Upon advising my friends and colleagues of my intentions to visit Latvia, I was mostly met with a blank look, and the question, “Where is that?!” I didn’t know anything about Latvia prior to going there, so I had no idea how much history the place has. Or how amazing it was.
As with any European country I have been to in the summer, it’s almost impossible for me to comprehend how much it can change in the winter. Living in one of the tropical states of Australia, I’m not sure I would do too well in the winter. Luckily, I visited in the summer.
Riga slapped me in the face with how contrasting Old Town and New Town are. Old Town is incredibly quintessential; somehow being cute and beautiful without being kitschy. If you’ve never experienced cobblestone streets, you cannot possibly prepare yourself for days upon days of walking on them, nor can you prepare yourself for the feeling of inferiority as your focus of not twisting your ankle is momentarily broken by a 6’2 European model speeding past you in 6″ heels. It just does not compute.
For me, one of the notable things that makes Riga so pretty compared to other cities is the placement of window boxes on almost every window of every building. I’m not at all a flowers person, but in a city of such vibrant colours, it enhances the fusion of ornamentation.
The more time spent in this beautiful city learning the importance it hold within European history, the harder it is to comprehend that you almost never hear anything about it. Which is good for travelers, but still difficult to believe when you’re there. The blend of old and new, the architecture, the medieval layout, the perfectly manicured parks with their brightly coloured flowers, the rivers that run through them with their romantic rowboats gliding down, and the bridges that cross them held onto by padlocks engraved with lovers’ names, I find it hard to believe this is not the romance capital of the world!
One of the biggest surprises of Latvia was a trip to Jūrmala, a must-do day trip about half an hour out of Riga. The lead up to the beach on the train station side is a host of markets, cafes and gift shops that stretches on for so long it can become easy to forget you were actually going to the beach. In typical Latvian style, everything is pretty. Jūrmala is made up of several resorts, and is the only city in Latvia that holds a Healthy City status. Interestingly, it is home to ‘Līvu akvaparks’ which is the largest water amusement park in Northern Europe. Living in Australia, I am no stranger to beaches but let me tell you the Latvians know how to make the most out of summer. I could not believe how pristine the beaches were, with massive decks containing crystal-blue water pools, sun lounges, bars and restaurants on the sand for resort guests to enjoy. It is definitely worth staying here at least a few days but be warned: you won’t want to leave.
Another day trip is to the baroque Rundale Palace, about an hour’s drive from Riga- worth the drive to see the Latvian countryside on the way. The Palace dates back to the late 1700’s. It’s amazing to compare this palace to one’s I’ve visited in the U.K. (which I consider to be the home of palaces, you know… the Queen and all) and the palaces visited in Europe are far better looked after. This particular palace was restored by the Soviets, who weren’t exactly known for doing things by halves. Visited on a particularly gloomy day made the Palace look incredibly daunting and made for some very haunting pictures.
What’s outstanding about the Palace is that once inside you pretty much have free reign of the place. Not too much is off limits, and you can wander and explore to your hearts’ content, on several levels. As with most palaces, the gardens are incredible and perfectly manicured, and with these particular gardens a symmetry I have never seen before. A golf cart with a trailer runs tourists around the gardens, giving glimpses of the Palace from all different angles through the maze hedges and archways.
There were many things that time just didn’t permit me to see in Latvia; 4 days just wasn’t enough. But I definitely plan to go back to this gem as soon as I can, I still have much to see such as the Hill of Crosses and the Fairy Tale Nature Park of Tērvete. If ever you’re in eastern Europe, I promise you will not be disappointed.