Attention, attention please! Calling all thrill-seekers, sporty types, adrenaline junkies and other adventure lovers: we’re leaving immediately for Sigulda. Culture vultures and nature enthusiasts: come along, you’ll find something there for you too!
When I said ‘adventure’, maybe you thought I was taking you to New Zealand or Cape Town? Nope – we’re headed for Northern Europe. What if I told you there is a little place in Latvia where you can test your physical limits, get lost in the wild, and scare yourself Olympic-style? All the while, being surrounded by beautiful scenery and Livonian castles?
And, best of all: what if I told you these experiences are more than affordable, and you won’t have to queue anywhere?
I’m not making it up. This place exists, and it’s called Sigulda.
Sigulda is located on the banks of the Gauja River, 53km from Riga. In winter, it’s a prized ski resort; in summer, it becomes a choice destination for weekend breaks, outdoors pursuits – and, well, scary pursuits.
Its 11th-century origin makes Sigulda one of the most Latvian towns in the country, while its hilly setting as the gateway to the 917.45 km²-large Gauja National Park (Latvia’s biggest) has earned it the distinguished nickname of ‘Switzerland of Vitzeme’.
So why has this green historical town turned into an unlikely mecca for death-defying activities? My guess is, some of these attractions were developed for the waves of stag do’ers who invaded Riga a few years ago. While the latter have now moved on to cheaper pastures (drinkures?), the facilities have stayed. This means that you can now enjoy them in relative peace and quiet.
Or, to put it ‘slightly’ more dramatically, that no one will hear you scream.
Because the thrills are cheap, but that’s only money-wise. In every other way, they’re anything but.
How would I know? Because, guys, I went on a 2-day challenge with my cousin Caroline to prove it!
Sigulda Thrills Challenge: Day 1
Mezakakis Adventure Park
Our first task was to awaken the wildcats or ‘mezakakis’ in us at the park of the same name. While in other countries treetop adventure courses are generally associated with monkeys, in Latvia you’re a little more flatteringly likened to lions and tigers. Roar.
Mezakakis Adventure Park describes itself as “a place for active recreation where you can enjoy walks in the trees”. Noooow, that is certainly true inasmuch as the Mezakakis course occupies peaceful woods on a green hill next to ski slopes. It’s beautiful – and if, like us, you’re lucky to have it to yourself, you’ll hear the birds sing and water from the clear and gentle streams run below you.
However, Mezakakis is not exactly a walk in the park! After a quick training session and a practice course to master the safety basics, you’ll be testing your balance on bridges of various construction, throwing yourself from Tarzan ropes into nets, climbing shaky steps, flashing by on ziplines, etc.
And if you thought treetop adventures were only for children, let me tell you it gets HARD. As in, we couldn’t finish the course! Mezakakis has 77 obstacles over 6 different tracks of different colour that represent growing levels of difficulty. Caroline, who is not a friend of heights and was initially a bit anxious (but ended up totally loving the ziplines), felt she had pushed herself enough by the end of track 4, while I was forced to turn back in the middle of track 5, when a considerable level of upper-body strength started to be needed. I am the girl who once cried when she had to carry her surf board to the beach, so yeah…
Our forfeit of the last two tracks however did not feel like a failure. After spending three hours perched high in the forest and tackling increasingly challenging and perilous obstacles, we left Mezakakis with smiles on our sweaty, reddened faces and more than a little self-satisfaction!
Practical information: The Mezakakis Adventure Park treetop course is open from April to October, between 11am and 10pm in summer and until dark in spring and autumn… although the Park also offers the possibility to book a nighttime session. Entry is 17.00 EUR per adult and 10.00 EUR for children, with various discounts for groups, families, students, and children staying on the more accessible tracks.
The Park also operates as a complex offering a range of activities including volleyball courts, bungee trampoline, and bicycle rental in summer or ski slopes in winter, as well as its own hotel and sauna facilities for a little R&R after your adventure!
Hiking and Biking
If you prefer to remain grounded, Sigulda and the 917.45 km² of the Gauja National Park provide all the space needed for hikes and bike rides of various durations, from a few hours to a few days. Besides the superb natural landscapes of the hinterland, you’ll be able to take in castles and caves and to pitch your tent along the way.
As Caroline and I were short on time, we confined our walk to the riverside, spending more than a little time on the Sigulda bridge debating whether we would be brave enough to tackle Sigulda’s thrillingest of thrills (more to be revealed below)!
Practical information: You can obtain maps of the area’s bike and walking trails online or from the centrally-located Tourism Information Centre when you get to Sigulda. There are several campsites in the Park, although we also spotted isolated campers on the banks of the river.
Cultural Interlude: Sigulda Castle
As the Gauja Park happens to be sprinkled with hilltop castles, we decided to take a cultural break to visit the Sigulda Castle of the Livonian Order, a medieval building erected as a fortress in 1207 and later rebuilt as a convent.
If you’re a castle person, the good news is that the visit of the Sigulda castle is a 2-in-1 experience, as you will need to cross through the city’s not-too-shabby new castle to reach the medieval one.
Although the old castle is now in ruins, it is possible to climb up the North and Main Gate Towers and walk some of the length of the surrounding wall. You can also try on real battle armours and rise a sword (and optionally, geek out about Game of Thrones).
But you know us: we were not going to just sightsee and relax. Oh no! Visiting medieval Livonia used to be a special adventure for travelling knights, promising possible battle field experience, a chance for distinguished deeds of arms, and preparation for crusades. The Sigulda Castle offers a chance to relive some that excitement by teaching visitors to throw spears and axes and shoot arrows. Okay, sign us up!
While this may sound like a sightly gimmicky activity for children, we actually had ample fun challenging each other in an attempt to prove our respective knightly worth (which was close to nil). Our medieval weaponry instructor was really cool and did his best not to laugh at our inaptitude. Verdict: Caroline is at her most skillful with a spear, and I’m quite handy with an axe.
Practical information: The Castle is open from 10am to 8pm between May and October, and from 9am to 5pm from November to April. Entry costs 1.42 EUR for adults and 0.71 EUR for children, with an additional fee to try out the Medieval Experience.
Guys, we bailed.
Yes, people were throwing themselves headfirst from the 42m-high Sigulda cable car! Knowing that we were scheduled for a 9:30pm jump, Caroline and I lengthily pondered whether to do it or not, repeatedly swaying between ‘Yeah, we can do it!‘ and ‘No f*****g way!‘.
Guess what won? Yeah, we totally chickened out. And everyone we met afterwards was surprised and shocked at our extreme cowardice: apparently, bungee jumping is a matter-of-fact pursuit for Latvians!
Practical information: If you’re braver than us, the cable car turns into a jumping platform at 6:30pm Wednesday-Sunday evenings, with departures for each jumping group every hour. You can book your jump in advance on the company’s website. It costs 40.00 EUR on Wednesdays and Thursdays and 50.00 EUR Friday to Sunday, but you can jump for free if you do it naked (for real!). Early reservation is highly recommended to guarantee a spot, as the activity is in high demand.
Sigulda Thrills Challenge: Day 2
Kayaking Down the Gauja River
I like to seize any opportunity to get on the water, and as kayaking is one of the best ways to explore the Gauja National Park, it was a no-brainer! However, we were on a sports and adventure challenge, so this wasn’t going to be just a leisurely cruise: we had to wake up with the birds for our paddle from Ligatne back to Sigulda, a 25km trip.
And that’s when Caroline abandoned me! She was completely broken from all our roaming of the previous day, blisters and sore muscles included. When she stepped out of bed and let out a cry of pain, it was clear that she wasn’t going to be up for 5 hours of exercise. I very briefly considered cancelling, but nope, this is not how I roll! So off I went, half-awake and sleep-deprived, to complete this journey alone in my kayak for two.
I am SO glad I resisted my bed’s pleas not to leave it because, despite the stress on my non-existent biceps and triceps, this morning paddle down the Gauja river was a very enjoyable affair. My only companions were a German couple, and the three of us basked in the sunny silence, only occasionally disturbed by swimming beavers and wild campers on the shore.
Even though my back and arms were to ache for the next two days, I was particularly proud to have completed this challenge in such adverse conditions (not to be too dramatic, you know).
Practical information: There are many tour companies and rental shops offering canoe and kayak day or multiday trips around the Gauja National Park. We chose Laivojam and everything went swimmingly (or floatingly). If you venture on the water on a sunny day, don’t forget your sunscreen, water, shirt and hat, as there is very little shade on the river.
Olympic Bobsleigh Ride
Have you ever watched bobsleigh in the Olympics and thought
‘Wow, those people are insane and I would NEVER want to try it!’ ‘Wow, this looks awesome and I’d LOVE to try it!’? Yes, me too.
Well, in Sigulda you can. And this is not a kiddy, spiced-down version: you will be going down a part of the actual Olympic track used as a training venue by Latvian champions, picking up speeds of up to 82km/h. There are few places this can be experienced in the world, let alone in Europe.
Needless to say, Caroline (who had recovered usage of her feet) and I were a little tense as we took place in our four-person summer bob with our pilot – and the instructor telling us to sit upright and contract every inch of our body as tightly as possible to avoid bouncing and hurting ourselves (which we were sure was a euphemism for dying) did nothing to help.
However, we hardly had time to settle in thAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH OH MY GOD OH MY GOD I’M GONNA DIIIIIIIIIE. I screamed for my mother as the bob went faster and faster with each increasingly-inclined curve, feeling the pressure loosen up my muscles one by one until I thought I was going to knock myself unconscious. Only two things went through my head: OH MY GOD THERE’S ANOTHER CURVE COMING AND IT LOOKS EVEN WORSE THAN THE OTHERS, and Caroline is so silent, is she passed out? Is she crying? Is she going to hate me forever for dragging her into this?
One minute later, it was over. Caroline and I took off our helmets, looked at each other questioningly: was this the end of our friendship (or technically, of our kinship)? No: we both started laughing, giddy with excitement. We had both LOVED it!
Practical information: The Sigulda bobsleigh and luge track is open to visitors at the weekend. Rides can also be arranged on weekdays but you will need to book an appointment in advance (and there may be a minimum number of people required). The track’s website is not fully translated into English, so it may be easier to seek information and book your ride through the Sigulda Tourism Information Office.
Tarzans Adventure Park
You may think 25 km of kayaking and an Olympic bob descent would have been quite enough action for one day, but we had one more stop planned: Tarzans Adventure Park, where I finished on another high (literally).
Tarzans Adventure Park is Sigulda’s other adventure park, and the biggest in the Baltics. Indeed it’s not short on activities, from a treetop obstacle park or a climbing wall to archery, shooting, zorbing, trampolining, sliding tracks, and a giant swing.
Having already gone ape at Mezakakis the previous day, we opted for the fun zipline track, which saw us flying down the Tarzans mountain on a series of 20 ziplines. Whizzz.
And then, Caroline had this
sadistic brilliant idea: ‘Camille, you should do the catapult’.
‘Yeah, I think you really should. It looks fun and you’d love it.’
‘You mean it looks EVIL and you’re trying to get rid of me?’
‘Just do it.’
Maybe it was the feeling that I needed to redeem myself for the missed bungee jump, or the fact that I had nothing left to fear after my bobsleigh experience, but suddenly I found myself harnessed between two giant elastic bands, ready to be propelled 20m into the air.
Videos speak louder than words and I am not sure I could reproduce the screams and vomiting noises I made when falling back down headfirst, or my nervous/happy/shocked laughter afterwards, so… enjoy! (Except you, mother – don’t watch!).
Practical information: The Tarzans Adventure Park offers a range of activity packages for adults and children at various price points. Alternatively, you can also pay for each activity individually.
On this flying note, we concluded our 2-day Sigulda challenge – one that had allowed us to give free rein to the wildcats, medieval knights, and Olympian athletes within us.
If you would like to recreate our Sigulda Thrills Challenge or to design your very own, the Sigulda Tourism Information Centre can provide information and book activities for you. Shoot them an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or pay them a visit on arrival – the office is located in the central bus & train station and cannot be missed.
Bonus attraction: AERODIUM
Want more? Me too! I was really sad to miss out on another of Sigulda’s highlights: AERODIUM, the first vertical wind tunnel in Eastern Europe.
AERODIUM describes its flying experience this way: ‘The wind flow is so strong that you will be able to lie down in it and to fly without wings. The laws of aerodynamics will allow you to soar up, to perform various movements by changing the position of your body and to feel the most amazing emotions.’
An excuse to go back to Sigulda? You bet!
(Disclaimer: My stay in Sigulda was sponsored by the Sigulda Tourist Board. However, I only accept partnerships for destinations and activities I am genuinely excited about and would book regardless, and all opinions are solely my own!)
Where to stay in Sigulda
We spent our two nights in Sigulda at the lovely Livonija Guesthouse, a surprisingly good-value B&B offering single (16.00 EUR), double (30.00 EUR), and triple rooms (45.00 EUR) in a standalone building by the owners’ house.
The Livonija Guesthouse is located in a quiet area 10 minutes’ walk from the railway station. With its spacious room, private sauna, and large flowery garden, it was the perfect place to relax after a hard day’s adventuring.
Even better? The massive buffet breakfast with sweet and savoury options – including pastries, Latvian chocolate cake, salmon sashimi, eggs, cured hams, all-you-can-drink juice, tea and coffee, and more – was a total winnner!
Where to eat in Sigulda
Eating options in Sigulda are somewhat limited – particularly in the evening, as many cafes close at night and restaurants generally stop serving early. However, here are three places we really enjoyed for lunch and dinner:
Located on Sigulda’s main strip opposite the train/bus station, Mr Bisvits (which, you may have guessed, means ‘Mr Biscuits’), is a nice coffee shop with a menu of savoury lunch options, smoothies, juices, coffees, and an impressive range of cakes.
We liked the salmon pasta, social atmosphere, shaded terrace, and free wifi of this cosy cafe.
Tucked away in a more residential part of Sigulda, Cafe Doma was another great find. The cafe’s fresh food and soft & alcoholic drinks (they even had good wine and cider for me, yay!) can be enjoyed in the cute interior or the relaxed summer garden.
The Doma salad – the cafe’s special – comes highly recommended (by us)!
One of the few late-night options, we were glad to come across Bars Ritters. This bar is owned by a well-traveled, chatty young lady who serves traditional Latvian food – including two of our favourites, yummy cold soup and ravioli with sour cream.
Bars Ritters is also a good place to sample Latvia’s trademark spirit, balsam (try the blackcurrant-flavoured version for a softer kick).
Getting to Sigulda
Frequent buses and trains run from Riga to Sigulda. The trip lasts about 1h15 and costs 2-3 EUR.
Would you consider Sigulda as an adventure/sports destination? Am I a whimp for getting out of the bungee jump? Would you have gone on the bobsleigh ride or the catapult? I love to hear from you, so let me know in the comments below!
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