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Latvia has everything we love about Europe, but without the crowds or high prices. Beyond historic castles and palaces, art museums, family-owned restaurants and medieval downtowns, a must see is a Cold War bunker, still intact with original furnishings and telecommunications gear. Here are ten reasons to visit Latvia now:

Also: 11 photos that will make you wish you were Canadian

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Old Riga The old heart of the city has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site for its buildings, dating as far back as the 1300s. Most noteworthy is The House of the Blackheads, a huge red brick Medieval guild hall with a stepped façade, and statues on many of the steps. Dome Square is ringed by modern restaurants and art galleries and features street vendors selling amber jewelry. Take a modern elevator to the top of the spire of St. Peter’s Church, which dates from 1209, for a 360-degree view of the city.

Museum of the Occupation Latvia’s strategic location, including a deep harbor on the Baltic Sea, has caused Latvia to be coveted since the 1600s by the Dutch, Danish, Finnish, Poles, Germans and Russians. The museum, though, focuses on the 20th century. After brief independence from German occupation after World War I, Latvia was invaded again beforeWorldWar II. First by Germany, which set up concentration camps here for Europe’s Jews. Then, as a victim of Russia, including the mass deportation of 7% of the population to Siberia, called the Soviet Terror. Latvia has been independent again since 1982 and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The Freedom Monument This three-story tall obelisk alongside Riga’s main street also dominates a riverside park where cultural festivals are held. Take a sightseeing cruise aboard a vintage wooden ship.

Art Nouveau treasures One-third of Riga’s downtown dates from the early 1900s. Some of the best examples of Art Nouveau buildings in all Europe are on Elizabetes and Alberta streets, including 20 apartment houses designed by Mikhail Eisenstein, father of Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein (his mother moved them to St. Petersburg after the couple divorced). Check out the gargoyles over the entrance, which depict Sergei as a child alongside his parents. Most visitors wind up in the Art Nouveau Museum in an apartment in a 1903 Palatinate building, with original restored stenciled walls and furnishings.

Treats at the Kalnciema Market

Treats at the Kalnciema Market | Flickr CC: Kārlis Dambrāns

Kalnciema Quarter Market This outdoor market gathers farmers, bakers, sausage makers and artisans every Saturday. Try a wine sample made from hemp or birch, and watch kids enjoy a tiny carousel propelled by a woman in a Medieval costume who pushes it. Have lunch in Maja, set inside one of the 200-year-old wooden buildings that dot this section of town, for traditional fish soup or modern glazed duck breast.

Restaurants and Nightlife Kalku Varti is an upscale eatery in Old Riga, serving locally-sourced food with contemporary flair. There’s a nightclub upstairs, or just hang out in one of the neighboring sidewalk cafes to enjoy the street musicians.  If you are hungry for American-style burgers and fries, Rockabilly House serves them with a vintage rock soundtrack.

Riga Day Trips

Rundale Palace Called the Versailles of Latvia, this opulent cream-colored U-shaped palace dates from the early 1700s. Like most royal palaces, it’s filled with murals on the ceilings and portraits of ruling family members on the walls, reflecting the convoluted Latvian history that include Russians and Prussians.  A favorite of many visitors is the Rose Room, with pink marble walls streaming with delicate pink stucco flowers.  Allow time to wander the sprawling formal garden which blooms with color in season.

Valmiermuizas Craft Brewery It wasn’t called “craft” or “microbrew” when Valmiermuiza began brewing beer here in 1764, when Latvia was part of the Russian empire and the area was the summer resort for its rulers.  The castle ruins across the street are being restored as a museum and community center. Take a brewery tour to learn why this is the top brand in Latvia, and stay for lunch or dinner in a room with vaulted ceilings. You’ll be in luck if the beer brulee is on the menu.

Ligatne Secret Soviet Bunker A flight of stairs down from a spa hotel lobby delivers you smack into the Cold War. Ligatne Secret Soviet Bunker was a super-secret underground installation, both to guard the Baltics and serve as a shelter for Soviet Union elite in case of nuclear attack. Some 250 people lived and worked here in the 1950s, and it looks like they left everything behind but their clothes. The statue of Lenin is still there in the polished wood conference room, and a pink “Princess” phone sits near a teletype machine. Take the tour that includes a meal, because it’s not often you get to eat watery cabbage soup in a bunker, served by matrons in hairnets and sturdy shoes. All the tour guides have the same first name. It is “Comrade”.

Bauska Castle This was a military outpost when it was built starting in the 1500s, and canons still dot the hillside overlooking the confluence of the Musa and Memele rivers. Restored rooms show how the ruling Dukes of Courtland lived, including what we would call a bathroom today. There is a display of Medieval clothing and weaponry, and more in the Bauska Museum in town.  Each summer there’s a country music festival on the castle grounds, with cowboy hats and two-stepping.

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Evelyn Kanter

Evelyn Kanter

Evelyn is an NYC-based travel writer who would rather ride a chairlift, river raft or zipline than the subway. She's a regular contributor to major publications, including airline inflights, and has written more than a dozen travel guidebooks. Evelyn's website is www.ecoxplorer.com
Evelyn Kanter

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