Destination Latvia

Location of  Latvia in Europe. This page is divided into to sections. The first section contains general information about Latvia and the second part contains information about the various cities I have been to.  

General information about Latvia
Latvia is a Baltic state in Northern Europe. The country is bordered by Estonia to the north, Lithuania to the south, Russia to the east, Belarus on the south east, and the Baltic Sea on the west. The most famous travel spot is the capital Riga, which is a World Heritage Site. There are also many other great places to see in Latvia, both urban and rural, such as Liepaja with its unique former secret military town of Karosta and a magnificent beach. Kuldiga with Europe`s widest waterfall and Cesis with its medieval castle ruins are also interesting. Tourists can also enjoy the wild beauty of Latvia's unspoilt sea coast, which is 500 km long and consists mainly of white, soft sandy beaches. Forests, which cover approximately a half of Latvia's territory, offer many nature trails and nature parks.

Latvia is an ancient trading point. The famous route from the Vikings to the Greeks’ mentioned in ancient chronicles stretched from Scandinavia through Latvian territory along the river Daugava to the Kievan Rus and Byzantine Empire. Across the European continent, Latvia’s coast was known as a place for obtaining amber. In the Middle Ages amber was more valuable than gold in many places. Latvian amber was known in places as far away as Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire.

In the 12th century, German traders arrived, bringing with them missionaries who attempted to convert the pagan Finno-Ugric and Baltic tribes to the Christian faith. The Germans founded Rīga in 1201, establishing it as the largest and most powerful city on the eastern coast of the Baltic Sea. After independence in 1918, Latvia achieved considerable results in social development, economy, industry and agriculture. On June 16, 1940, Vyacheslav Molotov presented the Latvian representative in Moscow with an ultimatum accusing Latvia of violations of that pact, and on June 17 Soviet forces occupied the country. Elections for a "People's Saeima" were held, and a puppet government headed by Augusts Kirhenšteins led Latvia into the USSR. The annexation was formalized on August 5, 1940. During the time of the Iron Curtain, Latvia was a province of the Soviet Union, but the concentration of heavy industry was enormous. Contacts with the West were regulated. The Baltic region had the reputation of being the most urbanized and having the highest literacy rate in the Soviet Union. Latvia gained independence on September 6, 1991. Between 1991 and 2007 the country saw unprecedented economic growth. However, the global recession and the banking crisis hit Latvia brutally, and severe economic contraction and destructively high unemployment returned. The economy has recovered during the last few years, even reaching fastest growth in EU for some periods.

Because of a tribal past and divisions between occupying nations, there are regional differences between parts of Latvia which are interesting to explore.

Latvian is the only official language and belongs to the Baltic language group of Indo-European languages and its closest relative is Lithuanian, but it is very different anyway, so most likely Latvian will sound completely foreign for you and it is hard to guess what written words mean, even if Latvian uses Latin alphabet, just like English. However, some words are borrowed from other languages and it is not hard to understand that Restorans means Restaurant. The language has complicated grammar, the most complex being usage of verb prefixes and suffixes, which can change the meaning completely, as well as many kinds of participles majority of which do not have equivalent in English. The pronunciation is more or less easy; however there are some complicated rules for some letters like e and o, and any foreigners trying to speak Latvian have an accent, because it is really hard to speak perfect Latvian. In Latvian, there are three pitch tones and sometimes the meaning of the word changes if you change the tone, e.g. loks can mean leek or bow, depending on the pronunciation tone. Zale can mean a hall or grass, again depends on the tone you use. The easiest part is the stress, which is almost always on the first syllable. Latvian is spoken natively by only 1.5 million people in the whole world, most of them of course in Latvia, but also in Ireland, UK, USA, Russia, Brazil, and Australia.

Besides Latvian, Russian is spoken fluently by mostly elderly people, since Latvia was part of the Soviet Union. It is also possible to get by with English with young people, especially in Riga. According to the 2012 Eurobarometer poll, 46% of Latvians are able to have a conversation in English.

When thinking of Europe, the small nation of Latvia is probably not one of the first countries to spring to your mind. Buried under the big no-go blanket of the Soviet Union, it has yet to be properly discovered by the large tourist crowds. If you manage to make it there, however, you might just find yourself most positively surprised by the charms of this Baltic country.

Latvia's dynamic capital, the historic city of Riga, is a great place to spend some time. It boasts a truly lovely old quarter, full of magnificent Jugendstil architecture, winding cobblestoned lanes and many steeples. Yet, it is a modern, metropolitan city with a vibrant nightlife and a strong economic impulse, to the extent that the rise of modernist buildings is threatening the old town's World Heritage listing. Riga's vibe gets under many travellers' skins, perhaps for the strong contrasts between old and new or maybe because of the seemingly painless blend of Latvian and Russian cultures, as almost half of the city's inhabitants are of Russian origin. To get a sense of the city, wander through its large, manicured parks, stroll through the historic quarter and then kick back in one of the many cafés or outdoor terraces. Among Riga's best sights are the impressive Riga Cathedral, St. Peter's Church and the bustling Central Market.

Although Riga is by far the country's main tourist destination, there are a bunch of other places well worth a visit. At just 40 km from the capital is Sigulda, with the nicely reconstructed Turaida Castle, an interesting castle museum as well as the deep Gutmanis Cave. The town is beautifully located in the Gauja valley and has been called the "Switzerland of Latvia" for its steep cliffs and banks. It's known for its winter sports opportunities and makes a great base for explorations of the fine nature around it. The coastal city of Liepāja is known to Latvians as "the city where the wind is born", for the sea breeze it constantly enjoys. It has a nice beach and a charming town centre with a colourful mixture or architectural styles, from wooden houses and spacious parks to Art Nouveau and concrete, Soviet-era apartment buildings. Liepāja's neighbourhood of Karosta was built in the late 19th century as a naval base for Tsar Alexander III and was later used by the Soviet Baltic Fleet. Its splendid sea side panoramas, former military prison and fortress remains now make it a popular tourist sight.

Cesis is one of the country's oldest towns and has a charming centre with cobblestoned lanes, historic wooden building and a few impressive castles. Kuldīga boasts Europe's widest, though at two meters high unspectacular, water fall. It's part of the Venta Rapid, one of Latvia's natural monuments. Despite its limited hight it's still a nice sight and the town itself is worth exploring too. The colossal white Cathedral of Aglona is a worthwhile day trip from Daugavpils, the second largest city in the country. Jelgava has two fine sight in its baroque style Rundāle and Jelgava palaces.

There are many interesting and old castles around Latvia. The Association of Latvian Castles, Palaces and Manors has links and photos on their website. Note that sometimes castles are reserved for private occasions.

One should be cautious when mentioning Latvia in the context of the USSR to ethnic Latvians. Latvia became a USSR province after World War II, and praise of the Soviet (or Russian) regimes is unlikely to be understood or appreciated by Latvians, especially young ones. In the same manner, mentioning any ethnic, lingustic or citizenship issues involving Latvians and Russians should be avoided, as this remains one of the most controversial subjects of local politics.

It is very common to give up your seat for elderly passengers or pregnant women on the public transport in Latvia, particularly if the vehicle has no assigned seats. It is also considered polite to let women board a train or bus first.

There are many bins and trash cans on the sidewalks and near most shops. Littering is considered a very bad manner and may be fined.

Also, you do not need to specially greet, smile, or offer help to people. Latvian citizens are not so easy-going in relationships. Friendship is seen as a very serious affair that develops in the long term.

Travel to Latvia
Riga International Airport is the only airport in Latvia that services commercial flights. For more information on flying to/from Riga. Alternatively, you can fly to Kaunas in Lithuania and take the Flybus to Riga.

SJSC Latvian Railways operates trains to Riga from Moscow or Saint PetersburgRussia with stops at Rezekne and Jekabpils, as well as trains to/from TallinnEstonia via change in Valga. In addition, trains to Daugavpilsand Rezekne are available from Saint PetersburgRussia and VilniusLithuania. If you travel by train via Daugavpils to connect to/from Riga you might need to stay in Daugavpils overnight for the connection. Therefore, for travel between Riga and Vilnius, it is better to take a bus or plane.

There are international bus connections to anywhere in Europe, including frequent service to Tallinn and Tartu in Estonia, and Vilnius and Kaunas in Lithuania.

Ecolines, Eurolines Simple Express, Eurolines Lux Express- More legroom than Simple Express service & free coffee.Flybus - Service between Riga and Kaunas and Vilnius.

Tallink operates ferries between StockholmSweden and Riga.

The road known as Via Baltica links WarsawPoland to TallinnEstonia via KaunasLithuania, and Riga.

Travelling within Latvia
International car rentals are represented in Latvia. There are many offices in Riga, including some at Riga Airport. Cheaper car rental offices are also available.

Drive with the headlights on all year round. Winter or all-season tyres are required for the winter period (December 1 to March 1). Many gas stations are self-service and operate 24/7. Gasoline with octane ratings of 95 and 98 is available, as well as diesel fuel.

It is advisable to go by train instead of bus from Riga to the following towns: Jurmala, Tukums, Jelgava, Salaspils, Jekabpils, Daugavpils, Rezekne, Sigulda, Cesis and Saulkrasti. Check the official Latvian Railroad Passenger trains (Pasažieru vilciens) at pv.lv or at the directory site www.1188.lv. If you are going to other cities, there is most likely only a couple trains per day or there are no trains going at all. Trains are usually cheaper and you don't need to worry about having no seat. Trains are usually crowded on peak days of summer.

Remember that sometimes the name of station differs from the name of town. For example, you might need to go to Krustpils station, if traveling to Jekabpils, and going to Majori (city center) or Ķemeri (going to the national park), if going to Jurmala.

Buying a train ticket before you board the train will avoid an extra fee and language hassles of buying a ticket on the train. Ticket offices at smaller stations can open late and close early, and also close for periods during the date. The schedule is posted at the ticket office. Don't buy a return ticket unless you have confirmed there is a return train at the time you need. Tickets can be purchased in advance online or from any station. If you buy them online you still need to collect them from a station.

There is the Banitis narrow gauge railway Gulbene-Aluksne in the North-East of Latvia. There are several tourist-oriented places along the route.

There is a vast network of bus connections around Latvia. Buy a bus ticket at the bus station or on bus when boarding. If you have luggage, ask the bus driver to put it in the trunk. It depends on the bus company, if they will charge extra. There are express bus connections to major towns, which can save time considerably.

On Fridays and Saturdays buses could be crowded in the outbound direction from Riga. Bus time tables are available at the website of Rigas Autoosta, and at the directory site www.1188.lv. If going by bus on Friday from Riga or coming back to Riga on Sunday it is highly recommended to book ticket in advance (available only of booking for route from starting station of bus) at the cash desk of bus station or online at bezrindas.lv. You can buy ticket up to 10 days before departure.

If you are going from Riga to Jurmala during summer, a very romantic way is to travel by river cruise boats: dominantly two-deck motor boats with capacity for around 60-100 people. They usually depart from Riga center in the morning and go back in the afternoon. There probably still is also a river cruise service from Riga center to Riga Zoo. Ask in the tourism information center for more details and prices.

It is advised to cycle around Riga in the early morning when there is less traffic, although one should be careful when choosing this time due to reduced drivers attention. Expect heavy traffic from 5 PM to 8 PM. No left turn allowed from middle line. However, it is highly advised to choose by-ways and less densely populated roads due to hazardous traffic. It is vitally important to wear reflectors; reflective belts, bands and bright coloured clothing are advised, as well as having the bike equipped with strong front and rear lights. Generally, cycling is still not very safe in the country, especially during the dark hours. The only "real" bicycle path is existing from the old town of Riga to the Sea resort of Jurmala. But the country is fast developing local cycling routes. The international bicycle project BaltiCCycle may provide you with a lot of information and help.

Latvia's many spas are an excellent way to relax. Although widely available, the popular holiday resort town of Jūrmala has some of the best options, as well as a fine beach.

Places to sleep 
Although you might not find plenty of 5 star hotels all around Latvia, you will find comfortable places to stay for a reasonable price. You may use i.e. hotels.combooking.com or hostelworld.com to find somewhere to sleep.

During my visit to Riga I stayed at Wicked Weasel Hostel and it is one of the best hostels I have stayed at.

Money and banking
Latvia has the Euro as its sole currency along with 24 other countries that use this common European money. One euro is divided into 100 cents. While each official euro member (as well as Monaco, San Marino and Vatican) issues its own coins with a unique obverse, the reverse, as well as all bank notes, look the same throughout the eurozone. Every coin is legal tender in any of the eurozone countries.

ATMs are widely available throughout Latvia (including Riga International Airport), even in many small towns. 

Banks will accept traveller's cheques with a fee, usually equal to the greater of 1% of the amount exchanged or €10.

Vaccine and health 
There is no problem turning to any doctor or hospital to seek medical help, just by paying an outside patient fee. However, it can prove difficult to obtain medical assistance in many rural areas, as the service can be slow and unresponsive; therefore, it may be a good idea to bring your own first aid kit. There are virtually no air ambulance helicopters in the country, except for the army, so when exploring sparsely-inhabited, remote areas on your own, it's important to be well-prepared for emergency situations. If you get to a doctor, he/she will probably only speak Latvian and Russian.

Few drugs are available without a prescription; bring your own medicine if you require it.

If you need to seek medical attention of a doctor, be prepared to pay a fee under the table; in Latvia, it is estimated that 1 in 4 doctors take "private donations" to see patients.

Tap water is safe to drink; however, most locals prefer to boil it before drinking. Purchasing bottled water is an alternative.

Visa 
Latvia is a member of the Schengen Agreement.There are no border controls between countries that have signed and implemented this treaty - the European Union (except Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Ireland, Romania and the United Kingdom), Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland. Likewise, a visa granted for any Schengen member is valid in all other countries that have signed and implemented the treaty. But be careful: not all EU members have signed the Schengen treaty, and not all Schengen members are part of the European Union. This means that there may be spot customs checks but no immigration checks (travelling within Schengen but to/from a non-EU country) or you may have to clear immigration but not customs (travelling within the EU but to/from a non-Schengen country).

Please see the article Travel in the Schengen Zone for more information about how the scheme works and what entry requirements are.


Crime 
It is generally safe to travel around on your own, although some petty crime exists. A thing to watch out for is bicycle theft, and it is advisable not to leave valuable things in your car. Mind the forest roads, collisions with wildlife animals can easily occur.

Much like Estonia and Lithuania, roads are congested with traffic and accident rates in Latvia are high. Take care while crossing the road as most drivers can be reckless.

When visiting bars and restaurants in Riga, make sure you know the price before you order and follow your spending, so no cheating is possible. Beware of scammers who strike up conversations out of the blue and invite you to visit their favorite club or bar; this is often a favorite way for the mafia to rob foreigners, and the police are unlikely to help if you get scammed. The Police of Latvia has a website with advice for travellers.

Local informational web-sites for tourists claim that, in terms of safety, there is almost no difference between big cities and country areas. Although it is true that anywhere in Latvia one is never too far from a town or a city, seeking help in case of emergency may be somewhat more difficult in the countryside (for foreign tourists). This is because English is mainly spoken in cities, but outside them one may find almost no people who would understand you (young people are an exception, but they are also drawn from rural areas to bigger cities). This is somewhat balanced by the fact that even then locals are quite friendly and ready to help.

Emergency phone number: Single European Emergency Phone Number 112.

If bitten by a dog, wild animal or a snake, seek medical attention immediately. Snakes are not venomous in Latvia, except for the European Adder which is a possible death threat if no treatment is received within the next few hours after the bite. A dog or cat bite can carry the risk of rabies. Mosquitoes carry no disease and are only an annoyance in the summer months.

Forest ticks can be abundant from May-September, depending on previous year's weather, especially in brushwood/scrub areas, but also occasionally in town parks. Their bite carries the risk of tick-born encephalitis (infected ticks can be quite common, vaccination possible before season) and Lyme disease-- less common; delayed or inadequate treatment can lead to disabilities.

Cuisine and drink 
The country offers plenty of varieties of bread, milk products, ice cream, sweets (loose sweets, made by Laima) etc. In the open air markets of Riga, Liepaja and other cities and towns, the local fruits, vegetables and mushrooms are a great option, such as freshly picked wild strawberries or blueberries from the forests, or some big strawberries, apples, rhubarb pie and a crunch made of fresh stalks straight from the garden. This is, of course, available mainly in summer and autumn season.

Latvian cuisine comes from its peasant culture, and is based on crops that grow in Latvia's maritime, temperate climate. Rye, wheat, oat, peas, beets, and potatoes are the staples; smoked bacon, sausage, and other pork products are favourites, smoked and raw fish is common. Many types of food are flavoured with caraway seeds, especially cheese and bread. A cheese similar to smoked gouda, but softer, is the cheapest and, arguably, tastiest variety. Latvian rye bread is heavy and flavourful, and goes well with hearty Latvian meals like pea soup, potatoes, and schnitzels. Restaurants in larger cities often offer stews in clay pots.

Latvian cuisine is typical of northern countries, especially close to Finland; it's high on butter, fat, and grains, low on spice except for caraway and black pepper. If you are from the Mediterranean, you might find it bland, but if you come from England or the Midwestern US, you're not likely to have trouble getting used to it.

A more exotic Latvian dish is a sweet soup made from rye bread (maizes zupa).

Black rye bread is extremely important part of Latvian food. There are many types of black breads and they are believed to be much healthier and better than white bread. Try Lacu or Liepkalni for autentic taste

Latvia is much richer in milk products than an average Western country. Try Biezpiena sieriņš - a curd snack with sweet taste. Many types are available, the most popular being Karums and Baltais. Try the dessert Maizes zupa (bread soup, made of black bread and fruits). Taste the Biešu zupa (red beetroot soup).

Any Latvian would tell you that chocolate of Laima, the local sweets factory, is much better than Belgian chocolate. Laima offers not just chocolate, but also konfektes - candies of different types, sold by grams and kilos and the price is about €8 per kilo. The best candies are Rudzupuķe, Lācītis Ķepainītis, Serenāde, Vētras putns, Rīts, Soho, Sarkanā magone, Vāverīte etc. An assortment in a nice box can also be a nice gift to friends who stayed home. Try Zefirs - a soft marshmallow-type sweet. Gotiņa (cow in the diminutive ) is a famous milk candy. The Emihls Gustavs chocolate factory in Riga is more exclusive and they make little sculptures of different shapes of chocolate, but it is a bit pricy.

It is important to know that in Latvia the whole concept and meaning of words Cafeteria (Kafejnīca), Canteen (Ēdnīca) and Restaurant (Restorāns) are different than in many other countries. A Cafeteria or Kafejnīca is not just a coffee shop. Usually you can have all meals that you would probably expect in a restaurant. The difference is that in Kafejnīca you sometimes bring your food to your table yourself. However, some Kafejnīcas have waiters, but these are then something in between of Kafejnīca and Restorāns. Restorāns is usually a more or less top class place (however, some fast food establishments, in keeping with foreign naming conventions, refer to themselves as such). Ēdnīca is a name for canteens of schools, universities, factories etc. They tend to serve traditional Latvian/Soviet era foods and are often perceived by locals to have a high quality/price ratio, but sometimes limit access to outside customers.

Beer, the most popular alcoholic beverage in Latvia, is excellent. Beers, such as Aldaris, Līvu, and Senču can be bought almost anywhere but local people are very proud about local small breweries, try Bauskas, Tervetes, Piebalgas and some other beer. A special 'live beer' like Užavas can be found in selected pubs and restaurants. Don't forget to try the locally distilled Black Balsam (Rīgas Melnais Balzams). It's a strong (45%) infusion of various herbs, roots, and spices. It will cure your flu in no time. Add a few drops to flavor your tea, or a few spoons to lace your coffee, or in various cocktails. By itself it can be a very strong beverage! Wine is also grown in Latvia in small quantities. It is one of the most Northern places in the world where the wine can be successfully grown. Vineyards can be seen in Sabile (in Latvian).


Places I have been to in Latvia
Riga 
Riga is the capital and largest city of Latvia. With 641,481 inhabitants (2016), it is also the largest city in the three Baltic states, home to one third of Latvia's population and one tenth of the three Baltic states' combined population. The city is famous for its Old Town and city center, in which over 800 buildings are of the Art Nouveau (aka Jugendstil) style of architecture. I have been told lots of architecture students visit Riga because of all the different styles of architecture gathered in such a small area. The Art Nouveau style involves intricate building facades, with carvings of flowers and mythological creatures, and ornate doorways and windows. It is generally recognized that Riga has largest collection of Art Nouveau buildings in the world. This is due to the fact that at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, when Art Nouveau was at the height of its popularity, Riga experienced an unprecedented financial and demographic boom. Much of the old town was either destroyed by fire or destroyed by the Germans in World War II and remained in ruins until it was rebuilt in the late 1990s, mainly to make Riga attractive as a tourist destination.

The catholic church have a cross on top of their churches but after the reformation they pout roosters on top of the Protestant churches so that people could tell if it was a Catholic or Protestant church.

The TV tower in Riga was erected by Soviet union and when it was build it was the tallest tower in Europe. After a retrofit the TV tower in Berlin was a few centimetres taler than the TV tower in Riga. Hence the tower in Berlin is made of concrete the height does not change but because the tv tower in Riga is made of steel the height varies and on really warm summer days the TV tower in Riga is somewhat taller than the one in Berlin. 

Riga is bisected by the river Daugava. Old (medieval) town is in the center of the city on the east side of the river. It is surrounded by a ring of ~19th -- early 20th century architecture, followed by a mix of private 2-floor house districts (many also pre-WW2) and Soviet-era 5-18 floor apartment districts, with an occasional factory (especially near railroad lines). The term "centre" loosely refers to quite a large area around Old town limited by the river to the west, the railroad lines to the east and south, and without a definite boundary to the north.

Riga was founded in 1201 by Albert of Bremen as a port city and a base to conquer and convert the native Livonians to Christianity, a goal that was achieved in 1206 after a battle in Turaida during the Northern Crusades. Riga developed as the major trade hub of the area during the peak of the Hanseatic League in the 13th to the 15th centuries and was ruled by the Archbishop of Riga. The Reformation reached Riga in 1522, which ended the Archbishops' power. In 1621, Riga became part of the Kingdom of Sweden, although it maintained a great deal of autonomy. In 1710, an invasion by Peter the Great of Russia ended Swedish rule and cemented Russian influence on the city.

Everything touristy is reachable by foot in Riga. The areas usually most interesting to tourists are the Old Town and the area around the nearby Freedom Monument. St Peters basilica and Riga Cathedral are situated in old town and worth a visit. Next to the main railway station and main bus station is the central marked which is one of the larges in Europe. It's main area are some old zeppelin hangars from World war I. They where originally build close to the border between Estonia and Latvia by the Germans but where later moved and got different uses.

During my stay in Riga I attended two walking tours with Riga free tours. The old town tour last somewhat less than two hours and shows you the most interesting sites in old town. The alternate walking tour last somewhat less than three hours covers some of the suburbs and covers more of the countrys history, language, cosine, architecture and more. Combined they give you a nice glimpse into Riga and Latvia.

Three brothers is a building complex consisting of three houses. The houses together form the oldest complex of dwelling houses in Riga. Each house represents various periods of development of house construction and styles. today they house museum. 

The Latvian war museum is situated close to parts of the old city wall and the Powder tower.