Riga dominates Latvia. Half of the country’s two million people live there: in Europe, only Luxembourg and Iceland have such a high proportion of the population living either in or immediately surrounding the capital city. More than seven times bigger than the country’s second-largest city Daugavpils, elegant, sprawling Riga accounts for over two-thirds of the country’s GDP; it’s where most jobs are concentrated; average wages are double what they are in much of the countryside; and it also has the vast majority of the country’s premier cultural events, venues, and institutions. It’s a common belief that to achieve anything in Latvia, one has to work from the capital.
However, there are signs that, bit by bit, this state of affairs may be changing. As Elīna Semane from Latvian Public Broadcasting puts it, “more and more young people, led by a variety of reasons, are choosing to exchange the noise of Riga for the charm of small towns.” The quote comes from an interview with director Kārlis Lesiņš, creator of a short documentary about the trickle of young artists and professionals leaving Riga for the small city of Cēsis in the luscious Gauja Valley.
If you ask me, visitors to the country should start doing the same thing. Most tourists don’t venture any further afield than the capital, and while Riga certainly has its share of delights, the countryside and smaller cities of Latvia are full of treasures too — and are still strikingly unspoilt and undiscovered. We’ve highlighted a couple of destinations that are popular choices for young Latvians looking beyond the capital, as well as a couple that haven’t yet seen much of an influx, but that are well worth a visit nonetheless.
There is probably no single city in Latvia that has changed quite so much as Cēsis has in the last five years. Ranged along a ridge overlooking the sweeping forests of the Gauja National Park, Cēsis was until recently noted principally for its two castles (one a surprisingly well-preserved ruin dating from the Livonian crusades; the other a smart 19th-century confection unlikely to withstand a siege). That began to change earlier this decade, as a few well-known personalities made well-advertised moves out of Riga and pitched up in the Gauja Valley. What with this and LAMPA, an annual “conversation festival” that is a major draw for Latvia’s intelligentsia, it didn’t take long for Cēsis to earn the tag of “the hipster capital of Latvia”.
But despite the minor influx of city folk into the town, its essential charms have remained the same — its vibe of country-air wholesomeness and the pretty, undulating lanes of its old-world, likably ramshackle centre have altered little in appearance. Still, some changes are plain to see: beneath the jagged tower and rough stone facade of the city’s best-known landmark, the medieval St John’s Church, you’ll now find a craft beer bar, Trimpus. And very good it is too, dispensing powerful, idiosyncratic and often home-made concoctions from its cool Old Town cellar.
Art has played a prime role in Cēsis’s rebirth: since 2014, the Rucka artist residency has brought creative types to an 18th-century manor near the train station, while the city hosts a month-long art festival (Cēsu mākslas festivāls) every summer. Next door to Trimpus is the intriguing Global Center for Latvian Art, which showcases artworks by the country’s disproportionately large diaspora — many of whom departed due to the invasions, occupations, and revolutions that beset Latvia in the 20th century.
There’s probably no part of Latvia where you can eat better than in the Gauja region; in 2017, together with Riga, it was named the European Centre of Gastronomy, after a campaign stressing earthy local specialities such as sorrel soup, boletus mushrooms, and rye bread. The tiny nearby town of Straupe is host to the Baltics’ only member of the International Earth Markets Alliance, a popular farmer’s market held in and around a centuries-old post station, while nearby Valmiera and Līgatne host upmarket restaurants making imaginative use of local ingredients. But you don’t have to leave town, or even spend much money to eat well in Cēsis. The pint-sized Old Town bakery Cēsu Maize crams so many flavours into its bread, baked while you watch, that it feels almost suspicious. Close by, the pricy but worthwhile restaurant H.E. Vanadziņš offers “northern food”, intriguingly demonstrating the ways in which traditional Latvian food tessellates with its Nordic neighbours.
“There are only two other cities in Latvia where I could imagine living: Cēsis and Liepāja.” I’ve heard this sentence more than once from weary Rigans. Liepāja, the largest city in Latvia’s westernmost province Kurzeme, hasn’t seen an influx of new arrivals in quite the way its smaller, northern cousin has. Its far-flung location, over a hundred miles from Riga, may have something to do with that. But Liepāja feels remote in the best possible way: almost totally surrounded by water, perched on a narrow spit of land between the Baltic Sea and Lake Liepāja, and banked by sandy beaches that extend down to Lithuania.
It’s always had character to spare, even if that character has been somewhat contradictory and confusing: Liepāja is at once laid-back beach town, rusting industrial city, gritty former military base, and bohemian haven. The onus in the last couple of years has been particularly on the latter, as you’ll find at Juliannas Pagalms, a still rough-around-the-edges courtyard amid slanting wooden houses and cobbled alleyways, which was once home to a sandal factory. After a recent refurbishment, it now hosts the cramped but outrageously convivial beer bar Miezis un Ko., where easy-going staff will talk you through the constantly changing roster of Latvian and international beer, taster by taster; next door, Kursas Putni, a much-loved venue and cultural space, has rigged out the former factory counting house with a bar and filled it with vintage bicycles and other curiosities. Not far away, Vējš cafe offers pancake-based snacks and possibly the best coffee you’ll find in western Latvia; on a more traditional tack, Pētertirgus, housed in and around a grand Tsarist-era hall, is among the biggest and most varied markets in Latvia — and an excellent place to pick up seasonal treats like birch juice and sea buckthorn.
Just far enough along the coast from the city proper to be able to claim it has nothing to do with it if questioned is the sprawling, peripheral district of Karosta, once host to a Soviet navy base and thus strictly off-limits. The Russian sailors left in 1994, taking a huge chunk out of Karosta’s population. What remains is slightly uncanny but visually spectacular: ranks of Soviet-era flats, even more battered than usual, alternate with down-on-their-luck officers’ residences dating from the early 20th century and yawning stretches of no-longer-used space — and, peeping over it all, the ornate, bejewelled domes of the St Nicholas Naval Orthodox Cathedral, a juxtaposition so extreme it can seem hallucinatory.
A short tramp north through the forest, the Northern Forts could be taken for the closing shots of a disaster film. A series of coastal fortifications built under the Russian Empire to defend Liepāja from a hypothetical German naval attack, the relentless waves and the passage of over a hundred years have tilted and flung them about like a house of stone cards, meaning you can walk on and around an extremely slow-motion process of collapse.
Lying in the south of the economically depressed region of Latgale, Daugavpils has an aging and shrinking population, a third smaller than it was 30 years ago. And many Latvians dismiss their second-largest metropolis as grim and featureless, while often having rather vague ideas about what it’s actually like. But you should ignore these people. Daugavpils has, over the last few years, developed a handful of attractions that play to its particular strengths and idiosyncratic character. Something that sets Daugavpils apart is its palpably Slavic flavour — most of Latvia’s larger cities have substantial minorities of Russians, but Daugavpils is the only one where you could conceivably spend a whole afternoon walking around without hearing the Latvian language.
While Daugavpils is an overwhelmingly Russian-speaking city, the surrounding province of Latgale is a much more complicated story, with a markedly different history from the rest of Latvia. Here, no ethnic group forms an overall majority. A metaphor for this can be found on Cathedral Hill, where churches of four denominations (Lutheran, Catholic, Russian Orthodox, and Old Believer) rub up against one another — each colour-coded as though for ease of reference.
Considered proud and hospitable by the rest of the country, Latgalians are also noted for throwing the best parties. A recently opened Daugavpils museum examines the honourable — and still illegal — local tradition that fuels those parties: the brewing and drinking of šmakovka, or homemade spirits (extraordinarily, this is just one of four museums throughout the region dedicated in some way to moonshine production). Notwithstanding its illegality, you should still get the opportunity to try a little at the end. If that’s not enough for you, just round the corner is the cosy underground bar Artilērijas Pagrabi, probably your best bet in town for both alcohol and music.
On the edge of Daugavpils, you’ll find a museum celebrating Mark Rothko, who hailed from the city. Rothko spent only the first 10 years of his life in Daugavpils (at which time it was known by its Russian name, Dvinsk), although one imaginative theory has it that his washes of interlacing colours displayed the subconscious influence of the intense tones of the shutters of old houses here. Just as diverting is the museum’s extraordinary setting inside the vast and largely dilapidated Daugavpils Fortress, a fortification dating back to the Napoleonic period which could easily be mistaken for a self-contained town, with blocks of flats, stretches of parkland, and abandoned warehouses all contained within its walls.
No one is yet moving to Slītere, but then, that’s kind of the point. Filling in the remotest tip of Kurzeme, this is a place where, out of season, you will hear little but the swishing of the trees and the breaking of the waves. The last time I went up I was the sole passenger on the little minibus for the hour or so drive north from Ventspils. But, as you can learn in Mazirbe, the largest village and historic centre of the region, it wasn’t always so quiet, peaceful, and deserted.
The fishing villages of this stretch of the coast have historically been the home of the Livonian people, speakers of a Finno-Ugric language closely related to Estonian. But following the Soviet takeover of Latvia in 1940, the Livonian Coast became the edge of the Soviet world, and was heavily militarised. Searchlights and watchtowers were placed on the beaches, access to outsiders was restricted, and fishing was prohibited along the majority of the coast. Livonians, no longer officially recognised as a distinct ethnicity, increasingly left the villages.
For a vivid illustration of what was lost, take a turn to the right just before you reach the beach at Mazirbe, and, amid the light woodland, you will find “the boat graveyard”: the community’s livelihood literally etched into the landscape. Prohibited from taking their boats to sea, the Livonians brought them here and left them to gradually decompose. A couple remain clearly boat-shaped, but for the most part they have been entirely reclaimed by the earth, their presence deducible only from the unexpectedly bumpy ground. Head north along the sandy beach and you will find picture-perfect Košrags, one of a string of tiny fishing villages cast over the coastline just a mile or so apart from each other. Inland along the Dundaga road, you will find the Pēterezera Nature Trail, which follows the contours of the distinctive local landforms of kanguri and vigas: the dunes and marshy hollows that have been formed by the Baltic Sea coming in and out over the course of a few millennia.
The tip of the whole peninsula is Kolka, where you can watch the sun sinking directly below the waves. From here, the shoreline curves back round to the south and east; follow it for long enough and you’ll get to Riga. There are a couple of restaurants in Kolka, and one in Mazirbe, although these operate on a strictly seasonal basis (using the rather narrow Latvian interpretation of summer). In most of the villages there are no food shops, so if you’re coming at any time outside that, it would be wise to stock up on your last urban stop before the park. In either case, in both towns you will see kūpinātas zivis (smoked fish) for sale, usually plucked fresh from the sea, which is an absolute must.