead of a shot, try it as a hot drink, mixed with schnapps or in a cocktail.
There is more to Latvia than Riga.
It’s fair to say that Latvia’s capital Riga, which dates back to 1201, is the most prominent part of the country with meandering tourists.
And you can’t really blame them, as there is plenty of green spaces and incredible architectural masterpieces, but if you make a decision to leave the city behind and explore a little bit more of the countryside too, you’ll be in for a treat.
Almost half of the country that was once under socialist rule is covered with a blanket of untouched and easily accessible forests giving a home to an abundance of wild and beautiful creatures; such as lynxes, red foxes, wild boar, wolves, and deer.
Jūrmala, Cēsis and Sigulda are perfect places to incorporate into first-timers’ itineraries as they are easy to get to and fun to explore.
Ice Hockey is a holy sport
Ice Hockey is a sacred sport in Latvia, and Latvians pride themselves to be the best ice hockey fans in the World.
Latvians first began to play in 1930 and ever since then many Latvian ice hockey players have attracted worldwide attention, and few of them have even made it to the NHL. Sandis Ozoliņš, Zemgus Girgensons and Kārlis Skrastiņš are names well known in the sport.
Arēna Rīga, located in central Rīga, is a very spacious arena offering a great place to watch an ice hockey game as well as eating and drinking facilities. There is plenty of parking, and the tickets are very cheap.
Latvians honour the rebirth of the sun
While most of the World celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ on Christmas day, in Latvia families and friends, gather together on the eve of December 24th to celebrate Ziemassvētkus which literary translates to Winter Festival. This time of the year in Latvia is all about freshly baked gingerbread cookies, long nights, family and fortune-telling.
Just like our ancestors, we honour the rebirth of the sun, and when it comes to traditions, old pagan ones are still very much alive and widely used today.
Back in the day, birth feathers, dried fruits and coloured yarn were used to make traditional decorations. The most popular ones called ‘puzuri’ were made from straw or stems of grass. The process is time-consuming, and it required lots of patience, but the result is remarkably eccentric.
Top places to see in Latvia
• Sigulda | While Riga, the capital, is the very definition of the ideal weekend break, leave the city behind for a few hours and visit Sigulda offering a perfect setting for adventure and nature lovers. Situated only an hour away from Riga, Sigulda can easily be added to your itinerary. Here you’ll find Siguldas Medieval Castle, Gutmanis Cave, Tarzan’s Adventure Park and Sigulda Cable car.
• Jūrmala | One of the ways to escape the city for a few hours is to jump on the train and visit the seaside resort Jurmala. You can relax by the sea, climb the viewing tower at the beautiful Dzintari Forest Park, visit Jurmala open-air museum and have dinner by the sea.
• Ķemeri National Park | One of the most fascinating places, located close to the seaside resort Jūrmala, is Kemeri National Park – established in 1997 to preserve nature. The park offers biking and nature trails, and viewing towers and the best part of it is the Great Kemerri Bog walk that takes you around the lakes, and deep pools, lets you observe heaps of migratory birds and brings you closer to the sulphur water-producing bog.
• Kuldīga | A place with beautifully preserved wooden houses that ooze with character, Kuldiga – a town for those wanting to enjoy life’s simple pleasures – can easily be named Latvia’s prettiest town. Walk its cobbled streets, admire colourful houses and enjoy a lazy afternoon by Europe’s widest waterfall -Ventas Rumba.
• Rundāle Palace and Museum | The grounds of this beautiful palace, built in the 1730s for the Duke of Courland, have undergone extensive restoration. Admire its magnificent baroque art collection, walk around the vast rooms and take in its diverse gardens with 2230 varieties of roses. Rundale Palace makes for a good day out if you are visiting Latvia and arent’ bound for time.
• Cēsis | Best known for its medieval castle – where you can climb the tower with a candlelit lantern – Cēsis dates all the way back to 1206. If you love history and culture, you’ll be drawn to the historic Old Town where many examples of ancient wooden villas and beautiful masonry are on display.
• Gauja National Park | A home to a wide variety of animal and plant species as well as sandstone cliffs and outcrops, Gauja National Park – founded in 1973 – was Latvia’s first national park. Nature lovers can enjoy one of many trails, active travellers can jump in a boat and paddle down the river and history buffs can explore Āraišu Lake Castle.
The best time to visit Latvia
Latvia has four different weather seasons, and the best time to visit depends on what you are planning to do. Generally anywhere between late April and September is a great time to plan your journey.
Consider visiting Latvia in June, when Latvians celebrate the shortest night by staying up, singing, wearing oak-leaf wreaths and jumping over a bonfire. Midsummer Festival, known as Līgo and Jāņi, takes place from 23-24 of June every year.
• Spring | Latvia has defined four seasons, and the landscape in early spring is relatively barren with patches of snow, but as the days grow warmer and longer, nature wakes up the bees are buzzing and pollinating, and flowers are blooming. Weather in spring is relatively mild, and at this time of the year you can see bird migrations with flocks of geese, ducks and divers
• Summer | Summer starts in June, last until September and would be the best time to visit Latvia as there are more daylight hours and the weather is pleasantly warm. Occasionally temperatures can reach as high as 30’C, but in general, the weather is not too hot.
• Autumn | The weather in early autumn is very mild, and there’s an abundance of fresh produce, and plenty of festivals to choose from. Autumn foliage in Gauja National Park is a sight to behold and this time of the year is great if you want to save some money and avoid huge tourist crowds.
• Winter | On one hand, the wintertime weather, can be harsh and extremely cold. Winters, in fact, can be so severe that rose plants in the gardens need to be carefully covered so they can survive the drop in temperatures and it often gets so cold that Riga Bay becomes frozen solid. On the other hand, winter is such a beautiful and calm season, there is something spectacular to be found in cold climates if you are prepared for cold temperatures and snow.
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Now, over to you!
Have you been to Latvia? Let us know in the comments below!
Let us know if you are plotting a visit to Latvia and have travel-related questions!