The territory of Latvia is composed of numerous different landscapes and environments, each with their different characteristics. Over time, especially near the 21st century, these areas started to be designated as National Parks to preserve them and their often native wildlife.
The Gauja River Valley and its surroundings were the first part of Latvia to achieve this, as in 1973 the Gauja National Park was created. Today, the park stands not only as the oldest in the country but also as the largest, with an area of over 900 square kilometers.
I spent a few days driving and hiking in Gauja National Park, getting to know this historical territory not only for its natural beauty but also for its cultural importance. The valley surrounding the river was called home for centuries by the Livs, an ethnic group of the most important in Latvian history, which lived between Gauja and the Livonian Coast in Western Latvia.
This area is second to none in Latvia for tourist interest. Plan your visit as best as you can to enjoy everything Gauja National Park has to offer.
Table of Contents
Gauja National Park
Covering a large chunk of Northern Latvia, the park includes many of the most interesting Medieval towns and sites in the country, including Turaida Castle and Cesis among the most renowned.
However, the history and influence of the Gauja River Valley started long before any population settled there.
A characteristic of the river is that along its shores you can find several cliffs with unique Devonian formations, that with their colorful patterns not only fill your eyes with wonder but also tell the story of Gauja through the ages.
What to Do in Gauja National Park
There’s no shortage of activities to do in Gauja National Park; from discovering enchanting medieval towns and climbing castles to biking along the shores of the Gauja River and being captured by its Devonian cliffs, all sorts of travelers can find their favorite way to spend time in the park.
Most locations in the park are easily reachable from Riga either by public transport or by car, making it one of the most sought-after recreative areas for tourists and locals alike.
Medieval Towns and Sites to Visit in Gauja National Park
As one of the symbols of Latvia and a testament to its Medieval heritage, Turaida Castle is no hidden gem even for the average tourist.
Its position plays a significant role in its notoriety, as it sits atop the highest hill in Sigulda, overlooking the narrow turns of the Gauja River below it.
Like many castles and fortresses that we know of from the 13th century in Latvia, Turaida Castle was first built by Catholic Militaries who came to the Baltics under the Livonian Crusades with the intent of converting everyone to Christianity. Only a few of them remain relevant nowadays, and Turaida Castle is their prime example.
Inside the Museum Reserve, you can learn all about the history of the Castle and the people who inhabited it, as well as the many wars it endured over the centuries before eventually getting abandoned in the 16th century.
You can read my post about Turaida Castle to learn more about its history and how to visit it.
Cesis Old Town and Cesis Castle
While Turaida Castle gets recognition for different reasons, Cesis Castle is the largest and best example of the Medieval era of Latvia, overlooking the surroundings in the same conditions it was during its golden age.
A visit to the unique Cesis Castle truly lets you dive back in time – Discover the typical rooms that once belonged to the highest military or political personnel by wandering its narrow and dark stairs only lit by lanterns, and admire the most spectacular views of Cesis from its main tower.
Cesis Castle sits at the edge of the Medieval Old Town, a small but magical place retelling centuries-old stories. The cobblestone streets match perfectly with some of the oldest buildings and St. John’s Church, visible from every corner of Cesis.
The strong cultural identity is a big part of what makes Cesis worth visiting, as the warmer months bring with them several festivals in which traditions are rediscovered and showcased, making it a fantastic way to get more immersed into Latvian culture.
But Cesis is also the perfect base for anyone wanting to get away from urban life, as most of the impressive natural sites of Gauja National Park are close by and easily accessible.
Natural Sites of Gauja National Park
The Gauja River Valley truly deserves attention and time to uncover its beauty. The countless interest points in the national park allow you to spend morning to evening deep in the forests of Latvia, of which about 50% of the park is covered.
One of the most fun activities in Gauja is to drive along the river and find your favorite views, getting lost in the vastness of the valley. However, we all need a place to start, so here are some of the best ones.
Sietiniezis is the largest outcrop of white sandstone in Latvia, which, like most interesting sites in Gauja National Park, dates back to the Devonian period over 350 million years ago.
These formations are about a dozen meters high and spread over a large area of the river banks, where the usual wooden boardwalks found in national parks permit to stroll to discover these phenomena.
While exploring Sietiniezis you can observe many columns, caves, and niches formed along the sandstone outcrops, the results of many following geological processes which we can now enjoy the beauty of.
Erglu, translating to eagle, is one of the most fascinating spots to admire the Devonian outcrops in Gauja National Park.
Reaching 26 meters in height, these impressive cliffs teach us plenty about the history of these landscapes. The layers of sedimentary sandstone paint colorful images, especially when interconnected with the iron sediments typical of Erglu.
On top of being a natural wonder, Erglu also became a hotspot for relaxation, swimming, and even fishing. In the warmer months, people come here to spend time with their families while immersed in the most pristine nature out there.
This time we move away from the Gauja River, going towards Sigulda, where Gutman’s Cave stands as a captivating testament to both natural wonder and historical intrigue.
Carved into the Devonian sandstone cliffs by the river Gauja, it is the widest and highest cave in the Baltic countries.
A twist of culture and mystery is added to Gutman’s Cave by the story of the Rose of Turaida, which retells the love story between a local young girl and a Swedish soldier in the 17th century. The two lovers used to meet by the cave every day.
The story is a pretty tragic one, but it stuck with Latvian people nonetheless, making it an important part of the folklore surrounding these places.
Outdoor Activities in Gauja National Park
Gauja National Park has plenty of options for those who like to spend all the time they can immersed in nature. The group responsible for curating and taking care of the trails and sights has done a great job, and it shows.
One of the main activities to do in Gauja is hiking. I know what you’re thinking – isn’t Latvia flat? – and yes, almost, but nobody ever said that hikes needed to be extreme or uphill.
There’s a large network of trails to discover in the park, including multi-day hikes for the more experienced and short strolls for families.
You can learn more about the various trails on the park’s official website.
Biking from Cesis to Valmiera
This 45 km-long biking itinerary is one of the best ways to enjoy the infinite sceneries in Gauja National Park.
Passing both through thick forests and more open areas, the variety along this trail allows every person daring enough to take on the challenge to experience every facet of the river valley.
You don’t even need to worry about necessarily making it a loop trail, as the Ezi shop in both towns will allow you to return the bike in either Cesis or Valmiera, depending on your itinerary. Busses between the two towns run regularly and take about 35 minutes.
When to Visit Gauja National Park
Latvia as a whole is quite a versatile destination – every season has its unique factors that enchant certain travelers.
The area of Gauja is no exception to this rule, with an area so vast and varied that you could (or should) even visit multiple times in different periods to truly understand it.
Winter in the Gauja River Valley is one of the most magical experiences you could hope for. Everything sits still under a blanket of snow, except the everflowing Gauja River, a loyal guide to your winter adventures throughout the park. It’s a totally different effect to see these areas at this time of the year.
Spring brings with it the beautiful blooming of the wild cherry trees that inhabit these forests, along with the first taste of the brightest green landscapes.
Summer in Latvia is the perfect choice for anyone wanting to pack a sweater or two all year long, as even the warmer months sometimes call for extra layers.
You can enjoy the perfectly mild weather and the vibrant green radiating through the valley by going on one of the longer hikes in Gauja National Park, making the most of the long days.
Autumn in Gauja National Park is special. The entire valley shifts its hues into the purest golden color, making trees look like jewels crowing the Medieval castles of the region.
Rain can be annoying, but you shouldn’t let it derail your plans.
How to Move Around Gauja National Park
Getting to Gauja from Riga is as straightforward as getting on a train or bus from Riga’s Central Station headed to your town of choice in the park. There are plenty each day and you can check the schedules on the official website of Latvian trains schedule.
Once there, moving with public transport gets tricky, as busses are the only option as they aren’t as numerous as one would hope. Not only that, but some of the sites are also a bit out of the way from the main roads.
Therefore, I cannot overstate how valuable a rented car is to properly travel around Gauja and Latvia as a whole.
Being able to make the most of your day enables you to visit more spots and spend more time there without worrying about timetables and darkness. To me, that’s worth every cent.