A handpicked selection of day trips from Riga that reveal sandy shores, gilded history, great gastronomy and the art of reinvention. They work perfectly as day trips or you can hire a car and create a fascinating weekend break.
Close Your Eyes and Think of Latvia
If I asked you, without pause for a heartbeat, what first comes to mind when you think of travel to Latvia, I wonder what I’d hear.
Would you feel the salt lick of spray from the ocean, feet squeezing soft sand beneath them?
Would you see willows at sunset and aristocratic stone houses, rich plum satin curtains gathered up in gold threads?
Or would you be walking through vineyards, chatting with bright blue eyes and splashing liquid through glass to taste pumpkin, honey and lingonberry wine?
I’ll let you off the hook: that’s not what I had in mind before I travelled to Latvia. Yet that's exactly what these day trips from Riga reveal.
Jurmala (pronounced yermala in case you read aloud in your own head) spreads its sandy beaches 32 km along the Baltic coast, flanked by deep, lush, rich green pine forests.
The first glimpse of this came as we soared over them, ready to land in Riga, all splatterings of sand crusted watering holes and impenetrable pine.
On the ground, it’s as little as a 30 minute train journey from the capital to where the Russian Tsars used to frolic in the sun.
With limited time, I checked out Dzintari: an area famed for its amber spas and healing waters, plus a viewing platform that guarantees a “kill or cure” approach for anyone suffering from a fear of heights.
For a taste of the grandeur of the good old days, spend the night at the Kukšu Manor, restored to majesty from its original beginnings in the year 1530.
Of course, the good old days were only the good old days if you were the landed aristocracy rather than a mud-raking peasant, but for the sake of this dream, let’s just pretend we’re lords and ladies all the way.
Manor houses may be two a penny in England, Ireland, France and the like but here in Latvia such buildings are extraordinarily rare.
Not because the aristocracy didn’t used to build them: fiefdoms, feuds and funding fine projects were as popular here as they were in the rest of Europe during that time.
No, the main difference came, to simplify things somewhat, in the assassination of the Russian Tsar and widespread introduction of communism.
After the end of World War Two, for example, Kukšu became an outpost for the collective farm management system of the Soviets. After independence, it fell into disrepair.
At the time of its renovation, over 2000 vodka bottles were found inside.
Today, the Manor catches the warmth of autumn beautifully as the sun slides down from the sky. It over looks a lake and roses and willows frame the shoreline, whispering history into the breeze.
Although it’s a national cultural monument, its position today owes much to the passion of its owner, an enthusiast from Germany, Daniel Jahn.
Thus, while special care has been paid to restore the oven, parquets and staircases with great accuracy, other rooms take on wishful whimsy (such as the blue and white Delft collections from the Netherlands.)
From the sun-soaked terrace of the aptly named Restorans Terase, the fields of Latvian countryside simply slip and slope away.
While the ground may be flat here, the food is not, rising (ahem) to the occasion in every kind of imaginative way.
Chef Nauris Hauka brings fish ‘n’ chips Latvian style, for example, perching perch* on string hung between two branches.
His philosophy sounds heartwarming for a seasoned traveller like me:
A person is his or her life experiences and choices. We rely on experience provided by other people and our land and combine it with our vision of future.
Further along in the Abava countryside, green leaves wave sun-splashed shadows across the Drubazas farm.
Our intial welcome seems tentative. Girts stands five metres tall (possible exaggeration) and translates on behalf of his mother, Smaida.
Her name, apparently, means to smile, and by the time we’ve sipped our way through plum, raspberry and lingonberry wine that’s exactly what’s going on – everywhere.
“Raspberry wine is very popular with Latvians,” we’re told. “It’s sweet and can be drunk exactly as it is.
“Chinese and Japanese visitors prefer lingonberry: sweet but with an ever so slight tang.”
“Brits don’t talk too much – but Swedes are even quieter.”
It’s a joyous trip through autumnal fruit and flavour innovation, the final taste pouring from the pumpkin bottle.
“The pumpkin is the biggest grape in Europe,” Smaida says, and though I don’t know where to start with that, I do know how to raise my glass.
“Cheers!” we cry, before remembering our manners. “Priekā!”
Again, you need to book in advance to go wine tasting at the Drubazas Farm.
So that’s it for today, I’ll be back with more about Riga later. And of course, there is plenty more to see in Latvia, these day trips from Riga just served as a taster for me – and hopefully for you!
See you later
My travel to Latvia came about as part of a collaboration between iAmbassador and Latvian Tourism Development Agency with the support of the European Union Regional Development Fund. As ever, as always, I keep the right to write what I like. Otherwise, what’s the point?
*I’m not entirely sure what the fish was. But the word play here seemed too good to pass up!
Hi, I'm Abi, a doctor turned writer who's worked with Lonely Planet, the BBC, UNESCO and more. Let's travel more and think more. Find out more.
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