Country profile

About Latvia

Chances are, many people would struggle to point to Latvia on a map, but in some ways, that’s part of its charm. Latvia is not thronging with tourists, or spoiled with tourist-focused attractions, which leaves it beautiful, unspoilt and waiting to be explored.

For the record, Latvia is at the northern tip of Europe on the Baltic coast, bordering Russia, Estonia, Lithuania and Belarus. It is a small, compact country that is almost half forest, and boasts no less than 500km of stunning Baltic Sea coast and beaches. After years of Soviet rule Latvia gained independence in 1991 and joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the European Union (EU) in the spring of 2004.  It has since emerged as a young, fresh and inspiring country to visit, boasting plenty of diversions for the medical tourist.  Think unspoiled nature, miles of sandy coastline and beaches equal to those on the Mediterranean, lively new bars and cafés, historical buildings, and a top showcase of stunning Art Nouveau architecture. 

As a result of its strategic location, Latvia has seen army after army pass through its borders, from Ivan the Terrible to Napoleon, including the struggles of two world wars. This has had a remarkable effect on the local architecture. The countryside is littered with magnificent medieval castles and Baroque fortresses, while other areas are as wild as it comes, as they were closed off for military exercises by the occupying Soviet forces.

Combine this turbulent military past with a trading history that goes back even further to the Ancient Greeks, and you get a cultural melting pot that is fascinating to explore and enjoy, from the historic capital city of Riga to the modern coastal resorts like Jurmala, that have everything today’s tourist demands.

As the largest city of the three Baltic States the Latvian capital, Riga, is smooth and sophisticated and is growing in popularity as a city-break destination. Riga is a world heritage site bursting with history and culture, and is a must for any visitor to Latvia. This modern cosmopolitan city rivals any in the region for excitement and entertainment, with everything from top class music festivals to the stunning Art Nouveau architecture in the Old Town.

Trams hurtle along the city’s wide boulevards passing many an interesting Art Nouveau-styled building, as well as the occasional reminder of post-Soviet rule in buildings such as Spilve airport on the outskirts of town. Take a wander along the narrow cobbled streets of the Old Town which dates back to 1201 to marvel at ancient buildings such as the Riga Dome Cathedral, the Gothic styled St Peter’s church, along with the Three Brothers houses, the Occupation Museum of Latvia (1940 – 1991) which houses archives and memorabilia from the Nazi and Russian occupation, and Riga Castle where the Latvian History Museum and the Foreign Art Museum are also located. Afterwards wind down with a Latvian beer in one of the many pubs, which will probably have some live music as the Latvians are renowned for being very musical.

However, to limit yourself to the cities is to miss the best of Latvia, so make sure you head into the interior to experience the undisturbed nature, clean air and breathtaking beauty of the countryside.

Country hot spots include a visit to the medieval castle in Cēsis, the rapids on the River Gauja and the beaches on the ‘Baltic Riviera’. The Baltic coastline is enjoying a new lease of life with white sandy beaches stretching for 500 kilometres, among biosphere reserves and national parks. The most popular beaches are Liepāja, Ventspils and Jurmala, which is just a half hour train ride from Riga with more than a little hint of the Mediterranean. Latvia has endless trails for cycling, hiking and climbing, as well as a host of organised activities such as white water rafting and sailing.

Latvian is the official language with Russian, other Balkan languages and English also spoken.  Latvia has a maritime climate with wet, moderate winters. Summers are cool and cloudy in Riga with an average temperature of 17 degrees Celsius and an average winter temperature in January of minus 4 degrees.

Above all, remember that Latvians are a welcoming people. After all, they have been welcoming traders and merchants from the known world for millennia. So whether you choose a leisurely break on the beach, an inspiring city stopover, or head out to explore the country at its fullest, you are in for a real treat.


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Quick facts

Population: 2 Million
Currency: Lats
Capital: Riga
Languages: Latvian
Religions: Lutheranism 34%, Catholic 24%, Russian Orthodox 18%