Latvia is a country rich in history, castles and beautiful scenery. During my 48 hours in Riga, I wanted to explore beyond this big city and decided to visit the renowned Gauja National Park, located less than an hour away from the capital.
The day turned out to be a fascinating hike in the snow. For a good reason this park is known as the Switzerland of Latvia!
Getting to Sigulda from Riga couldn't be any easier. Both trains and buses leave every hour approximately, and to make things better, the train and bus stations are just next to each other.
I took the bus just because I preferred its schedule. I bought the ticket online the night before, but they can also be purchased directly from the driver; my bus at around 10AM was quite empty so there was no need to book in advance. A one-way ticket cost less than €3, which is a great price for a trip of about 1h.
After arriving in Sigulda, my first stop was the tourist office. They gave me a very useful map that can also be downloaded online. The map is great as offers a few different itineraries to explore the area, including the main points of interests and the length to complete.
My visit was in winter, where it gets dark at only 4PM, so I went for the Three Castle Route. It covers 10km and visits all the main highlights of Sigulda, as well as Krimulda and Turaida at the other side of the river.
After walking for a few minutes, leaving the bus station behind, one of the structures that brought my attention was Key Square. It displays three steel keys to commemorate the 800th anniversary of Sigulda, and they represent the unity between the cities of Sigulda, Turaida and Krimulda.
My first stop was the Castle of the Livonian Order, a fortress built in the 13th century that used to belong to the Livonia Order. Just next to it is located the New Castle of Sigulda, a New-Gothic construction from the end of the 19th century. The owners of the manor, the Kropotkin family, used to live there. Not bad for a residence, right?
As soon as I started exploring the castles and gardens, it started snowing quite heavily. Even though it wasn’t too cold considering that I was on the mountain, it made sightseeing a bit harder, but that wouldn’t put me off!
On my way to the cableway that would bring me to the other side of the river, I came across the Walking Stick Park.
The park was constructed in honour of the cane of Sigulda, one of the symbols of the city. Apparently, locals have been making these traditional walking sticks for centuries to help the tourists walk along the valley.
One of the most attractive ways to cross the Gauja River is the cable car, which allows you to enjoy the wonderful views of the valley from a height of 42m.
The cable car leaves approximately every half an hour, and tickets cost €5 one-way or €7 return.
I doubted quite a lot of whether I should buy return tickets or not, and I’m glad that I didn’t. The walk from the cable car to Turaida Castle takes over an hour, so I would’ve never made it back on time. It's much better to purchase one-way tickets, and then take a bus back from Turaida Castle either to Sigulda or straight to Riga as I did.
The cable car was opened at the end of the 60s and is the only aerial cable car of the Baltic countries. The distance between both banks of the river is 1020m, and the ride only takes 7 minutes. During the summer months, you can even do bungee jumping from it!
The views were absolutely incredible, especially in winter when you could see the entire valley covered in snow. Even though it was a bit foggy, I could still enjoy the view of the castles from the top.
As soon as you get off the cable car, you’ll stumble upon two of the landmarks of Krimulda: Krimulda Manor, and the ruins of Krimulda Medieval Castle.
The Krimulda Medieval Castle was built in the 13th century, and unfortunately, not much is left. The castle was destroyed by a fire at the beginning of the 17th century, and it was never reconstructed after that, so only a few ruins remain.
The main reason to go to Turaida was visiting Turaida Castle. Getting there wouldn’t be easy, though; you’ll need a 1-hour hike through the mountains before you reach the castle.
I decided to walk through Serpentine Road, clearly the most picturesque route to go from Krimulda to Turaida. Even though the paths were covered in snow, they were very well taken care of, which made things much easier.
Signalisation wasn’t the best, though, so sometimes it got a bit confusing where to turn. I regretted sometimes not getting a more detailed map at the tourist office!
Halfway through the hike is located the Gutman’s Cave; the highest and widest in the Baltic countries. It is also one of the oldest tourist attractions of Latvia, with visitors coming to leave inscriptions on the walls of the cave since the 17th century.
Here also originated the legend of the Rose of Turaida, the love story of a local girl who was murdered at the cave.
According to the map, there were a couple of restaurants on the way, one next to the cave, and another one next to Turaida Castle. I had planned to get lunch in one of them, however, to my disappointment, all of them were closed during winter. You won't find many facilities on the way, so don't forget to bring some food with you!
After a steep climb up the mountain, I finally made it to the imposing Turaida Castle. Built in the 11th century, it was fully reconstructed at the beginning of the 20th century and holds a wonderful exhibition which tells the historical events of the city. The castle opens daily, and tickets have a price of €4.98 per adult.
I started my visit climbing the main watch-tower. Built in the 13th century, it was the last shelter of the castle defenders. It has a total of 5 storeys with a height of 38m, offering wonderful views from the top not only of the castle, but also the entire valley.
During the 13th century, the district of Turaida belonged to the Bishopric of Riga, and then to the Archbishopric of Riga up until the 16th century. Turaida was a city of great importance, being the administrative and economic centre of a district within the Archbishopric of Riga and the residence of the bailiff, who administrated the area. The castle has preserved testimonies about spiritual and material culture of these times, including objects used by pilgrims or fragments of stove tiles, stamps and coins. All these objects can be now be found in multiple exhibitions inside some of the rooms of the castle.
I also loved the gardens surrounding the castle, known as Folk Song Park. It started snowing even heavier while I was exploring the gardens and I couldn’t see as much as I would’ve liked, but I could still enjoy wonderful views of the castle from the distance, as well as the very interesting two-faced statues.
Along the park, you will find some statues made of stone that are completely different depending on the side that you look at. It was incredibly interesting trying to guess what the statues would have on the other side and see them change as you walk around them!
After the visit to the castle and the gardens, I decided to take the bus back to Riga. There a few buses during the day that will bring you back to Riga bus station, instead of having to return to Sigulda and then change buses in there. You will definitely appreciate it after a long hike!
These direct buses are not very frequent, so it’s always worth double checking the departure time at the ticket office of the castle. I took the 4:10PM bus and it was the last one of the day. Buses from Sigulda leave very frequently, and of course, you can always take the train in Sigulda as well, so if you miss the direct bus from Turaida to Riga, there are still a few options left.
Gauja National Park is a great option as a one day trip from Riga if you want to explore beyond its medieval Old Town and Art Nouveau district. Latvia is a country with beautiful nature and lots to offer outside its cities, so if you want to enjoy a day trip in Latvia´s beautiful mountains, Gauja National Park is your best choice!