(Last Updated On: December 5, 2019)
Part of what’s considered the “Baltic States” (along with Lithuania and Estonia), Latvia is located in Northern Europe sandwiched between Lithuania and Estonia, touching the Baltic Sea to the west and Russia and Belarus to the east. Although it’s the smallest country of the Baltic States, Latvia left me pleasantly surprised. I was impressed with all that the capital of Latvia – Riga – had to offer, but was more impressed with what I saw outside of the capital city. Incredible National Parks, charming towns, and impressive wine tastings that would stun the most seasoned wine drinkers. So while you could hit Riga on your stop through the Baltic States, realistically, Latvia should be given more time. This Latvia travel itinerary includes Riga and beyond, diving into what makes Latvia unique and why you should visit!
Latvia Travel Itinerary – Visiting Riga, Tukums, and Kuldīga
The Capital of Latvia – Riga
Riga is the capital of Latvia. It’s located on the Baltic Sea with the River Daugava running through. Famously known for having the highest concentration of Art Nouveau style architecture in the world, walking through Riga is like walking through a time machine taking you back to a dreamy and whimsical world in the early 1900’s. Aside from the incredible architecture throughout the city, if you visit Riga you can expect a well preserved medieval Old Town, a beer district, a tasty food scene, and opportunities to experience the Latvian spa culture.
Riga’s Medieval Old Town
Journeying through Riga’s Old Town, again, is like journeying back in time. Aside from the “Historic Centre of Riga” being an UNESCO World Heritage Site, what I found most unique about Riga’s Old Town was the sheer beauty and magnificence of it. Intricate details and colorful buildings, clean streets, winding cobblestone alleyways, and lively bars and restaurants line the narrow streets. As locals popped in and out of shops, I noticed that I tended to be greeted with friendly smiles versus icy stares. Feeling welcomed and enveloped in the warmth and coziness of the city, I happily skipped through town discovering the famous sites of Riga’s Old Town.
While in Riga’s Old Town there are four different sites worth seeing (and photographing!). The first place to stop is at the Three Brothers – three houses that make up the oldest complex of dwelling houses in Riga. Each house is unique due to being built during different time periods. The “oldest brother” was built in 1490, the “middle brother” in 1646 and the “youngest brother” in the second half of the 17th-century. Legend has it that the houses were built by three men of one family.
Once done seeing the Three Brothers, a three-minute walk south will bring you to the picturesque restaurant – 1221 Restorāns. Although I didn’t eat inside, viewing the restaurant from the outside is what took me to this stop. A baby blue facade with neatly painted decorations and a narrow alley that leads up to the restaurant is what drew me in. Here you’ll also be able to walk the snaking roads leading to and away from the restaurant giving you a better taste of Riga’s Old Town.
After stopping at the photogenic 1221, three-minutes further south you’ll find the ornate, baroque style museum – House of the Blackheads. Originally this was a place for unmarried merchants, shipowners, and foreigners visiting Riga, now days you can tour the inside to see what life was like during the Blackheads Society. Unfortunately in 1941 the building was bombed by the Germans and has since had to be rebuilt. From 1996-1999 the House of the Blackheads was rebuilt and is what you’ll see standing today.
For the last stop through Riga’s Old Town, 360-feet northeast will bring you to St. Peter’s Church. Here you can buy a ticket inside for nine Euros which will allow you to go up to the observation tower. While the inside of the church itself had art installations, overall it was unimpressive. I would however, recommend buying a ticket for the observation tower. You’ll take an elevator up where you’ll be offered 360 degree, panoramic views of Riga.
Looking for bar and restaurant recommendations in Old Town? Check out Restaurant Domini Canes, located right next to St. Peter’s Church for delicious food. Folkklubs ALA Pagrabs for a lively bar scene with local beer and homemade moonshine. And Black Magic for a kitsch experience tasting the local Latvian liquor – black balsam currant.
Riga’s Beer District and Food Scene
Also unique about Riga is the beer and food scene. The city has an entire district dedicated to beer AND Riga has the largest market and bazaar in all of Europe – Riga Central Market. Along with Old Riga, the Central Market has also been placed on UNESCO World Heritage Site list. This farmers market took six years to build the market and it opened in 1930. To me, what was notable about the Central Market was how organized and clean it was. They have a total of five buildings – called pavilions – and each pavilion has its own “theme”. There’s one pavilion dedicated to meat, one pavilion dedicated to seafood, vegetables, and so on. Not only are there five indoor pavilions, but there’s also outdoor stalls to shop at as well. There has to be some sense of organization seeing how on average, 80,000-100,000 people shop at the market each and every day. Besides the fresh food you can pick up to take home and cook, the market also has bars and restaurants to eat at. The market is open seven days/week and is located just steps from old town along the River Daugava.
After having traditional Latvian food from the market – wash it all down with traditional Latvian beer. Beer has been a big tradition in Latvia dating back to the Middle Ages, when Latvian farmers brewed beers as they pleased. However, this all ended after WWI. The government of Latvia passed laws restricting the brewing and selling of beer and then the Soviets occupied Latvia. When Latvia regained its independence, many families still had their brewing equipment and the knowledge of beer brewing. This is what led to the birth of numerous craft breweries. Now, the Riga beer district serves over 100 different types of craft beer varieties throughout 10 different pubs, beer kitchens, and brewpubs.
The Riga Beer District is only a half an hour walk from the Freedom Monument located in Old Town, or if you’d rather take public transportation you can get on the No. 11 tram, No. 3, No. 5 trolleybuses from the city centre. Otherwise you can take a taxi or Bolt. The 10 pubs/restaurants that makeup the Beer District include Valmiermuižas Beer Embassy, Labietis, Ziemeļu Enkurs, Alķīmiķis, Kanepes CC, Taka, Zobens Un Lemess, Walters & Grapa, Vest, and Autentika.
Latvian Spa Culture
Of note, the Latvian spa culture is a unique addition to the country dating back to the 19th-century. While traditional spa culture takes place in the countryside, I think it’s worth noting that Riga does have options if you can’t get away from the city but still want to experience the spa culture. For a deeper understanding of the experience, and a recommendation on where to experience it in Riga, read this post.
Tukums – The Town of Roses
Tukums is located approximately 45 miles west of Riga. It should not only be visited for its proximity to the capital, but for nature, tasty food, and for being where the leading wine producer in Latvia is. To get to Tukums from Riga I’d highly recommend renting a car so you can explore at your own pace. Plus, depending on how much time you have you may want to go further outside of Riga to explore more of what Latvia has to offer.
Ķemeri National Park – Bog Trail
Before arriving to Tukums, make a stop at the insanely beautiful Ķemeri National Park. Located west of Jūrmala between Riga and Tukums, you can get to Ķemeri in just 45 minutes. If you have a car, there is a parking lot at the park (where the bog trail is located), which is free and the lot is open 24/7. Otherwise you can get to the park by train.
Ķemeri National Park is the third largest (out of five) national parks in Latvia and was established as a national park in 1997. While there are many different options of paths to take, I’d highly recommend the bog trail walk. The “Boardwalk in Ķemeri Raised Bog” is an easy, flat walk, winding through the bog. There are two different trails, one “the big circle” which takes you 2.2 miles, and the “small circle” taking 0.9 miles. The walk is free and open year around. The highlight of this walk is the viewing platform you’ll come across allowing panoramic views of the bog. It’s truly unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.
Tukums Food and Wine Scene
Once finished at Ķemeri National Park, its worth it to venture further on to Tukums to experience the food and wine scene. A quick half an hour drive will bring you to the heart of Tukums where you can stop for lunch at the traditional Latvian restaurant – Restorāns Corner’s. Set in a cozy atmosphere, this innovative restaurant will have you wondering why Latvian food isn’t a staple in your everyday diet! The wholesome food and creamy dessert topped with berries and fruits particularly stood out to me.
While in town make sure to drop by the largest wine producer in the country – ABAVAS vīna darītava. Not only can their wine be found around Latvia, but also internationally! Because of the cold climate, the wine in Latvia is unique because it tends to be grown from fruits and berries versus grapes. While Abavas does experiment with growing grapes in Latvia they are most recognized for their fruit wines, ciders, and distilled spirits. Fun fact, Abavas is one of the most northern vineyards in the world!
At Abavas you can both tour the cellar and have a wine tasting to go along with it! They ask that you book your tasting in advance, which you can do so by calling +371 26630022 or +371 29125518 or email email@example.com. (Note that the Tukums location is only a wine cellar; the vineyard is located in Abavas river valley near Sabile).
Kuldīga – Venice of the North
Famous for having the widest waterfall in all of Europe (Ventas Rumbas), Kuldīga is oftentimes referred to as Venice of the North for the River Alekšupīte that cuts through town and the little bridges to walk across. In true Latvian tradition, once you get married the groom is supposed to carry their bride across a bridge without dropping her. My tour guide explained to me that they were all thankful that the bridges in Kuldīga were quite short compared to the bridges in Venice.
However, what I appreciated most about Kuldīga wasn’t the wooden beams bridging the cobblestone streets, or the sound of the rushing water cutting through town. Instead it was the care and precision that they put into restoring the town (a town thats old buildings date back to the 16th-17th centuries). Kuldīga has joined the project “Living with Cultural Heritage”, with a goal to maintain and cherish its historical town while preserving its character. There’s even a shop in town – Kuldīga Restauration Center – where locals can take their doors and windows and be taught (for free) how to restore them in a historical manner. It goes to show how proud the locals are of their heritage and where they’ve come from and what extreme measures they’ve taken to preserve the local traditions brought on by their ancestors.
West of Riga, you can arrive to Kuldīga by car or bus. If you plan on skipping Tukums (although not advisable) and driving straight through from Riga to Kuldīga you could arrive in approximately two hours.
Kuldīga’s Food Scene
When speaking about Kuldīga, you can’t not talk about their food and wine scene. A town home to 25,000 people, Kuldīga has more cafes and restaurants in a small area than any other place in Latvia. They pride themselves on good cuisine and I have to give it to them, they know what they’re doing. Every restaurant and cafe I popped into was brimming with locals, smiling and laughing. Sharing conversation over coffee, wine, or traditional food. It was something out of movie… walking down the cobblestone streets on a blistering cold day. Passing few people until you pop into a restaurant for some warmth and realize that that is where everyone is hiding! Cozying up inside, escaping the cold weather. And to think, I originally thought the town just wasn’t busy; but I was mistaken.
As I said earlier, there are tons of places to eat in Kuldīga! You can’t go wrong choosing from the Mediterranean food from Goldingen Room, a light bite from the coffee shop Kursas Zeme, or a traditional Latvian meal from Bangert’s. All three have a fun, energetic atmosphere with a Latvian flair!
Wine Tasting Near Kuldīga
Aside from the plethora of restaurants and cafes to choose from in Kuldīga, this area of Latvia also offers the chance to taste incredible wine. Of note, Aizpute Winery sells wine throughout Latvia and also has a tasting room for people to visit. The tasting room is located 30-minutes southwest of Kuldīga and accompanies guests who are looking for a wine tasting and the chance to learn about winemaking in Latvia. Reservations must be made in advance through Martins +371 26397949 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Another opportunity for wine tasting is to head to the eery, but magnificently gorgeous, Kabile Manor. 25-minutes east of Kuldīga sits this once abandoned manor built from 1734-1740. Most recently three women (all friends!) bought the manor and are working to restore with a goal to open a hotel and winery. While they have a ways to go, they have already made big strides. They currently produce wine (off-site) and the proceeds that are sold go into restoring the manor. Not to mention, it caused such a ruckus in town that they have opened early (unfinished) to offer wine tastings for those willing to brave the construction! Reservations must be made in advanced through their Facebook page, where you can also book a tour if you’re visiting during the summer.
Wanting to spend the night in Kuldīga and head back to Riga (or wherever you’re going next) in the morning? I recommend a stay at the cozy and modern Noliktava No 5. Here you’ll find that each room is decorated uniquely, but still warm and welcoming to all who stay.
My Suggested Route
A lot of information was covered in this Latvia travel itinerary, especially when it comes to visiting Latvia beyond Riga. I’m going to quickly give you my recommendation of getting around and from place to place, showing where to stop when. This can be modified as you please, but if I were to visit Latvia again – this is exactly what I would do.
Arrive to Riga, spend one day. Rent a car and leave early in the morning to drive to Ķemeri National Park to walk the bog trail. Continue onto Tukums to eat lunch at Restorāns Corner’s and partake in a wine tasting at ABAVAS vīna darītava – don’t forget to book a reservation in advance. Once you’re done wine tasting continue onwards to Kabile Manor for another wine tasting (need reservation in advance). Then head to Kuldīga, arriving just in time for dinner. Eat at Bangert’s before crashing at Noliktava No 5. Begin the day early by poking around the charming town of Kuldīga. Eat lunch at Goldingen Room or Kursas Zeme before heading to another wine tasting at Aizpute (need a reservation in advance). From Aizpute head back to Riga to spend one last day in the capital.
While Latvia may seem “random” to people or may get overlooked for more “popular” countries… to my biggest surprise it seems to have a lot of character and tons of things to do for people of all ages. It’s a unique country and one that is sure to only get more popular as time goes on. My biggest piece of advice is not only to visit Latvia now, but to explore beyond Riga. The charm lies all around the country… not just in the capital.
If you want a more visual look at Latvia, make sure to check out my Instagram page/highlight reel for more recommendations, history, and pictures!