Gauja National Park (pronounced gow-yuh) is Latvia’s first and largest national park. I spent a couple of days there in late 2019 on my first trip to the Baltics (not to be confused with the Balkans), and I was blown away with how much there is to see and experience. I highly recommend you put it on your list. In this post, I’ll give you some ideas on how to maximize your time while you’re there.
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What to Do in Gauja National Park
The park encompasses about 230 acres of lush, green forest in the Gauja Valley. It takes less than an hour to drive from Riga, Latvia’s capital city, which makes it perfect for a day trip. However, there is so much to see and experience that I suggest spending at least one night in the park itself.
I stayed in the town of Sigulda, which is one of several towns within the borders of the park. It is a destination worth visiting on its own and acts as a fabulous gateway to the many activities within Gauja National Park. History, hiking, cultural experiences, and the most beautiful scenery all await you:
Gauja Valley’s Medieval Castles
The Gauja Valley contains the largest concentration of castles in all of Eastern Europe. In the town of Sigulda – a destination worth exploring on its own – you can visit four different castles. Each castle is a unique example of architecture and construction styles of the time that it was built.
These are two castles in Sigulda that I explored:
1. Sigulda Medieval Castle
Construction began on Sigulda Medieval Castle in 1207 by the Livonian Brothers of the Sword, a group of warrior monks who controlled the left bank of the Gauja River. For centuries, it was used as a military base, then eventually it became a private estate.
It lived through many wars, was damaged from nearby battles, then was repaired and renovated. It went on like this until the Great Northern War that lasted from 1700-1721. During that time, it was so badly damaged that it was eventually abandoned and still lay in ruins today.
As an important cultural site, it’s preserved the way it is, and when you visit the castle now, you can safely climb two or three floors of the North and Main Gate Towers and see views like the one pictured above. The open-air amphitheater (seen in the distance in the photo above) is used for annual concerts and festivals, as well. What a backdrop for a summer concert!
It only costs €2 (just €1 for students) to visit Sigulda Medieval Castle and explore the grounds. Learn more at Enter Gauja.
2. Turaida Stone Castle
At the heart of the Turaida Museum Reserve is the Turaida Stone Castle, the most visited museum in Latvia. Exhibits inside the castle ruins feature the life and culture of the people who have lived there since construction began in 1214.
One of my favorite exhibits displayed examples of construction techniques used over the centuries to build and expand the castle using artifacts found onsite like different styles of bricks and shingles. The best was a brick that a dog stepped on several hundred years ago, its paw imprinted in it forever. So cute!
You can spend a whole day exploring sites in the Reserve, such as Folk Song Garden, Turaida Church, and the Rose of Turaida Memorial. However, you definitely have to save enough time to explore the ruins and climb the tower!
Prices vary to explore the Turaida Museum Reserve on your own or with a museum specialist. Learn more here.
Travel elsewhere in Eastern Europe: Driving Through the Balkans with Busabout
Adventure Activites in Gauja National Park
3. Hiking Trails in Gauja National Park
There are many hiking trails in Gauja National Park. Two that I walked on the same day were the Cecilu Nature Trail and the Amata Hiking Trail. We were led by Sigita, a certified guide with Cesis Inside, on winding paths through thick, damp forests and along flowing rivers.
As we walked in the forest, we saw enchanting birch stands, moss-covered pines, and beautiful red and orange sandstone cliffs. We saw evidence of local beavers at work, but not a single beaver. When a raft full of excited locals in wetsuits taking advantage of rain-filled rivers passed us, we cheered them on.
The paths led us over waterfalls and small creeks on footbridges and even by some mysterious abandoned Soviet structures. We also saw many fairy-like structures that were all for full-size human use! Like the tiny sauna pictured above can fit 2-3 people inside, yet it looks like the perfect little fairy house.
The second hike ended at Zvartes Rock, and Sigita took us to meet her daughter at a cabin nearby. Awaiting our arrival was a warm, homemade lunch and an adorable beagle – who reluctantly sat outside while we ate.
The food was so delicious! The first course we feasted on was squash soup with cheese and bacon toppings and fresh-baked bread with herb butter. The second course (not pictured) was roasted pork and potatoes with a creamy dill sauce. On top of all that, they even made a traditional Latvian apple strudel for dessert (also not pictured).
The cabin is an information point where hikers and visitors can pop inside to pick up maps and warm up by a wood stove. They also sell handmade crafts and teas made from herbs collected in the nearby fields.
Learn more about hiking in Gauja National Park here.
4. Cable Car Ride (or Bungee Jump!) Over the Gauja River
From the Sigulda Aerial Cableway, you can see a full panoramic view of the Gauja Valley and spot three of the four castles in the area. Once on the other side of the Gauja River, you embark right at Krimulda Manor, which you can explore before your return trip.
I know that a slow cable car ride across a river might not be the most adrenaline-pumping activity. However, I bet bungee jumping from that same cable car or ziplining across the river would get your heart racing!
I did not partake in these activities, but you can! Learn more about cable car rides, bungee jumping, ziplining, and other activities at Sigulda Adventures.
5. Ride a Bobsleigh at 80 mph
Rollercoaster fans rejoice! Sigulda is home to a bobsleigh, skeleton, and luge track, and it’s open year-round, and anyone can go for a ride! What?!
Yep, for just €10, you can barrel down the 1200 meter track (about 3/4 of a mile) taking its 16 turns at about 80 miles per hour. Each ride is about a minute long – my group finished the track in 1:04:96 minutes – and I’m pretty sure all but one of us felt a bit of motion sickness afterward.
This may have been a perk of my tour, but we were able to go to the top floor of the building to see the breathtaking view of the Gauja River and the town of Sigulda.
Softbob rides on ice (like the one I did) require at least 4 people per ride, but no more than 5 people. Rides are offered from November to March on weekends only. Learn more about the track and their other year-round services here.
Unique Cultural Experiences in Gauja National Park
6. New Castle of Sigulda
Next to the Sigulda Medieval Castle is the New Castle of Sigulda. It’s the youngest of the castles I visited with an 1878 groundbreaking. The property is considered a historic and cultural center of Sigulda and offers visitors lots to do, so it’s worth spending some time here.
Originally the home of a wealthy family, the castle passed through many owners and purposes over the years. Today, the buildings on the property have many uses that highlight Latvia’s ability to blend old and new. Unfortunately for viewers, the castle was being renovated while I was there in 2019 and was completely covered in scaffolding.
The former stables and barn structures have been repurposed into workshops and stores. At one of the souvenir shops, you can make your own walking stick – a prized symbol of Sigulda. Across from the shops is a co-working space and photography studio in what used to be the residential house of the manor.
7. Wine Tasting at Cremon Winery
As the winery is located in a former barn of the Krimulda Manor House, tasting the wines at Cremon is a unique, historical experience.
Also, fun fact: Cremon does not use a single grape in the production of their wines. Instead, each wine and liqueur they produce has a fruit or floral origin. Some flavors you might taste include dandelion, lilac, and every variety of berry that grows in Latvia.
Throughout the tasting, different varietals are poured into your glass, and you are encouraged to guess each flavor. It was a fun game, although each of my guesses was completely incorrect. The wines were mostly enjoyable, some just a little too sweet for me.
Contact Cremon Winery directly to set up a tasting.
8. Traditional Latvian Sauna Experience
Latvians – like most people in neighboring Northern European nations (not just Finland, I learned) – use saunas on a regular basis. They visit the sauna (also called bathhouses or “pirts” in Latvian) on a monthly, if not weekly, basis.
A sauna experience involves a series of extreme heating and cooling of the body. A traditional Latvian sauna experience adds a salt scrub, a lashing of dried leaves, aromatherapy, a little bit of dizziness, and a dip in a frigid pond. Oh, plus the ability to throw modesty right out the window.
A “sauna master” guides you through the process of heating up your body inside and out with tea and sauna temperatures upwards of 212F. Then, you cool your body with a dip in a pond or by pouring water over yourself from a bucket. After resting for a while, the process is repeated two more times with increased intensity. Plus, you get the full-body salt scrub and lashing of dried leaves while in the sauna, and yes, you are naked this whole time.
There are many benefits of a Latvian sauna, including:
- The heating and cooling of the body “exercises” your vascular system, stretching your veins and blood vessels, which can help prevent cardiovascular disease and heart attacks.
- It strengthens your immune system
- It helps with insomnia
- It’s great for your skin
Among other benefits! It’s okay, you had me at “sauna”…
Where to Stay in Gauja National Park
Stay in the park for a night or two, and make Sigulda your base. I suggest a stay at Spa Hotel Ezeri. This is where I experienced the traditional Latvian sauna, ate a delicious and filling dinner at their onsite restaurant (“Seasons Restaurant”), then enjoyed the most restful sleep. Room prices start at €75 per night.
Budget options abound in Sigulda, as well. Several guesthouses and hostels offer dorm rooms at a fraction of the cost of a hotel room. However, all hostels and guesthouses I’ve seen only offer co-ed dorms, which is not ideal for solo female travelers who prefer female-only dorms. Private rooms are available at most hostels, but if you are traveling alone, it might cost just as much – or more, in some cases – than a hotel room.
Related: Why I’m 30 and Still Stay at Hostels
Getting To and Around Gauja National Park
If you are flying into Latvia, the closest airport to Gauja National Park is the Riga International Airport. Direct flights to Riga from the US might be expensive. To save money, fly to another city in Europe, then use a local or budget airline to fly to Riga (beware of strict baggage regulations on Baltic Air). Then hop on one of the frequent buses or trains to get from Riga to Sigulda.
While walking is one popular way to explore Sigulda, an e-bike (electronic bike) is a way to get around a little faster! An 8-hour rental from SmartBike.rent costs just €35 and includes a helmet and a lesson on how to use the e-bike.
To reach the trailheads in Gauja National Park, a rental car might be the most convenient option.
Are you inspired to travel to Latvia and explore Gauja National Park? Let us know if you go!