This October I went on a wonderful trip to Latvia. We were there for 3 full days to explore Riga and Gauja National Park. Latvia is still a bit unknown as a holiday destination and I didn’t know what to expect but it turned out that Latvia is a beautiful country that is really worth visiting! Riga is perfect for a short city trip and the Gauja National Park is wonderful if you have a few extra days tos pare or if you’re a nature lover.
In this blog post I’ll tell you all about my trip to Latvia.
We flew from Amsterdam to Riga with Air Baltic. They’re flying with new Airbus 220-300 airplanes that have luxury leather seats and plenty of leg space. Air Baltic flies to Riga twice a day, and they’re the greenest commercial aircraft in the world, as it is the first aircraft to have a transparent declaration of the life-cycle environmental impact, helping to reduce CO2 and NOX emissions by 20% and 50% respectively.
At the airport we picked up our EuropCar rental car and drove to our hotel.
We stayed at the Clarion Collection Valdemars hotel, a beautiful 3 star hotel. The hotel has its own parking spots on site. As it was already quite late we didn’t go into the city anymore and just had a drink with a piece of cheesecake at the hotel bar.
The rooms at the Clarion Collection Valdemars hotel are nicely decorated with hints of red and a very comfortable bed. We had a view of the hotel patio from our room. The great grandfather of the owner acquired the property in 1901 but the family was forced to free to Sweden during World War II. When the family returned to Latvia the property was confiscated by the Soviet Union but after the liberation in 1991, the building was returned to the family. They decided to restore the property and turn it into a hotel. The Clarion Collection Valdemars hotel opened up in 2006.
Day 1: Riga
In the morning we met up with Katrina Mame, a local food blogger. She took us to Riga Central Market. The market of Riga is one of the biggest in Europe with not only stalls outside but also in 5 big buildings that used to be Zeppelin factories. We walked around there and bought some bread and pastries for breakfast.
After our stroll at Riga Central Market we went for a coffee at Stars. Although it sounds like an English name, in Latvian Stars means ray of sunshine. Stars is a bit hidden as you have to go down one floor in a street where you won’t expect a hip coffee place. But it’s worth the search! They have delicious coffees and teas and you can also have a light lunch or good breakfast here. Just a bit hungry? Then go for the banana bread!
We continued with a great baking workshop at Gastonomijas Instituts. They offer all kinds of workshops where you learn to make your own sweets, cakes and pastries. We had a Zephyr workshop. I never heard of this treat before as it isn’t sold in the Netherlands. It turned out to be a Russian treat that looks like a meringue but is softer and not baked. It was a great workshop to do because in a mere 2 hours you learn how to make them, do all the steps yourself and become a master in perfectionering the zephyrs. Katrina told us these homemade Zephyrs taste much better than the store bought ones, so even if they do sell Zephyrs in your country you should still check this Zephyr recipe and make them yourself.
Time for lunch! We went to The Beginnings, a vegetarian and vegan friendly lunchroom. They don’t have any meat and dairy on the menu, so apart from a few dishes with fish everything was suitable for vegans. Katrina got a healthy bowl, I went for the Guacamole burger and my boyfriend went for the Falafel burger. We also got some sweet potato fries to go with it. Although that wasn’t really needed as we also had a dessert so we were quite full afterwards.
It’s worth to leave some room for dessert though, as they have a big variety of vegan cakes like Snickers, brownies and matcha cake.
Click here for a recipe to make your own vegan Snickers balls.
We stopped by for a short visit to Zeroveikals, a zero-waste shop around the corner from the Beginnings. I love sustainable initiatives like that!
We had some free time in the afternoon so I called my friend Kaspars who’s from Latvia and lives in Riga. He gave us a great tour in the Old Town of Riga. We saw a few of the highlights of Riga and enjoyed an afternoon walk in the sun. We picked a great weekend to visit Latvia as the weather was great. All days were sunny and because it was October, all the leaves were beautiful shades of yellow.
Every year in October it’s time for Riga Restaurant Week. During this week many good restaurants in Riga share a special discount menu. Often you only pay 15 or 20 euros for a 3 course menu. Most of the restaurants also have vegetarian options available. So if you’re planning a trip to Latvia, October would be a great month to visit!
We had dinner at the Restaurant Gutenbergs of the Gutenbergs Hotel. You have dinner on the 11th floor with glass walls all around. You have a great view over Riga’s Old Town while you enjoy your food. As a main dish I had fried muscat pumpkin with celery root puree, cabbage croquettes and a yogurt-quince sauce. We ordered a bottle of wine and stayed there for the rest of the evening.
Day 2: Gauja National Park
Valmiera, Valmiermuiza and Karlamuiza
After a good breakfast at our hotel we departed on a 1.5 hour road trip to Valmiera where we had a sightseeing tour with a local guide. Every year on the second Saturday of October there’s a nice market at Valmiera where they sell all kinds of things, from wooden furniture to soap and from clothes to local food. It’s nice to stroll around and do some people watching. But I also recommend you explore the area around the market you can have great views over the river, visit the old church and walk in the quiet park.
Visiting Latvia in November? Good news, from November 5 to 11 it’s restaurant week in Valmiera.
Time for lunch! We went to Valmiermuiza, a beer brewery that also has a good restaurant. For lunch you can choose 1 of the 3 items of the menu (we both went for the potato pancakes with lingberries) and you can enjoy some smaller dishes from an extensive buffet as well. And yes; they have several desserts as well!
When the weather is nice they also have a big outdoor terrace where you can enjoy your lunch.
After our lunch it was time for a brewery tour at Valmiermuiza. We learned all about the bear brewing process and had a look behind the scenes in this relatively new brewery (2009) on a very old site (1764). It used to be a resting spot for everyone traveling by with horse and carriage as it was the road between St Petersburg and Paris. Nowadays they make their own high-quality craft beers. The owners want their beers to be as festive as a glass of wine or champagne. So maybe next new year’s eve you’ll be drinking Valmiermuiza beer instead of bubbles! They also make lemonades at the brewery so if you’re the designated driver you can still enjoy a tasting.
Valmiera is on the opposite end of Gauja National Park, so from there you can drive through the park on your way back to Riga or do as we did and enjoy the park a bit longer by booking an overnight stay in Gauja National Park. You can visit the large White Sandstone Cliff (called Sietiniezis) for example.
We had an accommodation in the middle of Gauja National Park, we stayed at Karlamuiza. This old manor is beautifully located in an old apple tree orchard. We had a spacious apartment with a kitchen/living room and a separate bathroom. We had a porch overlooking the apple trees.
You don’t need to find a restaurant because you can have dinner at Karlamuiza. And trust me; this home-cooked dinner is delicious! You only pay 18euros for a 3 course meal (order your meal when booking). We had a creamy pumpkin soup to start with. For a main dish my boyfriend had trout and the vegetarian dish for me was a carrot quiche. The dessert was a true piece of art; a honey cake of more than 30 layers. I’m normally not a big fan of honey but this cake was absolutely delicious.
Day 3: Ligatne, Sigulda and Riga
After our breakfast at Karlamuiza, we continued our stay in Gauja National Park by visiting Ligatne village. A very unique town that was founded around 1815 when a paper mill was build there. In order to house their employees several small houses were built and later also facilities like a hospital, pharmacy and school for the employees and their families.
One of the houses in Ligatne is brought back to its original state with an interior from the 1920-ties. It’s very interesting to see how the people lived there back then. They had no running water and the lavatory was shared with the neighbors 100 meters away. In the house you can watch a 6 minute video where one of the former inhabitants tells about her life at the house.
There’s a nice walking path in Ligatne that you can follow for a nice walk. As I said, we picked a perfect weekend as the weather was nice and all the trees had beautiful colors. They call it Golden Autumn in Latvia, and as it only lasts for about 2 or 3 weeks, we were very lucky to catch it!
The walking path also comes by a 2nd paper factory that is now abandoned, several caves that people used to store their foods and rock formations.
In one of the caves they sell Latvian ‘wine’ made from berries instead of grapes. We had a wine tasting where we tried for example rhubarb wine and raspberry wine. These sweet wines are a great local delicacy and a nice souvenir to bring home or to enjoy during your stay in Latvia.
We had lunch at Hotel Sigulda in (you’ve guessed it) Sigulda. The restaurant of Hotel Sigulda has an extensive menu with starters, soups, salads, pastas, main dishes and desserts. Vegetarian options and other dietary information is clearly marked on the menu. I went for the Halloumi cheese with broccoli and cauliflower, celeriac puree and beluga lentils.
We shared the chocolate brownie with blueberry-juniper berry sorbet ice cream and bourbon vanilla sauce for dessert. The brownie was perfectly baked with a very soft and mushy inside.
If you have some time left you can visit the Ferris Wheel of Sigulda, the cable car or go for a walk on one of the walking trails.
You can download the Enter Gauja app for free walking trails on your smartphone. The app also shows you where on the route you are, so you’ll never get lost.
Visit the Enter Gauja website for more information on Gauja National Park.
For us it was time to leave Gauja National Park and to head back to Riga. We had a bit more time to spend in Riga Old Town. We went to St Peters Church where you can go up the tower with an elevator to enjoy the view of the old town of Riga.
We had dinner at Uncle Vanya, a Russian restaurant in Old Town. Not only the menu was inspired by Russian cuisine, but the interior and music where as well. Uncle Vanya restaurant also took part in the Riga Restaurant Week, they had a 3 course menu for only 15 euros. We had Latvia forest mushroom cream soup as a starter and Baltic Dumplings as the entrée (the vegetarian version was with potatoes and fried chanterelles and the regular version was with spinach and sea trout and cod). For dessert we had the Latvian flag made of raspberry cream served with vanilla sauce from homemade dairy cream.
We stayed at Wellton Riga Hotel & Spa that night. Wellton has two hotels in Riga’s Old Town both with a luxury spa in the building. The rooms where comfortable and have everything you’ll need. The Wellton hotels have a parking lot nearby that you can use as a hotel guest for 15,- per 24 hours.
The next day we had an early flight back with Air Baltic to Amsterdam.
Three days were a bit short to see everything that Latvia has to offer but it was a great chance to get a first impression of the country. I would recommend visiting Riga for a short city break, even in one weekend you can already explore most of the city. It might be a city that you wouldn’t think of when booking a city trip but it’s really worth visiting this lesser explored capital city.
If you’ve got more time to spend and/or if you love nature; you should definitely visit Gauja National park. You can do some beautiful walks or hikes and enjoy the Latvian gastronomy.
Everyone in Latvia was very helpful and friendly and they all speak English exceptionally well.
You can find more information at the Latvia.Travel website.
Like the Baltics? Check my blog on Estonia here.