Latvia’s undiscovered west is a land of long beaches, long-woollen skirted Suiti women and gorgeous untouched towns. Experience the best of the region’s culture, food and wine and traditions…
1. Treat yourself to a traditional Latvian sauna ritual
Less aggressive than a Russian banya, more therapeutic than a Moroccan hamman, ritual saunas have been an integral part of Latvian life since before Christianity came to the country in the 13th century.
Imbued with pagan rituals and using branches, berries and flowers plucked fresh from the forest, it is part sauna, part aromatherapy and a complete realignment of your spiritual compass.
The ritual, known as pirts, is performed by a pirtnieks (sauna master) in a rustic sauna in a wooden bathhouse, usually in the countryside. It begins with herbal tea, mixed with mint, linden blossoms and other natural ingredients, and ends three-to-five hours later with you being gently cradled and spun around in a pond until you feel like you are flying.
In between, you are brushed, swathed and gently slapped with slotas (a broom) of fresh leaves, as you lie on a bed of berries and flowers. You’ll also be scrubbed with a natural honey musk, again foraged from the forest.
A good pirtnieks, like Mariks of Jūrkalne’s seaside Mêza Spa, will ‘read’ your needs and adjust the ritual and choose the best plants and branches accordingly.
Each ritual is an intensely personal experience – there are no crowds of half naked strangers in a Latvian bathhouse – and all the better for it. You’ll emerge refreshed and renewed, and bathed in the wondrous scents of the Latvian forest.
2. Take part in Latvia’s wine revolution
Drop by the Abavas winery and cellar in Ārlavciems and you can’t help but be swept up by the passion and enthusiasm of its founder, Martins Barkans. Martins left his high-powered job in 2010 with a vision – to create the world’s most northerly wine.
And after close to a decade of trialling different varieties of grapes in, frankly, unfriendly conditions, he’s finally cracked it and delivered a range of delicious wines, created on the 57th north parallel in west Latvia.
The winery is set in an old Soviet pickle factory that has been repurposed and refashioned to showcase Abavas’s range of wines, ciders and traditional Latvian fruit liqueurs. Wandering through the factory with Martins is a real education, especially when it comes to grape varieties and why they will or will not work in the wildly variable Latvian climate.
The highlight, of course, is tasting the products. The white wine made from Solaris grapes is particularly good, as is the blended sparkling rose from Fragola, a Latvian grape variety.
It is a testament to Martins’ skills that while in the pursuit of his holy grail – a truly great Latvian wine – Abavas have managed to knock out a rhubarb champagne that is served in some of the finest bars in London and a cider, mixed with American citra hops, that was named best in the world at a recent cider competition in Japan.
3. Stay in a stately manor
Ever wondered what it was like to be a duke or duchess in the 18th century? Well, Latvia’s beautiful manor houses offer visitors the chance to live like European nobility for a night or two for the fraction of the cost.
You’ll see castles and stately manor houses dotted across the Latvian countryside, remnants of the country’s tumultuous history and a reminder that some people here lived very, very well.
Some date as far back as the Middle Ages – though most are from the 18th century – and each reflects the changing architectural styles of the times. Many of the most beautiful manor houses have been restored and turned into accommodation fit for royalty, with nightly rates that are refreshing affordable.
One of the most impressive is the stunning Kukši Manor, 10km from Kandava. Lovingly and meticulously restored by its owner, Daniel Jahn, no expense has been spared, no tiny detail overlooked.
Intricate rugs, sparkling chandeliers, antique furniture, paintings and frescos set the tone and meals are made from the freshest local ingredients in the manor house’s impressive kitchen. The manor also has its own lake, perfect for boating or for watching the sun set, a perfectly made cocktail to hand.
A more accessible option is the boutique hotel Virkas Muiža on the edge of town in Kuldīga. Once the home of a local noble family, it has seen its fair share of turmoil, being commandeered by the Nazis during World War II and neglected in Soviet times. Recently modernised, while remaining faithful to the original design, the manor offers comfortable rooms that resonate with history and charm.
4. Kick back in Kuldīga
The moment you cross the beautiful red brick bridge over Venta River and into the pretty town of Kuldīga, it feels like you have stepped back into a slower, gentler time.
Untouched by war, the town retains many of the charming parks and buildings from its 17th century heyday. And with the influx of creative types from Riga, looking for a more relaxing and inspirational quality of life, these buildings have been lovingly restored and turned into cafes, restaurants and charming guesthouses.
One of the real joys of Kuldīga is wandering its cobbled streets admiring its Renaissance, Baroque and Gothic style buildings. Or stopping for a coffee or a meal in one of its hip restaurants, like the Goldingen Room, where the Latvian-Italian fusion dishes hit the spot. Make sure you wander back to the river to visit the Rumba, Europe’s widest waterfall and one of the few places you can see salmon jump in spring.
The river here is the perfect place for a picnic. Then wander back to the centre through the Town Garden and Sculpture Park, calling in on the charming history museum, and passing the outdoor auditorium where a folk singing and dance festival is held.
5. Beachcomb for amber on a long, deserted beach
Latvia has over 500km of coastline: much of it white and sandy, most of it deserted. It’s hard to imagine, but take a stroll along the sandy shores in Jūrkalne, backed by 20m bluffs, and the only people you’re likely to see are a couple of fisherman contemplating whether to go out in their little wooden fishing boat.
Many of the best beaches are found in the west. The beach in the tiny port town of Pāvilosta is popular with surfers, kiters and other outdoor enthusiasts in the summer, but deserted the rest of the year.
The pristine Blue Flag beach in Liepāja is only minutes from the centre of the city, but at eight kilometres long, never feels crowded. And at Karosta, just to the north, you can clamber over the ruins of a Tsarist fort, falling into the sea.
Whichever beach you visit, make sure to keep you eyes peeled for pieces of precious amber washed up on the shore. Known as Baltic Gold, these lumps of fossilised tree resin are highly prized and are fashioned into jewellery and other delicate trinkets. The best time to fossick is after a storm, when pieces of amber are washed up on shore.
6. Sing with the Suiti
Deep in the heart of western Latvia, you’ll find the Suiti Land, a place where some of the country’s most colourful traditions are still alive and well and still party of everyday life. That woman in a bright red dress, head scarf and colourful shawl you spot on arriving in Alsunga? That’s probably just one of the local Suiti singers, heading off to join her sisters at the local community hall.
The Suiti were listed as a global intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO in 2009, and the Suiti women are instrumental in keep the culture and traditions alive. They run workshops teaching the younger generation Suiti handicrafts and recruit them to sing in the typical Suiti way. It’s very tonal, and the lyrics are designed to tease the listener by criticising their appearance and habits in a warm and friendly way.
The Alsunga Administrative District Museum gives a good overview of the Suiti and their traditions, with a display of traditional costumes and a recreation of a typical Suiti kitchen. But for a real understanding of the Suiti, you need to see the Suiti women sing. Performances are good-natured and fun and very entertaining. Be warned: you will be mocked. And expected to join in!
You might get lucky and catch them performing at the museum. Or you could arrange a personal performance, but that is a little expensive. Your best chance is one of the local festivals like St Michael’s Day in September, Summer Solstice or Easter where they are sure to perform. Check with the Alsunga Tourism Information Centre for details.
7. Visit Liepēja, Latvia’s music city
Latvia’s third largest city, Liepāja, is known throughout the country for two things. One, it is the birthplace of the wind that sweeps across the country. And two, it’s the home of Latvian rock ‘n’ roll.
Latvia’s most famous and beloved band, Līvi, were formed in Liepāja. It’s also where the Soviet equivalent of Woodstock was held. It was the site of Latvia’s first Rock Cafe, home to a walk of fame featuring hand prints of the country’s most famous musicians, and where you’ll find Latvia’s premier music college. Music runs through this city’s blood.
The traditional continues to this day. There are lots of clubs, bars and theatres where students from the music college gig with local bands (try the eccentric Wictorja, an old Soviet cinema, for a surreal treat).
The recently-built Amber Theatre caters to a more classical audience. Or you could head to the Līvi ghost tree down near the beach and join fans listening to the band’s greatest hits, drifting eerily from the branches of this six metre tall metal sculpture.
8. Visit forbidden Soviet ports
With it’s west-facing coastline and strategic position on the Baltic Sea, it’s little surprise that this part of Latvia housed some of the most important – and secretive – naval bases in the Soviet Union. Whole towns and ports were commandeered by the Soviet navy. Entrance to the towns was strictly controlled by a system of difficult-to-get permits.
The most famous is Karosta, just north of Liepāja. During Soviet times, it served as a base for the Soviet Baltic Fleet and for many years was off-limits to both visitors and locals alike. They abandoned the town in 1994. Now, the old military prison and remains of a Tsarist fort are tumbling into the sea – and make for a fascinating visit.
Another port commandeered by the Soviets was Pāvilosta, an important fishing harbour first mentioned in medieval times. During the Soviet times, you needed a permit to enter.
Now, the town is a popular summer seaside spot, with a long sandy beach, one of Latvia’s few surf schools and plenty of kite surfers. Out of season, you’ll get the long sandy beach to yourself. Thankfully, the nearby Āķgals Cafe remains open, selling affordable, delicious local meals and the local Latvian cider.
Don’t leave town without visiting the local history museum. Recently updated thanks to an EU grant, it is modern, informative and entertaining. Don’t miss the boat shed out back, either. It houses displays about the local fishing industry, including VR sets that recreate life on a trawler. Be warned: The local ladies who volunteer at the museum are very proud of their VR and will insist you try it.
9. Watch the sun set over a bog
There’s something very primeval about a bog, especially first thing in the morning, when mist uses eerily over the primordial waters, or in the evening and the sun sets over the vast expanse of water. The Great Kemeri Bog Boardwalk in Kemeri National Park is one of the best ways to explore a Latvian bog and its inhabitants.
Only 44km west of Riga, the boardwalk takes visitors to the world of moss, small pine trees, deep pools, tiny dark lakes, and the smell of wild rosemary. Keep your eye out for carnivorous sundew plants, as well as birds like wood sandpipers, white wagtails, and tree pipits.
There are two walks available – a short one-and-a-half kilometre walk, and the full circuit, which is two kilometres longer. Both lead to a wooden observation tower, the perfect place to watch the sun set. Bring a beer and soak up the view. That’s what the locals like to do.