Jurmala & Sigulda, Latvia

In a surprise twist, just thirty minutes outside Riga are the wide, sandy beaches of Jūrmala. I never thought to associate Latvia with sun and sand. But the locals certainly do. On a hot summer Friday, it seemed half of the country was along the Jūrmala coast. The Baltic water wasn’t warm enough to tempt me to swim (though others were indulging happily), but it was the perfect spot for relaxing. There are small restaurants and ice cream stands along the shore and areas of “active” and “passive” recreation. Zones for sunbathing and being lazy! This beach has it figured out.

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Around Jūrmala

A little further inland is the heart of the tourist area, with pedestrian streets full of small shops and restaurants. We spotted an Orthodox church under construction and Latvia’s largest bronze globe (oddly specific, but it’s something). In one of the main parks was a viewing tower that was free to climb. The catch was that the floors were all grated metal, so looking down was a bit vertigo-inducing. From the top level we saw Riga, tiny in the distance, and the Baltic Sea on the nearer horizon. Since most local buildings are low, the surrounding forest appears nearly uninterrupted.

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Viewing tower in Dzintaru mežaparks

In the opposite direction from Riga is Sigulda, a small town at the start of Gaujas National Park. It is where they happen to keep the castles. In Sigulda itself are the remains of the Castle of the Livonian Order. The oldest castle dates from the early 1200s, though it underwent many iterations through the centuries. Parts of the towers and wooden battlements have been reconstructed and were open for exploration.

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Livonian Castle in Sigulda, path to Turaida

From Sigulda, it was only a little bit of a hike across the river and through the woods to get to the next castle, Turaida. Along the way was the largest cave in the Baltic States, Gūtman’s Cave. The cave was really more of a giant niche with a small spring inside, but the walls are covered in graffiti, some dating back centuries. Clearly, it was a big deal to have your name on the wall, and some people even carved scrolls or family crests to make their marks more visible.

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Gūtman’s Cave – the largest (by volume) in the Baltics

Hiking a little further, up and down the local hills (they kept being referred to as mountains on local signs), we arrived at Turaida. This castle is inside a museum/reserve with preserved buildings and a sculpture park. But the main attraction is the castle. Again, it was built in the early 1200s and has been reconstructed. A tower and some recreated battlements loomed over lower ruins.

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Turaida Castle without and within

Perhaps the best part of the museum was a giant swing. Sized so that two adults could stand on it, maybe it’s a forerunner of kiiking?

Overall we hiked about 12 kilometers around the towns, though we didn’t make it to the third castle, Krimulda, because we needed to catch our train back to Riga. The area around Sigulda was beautiful and there are plenty of other trails to explore if we ever make it back.

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Riga, Latvia

Riga, Latvia was a natural next stop after Vilnius, and we were thrilled to spend a month there given how much we seemed to enjoy Baltic culture. Riga was similarly relaxed, though noticeably more touristed than Lithuania’s capital. We stayed outside the Old Town center in a quiet area that was connected to the core through parks. Wandering around was our main activity, especially since the weather was often perfect for walking. The Old Town seems to have a church steeple down every street and a pretty building on every corner.

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House of Blackheads, European Choir Games

Hundreds of years of varied architecture are represented. From Germanic/Hanseatic influences to Art Nouveau and Soviet-era blocks, Riga has it all. Each street and square feels unique. We were near the Art Nouveau neighborhood, with its sculptured facades and wide streets.

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Memorial to the Berlin Wall and Riga’s Barricades, Three Brothers houses, narrow streets

My favorite structure is the National Library. Supposedly it is shaped like a mountain in reference to a Latvian folktale. It might be one featuring a knight climbing a mountain to a sleeping princess or another where a mountain rises out of the earth once Latvia regains it independence. The exterior is striking and unique, and the inside is full of books. Hard to go wrong.

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Latvian National Library, inside and out

Over all the city is a fabulous mix of old and new. There are recently built (or renovated) upscale malls next to centuries-old churches. Remnants of the city wall are just a few minutes walk from parks with modern statues.

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Wall of city crests, your typical chimpanzee astronaut statue

Riga’s massive Central Market was the place to find all sorts of local eats. Located in massive buildings that were originally Zeppelin hangars, it is the largest farmer’s market in Europe. The hangars are airy and bright, perfect for admiring the selections of local meats, fish, and produce.

The summer season meant berries and veggies were in fresh, including some kinds we’d never seen before. Service berries, similar to a blueberry with more noticeable seeds, and cloudberries, which turn bright orange when fully ripe, were delicious. Fresh black currants looked shiny and tasty but were too bitter to eat raw.

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Service berries, cloud berries, rye bread & cranberry ice cream, Latvian deep fried garlic bread

Latvia drinking culture also tends toward beer, and that means bar snacks. The most famous is Latvian garlic bread, a deep fried, oil-and-butter-rich snack that seems ideal for staving off hangovers. Another is ‘grey peas.’ Actually made with brown peas, it is a Latvian specialty, featuring copious amounts of bacon and onions. Let the mix simmer for hours to blend the flavors, and serve in as large a portion as possible.

Local grape wine isn’t common (or that delicious) but local fruit wines are worth seeking out. We attended a wine festival in Sabile, and had the chance to sample wines made from rhubarb, sea buckthorn, currants, raspberry, apple, oak leaves (who knew?), and quince. Many were made by small producers who were excited to show off their family recipes.

I am going to miss Riga – the moderate summer temperatures, the parks, the main market. Sadly our time in Europe’s Schengen area was up, so we had to move on. I felt more comfortable in Riga than just about any other city I’ve lived in, and I definitely hope to return.