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  • Writer's pictureDaniel Bates

Exploring Riga like a local

Updated: Jun 20

One of the most beautiful cities I have come across is one I know very well, Riga, located on the Baltic Sea in Latvia and is the largest city in the Baltic countries (Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia). A city which has many different faces due to invasions and previous owners such as the Germans, the Swedish, the Russians, and even for a while, the English (nah, that didn’t happen), there are so many structures in parts of the city which show certain periods of time. Latvia itself claimed independence in 1918 before the Nazi Germans and the Soviet Union stole the show and made Latvia part of their countries before claiming independence again in 1991. So it is here that certain parts of the city I can see the past from Swedish times, Soviet times and German times. On my discovery of the Old Town, I get to see something different and something new in every single city I visit. Here are my top things to do and see for first timers visiting this amazing city. Also to note, Olga, my wife, comes from Latvia being born in Sigulda to the north-east of the capital but was brought up here in the city before moving to England.

Riga Castle
Riga castle with the church spires which dominate the skyline of the old town

The Churches of Riga

There are many beautiful churches and cathedrals in the old town. The main cathedral is known as Dome (named after the German influence) and is the biggest place of worship in the Baltic. Inside the cathedral, there is one of the biggest organs in Europe to check out which has over 6700 pipes. The Dome is in the heart of the Old Town and is located on Doma Laukums (Cathedral Square) where there are some fantastic bars and restaurants to check out.

However near the Town Hall the most popular church to visit is St Peter’s Church. Built in the 11th century by the local folk and not by outsiders (known as the Livs), the church is worth visiting as it is one of the places to get a fantastic viewpoint overlooking the rooftops of the Old Town. However don’t go on a cloudy or even a windy day! It gets very cold up there! The church dates back to 1209 and once had the highest wooden tower in Europe. However the tower has been destroyed several times since, mainly due to fire breaking out.

Near the Freedom Monument is the amazing Russian Orthodox Cathedral, also known as the Cathedral of Christ’s Nativity. Built in the late 19th century and its main feature from the outside is the five golden domes, the inside is just truly amazing. The paint work on the walls and ceilings of Orthodox saints. In the 20th century during the Soviet occupation, the cathedral was turned into a planetarium. The Soviet’s also destroyed many of the ornate works of art including wall and ceiling art. Thankfully since returning to the congregation in 1990, most of the cathedral has now been restored. For me this is better than the nearby art museum, truly bedazzling and one of my favourite Orthodox Cathedrals I have come across on my travels.

Russian Orthodox Cathedral, Riga
Russian Orthodox Cathedral

One of the most colourful churches in Riga (which looks like it has been taken out of a fairytale book), is located on Pils Iela. Our Lady of Sorrows church has a beautiful blue and white facade and has a depressing name but the way it was built was very positive. The Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II was on a trip to Russia when he saw the wooden chapel located here and decided to fund the construction into a Catholic church. More funds were provided by Catherine the Great’s son and the King of Poland-Lithuania Empire and after a few years, it was completed.

Our Lady of Sorrows church, Riga
Our Lady of Sorrows church

Riga’s Town Hall Square

One of the top sights to hit up is the beautiful Town Hall Square which has stood here since the 14th century and was the city's administrative centre (alongside the nearby castle and Dome cathedral) which represented the interests of the residents of Riga. From being a marketplace as well as the main site of festivals to being a place where executions were carried out, this place is full of history. To the eastern side of the square is the impressive step-gabled House of Blackheads (which had to be completely rebuilt in the late 1990s after being destroyed in the Second World War) which was originally built for the city’s guilds before the place became a home for unmarried foreign merchants. Above the entrance is the medieval saying ‘if I should fall, build me again’, to which the locals did.

Next to it is the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia which is interesting for people who love studying about the Second World War and what happened to the country whilst in Soviet hands. There are plenty of photographs to show what happened during the era and there is even a replica of a Gulag barracks which gives visitors an insight of the hardship experienced by deportees.

Museum of the Occupation of Latvia, Riga
Museum of the Occupation of Latvia is the black square building

On the northern side of the square inside the white building with a clock on top is Riga's City Hall, where all the decisions on the city are made here by the council. I was fortunate once to go inside and have a 'peek' around. Usually not open for tourists but there are some occasions where they are allowed in.

In the middle of the square is the Statue of Roland, a legendary medieval figure and one of Charlemagne’s knights (not going into the full story of Charlemagne here guys!) named Roland to which he also became a symbol of the independence of cities from the local nobility. Not sure what that means but he sounds like he does great things for the city of Riga. I just love the medieval armour he wears and the sword pointing skywards. Gives the square an even more historic look with the House of Blackheads behind it.

Statue of Roland, Riga
Statue of Roland with the Blackheads House

Did you know the first ever Christmas Tree in the world was placed out the House of Blackheads back in 1510. This is also accounted for in a medieval document. The guildsmen based here placed a tree on the square, decorated it on Christmas Day and then set it on fire around twelve days afterwards. This is one of the earliest accounts of a Christmas Tree in the world and was certainly the first in Riga. Today there is a monument which marks the spot where the Christmas Tree was placed.

Christmas tree at Town Hall Square, Riga
Christmas tree at Town Hall Square, Riga

Just south of the square is the Latvian Riflemen Monument which is a little bit controversial as the red granite statue is dedicated to the Latvian Red Riflemen, to which some of the people in this group were Lenin’s personal bodyguards. Locals see this monument as a symbol of the old communist system and just want to wrap a rope around their necks, tie it to a truck and pull down the statue. Other locals believe it's a tribute to Latvians who fought in the early years of the World War. Officially it honours all Latvian riflemen from both sides of the conflicts and systems.

Latvian Riflemen Monument, Riga
Latvian Riflemen Monument

Along the riverfront

To the western end of 11.Novembra Krastmala (which is the main road which runs alongside the northern shores of the Daugava river) has a couple of sights to see. For starters there is Riga Castle which has stood here since 1330, which has been either burnt down or destroyed by the locals many times over the centuries after being rebuilt and was recently caught on fire a few years ago (insurance job? Mafia? Someone dropped a cigarette - who knows?). However the castle not only has the president of Latvia living here, there is also the Museum of Foreign Art to check out but my favourite is the History Museum of Latvia where there are exhibits of religious sculpture, traditional regional costumes and consumer goods from the first period of independence.

Another one of my favourite viewpoints is on the bridge located next to Riga Castle. Walk a few hundred meters towards the centre of the bridge and look back at the castle and there is the perfect view of Riga’s Old Town skyline. With its castle in the foreground and spires of the churches behind it, what else could anyone ask for?

Other sights in the Old Town

Of course, no visit to the Old Town would be complete without checking out the Houses of Three Brothers. Located on Maza Pils Iela (17-21), this row of buildings covers three distinct architectural styles. Number 17 has a stepped gable and Gothic niches dating back from the 15th century and is Riga’s oldest stone residential building. On the stones next to the door is the symbol of ears of wheat which indicate that the building was owned by the baker. Number 19 with its wooden interior was built in the 17th century and now houses the museum of architecture whilst number 21 (which is the green building) was built in the 18th century. The buildings didn’t get damaged in the Second World War whilst all the surrounding buildings got destroyed.

House of Three Brothers, Riga
House of Three Brothers

The Swedish Gate which is located between Torna iela and Aldaru iela is the only remaining gate of the eight which were built during Swedish times back in the late 17th century. Myth has it that the gate was created illegally by a wealthy merchant who wanted a more direct access to his warehouse on the other side of the wall. These days, newly married couples pass through the gate because it is supposed to give them good luck. Opposite the Swedish Gate are three yellow buildings with orange tiled roofs which are known as James Barracks or Jacob’s Barracks. These were built in the 18th century as barracks for the local army and served as this function until the late 20th century. These days they have been converted into shops, restaurants and cafes.

Another favourite place of mine is the House of Black Cats which is a beautiful yellow Art Nouveau building located on the corner of Meistaru and Amatu Iela which has two black feline cats statues perched on the points of the towers. When the building was being built, the sculptor fell to his death whilst putting the cats up. Then before the First World War a merchant who owned the building was barred from entering the Great Guild building across the street because he was Latvian and membership was reserved for Germans only. So to piss the Germans off (back then it was a popular thing to do), he put two feline cats on the roof (which both had their tails up) and positioned them so that their backsides faced the guildhall. A long court battle followed but he somehow won, gained entry into the guildhall and turned the cats backsides away.

House of Black Cats, Riga
House of Black Cats

Opposite the Black Cat House is the Great and Small Guild Halls which were built when the German dominated the economics along the Baltic Sea. The Great Guild was built in 1384 and housed the merchants whilst the Small Guild was built much later and housed the city’s artisans. These days the Great Guild has the Latvian Symphony Orchestra based here whilst the Small Guild hosts conferences. Only the Small Guild is open to the public.

Great and Small Guild Halls, Riga
Great and Small Guild Halls

Checking out the Art Nouveau Architecture - Right, I am not going into what is Art Nouveau etc...I am not an art person. However, walking around Elizabetes Iela (around the western end of the street) and Alberta Iela is a huge collection of Art Nouveau Architecture plastered everywhere on buildings and has been recognised by UNESCO as the best Art Nouveau seen anywhere in the world. Here are a few examples I have come across. It's great to walk around this part of the city plus other areas of the Old Town and come across great pieces of art. Just keep looking up!

Back in the heart of the Old Town, The Freedom Monument is one of Riga’s top landmarks, towering 42 meters (138ft) up towards the sky. At the top is a female figure known as Milda who holds three golden stars, which represent the three cultural regions of the country, Latgale, Vidzeme and Kurzeme. At the bottom the granite base is decorated with statues representing four virtues, work, family, spiritual life and protection of the fatherland as well as Latvia’s number one superhero, Lacplesis (which has a great beer named after him!) The words ‘Tevzemei un brivibai’ means for Fatherland and Freedom. Usually there are boys training up for the army standing here at the base during daylight hours throughout the year so that they are taught how to discipline themselves and honour their country. However, don’t go up to them or try and take a photo of them so closely, you will get the Latvian treatment (not saying what that is!). Also for stag parties visiting the city (mainly British), do not PISS against the statue, you will love the local hospitality in a prison cell for a few days.

Nearby is Bastion Hill which is a man-made hill created in the mid 1800s to replace the old defensive bulwark (a defensive wall). On the hill there are memorial stones to five people who were killed by the Soviets during disturbances in January 1991 (before the collapse of the USSR and Latvia regained its independence). A couple of the people who died were camera operators who were trying to film the awful events.

Satiekamies pie Laimas pulksteņa - let's meet at the Laima clock! This clock is located just south of the Freedom Monument and is a fantastic meeting place with locals since it was erected in the 1920s. The clock has advertised chocolates but I am pretty sure a lot of ‘sweet’ romances have kindled here.

Let's meet at the Laima clock, Riga

Along the Pilsētas Kanāls (the canal which goes along the northern outskirts of the Old Town), there are some beautiful sights to check out like the Opera House, walking through the park but what I love about this area is the statues dotted about. One of them is the George Armistead statue. As I am British (with a Latvian heart) this statue kinda represents the good bond between the United Kingdom and Latvia which still exists to this very day (with many Latvians living in the UK since European Union membership was given in 2004). A lot of locals think that the British are a bunch of pissheads who come over for weekends for drinking weekends and ‘stag’ do’s and get completely wasted well before midnight (I know, I have been there, done that and got the T-Shirt). However one British person left a great impression on the locals of the city. George Armitstead was born in Riga in 1847, studied in Switzerland and Oxford, UK before returning to Riga where his family owned properties and businesses. Eventually he was elected mayor of the city in 1901 and did this role until his death in 1912. Back in 2006 on the grounds of the Opera House, Queen Elizabeth the Second unveiled the statue of George with his wife Cecile and their dog to honour this great British man.

George Armistead statue, Riga
George Armistead statue

To the east of the centre

Just east of the Old Town visitors will find the international coach and train stations, the Orgio shopping centre (which has a clock tower with the word RIGA on top), as well as the huge department store Stockmann and the Forums Cinema. Behind these buildings is the Central Market which has stood here since 1930 and is one of the largest marketplaces in Europe. During the First World War, four of the five pavilions were used as zeppelin hangers. These days visitors and locals can buy meat, fish, dairy and produce as well as clothes and souvenirs. Haggling doesn’t go one much anymore compared to the good ‘old’ days.

Central Market, Riga
The central market is located within these former WW1 hangers

On Akadēmijas laukums is the Academy of Sciences. This type of building which was built in Soviet Union times can be found in cities like Warsaw and Moscow and is known for its ugliness. The locals even have nicknames for this place ‘The Empire State Building’ or ‘Kremlin’ or ‘Stalin’s Birthday Cake’. On the facade there are several hammer and sickle logos up near the top. Visitors can go inside and head up to the seventeenth floor where there is a balcony. This is a great viewpoint to see the old town’s skyline. However this is only open from April to November.

Academy of Sciences. Riga.

One of my favourite places to eat for a cheap, nice meal which is all Latvian foods (mostly) is at the chain restaurant of Lido but the best one to eat at is a tram journey away on lines 3, 7, or 9 (or it's quicker to do the five minute taxi ride from the international train station) on Krasta Iela. Visitors can’t miss it as there is a huge windmill on top of the entrance. Here there are plenty of tables as there are three levels to this building. The basement has the main bar where Lido brews its own beer and on the first floor is where all the food can be found. Lido is open most of the day serving breakfast, lunch and dinner here as well as other Lido’s in the city and the airport (on the top level at the airport above the check-in desks). In the winter months there is an outdoor ice skating rink and a beautiful Christmas tree and display to check out.

To the north of the centre

Another place to learn some dark history of Latvia when it was under the occupation of the Soviet Union is the ‘House on the Corner’, which is the former KGB building and now houses a museum. This nickname for a building on the outskirts of the centre of Riga was the most chilling and scary building in the whole of Latvia during the occupation of the Soviet Union from the 1940’s until 1991. This building used to be the home of the KGB who were the state security for the Soviets. Locals used to make a joke about this infamous building which is located on the corner of Stabu iela and Brivibas iela, that the balconies on the building were the only ones in Latvia that offered a view of Siberia. This was because thousands of Latvians entered this building and were exported to Siberia. I looked at the sign outside the main entrance. It states ‘During the Soviet occupation the state security agency / KGB / imprisoned, tortured, killed and morally humiliated its victims in this building’.

I was about to enter the building which has only been open to visitors since 2014 and is managed by the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia 1940-1991. I had a strange feeling that I was about to learn and see ‘the real, dark history of Latvia’ and was fortunate to get one of the last places of an English-speaking tour of the day (there are Latvian speaking tours but my advice is to book online for tickets which are not expensive to afford disappointment). There is an exhibition about the building in the room next to the ticket office which is free of charge and worth checking out but it's the guided tour of the dreaded cellars where locals were tortured which is the highlight.

The tour started in a small room, the tour group was locked in by the tour guide. The bunch of keys rattling and the slamming of the door sends chills down my back. The tour starts off about the history of the building and then moves on into the corridor where there was a huge door of which used to be the main entrance to the building. My tour guide (I have forgotten his name so we shall call him Sergi), explained that he was in the army during the Soviet Union in the 1980s and was stationed in the building to which he saw many things happening but would not tell the group what he saw.

The jail cells which were cold, gloomy and no natural light seeping in. The conditions were horrible and were told that these cells sometimes had up to thirty people shoved inside them. Sometimes disease would follow because of these conditions. I also saw the strolling areas (the only time inmates would get to exercise), dungeons, office workspace and the interesting interrogation room.

Since the building reopened for tourism, it has been a sign or a revelation for young people and visitors to visit this building, which is basically a memorial for those who have suffered within the walls. It is the most vivid symbol of the totalitarian regime for over five decades when the Soviets occupied. It remains as a reminder of the last century, the crap which went one inside the building, the mass repression and the genocide, which was not just happening in Latvia but all over the Soviet Union. Opening the doors to visitors is a great way to learn about their lives and finding out the experiences within the walls and give younger people a greater understanding (and also acknowledging) what happened in the past and hopefully will never ever happen again. I don’t want to give away too much information on the former secretive place but I can honestly say I came away with a better understanding on how the KGB worked and were all ears when I was hearing about the harrowing experiences which happened here.

Located: Brivibas 61 (on the corner with Stabu iela). For prices and information go to the website here.

Nearby is the Laima Chocolate Museum, to which Latvia’s largest chocolate producer has opened up some of the building to visitors. Here on Miera Iela there is a fantastic interactive museum which also has a great history section on the company. I also loved producing my own chocolate video and having a personalised message printed on a chocolate bar.

One of my favourite parks to check out in the city is Mežaparks at the end of the tram line 11. The park came about when the rich people of the city had enough of the noise, grime, basically the hustle and bustle of the city in the early 20th century so they all got together to build a massive park area so they could enjoy the nature, the trees, lakes, the simple things in life. Inside the park ground is the zoo, whilst people can enjoy the lake for water sports and the wide paths for in-line skating. The park is also the home to lielā estrade, otherwise known as the Song Festival grounds. I love enjoying the scenery here, going for a run or even having a beer at a cafe. This is truly the most relaxing place in the city and has something for everyone.

At the very northern tip of the city (further north than the suburb of Jugla) is the Ethnographic Open-Air Museum of Latvia (it takes about thirty minutes to drive there from Riga’s Old Town). Located in a pine forest on the shores of Lake Jugla, this is one of Europe’s oldest and largest outdoor museums and has stood here since 1924. The museum has 118 historical buildings from all over the country. Buildings from the regions of Zemgale, Vidzeme, Kurzeme and Latgale are all represented.

Ethnographic Open-Air Museum of Latvia, Riga
Traditional Latvian band playing at Ethnographic Open-Air Museum of Latvia

The museum is a great way to give visitors of what Latvia’s rural landscape is like and how the way of life was like for the local folk over the centuries. Whilst walking around I found people who were dressed up as farmers, fishermen and craftsmen and inside a lot of the buildings there were displays showing items like tools, crafts, furniture. It is best to come here in the summer months as there are usually blacksmiths, weavers, teachers showing off their skills and there maybe the odd-band playing instruments and singing traditional Latvian folk songs.

Ethnographic Open-Air Museum of Latvia, Riga

One of my favourite viewpoints of the city is located on the 26th floor of the Radisson Blu Hotel Latvija on Elizabetes Iela at the Skyline Bar. The best views of course are to the south where the spires of church buildings overlooking Riga’s Old Town & this is where visitors should sit. The view to the north is OK I guess but I find it boring looking at the grey Soviet type buildings. The staff here are fantastic and very organised as well as the bar men serving the best cocktails in town. I also love the lounge music here during the evenings, however this place is packed at weekends and evenings.

Also in the hotel is EPSA, a five star spa where hotel guests and visitors to the city can enjoy a relaxing massage, manicure and pedicure treatments, sauna and swim. I can definitely recommend this to my readers.

To the south of the centre

I have to admit, I found there is not much to see and do on the southern side of the Daugava River but one place I did find is the University of Latvia Botanical Garden which is at a university located on Kandavas Iela. This is the oldest botanical garden in the country (but started off in a different location in 1922 until the government gave the gardens a bit of land in 1926 to which the gardens have flourished until this very day). Here are many rare flowers, trees and plants as well as a palm house, butterfly house and a pond. Inside the Palm house is a specimen of the wollemia nobilis, which is an ancient tree which experts thought was extinct for millions of years until it was found in a very remote location in Australia in the 1990s.

Day trips or weekend break ideas from Riga

Latvia has so much to offer and eventually I will bring you all my Latvia travel blogs to fruition. One of my favourite day trips is going to the heart of the Gauja National Park.

Only an hour’s journey north-east of the Latvian capital of Riga is the beautiful area known as the Gauja National Park (Gaujas nacionālais parks) which is the largest national park in the country. The park takes its name from the river, the Gauja which flows directly through the park. The two towns to check out here are Sigulda (on the southern edge of the park) and Cēsis (which lies in the heart of the area). Now you (the reader) are probably wondering what there is to do here. Well, here is my lowdown on why visitors should take a day or two to explore the park whilst checking out Riga.

Getting here: The park is easy to reach by road and rail. By train there are departures which often go to Sigulda from the central station in Riga and take one hour. Sigulda will probably be most visitors' first point of call due to all the main points of interest nearby. Trains do go to Cēsis but not as often and take two hours. By road, car journeys take an hour to Sigulda and there are fast non-stop buses (as well as slow buses) to both Sigulda and Cēsis from Riga’s main bus terminal.

Cable car in Sigulda, Latvia
Cable car in the Gauja National Park

Sigulda : The starting point for the Gauja - as mentioned, this is the gateway to the national park. A short walk away from the train/bus station (they are both located at the same place), signposts will lead visitors to places of interest nearby. Walking northwards passing small parks and lots of wooden buildings, the first place to check out is the beautiful Sigulda castle (Siguldas jaunā pils) on the outskirts of the town with its Neo-Gothic facade. Since the castle was built in the late 1800’s, several different owners have lived here but since Latvian independence, the Sigulda Regional Council are based here.

Nearby is the cable car which takes visitors across the valley (over the Gauja river) where visitors can take in amazing views of the area. Latvia is known for its forests, lakes, rivers etc but the most beautiful scenery is from this area and the best place to view it is from the cable car. Disembarking from the other side, there are plenty of hiking trails to the settlement of Turaida. On the way there are the ruins of Krimulda castle, which dates back to the 14th century but was destroyed during a war in the 1600s.

Krimulda castle in the Gauja National Park, Latvia
Krimulda castle

Also on the way and near the riverbed is the Gutmanis cave which is the largest cave in the Baltics. Inside, inscriptions can still be seen from the 17th century. Drinking the water from the small stream which flows through here is supposed to be healthy and legend has it that the water could increase the lifespan of people once swallowed.

Gutmanis cave in the Gauja National Park, Latvia
Gutmanis cave

Up the hill along the main road is the settlement of Turaida, another main spot in Gauja National Park. Here lies the Folk Song Park and Turaida Castle which are definitely worth hitting up. Starting off with the castle (which is about a ten minute walk from the entrance of the Folk Song Park), the castle overlooks the river and valley down below, so once climbing the steps of the tower, the view is truly amazing and one of the best in the country. The castle has stood here since the 1200’s and is mostly built with red bricks. Over the years the castle's defensive system was improved with further towers added. As the castle was expanding, living accommodation was added, however in 1776, the castle was abandoned after a huge fire and fell into ruins. Now only parts of the defensive wall and some buildings such as the two towers remain.

As mentioned, the castle lies in the heart of the Turaida estate, otherwise known as the Folk Song Park which is a huge park with many sculptures dotted around the place and are fantastic to look at (whilst doing this, check out the hiking trails through the woodland and head down to the river from here, there are beautiful).

The church in the grounds dates back to the 1750's, is one of the oldest in the country and still looks the same as the day it was built. Nearby is the memorial to the Rose of Turaida. What’s this you say? Well, near the church underneath a tree is the grave of Marija Greif who was a maiden from the village. Her life turned into a story called the Rose of Turaida, which is based on some documents found in the mid-1800s, which described her murder in the nearby Gūtmanis Cave on August 6, 1620.

Basically what happened was that in the early 1600’s, Swedish troops stormed into the valley and captured the castle. After the battle, a local known as Mr Greif found a small girl in the castle grounds (as well as loads of dead bodies lying about). He took her in, brought her up and named her Maija. Many years later, Marija grew up (of course) and turned out to be very beautiful. Because of this the locals called her the Rose of Turaida. Eventually she fell in love with the gardener named Victor Heil and he lived in Sigulda castle nearby. They used to meet up for secret meetups at the Gūtmanis Cave before they eventually got engaged.

However there was another man in the village named Adam Jakubovsky who lived in Turaida castle. He also proposed to Marija but she rejected him so he became a very jealous guy and decided to get her by deceit. To do this, he wrote a note (and made out that it was from Victor) and told her to meet at Gūtmanis cave. So on the day when Marija was at the cave, she understood that she was deceived. Marija decided it was better to die than remain faithful to her fiance. Wearing a red silk scarf around her neck, she told Jakubovsky that it would protect from the sword cut and told him to kill her. He tried and Maija fell down at his feet. Eventually Victor found Marija at the cave and he rushed to Turaida for help. Back at the cave with some locals, a gardener’s axe was found and therefore suspicion about Marija’s murder fell on Victor which lead to his arrest. However the events were changed again when the truth was eventually told in court and Victor was released. Marija was eventually buried at the edge of the graveyard at the church where Victor planted a linden tree on her grave.

The last place to check out in the Gauja national park (which probably has to be done on another day trip) is the town of Cēsis. The most popular spot to check out is the castle which is the oldest settlement located in the town on Riekstu hill. This fortified wooden castle has stood here since the early 1200s and has had many changes and add-ons to the buildings over the years. Next to the castle is the castle park which was designed in the early 1800s and has a charming, romantic feel to the place. There is a beautiful pond with beautiful plants dotted around the place and an excellent place to take a stroll.

Rundāle Palace: One of my bucket list items in Latvia was completed this summer and that was to head south to the Bauska area of the country (near the Lithuanian border) and check out the splendid Rundāle Palace (known in Latvian as Rundāles Pils). There are only two baroque palaces built in Latvia (at the time they were built for the Dukes of Courland before the area was known as Latvia), one being Rundāle Palace and the other being Jelgava Palace which is located an hours drive from here.

As we had a car the trip to Bauska was a pretty easy one from Riga and took about an hour. On arrival there is plenty of car parking and it is free. However if anyone is arriving by public transport, they would need a bus to the main bus station then either get a local bus or a taxi to the palace as it’s located 12km west of Bauska. Tickets can be brought online here but we arrived on the day and bought our tickets straight away. The ticket office is located in a small room to the right just as visitors enter the main courtyard.

The courtyard is the first glimpse visitors will see and for us personally, is probably one of the best parts to see of the palace (the back facade of the palace is having some repair work so all we got to see there is a lot of construction work going on). We could see this wasn’t a small palace and reminds me of the ones we have visited in Potsdam, Germany. We would say we could put the Rundāle Palace in the same league as the Sanssouci Palace. The courtyard itself looks a bit plain and bland, no gardens to see but the building overlooking with its bright yellow colours makes up for this.

Rundāle Palace, Latvia
Rundāle Palace

It was a hot summer's day when we came here so to cool down we went to do the self-guided palace tour. We won’t explain every single room as our readers will probably get very bored but we will tell you the highlights, the must-sees! (with a bit of history of course). The palace started out around 1730’s when the Duke of Courland, Ernst Johann von Biron bought the land which had a castle on it. The castle was destroyed and the Rundāle Palace was built (but took a long time as the Jelgava Palace was being constructed at the same time, so the materials for the Rundāle Palace were either very late turning up or transferred to Jelgava Palace as the Duke saw that as his number one project). However the Duke who went off to play silly games with the Russian Empire (not sure if that’s the right words) in the 1740s, the palace stood still and wasn’t finished. It remained empty until 1762 when good old Biron returned from his jollies in Russia. Eventually the palace was completed in 1768, Biron fell in love with the place and moved there straight away. Did he forget about Jelgava Palace? Who knows. He visited the palace every summer until he died in 1772.

Shortly afterwards the Duchy of Courland was absorbed by the Russian Empire, Catherine the Great gave the palace to some person’s brother who she was doing the dirty with (or was it one of her lover’s?...she had so many by the sounds of it), and stayed in his family until World War One. The German army came here and turned it into a hospital and a commandant’s office. However this wasn’t the first time the palace was used as a hospital, the first being in 1812 when the French army led by Napoleon came through on their way to give the Russians a good talking to! Several soldiers who died here are buried in the park nearby and there is a monument there to describe this.

Amelie at the Rundāle Palace, Latvia
Amelie at Rundāle Palace

The palace was damaged in 1919 during the Latvian War of Independence and parts of the building were badly burned. Eventually it was rebuilt and used as a school during the 1930s. The Second World War came along, not much happened, the palace was still used as a school and for some reason a grain storehouse was set up inside. During the Soviet Times the palace was restored and then during the Latvian independence in the early 1990s, more restoration works were carried out. Now the palace and gardens is a museum and is one of the most visited places to see in the country.

That’s the history and now for the highlights. The Gold Room which was used as the Duke’s throne room.

The White Hall was first designed as a chapel but then transformed into a ballroom later on.

The Grand Gallery was used as a banqueting hall.

Then there are the Duke’s state apartments. Ten rooms which are located in the central buildings which include a library, the rose room, a Dutch salon and a room purely to show off portraits of Governors at the time. The highlight has to be the Duke’s bedroom which reminded me of rooms in the Versailles Palace in France. The paintings on the ceiling are just truly amazing.

On the western side of the palace is the Duchess apartments. There are a few rooms but only two of them have amazing decor. The rest to me seems to store furniture for her belongings.

After walking around the palace, it is then time to check out the gardens which were designed at the same time as the palace was first built. Designed by an Italian, the gardens were actually done by two men (we couldn’t find any evidence that there were more people involved, there may have been). Right at the back of the palace is the Rose Garden which has lots of roses (of course), wide paths and water fountains. The gardens are huge so allow time to check out this area.

Rundāle Palace, Latvia
The gardens at the rear of Rundāle Palace

A few tips to make visitors' day enjoyable like ours. Plan ahead and get there early as possible. A few hours needed to see everything. Take a snack and a bottle of water as well. There are guided tours available and details can be found on their website and also a restaurant and a couple of cafes located here.

We actually did enjoy our visit to the Rundāle Palace and it was great to see a glimpse into a different part of Latvian history, a part which we don’t see often. Usually we see old buildings, hear of heartbroken stories, but here, not too much bad stuff went on. We know this place was built for the rich and has very similar stories and layout to those in Central Europe but this is something which isn’t found everyday in Latvia. If you (our readers) are interested in history, seeing a palace etc, then make the effort to come here. You won’t be disappointed.

Rundāle Palace, Latvia

Another tip, when in Bauska (the nearest town), also check out the castle overlooking the river. Bauska Castle was originally used as a hill fort which was built in the fifteenth century. A lot of restoration has been done as the castle has been damaged over the centuries but is worth checking out. A lot of visitors combine this castle with the Rundāle Palace and make it into a one day trip.

Bauska Castle, Latvia
Bauska Castle

Jurmala: a short train or car journey away from the centre of Riga, is the seaside resort of Jurmala. Made up off small towns joined together but all the towns share the main attraction for locals and tourists, the beach. The main areas (going from east to west on the train line) are Bulduri, Dzintari, Majori, Dubulti and Pumpuri.

Lāčplēsis statue in Majori, Jurmala, Latvia
Lāčplēsis statue in Majori

However I would say personally that Majori is the epicentre of what all goes on with its shops, restaurants, spas and hotels. Charming Majori is edged by a long beach with sports courts and by the tranquil Lielupe River, which is popular for canoeing. Open-air summer concerts take place at Dzintari Concert Hall, while Jurmala City Museum traces the history of the resort from the 1800s. Elegant wooden cottages from the 19th and early 20th centuries line Jūras Street, and Jomas Street is a pedestrian stretch with shops and al fresco eateries. Don’t forget to check out the sculpture of "Bruņurupucis" (the Turtle - and located near the beach) which symbolises long life and the other sculpture of “Lāčplēsis”. The statue of Latvia’s epic hero and freedom fighter, the Bear Slayer, was erected on the small square opposite the Majori train station in 1953, which is interesting given the fact that Latvia was part of the USSR back then.