15 Fun Things to Do in Riga, Latvia this Spring

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Spring in Latvia can feel a bit like chasing a unicorn. You want so desperately to catch it, but can’t be sure it even exists. Winter starts in November and by the time March rolls around, it can be hard to remember that there are in fact other seasons throughout the year. But slowly, surely, the days grow steadily longer and the snow melts away. April is the great awakening, when people once again venture outside and buds appear on the trees. Then after a few days of brilliant sunshine, spring rumbles forth like a runaway train. May is the best time to visit Latvia, when the skies are blue and flowers are plentiful, while June tends to be cool and rainy. But no matter the weather, there’s always something fun to do. Here’s my list of the top ways to make the most of the spring season in Riga!

Shake Off Winter’s Chill at Egle 

Egle can be found under the white tents in the bottom center of this photo.

Egle Riga

Egle Beer Garden is hands-down my favorite spot in Old Riga. In all my travels across Europe, I’ve yet to come across another venue that provides such quality musical entertainment for the price of a €3 beer. Local acts perform under the tents each night of the week; you’ll hear everything from Latvian folk tunes to 90s rock covers and 50s swing. There’s a large selection of Latvian beers on tap, and the food is surprisingly good. (Go for the pork belly.) And don’t be put off by cold temperatures – blankets and heat lamps will keep you warm even on the chilliest spring night!

Wade through a Sea of Blue in the Great Cemetery

small blue early spring flowers

Great Cemetery Riga

Spring’s first flush spreads across Riga’s Great Cemetery, where thousands of tiny blue flowers carpet the ground between gravestones. Internet research tells me these early spring flowers are Siberian Squill, which thrive in places with a cold winter. Latvia certainly fits that bill! The cemetery itself is a vast park dotted with the crumbling remains of 18th and 19th century tombs which survived the bulldozers of the Soviet era. In the morning and afternoon hours, you’ll find lots of locals wandering through the park, pushing baby strollers and walking dogs. But the piles of empty vodka bottles inside some of the crypts tell me this spot is best avoided after nightfall. To reach the Great Cemetery, take tram 11 which runs along trendy Miera iela. (Don’t miss Rocket Bean Roastery while you’re in the neighborhood.)

Go Cherry Blossom Peeping in Uzvaras Park

Riga cherry blossoms

Cherry blossoms in Riga's Uzvaras park

Riga cherry blossoms

Uzvaras parks riga

Riga Uzvaras Park

I was stunned when photos of pretty pink blossoms starting popping up in my Instagram feed. Could there be cherry trees in Riga? Sure enough, there’s a large cluster of them across the Daugava in Uzvaras Park. The beautiful trees were a gift from Japan in 2012 and have been delighting locals ever since. To get there, take tram 10 or any bus bound for Slokas iela.

Celebrate Freedom on Latvia’s Restoration of Independence Day

Latvian Independence Day

Latvia flower map

Celebrating Restoration of Independence Day in Riga, Latvia

On May 4, 1990, after five decades of occupation by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, Latvia declared that it was an independent nation once again. The holiday is celebrated in Riga with much pomp and circumstance on the grounds of the Freedom monument. Marching bands perform, speeches are given, and a good time is had by all. My favorite part of the day is the parade of people leaving flowers at the base of the Freedom Monument. It begins with the country’s top politicians and dignitaries, then finishes with locals and children. By the end, a map of Latvia has been created out of the blooms.

Tantalize your Taste buds during Riga Restaurant Week

Riga Restaurant Week Menu

Every spring (and autumn), Riga’s talented chefs work their magic with the seasonal bounty. Rhubarb, sorrel, and birch sap are a few of the ingredients you can expect to see on menus across town. Even better, the value pricing makes it possible to enjoy haute cuisine with a more limited budget. But don’t miss out – reservations are essential during Riga Restaurant Week.

Revel in Culture on Museum Night

Riga Art Nouveau Museum

Riga art nouveau museum

Costumed performers add to the museum’s fine ambiance.

Riga Pharmacy Museum

Don’t miss the sauna display in the back courtyard!

Riga medical museum

The Museum of Medical History occupies every floor of this grand old mansion.

Dioramas bring the museum to life.

For one night in May, many of Riga’s museums open their doors after hours for a night of culture. (You can find the schedule of events and locations for Riga Museum Night here.) The 2017 theme is “Wheel of Time” and sounds fascinating. My museums of choice are the Riga Art Nouveau Museum, the Pharmacy Museum, and the Paul Stradins Museum of the History of Medicine. Trust me, that last one is WAY more interesting than it sounds!

Find a New Favorite Ale at Latvia Beer Fest

Latvia Beer Fest

With more than 200 brews on tap, Latvia Beer Fest is the largest beer festival in the Baltics. The annual event takes place in Vermanes Park and lasts several days. All the major Latvian breweries are represented, including Valmiermuiza, Aldaris, Tervete, and Uzavas. You’ll also be able to sample some of Latvia’s finest craft beers, like those from Labietis. Classic Belgian and German brews are available, as is Guinness, though you’d do well to stick with the local varieties. Valmiermuiza is a top pick among foreign visitors.

Become a Beer Connoisseur at the Aldaris Brewery

Riga brewery tour

Riga beer tasting

Aldaris brewery Riga

If you’re not in town for the festival but still want to explore Latvia’s beer scene, head to the Aldaris Beer Museum in Riga’s Sarkandaugava neighborhood. The gleaming new museum was opened in 2015 inside one of the brewery’s historic buildings after a million euro renovation. Visitors can see original copper vats from the 1930s as well as other rare artifacts. Aldaris Brewery was founded in 1865, then known by its German name, Waldschlosschen. In Latvian, this word translates to Mezpils, or Forest Castle. Today, one of Aldaris’ most popular brands is Mezpils Alus, reportedly created to compete with the highly rated Valmiermuiza ales. To get the most out of the visit, sign up for the master class for beer connoisseurs. You’ll get to taste a variety of Aldaris brews along with expertly paired snacks. The class includes a guided tour of the museum and brewery.

Marvel at Mountainous Rhododendrons at the Botanical Garden

Riga rhododendron

Riga Botanical Garden

Thanks to my friend Jan for getting some shots of me in action!

riga rhododendron

Before coming face-to-face with a wall of blossoms at the Riga Botanical Garden, I had no idea rhododendrons could grow so big. The azaleas we have in North America are pretty but typically more petite. Apparently the cold, damp Latvian weather creates a hardier plant. The University of Latvia boasts the largest rhododendron collection in the Baltics, and maintains much of it at the Riga Botanical Garden. Several gigantic specimens welcome visitors near the main entrance, but the nursery area towards the back of the park is most impressive. Take tram 4 to reach the Botanical Garden, which is located across the Daugava.

Get Off the Beaten Path with a Walking Tour

This great mural maps out all the major sights in Riga’s Moscow neighborhood

Riga’s Old Jewish Cemetery

Riga Soviet architecture

The Latvian Academy of Sciences building, Riga’s most imposing Soviet structure

The Science building has a rooftop terrace with panoramic city views

While there are plenty of free walking tours of Riga’s Old Town, you’ll learn more about the city if you leave the medieval cobblestones behind. E.A.T. Riga Tours offers a variety of interesting options, such as the Soviet Riga Walking Tour and the Latvian Food Tasting Tour at Riga Central Market. Most tours last from 2 to 6 hours and all are led by a professional local guide. I took a tour of the Moscow District and former Riga Ghetto, and found the experience engaging and informative.

Indulge your Senses at the Opera Festival

Riga opera house

Latvian national opera

The stunning interior of the Latvian National Opera House in Riga.

Latvian opera performance Madama Butterfly

As I’ve mentioned once or twice before, I adore the Latvian National Opera and Ballet. The spring season culminates in June with the Riga Opera Festival, now in its 20th year. The highly-acclaimed festival showcases the best opera productions from the company’s repertoire, and often features award-winning singers from around the world. My favorite operas are La Traviata and Madama Butterfly, but all the performances are stellar.

Go Behind the Scenes with an Opera House Tour

Riga opera house tour

cafe opera riga

riga opera house

After Riga’s original opera house burned down in 1882, a new and improved version was erected on the banks of the canal just outside the Old Town. In order to prevent another fire, old-fashioned gas lighting was replaced with electricity that was generated by a ground-breaking power plant built directly beside the theater. Although that plant is no longer in use, its distinctive white tower remains. The Opera House’s lavish interior, with its red velvet curtains and abundance of gold paint, appears unchanged since the 19th century, but was fully refurbished in the early 1990s. For a peek behind the curtains, sign up for a Backstage Tour. Guides speak multiple languages and share a wealth of interesting information. My group was able to watch orchestra members and ballet dancers practice in their respective wings.

Enjoy the Cinema in Grand Style at Splendid Palace

splendid palace riga

splendid palace riga

Another Riga theater worth a look is the aptly-named Splendid Palace. The epitome of luxury, Splendid Palace was opened in 1923 when silent films were accompanied with a live orchestra sound track. Even after “talkies” eliminated the need for an orchestra, Splendid Palace remained the premier movie theater in the Baltics. When the Soviets took over, they didn’t wantonly destroy Riga’s beautiful structures, but did take pains to make them less ostentatious. Thus, in 1963, a large black rectangle of a building was put up directly in front Splendid Palace, renamed Cinema Riga. That Soviet contribution still obscures the theater’s entrance unfortunately, but it’s the interior you’re coming to see. (For current movie showtimes, click here.)

Stock up on Souvenirs at the Annual Latvian Craft Fair

Annual Latvian craft fair

Latvian arts and crafts fair

A Latvian woman in traditional national costume

Riga annual craft fair

One of the biggest events on Riga’s social calendar is the annual Latvian Arts and Crafts Fair. Now in its 47th year, the fair is typically held the first weekend of June on the grounds of the Latvian Ethnographic Open Air Museum. Artisans and crafts people from all over Latvia gather to show off their wares – everything from pottery and baskets to mittens and fresh cheese. It’s also a great place to watch traditional folk dances and sample local beer and snacks. Locals tend to spend the better part of a day browsing through all the treasures and soaking up the festive atmosphere. To reach the fair grounds from central Riga, take bus 1 to the Brivdabas muzejs stop. This is a popular event and buses fill up fast so go early! You can skip the line at the entrance by getting tickets in advance at the Opera House box office.

Greet the Midnight Sun during Ligo

Setting of the midnight sun in Riga, Latvia

Riga Summer Solstice Festival

By the time June 23 rolls around, the sun is barely setting in Latvia. Riga’s Midsummer Festival, which takes place on the eve of the Summer Solstice, is the party of the year. Traditionally, Latvians celebrate Ligo with friends out in the countryside, but more and more people are enjoying the festivities in Riga. Locals don their colorful ethnic costumes and perform folk dances on stages across town. In a nod to ancient pagan traditions, heads are crowned with garlands of wild flowers and oak leaves. A large farmer’s market takes over Riga’s Dome Square, while sprigs of birch branches decorate buildings and cars. Down on the November 11 Krastmala, stands sell beer, grilled meat, and special holiday cheese with caraway seeds. Though the event is often plagued by rain, a large bonfire helps chase away the chill. Expect the merrymaking to continue until the new day dawns – no one sleeps for Ligo!

How would YOU like to enjoy spring in Riga?

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An Extraordinary Hill of Crosses in Lithuania

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On a field in rural Lithuania, a Hill of Crosses rises on the horizon. Visible from a considerable distance in the flat landscape, it is an impressive sight to behold. I’ve read reports that the site contains 100,000 crosses, but I’m not sure how anyone could know that. Impenetrable walls surround the narrow walkways, with crosses crammed into every nook and cranny. Others have been stacked high in piles that have toppled over. Rosaries, meanwhile, are draped around wooden necks like Mardi Gras beads. Counting the crosses would be an insurmountable task.

hill of crosses

hill of crosses

Hill of Crosses in Lithuania

Stairs lead up the center of the hill and are flanked by towering crosses. A sculpture of Christ the Redeemer welcomes pilgrims near the entrance. Crosses of every conceivable size and denomination have been left by worshipers from around the world. I even saw a Jewish star in the mix.

hill of crosses

Hill of Crosses in Lithuania

hill of crosses

An Extraordinary Hill of Crosses in Lithuania

The hill first took shape in the 19th century, when Lithuanians erected crosses in protest of a ban imposed by their Tsarist overlords in the Russian Empire. More were added after an apparition of Mary holding the baby Jesus was reportedly seen. When the Soviets occupied Lithuania after World War II, they saw the Hill of Crosses as counter to Communist ideology and bulldozed it into oblivion. Devout Lithuanians were none too happy with this destructive act and fervently rebuilt the hill, secretly adding more crosses under the cover of night. Soviet forces demolished the site five times before conceding defeat. Today, the Hill of Crosses stands as a testament to the fortitude and resilience of the Lithuanian people. The site was made more famous in 1993 by a visit from Pope John Paul II.

hill of crosses

Hill of Crosses

hill of crosses

hill of crosses

hill of crosses

The Hill of Crosses is located near the town of small town of Siauliai, about 220 kilometers from Vilnius. I drove from Riga as part of a Lithuanian road trip, though it’s possible to visit using public transportation. Take the train from Vilnius to Siauliai, then continue by bus to the Hill of Crosses. The journey will take around 3 hours each way. Food options at the site are extremely limited so pack something or plan to eat in Siauliai. Religious souvenirs – including crosses! – are available, however.

hill of crosses

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The Best Meals We Ate in Amsterdam

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What comes to mind when you think of Dutch food? For me, it’s Gouda cheese and stroopwafels. But surely a culture of explorers and spice traders must have more to offer. With one full week in Amsterdam, I wasn’t sure what to expect of Dutch cuisine but had plenty of time to delve into the national dishes.

So, what is there exactly? For one, a popular snack called bitterballen, or deep-fried meatballs with a texture reminiscent of Spanish croquettes. These tasty little nougats are best served with grainy mustard and icy beer. Another Dutch delicacy is stamppot, a hearty mash of boiled potatoes and assorted vegetables. Stampot is often served with links of smokey sausage, though I did see vegetarian options on some menus. For dessert, it doesn’t get any better than apple pie. Thicker and drier than the American version, Dutch apple pie is almost cake-like in its consistency. Served with a generous dollop of cream, it’s the perfect end to any meal!

Dutch bitterballen and kroketten

Here are the best restaurants I found during my stay in Amsterdam. Addresses and pricing information can be found at the bottom of this post. If your favorite spot isn’t included, be sure to tell me about it in the comments!

Cafe Loetje

Our first meal at Loetje was so delicious we went back a second time later in the week. The house specialty is a thick filet of tender steak slathered in buttery gravy. My mouth waters looking at the photo! You can get the steak topped with extras like sauteed liver and onions, but sometimes unadulterated is best. For something a little “lighter,” I recommend the pork schnitzel. Side salads are large enough for two to share, but you might want your own order of crispy fries. Loetje is a good place to sample veal bitterballen, though I preferred the more delicate flavor of their shrimp kroketten. Loetje’s apple pie is also excellent, should you manage to save any room.

cafe loetje amsterdam

port schnitzel

Moeders Restaurant

It’s hard to imagine a more charming restaurant than Moeders, which is Dutch for Mothers. The walls are plastered with photos of smiling, happy women – mothers of people who have dined there over the years. Tables are set with mismatched china, also bestowed upon the restaurant by generous patrons. The end result is a comforting, homey atmosphere that immediately puts you at ease. Moeders’ cooking is equally satisfying, featuring an assortment of Dutch classics and comfort food. I opted for “Mother’s spare-ribs,” a half portion of delectable barbecue ribs served with fries and a cabbage salad. Those with bigger appetites should order the “Father” sized portion. Reservations are essential.

moeders restaurant amsterdam

moeders restaurant amsterdam

The Pantry

Another cozy nook is the Pantry. This highly-rated restaurant specializes in Dutch home cooking with a focus on quality over quantity. The Pantry’s limited number of dishes are divided into four set menus, each with three courses. My set began with crunchy, gooey goat cheese croquettes and ended with a plate of fluffy poffertjes, or mini pancakes dusted with powdered sugar. The main course was a flavorsome casserole of mashed potato, cauliflower, curried ground beef, and Dutch cheese. It was an excellent welcome on our first night in Amsterdam. (Incidentally, when we showed up to the Pantry without a reservation, I mentioned to the waiter that we had just arrived in town. He was so tickled that we chose his restaurant for our first meal, that he made room for us even though they were fully booked. His warm hospitality set the tone for the entire trip!)

pantry amsterdam menu

pantry restaurant amsterdam

Long Pura

Delicious as all that Dutch food was, it was a little heavy to eat every day for a week. To mix things up, we decided to check out Amsterdam’s Indonesian food scene. The Dutch East India Company was established in what is now Indonesia in the early 17th century. A booming spice trade was soon underway, introducing the exotic flavors of Southeast Asia to Northern Europe. Dutch colonists also introduced the rijsttafel, or rice table, as a means of trying many Indonesian dishes in one sitting. We enjoyed our rijsttafel at restaurant Long Pura, which aims to recreate the ambiance of a Balinese temple in the middle of Amsterdam. We were each served a generously-sized appetizer, then given a total of 12 dishes to share. The chicken satay, egg in a spicy chili sauce, sauteed green beans with tofu, and chicken stewed in coconut milk were especially memorable.

long pura rijsttafel amsterdam

Long Pura Indonesian Restaurant Amsterdam

La Oliva

While the Dutch Republic was dominating the eastern spice trade, the surrounding Low Countries were under the thumb of the Spanish Crown. After centuries of fighting, a French, British, and Dutch alliance finally succeeded in severing ties with the Spanish Empire and returning control of the region to the Austrian Hapsburgs. Thankfully, that tense history is long buried. Today, Spanish culture is celebrated in Amsterdam with tapas bars all over the city. At La Oliva, beautiful little pintxos line the bar, each more appealing than the last. We made our selections after having them all described by the waitstaff, and toasted a successful day of sightseeing with glasses of Rioja.

la oliva amsterdam restaurant

Winkel 43

For dessert, we walked a few blocks to Winkel, a cafe renowned for its apple pie. Each towering slice is crammed with tender slices of apple, perfectly seasoned with cinnamon, and accented with fresh cream. You will absolutely want your own piece! Don’t be put off by the line of people waiting outside; our party of four was seated quickly.

winkel apple pie

Pancakes Amsterdam

Another Dutch treat you must try is pancakes. The traditional varieties come topped with bacon, cheese, and apple. I went all out with a savory pancake covered in goat cheese, spinach, and pine nuts. It was out of this world! Pancakes Amsterdam uses a buckwheat flour batter for its dinner plate-sized creations, though you can request gluten-free if needed.

pancakes amsterdam

B&B Keizers Canal

Every morning in Amsterdam began with a lovely breakfast prepared by Paulo, owner of the B&B my friends and I rented for the week. Our wonderful host plied us with assorted cheeses and cured meats, sliced cucumbers and tomatoes, fresh fruit and orange juice, and eggs cooked any way we liked them. While we ate, Paulo provided helpful advice about our day’s agenda and kept our coffee cups full. The B&B’s two basement rooms were surprisingly large and bright, and the townhouse’s central location makes it a great base for sightseeing. Since my friends and I rented both rooms, it was like we had our own private house for the week.

b&b keizers canal breakfast

B&B Keizers Canal Amsterdam

B&B Keizers Canal occupies the ground level and basement of this elegant building.

Which Dutch treat would you most like to try?

Have a favorite Amsterdam restaurant to add to the list? 

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Amsterdam Restaurant Guide

Cafe Loetje
Address: Johannes Vermeerstraat 52, Amsterdam, Netherlands
Pricing: €€

Moeders Restaurant
Address: Rozengracht 251, Amsterdam, Netherlands
Pricing: €€

The Pantry
Address: Leidsekruisstraat 21, Amsterdam, Netherlands
Pricing: €€

Long Pura
Address: Rozengracht 46-48, Amsterdam, Netherlands
Pricing: €€€

La Oliva
Address: Egelantiersstraat 122-124, Amsterdam, Netherlands
Pricing: €€€

Winkel 43
Address: Noordermarkt 43, Amsterdam, Netherlands
Pricing: €

Pancakes Amsterdam
Address: Multiple locations; I visited the one in the Nine Streets neighborhood
Pricing: €€

B&B Keizers Canal
Address: Keizersgracht 669, Amsterdam, Netherlands
Pricing: €€€


My Favorite Places in Amsterdam

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I love Amsterdam for many of the reasons I love Paris: stunning architecture, a wealth of art, and an unpretentious food scene. Both cities are easy to explore on foot, or by public transport when you get tired. And both have enough quality attractions to keep even the discerning traveler occupied for at least a week. I’ve been to Amsterdam three times and still feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface. I dug a lot deeper on my most recent visit thanks to the Amsterdam Museum Card. As in Paris, the card helped me discover a few gems I might otherwise have missed, like Museum Van Loon and the Hermitage. It also helped alleviate the guilt for quickly leaving one if it wasn’t my cup of tea. But museums aren’t the only top attractions in Amsterdam! Read on to find out which spots make the cut.

Canal Ring

amsterdam canals

The best attraction in Amsterdam is arguably the city itself. Designed in the 17th century, Amsterdam’s UNESCO-listed Canal Ring is an engineering marvel. In order to expand the medieval city, it was necessary to drain the surrounding swamps. A network of canals were dug and the land in between filled in. Gabled townhouses were added once the project was completed, and the rest, as they say, is history. If I did nothing other than stroll along the canals and ogle the city’s distinctive gables, it would be a trip well spent.

amsterdam canal houses

amsterdam netherlands

amsterdam canal boat

amsterdam canal boat tour

A canal boat ride in Amsterdam

amsterdam sunset

amsterdam night shot

Museum Van Loon

van loon house amsterdam

Want to see inside one of those lovely buildings lining the canals? Head to Museum Van Loon, the only canal house in Amsterdam to retain both its garden and coach house. While the Van Loon family still resides on the upper floors, it’s possible to tour the rest of the home all the way down to the basement kitchen. Wandering from room to sumptuous room past the family’s private possessions, I felt like I was getting a glimpse of a secret world. It was delicious!

van loon house amsterdam

van loon museum amsterdam

I enjoyed the fashions and family portraits displayed in each room

van loon house museum amsterdam

van loon house museum amsterdam

The Van Loons’ Carriage House

Van Gogh Museum

van gogh museum amsterdam

Do you have a favorite artist? Mine is Vincent van Gogh. I’ve long been drawn to his use of bold, rich colors and thick brushstrokes. It fascinates me that someone with such a troubled mind could see and express such beauty. Largely unsuccessful during his lifetime, van Gogh’s paintings didn’t make waves in the art world until after his suicide at the age of 37. He had been painting for just 10 years. But what a legacy he left behind! The Van Gogh Museum does an excellent job of bringing the enigmatic artist to life. Many of his masterpieces are on display – including several self portraits – as well as works by those who inspired him. You’ll want to allow several hours to explore the collection and peruse the gift shop. Photos aren’t allowed inside the museum, presumably to encourage visitors to buy prints.

Almond Blossom, 1890, Vincent van Gogh. Image source

Rijksmuseum

rijksmuseum amsterdam

Delve further into Dutch art at the Rijksmuseum. Nearly 8,000 artworks are on display, including many paintings by Dutch Masters including Jan Steen, Frans Hals, and Johannes Vermeer. Pride of place goes to the Night Watch, Rembrandt’s monumental masterpiece. The biggest surprise was Cuypers Library, which was recently restored to its original grandeur. Tucked in a back corner of the museum, I stumbled upon the gorgeous room almost by accident. The Rijksmuseum Gardens, designed by the building’s architect Pierre Cuypers, are especially lovely when the spring flowers are in bloom. The gardens abut Museumplein, where you’ll find the famous “I amsterdam” sign from the tourism board’s genius marketing campaign. Good luck getting a photo!

night watch rijksmuseum

rijksmuseum treasures

The Rijksmuseum Cuypers Library in Amsterdam

rijksmuseum gardens

Anne Frank House

A statue of Anne Frank in Amsterdam

For all of Amsterdam’s beauty, it has a dark side, too. After Nazi Germany invaded the Netherlands during World War II, many Jews went into hiding. One family was Otto Frank’s, a German Jew who relocated to Amsterdam after Hitler came to power. Anne Frank, Otto’s daughter, kept a diary during the two years the family was in hiding. It provides an intimate look at their lives seen through the eyes of a teenage girl. Anne, a talented young writer, was also working on a novel about the family’s ordeal but never got to finish it. In 1944 the secret annex was discovered and the inhabitants were deported to Auschwitz. Only Otto Frank survived. He eventually published Anne’s diary, fulfilling her wish to become a writer. I encourage everyone to visit the Franks’ secret hiding place, which is now a part of the well-done Anne Frank House Museum, to learn about this tragedy and honor the memory of the victims.

anne frank house amsterdam

Original entrance to the building where Anne Frank and her family hid during WWII.

Royal Palace

royal palace amsterdam

Originally built to be Amsterdam’s Town Hall in the 17th century, the grand structure was converted into a Royal Palace by Louis Napoleon (Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother) in 1808. Louis’ reign was short lived, but his French Empire-style furnishings have endured. In fact, the Palace boasts one of the finest collections in the world! The fully furnished rooms, illuminated by heavy gilt chandeliers, are a feast for the eyes. The cavernous central hall is equally impressive. Gleaming marble floors are inlaid with two hemispheres which demonstrate Holland’s global importance during the Dutch Golden Age.

The Dutch Royal Palace of Amsterdam

amsterdam royal palace empire furniture

amsterdam royal palace tour

Hermitage Amsterdam

hermitage amsterdam museum

Interestingly, a branch of the famed Hermitage Museum of Saint Petersburg can be found in Amsterdam. Opened in 2009, the Hermitage Amsterdam was intended to highlight the long relationship between the Netherlands and Russia. Today, the permanent exhibition is entitled, “Portrait Gallery of the Golden Age,” and features group portraits of prominent 17th century Dutch citizens. At the time of my visit, another large exhibition held the works of Spanish Masters from the Hermitage Collection. Check the museum website to see the current schedule. The vast building, Amstelhof, served as a home for the elderly for over 300 years until it was converted into museum space.

hermitage amsterdam portrait gallery

dutch masters hermitage amsterdam

amsterdam tulip festival

Red Light District

amsterdam red light district

You don’t need the Museum Card to enter Amsterdam’s notorious Red Light District, but you do need an open mind and some discretion. Prostitution was legalized in the Netherlands in 1810, though it was quietly tolerated by the authorities at least a century before. De Wallen, Amsterdam’s largest red light district, is also its medieval Old Town. The Oude Kerk, or Old Church, was built in the early 1300s and is Amsterdam’s oldest surviving structure. The neighborhood is more sedate than one might expect since many of the brothels are tucked away in narrow alleys. Often, you can’t see the women until you are standing directly in front of their window. Most seemed bored and were checking their phones, perhaps a way of ignoring the leering crowds constantly passing by. But I was there during the early evening, so the atmosphere could liven up as the night progresses.

A brothel sits prominently next to the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam’s Red Light District

Amsterdam's historic Red Light District

amsterdam red light district

De Wallen, Amsterdam’s oldest neighborhood

Begijnhof

begijnhof amsterdam

Another historic Amsterdam neighborhood is Begijnhof. In the 14th century, almshouses were built around a quiet courtyard as a sanctuary for a group of Beguines – religious women who took a vow of chastity. Although the last official beguine died in 1971, community residence is still restricted to women. The charming brick homes, with their leaning frames and gabled roofs, mostly date to the 17th century. Only one wooden house from about 1520 remains. Spui, the large square outside Begijnhof’s entrance, hosts a weekend flea market that’s also worth a gander.

begijnhof amsterdam

Shopping

amsterdam cheese shop

While the city boasts many fabulous shops, two won my heart. The Amsterdam Cheese Company specializes in artisan Dutch cheeses and spreads. The friendly sales woman let me try as many samples as I wanted until I was sure of my choices. Of course I would have loved to load my suitcase with the entire contents of the store, but settled for two wheels of Dutch Gold Gouda (7 Months and Cumin) and a jar of Honey Thyme Mustard.

I also took home a few Delft Blue KLM Houses sold at Kramer Arts & Antiques. The family-owned shop may be best known for its stock of antique tiles, but I couldn’t resist snagging a few of the charming little houses as a souvenir of my trip. Originally filled with Dutch gin, or genever, the porcelain bottles are modeled after actual buildings in Amsterdam. Since the 1950s, KLM Airlines has given one to every passenger lucky enough to fly in World Business Class.

kramer antiques amsterdam

What are some of your favorite spots in Amsterdam?

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A Windswept Day at Kinderdijk, Netherlands

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No image is more iconically Dutch than the windmill. (Well, except maybe the tulip.) For centuries its sails have harnessed the power of wind to help manufacture items as varied as paper, mustard, and chalk. Saw mills were particularly important in early shipbuilding when a large naval fleet was a key to economic success. Later, as natural drainage systems in the Netherlands began to fail, pumping mills controlled water levels and reclaimed land for the low-lying country. The advent of the steam engine eventually rendered traditional mills obsolete, though thankfully 1,000 or so still stand. One of the best places to see historical windmills in action is Kinderdijk. The network of 19 mills has been so perfectly preserved that it’s been included on the UNESCO World Heritage List. When a friend casually mentioned that she wanted to race past the windmills like Hans Brinker, I didn’t need much convincing.

We rented bikes from a shop near the entrance and pedaled merrily along the dykes and canals. The wind was brisk, as was to be expected, but not unpleasant. The further along the path we rode, the thinner the crowds became. Local men sat fishing while sneaky ducks and birds tried to steal their catch. A lone woman on horseback sauntered past, presumably from one of the neighboring villages which I wish I’d had time to explore. The complete cycle route around Kinderdijk is 60 kilometers long, though at my snail’s pace that would take me two days at least.

Kinderdijk windmills

A windmill in Kinderdijk, Netherlands

Kinderdijk Netherlands

Kinderdijk UNESCO site

The UNESCO listed windmills of Kinderdijk, Netherlands

Kinderdijk windmills

Two of the historic Kinderdijk windmills have been converted into museums. The 1950s-style interiors have been left intact, giving visitors a glimpse of what life was like for the families that lived in and operated the mills. One family had 12 children! It’s incredible to think about all those kids sleeping next to churning gears and playing in the yard while the sails swung round and round.

Dutch windmill

Kinderdijk windmill museum

It’s possible to travel from Amsterdam to Kinderdijk via public transportation, but plan for a full day trip. I took the train from Amsterdam to Utrecht, then rode bus 90 to Kinderdijk. The most challenging part of the journey was buying the bus ticket in Utrecht, as the line at the counter was long. In hindsight, it might have been faster to transit through nearby Rotterdam, but I enjoyed the two hour ride through the bucolic Dutch countryside. Food options at the park are limited, so bring your own provisions. I bought a sandwich at the Utrecht train station and ate it on the bus.

netherlands bus 90

Kinderdijk bus stop

Is a Kinderdijk day trip on your travel wish list?

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Keukenhof Gardens: A Floral Fantasy Come to Life

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Tulips have long been my favorite flower. Among the first to grace shops and sidewalks, their brilliant hues brighten the gray days of winter like gemstones and foretell of warmer days to come. I relish the ritual of buying that first bunch every year! Although the tulip originally hails from central Asia, it is most associated with Holland. In the 17th century, the Dutch became enraptured with the exotic tulip and a buying frenzy of bulbs caused prices to skyrocket. Thus “tulipomania” was born, the flower forever embedded within the fabric of Dutch culture. There is no better place to experience tulip fever than Keukenhof Gardens.

keukenhof gardens netherlands

What began as a small kitchen garden of a 15th century countess has grown into an annual extravaganza featuring more than 7 million bulbs! 800 tulip varieties are on display, along with a multitude of spring perennials such as daffodils, crocuses, and hyacinths. Flower beds flow through the park like the rivers of candy in Willy Wonka’s factory. Swans and ducks ply the actual waterways, while a traditional wooden windmill pirouettes through the sky. The whole place is pure magic.

keukenhof gardens

Pink tulips in bloom at Keukenhof Gardens, Netherlands

keukenhof gardens

keukenhof holland

keukenhof gardens in april

Springtime in Holland

keukenhof gardens netherlands

holland flower fields

Large pavilions host an assortment of floral shows throughout the spring season. I was most impressed by the tulip exhibition inside the Willem-Alexander Pavilion. Delighted visitors were greeted with row upon row of vibrant blooms and I could easily have spent several hours admiring them all.

holland tulips

tulips holland

keukenhof holland

keukenhof gardens

Every year Keukenhof Gardens boast a new theme. When I visited in 2016, the theme was the “Dutch Golden Age,” a period of history in which Holland achieved great artistic success and economic prosperity. This was supposedly demonstrated by a mosaic made of flowers, but it wasn’t well marked on the map and I missed it completely. However, I did stumble upon a sweet little garden created using broken bits of Delft Blue pottery.

delft blue garden

So when is the best time to visit Keukenhof Gardens? Well, that depends. The park is open every year from late March until mid May, but the weather of the preceding months can greatly affect the blooming season. I went once during the first week of May and sadly most of the tulips had already been cut; a heatwave had caused all the bulbs to blossom much earlier than normal. I overcompensated on my next visit by going the first week of April; the weather was chilly and many of the buds had yet to open. When I eventually return, I’ll aim for the the middle of April – hopefully third time’s the charm! (For those planning a visit to Keukenhof, the blog Tulips in Holland provides a weekly bloom forecast.)

keukenhof gardens

All photos in this post were taken April 6, 2016

keukenhof gardens best time to visit

A flower carpet in Keukenhof Gardens

keukenhof best time to visit

The Keukenhof Express bus is a convenient way to travel to the gardens from Amsterdam. Buses depart from Schiphol airport, outside arrivals area 3-4. (Look for the inflatable tulips.) The ride to Keukenhof took about 30 minutes, and the combination ticket included entrance to the gardens at a discounted rate.

amsterdam to keukenhof bus

If you want to tiptoe (or bike) through the neighboring tulip fields of Lisse, give yourself plenty of time. I was exhausted after many hours wandering through Keukenhof and so had to content myself with blurred glimpses from the bus window on my way back to town. Had more fields been blooming, I would have made them a priority.

tulip fields in netherlands

Is a spring visit to Keukenhof Gardens on your travel wish list?

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Three Days in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

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I recently returned home from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and am excited by the changes I witnessed since my first visit four years ago. The city’s skyline has so many glitzy new additions as to be almost unrecognizable. The massive coils of electrical wires that once snaked overhead have been neatly buried, while pedestrian crosswalks (with lights!) have been added at many intersections. Western chains like Starbucks and Carls Jr. have spread like wildfire. Yet some things remain charmingly familiar: women in traditional hats selling fruit and snacks from baskets on the sidewalk; scooters swarming the streets like schools of fish; crumbling French colonial facades overgrown with tropical plants.

ho chi minh city tet decorations

ho chi minh city nightlife

ho chi minh city street food

driving in ho chi minh city

My parents joined me this time around, keen to explore a place of historical significance for Americans of a certain age. Our visit coincided with the lead-up to Tet, what the Vietnamese call Lunar New Year. Colorful decorations heralding the Year of the Rooster lent a fun and festive air to the already vibrant city. I loved having my family along even though it meant a less strenuous sightseeing schedule than normal. But even with our leisurely pace, we managed to see a lot thanks to the city’s easy walkability. It also helps that many of the key attractions are centered in District 1. The itinerary I’m sharing here combines the best of both trips, highlighting the Saigon of yore and the rapidly developing Asian metropolis of today. Here is how I recommend spending three days in Ho Chi Minh City.

ho chi minh city vietnam

tet decorations saigon

year of the rooster vietnam

celebrating tet in vietnam

A good starting point is Reunification Palace, the seat of power of what was once South Vietnam. Saigon fell to North Vietnamese troops in 1975, marking the end of the Vietnam-American War. Two of the tanks that crashed dramatically through the palace’s front gates remain parked on the lawn, symbols of the North’s victory. The building has been turned into a museum, with the 1970s interior left intact. Visitors can wander three floors of fully furnished rooms, as well as the rooftop veranda and underground bunker still hung with military maps. Reunification Palace closes every day between 11:00-13:00, so be sure to plan accordingly. Also note that the building doesn’t have a/c and can get oppressively hot in the afternoons.

Reunification Palace Ho Chi Minh City

reunification palace tank

reunification palace tour

reunification palace interior

reunification palace bunker

Take an early lunch break at Nha Hang Ngon, which I happily discovered on my last trip to Vietnam. While I thought the quality had diminished slightly since that first euphoric experience, you really can’t go wrong with a big steaming bowl of pho inside an old French villa!

nha hang ngon saigon

vietnamese pho

The French colonial empire of Indochina, which included most of modern-day Vietnam, lasted from 1887 to 1954. During that time, French authorities constructed an array of lovely government buildings and theaters in the hopes of wooing European settlers to the exotic outpost. The Saigon Central Post Office is a shining example from that era. A sunny yellow exterior (freshly painted since my last visit) fronts a cavernous space bustling with activity; my mom was amazed to find that the beautifully restored edifice still serves as a working post office! It’s a great place to buy postcards and stamps, as well as magnets, books, and other souvenirs.

saigon post office

Saigon Central Post Office

saigon central post office

Notre Dame Cathedral floats in the center of a busy street a few steps from the post office. This Roman Catholic church, erected on the site of a disused pagoda, was established in Saigon in the 1880s to serve the needs of French colonists. All the building materials were imported from France, while the statue of Our Lady of Peace gracing the small garden out front is made of Roman granite. Today the cathedral is only open for religious services.

Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral

saigon traffic

A few blocks away is the unmissable Ho Chi Minh City Hall, a near replica of the Hotel de Ville in Paris for which it was originally named. A statue of “Uncle Ho,” arm outstretched to greet his followers, towers over the square out front. While not open to the public, the elegant building makes a perfect backdrop for photos.

ho chi minh city hall

My parents were ready for a break at this point, so we headed back to our hotel for a bit. I chose the Caravelle Saigon both for its convenient District 1 location next to the Saigon Opera House and for its historical status. Originally opened by the French in 1959, the Caravelle became home base for foreign journalists covering the war. It’s said that towards the end of the conflict, as the front moved ever closer to Saigon, reporters could watch the action from the rooftop bar – then the highest point in the city! That famous bar is still there, though thankfully a fiery sunset is the most action it sees these days.

caravelle hotel saigon

caravelle saigon rooftop bar

saigon sunset

We kept the French theme going with dinner at Au Parc Saigon. The Mediterranean menu has something for just about everyone, from hummus and falafel to pasta and grilled seafood. I opted for a Greek salad, Middle Eastern spiced chicken, and a cup of dark chocolate mousse. Every bite was perfection!

au parc saigon

au parc saigon menu

After a leisurely morning checking out some of the neighborhood shops, we stopped by L’Usine for an early brunch. I savored the pulled pork, pumpkin, and potato hash while my parents thoroughly enjoyed pillowy pancakes topped with honey butter and mixed berry compote. The coffee here is also excellent. After the meal, we perused L’Usine’s expertly curated shop. If I lived in HCMC, this is a space I would frequent!

tet in saigon

The entrance to L’Usine is through the “Art Arcade” on Dong Khoi, opposite the Caravelle.

l'usine saigon

Ben Thanh Market was built in the 1870s, making it one of the oldest French structures in HCMC. The cavernous space is filled to the rafters with a vast array of souvenirs, and throngs of tourists jostle for space along the narrow flues. We bought our requisite t-shirts and moved quickly on to the next attraction, eager to escape the crowds.

ben thanh market saigon

ben thanh market ho chi minh city

vietnam souvenirs

ben thanh market saigon

The Bitexco Financial Tower is easily identified thanks to the jaunty helipad perched on the side. Even with a slew of new high rises, the 68-story tower remains the tallest in HCMC. Saigon Skydeck on the 49th floor offers sweeping 360-degree views, and unique high-quality souvenirs can be found in the gift shop. To admire the distinctive helipad from ground level, stroll over to the Saigon River where a new park has been added.

bitexco tower saigon

View of Saigon from Bitexco Financial Tower

saigon skydeck view

saigon river boat

Dedicate the afternoon to one of the city’s many museums. Ho Chi Minh City Museum is housed in lovely Gia Long Palace, another French-era construction. The grand staircase, long airy corridors, and tile floors are definitely worth a gander. The museum itself features an odd assortment of exhibits ranging from natural history and farm equipment to old maps and coins. There is an interesting display on the wedding rituals of the country’s various ethnic groups, including costumes, bride gifts and dowry items. Vietnam’s war history is also covered in depth.

gia long palace saigon

ho chi minh city museum

My favorite restaurant from the earlier trip, Temple Club, was a bit of a disappointment the second time around. In fact, I hesitated to include it here. But that first meal was SO GOOD that I’m willing to give it the benefit of the doubt – maybe they were simply having an off night. Every table in the place was full, after all.

temple club saigon

What’s with this lettuce garnish?

More adventurous types would do well to book a food tour with Saigon Street Eats. I previously ate my weight in crustaceans on the Seafood Trail tour, and would recommend it to anyone keen to experience the local culture.

saigon street eats seafood tour

Another highlight from my first trip was a visit to the Jade Emperor Pagoda, which was erected by Cantonese immigrants in 1909 to honor the preeminent Taoist god. The colorful temple filled with incense, worshipers, tourists, and a handful of feral dogs doubles as a turtle sanctuary. Feeding the creatures is a popular merit-making ritual for religious faithful. Jade Emperor Pagoda is a pleasant 30-minute walk from the Caravelle Hotel.

jade emperor pagoda saigon

Take a slight detour on the way back to enjoy lunch at Pho Hoa Pasteur, one of the city’s most popular pho noodle joints. You’ll be rewarded with simple, hearty flavors in a lively yet unpretentious atmosphere.

pho hoa pasteur saigon

For a decadent dessert, make your way to Fly Cupcake Garden Cafe. While I haven’t been to the new location, Fly Cupcakes are some of the most creative and delectable I’ve had the pleasure of eating. I know from experience that it can be difficult to choose between the many varieties, so order two to make up for all the calories lost wandering around HCMC in the searing heat.

fly cupcake saigon

If the weather is nice, consider spending the rest of the afternoon relaxing by the Caravelle’s outdoor swimming pool. This is a vacation after all!

caravelle saigon pool

Alternatively, you can opt for a day trip to the infamous Cu Chi Tunnels. The tenacious Vietnamese dug a vast network of underground tunnels to aide in their fight for independence against the French. Several decades later, the tunnels played a key role in the North Vietnamese defeat of the American-South Vietnamese alliance. Going down into those same tunnels as a tourist is a surreal experience. Even though those at Cu Chi have been widened enough for larger Westerner-sized bodies to squeeze through, I still felt claustrophobic after a five minute crawl. I can’t imagine living down there in the dark for months at a time! The site’s anti-American vibe might be a bit disconcerting for some – which is partly why I didn’t take my parents – but it was enlightening to learn about the war from a different perspective.

cu chi tunnels vietnam

How would you spend three days in Ho Chi Minh City?

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My Top 10 Riga Day Trip Ideas

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Given Riga’s considerable charms, visitors may be reluctant to leave the Latvian capital for even a short time. But a day trip to a nearby town or national park can provide an even richer picture of life in this Baltic nation. Thanks to Latvia’s compact size, most places within its borders can be seen in a day if you have your own wheels. For the purposes of this post, I’m sticking with destinations reachable via public transport. Latvia’s bus and train connections are extremely affordable, and the English websites fairly easy to use so long as you know the station names. (AO is short for “autoosta,” Latvian for “bus station”.) It’s worth researching both options to find the time and route that best fits your schedule, though I note my preferred way to reach each spot in the descriptions below. Without further ado, I give you my 10 favorite Riga day trips!

Sigulda

snowboarding sigulda latvia

Whether you’re a winter sports enthusiast or an avid hiker, an adrenaline junkie or a medieval history nerd, Sigulda has you covered. Situated in picturesque Gauja National Park, Sigulda boasts some of the steepest hills that remarkably flat Latvia has to offer. As such, it’s one of the country’s premier winter sports destinations. Here you can find downhill skiing and snowboarding, cross-country skiing, and a professional-grade bobsleigh and luge track that operates year round.

turaida castle latvia

For those craving less strenuous pursuits, Sigulda is home to some fascinating medieval castle ruins and museums. To make the most of your time at the spectacular Turaida Museum Reserve, catch bus mini bus 3112 from Sigulda station. The bus services the 5km circuit between Sigulda, Turaida, and Krimulda Manor and costs €0.50 each way. October is arguably the best time to visit Sigulda, when the colorful foliage is at its peak. A cable car across the Gauja river provides expansive views of the pristine forest and easy access to Krimulda Manor. You can pick up free maps at the Tourist Information Center located inside the train station. Riga to Sigulda: 1 hr 15 min via train. 

Jelgava

jelgava palace

Despite nearly being wiped off the map during WWII, Latvia’s fourth-largest city has much to recommend it. Begin your day at the Holy Trinity Church (a 15-minute walk from the station). The lone surviving tower offers sweeping city views from a glassed-in observation deck. Look for Jelgava Palace on the horizon, a crumbling pink relic of the Duchy of Courland that now serves as the Latvian University of Agriculture. Don’t miss the 40-strong herd of wild horses that graze in the meadows behind the palace!

jelgava wild horses

jelgava museum

Another pretty-in-pink structure is Academia Petrina. Originally the first university in Latvia, the striking building now houses the Jelgava History and Art Museum, a must for anyone who wants to better understand the city’s heart wrenching history. In August, Jelgava hosts the annual Milk, Bread, and Honey Festival showcasing – you guessed it – locally-made milk, bread, and honey. Riga to Jelgava: 49 minutes via train. 

Rundale Palace

rundale palace latvia

To get a taste of Latvia’s lost 18th century grandeur, head to Rundale Palace. Fondly referred to as “the Versailles of Latvia,” the summer home of the erstwhile Dukes of Courland has been painstakingly restored and lavishly refurnished with antiques. Guided tours are available, though visitors are free to wander through the sumptuous rooms on their own. Pay special attention to the intricate stucco work and blue-and-white porcelain stoves – three of which are original! Rundale is lovely year round, though it shines brightest during the summer months when the gardens are in bloom. Riga to Rundale Palace (via Bauska): 1 hr 30 min via bus, plus wait time between buses.

rundale roses

rundale palace interior

Since you’ll need to pass through the town of Bauska to get to Rundale Palace, you might as well stop and explore a bit. From the bus station, it’s a 15 minute walk to the Tourist Information Center in Town Hall Square. Here you’ll also find the Bauska History and Art Museum and Tornis Taverna, a great option for lunch. The surrounding streets are lined with heritage wooden architecture, and the town’s old white church is worth a gander.

Bauska Castle Latvia

If time permits, continue another 20 minutes or so on foot to Bauska Castle. Perched on a hill between two forks of the Lielupe River, the crumbling Livonian castle ruins offer a terrific vantage point for admiring the quaint little town. A restored 16th-century manor house abuts the castle and serves as a somewhat sparse museum, though it’s worth the price of admission to admire the colorful tiled floors! Riga to Bauska: 1 hr 15 min via bus.

Tukums

tukums latvia

tukums latvia

In the 13th century, the Livonian town of Tukums gained significance as a stop on the trade route to Prussia. After the Livonian Order gave way to the Duchy of Courland, trade routes expanded and industry in Tukums boomed. All that remains of the Livonian’s once-great castle is a solitary tower, now the Tukums Museum. The charming old town has retained its original layout, with the market square at its center. The surrounding cobbled streets are lined with historic storefronts, art galleries and churches. Riga to Tukums: 1 hr 20 min via bus or train. If you take the train, be sure to get off at the Tukums 1 stop, which is much closer to the old town than Tukums 2.

durbe manor latvia

A half-hour walk from Tukums 1 Station away from the old town will lead to Durbes Pils, a restored 17th century manor house. The grand estate was owned by various Baltic German nobles before being bestowed upon famous Latvian poet and playwright, Rainis. During the Soviet era, Durbe Manor was used as a sanatorium; it was taken over by the Tukums Museum in 1991. Today, the ground floor recreates the scene of 19th century aristocratic life, while the first floor exhibits focus on the works of Rainis.

Kemeri National Park

kemeri bog walk

On the Baltic coast not far from Tukums sits the vast expanse of Kemeri National Park. The huge territory is covered by forests, lakes, and wetlands that are home to a wide array of birds and mammals. One of the best ways to experience this special ecosystem is the Great Kemeri Bog Boardwalk. Raised wooden trails loop around the peat marsh, making it easy to traverse the challenging terrain. Be sure to climb the wooden tower at the boardwalk’s halfway point for a birds-eye view of the unusual landscape. Riga to Kemeri: 1 hour via train. Note that it’s a three kilometer walk from the train station to the raised bog, but bicycle rentals are available.

Dobele

dobele castle ruins latvia

This tiny town traces its roots to the Middle Ages when the Livonian Order ruled the land. Dobele Castle, the knights’ sprawling command center, was left in ruins after centuries of war. But what splendid ruins! I thought they were some of the most impressive Latvia has to offer thanks to their unrestored appearance. The old town square is a short 10-minute walk from Dobele Castle and is noteworthy for its historic Lutheran church and large well-shaped fountain.

dobele lilac garden latvia

Believe it or not, Dobele is also home to the largest lilac garden in Europe. In the 1950s, Peter Upitis began cultivating lilacs and today his namesake garden boasts over 200 lilac trees. The annual Dobele Lilac Festival, which takes place in late May when the garden is in full bloom, is not to be missed! Riga to Dobele: 1 hr 30 min via bus.

Talsi

talsi latvia

To experience an idyllic slice of small-town Latvian life, head to Talsi. I was completely enchanted by its cobbled streets, historic architecture, friendly locals, and peaceful lake-side setting. A well-tended wooden boardwalk circles the lake, making it an excellent place for a walk. Talsi’s main attractions are the District Museum and Creative Yard, a work and exhibition space for local artists. Dining options abound, though I strongly suggest having lunch at Martinelli’s Restaurant and an afternoon snack at Piena Seta, a bakery next to the dairy factory. Wheels of Talsi cheese make an excellent souvenir! Riga to Talsi: 2 hr 10 min via bus.

Salaspils

latvia botanical garden salaspils

latvia botanic garden salaspils

Latvia’s National Botanic Garden boasts the largest collection of plants, flowers, and trees in the Baltics. What began as a small nursery in the 1800s has grown to include some 14,000 species from around the world. The Garden is spread over 129 hectares and open year round. I visited in spring when the tulips and snowdrops were in bloom. A highlight is the gleaming new greenhouse stocked full with cacti and diverse tropical flora. The main entrance to the Botanic Garden is directly adjacent to the train station, and the ticket office doubles as the town’s tourist information center. In summer you can rent bicycles to help you reach the other points of interest in Salaspils. (My friend and I hired a taxi for a few hours for around €20.) These include the riverside ruins of St. George’s Church and a Monument to Soviet Prisoners of War. Riga to Salaspils: 25 minutes by train.

Salaspils Memorial Latvia

The entrance to Salaspils reads: “Behind this gate the earth groans.”

salaspils memorial ensemble

salaspils concentration camp

The Salaspils Memorial stands in stark contrast to the natural beauty of the Botanic Garden a mere five kilometers away. In 1941, the Nazis established a work and prison camp in Salaspils, which was located on the main train line between Daugavpils and Riga. Between 1942 and 1944, thousands of prisoners passed through the camp, many on their way to larger camps in Poland and Germany. Those who were incarcerated at Salaspils were forced to work in dismal conditions. Many died of starvation and disease, while others were executed. Sadder still is the knowledge that young children were among the many victims: a mass grave on the site has been found to contain the remains of over 600 children. Stand quietly on the camp’s concrete foundations to hear the steady heartbeat of a metronome, a constant reminder of the lives lost. Soviet authorities established the Salaspils Memorial in 1967. The site is difficult to reach without a vehicle, but I’m including it because of its historical and cultural importance.

Ogre

ogre latvia

Ogre is pronounced “Ooh-uh-gray” in Latvian

That’s right, there’s a town in Latvia named after a hideous people-eating monster! Or is there? According to local legend, Empress Catherine the Great, who was born in the region, named the river угри or ugri, after the eels which once swam its depths. Whatever the reason for the unusual moniker, I knew I had to see this place for myself.

ogre river latvia

Ogre is a popular place to live thanks to its easy striking distance of Riga, and is actually one of the few towns in Latvia with an increasing population. The town itself is adorable, though admittedly low on attractions. The map I picked up at the tourist office proudly pointed out each of the heritage buildings lining the main street. There’s also a small history museum and a smattering of cafes. But mostly, people come to Ogre for the nature. A walking path follows the gently meandering Ogre River, which is spanned by the longest arched bridge in Latvia. I had hoped to visit the much lauded Zilie Kalni – or Blue Hills – Nature Park, but the walking distance from town was too great, even for me. Riga to Ogre: 40 minutes via train.

Jurmala

jurmala beach latvia

majori latvia

Last but not least is Jurmala, the famous resort town on the Baltic Sea. Located a mere 25 kilometers from Riga, it’s easy to see why this is the most popular location with day trippers. What’s surprising is the lack of development. The pristine white sand coast is backed by seemingly endless pine forests, with only a handful of hotels visible on the horizon. Mostly you’ll find secluded holiday homes and quaint townships tucked among the trees. A pedestrian promenade lined with shops and cafes connects the two most popular areas, Dzintari and Majori, known for their blue flag beaches. Visiting in winter? Go cross-country skiing over the frozen sand! Riga to Jurmala: 30 minutes by train. You can disembark at either Dzintari or Majori, though the latter has a nicer station area.

jurmala beach skiing

Which of these Riga day trips are you most interested in taking?

Have any others to add to the list?

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Celebrating Christmas in Taipei, Taiwan

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I have a little secret to share: While I continue to report on locales across Latvia and Europe, for the past few months those dispatches have been sent from the tropical island of Taiwan. Technology is amazing, no? Although I missed Riga terribly at first, Taipei has charmed me with its fascinating mix of cultures and religions. Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism and Christianity coexist peacefully, with temples, churches and shrines tucked in every nook and cranny. Although Christians make up just 4% of the island’s population, the Christmas holiday is widely embraced. The friendly people of Taiwan love all things cute, including Santa and Rudolf!

churches in taipei

Christmas decorations around Taipei range from the adorable (an inflatable Canadian moose) to over-the-top consumerist (an electric beer bottle topped with a star). Santas can be found shimmying up palm trees and strings of twinkle lights brighten the balmy December nights. With snow only a remote possibility in these parts, I give the Taiwanese a lot of credit for creating such a festive atmosphere!

Christmas at the Taipei Zoo

taipei love sign

Creepy anime Santa outside the Miramar Entertainment Park.

santas in palm trees

heineken christmas

Surprisingly, I was able to get my European Christmas market fix at the Strasbourg Christmas Market in Taipei. 15 wooden cabins were set up in a plaza under the shadow of the Taipei 101 and stocked with everything from mulled wine and pastries to embroidered dish towels and woolen hats. I wasn’t able to purchase any French treats, as all the tickets for the event had been sold out, but was content to wander under the vibrant illuminations and soak up the holiday cheer.

taipei 101 christmas market

christmas in taipei

While I decided to forgo getting a tree for my apartment, I did stock up on colorful poinsettias at the local flower market. Considering they cost less than US$5 a pop, how could I resist? Taipei’s Jianguo Weekend Flower Market is a veritable treasure trove of seasonal plants and lawn decor. It’s also a great place for watching locals push their pampered pooches around in baby strollers. Yup, that’s a thing!

taipei weekend flower market

taipei weekend flower market

dogs of taiwan

One thing Asia does exceedingly well is seasonal desserts. Meticulously embellished with vivid details, these confections are almost too pretty to eat! Krispy Kreme’s red Santa donuts filled with dark chocolate pudding were my favorite, though the green matcha cakes filled with red bean paste were a close second. (This was a surprise as I didn’t think I liked red bean paste. I guess tastes change!)

krispy kreme christmas donuts

reindeer bread

fancy cakes taiwan

Where are some of your favorite places to celebrate the holidays?

Do you want to see more photos from around Taiwan?

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Celebrating Christmas in Taipei, Taiwan

A Merry and Bright Christmas in Lisbon, Portugal

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When I traveled to Lisbon in December, I wasn’t sure what to expect by way of holiday cheer. Would there be enough things to do in Lisbon at Christmastime? I’m pleased to report that the answer is a resounding yes! Elegant strings of lights glinted off the city’s renowned tile walkways, colorful window displays beckoned shoppers, and decorated trees illuminated public squares. Lisbon’s Christmas markets were overflowing with smoked sausages and wonderfully stinky cheese, while hot sangria replaced the standard mulled wine. Plus, the pleasant weather made it possible to stay outside for hours enjoying the festive atmosphere. If you are looking for a non-traditional European Christmas destination, you might want to give Portugal a try!

lisbon christmas lights

lisbon christmas lights

lisbon holiday lights

Christmas lights in Lisbon, Portugal

christmas in lisbon

lisbon in december

Lisbon’s Christmas Market, or Mercado de Natal, is held inside Campo Pequeno, a lovely red-brick bullfighting arena that was opened in 1890. Several dozen artisans and vendors set up tables around the floor and visitors can browse at their leisure. I bought some wine and cheese, of course, and regretted not having more room in my suitcase for a few pieces of pottery. This neat event is unfortunately a one-off, held either the last weekend in November or first weekend in December. Daily tickets cost a nominal €2 each.

campo pequeno lisbon bullring

lisbon christmas market

lisbon christmas market

lisbon bullring christmas market

lisbon christmas market

portuguese spices

If you miss the Mercado de Natal, you might still be able to catch the Mercado de Baxia. Once a month, tents are set up in Praca da Figueira and a glorious food market takes over. The event has a Christmasy air in November and December when local artisans also sell their wares. I loved browsing with a cup of hot sangria in hand!

mercado de baxia

lisbon food market

mercado de baxia lisbon

Don’t worry if your visit to Lisbon doesn’t coincide with either of these markets. You’ll still find plenty of treats to put you in the holiday spirit. One such treat is ginja, a sweet-and-tart cherry liqueur that owes its origins to Francisco Espinheira, a Galician friar who made creative use of the local Portuguese cherries. The potent drink was first sold commercially in Lisbon at A Ginjinha bar in the Rossio over 170 years ago. Join the crowd outside for a shot or two and you’ll soon be a festive mood!

Lisbon A Ginjinha Bar

Ginjinha Liquor in Lisbon, Portugal

Another centuries-old Lisbon specialty is the egg custard tart. In the 1830s, after a revolution resulted in the closure of monasteries, an out-of-work monk began selling homemade pastries to make ends meet. He operated out of a shop next to a sugar refinery in the Lisbon suburb of Belem. The venture was so successful that the bakery Pasteis de Belem was officially opened in 1837. The recipe for the famous tarts has remained a closely guarded secret ever since, known only to the shop’s master bakers. Whatever’s inside, you won’t be able to have just one!

Pasteis de Belem Lisbon

Pasteis de Nata Belem

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Celebrating Christmas in Lisbon, Portugal