On the 14th of January, the dual circulation period of Lats and Euro ended and Latvia's official currency changed to the Euro. The country has been a member of the European Union since 2004. The move is good news for many, not only because of economic reasons, also because practical reasons. Over the last years Latvia has gain popularity amongst European travellers. Now that the pain of exchange rates is over, there is no excuse left for Aussies to NOT explore this beautiful country.
The city of Riga is 813 years old and has a rich history. Latvia was under foreign rule from the 13th century until the 20th century and declared independence in 1991 - just 23 years ago. Nevertheless, the country managed to keep its language and cultural traditions alive, and that is what makes Riga so impressive. The city's has many buildings that resemble Berlin, Paris and Rome and you can find a large concentration of Jugendstil (German Art Nouveau) architecture.Start your Riga adventure on Ratslaukums Square, which is located on the opposite of the stone bridge. It used to function as a market in the middle ages. The square got destroyed during World War II but today, the most important features have been completely restored. Here you can admire the town hall, the Schwabse and the Three Blackheads - all five first build circa 1334. The 1970 Soviet Building that you'll find around the corner is a real contrast to Ratslaukums Square. This big, bulky, grey concrete block houses the Museum of Occupation of Latvia - must-visit for anybody who is interested in the history of Nazi and USSR occupation. If you'd like to see the skyline of the city, visit the St Peter's Church. This red brick church was first build from timber in 1209 but later rebuilt in stone. An elevator inside will take you upstairs to two viewing platforms, providing a fantastic panoramic view over the red roofs of the Old Town and across the river Daugava.
Latvia does not end within the city borders of Riga. You can find amazing nature just a short drive away from the capital centre. Those who love skiing have to visit the steep hillsides of the Gauja Valley in Sigulda. This area is called 'the alps of Latvia' and is a very popular winter sport destination. When you are not afraid of heights and speeds, the Luge and Bobsleigh track is something you should try. The top of the track provides an amazing view over the snowy mountains and it's green fir tree tops. If you're up for it, you can go down the track in a bobsleigh. Located just 50 km from Riga, this is the perfect getaway.Latvians are very much into adventures and the outdoor life. That is why you can find many adventure parks throughout the country. One of the best ones is called Lemberga hute. Here, you can do things like paintball, catapult, tube slide and zorbing. It is located near Ventspils, a city on the sea facing Sweden. Getting from Riga to Ventspils is a cross country trip - which will only take you three hours. To get here you'll have to drive through Western Latvia, which is dominated by beautiful forest and waters. When in Ventspil, try out the Latvian cuisine in one of the many restaurants. They do great fish which is mostly served with potatoes and cabbage.
From Ventspils, it will take you an hour and a half to get to Liepaja. The drive will take you down the seashore and through Pavilosta, a beach town surrounded by untouched nature. The sharp sea air will give you the ultimate holiday feeling and might even persuade you to pick up windsurfing - the town's most popular sport. Continue your journey down and as soon as you drive into Liepaja, you'll see the Naval Port Prison pop up on the skyline. This prison was built around 1900 and was used up till 1997 as a place where military persons served their terms for breach of discipline. Nowadays, it's a museum, but not just any kind of museum. You can spend the night there, stepping in the shoes of one of the prisoners and optional, you can sign up for the VIP treatment. This includes a possible arrest and interrogatory in the prison - you better start working on your Latvian. Legend has it that the prison is haunted and 'Ghost Hunters International' called it 'one of the most possessed places in the world'. This attraction is so odd, that it automatically becomes a must-see. Recover from your visit on the beach and if you can't get over the prison experience, it's easy to leave the country and jump on ferry to Germany. They depart every day from Liepaja.
Latvia has made it to many 'top destinations of 2014' lists and it is not surprising. With beaches, culture, forests, and wildlife all on driving distance from each other, the small country has everything you need on a relaxing European Holiday. With the introduction of the euro, Latvia's accessibility increased, as you can now use the same currency in 18 European countries. This unknown country is growing up to be one of the top travel destinations in Europe... and now is the time to explore!
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