On his first visit to the Baltic nations, Mark Bibby Jackson visits Gulbene, Valka, Valmiera, Cēsis and Riga while discovering the things to do in Latvia in five days.
Many if not most visitors to Latvia focus on its capital, Riga. This is understandable as the art nouveau capital is a wonderful and easy city to explore as I discover on the final day of my trip to Latvia. However, as I have realised over the last few days there is so much more to experience in this Baltic country.
Things To Do in Latvia: Gulbene
After overnighting in Riga, Daina, who is to be our excellent driver throughout the trip, takes us to Gulbene a few hours’ drive from the capital in the east of the country.
Initially, there seems little to this rather quiet town. We are staying in the Vecgulbene manor hotel, part of Gulbene manor, one of the two historic centres to the town. Beside it lie the ruins of the White Castle which was built in the 18th century and destroyed in the 1905 revolution, like many other buildings in the country. Next to that is the town’s History and Art Museum and the 19th century Red Castle. The latter has an interesting audio installation playing an imagined conversation in English between Baron Heinrich con Wolff and his wife Marisa – the previous owners of the manor – sitting on a park bench. Across the road is a Lutheran church built on the site of the old 14th century castle.
In the afternoon, we visit Amber Farm, where we receive a master class in sea buckthorn from its owner Andres. Apparently, sea buckthorn is the most valuable berry in Europe due its health properties; it has five times the amount of vitamin C as lemon, Andres informs us. Starting with a sea buckthorn drink we then sample some snacks, including excellent chocolate covered sea buckthorn, before Andres shows us how to create sea buckthorn bombs – the type you throw in the bath rather than at buildings. I can’t say that my bomb would win too many prices, but it did make a splash when I brought it back home.
Leaving Andres, we drive to Tālava cidery, where we taste some excellent cider made from apples local farmers deliver to the cidery each day. Its owner Arnis explains how this is the second largest cidery in Latvia. The cider was really refreshing after what had been a busy and hot day. If you plan to visit then please note that Arnis is relocating the cidery to another location.
Train Ride to Stāmeriena
Gulbene’s second centre is around the railway station, which opened at the start of the 20th century. In many reasons the modern town of Gulbene developed because of the railway, which has a chequered history – it was from here that many Latvians were deported to Siberia in 1941 and 1949.
The following morning, we head to the station for our ride to Stāmeriena. As our departure is not until the afternoon, we have plenty of time to explore the interactive and educational centre in the station building. Opened five years ago this centre is great fun with plenty of activities for both children and adults as well as opportunities to test your dexterity and reactions.
As I rediscovered in Sri Lanka earlier in the year, I love train rides, especially on old trains when you can walk freely around and even stand in the outside connection between carriages. As such our ride to Stāmeriena is all too short.
Stāmeriena is noted for its castle, which was built in 1908 after the previous castle burned down once more in 1905.
Stāmeriena Castle is a real treat. Its design was heavily influenced by Alice Barbi, an Italian singer and alleged muse of Brahms, who moved here after her marriage to Baron Boris von Wolf-Stomersee.
Only reopened in 2022, the castle is becoming a cultural centre. I love the way the ceilings and roofs have been left exposed, as if Miss Haversham were living here. Upstairs is an impressive gallery space, and there is a pleasant garden outside leading to a lake where there are some sculptures.
Leaving Stāmeriena, we drive to Alūksne where we visit the Alūksne Bible Museum, which has the first bible written in Latvian as well as the Alūksne Evangelical Lutheran Church before heading to Temple Hill Park where we climb a tower for wonderful views across the lake.
As the sun begins to set, we embark on a raft cruise around the lake where I sample some excellent porter while Zigis plays music on his Yamaha. This really is a most unusual experience and looking back upon my trip was probably the highlight of the whole visit to Latvia.
Things To Do in Latvia: Valka and Valga
The following day we head to the Estonian border. Valka is a city divided into two parts. The Estonian side is called Valga.
Perhaps the most interesting thing to do in the town is to visit the old border crossing where you can sit on a swing, and sway between the two countries. In the past, border crossing was not so simple.
The Valka Local History Museum has an interesting film and display about the town’s history, including when the area became a tug-of-war zone between the Russians, Germans and British in the years following the culmination of the First World War. Fighting continued in the country with the Latvian War of Independence until August 1920. Many people died.
On the Estonian side there is an interesting museum which has a distinctly military slant. Make sure you pop into the room depicting a scene from the Soviet occupation, with Lenin and mannequins from the seventies – it is most bizarre.
Things To Do in Latvia: Valmiera
Leaving the border we head back towards the capital Riga, arriving at the town of Valmiera where we are to spend our penultimate night in Latvia. Of all the places we visit in rural Latvia, Valmiera is the most impressive.
Dating back to the 13th century, Valmiera has been raised to the ground 10 times, the latest being in 1944. This is largely due to its strategic position on the Gauja river, which is the longest in Latvia. Somehow, the impressive 13th century Saint Simeon church has survived it all. The castle was less fortunate, but the current one was built in 1702. There is an interesting museum in its grounds.
Led by Jānis Baiks, the town’s visionary mayor who joins us on our city tour, Valmiera is prospering. We are shown the impressive theatre which has moved to an old boiler house while the new theatre is being refurbished. According to the mayor, it has more award nominations than any other theatre in the country.
Then we visit Mezs, which means forest in Latvian and is a massive playground for kids which was built during Covid and provides them with a safe place in the heart of the city. Baiks is proud to point out that Valmiera is the safest city in Latvia.
This is a “small city with a big soul”, he explains as he shows us the new sports centre. I must admit to being mightily impressed.
Things To Do in Latvia: Cēsis
If Valmiera represents Latvia’s future, Cēsis does its past. It is here we drive to on our final full day in Latvia.
The history of Cēsis dates back to the 13th century; it is the third oldest city in Latvia. At the time the area was inhabited by the Wendi people who were some of the last pagans in Europe. German missionaries first arrived in Cēsis in 1206.
You can still visit the remains of the 16th century Livonian Cēsis Castle, as well as the 19th century palace which remains intact. The castle fell in 1577 when Ivan the Terrible besieged it. The roughly 300 inhabitants committed suicide rather than surrendering – the largest mass suicide in the 16th century Europe, according to our guide Janis.
Janis says this is the best preserved castle in Latvia as well as the birthplace of the Latvian flag in 1279, which makes it one of the oldest in the world. Cēsis also has the first and largest commercial brewery in the Baltics dating back to the 18th century.
Our pleasant tour of Cēsis includes the 13th century St John’s Church next to the old market square and the old city walls. With lots of inviting cafés, this would make for a very pleasant day-trip from Riga or an overnight stay.
However, we are not to stay in Cēsis, but after lunch in the amazing Villa Santa, we reacquaint ourselves with Janis at Āraišu Lake which has an Iron Age site. At Cēsis Janis is dressed as a monk, and here he has donned the uniform of a stone age man. He reminds me of Mr Benn.
By this stage I am beginning to tire. Apparently, it is the hottest day on record for the last week in September – another sure sign of climate change. So, I have little energy for either the model huts or the Āraišu Lake Fortress, which I am sure are more deserving of my attention.
On our final drive back to the capital we stop at Āraišu mill, which is 170 years old and still functioning.
Cool Things To Do in Riga
That evening after checking in at the Hotel Neiburgs where we also spent our first night in Latvia, we dine on the Gūtenbergs terrace with its spectacular views across the city, and on our visit at least the most amazing full moon.
In the morning we go on a Riga city tour of some of the 800 art nouveau buildings in the city built between 1899 and 1914, as well as the spectacular House of the Blackheads building on Town Hall Square, and the 13th century cathedral.
We culminate our walk at the Riga Art Nouveau Centre which was built in 1903 and was the home for Konstantīns Pēkšēns the most prolific Latvian architect of the period.
Riga is a very compact and walkable city, and is only a very short journey to the airport. After our final lunch in the art nouveau area, Daina picks us up one last time to drive us to the airport. It is sad to bid adieu to Latvia, a country I feel I have only just brushed the surface of during our whirlwind trip. I am sure I will be back.
Things To Do in Latvia Photo Gallery
Hotels in Latvia
This stylish hotel is right in the old town of Riga and well recommended. https://neiburgs.com/hotel
The only place to stay in Gulbene, the manor has an old worldly charm and quaint rooms. https://www.vecgulbenesmuiza.lv/en-gb
Bahnhofs Hotel, Alūksne
Very stylish and contemporary Bahnhofs suggests the future for hotels in rural Latvia is most promising. https://www.bahnhofshotel.lv/en
Hotel Wolmar, Valmiera
Very pleasant hotel in the old town which can cater both for business and travel guests. The restaurant is excellent too. https://hotelwolmar.lv/en/
Restaurants in Latvia
There are so many great restaurants in Latvia but I would highlight:
Villa Santa Restaurant
This hotel in set in a forest with the most beautiful restaurant spilling out onto the terrace. The décor is amazing. Worth the trip on its own. https://www.villasanta.lv/en/restaurant
This Riga restaurant was heaving on our visit and it is no surprise as the views are incredible. The food and service were excellent too. https://restaurant-gutenbergs.lv/en/gutenbergs-terrace/
Transport in Latvia
Latvia is a simple place to travel around as the road network is really good. We were driven around Latvia by Daina Ukina a remarkable woman who runs her own transport company MultiLines as well as speaking excellent English. To book tours with her, email [email protected].
To hire Janis Klavins, aka the Latvian Mr Benn, email: [email protected].
Flights to Latvia
Mark flew to Latvia from Gatwick Airport with Air Baltic. At Gatwick he used Holiday Extras for Maple Parking Meet & Greet, as well as to access the Airport Lounge. Holiday Extras is the market leader in UK airport parking, hotels, lounges, and transfers – and last year most of their customers saved at least £100 on their airport parking vs the price they’d have paid on the gate. Booking park up Maple Parking Meet & Greet means you can enjoy more holiday with less hassle. Plus with Flextras, if you need to cancel or amend you can without charge. Five night’s airport parking at Maple Parking Meet & Greet at Gatwick South is £63. Relax before your flight in Gatwick South’s No1 Lounge for £36.
For more information and to book, HolidayExtras.com or call 0800 316 5678.
Things To Do in Latvia
To discover the things to do in Latvia, please go to the Latvia Travel website. This has extensive information on what to see in Latvia.
All photos by Mark Bibby Jackson.