One of the three Baltic states, Latvia has a long and extensive history, often focusing on its struggles with major powers. Independent following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the spectres of its former oppression can be glimpsed around the country, but there is far more to it than this. A country of incredible natural beauty and featuring a fast-rising capital city in Riga, there are plenty of things to do, catering to a variety of interests.
One of Latvia’s two significant Baroque Palaces, the Rundale Palace dates back to the 18th Century and is one of the country’s most magnificent buildings. Initially in the possession of the Grand Duchy of Courland, itself an auxiliary of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the Palace was overtaken by the Russian Empire following its annexation of the territory. The Palace has become a major tourist attraction in recent years, having been converted into a public museum in the 20th Century. It is particularly well-known for its lavish interior and its vast, leisurely gardens.
Gauja National Park
The country’s largest national park, Gauja is named after the eponymous river and is Latvia’s most significant nature getaway. A beautiful, picturesque setting, Gauja National Park is known for its rocky terrain, caves, natural springs and biodiversity. In addition, the park is home to a number of cultural and historical landmarks of great importance including the Arias Lake Castle and Unhurmuiza Manor. A rare combination of cultural, historical and natural richness.
Riga Central Market
Laying claim to the largest market and bazaar in the entirety of Europe, Riga Central Market is Riga’s most iconic site. Housed in former Zeppelin hangars, the market dates back to the early 20th Century and is known for its combination of Neoclassical and Art Deco architectural styles. A vital Latvian cultural institution, the Market is a focal point of Riga’s identity and one of the best places in town to experience the city.
Off the beaten track is Skrunda-1, an abandoned ghost town and a relic of Latvia’s years as a part of the Soviet Union. An eerie experience, Skrunda-1 encapsulates the rise and fall of the Soviet Union in a physical sense better than any place in the world. Having recently been opened to the public, the ghost town is a site of great interest to urban explorers or keen students of Soviet history, but for more impartial observers it provides a truly striking and haunting spectacle.
The Corner House
Located in Riga’s former KGB headquarters, the Corner House is a stirring and haunting tribute to the victims of torture and oppression under the Communist regime. The pleasant Art Nouveau facade contrasts with the sinister atmosphere inside, reflecting the atrocities committed against political prisoners during the years of Communist rule. An important museum which pays tribute to a recent and painful episode of the country’s history.
main image: Riga, Latvia, image courtesy of Bryan Ledgard, Flickr Creative Commons