Latvia off the Beaten Track

Two storks perched on a chimney of a rundown tin roof in Latgale, Latvia
Breather between baby deliveries

A friend planning her umpteenth trip asked for a list of sights even veteran visitors could have missed. Happy to oblige! Latvia has many intriguing places to check out away from the tourist hordes!


The list is far from exhaustive. But it covers every region and hopefully has something for every taste. I've put the ones closest to Riga first, then moved further out. There are lots of links for more info (some to articles written by yours truly). 

1. Vakarbuļļi sculpture park

Egg shaped red granite sculpture on a riverbank in Vakarbuļļi, Latvia
Rock star

Use the words "art" and "Bolderāja" in the same sentence and most Latvians will think you're having them on. But there are indeed delightful creative enclaves in the gritty northern Riga suburb. On the banks of the Buļļupe River, Pauls Jaunzems has conjured up a stunning gallery of monolithic stone sculptures in a lovely natural setting. Its open 24 hours, with entry by donation. Nearby, Vakarbuļļi beach is long enough to find pine-fringed seclusion. And history buffs will enjoy Daugavgrīva Fortress, a massive complex built in the 17th century by the Swedes to guard the mouth of the Daugava. Guide Jacob Lalander offers fascinating tours of the fort in English, Swedish, Latvian or Russian. 

Take bus No. 3 from Riga city to the stop "Daugavgrīvas cietoksnis" for the fortress. From there, take bus No. 36 to the final stop "Vakarbuļļi" for the sculpture park.

2. Magic meadows in Ķemeri

Gift box of herbal teas picked from meadows in Ķemeri National Park, Latvia
Tea time

Food doesn't get more local or seasonal than at "Dare" farmstead in Ķemeri National Park. Herbal experts Sanita Matule and Indulis Skrebelis gather plants and flowers from their incredibly rich natural meadows and make teas, cosmetics and unique edibles like "weed pesto" and "wildflower cake" (much tastier than they sound.) Book ahead for an amazing three-course lunch experience (+371 27891575). Also in the area, the organic honey store run by the Šneiders family is a sweet spot.

It's a 45 minute from Riga by car, or you can hike a few km from Ķemeri Station.

3. Zemgale's spiritual sites

Grey metal sculpture of apostle in front of yellow Armenian style church at Brukna, Latvia
Follow me

There must be something in the air about an hour southwest of Riga, because this corner of Zemgale has remarkable spiritual sites that will fascinate believers and heathens alike. Near Vecumnieki, retired tractor driver Juris Audžionis has hammered together an entire village of chapels, icons and grottoes, with a marvellous sense of humour to keep your feet on terra firma. You can just show up and call the number at the gate for a tour, and leave a donation if you like. At Brukna, Catholic Father Adrejs Mediņš and his community have beautifully restored a historic manor, planted a huge rose garden and built a striking church. Drop in any time but please respect the residents' private zone. If you prefer pagan energies, take a sip from Bārbele Spring, a sulphur gusher which it is said has been curing all kids of ailments for centuries.

A 90 minute drive from Riga.

4. Lestene Lutheran Church

Carved wooden pulpit with decorative figures in Lestene Lutheran Church, Latvia
Holy bling

Who said Lutheran churches were drab? The one in the Kurzeme village of Lestene boasts a magnificent wood-carved pulpit, altar and other details, undergoing restoration after wartime damage and Soviet neglect. The church is open for services every second and furth Sunday of the month at 12.00, or contact the head of the congregation Ingūna Kokaine for a tour on +371 29299064. Next door is a large memorial and cemetery for soldiers of the Latvian Legion. For more sobering military history, take a drive through the site of the Soviet-era Zvārde Bombing Range

A 90 minute drive from Riga.

5. Līgatne's birch bark masters

Shelves holding Birch bark vessels made in Līgatne, Latvia
Birch beauties

Nestled between the tourist magnets of Sigulda and Cēsis, there are also great reasons to drop into the village of Līgatne. Journey back to the USSR at the fallout shelter for commie bigwigs, see animals up close in their natural habitats on the Nature Trails, and check out cool caves and Latvia's last river crossing ferry. Also, meet the Zvirbulis family of birch-bark artisans, practicing a beautiful craft dating back to the Stone Age. You can buy their products and attend workshops to learn how to do it yourself. After all that hard work, spoil yourself at Pavāru māja, a local eatery boasting a Michelin Green Star for its sustainability.

Train and bus timetables and tickets.

6. Abava gourmet delights

Soup in bread bowls and home baked bread with green pesto at Plostkrogs restaurant in Latvia
Soup du jour

The gorgeous Abava River Valley in Kurzeme is home to intriguing sites like the alfresco sculptures at Pedvāle Art Park and the world's most northerly outdoor vineyard in Sabile. The area's rich culinary offerings make a visit even more enjoyable. Sample local wines and ciders at Resto Terase in Sabile. A little out of town, relax by the river at the 17tth century tavern Plostkrogs with gourmet treats like the soups in bread bowls pictured here. And after wandering the medieval streets of Kandava, tuck into delicious contemporary cuisine with a local touch at Pils restaurant in a historic guesthouse.

Train and bus timetables and tickets.

7. Irbene space radar

Irbene Radio Astronomy Telescope dish in Irbene, Latvia
Scanning the heavens

The Livonian Coast in Latvia's north west is a paradise of sea, sand and forest. The last thing you would expect here is a gigantic radar dish nestled amidst the tree. But that's what you get at the Irbene Radio Telescope, a Soviet spy facility repurposed as a black hole-observing astronomy hub. Visiting details here.

A thee-hour drive from Riga.

8. Litene Bottle Garden

Anna Zīle standing with an arch made from empty bottles on a winter day in Litene, Latvia
Anna's arch

No one does recycling with more flair than "bottle gardener" Anna Zīle. At her property near the central Vidzeme hamlet Litene, the senior citizens has personally created a park filled with awesome sculptures made of empty bottles. She's happy for visitors to drop un, and entry is by donation. In the vicinity, take the narrow gauge railway to Alūksne and its charming railway museum.

Train and bus timetables and tickets.

9. The joy of Latgale

Green rowboat on a lake at sunset in Ludza, Latvia
Wash away the blues

Latgalian hospitality is legendary, and it is fitting that these warm-hearted folk even have a Happiness Museum. The Bread Museum in Aglona will bring a smile to your tummy, and the region's thousands of lakes are liquid therapy - let the waves rock you to sleep on a lake houseboat in Ludza, or submit to the gentle whipping of traditional sauna masters Kristīne Silova near Līvāni (go for the ancient "black" or "smoke" sauna) or Anita Rēščenko north of Aglona (who will give you a rubdown with fresh strawberries after your sweat session).

Best enjoyed on a slow road trip.

10. Take a hike!

Girl with rucksack standing on bank on Gauja River with blue sky and forest background in Latvia
Lovely view (and girl)

Get off the couch and enjoy the natural wonders of the region on the Baltic Forest Trail or the Baltic Coastal Hiking Route. There are plenty of roughly 20-km-long sections day making ideal trips from Riga. with convenient public transport links to get there and back. The stretches in Gauja National Park and Abava River Valley are especially scenic. Pack your own lunch.

Train and bus timetables and tickets.

Map of Latvia off the Beaten Track

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Frescoes of saints in Orthodox Cathedral in Ludza, Latvia
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