Are you looking for things to do in Latvia as you plan your travel in the Baltic countries? This guide to activities, sights, and experiences will help you discover the best of Latvia.
Table of Contents
- Coastal Cities and Beaches
- Rundale Palace
- Soviet Sites
- Forest, Bogs, and Other Natural Attractions
- Latvian Cities
- Seasonal Events
- Discover Other Countries
Riga, as one of the Baltic capitals, makes an excellent destination. Exploring Riga is one of the most important things to do in Latvia, especially if you’ve never been there before. If you have only a short time in Latvia, you can easily spend all of your time in Riga—but note that it also acts as an excellent hub for seeing the rest of the country.
Old Town Riga, or Vecriga as it is known in Latvian, is the historical center of the city and protected as a UNESCO World Heritage site. This area was enclosed within the former city walls. The reconstructed walls now offer some representation of how they looked, and it’s still possible to see original elements of Riga’s medieval past within this area.
The House of Blackheads may be one of the most important monuments in Riga—and seeing it is one of the top things to do in Latvia. It was originally constructed as a merchant guild hall, but it now houses a museum.
The House of Blackheads may, however, be most famous for its connection to the legend of the first Christmas tree, which was said to be erected on the spot in front of the square.
Riga Castle is another important feature of Old Town Riga. A museum and the residence of the president of Latvia, it stands out for its prime location and interesting combination of architectural details.
The Latvian Museum of Architecture is housed in a trio of buildings from different eras—the first dating from the 15th century. Known as the “Three Brothers,” these buildings make for an ideal photo op for your trip to Riga and is one of the top things to do in Latvia.
Of course, just taking a stroll through Old Town Riga is experience enough. The winding streets, colorful buildings, and shops, restaurants, and cafes will make your time spent here worthwhile and memorable.
One of the top things to do in Latvia is to see Art Nouveau in Riga. Riga’s Art Nouveau architecture is one of its most remarkable things to see. It represents a period in Latvia’s history when the country was going through its national awakening, with an interest in Latvian culture and independence in the foreground.
That’s why some of Riga’s Art Nouveau architecture weaves Latvian symbolism into the facades along with organic and floral motifs typical of the style. The Art Nouveau architecture is one of the best reasons to visit Riga!
Take a tour of Riga’s Art Nouveau architecture, visit the Art Nouveau Museum, or simply be sure to look up to see the decorations as you explore the Latvian capital. Over 800 examples of architecture in this style in Riga alone means you won’t lack for opportunities to see it.
Tip: Visit Elizabeta Street for some of Riga’s prime examples of Art Nouveau architecture.
Near the old town is the Monument to Freedom, which stands on Freedom Boulevard. It was originally built to honor those who lost their lives in the Latvian War of Independence. The three stars that the woman holds aloft were meant to represent the unification of three of Latvia’s regions.
Tip: At the entry to the boulevard from Old Town Riga, you’ll see a clock to the right-hand side bearing the name “Laima” in vertical lettering. Laima is a Latvian chocolate factory (you can pick up bars of this chocolate at supermarkets and specialty shops), but the clock has had a more nuanced purpose than advertisement: during the Soviet era, it was used as a political information stand.
Riga’s Central Market is an experience all its own. Former zeppelin hangars are now used for selling local produce, pickles, fish, meat, and cheese.
It’s a great option if you’re using an Airbnb or other apartment rental and are self-catering meals. Interact with the vendors to ask their recommendations or try seasonal products that you may not be able to get back home.
The Central Market is one of those things to do in Latvia that indulges a desire to sample local products.
River Boat Ride
You can take a river boat ride down the Daugava that will show you Riga from the water. This pleasant activity is best done on a summer day when the sky is clear. You’ll notice major Riga landmarks along the way, including Riga Castle. For one of the most relaxing things to do in Latvia, choose a river cruise.
If you love museums or need someplace to go when the weather is uncooperative, consider visiting one of Riga’s recommended museums when you develop your list of things to do in Latvia:
- The Art Nouveau Museum—This museum is housed in an Art Nouveau building and recreates period interiors with objects donated by patrons.
- The Museum of the Occupation of Latvia—Learn about Latvia under occupying regimes as well as its struggle for independence. In a separate building, the Corner House, the former KGB headquarters operates as an extension of the main museum.
- The Latvian National Museum of Art—Latvia has a strong visual arts heritage, and here you’ll discover some of the country’s big names in painting.
- The Latvian Ethnographic Open-Air Museum—Pay this museum a visit to see traditional Latvian architecture and learn about customs, holidays, and folk culture.
- The Museum of the Riga Ghetto and Holocaust in Latvia—See how the Holocaust was enacted in Latvia and learn about those who suffered during this horrific time in history.
- The Riga Jewish Museum—called the “Jews in Latvia” Museum, it was founded by Holocaust survivors and seeks to preserve the memories, experience, and heritage of Latvian Jews.
- The Museum of Decorative Art and Design—Decorative and applied arts fill the halls of this museum, showcasing the many ways that artists can reinvent objects, find new mediums, and develop individual techniques.
2. Coastal Cities and Beaches
One of the best things to do in Latvia is visit the coast. Latvia’s coastal towns and beaches have their own feel.
Whether you’d like to learn about maritime history and culture here or relax in the sun, Latvia has you covered.
Jurmala is one Latvia’s favorite coastal escapes. With miles of soft-sand beaches, cozy wooden architecture, and a refreshing resort vibe, it attracts both locals and visitors in droves during the warm months. Furthermore, it’s only a short journey from Riga, making it convenient for those making the Latvian capital their home base. Most lists of things to do in Latvia include Jurmala as an option.
Liepaja is an increasingly attractive seaside destination, and in the region, it’s a locally known alternative to more popular coastal cities. Beyond its beach, it’s famous for the Karosta Prison, where visitors can get a taste of what it was like to behind bars in a Soviet military prison.
Ventspils is an excellent mix of elements, which makes it great for groups of travelers or families. A working port, the beach, and a castle are some of its attractions. A seaside open-air museum and water/recreation parks round out the offerings of Ventspils.
Tip: While the Baltic Sea remains cool even in the summer months, that doesn’t stop locals from enjoying it. Prepare for cooler weather, too. The sunshine cannot always compensate for the brisk wind coming off the water.
Latvia’s castles are some of its most treasured landmarks. Seeing them is one of the best things you can do in Latvia. Your visit to one or more castles will bring you closer to history, give you an excuse to visit towns and parks, and offer striking views of the land from towers.
Cesis is one of Latvia’s most famous castles, with an entire calendar of events surrounding it and the town by the same name.
Sigulda, with its Old Castle and the New Castle manor house, is another opportunity to see a part of Latvia you may not have otherwise considered.
Turaida Castle, located in Gauja National Park, has been partially reconstructed and always impresses.
Tip: Many castles are within a short distance of one another. If you love castles, it’s easy to work a couple in during a day trip or along the points of a road trip through Latvia.
Alternatively, tours of some of Latvia’s best castles are available, which will provide you with the benefit of a guide who can tell you about the Teutonic Knights and the Livonian order, responsible for the construction of these castles.
4. Rundale Palace
A visit to Rundale Palace is one of the best things to do in Latvia for lovers of Baroque and Rococo architecture or those in thrall to Europe’s great palaces.
Built by Rastrelli, the architect responsible for famous St. Petersburg Palaces, Rundale Palace is a restored former duke’s residence with gardens. Gilded decorations, ceiling frescoes, parquet floors, and artifacts from the time period grace the interiors.
Rundale Palace can be reached as a day trip from Riga. Or if you’re continuing on to Lithuania, Rundale Palace’s location near the border of the two countries makes it a convenient stop.
Tip: Nearby Rundale Palace is Bauska Castle. If you have time, you can visit both attractions in the same day.
5. Soviet Sites
Soviet sites in Latvia are some of the most interesting, educational, and strange things to do in Latvia.
Riga has plenty of Soviet sites if you’re limiting your Latvia travel to the capital, from the Stalinist Academy of Sciences building to the Corner House, the former KGB headquarters. The Museum of the Occupation of Latvia is also pertinent to this topic.
However, Soviet sights can be seen throughout the country. Karosta Prison may be one of the most famous—actors recreate the atmosphere of a military prison as it was during Soviet times. You can take a tour of the prison or stay overnight for the full experience.
The Ligatne Nuclear Bunker is another. Visitors descend into the earth to learn how Soviet officials planned for nuclear attack and what the components of such a bunker were.
6. Forests, Bogs, and Other Natural Attractions
Most visitors agree that Latvian nature is one of its biggest attractions—it’s not an opinion, it’s a fact about Latvia! Getting out into a forest or park is one of the best things to do in Latvia if you love the outdoors.
Latvia’s national parks preserve and protect its natural landscapes while welcoming visitors. One of the most popular is Gauja National Park in which both Turaida Castle and Sigulda Castle are located. From Turaida Castle’s tower, you can look out onto the park and its miles of green.
The park contains other historical and cultural monuments such as manor houses and churches, wind- and watermills, and a reconstructed wooden lake castle that resurrects a 9th-century settlement.
If you’re interested in caves, Latvia has some intriguing examples. The best known is Gutman’s Cave, which is said to be Latvia’s oldest tourist attraction. At the mouth of the cave, you’ll see carvings into the rock signifying those who visited the cave.
It may go without saying that it is no longer permitted to carve your name into the rock! The names that appear here were left in a different era, when conservation was less of a priority.
This cave, located near Turaida Castle, is surrounded by legend.
One of the most unusual things to do in Latvia—albeit rewarding and beautiful—is a bog walk. Latvia’s bogs are unique ecological territories that visitors can learn from and enjoy. Many have wooden footpaths through the bog so that guests can see the bog without either disturbing the soggy ground underfoot or sinking in themselves.
7. Latvian Cities
If your time allows, you’ll find many things to do in Latvia in its cities. Latvian cities each have their specific charms and attractions that give you a closer understanding of Latvia.
Daugavpils is an interesting city in Latvia with both mainstream and quirky attractions for the visitor looking for something a bit different.
The Mark Rothko Art Center uses the fame of one of its native celebrities to tell both the story of Rothko through art donated by his family as well as present the work of other Latvian artists.
Across from the Mark Rothko Art Center is the Daugavpils Fortress, a large complex of structures dating back to the era of Napoleon.
Other attractions in the town include a lead shots factory, ceramics workshops, and churches of various denominations.
Kuldiga, with its city plan that dates back to the 13th century, its pretty architecture, and its watermill is right out of a postcard. It’s also home to Europe’s widest waterfall.
Explore the area around Jelgava for Latvian manor houses of all stripes. Its Baroque palace, a sister palace to Rundale Palace, is also a sight to behold. This palace is now home to Latvia University of Life Sciences and Technologies.
Shopping in Latvia offers unique opportunities to snag gifts and souvenirs that you won’t find anywhere else. It’s definitely one of the best things to do in Latvia for visitors!
Look for Latvian design such as bags, jewelry, or raincoats by the company Rain Sisters. Boutiques and markets will carry some brands that have made their name in Latvia.
Alternatively, look for Latvian folk art. Weaving, ceramics, woodcrafts, or other useful for decorative items using traditional techniques or bearing traditional designs make excellent souvenirs.
Shop for Latvian folk art at outdoor markets, shops specializing in local and traditional design, or Latvian Christmas markets.
You can also shop for Baltic amber, which is found off the coast of countries such as Latvia, Poland, and Lithuania. Made into jewelry or figurines, this precious jewel can be worn today or passed on to future generations.
Tip: An often overlooked souvenir is English-language coffee-table books about Latvia or cookbooks of Latvian recipes. You’ll find these in bookstores in the center of Riga or shops specializing in souvenirs.
9. Seasonal Events
Seasonal events are things to do in Latvia that only come once a year—you can either plan your trip around them or be happy when they coincide with your visit! They offer opportunities to experience Latvian culture, possibly shop for holiday crafts, and enjoy related entertainment.
Midsummer celebrations center around the summer solstice and happen on June 24. This day is celebrated through bonfires, singing, and staying up all night to honor the longest day of the year. If you are able to participate in a Latvian midsummer celebration, you’ll be enjoying a ritual that dates back to Pagan times.
People eat the traditional farmers cheese with caraway seeds on this day, drink beer, and use flowers and leaves to make wreaths to wear or for decoration.
Midsummer is a favorite Eastern European holiday tradition.
Latvian Carnival, or Shrove Tuesday, is called Metenis. Head to the Ethnographic Open-Air Museum of Latvia to celebrate it in traditional style.
Christmas in Latvia
Christmas in Latvia is celebrated through the month of December with Christmas markets, Christmas trees, concerts, and other related events.
Be sure to visit the Riga Christmas tree, which upholds the tradition dating back centuries of the first Christmas tree—which is said to have been erected in front of the House of Blackheads.
Easter in Latvia
Easter in Latvia is an important holiday that combines Christian rituals with Baltic paganism. You’ll love visiting during this time of year—with spring just beginning, the hope Easter brings is cheerful and culturally meaningful.
Latvia celebrates two independence days due to its initial declaration after WWI and its restored independence after breaking free of the Soviet Union at the end of the 20th century.
During these days, you’ll have opportunity to see cities decorated with the Latvian flag, one of the flags of the Baltic countries. Ceremonies and speeches may also be a part of Independence Day celebrations.
Before you travel to Latvia, it’s a good idea to check out events calendars to see what’s on for your time of stay.
Film festivals, music festivals, and other festivals—of lights, food, or culture, or celebrating medieval times—take place throughout the year and throughout the country.
While Riga is the epicenter of festival activity, you’ll find opportunities to get up close and personal with Latvian culture in various destination cities. For example, visit Jelgava for its seasonal festivals—snow sculptures in the winter and sand sculptures in the summer.
Tip: Be sure to dress for the weather when planning to attend outdoor markets and festivals. You’ll be able to enjoy your time spent there longer—especially in winter, when being underdressed will have you running indoors soon after you arrive.
If you’re a foodie, one of the best things to do in Latvia is try local foods. You can visit the Central Market in Riga for homemade specialties or seek out restaurants specializing in Latvian food.
You’ll encounter herring, dark bread, potato pancakes, pork dishes, and a cold soup similar to Lithuanian pink soup. If available, be sure to try the seasonal “summer” cheese with caraway seeds that Latvians are so fond of.
You can also taste local beer, spirits, and even wine. Though Latvia’s wine production is small due to its northern latitude, it does produce some varieties.
Tip: Many people suggest trying Riga Black Balsam, a treacly, dark liqueur that comes in various flavors. Bars and restaurants may serve it, but you can purchase bottles where alcohol is sold or in the airport when you fly out.
One of the best things to do in Latvia is to take a tour. Various tours are available for those who want to see certain aspects of the country or cities or based around various themes.
For example, in Riga alone, you can take a general walking tour of the city, which will introduce you to its main sights and history. Or narrow your focus to the Central Market, where your guide will explain to you the importance of this landmark and what makes it special—you may also be invited to sample the foods from the market. An Art Nouveau tour will introduce you to Riga’s best examples of this architectural style.
Beyond Riga, tours focus on destinations such as Sigulda, Cesis, Jurmala, or Rundale Palace. Tours of national parks are also available, which allow nature lovers to get the most out of Latvia’s outdoor environment.
Other tour experiences include Soviet-themed tours, tours that include workshops in photography or art, or even dog sledding.
Jewish heritage tours may focus on Riga specifically or Latvia in general, or even combine Latvia with Lithuania or Estonia for a broader experience.
Of course, many tour guides are happy to customize a tour for you if you have several “must-see” things to do in Latvia, if you’re chasing family roots, or if you have a certain passion or hobby that will be enriched by your travels. Customizing a tour to suit your own interests may be one of the things to do in Latvia that will best maximize your time.
12. Discover Other Countries
One of the things to do in Latvia is—get out of Latvia! Latvia makes an excellent hub for exploration of nearby countries. As the middle Baltic country, it offers easy access to both Estonia to the north and Lithuania to the south—it’s one of the facts about the Baltics that gives Latvia its allure.
However, its airport is also well-connected to various European and other international destinations. If you’re doing a multi-stop journey, it’s worth it to see if Riga can easily connect you to your next destination.
Riga to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, is about four hours by bus and under an hour by plane. While you’ll find plenty of things to do in Tallinn, the rest of the country is also worth exploring.
Estonia’s cities are diverse, whether based around a university, nestled along the coast, or home to a majority of Russian speakers. Estonia’s Castles are majestic reminders of the past. On the flip side, Soviet sites in Estonia make grim reminders of oppression, deportation, and Estonian independence gained and lost.
Vilnius, Lithuania, is likewise about four hours by bus and a short plane ride from Riga. Old Town Vilnius is the heart of the city, but it isn’t the only thing to do in Vilnius—you’ll find plenty to occupy you in the Lithuanian capital city.
Lithuanian cities, Lithuanian castles, and Soviet sites in Lithuania all make interesting additions to a Lithuania itinerary. You’ll also encounter ways to experience Lithuanian food and Lithuanian culture.
As you can see, all the things to do in Latvia are one of the many reasons to visit! This Northern European country on the Baltic Sea may be small, but don’t underestimate its potential to wow you.