It’s your first time exploring the Baltics. You started in Vilnius, Lithuania’s beautiful Baroque capital. You traveled north to Riga, Latvia’s surprisingly modern largest city. Now your sights are set on Estonia and Tallinn. But don’t leave Latvia yet. From beaches and lakes to forests and national parks, there’s so much more to discover in the middle Baltic state.
You consider the beaches, along the Gulf of Riga, first, of course. Jūrmala is only 16 miles west of Riga. You should head inland—by following the Gauja River—before you relax in the sun, though. Sixty miles to the northeast, you find the country’s largest national park. It’s home to sandstone cliffs, hidden springs, and breathtaking views. It’s also where you find one of the most beautiful cities in Latvia.
Cēsis sits on a series of ridges overlooking dense forests in the center of Gauja National Park. Its small, picturesque Old Town has cobbled streets and beautiful gardens. The Square of Roses is surrounded by dolomite stone walls, eight towers, and five gates. The outdoor market is overflowing with locally grown vegetables and flowers. The smoked chicken smells delicious, as well. Organ music streams well beyond the walls of St. John’s Church, one of the largest medieval churches in Latvia. While not one, but two, castles stand in the center of town.
The Vends first built a fort on Riekstu Hill along a trade route that ran from the east to the west in the 12th century. Livonian knights—German crusaders—then built the first castle, with dark-stone towers, on the site in 1214. Much of the castle was destroyed, on purpose, to prevent Ivan the Terrible from conquering it in 1577. It was then rebuilt and destroyed many times over between the Battle of Wenden, a Swedish conquest, and the Great Northern War.
The second castle—with an Eclecticism style and a neo-Gothic tower—was erected by a German count in 1777. It’s now a museum where you can explore the granary, the stable and coach house, the romantic garden, and the brewery. Yes, the brewery. Cēsu Alus, dating back to 1878, is considered the oldest brewery in not only Latvia, but all of the Baltics. A tasting is a must.
Between two castles and a beautiful Old Town, stunning views and a crisp beer, your afternoon in Cēsis has been perfect. Who said you need a beach—or to even continue your trip into Estonia—to enjoy your first time in the Baltics.