The forrested country of Latvia is nestled between its neighbours Estonia and Lithuania just off the Baltic Sea. The small country's picturesque towns and ancient cities are set within a landscape of plains, lakes, forests and river valleys. Fishing villages interrupt the dramatic coastline interspersed with white sandy beaches. The country has many manor houses, medieval castles, palaces, and ruins. The capital city of Riga, the beautiful capital, is rich in history and culture with the largest concentration of Art Nouveau buildings in Europe resulting it being declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Latvian capital is an obvious tourist destination as the largest city in the Baltic States and a major port home to almost half the country's population. Nearby, the Baltic health and recreation resort of Jurmala doubles its population during the summer months as a popular holiday destination, with its sandy beaches, healing waters, mud baths, and quaint wooden houses.
History lovers will enjoy the ancient cities of Valmiera, Cesis, and Limbaþi in the northern region, which were once members of the Hanseatic League. The picturesque cultural towns of the Abava River Valley and the villages of the ancient Liv people in the south are also worth visiting. The Rundale Palace is a popular sight along with the spectacular Baroque palace at Jelgava in the central region of Zemgale. Lastly, the scenic Tervete forest, with the oldest and tallest pine trees in Latvia are not to be missed.
Those keen on outdoor activities will enjoy the natural surroundings in the Latgale region otherwise known as the Land of Blue Lakes; the coastal landscape of the Kurzeme region, where deserted beaches stretch for miles; and the coastline and hilly scenery of the northern Vidzeme region, which also is home to Sigulda, the country's downhill skiing area.
Dating back to 1211, the red brick Dom (or Dome) Protestant Cathedral is a highlight of the historic centre of Riga. The cathedral is situated near the Western Daugava River and boasts an incredible organ with over 6,500 pipes built in 1844, stained-glass windows, and a beautifully whitewashed interior. There are regular concerts held on the organ, and the cathedral also has its own boys' choir that gives regular performances. A great historical sight in Latvia, that earns rave reviews from all who experience it. The Dom Protestant Cathedral is a great historical sight in Latvia that earns rave reviews from all who experience it.
Riga Castle (or Riga Pils) was built in 1330 on the site of the original settlement of the city as a residence for the master of the Livonian Order, and later it served as the base for the city's occupiers throughout its history. The distinctive yellow castle was destroyed and rebuilt over time, and today it serves as the offices and home of the Latvian president, as well as the Latvian Museum of Foreign Art and the Rainis Museum of Literature and Art History. The castle is strategically placed on the banks of the Daugava, originally in order to oversee all ships entering the city's port, and has four towers and an inner courtyard.
The Open Air Ethnographic Museum is a fascinating reflection of the traditional Latvian way of life. Set on 247 acres (100ha), the museum consists of farmhouses, fishing villages, windmills, and other historic buildings relocated here to create an outdoor exhibit. Visitors to Riga can watch craftsmen at work, sample traditional Latvian cooking and ales, and learn more about the history of this deeply interesting country.
One of the oldest and biggest of its kind, Riga's Central Market dates back to 1201 and is a riot of sounds, sights, and smells. Anything from fresh fruits, cheeses, and whole sheep carcasses, to appliances, clothing, and CDs are on offer, usually at very reasonable prices. The market was moved from its original home and relocated several times, but since the 1930s has occupied the same space in several World War I hangars, close to the bus and train stations. There is room for over 1,000 vendors, and no visit to Riga is complete without a stroll through its tantalising stalls.
Latvia was occupied from 1949 to 1991 by two successive regimes in the forms of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. This well-curated museum conveys what life was like during this time, and serves as a memorial to those who died or fled as a result of the occupation. Visitors can view film archives and see a reconstruction of life in the infamous Siberian labour camps. A sobering and humanising experience, highly recommended for those who wish to connect to Latvian culture while on holiday in Riga.
The city of Riga contains the highest concentration of Art Nouveau architecture in the world. Otherwise known as Jugendstil, some of the buildings in central and downtown Riga date as far as the late 19th century. The style is characterised by unusual shapes, curved and organic arches, gargoyles, carved faces, and flamboyant cornices. Over 30 percent of central Riga's buildings were created in this style, many supervised by famous Russian architect Mikhail Eisenstein. The best streets to view buildings on are Elisebetes, Strelnieku, and Albert. The Riga Art Nouveau Centre, located in central downtown, has been furnished in the Art Nouveau style allowing visitors to fully immerse themselves in the early 20th century.
What is undoubtedly eastern Europe's finest motor museum is tucked away on the outskirts of Riga, and makes for an essential outing if you enjoy classic cars and Soviet history. The museum contains Molotov's limousine, Stalin's bombproof sedan, and the wreck of Brezhnev's car in which he crashed. The model dummies in the vehicles are a nice touch. There is a priceless collection of classic sports cars and motorcycles, irresistibly photogenic for petrol heads.
Jurmala is the main holiday resort town in Latvia, the place locals go to when they want to relax, catch a tan, and enjoy a spa treatment. The beaches are very good and the seafood restaurants are excellent too. Apart from sand and sea, the main attractions of Jurmala are its spas, which offer a range of therapies and treatments at a fraction of what they'd cost in western Europe. Getting to Jurmala from Riga is easy: by train or bus, the journey takes 30 minutes. Jurmala is fast becoming one of eastern Europe's best spa destinations, and tourists are urged to check it out before the secret gets out and prices begin to sky-rocket.
The Latvian National Opera building is a magnificent 19th-century structure, home to the National Opera, Ballet, and Orchestra companies. Built in 1863 by the St Petersburg architect Ludwig Bohnstedt, the columned and colonnaded building is not only incredibly photogenic, but lays claim to an interesting history. Guided tours of the opera building take place at 5pm every Friday, and are a very popular tourist attraction in Riga. Culture-vultures should also check out the Latvian National Opera's website for programme information. The country has a proud classical music history, with Richard Wagner being Director of Music in Riga between 1837 and 1839, and recitals are often of rare quality.
Riga has a moderate climate, influenced by its close proximity to the sea. Summers tend to be short and cool with cloud cover, and high temperatures average around 64°F (18°C). Winters are usually long, dark and cold, with temperatures averaging between 18°F (-8°C) and 28°F (-2°C) in January. Snowfall is heavy and snow cover usually lasts from mid-December to mid-March. The city is overcast for roughly 40 percent of the year.
Latvia has a temperate climate. May to September (spring and summer) is the best time to visit Latvia, with daytime temperatures averaging 61°F (16°C), but July and August is the peak tourist season and accommodation can be fully booked during this time. The coldest months are January and February, and winter temperatures can be extreme, averaging out at 21°F (-6°C) during the day.
The official currency is the Euro (EUR). Most hotels and restaurants in Riga accept credit cards, but outside of the capital credit cards are not widely accepted and credit card fraud can be a problem at smaller institutions. Foreign currency can be exchanged at any bank, at money change kiosks and at some hotels. Note that an extra fee will be charged to exchange US dollars that are torn or marked in any way. Most banks are closed on Saturdays and Sundays. ATMs are available in the larger cities.
Latvian is the official language, but English, Lithuanian, Russian and German are also spoken.
Electrical current is 230 volts, 50Hz. European style two-pin plugs are in use.
US nationals: US citizens must have a passport that is valid for at least three months beyond the period of intended stay in Latvia. A visa is not required for stays of up to 90 days within a 180 day period.
UK nationals: Passports endorsed 'British Citizen', 'British Subject' (containing a Certificate of Entitlement to the Right of Abode issued by the United Kingdom), and 'British Overseas Territories Citizen' issued by Gibraltar, must be valid on arrival. British passports with other endorsements must be valid for three months beyond the period of intended stay in Latvia.
UK nationals: A visa is not required for British passports endorsed 'British Citizen' or 'British Subject' (containing a Certificate of Entitlement to the Right of Abode issued by the United Kingdom), nor for holders of identity cards issued by Gibraltar, and endorsed 'Validated for EU travel purposes under the authority of the United Kingdom'. No visa is required for stays of up to 90 days within a 180 day period for holders of British passports with other endorsements.
CA nationals: Canadian citizens must have a passport that is valid for three months beyond the period of intended stay in Latvia. No visa is required, for a stay of up to 90 days within a 180 day period.
AU nationals: Australian citizens must have a passport that is valid for three months beyond the period of intended stay in Latvia. No visa is required for a stay of up to 90 days within a 180 day period.
ZA nationals: South African citizens must have a passport that is valid for three months beyond the period of intended stay, and require a valid Schengen visa to enter Latvia.
IR nationals: Irish citizens must have a passport that is valid for the period of intended stay in Latvia. No visa is required.
NZ nationals: New Zealand citizens must have a passport that is valid for three months beyond the period of intended stay in Latvia. No visa is required, for a stay of up to 90 days within a 180 day period.
The borderless region known as the Schengen Area includes the following countries: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, The Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland. All these countries issue a standard Schengen visa that has a multiple entry option, and which allows the holder to travel freely within the borders of all the aforementioned countries. Additionally, foreign passengers to Latvia must hold valid health insurance, that includes provision for repatriation costs. NOTE: It is highly recommended that your passport has at least six months validity remaining after your intended date of departure from your travel destination. Immigration officials often apply different rules to those stated by travel agents and official sources.
No health certificates or vaccinations are required to enter Latvia, but visitors are advised to have an inoculation against tick-borne encephalitis if planning to hike in the country and forests or stay in rural areas, especially during the summer months of March to October. There was a outbreak of Hepatitis A in a restaurant in Riga in May 2008 and travellers are recommended to get vaccinated before travelling to Latvia. Rabies is endemic, and outbreaks of meningitis occur. Medicines are usually available, but it is best to bring a supply of personal medication. Health insurance is necessary. A reciprocal agreement with the UK entitles UK citizens to emergency treatment on the same terms as Latvian nationals on presentation of a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC).
Tipping is not obligatory in restaurants, but it is customary to round up the bill to no more than 10% if a service charge has not been included and the service was good. Carry small change for tipping taxi drivers. In hotels, tip according to the services provided.
Most visits to Latvia are trouble-free, but street crime can be a problem for tourists, and there are occasional muggings of foreigners, particularly if walking alone or at night. Car theft is rife. Reports indicate that foreigners are being charged ridiculously expensive prices for drinks in bars in Riga, and visitors are cautioned against becoming victims by checking on prices before buying. Muggings are common of tourists out late at night in the Old Town.
Latvians are generally reserved, quiet and extremely courteous, and are not comfortable making small talk. Good manners dictates that people are not embarrassed or criticised in public.
Conducting business in Latvia can sometimes be a challenge due to bureaucracy, as well as the lack of English spoken. Business tends to be formal, with a clear-cut hierarchy, and titles are usually used. Punctuality, directness and organisation are all important. Suits and ties are the norm and when in doubt, dress conservatively. Women might encounter some sexism and roles should be clarified to avoid confusion. Business hours are usually from 9am to 6pm, Monday to Friday.
The international dialling code for Latvia is +371. The outgoing code is 00 followed by the relevant country code (e.g. 0044 for the UK). City/area codes are in use; there are three for Riga. International Direct Dialling is available from all public and hotel phones. Public phones use phone cards, which can be bought from numerous shops and kiosks. For local operator assistance dial 116. The two local GSM mobile phone operators use GSM 900 and GSM 1800 networks.
Travellers to Latvia over 17 years and arriving with goods purchased in the EU for personal use do not have to pay duty on 800 cigarettes, 400 cigarillos, 200 cigars, 1kg smoking tobacco; 10 litres of spirits with alcohol content higher than 22%, 20 litres of alcohol with alcohol content lower than 22%, 90 litres wine or 60 litres of sparkling wine, 110 litres of beer, and 110 litres of non-alcoholic beverages. Travellers arriving from non-EU countries do not have to pay duty on 200 cigarettes, or 100 cigarillos, or 50 cigars, or 250g smoking tobacco; 1 litre of spirits with alcohol volume higher than 22%, or 2 litres spirits, aperitifs, liqueur, sparkling or still wines with alcohol volume less than 22% and 2 litres still wine; perfume up to 50g or 250ml eau de toilette; other goods for personal use to the value of €400. Prohibited items include narcotics, guns, and fresh food products.
Latvia Tourist Board, Riga: +371 6703 7900 or www.latviatourism.lv
Embassy of Latvia, Washington DC, United States: +1 (202) 328 2840.
Embassy of Latvia, London, United Kingdom: +44 20 7312 0041.
Embassy of Latvia, Ottawa, Canada: +1 613 238 6014.
Embassy of Latvia, Melbourne, Australia: +61 3 9499 6920.
Honorary Consulate of Latvia, Johannesburg, South Africa: +27 11 750 1600.
Embassy of Latvia, Dublin, Ireland: +353 1 478 0161.
Consulate of Latvia, Auckland, New Zealand: +64 21 190 2618.
United States Embassy, Riga: +371 7036 200.
British Embassy, Riga: +371 777 4700.
Canadian Embassy, Riga: +371 781 3945.
Australian Embassy, Berlin (also responsible for Latvia): +49 30 88 00 88 0
South African Embassy, Stockholm, Sweden (also responsible for Latvia): +46 866 076 93.
Embassy of Ireland, Riga: +371 6703 9370.
New Zealand Embassy, Warsaw, Poland (also responsible for Latvia): +48 22 521 0500.
Riga has a varied nightlife, mostly centred round the Old Town, where many clubs, bars, casinos, and live music venues can be found. Riga is also famous for its classical entertainment, with symphonies and operas taking place throughout the year.
A detailed and monthly updated guide to all Riga's nightlife can be found in the Riga In Your Pocket booklet, available free throughout the city. Close proximity makes walking between nightlife venues a viable option.
Visitors should be cautious late at night as muggings are often reported. The larger clubs attract stag groups from the UK and Scandinavian duty-free tourists. Rather stick to the smaller bars if you want a less rowdy experience.
Riga is a good place to buy local crafts, alcohol, and foodstuffs, but imported goods are very expensive. The highest concentration of shops is in the Old Town and the city centre. One of the best souvenirs to buy in Latvia is amber, for which the country is world-famous. Look out for amber set in silver jewellery. Other quality buys include woollen jerseys and hats with distinctive Baltic patterns, the local liqueur Black Balsam, and World War Two memorabilia. Bargaining is not expected and unlikely to be successful. A great shopping experience is a visit to the huge Central Market, located in five cavernous pavilions. Everything can be bought here, including fresh fish, fruit, honey, and cheap clothes.
Riga has a well-developed and relatively cheap public transport system that consists of buses, minibuses, trams, and trolley buses. Most services run from 5am to as late as 1am and some routes run a regular night service. Tickets can be bought on the bus, trolley, or tram. Final destinations are marked on the front of all transport vehicles. Taxis are readily available, and it is worth noting that licensed cabs will have a yellow number plate. One can risk an unlicensed taxi, but drivers usually turn off the meter and the price needs to be negotiated beforehand. Riga's ferry terminal is located less than half a mile (1km) north of Old Riga. The central train station will take commuters to destinations in Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine.
Just 33 miles (56km) from the capital, Sigulda is a picturesque little town located in the primordial Gauja Valley. It's well worth the trip for tourists to Riga. Dubbed the 'Switzerland of Vidzeme' due to the steep cliffs and caves that line the sides of the river gorge, Sigulda makes a wonderful base from which to explore Latvia's considerable natural bounty. Notable tourist attractions of the area include the Medieval and Turaida Castles, with the former staging an annual open-air Opera Festival in the summer. Gauja National Park is within touching distance of Sigulda, offering great activities such as walking trails and bungee-jumping in summer; and luge, bobsledding, and skiing in the winter. The town of Sigulda itself is particularly worth visiting in spring, when cherry blossoms bloom; and in autumn, where the town seems to take on the blood-orange hue of the leaves falling from its trees. Be sure to visit the Gutmanis Cave, the largest in the Baltic region, and the setting of the Latvian folktale of the Rose of Turaida.
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