Just north-east of Riga, Vidzeme coast resort Saulkrasti is much more relaxed than Jūrmala. Perfect for just lying on the white sand beach or taking the 4km-long Sunset Trail from Baltā kāpa (white dune) through tall pines to the town itself. Climb the dune for stunning views up and down the coastline and of the Inčupe Pēterupe estuary.
A little up the coast, the Munchausen Museum at Dunte Manor has revived the legend of the inveterate fibber Baron. The Forest Trail is the longest aspen walkway in Europe, its 5.3 km length passing through wetland forest to the sea. Admire the wood-carved animal characters of folk tales lurking along the way.
The Vidzeme Stony Seashore is the only place in the Baltic Sea where sandstone strata are exposed on the beach. Formed 350-380 million years ago, the highest are to the south of Veczemji and between Kāpnieki and Siliņi. The boulders scattered along the shore act as a natural barrier to the eroding impact of strong winds and storms. The area hosts both typical and rare and protected seashore species and biotypes.
Head inland to get to the Limbaži medieval castle ruins and 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 and the south wall also still have several Gothic period details. From the tower, look out over Limbaži’s old town and glacial lake.
Latvia is one of the most forested countries in the world, but with relatively few species. This shortage is addressed at the Ledurga Dendrological Park with its incredible array of more than 1000 varieties of trees and shrubs, one of the most extensive in Latvia. So many and some unique, for example, gorgeous white, fragrant magnolias - happily surviving Latvia’s frequently freezing winters.
Near Sārumezers, the Vējiņu caves contain the only known underground lakes in the Baltic States. Formed by rock falls blocking underground streams, they are replenished by spring floods from the Brasla river. Because of the perilous state of the sandstone roofs and walls, you will need a guide to accompany you.
Atop the lake from which it takes its name, Baroque Ungurmuiža manor is the only 18th century wooden building of its type preserved in Latvia. Built by Baron von Campenhausen in 1732, it is being restored to its former splendour. Absorb the special atmosphere by taking a walk in the park beneath the huge oak-trees. Perfect surroundings for the regular chamber music concerts.
Cross the fast-flowing Gauja and walk the Cīrulīšu Nature Trails for an insight into the river’s eons of history. Well-signposted routes take you to the glacial-era valley. Spot the work of the forest’s native builders - beaver dams and above-ground ants nests - and compare them to man’s efforts, the old bobsleigh track and ski resorts.
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 in 1777 and now houses the Cēsis Local History and Art Museum. The wonderful Castle Park is deservedly considered one of the most outstanding and most original 19th century landscape parks in Latvia.
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. Nearby, medieval castle ruins hide on a treed hillock.
Zvārtes iezis(rock) is the most imposing of the many sandstone and dolomite outcrops that can be seen along the Amata River trail, a pleasing mix of forest and meadow. Near the Visitors’ Centre, ancient witch Zinta and her beneficial plants remind us that the iezis was once a meeting place for witches.
Līgatne and its surrounding villages feature many sandstone outcrops, the highest concentration in Latvia. Over the centuries, local residents have taken advantage of these by carving out cave systems and cellars for both personal and work needs. The unstable condition of the 350-370 million-year-old rocks mean you will need a guide.
The Gauja National Park is Latvia’s largest and the wooded glens of its 5km-long Līgatne Nature Trails are the perfect place to view Latvia’s wild animals and birds in their natural environment. The animals, brought here from all over Latvia, have either been injured or were domesticated orphans unable to survive on their own.
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.
Stop off at 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. Cap your visit with a trip in a log boat.
At the base of a sandstone cliff not far from the Gauja river opposite Sigulda 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. The lush green meadows around it are a perfect picnic spot.
The Turaida Museum Park hosts a valuable collection of historical and artistic artefacts. One of its iconic symbols is Indulis Ranka’s sculpture garden Dainu kalns dedicated to Latvian folklore. Explore the cultural heritage of the Gauja Livonians and the medieval stone castle tower with its amazing view over the ancient Gauja valley. Turaida Church - the oldest wooden church in Latvia - is beautiful and elegant in its simplicity. The nature trails all over the park reveal rare plants, old water channels and sightings of the castle from unusual vantage points.