Active Things to do in Latvia
O ne of the best things about living in Europe is that you can easily hop to another country and explore a new place in just one weekend. Back when we first moved to London, we would spend every other weekend visiting a new city: Prague, Berlin, Paris, Venice and so on. These days with budget airlines flying almost everywhere in Europe, there are even more exciting choices.
I recently returned from discovering the top active things to do in Latvia that involved lots of hiking, biking, wandering and even beach bumming (in the Baltics, really?!). While I usually take my time and spend at least a week to see a country, I found that it IS actually possible to get a feel for this country in just three days.
I’m not implying that there’s nothing much to do here, in fact the opposite is true: from the lush pine forests of Kemeri to the bustling beaches of Jurmala and the charming Old Town Riga, Latvia packs quite a punch for such a small country.
For those seeking something a bit more authentic than the overrun tourist hubs in the region, the Baltic nation makes the perfect escape whether you’re an outdoors lover or a history buff. If you’re curious to what you can do over a weekend in Latvia, I’m sharing my itinerary here with you:
Afternoon: Explore Old Town Riga
To kick off the weekend, start with a stroll through Old Town Riga. This historical part of the city is a labyrinth of narrow cobblestone streets and red-bricked houses. Despite having witnessed numerous wars, Riga is still standing proud with a multitude of Medieval architectural wonders and beautifully restored monuments. Known locally as Vecrīga, Old Town Riga is officially labeled a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
One of the most interesting sights in Riga include the Riga Dome Cathedral, which is the Archbishop’s headquarters of the Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church. Nearby is the attractive St. Peter’s Church, where you’ll find Latvia’s tallest steeple spire in Latvia which you can actually climb. Take some to explore the Riga Castle, that was built in the Middle Ages, and then end your walk at the Latvia War Museum, home to a rich collection of weaponry, photographs and artifacts from the War of Independence.
Evening: Hop on a Riga canal cruise at sunset
In the old days, Old Town Riga was protected by a city wall as part of the defense system. When the wall was torn down, the waters from Daugava filled the space creating the Riga Canal. This narrow water channel now snakes it ways through the Old Town and Central Market, before making its way into River Daugava.
The canal is best seen on a river boat cruise (€15 for 1 hour) which you can hop on at Bastion Hill in the Kronvald Park. The trip brings you on a loop through the Old Town, into the Daugava River and back. Catch sunset as you float on the river, cruising under the bridges and taking in views of the Old Town from a distance.
Night: Traditional a Latvian dinner
Get a taste of traditional Latvian cuisine at Ala Folksclub, reputed to be one of the city’s best restaurants. Many people on Twitter recommended this restaurant to me, and it definitely lived up to its name. The beef gratin was rich and flavorful, while the incredible cottage cheese fritters were to die for. The portions here are very big, so those who come with an empty stomach will be sure to leave happy. I also recommend the cranberry beer here and the famous Riga Black Balsam, the local firewater that everyone who wants to Latvia needs to try! The atmosphere in this underground dungeon is impalpable – especially in the evenings.
Morning: Go off the beaten path on a bike tour in Riga
In the past years, Riga has undergone some big developments, with new bike lanes installed and a new wave of bicycles hitting the streets. It is becoming more bike friendly these days, and exploring the city by bike is an excellent way to get off the beaten path.
E.A.T Riga is an explorers club that aims to show the alternative side of Riga in a fun and exciting way. They pride their bike tours as fun, active and stress-free. As locals, they know how bikes can be best used in the city, where it is possible to ride and where are the most bike-friendly. My biking experience with E.A.T was excellent as I learned so much about the city’s present and past through our guide, and I loved seeing more of the city, beyond the Old Town.
Afternoon: Explore hipster district, Miera Street
After an active morning of cycling, catch one of the city’s trams to Riga’s hipster district, Miera Street. Named one of the most hipster neighbourhoods in the world, Miera Street is an eclectic jumble of indie boutiques and quirky cafes. You’ll see a hipster once in awhile, but don’t expect the flashy hipster styles of Berlin — Riga is much more mellow and subdued. I’d recommend making friends with a local and exploring the area with her. That way you’ll be able to feel the undercurrent of the district and get a better sense of the place.
Besides the hipster cafes, Miera Street is also home to the famous Laima Chocolate Museum. Latvians are obsessed with their chocolate, and Laima is the long-loved national brand of chocolate (although it’s been bought over by Norwegians). The museum gives an interesting insight to the history of Laima and how their chocolates are processed. What’s best is that you get to make your own chocolate (sorta) and you get to try rich liquid chocolate. If you’re a chocolate fanatic, you can’t miss this.
Evening: Enjoy a Latvian seafood feast
One of the most famous restaurant chains in Latvia is Lido, well known for its traditional dishes. When you ask a Latvian where’s best to sample Latvian food, they usually point you to the nearest Lido. I’d recommend going to Lido Dzirnavas in downtown Riga. The prices are really affordable and portions are huge –you’ll sure to fill up with some rich Baltic flavors here.
SUNDAY DAY TRIP
Morning: Hike and bike Kemeri National Park
To explore some of Latvia’s nature, hop on the train to Kemeri National Park in the Jurmala province, just 50km away from Riga. Within an hour, you’ll find yourself in Latvia’s most accessible wilderness. Sprawling across 36,000 hectares of area, Kemeri National Park is a hodgepodge of bogs, wetlands, pools and pine forests.
The Kemeri National Park is particularly special due to its biological diversity and it’s an excellent birdwatching spot. In Spring during the migratory season, you can see every species of woodpecker here, as well as cranes, sandpipers and eagles. Besides birds, it’s also home to other wildlife such as foxes, wolves, elks and lizards.
Different nature trails criss-cross the park: the Slokas Lake walking trail, the Great Ķemeri moorland footbridge, the Kaņieris castle mound trail. I chose to hike the Great Kemeri moorland footbridge that brought me on a loop on the raised bog, through mosses, bog pinetrees, pools, and lakes. Halfway through the hike, you’ll find a watch tower that offers a stunning panorama of the raised bog.
To get the trail head, you can rent bikes from the Kemeri train station and cycle around the recreation park near the national park information center, get a glimpse of Kemeri’s resort past and then pedal to the start of the footbridge before you begin the 3km hike.
Afternoon: Explore Jurmala on Segway
Emerging from the national park, you’ll be surprised to find that the beach is just a few kilometers away. The beach resort town of Jurmala is home to a white sandy beach that stretches almost 26km long and it’s a popular destination especially in summer. But Jurmala is a lot more than just the beach — there are pine forests fringing the coastline, historical buildings and lots of recreational areas perfect for the active traveler.
I recommend signing up for a two-hour Segway tour around Jurmala to get a good feel for the area and also try out this fun and exciting mode of transport. I’ve been on the Segway several times, but it never fails to make me feel like a child in a candy store. For those who are new to it, the guide will give safety instructions and make sure you’re comfortable on it before starting the tour. The tour brings you on the beach itself, past historical landmarks, up through the central district of Jurmala City, and into the ultra cool recreational Dzintari Forest Park.
Evening: Kick back on the beach
The best way to unwind after an active weekend? Relax and kick back on the beach right by the Baltic Sea. In summer, it can get really hot and sunny in Latvia, with temperatures around 28 degrees Celsius in Jurmala. I was rather surprised to see such a lively atmosphere on the beach — it definitely felt more like the Mediterranean than the Baltic.
If you’ve got the time, I suggest staying at the Baltic Beach Hotel, one of the best hotels in Jurmala. The five-star hotel has a great location right on the beach and all of its 165 rooms and suites have got panoramic views of the Baltic Sea. Even if you haven’t got an extra night here, it’s worthwhile to spend an afternoon on their sun deck or pool and enjoy a sumptuous dinner at their beachfront Italian restaurant, Il Sole, to treat yourself.
So who said you can’t see a country over a weekend? Latvia is small enough to see in a short time, but it sure has plenty of surprises. And for those who like to get active, you will definitely find your fun in Latvia.