Latvia - Resorts
Rīga has always been the big boy of the Baltics - a metropolis with a big-city atmosphere hard to find elsewhere in the region. Funky and vibrant, it pulsates with a magnetism that traps travellers long after their planned departure date. Set on a flat plain divided only by the 500m-wide Daugava River, the city answers the quaintness of Tallinn and Vilnius with impressive Art-Nouveau architecture of its own, a historic old quarter and large parks. You won't want to leave once you're settled into a candlelit bar or lost on winding, sun-dappled or snow-covered cobbled streets. Rīga manages to couple its toy-town cuteness of steeples and turrets with a glitzy nightlife and thriving restaurant scene. Business is booming, with eager backers pouring much-needed money into its infrastructure. Old Town may be a Unesco World Heritage site, but this fairy-tale city, once dubbed the 'Paris of the East, ' is building so fast that Unesco has warned Rīga it may withdraw its protected status due to the number of glittering glass hotels and business centres springing up faster than mushrooms after the rain.
With lavish beauty, timeless elegance and a restless fusion of old and new, Rīga has a charm as potent as the Rīga Black Balsams liquor it's known for.
Fewer than half of Rīgans are ethnic Latvians (41.2% at last count), with Russians accounting for 43.7% of the population. Despite Latvians being a minority in their own capital, ethnic harmony prevails in the city, with street- and shop-talk a natural blend of Russian and Latvian.
This enchanted town stands on the southern edge of a picturesque, steep-sided, wooded section of the Gauja Valley and is spanned by a string of medieval castles and legendary caves. Just 53km east of Rīga, it is known locally as the 'Switzerland of Latvia', although that title is a bit deceptive - the surrounding area is very pretty, but don't expect towering snowcapped peaks. That said, the bogs, green rolling hills, old wooden farmhouses and fields of yellow flowers create some pretty dreamy-looking countryside.
Sigulda is a minor health resort and winter sports centre, with an Olympic bobsled run snaking down into the valley. It also is the primary gateway to the beautiful Gauja National Park, located northeast of town. Sigulda itself offers some excellent sleeping options - get away from hotels and check out the charming country guesthouses.
Latvia's version of the French Riviera, Jūrmala (Seashore) is the name of a string of small towns and resorts stretching 20km along the coast west of Rīga. Vehicles clog the roads on summer days when it seems everyone from day-tripping Rīgans to families on holiday from far-flung country villages descends on Jūrmala for serious fun in the sun. In fact, beautiful fresh air and a relaxed atmosphere have drawn vacationers in droves since the 19th century. In Soviet times 300, 000 visitors a year from all over the USSR flooded in to boarding houses, holiday homes and sanatoriums owned by trade unions and other institutions. Today Jūrmala's long, sandy beaches backed by dunes and woods of pine and its shady streets lined with low-rise wooden houses are only slightly less packed. Although once polluted, the beaches at Majori and Bulduri have been cleaned up in recent years; the water, while quite cold, is safe for swimming.
Gauja National Park
Much of the area between Sigulda and Valmiera falls within Gauja National Park. Founded in 1973, Latvia's first national park protects a diverse range of flora and fauna, and offers a multitude of forest and river hiking as well as biking trails and fabulous canoeing opportunities - a great way to explore the exquisite, pine-scented environment. The historic towns of Sigulda and Cēsis are main jumping-off points for exploring the park.
Historic Cēsis, Latvia's most Latvian town. Decidedly romantic, Cēsis is made for wandering. The main drag, Rīgas iela, has loads of character and is lined with old tan and brown stone buildings. Check out the crumbling castle, the country's oldest brewery (although the famous beer is now produced in a slick facility outside town) or meander down to the small murky lake and nap on grassy grounds shaded by ancient trees. About 30km northeast of Sigulda, Cēsis was once the headquarters of the Livonian Order. Open-air concerts are often held in summer on the castle grounds.