Named one of Lonely Planet's Best in Travel for 2016, Latvia is finally getting the praise it deserves. This three-day itinerary criss-crosses the country, letting you experience some of the best architecture and historic beauty the charmingly under-the-radar destination has to offer.
Riga's Old Town
Base yourself in Riga, the capital of Latvia and the European Capital of Culture in 2014. Begin by exploring Riga's charming old town, full of quaint cobblestone streets, romantic narrow alleys, and postcard-perfect medieval buildings. Start in Ratslaukums with its grand views of Town Hall and the reconstructed Blackheads' House and make your way to the Dome Cathedral with its gorgeous cloisters scattered with artifacts of Latvian history. After that, ditch the map and just wander around the twisty streets, soaking up the city's storybook atmosphere.
Once you've had your fill of Old Town, head northeast until you hit Riga's peaceful Bastejkalns Park. The park was created in the mid-1800s on the site of Old Town's historical defensive fortifications - the lovely canal that snakes through it used to be a moat! Stroll through the park until you come to Brivibas Bulvaris (Freedom Boulevard), a partly-pedestrianized street and plaza that is crowned by Latvia's iconic Freedom Monument. The memorial was erected in 1935 on the spot where a statue of Peter the Great once stood. The sculpture features depictions of Latvian culture and history, and remains an important symbol of Latvian independence.
Museum of Occupation
To gain a better understanding of just why Latvia's Freedom Monument still means so much to its people, head over to the Museum of Occupation. Caught at the crossroads of German and Soviet aggression, Latvia was occupied by either the Nazis or the USSR from 1940 until 1991. The museum offers a fascinating and emotionally moving glimpse into Latvia's tumultuous recent history and life under the two regimes. Don't skip over the videos, especially the interviews with survivors of Soviet deportation.
Art Nouveau Museum
Riga has almost 800 buildings in the art nouveau architectural style - more than any other city in Europe. Located in a building with a swoon-worthy spiral staircase, the Art Nouveau Museum offers a look at a restored art nouveau apartment and information on life in turn of the century Latvia. It also provides insight into what happened to all these gorgeous buildings during the Soviet Occupation (hint: layers and layers of ugly wallpaper) and the ongoing restoration process. Ring bell number 12 to get in.
In case you need to brush up on your art history (like I did), art nouveau refers to an artistic movement that swept through Europe between the 1880s and World War I. It's characterized by flowing lines, curves, and whimsical incorporation of elements inspired by the natural world.
Art Nouveau Walking Tour
The Art Nouveau Museum is, appropriately, located in the heart of Riga's Art Nouveau district. Download the museum's helpful interactive map with information on the city's most famous buildings and meander through the streets on a self-guided walking tour. Even if you're not a die-hard fan of the stunning architecture, the neighborhood is a refreshing change of pace from Old Town and offers a chance to see more of what Riga has to offer.
Day trip to Rundale Palace
Venture down to southern Latvia for a tour of dazzling Rundale Palace, an eighteenth-century Baroque mansion built by Bartolomeo Rastrelli, the same architect behind Russia's most famous royal residences (including the Winter Palace, Peterhof, and Catherine's Palace). The enormous palace might seem like it's in the middle of nowhere, but it was once home to two of the most powerful men in Russia: Ernst Johann von Biron, who ruled the Russian Empire for a time as regent, and Prince Platon Zubov, the last lover of Catherine the Great. You'll never be in a palace quite this grand with so few other tourists around - it's like having it all to yourself. After you've finished exploring, head down to the basement for a delicious and unbelievably cheap meal.
Experience a Traditional Latvian Sauna
Once you're back in Riga, strip down to your birthday suit and sweat it out with locals at Balta Pirts, a traditional Baltic-style public sauna. People are usually more than happy to provide guidance, but you can't go wrong with repeating the invigorating combination of shower, sauna, and ice cold pool over and over again. If you're truly feeling adventurous, ask the front desk for a birch slota, a bundle of dried birch leaves, and use it to whip yourself while you're in the sauna. Trust me: it feels amazing!
Riga's Central Market
Start your day in Europe's largest market, housed in five of the world's nine remaining German Zeppelin hangars. Grab a couple of pastries for breakfast and haggle with vendors for freshly picked mushrooms, creamy local cheeses, and handmade wool socks and mittens to keep you warm through winter. The Soviets declared this market the best in the world - it's one of the few things they got right.
Day trip to Turaida Castle and the Gauja River Valley
After you've shopped 'till you've dropped at the market, hop on a bus and head east to the town of Sigulda. Take a cable car over the ancient Gauja River Valley to get to the romantic ruins of Krimulda Castle, which date from the fourteenth century. Walk down the serpentine road and stop to admire Gutmanis Cave, the largest cave in the Baltics. The cave is the site of one of Latvia's most popular legends, The Rose of Turaida, and is also the country's oldest tourist attraction. You can see inscriptions from visitors who came before you etched inside its walls. From the cave, walk along the main road until you get to Turaida Castle, perched high above the river. The castle was built in 1214 for the storybook-sounding Livonian Brothers of the Sword and remained an important military stronghold until it burned to the ground in 1776. The current castle is the result of restoration, but its tower offers fantastic views of the countryside and the whole thing is surrounded by a straight-from-a-fairy-tale country estate.