Though in terms of both population and size Latvia is not the biggest of the Baltic Republics, its capital Rīga is by far the largest city in the region and home to 10% of the combined populations of all 3 countries. Only a stone’s throw away from the city, Jūrmala has been a favourite seaside retreat for royals and the political elite since the late 18th century. During our summer holiday in Rīga, we took a day trip out to the coast to explore Jūrmala, keen to see Latvia beyond its capital. Being so close to Rīga, I wasn’t expecting things to be all that different – but what we found when we arrived surprised us!
At a glance:
Republic of Latvia / Latvijas Republika
Capital: Riga (Rīga in Latvian)
Currency: Euro (EUR)
Area: 64,589 km2
National Day: November 18th
National Anthem: Dievs, Svētī Latviju! – God Bless Latvia!
Highest Point: Gaiziņkalns – 312 metres (1,024 ft
Famous for: ice hockey, Art Nouveau architecture, folk singing
- Jākobs Jufess (better known as Jacob Davis, inventor of denim jeans)
- Māris Verpakovskis (footballer)
- Elīna Garanča (mezzo-soprano opera singer)
- Arvīds Blūmentāls (possible inspiration for Crocodile Dundee)
- Legends say that before being forced into exile by Germanic crusaders, Namejs gave his son a ring so he would be able to recognise him on his return. To help conceal the boy’s identity from the invaders, other men began to wear similar rings. Even today many Latvians still wear these Namejs Rings, made of 3 interwoven bands, as a symbol of connection to their homeland.
- Given that more than half of Latvia’s territory is covered in forest, it’s not surprising that foraging for mushrooms and berries are popular past-times in the countryside. Some estimates suggest that a few thousand years ago, as much as 90% of Latvia was covered by trees!
- With almost 500 km of coastline, some 12,000 rivers and more than 3,000 small lakes scattered across the country, water is abundant in Latvia. The widest waterfall in Europe, Ventas Rumba, is also found in Latvia and can reach up to 270 metres wide during spring floods.
- Though the Baltic States all maintain good relations, there is some good-natured rivalry between Estonia and Latvia. So much so that a viewing tower was built on top of Latvia’s highest point Gaiziņkalns to make sure it was taller than Estonia’s highest point! Estonia got the last laugh though, as the tower was demolished in 2012 due to safety concerns.
- Debuting at the Eurovision Song Contest just 2 years before, Latvia claimed their first and so far only victory in 2002 with ‘I Wanna’ – during which singer Marie N changed costume 3 times on stage! Despite this early win, Latvia’s Eurovision fortunes have since soured, having only qualified for the final of the contest 6 times between 2004 and 2019.
Latvia’s sole official language is Latvian. Russian is also widely understood given that a third of the population are ethnic Russians, though some suggest that speaking it with Latvians can provoke terse reactions. One of the only surviving Baltic languages, Latvian shares some traits with neighbouring Lithuanian, though the two are not mutually intelligible. On top of an already complex grammar, Latvian can pose further problems for non-native speakers as words can have different pitch accents which completely change the meaning – so ‘zāle’ can be both ‘hall’ and ‘grass’ depending on the tone! While this sounds baffling, rest assured that learning a few phrases in Latvian isn’t so complicated!
|Goodbye||Uz redzēšanos||uz red-zeh-shuh-nos|
|How much does this cost?||Cik tas maksā?||tsik tas muhk-sah|
|Do you speak English?||Vai jūs runājat angliski?||vai yuhs roon-arh-yut an-glis-ki|
|I don’t understand||Es nesaprotu||es ne-suh-praw-tu|
|How do I get to the beach?||Kā lai es tieku uz pludmale?||kah lai es teer-ku uz plud-muh-le|
Jūrmala is just 12 km from Rīga International, the largest airport in all the Baltic Republics. A taxi directly into town from the airport will take about 20 minutes but if you’d rather go by public transport, it takes around an hour as you’ll need to take a bus into Rīga first and then a train. The journey to Majori, the centre-most district of Jūrmala, takes you through some lovely forested countryside and across the River Lielupe.
What to do:
Originally a cluster of fishing villages, the name Jūrmala means ‘sea edge’ as the town fans out along a narrow strip of land between the River Lielupe and the Baltic Sea. Just a short walk away from Majori station, the main gateway for visitors arriving from Rīga, the colourful flowerbeds of the Horna Dārzs or Horn’s Garden were originally laid out in the 1870s as the grounds of Jūrmala’s first-ever hotel. Though the hotel buildings burned down in 1913, the gardens still remain as does the tradition of holding free concerts here. Take a bench in the shade and admire what’s in bloom or see what’s on at the Jūrmalas Kultūras Centrs overlooking the lawns. The white Soviet-era looking building hosts a yearly summer programme of cultural events, including art exhibitions and film screenings. Just at the edge of the gardens, the grey and bronze coloured building is the KORSO Galerija, a modern shopping centre. Although its shops and cinema might be the kind of thing you can see anywhere, its roof top terrace offers a fantastic bird’s eye view of the coast and goings-on below.
Back outside, the pedestrianised Jomas Iela stretches for almost 2km through the heart of Jūrmala and is one of the town’s oldest streets. Lined with many gift shops, hotels, market stalls, restaurants and cafes, the street bustles with activity day and night but still manages to feel remarkably calm. It’s a lovely place to take a leisurely stroll and admire the turrets and awnings of just some of Jūrmala’s more than 4000 wooden Art Nouveau buildings. While some of these gorgeous brightly coloured houses are originals dating back as far as the 19th century, others are more modern additions designed to be in keeping with the town’s character. Towering over the far end of Jomas Iela you’ll spot the striking colours of the Russian Orthodox Kazaņas Dievmātes Pareizticīgo Baznīca or Church of Our Lady of Kazan, crowned with multiple bright blue domes. Construction on the impressive building started in 2013, after the original church that dated to 1894 was torn down by Soviet authorities. Directly in front of the church, the spinning Jūrmalas Globuss has marked the location of Jūrmala’s twin cities around the world since the early 1970s. At 2 metres in diameter, the copper and steel sphere is the largest globe in Latvia.
Behind the church, the fresh pine groves of Dzintaru Mežaparks have been growing here for some 200 years. For those wanting to relax in nature, raised wooden footpaths allow you to wander around the 13 hectares of forest, while sports courts, a skate park and a high ropes course cater for the more active. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, you can also scale the nearly 34 metres tall Observation Tower, which opened in 2010. Though the climb up the open tower definitely isn’t for the faint-hearted, those who make it to the top will be rewarded with a spectacular panorama – you can even see as far as Rīga, some 22km away! A little over 5 minutes walk from the treeline, music recitals have been held where the Dzintari Concert Hall now stands since the late 19th century. Hosting Latvian artists and orchestras from around the continent, it was once among the most prominent concert halls in the whole Soviet Union and remains Latvia’s foremost music venue. The petit white wooden building with its classical façade dates from the 1930s, while the Great Hall behind it was added in 1962, becoming Latvia’s first open-air concert hall and more than quadrupling the seating capacity.
With some 33km of coastline stretching along the Gulf of Rīga, Jūrmala’s beaches never feel congested and the white sands of Dzintari Beach have held Blue Flag status since 2012. The calm waters of the Baltic Sea are remarkably shallow here, making them perfect for paddling or wading along the beautifully unspoilt beach lined by vast swaths of pine trees. The few notable buildings along the shore include the gorgeous pale green wooden Swimming Establishment of Emilija-Racene that dates from the turn of the 20th century and the gigantic Baltic Beach Hotel & SPA which has loomed like a cruise ship over the sand dunes since the early 1980s. Looking out towards the horizon from the steps near the hotel, the statue of Bruņurupucis or the Turtle is a fairly new addition to Jūrmala, having only been unveiled here in 1995. Symbolising longevity, this large bronze sculpture quickly became the emblem of the town and is popular photo stop for visitors to the beach.
For a holiday resort within striking distance of a big city, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Jūrmala would be little more than a crowded beach. But this beautiful historic seaside town has escaped rampant over-commercialisation and breaths relaxation with emphasis on nature and the arts. It’s clear to see why Jūrmala has been considered a gem of the Latvian coast for so long and makes for a soothing and thoroughly enjoyable day trip!
For a more in-depth guide to planning day trips, as well as sightseeing tips and trivia for 30 European countries, Europe in a Day – Day Trips to the Continent is available exclusively on Amazon for Kindle and also smartphones, tablets and computers with the free Kindle Reading App.
Want to discover more of Europe? Check out more day trips below!