Riga is the largest city in the Baltic States and its most cosmopolitan center. I reckon that it’s the one that offers the most activities. Indeed, the large medieval Old Town is full of historical architecture; there are plenty of green parks, nice wooden houses, magnificent Art Nouveau buildings and a couple of cool ex-industrial neighborhoods. Additionally, you can take several day trips from Riga to very interesting places nearby. In fact, the city’s closest beach in Jurmala is just a step away. On the other hand, if you want to disconnect a bit you should visit beautiful Sigulda north of the capital.
Day Trips from Riga: how to choose the right one
Jurmala and Sigulda make the best day trips from Riga since they combine nature and architecture. Additionally, you can get there on public transport. So we got to reduce our high ecological footprint while hanging with Latvians! That said, there are other options close to Riga. Visit the Rundale Palace and the Jelgava Palace to the south if you are into palaces. The Kemeri National Park is pristine nature within easy reach. In fact, you can combine it with nearby Jurmala. The medieval Castle of Cesis is another fantastic place worth visiting. Go to Tukims and Talsi if you like small charming towns. As you can see, don’t rush and save time for a couple of day trips from Riga.
Jurmala has it all: a gorgeous beach, beautiful old mansions, a nice pedestrian street, lush green forests and plenty of great restaurants. To get there take the half an hour train that departs from Riga Central Station. It’s a fairly long place so we decided to begin in Marjori, in the center. We spent time wondering about its pedestrian Jomas Street and people watching. Then we went through the forest and spent hours on the beach. In summer the beach gets crowded. Why wouldn’t it? The sea is warm, the sand soft and the atmosphere quite lovely! Of course we took pictures of the Former Swimming Establishment of Emilija Racene and the Giant Turtle.
For over 200 years, Latvians have chosen Jurmala as their favorite beach. Even hard-line communist couldn’t resist its charms. In fact, Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev loved to spend time here. Originally a cluster of small villages and towns, it is now a large urban sprawl along a 32km long beach. What surprised us the most, were the sand and the sea. We found out that the sand is fine white quartz sand and that the sea is low in salt. Take note that 5 of the 11 organized beach areas have the Blue Flag certificate. We walked for hours under the sun. Football fields, bars, restaurants, and a couple of hotels on one side, on the other, the endless sea.
Where to Stay in Jurmala
Jurmala has a wide variety of hotels to choose from. After all, it is Latvia’s prime beach destination. If you want to stay directly on the beach, as you should, book a room at The Baltic Beach Hotel & SPA. It’s a famous hotel from communist times brought up to 5 star standards. Located on Jurmala beach, it offers a fantastic spa and rooms with balconies overlooking the sea. The Boutique Hotel Light House Jurmala is another great option on the beach. Without a doubt, the two best spa hotels are the Hotel Jurmala Spa and the Lielupe Hotel SPA, both set amongst gardens. If you want to stay in a traditional old wooden house, Wooden Villa is the best choice. Finally, if you have a thing for cool modern architecture, stay at the Kurshi Hotel & Spa.
On our next free day we wanted to escape the crowds so we headed up north to Sigulda, a perfect blend of nature and architecture. The super comfortable (yet old) train departs from Riga Central Station and takes over an hour through an idyllic forest landscape. Once you arrive at Sigulda, walk all the way to Turaida Castle. You’ll cross the nice small town, Sigulda New Castle and several interesting churches. Take your time since you will be surrounded by nature. In fact the views from Turaida Castle alone will compensate for the slight effort. We didn’t visit Gutman’s cave nor Krimulda Castle or Manor House. Instead we walked slowly enjoying every moment in beautiful Sigulda.
Turaida Castle and Turaida Museum Reserve
The Turaida Castle is a large red brick structure built for the Livonian Brothers of the Sword in early 13th Century. Since then, the Castle remained alive until abandoned in 1776. Unlike the Trakai Castle in Lithuania, the Turaida Castle was never fully reconstructed. No complains, we loved it! Today it consists of fortification ruins and a couple of towers. In 1988 the Soviet authorities established the so-called Turaida Museum Reserve. The entire Reserve includes the castle, a church, a cemetery, several mansions, the center of a kolkhoz and a park with ponds. The whole place is impressive. Latvia has done a fantastic job by preserving the cultural and historical landscape of one of the oldest ensembles of monuments in Europe.
Where to Stay in Sigulda
Most tourists go to Sigulda on organized day trips from Riga. Hence, the limited accommodation offer. However, there are a couple of nice hotels in the city. If you want to stay in the center not far from the train station, Hotel Sigulda and Hotel Pils are your best options. If you rather stay in a historic house then Kaķis is your place. Villa Alberta and Villa Vanilla are two great options a bit away from the station. On the other hand, for elegant architecture and gardens, stay in Boutique Hotel Bersas, the closest to the Castle.
How to get from Riga to Jurmala and Sigulda
Take a train at Riga Central Station to go to Jurmala and Sigulda. While not all are new, trains are inexpensive and reliable. Trains to Jurmala depart every half an hour from 5:30 AM to 23:30 PM. Though Jurmala has several train stations, the most centric is Marjori, near pedestrian Jomas Street. The journey takes roughly 30 minutes. About a dozen trains a day connect Riga to Sigulda in over an hour. Sigulda’s train station is in the city center, some 5km from the Turaida Castle. To get from Jurmala to Sigulda, you have to change trains in Riga. You won’t have a problem. Most Latvians speak English and will be more than happy to help you. Just relax and let Riga gently surprise you.