10 Dec 11+ Adventures in Latvia: Riga and Beyond
Latvia surprised me time and time again over the course of my visit. I went on a solo trip for the Women in Travel Summit (WITS) conference and experienced so many exciting adventures in Latvia. One thing I love about conferences is that they sometimes bring me to a destination that wasn’t at the top of my travel bucket list. It’s a great way to explore an area that I may not have prioritized visiting, and I always seem to come away from the experience with a special connection to a new place.
I had the opportunity to explore Latvia through conference excursions and also on my own. I spent time exploring Riga, Sigulda and Gauja National Park. During my visit, I went on a food tour, a city tour, a beer tour, hiking through a national park, bobsledding, to a couple museums, to a traditional Latvian sauna, and more. Here are some of my favorite adventures in Latvia!
Join a Beer Tour of the Riga Beer District
I was surprised to learn about all of the craft breweries in Riga. Beer has been brewed in Latvia since the Middle Ages, and Riga offers a rich brewing history and many craft breweries to explore. The Riga Beer District is a 30-minute walk from Old Town. The district is home to a 2.5 km route that travels past 10 stops, giving you the opportunity to taste a wide range of Latvian craft beer.
The Riga Beer District offers guided tours, and I jumped on one of their tours in conjunction with the conference. Throughout the tour, our group visited a combination of four breweries and brewpubs: Valmiermuiža Beer Embassy, Labietis, Ziemeļu Enkurs and Alķīmiķis. We tasted 12 local beers and sampled a variety of snacks along the way, all while learning about the history and current traditions revolving around beer in Riga. My favorite snack was definitely the crispy garlic toast at the Valmiermuiža Beer Embassy. By the way it was gobbled up, it appeared to be everyone else’s favorite, too!
Take a Walking City Tour of Riga
One way to get an overview of Riga and its history is to take a walking city tour. Riga is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, and after taking a city tour, I could definitely see why it achieved this status. The tour I went on was a custom tour offered by Live Riga for the WITS conference, but there are plenty of similar city tours offered by a variety of operators throughout Riga. Most of the tours will take you through Old Town, the Central Market, and the Art Nouveau District, as well as a few other stops.
To start off, my group walked by some of the finest Art Nouveau architecture in the city. The buildings in this area were grand, colorful, and imposing, and we learned about the history of this architecture in Riga. I loved imagining what was inside each one we passed.
Next up was Old Town, where we made several stops including one to listen to a spritely gentleman play a song on his accordion. Some of the other locations we visited included the House of the Blackheads and the Bremen Musicians Statue before making our way to the Central Market for a look inside.
Our last stop was the Latvian Academy of Sciences Observation Deck. The views from the 17th floor outdoor viewing platform gave a fantastic overview of the city. I loved tracing our steps to see where we had walked during the past couple of hours. Throughout the tour, we learned about Riga’s history, we listened to tales about the struggle Riga went through to gain independence, and what life is like in Riga today. It was a great way to get a feel for the city while also putting on some miles!
Explore a Museum or Two
I always try to explore at least one museum in every city I visit, and there were many interesting options to pick from in Riga. I would have loved to explore the Latvian National Museum of Art, Musee Art Nouveau, Riga Ghetto and Latvian Holocaust Museum, Laima Chocolate Museum, and take a tour of the Latvian National Opera. But, in the end, I only had time for one, so I picked The KGB Building: The Museum of the Occupation of Latvia. The “Corner House”, as it is called, is conveniently located a few blocks from the Radisson Blu where I was staying. I wandered to the museum on a dreary morning full of dark, cloudy skies. The weather definitely set the mood for the fascinating but horrifying content of the tour.
The only way to visit this museum is to join a guided tour, and it really is necessary to absorb the context and nuances of the construction. Over the course of its history, this building was used for a wide range of purposes. It started out as apartments, shops, a library, a music school, and more. The building has also been used for official government operations. And more disturbingly, it was used in WWII for a group created by the Nazis, as well as by the KGB and Soviet Red Army. The tour focuses mainly on the timeframe during the occupation of the KGB and the Soviet regime. We learned about the history of the KGB activities and what they were doing to control people in Latvia. One aspect of the tour that hit close to home was seeing the phone tap machines, one of which was found (many moons ago) in the very hotel I was staying at for the week.
During the tour, we were able to see the interrogation rooms, the kitchen, the exercise area, the execution area, and the prison cells located in the basement. The tour was heavy and certainly hard to digest, but I believe it’s important to remember history so we can learn from it. The museum is well put together and definitely worth the visit.
Take a Day Trip to Sigulda
The adorable town of Sigulda makes for a wonderful day trip from Riga, even though there is enough to do in the area to keep you occupied for days (as my 2 days of adventure in the area can attest to). Sigulda is roughly an hour from Riga, so a day gives you plenty of time to explore some fun sites. If you are looking to fit several activities into a one-day trip, these are great ones to start with: a ride on the cable car, a visit to Gutmanis Cave, a tour at the Turaida Museum Reserve and Castle, and a stop at the Sigulda Castle. For lunch, head to the modern food hall, Jāņa Tirgus, which is the perfect stop for a variety of food options all under one roof.
If you have time or are looking for something a bit different on your trip to Sigulda, you could switch things up and rent e-bikes, or you could even throw in a bobsled ride, a hike or two at Gauja National Park, or a wine tasting at the Krimulda Manor (all of which I go into more detail on below). And there are still more options if you are looking to get your adrenaline pumping—you could try one of the many activities offered by Sigulda Adventures such as bungee jumping from the cable car or ziplining over the valley.
Fly Down an Ice Track on a Bob Sled Ride
If you’ve ever watched Cool Runnings and thought to yourself, “I need to give that a try!”, your dreams can be realized in Latvia, just as mine were. Make your way to Sigulda to hurl yourself across the ice at the Latvian Bobsleigh, Luge and Skeleton Track. International competitions and Olympic trainings are held regularly on this track, and we were able to see a few teams in training during our visit, which was fascinating to watch.
There are a few different options for making your way down the track depending on the season. The main options are the soft bob and the Olympic bob, and the difference in these rides is the type of sled you ride in. The Olympic bobsled is what you would picture as a traditional bobsled, and from what I could gather, a trained driver will accompany you on the ride. The other option (the one I did) was the soft bob, which was essentially a padded sled that you ride in all the way down. My group and I crawled into the bob, got pushed across the starting line, and were then left to our own devices. I rode in front (I think it’s because I was the shortest!) and was told to pull down on the rope the entire time.
We flew down the tracks twists and turns at a what felt like breakneck speeds. In reality, it was closer to 45-50 mph, but wow, what a rush! I laughed and screamed the entire way down and was ready to head back and do it all again immediately after. It looks like I’ll have to head back and give the real bobsled a try next time! Even though the experience was super short, it was definitely a blast.
Hike in Gauja National Park
Gauja Natioanal Park is located an hour from Riga, and it’s a wonderful place to go for a hike or two! You can explore the largest national park in Latvia on your own or with a guide. The park is over 220,000 acres in size and home to more than 500 historical and cultural monuments…in other words, there’s a ton to see. I visited the park on my two-day trip to Silguda, and our group went on a day of guided hikes with Sigita from Cesis Inside.
The morning started out with a hike on the Cecili Nature Trail, and our second hike was on the Amata Hiking Trail. It was wet and misty outside, so the trails were a bit muddy, but the rainy haze really brought out the vibrance of the greenery throughout the forest. The trails sent us along riverbanks, next to towering cliffs, over wooden bridges, and through the woods. We even spotted several adorable huts, saunas, and picnic sites along the way.
Then after we were done with our hikes, it was time to feast. We were supposed to have a picnic outside, but the rain had different plans for us. Instead, we ate inside the cozy visitor center cabin. Our lunch consisted of soup, potatoes, breads, salad, pork, dessert, and more. It was so good, and I left stuffed to the brim. During our meal, we chatted about Latvia, nature, the park, and the history of the region. I couldn’t have asked for a better way to end an active morning!
Join a Wine Tasting at the Krimulda Manor
The Krimulda Manor is a historic house that was built in the mid 19th century, and the property is currently open for tours. Visitors can see the medieval castle ruins, the manor’s park, the Swiss house, the garden, and more. One of the other historic buildings on the property happens to be a winery, and I was able to stop in for a tour while on my trip to Sigulda. The wine tasting at Krimulda Manor was a fun way to try some very different varieties of wines. When our group arrived, we made our way to the basement of the winery where we were given a brief history of the property and the wine that is made on site.
Then it was time to embark on a tasting. We tasted close to 10 different wines made from plants such as dandelions, lilacs, black currants, cranberries, gooseberries, and raspberries. We snacked on local cheese and bread as we sipped the wine samples and learned about the winemaking process on site and in Latvia as a whole. I’d have to say the dandelion wine was my favorite of the bunch, just because it was so different than anything I’ve ever tried before. This stop was a treat for the tastebuds!
Get Whipped at a Traditional Latvian Sauna
One of the most interesting evenings during my trip to Latvia was definitely the night I participated in the traditional Latvian sauna ritual. The sauna experience differs based on where you go, but they all entail somewhat the same process of being whacked with a leaf brush, salt scrubs, cold immersions, and sweating it out in a sauna.
My sauna experience took place in Sigulda during my two-day trip to the region. After a day of hiking, my group and I made our way to the two cabins on the far end of our hotel’s property. We had to shower and then meet our sauna masters in the sauna building next door. What came next was a rotation of hot and cold cycles wearing nothing but a pointy little hat on our heads. The first round had us sweat it out in the sauna, head outside to get a cold bucket of water poured over our heads, then relax with a cup of tea and fruit for a snack. Then it was back to the sauna for a full body salt scrub before running outside to jump in the freezing cold pond, and then another round of tea and snacks. Last but not least, it was time to head back to the sauna to get whacked by a bundle of branches, another dip in the cold pond, and this time a rest on a sack filled with hay. It was…interesting to say the least! It definitely pushed me out of my comfort zone, but it ended up being amazing and oh so relaxing. So much so that I would have to say I’d do it all again someday.
There are many places to try out the traditional Latvian sauna experience throughout Latvia, if you dare! There are even a couple of options right in the city of Riga. No matter where you go, it’s sure to be an experience you won’t forget!
Take a Food Tour in Riga
Learning about a city through its food is always a wonderful experience, so I always try to jump on a food tour when exploring a new city. That’s exactly what I did when I was in Riga, and I signed up for the Riga Foodie Tour in conjunction with WITS and Live Riga.
My food tour started with a tour of the Central Market. The Central Market is huge—it is made up of five pavilions and is one of the largest markets in Europe. As we wandered through the giant buildings, we heard details of the market’s history and stories about the various vendors and the food they offer. Then it was time to taste some treats both at the market and at a nearby restaurant. We were able to try a variety of breads, sauces, cheeses, pickled vegetables, and meats.
I believe the tour I went on was a custom one for the conference, but there are plenty of other fantastic food tours offered in Riga. With the wide range of delicious food that I encountered in Riga, I can’t imagine that any tour would steer you wrong!
Eat a Traditional Meal at LIDO
LIDO is a restaurant that serves traditional Latvian food in a homey, cafeteria-like setting. When you arrive at the restaurant, grab a tray and browse the vast array of local dishes. You can find everything from salads, soups, entrees, meats, sauces, desserts, and so much more. Load up your tray with any assortment of food that you’d like, and then head to the checkout counter before grabbing a table to enjoy your very budget friendly meal. One meal that I ate at a LIDO consisted of soup and some sort of crispy, hash brown potatoes—it was simple, but oh so delicious.
There are several different locations of LIDO restaurants in Latvia. I went to both the Old Town branch and the Vērmanītis restaurant, and I much preferred the Vērmanītis restaurant due to the larger selection of cuisine to pick from. The evening atmosphere and the live music at the Old Town branch was quite endearing, though, and I had a great time there, as well. Stopping at a LIDO for a meal is definitely a must do activity when you are in Latvia!
Enjoy the Spa at ESPA Riga
The last adventure I had in Latvia was relaxing at the ESPA Riga, the 5-star day spa connected to my hotel, the Radisson Blu. While I didn’t have enough time to enjoy a spa treatment and the thermal suite, I did spend the last evening of my trip enjoying the spa’s “Active Leisure Area”. This area of the spa is home to multiple pools and saunas which makes it a wonderful treat to rejuvenate both your body and mind.
For 2.5 hours, I rotated between taking laps in the swimming pool, soaking in the warm vitality pool, standing in the cold mist of the showers, resting on warm benches, and getting toasty in the steam rooms and saunas. I couldn’t have asked for a more relaxing evening before a long day of travel back home. ESPA Riga was a wonderful way to end the trip and cap off a fantastic adventure!
Bonus: Experience Lāčplēsis Day
If you happen to be in Riga on November, 11th, make sure to head out in the evening to see the Lāčplēsis Day festivities. I didn’t plan for it or know it was happening, but I lucked out and was able to witness the beautiful candlelight procession and candle displays on my second to last day in town. The day is set to honor and commemorate the fallen soldiers who fought for Latvia’s independence.
I was in Old Town and on my way to dinner with a couple of friends when we came across the torchlight procession near the Freedom Monument. We couldn’t help but stop in our tracks to watch part of this mesmerizing sight. There were hundreds of people walking through the streets with their torches lit and held high.
After dinner, we made our way towards the Daugava River and Riga Castle to take a peek at the festivities. The scene that unfolded in front of us was stunning. Red and white candles flickered in the dark, sprawled out in all directions. Some were set along the riverbank, some were lining the castle walls, and others were arranged in elaborate patterns and displays on the grass. People were holding hands and singing songs of remembrance around the candles. It was a very moving experience, and I’m glad I was able to take a small peek into the Lāčplēsis Day festivities.
Where to Stay
Radisson Blu Latvija Conference & Spa Hotel:
When I was in Riga, I stayed at the Radisson Blu Latvija Conference & Spa Hotel as it was the conference hotel, and I’m so glad I decided to stay there. The location of the hotel is fantastic—it’s walking distance to the heart of Old Town and a short ride to many neighborhoods in the city.
There are lots of great restaurants, coffee shops, museums, and places to shop nearby, as well. Plus, the onsite spa is a real treat! My room wasn’t very spacious,, but it was cozy, clean, and had fantastic views overlooking the shimmering gold dome on the Riga Nativity of Christ Cathedral. The breakfast buffet was a bit pricy but there was a wide selection to pick from. I’m not sure I would have paid for the breakfast on my own, but since it was included in my room rate for the conference, I enjoyed it.
Spa Hotel Ezeri:
During my trip to Gauja National Park, I stayed at the Spa Hotel Ezeri in Sigulda. The hotel is small, with only 30 rooms, and it is a peaceful, calming escape. My large, king room was located on the 3rd floor and came with a balcony. This hotel offers a variety of spa facilities. I didn’t have a chance to try the spa on the lower level of the hotel, but this is where I experienced the traditional Latvian sauna ritual.
The onsite restaurant was delicious. I was able to enjoy both a continental breakfast and a three-course dinner from a menu that changes with the seasons. The Spa Hotel Ezeri is a great place to base yourself if you spend more than a day exploring Sigulda!
Special thanks to Magnetic Latvia, LIVE Riga, Sigulda Aizrauj, Enter Gauja,Women in Travel Summit, and their partners for hosting me on many of these adventures in Latvia. As always, all opinions are my own.
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