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Road trip in Kurzeme, Western Latvia

A summer road trip through western Latvia is full of surprises.

Tsarist concrete follies adrift in the sea, a coastline of pretty little wild beaches and an abundance of nature trails, charming homestays, and urban exploration amongst the old and the new chapters of Latvian history.

In August, we spent 7 blissful days exploring the Kurzeme region in our own rental car - starting from Riga airport and taking us via Kuldīga to Liepāja, Ventspils, and Jurmala - and we are sharing our own route to give you some ideas and inspiration for planning your own Latvian road trip!

Kuldiga Old Town
Kuldiga

 

Day One: Riga to Kuldīga

Most summer road trips in Latvia will begin and end at Riga Airport, which is an affordable 2-3 hour flight from most destinations in western and central Europe.

Riga is a city well worth a visit in its own right, so you can choose to spend your first few nights there, visit the city at the end of your road trip, or simply save it for a future visit to Latvia!

With the number of car rental companies based at Riga Airport, it also makes sense to pick up your rental car from here.

The first stop on our journey through western Latvia was Kuldīga, an instantly charming chocolate box Latvian town two hours drive from the airport.

War never touched Kuldīga, and so it provided us with a singular opportunity to appreciate the excellently preserved homes and streets of ‘old Latvia’. It is, unsurprisingly, a popular romantic and cultural getaway for locals and, after our two visits to the country, ranks as the prettiest town we’ve visited.

Things to Do:

Distance: 143 kms | Driving Time: 2.5 hours

 

Liepaja Forts
Liepaja Forts

 

Day Two: Kuldīga to Liepāja

When planning the route, we underestimated just how pretty and peaceful Kuldīga would be - especially down by the sun-soaked river in the late morning - and we could happily have spent another full, relaxing day here by the water.

However, the next stop on our road trip was calling: Liepāja. Known as both “the city that gave birth to the wind” and the home of Latvian rock music, it was of great strategic importance in the 19th and 20th centuries. It is also the hometown of one of Latvia’s biggest sports star (literally), the 7ft 3inch tall New York Knicks basketball player Kristaps Porziņģis!

Liepāja has a number of attractions for visitors, but they are quite spread out, so our recommendation is to view the city in three parts in order to make the most of your 1-2 nights there: the beach, the city centre, and Karosta + The Northern Forts.

Things to Do

  • Liepāja Beach provided our first glimpse of how surprisingly good Baltic beaches could be in summer. It’s a long-time holiday favourite in the region, and has several bars to hang out in if the wind is a little too strong for sunbathing.
  • Karosta was, for nearly a hundred years, separate to Liepāja and closely guarded by the military. Today, it is home to several of the most popular sights in western Latvia: the Northern Forts (excellent for exploring, although quite creepy), the bewilderingly long concrete Ziemeļu Mols pier, the Karosta Military Prison Museum / Hostel, and the impressive Naval Cathedral of St Nicholas. Note that Karosta is a 10-15 minute drive from the centre of Liepāja.

Distance: 90 - 120 kms | Drive Time: 2-3 hours

 

Liepaja Beach

 

Day Three: Liepāja

We spread the main activities to do in Liepāja across our 1.5 days in the city and we’d recommend the same for your own trip. A final place to consider visiting, if you have the time, is the Lake Liepāja Nature Reserve. A peaceful area about 40 minutes walk from the town centre (or an easy drive), it’s a great spot for birdwatching amongst the local fisherman, and lovely sunset views.

 

Jūrkalne

 

Day Four: Liepāja to Jurklane

After leaving Liepāja in the morning, we hit the type of open countryside which would be the main feature of the next few days of easy driving without any huge distances to cover. The way would be marked by large sections of forest, cute wooden houses in gardens with apple trees, gorgeous coastline, and elderly local men on bicycles.

On this stretch, a stop off for lunch and a walk in Pāvilosta, a small harbour town with a long sliver of attractive wild beach and potential for kitesurfing & windsurfing is recommended to stretch your legs. The Laiva cafe in the town is a good idea for a bite to eat (and they also serve Latvian cider!).

The main highlight of today was, undoubtedly, just before the sun went down.

We had been told by a few Latvians before and during our trips that the sunsets in Jurkalne, a small village on the west coast with a dramatic beach, were something not to be missed. And you know what? They were absolutely right.

Distance: 70 kms | Drive Time: 2 hours

 

Ventspils
Ventspils Ostas Promenade

 

Day Five: Ventspils and the countryside

Ventspils, a 50 kms drive from Jurkalne, is a medium-sized prosperous port city in northwestern Latvia. Arrival at its hulking and active industrial port, replete with colourful cranes and containers, belies the charming old town and pristine stretch of family-friendly blue flag beach only a few minutes walk in either direction.

We spent the afternoon exploring Ventspils and, if you are doing the same, we would recommend starting off with coffee or a lunch in the pretty City Hall Town square, a short walk from the historic Market Square. Afterwards, take a walk along the Ostas Promenade towards the gigantic ‘Travelling Cow’ (one of many massive cow sculptures dotted around the city!) and a visit to the 13th-century Castle of the Livonian Order, which now houses Ventspils Museum. You can then continue on to the beach (about 10-15 minutes walk), or drive there with the car.

 

Ventspils International Radio Astronomy Centre in Irbene
Ventspils International Radio Astronomy Centre in Irbene

 

Leaving the city, we drove along arrow straight roads through the pines with the afternoon sun shafting through. There are many small tracks off the main road leading to small settlements, slivers of beach, or nature trails, but our sights were firmly set on a visit to The Ventspils International Radio Astronomy Centre in Irbene, 30 kms north of the Ventspils. This massive ex-Soviet installation, the eighth largest radio telescope of its kind in the world, was secret until 1993 and remains in use for scientific purposes. Tours are possible if booked in advance.

On the approach to the the huge telescope, you will also pass the eerie abandoned Soviet Army town of Zvaigznite. Its creepy and dilapidated, but a reminder of how much has changed here in the last three decades.

From reminders of the Soviet past, a spontaneous stop at the village of Miķeļtornis, which has a campsite and a few B&Bs a few 100 metres from the beach, instantly brought us back to the environment which was coming to sum up our road trip through Kurzeme: silence, the sea, and nature.

Those feelings would be enhanced by our first homestay in Latvia at the wonderful Branki, based in the secluded seaside village of Mazirbe. With three abundant courses of home cooked traditional food served in our own charming historic cottage, we ended another successful day of road tripping in front of a crackling fireplace. 

Perfection!

Distance: 190 kms | Drive Time: 3-4 hours

 

Cape Kolka

 

Day Six: Cape Kolka

A short walk through the forest from Branki is another ruggedly beautiful and windswept chunk of Latvian coastline, perfect to clear away the morning cobwebs and savour the tranquility of the northwest before hitting the road again towards our next major stop on the route.

The most northern point in Latvia, Cape Kolka jags into two bodies of water (the Baltic Sea and Gulf of Riga) creating a swirling, whirling current in the blustery Baltic winds; it isn’t a surprise that historically this was once a graveyard for ships caught adrift.

A whole morning or decent chunk of an afternoon can be spent here, as the Cape is set within Slītere National Park, which has several trails to follow through the pines, the dunes, and by the water, including the Kolkasrags Pine Trail.

 

Cooking class at Uzi Guesthouse|
Cooking class at Ūši Guesthouse

 

A few kilometres away in the village of Kolka, it is possible to join a fascinating cooking class at Ūši Guesthouse. Hosted by Dženeta, we made and tasted traditional sklandrausis (a sweet potato and carrot dessert) and smoked fish soup (a very popular food in this part of Latvia, and you will see it on sale at stalls on the road side!).

Our final stop for the night was the popular beachside campsite in Melnsils, which has all sorts of watersports activities, an on-site restaurant, and a few pet goats. It would be a great base in summer for a few days of being active in the smooth waters of the Gulf of Riga.

Distance: 35 kms | Drive Time: 1-2 hours

 

Engure Nature Park
Engure Nature Park

 

Day Seven: The Road to Jurmala

Our last full day of driving on the road trip led us to take several spontaneous detours - to a lovely little beach populated by swans (Kaltene), a lunch of pancakes in the sunshine by a secluded lakeside restaurant (Rideļi Mill), and getting lost down a dusty road several times in search of a nature trail to bring us to wild horses (we found them eventually at Lake Engure!). It felt like many of the elements we loved about western Latvia packed in to one blissful sun-kissed morning of easy driving along near-empty roads.

As we knew Jurmala would bring us to a newer, busier, less traditional side of Latvia, we delayed our arrival until the evening, choosing instead to savour driving around the emptier countryside for as long as possible. As a last stretch on this road trip route, everyone will enjoy a walk at golden hour through the hidden walkway flanked by towering swamp reeds on the Lake Kanieris Nature Trail - highly recommended.

Distance: 125 kms | Drive Time: 3 hours

 

Jurmala Beach

 

Day Eight: Return To Riga

Jurmala was the busiest place we visited on our Kurzeme road trip route; this really wasn’t a surprise given it was a sunny summer weekend and the popular resort town is only 30 minutes from Riga. Still, we enjoyed our morning walking its long, wide, and clean beach, having a coffee and looking at souvenirs on the Jomas Isla, and exploring its very impressive Dzintaru mežaparks park.

With an afternoon flight back home to the UK from Riga Airport, our road trip through western Latvia had brought us full circle, but we were boarding the plane as travellers who had come to learn just how special summers in this small European country can be.

 

Author

Andrew and Emily
travel bloggers | digital influencers
www.alongdustyroads.com

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Last updated: 
24.10.2018