Easily reached from Riga, Sigulda sits at the south of the Gauja National park on the tall banks of the ancient Gauja valley. Surrounded by historic sites, the town itself features the Sigulda Medieval Castle ruins, originally built by the Sword Master of the Venn Order in 1207. The later, Livonian Order convent with its Gothic apertures and the main gate tower survive and provide a wonderful backdrop for summer’s open-air concerts.
Our next stops are across the deep Gauja valley and there is only one way to cross - by the 43m-high cable car. Opened in 1969, it is the only one in the Baltic States and provides spectacular views. Not the nervous type - try bungee jumping from the cable car.
Disembark at Krimulda Manor for stunning views back to Sigulda. The castle ruins are medieval, but the first mansion was built in the 15th century. The existing example of Classicism was built in 1848 for Prince Lieven.
At the base of a sandstone cliff sits Gūtmaņala, the longest erosion cave in the Baltics, formed 10 000 years ago by Ice Age waters. Associated with many legends, it is an ancient cult site. Carved signatures attest to its popularity with 19th century tourists.
Back up the top of the valley, the Turaida Museum Park hosts a valuable collection of historical artifacts. Explore the cultural heritage of the Gauja Livonians, climb the medieval stone castle tower, see the drawbridge, battlements, gates and guard towers, chapel and secret passage. Turaida Church is beautiful and elegant in its simplicity.
Head northeast to the bank of the Līgatne river and Vienkoči Park. The park is a tribute to wood and woodcraft, with model buildings, animals, folk tales and historic events all exquisitely carved and placed in a pristine natural environment.
Code-named ‘Holiday Hotel’, the Līgatne Bunker was a top-secret Soviet-era facility built to house the communist elite of the 1980s in case of nuclear war. Only opened to the public in 2003, the 9m below-ground bunker still contains technical equipment, now augmented with displays of Soviet-era memorabilia, not least the canteen with a typical Soviet menu.
Līgatne’s history is closely linked with the Līgatne paper mill village. A paper mill first operated here in the early 19th century, but it is the village which has gained recognition and national significance for its unusual architecture and the social model under which workers lived in the 100-year-old wooden buildings.
Right by the roadside, the Ieriķi Nature Trails provide an ideal stop. Clamber the scenic steep banks and seven waterfalls of the Meldrupe river, view the ever-changing display of native flora and admire the impressive waterwheel and ruins of the 300-year-old mill of Ieriķu manor.
Long ago the site of a 9-11th century fortified Latgalian settlement, the Āraiši museum park stretches out alongside the pretty Āraiši lake. The authentic reconstruction of the lake fort is based on Stone and Bronze Age archaeological evidence garnered from drained lakes. The adjacent medieval castle ruins date back to the Livonian Order.
On the other shore of lake Āraiši, Geidānmuiža or Geidanmois is being created as a centre of medieval Livonian skills and historical re-enactments. Book time in Livonia, take up your sword or enjoy more peaceful activities.
If you stop while meandering through the cobbled streets of Cēsis Old Town, you may only see buildings as old as the cobbles themselves. Imposing St. John’s Church was a Livonian Order cathedral and stands by the restored Rožu laukums, once the market square. The Rauna gate is the symbolic junction between the old and new towns.
The Livonian Order fortress ruins in the Cēsis Castle and Manor Complex date back to 1220, but its circular towers were built at the turn of the 15th century. The Baroque Jaunā Palace was built for Count von Zeever in 1777 and now houses the Cēsis Local History and Art Museum.
Head north to Valmiera and its old town with Livonian Order castle ruins and Saint Simon’s Church, both dating to the 13th century. Engineering works in 2005 uncovered a section of the city’s northern defensive wall with a loop hole and cobbled road.
Still in the Old Town, the Dispensary, Valmiera’s oldest wood building, retains its medieval appeal and is part of the Valmiera Historical Museum. Its collection ranges from Iron Age archaeological relics through medieval and pre-industrial artifacts to contemporary art and design by well-known regional artists.
Discover the unhurried taste of Valmiermuiža beer. Its origins go back to Swedish times when the manor inn was built not far from the castle. Maintaining its renowned traditions of hospitality, the new boutique brewery welcomes visitors for brewery tours, tastings and picnics.
Turn west to get to the Limbaži medieval castle ruinsand viewing tower. The castle is one of the oldest fortifications in Latvia and its gate tower retains fragments of its retractable lattice gates. The main gate also still has several Gothic period details and the south wall features Gothic windows with pointed arches. From the tower, look out over Limbaži’s old town and glacial lake.
Just by the Limbaži castle ruins, in the early 19th century, the then Riga Council built a new manor in the Classicism-style. Now home to the Limbaži Museum, it combines regional history displays with regular exhibitions by local contemporary artists.
Take in the coastal view as you reach Dunte and the Munchausen museum and its nature trails. Dedicated to inveterate fibber Munchausen, the manor house is where he followed baronial pursuits like hunting. His tale-telling capability is shown by the ten ducks killed with a single shot. One of the most popular museums in Latvia, its upper floor features wax figures of many current-day Latvian celebrities.
Slip down the coast to Saulkrasti and its unique Bicycle Museum. Started in 1977, the collection features legendary bicycles and many cycling-related displays.