Latvia, a Northern European country on the Baltic Sea coast, is an excellent country to visit if you’re a medieval history buff or you enjoy exploring and learning about castles.
Latvia’s oldest castles date back to when the Livonian Order and the Teutonic Knights occupied the territory and built castles for defense purposes, as headquarters, or, for example, as bishops’ residences.
Let’s take a look at the top castles in Latvia visitors should see. You’ll also discover some Latvian castle ruins that continue to impress despite lack of upkeep or repair.
Note that this article talks about castles rather than palaces or manor houses in Latvia.
An introduction to Riga Castle is a good way to start any list of castles in Latvia. Located in the country’s capital city in the heart of its old town, Riga Castle is both symbolic and historically important. When you take a boat tour of Riga, you can see the castle from the water. The castle makes a lovely addition to Old Riga’s skyline.
Three Historical Riga Castles
Riga Castle has its origins in the Livonian Order of Knights, a branch of the German Teutonic Order of Knights. These knights spread through the Baltics, conquering and Christianizing Baltic pagans, so it’s no wonder they weren’t immediately welcomed. Therefore, rebelling Rigans destroyed the knights’ first castle in the city.
The second castle in Riga was rebuilt in a different spot—its current location. However, this castle was also destroyed.
It was rebuilt on the same spot in its third iteration. It’s this castle that variously belonged to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Sweden, and the Russian Empire.
Riga Castle Today
Riga Castle is an important place for Latvia today. It’s the residence of the president of Latvia. It’s also home to museums, including the National History Museum of Latvia and the Museum of Foreign Art. It may be worth paying a visit to this castle on your next visit to Latvia.
Cesis Castle, in part due to increasing popularity as a Latvian destination, is definitely one of the top castles in Latvia. But it isn’t popular for no reason. It’s a well-preserved medieval castle that hosts events and offers excellent views of the surrounding area from its tower.
Cesis Castle, known as Schloss Wenden to the Germans who built it, dates from the early 13th century. The Teutonic Knights used it as a base for a time. However, an attack by Russia’s Ivan the Terrible significantly damaged the structure.
The castle may have, after a period of having been inhabited, been left to ruin. But in the 19th century, the castle began to draw renewed interest and was able to be preserved. Visitors to Cesis will no doubt agree that we are lucky to have such a castle to visit and enjoy.
Visitors to Cesis can enjoy exploring the castle, the manor house, and the castle park. Exhibitions and medieval craft days make up a part of the castle’s events calendar.
Turaida Castle is an impressive sight—it’s been reconstructed—and most certainly has earned its spot on the best castles in Latvia to see for visitors. Turaida Castle can be seen from nearby Sigulda Castle, which also makes this list. For a two-in-one castle adventure, you can visit both on the same day.
Turaida Castle was built, like Cesis Castle, at the beginning of the 13th century by the Livonian Order. Though it suffered fire and was left to ruin, the middle of the 20th century saw a revival in interest in the castle and the area, partly due to archeological finds.
Turaida Castle Today
It’s during this period that Turaida Castle began a new chapter in its life. It’s now a museum and a part of a Museum Reserve in Gauja National Park with interesting sights nearby.
Visitors to Turaida Castle can climb 139 steps up to the top of the tower, where they’ll have gorgeous views of the surrounding forests. From here, you can imagine what it must have been like to inhabit the castle when it was first built so many centuries ago.
Sigulda Castle, like Turaida Castle, is located in Gauja National Park. As one of the top castles in Latvia to visit, it has plenty to offer.
Sigulda Castle: Old and New
Sigulda Castle is actually two castles—the Old, or Medieval, Sigulda Castle and the New Sigulda Castle.
The Old Castle was built by the Livonian Order and survives in ruins that generations of people have put effort into preserving.
The New Castle is actually a manor house built in the Neo-Gothic style nearby Old Sigulda Castle. The juxtaposition of the old and new castles is visually interesting if you were to imagine them side by side. We can also be grateful that the original Sigulda Castle was preserved rather than built over, which sometimes happened when new owners took over such a property.
For those who come to Sigulda Castle on a visit, they’ll be able to climb restored towers and explore the ruins of the Old Castle. The castle and the surrounding buildings also host workshops, concerts, and exhibitions.
Though Ventspils Castle doesn’t look like a medieval castle and has seen adjustments to its exterior, its layout is the same as was when it was first built in the 13th century. This fact alone makes it one of the top castles in Latvia to visit.
While the castle’s secrets are still being unearthed, history has revealed a few facts about Ventspils. The Livonian Order built it in the latter part of the 13th century in the style of a convent. And indeed, later, the castle was used as an Evangelical Lutheran church and a Russian Orthodox church. It was also a prison for several decades up until 1959.
Ventspils is now a museum. Visitors will learn about the castle, the town of the same name, and the port.
A visit to Ventspils Castle may also include the Seaside Open-Air Museum and a ride on a narrow-gauge railway.
Near the border of Lithuania and Latvia lies the town of Bauska. Nearby Rundale Palace may steal Bauska Castle’s thunder due to its popularity with visitors. But due to their proximity, it’s possible to take in the splendor of the Duke of Courland’s residence as well as a medieval castle on the same day.
Built slightly later than the previous entries on this list of top castles in Latvia, Bauska began to rise from its foundations in the 15th century. It eventually passed into the possession of the Duke of Courland. However, the Great Northern War of the 18th century left it in ruins.
The medieval part of the castle remains unrestored, though the residential part—where the Dukes of Courland stayed—has seen some upkeep. Exhibitions allow visitors to become familiar with the castle during different eras. They can also enjoy the surrounding nature.
Krustpils is one of the top castles in Latvia due to its well-preserved state. Though additions—including of the Baroque style—have changed its appearance, its 13th-century origins and life over several centuries have given archeologists and historians significant material to work with.
Krustpils Castle is home to the Jekabpils History Museum. Visitors can learn about the castle and its exhibits with an audio guide and climb the tower for a view.
Ruins of Castles in Latvia
Though many Latvian castles have survived, many others have been reduced to ruins either through damage by war, fire, or neglect. However, castle ruin sites offer plenty of fodder for the imagination and the camera lens, so they may be worth visiting if you’re already in the area.
- Dobele Castle, built in 1334 and abandoned in 1736, with still-sturdy walls remaining.
- Piltene Castle, with some tower remains, built in the early 14th century and abandoned in the 1750s.
- Aluksne Castle, built in the 14th century on an island and, though not in use as a building, is on display for visitors.
- Koknese Castle, built in the 13th century, once stood overlooking the Daugava River, but due to manmade flooding now rests at water level.
- Lielvarde Castle, a 13th-century bishop’s castle, with 14th-century ruins surviving.
- Rauna Castle, dating from the 14th century and purposefully demolished in the 18th century with some tower bases and walls intact.
The above is not a complete list of ruins of Castles in Latvia—other ruins exist in better or worse shape throughout the country.
Still other Latvian castles were turned into manor houses or replaced by largely newer construction using the foundations and remaining walls as a basis for residential manor houses. They may now exist in this guise and are no longer traditional castles—but they may still be grand architectural structures worthy of a visit nonetheless.
What Latvian Castles Offer Today
What links Latvia’s castles is their origin in the Middle Ages and their construction by the powerful Livonian Knights. They passed hands many times and saw wars, conflict, and natural disasters.
Some castles of Latvia were valued and preserved, their importance, or at least usefulness, maintained. Others were used as construction materials in manor houses that needed to impress but not defend. And still others fell into disuse and neglect, and so only expert recreation can tell us how they originally looked.
Latvian castles today teach us much about the past—from archeological finds, through their strategic location or layout, or now through their modern teaching function in the form of museums. Plus, they’re beautiful and often offer great views, excellent photograph opportunities, and inspiration. That makes them one of the top things to do in Latvia for visitors!