Riga’s Central Market presents an imposing sight from the river as the curves of its three massive pavilions resonate with the arches of the railway bridge. An obligatory stop for tourists, it is no less imposing up close with its fascinating architecture, huge selection of fresh foods and typical market fare. Check out the Spīķeri area across the tram tracks for gourmet meals in trendy eateries.
Make for the Vidzeme coast and Saulkrasti, where the Sunset trail runs along the beach from Baltā kāpa (white dune) to the town. The dune provides stunning views of the Vidzeme coastline and the Inčupe Pēterupe estuary. As you would expect from a popular resort, restaurants and cafes serve local dishes.
The museum at Dunte Manor reveals all about legendary liar Baron Hieronymus von Munchausen. The ground floor hosts displays of the best lies but there are wax figures and a collection of beer mugs upstairs. A nature trail stretches to the beach. Eat in baronial style at the on-site restaurant.
The Salacgrīva Lamprey Tači (weirs) are home to a fascinating traditional fishing method. The weirs are reconstructed each year from specially aged fir poles with access planks laid on top. In keeping with tradition, no nails or screws are used. The lampreys are caught in large and small nets, depending on conditions, from August to February. The next time you savour a lamprey, think of the poor fishermen protecting their fragile weir from the ravages of nature.
Follow the gorgeous Salaca upstream to Mazsalaca where the Skaņākalna Nature Park stretches along 3km of the river bank. Colourful sandstone outcrops and caves are enhanced by the Kurbads trail. 50 wooden sculptures relate the legend of this mythical hero.
Further inland, charming Rūjiena is home to the stately, red-brick Dairy, built in 1912 and at one time Latvia’s largest exporter of butter. Today it is the country’s ice-cream capital, producing many different products from pure, natural ingredients. For a taste of Latvia, try an ice-cream cake or the unique layered rye-bread dessert.
Head to Valmiera and the excellent beer produced at the Valmiermuiža Brewery. The origins of Valmiermuiža’s alus go back to the Swedish era when the castle inn was built not far from the Livonian Order castle. This rich history has influenced the unique beer made from three types of malt and two different hop varieties, brewed for a minimum of 30 days. Take a tour to discover how to taste beer in the style of the lord of the manor and which foods best accompany ale.
Approaching Smiltene, turn off for Blome and the Donas country guest house. The stables have been converted into a traditional bakery where you can make your own loaf or Christmas gingerbreads.
Latvia’s peat bogs and heaths provide a fertile environment for wild cranberries. At Kalnapurvs near Gaujiena, the peat has been planted with larger cultivated hybrids. Following the success of this venture, owners Veryberry have branched out into other berries and also produce a delicious range of juices and syrups.
Gulbene and Alūksne are connected by the Baltic States’ only working narrow gauge railway, the bānītis. More than just a train, you can get married on it, or view a re-enactment of a train robbery.
The Jaunkalēji Farmstead is near Ošupe, close to the Latgale border and specialises in traditional bread baking. No white breads here, only slow-leavening dark rye and lighter sour dough loaves are hand formed, laid out on maple leaves and baked in a wood-fired oven. Choose a 1-hour guided tour or get the full experience, a 4-hour hands-on baking class with your own loaf to take home. Too tired to go on? Relax in the sauna and spend a night in the country, with fresh bread for breakfast.
We cross into Latgale for the Teirumnieki heath near Nagļi, an example of a raised bog created over centuries by sphagnum or peat moss. The 800m plank walkway takes you across the stunted landscape. Circle back by the lakeside track.
On the opposite side of huge lake Lubāna, the inland fishing village of Īdeņa is located on an island between the lake and the surrounding wetlands. It is a fabulous place for bird watching and several towers have been built for this purpose. Stay at the Zvejnieki (Fishermen’s) Homestead, relax in the sauna and enjoy a delicious traditional meal with fresh fish from the lake, local game and organic vegetables from the Zvejnieki garden.
The Mārciena Manor has been beautifully renovated and turned into a first-class hotel and spa. The restaurant is in keeping with the baronial surroundings and serves local fish, game and organic vegetables. Catch your own fish in the manor lake and have the chef cook it with mushrooms you have picked in the forest.
Bērzaune is home to the largest commercial rabbit farm in the Baltic States. Hygiene rules mean you can only view the animals through glass windows, but the Sveķi Rabbit Garden has displays explaining the farming process. Tastings can be arranged and rabbits are available for sale.
The Bērzaune rabbits have goats as neighbours, around 250 of them. At the Līvi goat farm, Latvia’s largest, you can find out about the whole process, from grass to milk to tasty goat’s cheese. Watch cheese being made, taste it - you’ll buy some!
Head south to the banks of the Daugava river where the aroma of fresh bread is certain to arouse your appetite. Stop at the Liepkalni bakery to taste and buy breads baked to 90-year old family recipes, also see a wood-fired portable bread oven.
Not far downriver, give your journey a sweet ending by stopping at Skrīveru saldumi, home of classic gotiņas and other scrumptious morsels. Here, classic milk fudge candy has been taken to new heights with flavoursome flourishes like nuts, fruit and, of course, chocolate. Christmas brings yummy gingerbread gotiņas. Other products include chocolate-coated fruit, aerated toffee and marzipan, and muesli bars. Take one of the tours to learn the secrets of the perfect gotiņa and make your own marzipan figurine.