Vitamin F may not be a recognised vitamin, but the healthy hit that we feel in forests should really put it on the vitamin list. Latvia, in that case, is fuelled on Vitamin F, with over half the country covered in beautiful broadleaves, coloured conifers and ancient aspens. Forests line the sandstone cliffs of Gauja National Park, for example, providing a beneficial blanket of beauty, and Latvia cycling holidays ensure rapid absorption of their goodness.
As you will see on our Latvia holidays, Vitamin F is infused in many aspects of the culture too, from the historic wooden architecture to foraged foods. There is plenty of Vitamin Sea in Latvia too, with 500km of coast around the Bay of Riga as well as Latvia cycling trails that take you through neighbouring Baltic Sea beauties of Lithuania and Estonia. And to top it all, you can toast the goodness of it all with a glass of Latvian birch sap wine.
Where to go
Gauja National Park
One of four national parks in Latvia, Gauja is the largest. It is named after the river that flows through it, carved sandstone cliffs within it, and supports tributaries and trails such as the Ligatne and Amata Rivers that snake across it. Covering 917.86 km2, half of Gauja National Park is a healthy blanket of towering conifers, birch, linden, white alder and aspen, creating forest bathing opportunities of the highest order. The national park protects not only nature, but also the three ancient castles at Sigulda, a popular stop on our Latvia cycling holidays.
This walled town is one of Europe’s best kept secrets, overlooking the forest-lined banks of the Gauja River and National Park, with the magnificent 13th century Cēsis castle as its centrepiece. Climb to the top of the castle tower to gain great views, but also for an atmospheric multimedia exhibition all around the tower walls. The town itself still has a very traditional feel with cobbled streets, red tiled roofs and small squares. Cēsis is also a starting point for a walk on the nearby Cirulisi nature trails along the Gauja River, a perfect spot to sample the region’s sandstone cliffs, caves and forest canopies.
Riga is right at the centre of its eponymous bay and central to our Latvia holidays too. It has grown over the centuries from medieval maritime town to modern metropolis. Its Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage site, not only because of its Hanseatic importance, but also because it has one of Europe’s finest collections of Art Nouveau architecture, with Albert Street boasting the finest examples. Riga’s other historic highlights include the 13th century Dome Cathedral and St. Peter’s Church, the latter with panoramic views of Riga Bay and the Daugava River, as well as the Three Brothers houses in the Old Town. For contemporary Riga, head to Andrejsala (Andrew Island) in the port area for waterfront bars and cafe life, Kaņepes culture centre or one of the city’s many galleries.
You can get a good sense of the country’s extensive coast, which stretches for 504km, on our Latvia cycling holiday, one day of which takes you from the ancient capital of Riga to the coastal resort of Jūrmala. Cycle mostly off road from the capital and then enjoy the ancient cobbled streets, traditional wooden houses, chic restaurants and majestic mansions, in a town that has engulfed several villages over the years, but where nature is still holding its own along this sandy peninsula. During Soviet times these beaches were crammed with visitors but, since independence in 1991, they’ve been restored to more leisurely Latvian lifestyles.
Things to do
- Seek out the castles of Sigulda on the edge of Gauja National Park where the river’s cliffs are a gift for garrisons overlooking the landscapes below. There are three in total: Turaida Castle, a 13th century red-bricked complex of medieval marvels rising up above the treeline; Sigulda New Castle, new being 19th century Neo-gothic private home for the Russian emigrant prince Dimitri Kropotkin, who added a railway station, hotel and 900m bobsleigh run no less. It went on to be a literary arts centre in the early 20th century, and is now a museum; and finally, visit the 13th century Livonian Castle on our Latvian holidays, once a convent now a concert venue.
- Get to know Latvia’s woodland culture, as over half of the country is covered in trees, with pine and birch dominating the coniferous and deciduous species respectively. It’s not surprising, therefore, that the woods still woo Latvians, with foraging for mushrooms, basketfuls of berries and wild herbs for tea very much part of Latvian culture, as is wood carving and woodwork. Look out for birch sap, or bērzu sulas products for sale too, from syrups to serums, water to wine.
- Baltic bites in Lavia include smoked fish, foraged berries from cloudberries to lingonberries, pork kotletes or meatballs, pickled everything including sauerkraut, and black rye bread or rupjmaize, also served as a sweet bread pudding. In Riga, the big foodie spot is its Central Market, built in the 1930s and packed with everything foraged, farmed and fished. Also check out a traditional style bakery, Cēsu Maize in Cēsis, a small bakery in the town centre using grains from a Latvian stone mill, and offering regular traditional bread workshops.
- Meet Latvia’s wonderful neighbours in Lithuania and Estonia, as we offer several Baltic beauties in one pretty passage. Combine capitals and coasts on this Lithuanian and Latvian walking holiday, or tri-cycle your way through three Baltic beauties of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia which also takes in three national parks: Lahemaa National Park in Estonia, Gauja National Park in Latvia and Curonian Spit National Park in Lithuania.
Responsible travel tips
- Buy local gifts such as traditional knitwear, especially multi-coloured criss-cross winter socks, gloves and hats, or Latvian honey, with bees playing an important role in the country’s agricultural heritage. You will also find plenty of beeswax products such as candles or lip balms. Herbal teas (and Latvian pottery mugs to put them in) are wonderful gifts, often foraged from forests and hand-carved wooden gifts are also very popular, sometimes based on traditional folk symbols. For example, the Dzīvība cross-like symbol, translates as life and symbolises light, new beginnings and a safe journey.
- Go birdwatching and indeed bird listening in Gauja National Park where generously forested slopes and riverfronts are habitat for an array of birds including woodpeckers, from white-backed ones to middle spotted ones. Grouse and Ural owls also like to make themselves heard as does the creaky sounding corncrake in the river meadows, now rare in other parts of Europe.
- Riga, being a European port city, has become a focus for one of the world’s most unsustainable forms of tourism – giant cruise ships. You can avoid them of course, but to time your visit accurately and avoid the en masse disembarkation of day trippers, check out Cruise Timetable. It isn’t hard to get off the beaten track on our responsible Latvia holidays, but being forewarned is to be forearmed. Riga cracked down on its stag parties over a decade ago, and let’s hope it keeps cruising for a bruising to a minimum in future too.