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Latvia

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Travel Guide Europe Latvia

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Introduction

Place de la Vieille-ville avec la

Place de la Vieille-ville avec la "blackheads house"

© All Rights Reserved petralex

A child of the collapse of the USSR in the early 90s, Latvia is unique among its Soviet-siblings for the large proportion of Russians in its population (estimated around 30%). This state of affairs creates an undercurrent of tension in Latvia, as the country struggles to emerge into the world market; it is worsened by a strong trend of emigration by Latvians.

It is not surprising, then, that Latvian tourism has been relatively slow to pick up. Latvia does not boast breathtaking scenery; the charm of Latvia is more subtle than that. It is at Riga, the bustling capital dotted with architectural delights and the chilling World War II ghetto. It is at Sigulda, where medieval castles are set against the lovely Gauja Valley. And it is at Kuldiga, a town rich with historic interest and blessed with a waterfall: true, the waterfall may only be 2 metres high, but it measures a remarkably disproportionate width of 275 metres.

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Brief History

The history of Latvia in ancient times is not much different from other countries in the Baltic region. After the last Ice age settlements of several tribes began to emerge. Several tribes lived in the region. In the Middle ages Latvia was conquered by the Livonions. A couple of towns, including Riga, became a member of the Hanseatic League, making it an important trade town in the region.

During the Livinian War (1558 – 1582), the confederation was disolved. And Latvia came under Polish-Lithuanian rule, and became a part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. A small part of what is now Latvia became the independent Duchy of Courland and Semigallia, a vasal state of Poland, which would get full independence in 1791 but that only lasted for a few years, as it was annexed by Russia in 1795.

After the Great Northern War, Latvia was ceded to the Russian Empire. In the beginning of the 20th century saw a rise in the independence movement, a process that ended in the proclamation of independence of Latvia on November 18, 1918, After the Russian Revolution of 1917. A war for independence followed, as Germany and Russia still had a presence in the country. With help of the new country of Estonia, first the German were defeated, and later the Red Army was driven out of the eastern part of the country, with help of Polish troops. After a difficult first year, Latvia´s economy started to grow, but soon after it was hit by the worldwide economic recession of the the twenties. In 1934 a coup took place, and Karlis Ulmanis establishing a nationalist dictatorship that lasted until 1940

The fate of Latvia and the other Baltic states was sealed by the German Soviet Nonaggression Pact, signed between Hitler and Stalin. In june 1940 the Soviet Union invaded Latvia. The invasion and the following period left 34,250 Latvians killed or deported. During the war, Germany took control over Latvia. In 1944 the Soviet Union again took control of the country. During the war it is estimated that around 200.000 person, including 75.000 jews died in Latvia. With another part of the population fleeing to Germany and Sweden.

In the years after the war more than 200,000 people are estimated to have been deported from the Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The Baltic States were included into the Soviet Union.

Formal independence was restored on August 21, 1991, after two years of debating and a referendum. The final push was given by the coup attempt in Moscow in August 1991. The last Russian troops left in 1994. In 2004 Estonia together with nine other countries including the other two Baltic states became part of the European Union. Latvia also became part of the NATO in that same year.

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Geography

Latvia shares international borders with Lithuania, Estonia, Russia and Belarus with its coast line meeting the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Riga. The country lies between latitudes 55° and 58° N (a small area is north of 58°), and longitudes 21° and 29° E (a small area is west of 21°). Latvia has a total area of 64,559 km2 of which 62,157 km2 land, 18,159 km2 agricultural land, 34,964 km2 forest land and 2,402 km2 inland water. The total length of Latvia's boundary is 1,866 kilometres. The total length of its land boundary is 1,368 kilometres, of which 343 kilometres is shared with Estonia to the north, 276 kilometres with the Russian Federation to the east, 161 kilometres with Belarus to the southeast and 588 killometres with Lithuania to the south. The total length of its maritime boundary is 498 km, which is shared with Estonia, Sweden and Lithuania. From north to south it is 210 kilometres and from west to east 450 kilometres.. Most of Latvia's territory is less than 100 metres above sea level. Its largest lake Lubāns is 80.7 km2, its deepest lake Drīdzis is 65.1 metres. The longest river on Latvian territory is the Gauja, 452 kilometres. The longest river flowing through Latvian territory is the Daugava, which has a total length 1,005 kilometres of which just 352 metres on Latvian territory. Latvia's highest point is Gaiziņkalns, 311.6 metres. The length of Latvia's Baltic coastline is 494 kilometres. An inlet of the Baltic Sea, the shallow Gulf of Riga is situated in the northwest of the country.

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Regions

  • Kurzeme (Courland) lies in the west
  • Zemgale (Semigallia) is in the centre
  • Vidzeme (Middle land), also known as Livland is in the north
  • Latgale (Latgallia) lies in the east

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Sights and Activities

The Freedom Monument

Riga Freedom Monument

Riga Freedom Monument

© All Rights Reserved okidoki

The Freedom Monument was built in Riga to praise the soldiers killed during the Latvian War of Independence from 1918 to 1920. It replaced a statute of the Russian Emperor Peter the Great. The idea to create a Freedom monument was already on the table in the early 1920s but it requires a lot of funding which came in the form of donations from residents across Latvia. Originally unveiled in 1935 this 42 metres (138 feet) high monument has inspired countless Latvians. When the Soviet Union annexed Latvia after World War II the Soviets planned to demolish the statute but never did it. It remained a symbol for independence throughout the communist period, and in 1987 Latvians gathered around the monument to grieve the horrible things the soviets had done. This started the independence movement, which led to independence 3 years later. The Freedom Monument is now a popular tourist spot in Latvia, and you will see the changing of the guards on the hour, everyday during the day time. At the base of the monument it reads 'Tēvzemei un Brīvībai' which translated means 'For Fatherland and Freedom'.

Saint Peter's Church

Saint Peter's Church is a very tall church located in Riga. First built in 1209 it was enlarged in the 15th century. The large tower that dominates the church was not completed until 1746 and was restored in 1973. The tower was even stuck by lightening 6 times and collapsed twice. One collapse was in 1666 and the other was in 1721. Today the church is one of the most famous churches in all of Latvia. You may visit the viewing platform for a fee and an elevator will take you up to the spire, where you will get a great view of Old Riga.

Beaches

Many people from Riga will head out in the summer months towards Jurmala, which is easy to reach by train or even by bicycle. Jurmala is a famous old sea side town that dates back to Imperial Russian times as a place for relaxation and Saulkrasti to the north boasts more natural beaches.If you want more space by the sea, go to the beaches along the coast especially near Liepaya. These beaches are some of the most beautiful in all of the Baltic Sea and the white sand is awe inspiring. Other parts of the coastline offer remote areas that few visitors go to and some weird things left over from the Soviet era. Latvia's largest music festival, the Baltic beach party, is held every year on the central beach of Liepaya and this beach party can really rock!

Gauja National Park

The Gauja National Park is located to the northwest of Riga and is the biggest national park in Latvia. It follows the Gauja River and includes the cities of Cesis and Sigulda. Both cities have medieval castle ruins and are worth at least a day trip from Riga. Other sights include the high sandstone cliffs and caves along the river and the Līgatne Nature Trails. Sigulda is a popular destination for those looking for adventure sports, bungee jumping, canoeing, bobsleighing and skiing (in winter) are just some of the activities possible. Both Sigulda and Cesis are easily accessible by train from Riga.

Rundāle Palace

Rundāle is a Baroque palace, located south of Riga, near the city of Bauska. The palace was built in the 1730s for the Duke of Courland. After WWI part of the building was used as a school and only in 1972 did it become a museum. The palace and its surrounding gardens are now one of the most popular tourist attractions in Latvia. Unfortunately it is quite difficult to get to, as there are no direct buses and only a limited bus service from Bauska.

Cape Kolka

Cape Kolka is that pointy part of Latvia, where the Gulf of Riga meets with the Baltic Sea. Difficult to get to, it is worth the effort to see this rugged, sparsely inhabited region of Latvia. There is little at the cape, except a lighthouse, a strong wind and a possible glimpse of the Estonian island Saaremaa. The Slītere National Park runs along the north coast and has a number of trails worth exploring. The wild and empty beaches are interspersed by number of tiny Livonian fishing villages. Buses run to Kolka once or twice a day.

Other Sights of Activities

  • Latvian National Museum of Art - Located in Riga, with over 52,000 pieces of art from the mid 18th century to the present this museum is an excellent place to visit. The museum is located at 10a K Valdemara Street and is open everyday, except Tuesday, 11:00am to 7:00pm during the summer (April to September), and 11:00am to 5:00pm during the winter (October to March).
  • Karostas Cietums - Have the true Soviet prison experience with a live prison show or maybe even a night in this old Soviet prison near Liepaja.
  • Cesis Castle - Explore this amazing ruined castle in the Vidzeme region.

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Events and Festivals

  • Jāņi is the celebration of the summer solstice on the evening of June 23rd. The most important event in the Latvian calendar. Expect the cities to be empty as most people travel to the countryside for three days of partying. Girls wear flower crowns, whilst men called Jānis (John) sport crowns made of oak leaves. People drink, eat carroway cheese, sing songs and dance around a fire until the early morning.
  • Positivus is one of the biggest music festivals in the Baltics. The fifth Positivus festival will be held from July 15-16. Local and international bands and singers will perform over two days in Salacgrīva.
  • Rudenaji Festival is an annual festival in September, celebrating the start of the harvest season.

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Weather

Summers are warm, around 22 °C during the day on average from June to August, and days above 30 °C are possible. Winters are cold with snowfall. Average maximum temperatures are around -5 °C while nights average around -10 °C. Occasionally, when the winds blow east from Siberia, temperatures can plummit way below -20 °C. Precipitation is fairly even throughout the year, but winters and spring tend to be a bit drier. On average, there are between 10 and 15 wet days with around 50 mm of rain or snow a month.

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Getting There

By Plane

Air Baltic is the national airline of Latvia and its hub is at Riga International Airport (RIX). It has flights to most countries in Europe. Other airlines, among others, serving Riga are KLM to Amsterdam, Lufthansa to Frankfurt and LOT to Warsaw.
Lowcost airline easyJet has budget flights to and from Berlin. Ryanair has more flights operating to several cities in Ireland and the United Kingdom as well as Stockholm and Milan.

To/from the airport:

  • Bus: Route #22, operated by Rigas Satiksme, run between Riga city centre and the airport. airBaltic in cooperation with Reval Hotel Latvia offers a shuttle bus service – Airport Express. The bus operates between the Riga airport and the Reval Hotel Latvia, (in the city centre). There are international bus connections from the airport to cities in Estonia, Lithuania, Poland and Russia.
  • Car: The airport and European route E22 are connected by highway P133. There are almost 2,000 parking place available, both long term and short term. Taxis are widely available as well.

By Train

Train entering Sigulda station....my ride to Riga

Train entering Sigulda station....my ride to Riga

© All Rights Reserved Utrecht

There are trains to and from Moscow in Russia. Saint Petersburg, Lviv and Kiev are served as well. Note that there are no direct connections to/from Tallinn or Vilnius. For Tallinn, you should get the train to Valga, just across the border in Estonia and connect from there with Estonian Railways, which has a train from Valga via Tartu to Tallinn. Three daily trains go to Valga from Riga, check the Latvian Passenger Trains or 1188.lv website for more information about timetables and prices. The train from Tallinn leaves early morning (around 7:00am) from Tallinn and arrives around 11:30am in Valga, where you can catch the onward train at 11:42am to Riga. It takes over 8 hours though, compared to just 4.5 hours by bus.

By Car

Crossing into Lithuania or Estonia is straightforward and fast. Have your documentation and insurance in order and it shouldn't take long to cross.

Crossing into Russia and Belarus is whole different feat. You are allowed to bring your own car into Russia, but be sure to have every official document in order. These include passport and visa and car registration number and full details of your route, itinerary and hotels where you stay. You also need a form provided by customs upon arrival at the border which guarantee that the car will be taken out of the Russian Federation on departure. A road tax has to be payed when entering the country and insurance for travel within the Russian Federation has to be arranged before departure or when entering the country at one of the offices of Ingosstrakh, the Russian Federation foreign insurance agency.

Getting into Belarus requires patience at borders and also arranging the paper work before you intend to go to Belarus. International driving licence is required, as is sufficient insurance, with Belarussian extra insurance bought at the borders. Be sure to have your visa in order as well, as it is not unheard of for people to be refused entry, especially by car. You need to register with the first hotel you intend to go to before entering the country for example.

By Bus

Eurolines has buses to and from Vilnius and Tallinn in Estonia. Ecolines has quite a few international connections as well. Buses usually even go to Moscow, Saint Petersburg and Kaliningrad and to cities to the west like Warsaw, Berlin and London. There are also connections from Kaunas International Airport to Riga and Riga International Airport, with the FlyBus, stopping on the route in Bauska. A one-way ticket costs €15.

By Boat

Latvia is well connected by boat to a number of countries in the region.

Sweden

  • Stockholm to Riga with Riga Sealine.
  • Terrabalt between Karlshamn and Liepaya.

Germany

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Getting Around

By Plane

Air Baltic flies between the capital Riga and Liepaya and Ventspils.

By Train

Latvian Railways has services which mostly originate and terminate in Riga. Destinations include all major cities like Ventspils, Daugavpils and Liepaya, among others. There are also a few other options to check timetables, prices etc, including the Latvian Passenger Trains website and the excellent 1188.lv website.

By Car

Main roads are generally in a good condition and you can either bring your own car or rent one (with driver is possible as well) from many international and local firms at airports or bigger cities and hotels. Some secondary roads might be in a slightly worse shape but still ok most of the times. Traffic drives on the right and you need a national driver's licence (EU citizens) or international permit (others).

By Bus

There are a number of buscompanies travelling between Riga and many major cities and regional towns on at least a daily basis. Getting to some places further away takes a while, buses are slow.

By Boat

There are no passenger services of any use for travellers, but you can rent boats for getting around some rivers and lakes if you want.

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Red Tape

If you are a European Union (EU) citizen, you may enter without any restriction as per your EU citizenship rights. If you are not an EU citizen, you will need to obtain a Schengen Visa. This visa is valid for any country in the Schengen zone.

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Money

The official currency of Latvia is Latvian Lat (LVL). One lat is equal to one hundred santimes. Coins are issued in denominations of 1 santīms, 2 & 5 santīmi, 10, 20 & 50 santīmu, as well as 1 lats and 2 lati. Banknotes come in denominations of 5, 10, 20, 50, 100 and 500 latu.

For exchange rates it is a good idea to visit the official web site of national bank. Money can be easily changed in every single branch of bank, those can be found in most of towns. Cash machines are widely available all around the country and major credit/debit cards are accepted by most of the shops and hotels. The prices are generally all the same in every region, though Riga can be a little more expensive, although it is the best place for shopping. Budget travelers and backpackers may find Latvia to be a little expensive as the prices are hopping and it is not the cheapest corner of Europe any more.

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Language

The official language of Latvia is Latvian. Travelers who speak English or Russian wont have any communication problems as most of Latvians speak those two languages as well. English is spoken by most of young people but the older persons with the soviet education are fluent in Russian and you can try out your German skills as well. Latvian language is not a Slavic language so do not relay on knowing any of them if its not Russian. Try to learn a few words in Latvian and this will be appreciated.

  • Hello - Sveiks
  • Thank You - Paldies
  • Please - Ludzu
  • Cheers - Prieka

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Drink

Latvians like to drink. Spirits are still the most popular beverage, although the consumption of beer and mixed drinks is increasing. Cheap homemade spirits are also common in some parts of the country, but should be avoided as some bad batches of cheap moonshine have led to deaths. Drinking in public is illegal, but common practice. The blood/alcohol limit is 0.02% for drivers with less than 2 years of experience and 0.05% for those with more than 2 years of experience.

Black Balsam bottles covered in snow, Riga

Black Balsam bottles covered in snow, Riga

© All Rights Reserved Utrecht

  • Riga Black Balsam (Rīgas Melnais Balzams) is the national drink of Latvia. It is a herbal liqueur made from a secret recipe of 24 herbs, spices and other ingredients. It was originally concocted by a local pharmacist as a medicine for various ailments but although this belief in its healing powers remains, it is primarily drunk as an alcoholic beverage (and at 45% it is quite an effective one.) It is normally drunk straight, with hot blackcurrant juice or added to tea or coffee, although it is becoming popular to use it in mixed drinks and cocktails.
  • Beer (Alus) consumption is growing in Latvia, possibly due to the large number of breweries and the wide selection of beers. Aldaris, Cēsu and Lačplesis are the biggest breweries, producing a number of different styles and flavours, from wheat beers to chestnut ales. However, the connoisseurs should try the smaller breweries for the best quality beers, such a Tervetes, Bauskas, Valmiermuižas and Brengulu.

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Health

See also: Travel Health

There are no vaccinations legally required to travel to Latvia. It's a good thing to get your vaccinations in order before travelling to Latvia. The general vaccination against Diphtheria, Tetanus and Polio (DTP) is recommended. Also a hepatitis A vaccination is recommended.

If you are staying longer than 3 months or have a particular risk (travelling by bike, handling of animals, visits to caves) you might consider a rabies vaccination. Vaccination against Tuberculosis as well as hepatitis B are also sometimes recommended for stays longer than 3 months. It is also recommended to have a vaccination against tick borne encephalitis when you go hiking and/or camping for several days or more in the period of March to November.

Finally, other possible health issues include diarrhea and other general travellers' diseases like motion sickness. Watch what you eat and drink and in case you get it, drink plenty of fluids (to prevent dehydration) and bring ORS.

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Safety

See also: Travel Safety

Like the other Baltic countries or countries in Eastern Europe, direct racism is much more a problem compared to western countries. As a coloured person you will at least be watched a lot. Don't panic though, violence is rare. Unfortunately, gays are not really respected among the majority of people, so keep a low profile regarding your sexual preference.

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Keep Connected

Internet

Internet cafes in cities are popular and charge starting from 0.50L per hour. Free internet connections are available in all libraries. Free wifi is available in many cafes, libraries, and the Riga Airport. Most hotels will provide free wireless access spots for laptops.

Phone

See also: International Telephone Calls

Emergency numbers include 110 (police), 112 (fire), ambulance (113), but you can connect to all of them by using the general 112 number.

There are both fixed and mobile phone communications available in Latvia. The international telephone code for Latvia is +371 and all phone numbers (except for emergency numbers, some information numbers, hotlines etc.) consist of 8 digits. One should note that all mobile phone numbers start with "2", landline numbers start with "6".

For local communication, it is much cheaper to buy a local prepaid SIM card, which can include data as well as voice and text. These cards and separate renewal vouchers can be easily bought in gas stations, kiosks, or supermarkets. All brands are more or less equal in price and service. Popular brands include LMT, Tele2, and Bite. All prepaid SIM cards come with a manual in English, Russian, and Latvian.

To call from a public phone, you need a phone card (telekarte) which cost as little as €2. International calls are possible from every public phone.

Post

Latvijas Pasts is the national postal service of the country and has relatively fast, affordable and reliable services. They have both mail and express mail service, domestically and internationally. Prices for international mail start at around 0.45L for postcards within Europe, 0.50L outside Europe, stamps for letters are slightly more expensive. It usually takes at least several days up to a week within Europe, but around 10 days to North America for example. Domestic services are faster of course, usually within 2 days. Post offices are generally open from 8:00am to 6:00pm Monday to Friday, and 9:00am to 4:00pm on Saturday, though large central post offices might keep slightly longer hours and can be open on Sunday sometimes. Latvian post boxes are colored yellow, and postage stamps can be bought in post offices or news-stands (kiosks). Specialized package services are provided as well by companies like DHL, FedEx, TNT and UPS, among others.

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Quick Facts

Latvia flag

Map of Latvia

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Capital
Riga
Population
2,345,000
Government
Parliamentary Democracy
Religions
Christianity (Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox)
Languages
Latvian, Russian
Calling Code
+371
Nationality
Latvian
Local name
Latvija

Contributors

as well as Riga Cuka (14%), Herr Bert (13%), Lavafalls (6%), bunkurs (3%), Hien (3%), Peter (2%), Riga James (1%), dr.pepper (1%)

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Latvia Travel Helpers

  • Leksa

    I know lots about were to go hiking in Latvia.
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  • paulf_1969

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