72 Hours in Latvia

During my trip to Finland, I had the opportunity to attend a 72 hour post trip to Latvia courtesy of the Nordic Blogger Experience, which I was invited as a speaker to talk about YouTube videos. If you don’t know about Latvia, it is one of the three Baltic states, along with Lithuania and Estonia, that border Russia, Belarus and Poland.

Latvia has been on my bucket list for quite some time. I always wanted to do all three nations on a road trip but never found the right opportunity. When my friends at NBE Finland, asked me which post trip I wanted I immediately chose Latvia. It also marked my 68th country!

It was a short 1-hour flight with AirBaltic from Helsinki to Riga. AirBaltic is the official airline of Latvia and it connects over 24 nations. I initially thought we wouldn’t have enough time to see Latvia in 72 hours but it was the perfect way to give me a taste of what this beautiful nation has to offer. We visited three destinations, Riga (the capital) Sigulda and Malpils. Here is everything we did in 72 hours in Latvia in case you’re ever considering going.

Riga

Riga is beautiful! The historic center is not huge but it has a bunch of things to see and do. From the central market, to trying some local craft beers and even climbing St. Peters church to get incredible views over the city.

We had around 24 hours to explore Riga, I would suggest at least 48-72 if you want to experience it more in depth and at a slower pace. If you are a photographer like I am, then you want to give yourself plenty of time to get some amazing shots.

Here are things you must see, do and eat in Riga!

Climb St. Peters Church

St. Peters Church is the most famous building in Riga and it also provides visitors with the best view of the capital. The original Gothic tower was built in the 15th century, but collapsed in 1666 before being rebuilt in 1690 in Baroque style.

It was once the highest wooden construction in the world, but in 1721 lightning struck it and it burned down. In 1967, the Russian Tsar Peter I commission the building of a new tower in its place.

The tower is an impressive 123.25 meters in height and also contains a clock that only has one hand – a Latvian tradition. It also contains the bells which play the folk song ‘Riga dimd’ five times a day as well as marking the hours.

For those of you who don’t like walking up too many steps to get epic views, you’re in luck. This tower is only accessible by elevator. They take you 72 meters above Riga for what I consider to be a must visit for anyone visiting.

The church itself is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Visit the Central Market

Riga’s Central Market is a fascinating place to explore. It’s located a few hundred meters from the old town on the banks of the river Daugava, very near to the international bus terminal and the central railway station. It is one of the largest marketplaces in Eastern Europe and over 80,000 people shop there every day!

The impressive buildings of the marketplace were originally constructed in the 1920s as airship hangers for the military. They were later transformed into the current food pavilions while the surrounding warehouses, known as spikeri, were made into an arts and entertainment center.

Central Market is the place to go if you want to try a range of homemade products but also for manufactured items, so it’s a lot like a modern shopping center. You can also enjoy the Night Market which is also referred to as the ‘Round the Clock’ Farmer’s Market if you suddenly decide you need something to eat in the middle of the night. Shoppers can do their shopping between 5pm and 10pm, outside those hours it’s open for wholesale only.

My group and I went on to try different foods and drinks. We were extremely surprised with how inexpensive everything was. I especially liked the seafood section, where there is caviar for days!

See Riga from its Bridges

To see the old town, its best to cross one of the two bridges. We crossed the middle bridge called Akmens Tilts. From there we could see all sides of Riga. During winter, it is an extra special view as you have huge chunks of ice floating in the river. If you get there during an extremely cold week the river might be completely frozen.

Once you cross the bridge I would suggest heading northwest to get some great photos. There is a photo opportunity at every corner. I would suggest bringing an extra-long lens like a Canon 70 – 200 m, which I rented from BorrowLenses to get extra close as it is pretty far away.

To return to Riga either you return on Akmens Tilts, or you cross Vansu Tilts for a different angle. This will take around 2 hours to do the walk while stopping for photos.

Visit the House of Blackheads

These are the most iconic buildings in Riga! The original buildings were built by German merchants in the 14th century, but then it was completely destroyed during WWII. The current buildings were reconstructed between 1995 and 1999.

The building was used by the Blackheads Society, a gentlemen’s club for wealthy single merchants and their journeymen. Many of them were of German descent and they traveled around the world, bringing back exotic goods. They also had to deal with pirates and robbers so they chose St. Maurice as their patron saint, who was traditionally shown wearing black knight’s armor and that led to their name.

Today, you can visit the House of Blackheads and see a range of historic exhibits as well as items left by past members including snuffboxes, silverware and pottery. There is a replica of the Statue of Roland, originally in St. Peter’s Church.

Try Local Food and Beer at Trompete

Trompete means ‘trumpet’ in Latvian and is a music bar and restaurant that offers quality local produce as well as specially imported foods.  Everything is served to the sounds of jazz music and the restaurant is known for its wines, whiskies and rums. Located in the center of the Old Town, it is beside the Salt Carrier’s Guild building.

I started my meal with a beetroot and game soup, then chicken liver wrapped in bacon and a catfish fillet to end the meal. All the food was extremely fresh and delicious! Because I heard from so many people that Latvian beer was out of this world delicious I tried Valmiermuizas dark beer.

Valmiermuzias is an old world style of beer that came from the ancient Swedes who once occupied the area in the Livonian era. There are now several styles of the beer available including the dark one I tried, wheat beer and even a beer cocktail that mixes the beer with elderberry seltzer and a little fresh quince.

Eat Contemporary Latvian Cuisine at Valtera

Valtera is the first Latvian restaurant that serves contemporary Latvian cuisines using only Latvian rural products.  The feel of the place echoes this, looking like an elegant country manor with the staff greeting you as if you are an old friend, rather than a first-time customer.

The menu is ever-changing as new products are sourced and this makes it the kind of place you could visit frequently and still experience something different.

We started off with trout-tartar, then a palate cleanser, followed by a white fish, veal cheeks, and dessert was their own take on a cheesecake. They paired all the dishes with different wines. It felt like I was eating at a Michelin Star restaurant in Latvia. I highly recommend you book your table in advance as it is one of the hottest restaurants in Riga!

Sigulda

Sigulda is a small town in Gauje National Park. It is the largest national park in Latvia and one of the best places to experience winter activities. The park has amazing views of the Gauja River, as well as forested areas and plenty of glimpses back into the past.

Sigulda itself is famous for having many buildings made from reddish Devonian sandstone and is often referred to as the ‘Switzerland of Vidzeme’.

Sigulda Medieval Castle Ruins

This is one of the most famous castles in Latvia. It was built in the 13th century by the Livonian Brothers of the Sword as a castellum type fortress and was then altered to a convent style. It then passed to the Livonian Order and became the residence of their Land Marshall in 1432.

The property later became a private residence and has seen much renovation, as recently as 2012 when a European Union project assisted with the work. Most of the castle is in ruins, except for its northern tower and the main gate, both of which can still be climbed.

We were given a private lesson in archery. The archer brought out a bow that they used during the 13th century to show us how difficult it must have been to go to war during that time. It wasn’t easy to shoot the arrow from the bow but I managed to shoot a couple off somehow.

Make Baltic Jewelry

Right in front of the entrance to the medieval castle of Sigulda there is a small shop called Baltu Rotas. This family run business creates Baltic jewelry. They use symbols and motifs from ancient jewelry to create their modern designs.

Some of their collections include sun symbols and trees, as well as Latvian symbols and copies of ancient bracelets and brooches.

They showed us how they make and create designs, and now it was our turn to try. I thought it was going to be a lot easier than it was. I grabbed the hammer and a round shaped tool and started going at it. After a few minutes I realized I wasn’t made for this, but it was extremely fun trying to design jewelry.

Bobsleigh and Luge Track

This is actually an activity I was thinking about doing for a while, ever since I saw the movie Cool Runnings. I had yet to visit a destination with a bobsleighing track. The track was open in 1986 and is one of the few tracks in the world that is accessible to athletes as well as visitors.

The luge track is 1200 meters and features 16 curves with a maximum speed of 125km per hour.  As well as the classic bobsleigh, there is also a summer bob – a bobsleigh on wheels and it is also used for skeleton competitions.  Luge competitions are held every year and an artificial ice start estacode was added in 2008.

You can decide to go on a real bobsled or you can go on a soft sled that doesn’t hit the highest speeds. I decided to do the bobsled, I was looking to feel the true g-force. Before getting on the sled they asked if anyone has neck issues, and lucky I don’t. The ride was amazing! It only lasted about 1 minute but it was sure adrenaline.

Cross Country Skiing

I love skiing! It’s actually one of my favorite activities in the world. But cross-country skiing a bit different. Latvia is famous for its cross-country skiing because its terrain is perfect for it, but they also have slopes in certain areas of the country. We visited Sigulda Sports and Activity Leisure Centre.

Sigulda Sports and Activity Leisure Centre has a refrigerated cross-country skiing trail which opens in autumn through the spring. It is 1.25 m long and 4 m wide with the longest vertical ascent being 11m.

The refrigeration system means that there is always a layer of snow, regardless of the weather conditions. It can also be used for Nordic walking and other activities in addition to the cross-country skiing.

If you have never done cross-country skiing I would recommend getting an instructor for an hour to teach you the basics. I didn’t do this and fell a bunch of times. You can hire ski equipment at the center and there are instructor services to hire. Afterwards, there are sauna and shower facilities in the service building.

Latvian Sauna at Ezeri Spa Hotel

I recently experienced a traditional Finnish sauna up in Ruka and the Kuusamo area in northern Finland so I thought Latvian sauna would be similar but it was completely different. Obviously, the basics are the same – get really hot in a sauna and then head over to an icy pond to cool your body down.

Basically Latvians taking the heating process to an extra level! Instead of just going into the sauna, Latvians have an incredible way of getting hot, by having an herb master push steam onto your body with herbs and leaves. It sounded odd to me but it made complete sense when they did it.

The process went like this: We went into the sauna for as long as we could, then we cooled off for a bit. Once I was ready the herb master took me back in and fanned steam onto my body with herbs. It got extremely hot really fast. As soon as I couldn’t take it anymore, he escorted me outside to the icy pond to cool down.

Once you walk outside you don’t feel cold in the negative degree temperature. My body was on fire, and the only thing that could cure it was to go in the ice. I went in for the fifth time on this trip, and it felt so good!

After 30 seconds in the ice, I got out and was escorted to a bench that I could lay on. The herb master covers you with tons of blankets and let you lay there for 10+ minutes relaxing.

It’s a out of body experience like no other! A natural high that they say is really good for your health, and I truly believe it is because once I was done I felt so relaxed.

Malpils Manor

Malpils is a small town about 20-minutes drive south of Sigulda, 1-hour plus from Riga. We had the opportunity to spend two nights at the Malpils Manor. This manor dates back to 1720 and is now a 24 room luxury hotel that also has one of the best restaurants in the country.

Upon our arrival we learned that we would be cooking our dinner with the head chef Aija Gabrāne who is the top chef in the country. She won the best Latvian chef award.

Each member of my group was assigned a different task to prepare the food including making poached quail eggs, marinating venison, and even making shapes out of different fruits.

Once we finished preparing the food, we headed to dinner where we had a five-course meal with wine pairing. We tried amazing wines from around the world but also had the opportunity to try some local beers!

It felt like I was at a Michelin Star restaurant in the middle of a manor that was completely off the beaten path!

The next day we had a tour of the manor to learn more about the history of the place and to see all the different rooms. I personally fell in love with the place. The staff, chef and house was way above my expectations.

After 72 incredible hours in Latvia, it had me begging for more. I think if you want to see the country correctly you need 10-12 days. That way you can see and do things in the east and in the west end of the country ranging from the small towns to breweries, wineries and the lakes and landscape

I want to thank LIAA, NBE Finland and AirBaltic for hosting me during this amazing 72 hours in Latvia! Thanks to my partners Nobis, Victorinox and BorrowLenses for joining me for this journey! Also a huge thanks to my new best travel buddies, Michael, Jerry, Rebecca, Celina and Elena for making my trip extra special.

10 Responses to “72 Hours in Latvia”

  1. Marika

    Hi! Loved to read your travel experience in Latvia! I just wanted to pay your attention to an incorrect fact in your story: tsar Peter I gave order to rebuild St.Peter’s church tower soon after it burnt down, in 1721, not in 1967 (he died 1725!)! 😊 In 1967 St.Peter’s church tower reconstruction works began!

    Reply
    • David

      I guess the incorrect part is about the Tsar, we did mention the 1721 and reconstruction in 1967. Thanks for commenting!

      Reply
  2. Ilze Coombe

    Excellent write-up!

    Reply
  3. Maris

    You are right David, 10-12 days to see the country properly. That’s what we did last July (with an English friend, also David) stopping at a different place every night. However, we went to see Soviet relics rather than the high life so a different itinerary altogether.

    Reply
    • David

      yea it looks like at least that much time. Yea sounds like a totally different itinerary 🙂

      Reply
  4. Ieva l

    Next time you should go to see Cēsīs Castle from the 1200’s it’s only an hour away from Sigulda and a lot bigger than the ruins you went to see also there you can dress up as a medeval latgalian prince for the full experience 🙂 and on the way you can see a place called Araisi lake dwelling site. But this is a great post. I am happy that you where not so ignorant as most going to look only for some soviet relics (like last 50 years define 800 years of history) however I recommend to go back in the summer when you can swim in all lakes and the sea and the weather is nice and warm and to spend a longer time I’m Latvia 🙂

    Reply
  5. Ieva l

    In Latvia*** (#sausage fingers )

    Reply
  6. uldis rava

    Yes, you do need more time and a Latvian guide maybe to take you to the not so touristy areas. Good tour though.

    Reply
    • David

      I know! We need at least 10-12 days, but I was on a press trip with a group so it was out of my control. Thanks for your comment!

      Reply

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