Gauja National Park is the largest park in Latvia, famous for its biological diversity, for its forest of virgin pines which take up to around 50% of its territory, and for being a great combination of incredible nature as well as historical and cultural sights. The park, which takes its name from the Gauja river that flows through it, was established in 1973.
There are many things to see and do in Gauja National Park, including hiking, mountain biking, canoeing and camping. There, you will find a whopping 900 species of plants, around 150 different species of birds and 50 mammals. There also is a very high number of monuments of historical and cultural relevance – forts and castles, churches, old manors, windmills, small and quirky museums and architectural gems.
This national park is so vast (it stretches from Sigulda to Valmiera, and includes the city of Cesis and the town of Ligatne) that a day will hardly be enough to appreciate all that it has to offer.
Continue reading to discover the park’s main highlights and the best things to do there.
The main highlights of Gauja National Park are the beautiful sandstone cliffs, which are of a typical red, yellow and grey color and which date to around 350 million years ago. Scattered across the park there are several caves and rock formations. Among the best known cliffs there are the Ainavu cliff; Eagles cliff (locally called Erglu cliff) – which is a great landing for canoes and reaches a height of 22 meters and from where you can enjoy majestic views of the River Gauja valley; Sietiniezis cliff, which reaches 15 meters in height and is about half km long, and where you can observe various kinds of sandstones.
Rock formations include the Ķaubju rocks which is a beautiful 45 meters high rock under which you’ll find a gorgeous swimming spot; and Zvartes rock, which with its 44 meters height is quite impressive.
Needless to say, the best way of admiring the cliffs and the rock formations is on a hike or bike ride.
One of the things I appreciated the most in Gauja National Park is the huge amount of places of historical and cultural significance. There is a plethora of places that all deserve to be visited – some famous and easy to reach, other smaller and a bit more off the beaten path. There are watermills, castles, manor houses and much more.
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Among the most famous castles, there are those of Sigulda and Cesis. Turaida Museum Reserve is located a bit out of Sigulda and it’s the place where the Midsummer celebrations take place.
Cesis Castle (in fact, there are two castles! One is a medieval castle and the other one is known as the new castle) is right at the heart of the Cesis Old Town and can be visited on extremely interesting guided tours.
Stay tuned as I will be writing a more in depth guide to Cesis.
Other sights include Amata river hydroelectric station, which was founded in 1925 and is one of the oldest ones in Latvia and has been placed where there once was a watermill. Not far from the hydroelectric station there is Kārļu fish breeding farm, one of the oldest in Latvia and which played an important role in the preservation of salmons and salmon-like fish.
There also is a Paper Mill Village in Ligatne – the mill is actually closed at the moment, and it’s unsure what will be of it, but the village is a very interesting site and a great example of early 20th century village developed around a factory in an attempt to make the living conditions of the workers more comfortable. Another thing you’ll spot in Ligatne is the many caves and cellars carved in the rock, which have been used (and in many cases are still used) for storage for household and even industrial needs.
Exploring Gauja National Park you’ll also find Viļņi, a pretty country home located in a gorgeous meadow; and Vieļas, which is a barn that has been recently restored and been brought back to its original splendor.
One of the most interesting and quirkiest places is the Chair-makers museum. It’s nothing more than a small room packed with antique work instruments that were used to make chairs – apparently one of the most viable businesses in the area until mass production took over. It’s a private museum, and visiting costs just €3. The owner, a lovely old lady, will take you through the local history and explain how chairs were made, and how important they were for the locals who lived in the area.
TIP: The Chair-makers museum is literally only opened when visitors are around, so make sure to call in advance to say you plan to visit. You may want to make sure you visit with someone who speaks Latvian, as the owners doesn’t speak English so you may need someone translating for you. The overall visit lasts about 1 hour.
Flowing through Gauja National Park there are a few rivers, including Gauja, Ligatne and Amata, and many freshwater springs (I truly loved Gulbju avots – Swan spring, with water so clean that you can drink it there and then!). The Amata river is known as the fastest river in Lavia. I haven’t actually rode a boat or a canoe during my visit, but my guide Sigita stressed several times that the park is a very popular place for boating, and that every spring, when the water levels are higher, the park is crowded with boats and people celebrating the good weather.
As I visited at the end of June, the water levels weren’t so high – yet I was able to spot several people on canoes, enjoy the cool waters of the river and then docking to explore more of the park.
There are many hiking trails in Gauja National Park. Mind you, Latvia highest “mountain” is just 311 meters high, so this isn’t hiking as you know it. But it has its challenges and it definitely has its charm, and I surely enjoyed hitting the trails there. I walked the Amata trail, which proved to be just the kind of workout and views I needed.
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Length: 15.5 km
Duration: up to 5 hours, depending on the number of stops
The Amata Trail starts from the fabulous Hotel Karlamuiza, located in the outskirts of a village called Kārļi, all the way to Veclauču Bridge. The trail is about 15.5 km long and it takes up to 5 hours to complete, depending on how many stops you make to take photos, swim in the river, and just catch your breath.
During the hike we stopped at some of the most famous spots in Gauja National Park, such as the Amata river hydroelectric station; Viļņi and Vieļas complexes of country homes in traditional Latvian style; and some of the most famous cliffs in the region, including Ainavu cliff and the gorgeous Ķaubju, Dzilnas, Zvartes and Lustūzis rocks.
I actually joined a guided hike with with Cesis Inside, a local company which runs excellent guided hikes in the region in a variety of languages and counts with great, knowledgeable guides. My guide was the lovely Sigita, who made sure that I had a real blast!
By all means, although Amata Trail is fairly easy to follow: it goes along the river and you need to follow the red markings on tree trunks. You won’t risk getting lost at all. However, I recommend not walking it alone as there really isn’t anyone on the trail and it goes deep into the very thick forest. I think that we met a total of two persons towards the very end of the hike!
Check out my post “11 Reasons Why Hiking Alone May Be A Bad Idea.”
The hike isn’t the strenuous kind you’d encounter in Patagonia, but it is actually more challenging than you may expect, with several steep downhill and uphills. You also have to consider the season in which you hike. Autumn and early spring may be the best seasons, with mild temperatures, gorgeous colors and not so many leaves on the trees so that you can admire all the cliffs that made Gauja National Park so famous. I hiked in the summer time, and the weather was incredibly hot!
TIP: Hotel Karlamuiza can only be reached by car. Alternatively, you can start the Amata Trail hike at Melturi Bridge, which is easy to reach via public transportation.
TIP: There are no kiosks, shops or water fountains along the trail, so make sure you bring enough water and food for the duration of the hike.
TIP: If you are hiking in the summer months, it may be a good idea to take a swimsuit and a light towel with you so that you can enjoy a refreshing dip in one of the many swimming spots!
I love mountain biking – I have done it in many places (San Gil, in Colombia, and Luxembourg, to name just a couple). If you like it as much as I do, you’ll be thrilled to know that there are many incredible biking trails in Gauja National Park. I recommend the trail that goes from Cesis to Valmiera.
Biking from Cesis to Valmiera
Length: 45 km
Duration: up to 6 hours, depending on the number of stops
Difficulty: moderate, with some strenuous sections especially through the forest. Appropriate biking gear is recommended.
This biking trail that goes from Cesis to Valmiera crosses some of the most beautiful landscape in Latvia. It goes along the Gauja river, through the thick forest, and it allows you to admire some of the most beautiful cliffs of Latvia, as well as some of the most unique places (that’s how I came across the Chair-makers museum which I described before). You’ll also be crossing some beautiful meadows and have the chance to admire the local flora and fauna.
It’s a 45 km route that can be tricky to follow in parts – make sure you keep an eye on the orange marks on trees, rocks or even on the ground, or on the wooden signs that have a bicycle symbol. You can even download the Enter Gauja app on your smartphone which will give you all the trails and maps you can follow – this is one of them. You can even download the itinerary here.
You can rent the bikes for the day at Ezi shop, in Cesis, and return them in the Ezi shop in Valmiera. Bike rental for a day costs €8.50 and there is an additional €3 for the helmet.
You can then return to Cesis by bus: there are regular services departing from Valmiera bus station. The bus ride lasts around 40 minutes and costs €1.60.
TIP: Before hitting the trail stop at the Info Point in Cesis to get a physical map of the itinerary, and make sure to carry a powerbank to charge your smartphone on the go – the app doesn’t work offline!
TIP: Make sure to bring enough water and food for the day as you won’t find any shop along the way!
TIP: You can also hike this trail: it will take you two full days, and the best place to spend the night is near Sietiniezis cliff, where there is a camping site as well as a shed where you can stay in case of rain.
I visited Latvia at the end of June and I was incredibly lucky with sunny, long days. If anything, it was a bit warmer than I had expected! Having said so, I’d say that any time is a good time to visit Gauja National Park. In summer, you’ll be able to enjoy very long and mostly sunny days, but the trees will be in full bloom so the views may be obstructed.
If you visit in the spring, temperatures won’t be as hot and, at the beginning of the season, you’ll get beautiful unobstructed views. I can only imagine that the place looks gorgeous with the fall foliage colors, and it probably looks magic when covered in snow, in the winter time (by the way, it is supposed to be a great skiing destination!).
Needless to say, what you wear when visiting the park varies greatly depending on the season. By all means, make sure to always wear comfortable clothes that you can wash easily and that give you full mobility as this is a place that calls for active people! If you visit in the summer, take a swimsuit with you so you can jump in the river; and if you plan to go hiking, hiking boots are a must!
Make sure to read my post “The Perfect Hiking Packing List For A Long Distance Trek” for more ideas on what to pack when planning a hiking trip.
Public transportation is quite efficient in Latvia, and you can easily get from one place to the other by bus or train.
You can travel by bus from Riga to Cesis, Sigulda or Valmiera, which are all great access points to the national park, and you can use the bus to move from one place to the other.
Having said so, Latvia is a place that calls for a road trip – and driving is extremely easy as the road conditions are quite good. And in order to reach some isolated places (ie Hotel Karlamuiza, where the Amata hiking trail starts), a car will be necessary. So, I recommend renting a car to move from one place to the other. You can check the prices of car rental here.
There is no fee to enter Gauja National Park.
You will have plenty of choice for accommodation and eating options in the Gauja National Park region. I have spent a few days there and I have found a few good places for you. Here is a selection:
Hotel Karlamuiza, in Kārļi, is a wonderful countryside hotel with very large, comfortable rooms and a unique countryside charm. The staff is incredibly friendly and helpful. Rooms face the countryside and the area is incredibly quiet, guaranteeing excellent quality of sleep. There is an onsite restaurant where guests can take their meals, that serves traditional Latvian food. Click here for the latest rates and here for reviews.
Hotel Vanadzina Maja is located in the historic center of Cesis. Rooms are decorated in Scandinavian style, so they are plain and extremely comfortable. They all face a lovely internal courtyard. The on site restaurants is one of the best in the regions. Click here for the latest rates and here for reviews.
Hotel Sigulda is located in the center of Sigulda, in a really quiet area. Rooms are extremely spacious. There is a nice small pool and a sauna and spa center that all guests can enjoy and there is an on site restaurant. Click here for the latest rates and here for reviews.
In Cesis, Priede Café is a lovely small café right by one of the main squares. It has a good selection of light and more earthy meals. The keto bowl is delicious!
In Sigulda, Osvalds Pupa at the newly opened Jāņa Tirgus is a nice place for a pizza (Latvian style) or some daily specials.
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