One of the most beloved features of a long-term European vacation is the ability to experience so many different cultures, languages, foods, and history during one trip. There are also many beautiful, unique cities that haven’t been hit as hard by tourism – making them a top contender for our travel itinerary. This is why we decided to visit the Baltics this fall, including a longer stay in Latvia for some Riga sightseeing as well as the interesting day trips nearby.
While saying farewell to the hectic tourist-lined streets of more popular destinations was appealing, we were also intrigued by the beautiful photos we had seen of the Baltics – especially in Autumn. Riga and the surrounding areas did not disappoint. With gorgeous architecture, unique activities, and great opportunities to immerse ourselves in nature – it turned out to be an ideal destination.
Quick Intro to Latvia
Ever heard of Latvia? It isn’t one of the most well-known destination countries in Europe. But it too has beautiful architecture, interesting history, and beautiful landscapes to enjoy (about half of it is forests!). Latvia’s location on the Baltic Sea means it has both beaches and hilly hiking spots – with locals loving nature and prioritizing time outdoors. (Read more interesting facts here).
Latvia’s history is tumultuous with multiple occupations from the Germans to the Soviets – including loss of their lands and a push to let go of their cultural identity. Independence was not reached until the early 1990s!
The capital city of Riga (where we based our stay) is home to 1/3 of the country’s residents and is famous for its Art Nouveau buildings. Its historical center is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Downtown Riga Sightseeing
While we initially considered taking the bus, we lucked out with some fantastic weather and ended up just walking to and from town (about 30 minutes from the Two Wheels hotel, where we were staying). Yes, we did have a car rental, but we always avoid parking and driving in busy downtown areas when we can.
Autumn Views at Bastejkalna park
It was a gorgeous walk with streets lined in bright yellow leaves. Once we crossed the Daugava River into town, we continued to wander and the autumn vibe got even stronger. Latvia is stunning this time of year!
Bastejkalna Park, near the easy-to-spot Freedom Monument, is the perfect place to go for a stroll surrounded by colorful leaves in autumn. There are also boats offering cruises on the water. If we had planned better, we definitely would have packed a romantic little picnic to enjoy along the little offset of the main river. Instead, we went for a few beers!
Latvian beers are well-known for being quite delicious, however, are rarely found elsewhere – so we enjoyed the special treat of this locals-only favorite. Two of our favorite places for a beer were Folkklubs ALA Pagrabs and Easy Beer.
Folkklubs also had some great unique ciders, as well as yummy traditional dishes – including ‘beer snacks.’ At Easy Pour, they also have great food (including some amazing pizza), but our favorite thing about this place was its easy tasting options. You just get a card and get to pour yourself as much or as little of each option as you’d like (local and foreign), then pay at the end. It was fun to get a small taste of each then drink our fave!
Adrenaline Rush at WolfTrike Drifta Halle
While in Riga, we celebrated Buddy’s birthday! Since I couldn’t let the day go by without surprising him, I scoured the internet to find something unique, fun, and affordable to do together. Riding drift trikes was the perfect answer.
This unique-to-Latvia activity is exactly what the name describes – drift racing on tricycles. It is hilariously fun and a bit of a thrill. At 10 Euros per round on a weekday, we only did one 10-minute round. But, that was plenty of time to get a taste of this great activity!
WolfTrike Drifta Halle is just outside the downtown area in an old warehouse with parking out front. The electric-powered trikes can go up to 50 km/hour – although we never got close to that. Ha!
Other Things to Do in Riga
Even though we had a few days in the area, there were still places we didn’t have time to see. So here’s our list for next time:
- Free Walking Tour of Downtown Riga
- KGB Building (unique look at this era)
- The Ethnographic Open-Air Museum of Latvia
It’s also just a really great place to go for a wander! 🙂
Best Day Trips from Riga
We are SO GLAD we rented a car during our Latvia trip. It was nice to get out into the countryside and explore. When doing our initial research, we read about how horrible the drivers were in Latvia, but we didn’t have any issues. However, they have added speed cameras which may have been a recent helpful change. If you don’t want to hire a car, buses are an option to some places and taxis are also generally affordable.
Distance: About 30 minutes driving from Riga.
With its proximity to Riga and inclusion on the bus route, Jurmala Beach is a popular excursion. This resort town has plenty of great restaurants and very unique architecture – which reminded us of Savannah, GA, in the states. The beach goes on for kilometers and has a long boardwalk to stroll along as you enjoy the fresh air from the Baltic Sea.
Great Kemeri Bog Boardwalk
Distance: About 45 minutes driving from Riga.
This unique and peaceful walk into nature is worth a few hours of your visit. In autumn, it’s filled with rust colors and mellow lighting. Parking is just a few Euros. Once you reach the actual Great Kemeri Bog Boardwalk, it’s ~3.4 km around the bigger loop or ~1.4 km for the smaller one.
There are deep ponds to look into, a lookout tower to climb, and birds to spot. It is also a local favorite for sunrise and sunset, although we went mid-day.
Distance: About 80 minutes driving from Riga.
While there are multiple popular castles to visit in the area, Bauska Castle seemed to be the most scenic. We didn’t even go inside as it was lovely just to stroll around this area and take in the autumn scene with the pretty castle in the backdrop.
Rundale Palace is another popular stop near Bauska Castle. In the warmer months, it has a large garden that is said to be great to walk around.
Hill of Crosses
Distance: Almost two hours from Riga by car.
If you are already driving to see Bauska Castle or Rundale Palace, we strongly suggest extending the trip into Lithuania to see Hill of Crosses. We explain more about this unique religious site in this blog post, but in summary – it is unlike anywhere we’ve been in a wonderful way.
Sigulda for Autumn Colors
Distance: About 75 minutes driving from Riga.
One of the locals we chatted with said the Sigulda area was where people from Riga go to enjoy the autumn leaves in a more hilly, scenic area. So, of course, we planned a road trip to the Gauja National Park area of Sigulda.
There are castles to tour here as well, but we enjoyed just driving around on the farm roads and getting out to stretch our legs among rust-colored trees. So relaxing!
Staying at Two Wheels Riga Hotel
One of the main reasons we really enjoyed visiting Riga is that we chose an amazing, cozy little travel-themed hotel to base our week-long travels from. We loved that Two Wheels is outside the hectic downtown area, but still convenient. There’s also a lovely Sunday market around the corner with dozens of local delicacies on offer.
Two Wheels has a great little on-site restaurant and bar, with breakfast included. And the staff was lovely to interact with. Plus, I’m a sucker for a good theme! The owner traveled by motorcycle and turned this into a place to welcome other travelers on two wheels, as well as tourists like ourselves.
Each room is themed for a different destination (ours was Rio!) and there are also interesting little photo stories outside each room based on stories of past visitors.
Speaking of visitors, we met such interesting people here – a family just relocating to the area (who in a fun twist, we helped move into their apartment!) and a German couple just returning from a van trip across places like Siberia and Russia!
Our stay here was really special and made our Riga autumn visit even more memorable. Reading the notes from other visitors on the large map (at least those in English) was one of my favorite pastimes. So great!
Have you ever traveled in the Baltics region of Europe? What are your favorite places?