Sigulda is a small town tucked within Latvia’s verdant Gauja National Park. Come autumn, this 92,000-hectare nature preserve turns into a golden wonderland that attracts leaf peepers from far and wide. I’ve often heard the area described as the “New England of Latvia.” But Latvia has something the U.S. lacks: 800-year-old castle ruins. As stunning as the fall colors are on their own, they become magical when interspersed with crumbling stone walls and watchtowers. Sigulda is located an hour and fifteen minutes from Riga by train, making it a popular day-trip destination. However, there are enough things to do in Sigulda and the surrounding area to keep you busy for a full weekend.
Sigulda boasts four castles and a manor house in various states of repair. The most famous of these is Turaida Castle, a red-brick stunner which has been partially restored. Turaida was built in 1214 for Bishop Albert of Riga, who aimed to spread Christianity via his military order, the Livonian Brothers of the Sword. Turaida Castle held sway over that stretch of the Gauja River until being ravaged by fire in the late 18th century. Today, it’s possible to climb a rebuilt tower for sweeping views of the surrounding valley. Even if you don’t plan to climb all the way to the top, be sure to visit the gift shop on the first floor which sells traditional Latvian jewelry, knitted accessories, and music cds. Historical artifacts are on inside the main part of the castle. Depending on the season, activities such as archery are also on offer.
The castle ruins form the centerpiece of Turaida Museum Reserve. This open-air museum recreates feudal village life with a cluster of historical buildings. 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. You can find visitor information including opening hours and ticket prices here.
About two kilometers south along the road towards Sigulda you’ll find Gutmanis Cave, the largest erosion cave in the Baltics. Deemed Latvia’s first tourist attraction, it bears the markings of the countless visitors have come before us and etched their names into the sandstone. Several legends surround the cave, the most famous being the Rose of Turaida – Latvia’s version of Romeo and Juliet.
A well-tended trail weaves through Gauja National Park. The hike was strenuous thanks to the many stairs, but lovely as it took me through unspoiled forest brimming with yellow leaves, reflective ponds, myriad mushrooms, and the sweet smell of decay.
My next stop was Krimulda Castle, another 13th century stronghold of the Bishop of Riga. The skeletal, moss-covered remains look marvelous bathed in autumn light and the lookout point behind the lone wall provides one of the best free views of the valley.
Krimulda Manor, the 19th century home of Count von Lieven, can be found near the castle ruins. Today the once-grand mansion serves as a sanitarium and rehabilitation center and is badly in need of fresh paint. The surrounding stone buildings feature a fully functional winery and cafe/grocery store, as well as a smattering of local residences.
A cable car near Krimulda Manor will whisk you to the other side of the Gauja River in minutes. One-way tickets are a little pricey, but the 360-degree valley views make it a worthwhile journey. You can find information and prices for the Sigulda Cable Car here. Note that there will certainly be a queue during peak season. Thrill seekers can try out the popular zipline (zerglis in Latvian) and bungee jump offered through Sigulda Adventures.
The cable car terminus is near Sigulda Medieval Castle. Like the other castles in the region, it was built by Bishop Albert of Riga. The castle was heavily damaged during the 16th-century Livonian War between Russia, Poland, and Sweden. The stone ruins have been fitted out with stairs and wooden walkways, and one of the towers has been made into a lookout point with a view of the surrounding river valley. You can find opening hours and ticket prices for the Sigulda castle ruins here.
The medieval castle ruins can be found behind a newer castle which was 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 other buildings on the property serve as artist workshops and galleries.
Downtown Sigulda is small, but charming and worth a wander. Highlights include the 15th-century Sigulda Lutheran Church and Walking Stick Square – a playful take on the area’s most popular souvenir. Ivy-covered Hotel Sigulda is ideally situated in the center of town, making it a great base from which to explore.
Wondering where to eat in Sigulda? Look no further than Mr. Biskvits, a cafe serving up some of the best food in town. There are two convenient Mr. Biskvits locations – one in downtown Sigulda and another in the ticket office of Turaida Museum Reserve. The Hotel Sigulda’s restaurant is a good choice for an elegant dinner. There’s also a Sigulda branch of Fazenda, one of my favorite cafes in Riga. You definitely won’t go hungry!
How would you like to visit Sigulda, Latvia?