As soon as I announced we were moving to Latvia, I started receiving travel advice for the country. Nearly all of it included an autumn visit to Sigulda, which was described as the “New England of Latvia.” It’s apparently the place to go leaf peeping in this country. Considering the highest point in Latvia is just 312 meters above sea level (about 1,600 meters shorter than the highest peak in New England), the comparison is a bit of a stretch. But Sigulda does have something the U.S. lacks: 800-year-old castle ruins. As stunning as the autumnal colors of the trees are on their own, they become magical when interspersed with crumbling stone walls and watchtowers.
Sigulda Medieval Castle was built in 1207 by the knights of the Livonian Brothers of the Sword, and is thought to have been abandoned in the early 18th century after it was damaged by war. Thankfully, the castle remains mostly unrestored. Its broken shell has been fitted out with stairs and wooden walkways, and one of the towers has been made into a lookout point with a spectacular view of the surrounding river valley. There were very few visitors when we were there, and as we walked through the castle’s old stone gate, it felt as though we were the first ones to uncover its existence.
The medieval castle ruins are tucked behind New Sigulda Castle, constructed in 1881 using stones from the rubble. Originally owned by a duke, the New Castle was used as a retreat for journalists and writers between the World Wars, and as a health center during Soviet times. Today, it contains the offices of the Sigulda City Council. The yellow wooden house next door, once the brewery, is now an art gallery and workshop, though it might have been better served in its former capacity.
I highly recommend taking the cable car near the castle to the other side of the Gauja River. You can also walk or drive across the bridge, but the valley views make the four-euro ride (one-way) worthwhile. You’ll be let out near Krimulda Manor, which has been used as a sanitarium since the 1920s, though it looked completely deserted to us. The surrounding buildings, including the former stables, have been turned into charming homes of indeterminate ownership, but that didn’t stop us from walking around and taking photos of their cats. The skeletal ruins of 13th century Krimulda Castle can be found in the nearby woods.
We hiked from Krimulda Manor through a small section of Gauja National Park, a 92,000-hectare nature preserve and the first of its kind in Latvia. (Note: This involved going down A LOT of stairs. Those with limited mobility should take the public bus.) The hike was peaceful and lovely, and took us through unspoiled forest brimming with golden leaves, myriad mushrooms and the sweet smell of decay. It also took us past Gutmana Ala, the largest erosion cave in the Baltics. Deemed Latvia’s first tourist attraction, it bears the markings of the countless visitors before us who came to see the spot where the legend of “Rose of Turaida – Latvia’s version of Romeo and Juliet” was born.
Turaida Castle was built in 1214 on the orders of the Archbishop of Riga, and wasn’t abandoned until the end of the 18th century. The red-brick stunner has been partially restored, and includes multiple lookout points and interesting historical exhibits. There is also an excellent gift shop in one of the towers. The castle is part of the larger Turaida Museum Reserve, which charmingly recreates feudal village life. Costumed characters demonstrate the labors of the day, from the blacksmith to the wood worker to the sauna attendant. Yes, apparently even medieval knights enjoyed a good sauna.
Sigulda is located just an hour and fifteen minutes from Riga by train – the ride costs less than five euros round trip! – making it a popular day-trip destination. But I like to spend more time getting to know a new place, so I booked us two nights at a rustic guest house, Prieka Pietura. It was an easy walk from the train station and proved to be a good base from which to explore the area despite being more distant from the main attractions than the “downtown” hotels.
Spending the night also gave us more opportunities to eat. My favorite restaurant was Mr. Biskvits. We “discovered” this place thanks to a flyer in our hotel room and proceeded to enjoy three of our five meals there. Had I the weekend to do again, I might not have eaten anywhere else. That’s not to say our dinner at Hotel Sigulda wasn’t enjoyable – it was, very much so. After a 16-kilometer hike, the cozy dining room was the perfect place to recover with a bottle of wine and bowls of pasta.
Where’s your favorite place to enjoy the autumn leaves?