Latvia and the Latvian way of life

When in Rome you must do as the Romans do and accept the local customs if they are not immoral.

St. Vincent de Paul

My English professor was always quoting this man.

Latvians, nevertheless a very tiny nation, have some truly unique customs that will surprise even the most experienced travellers. Many people have no clue about Latvia. The best chances are they have heard of Riga somewhere in eastern Europe.

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Do you mean Lithuania? Do you speak Russian? Sorry, what? These are the common questions I receive after telling I come from Latvia. There are many facts you probably don´t know. Latvia’s internet speeds are among the fastest in the world, we have over 500 km of sandy beaches, it is famous for model-like women, pristine nature and centuries-old pagan traditions.

Latvia has a long occupation history

Last year Latvia celebrated 100 years or independence. It took many centuries to claim its territory and identity, and eventually, on 18th November 1918, Latvia declared independence from Russia. In 1991 after 2 world wars, occupation and hundreds of thousands of deaths they restored independence from the Soviet Union (like many other eastern Europe countries). It is a very interesting history lesson if you are willing to impress your new Latvian friends.

Although the capital of Latvia, Riga, was founded in 1202 it took nearly 800 years to declare independence. Riga became one of the main trade centres of Europe and over the centuries have been ruled by Germans, Livonia, Lithuanian-Polish and Swedish, Russians and Soviet Union. Each invader left a significant footprint – starting from the architecture to cuisine, folklore, religion and even phonetics. Each one of them influenced our identity and explains why Latvia is so mixed with different nationalities and cultures and also why we are so far behind western Europe. The video below explains very well our journey through the centuries.

Do Latvians hate Russians?

Since almost half of Latvia´s population is Russians, we need to get along with each other? You can divide the people into 2 groups. Soviet times generations (my parents and grandparents) who speak Russian but don´t like them. And my generation – kids born in the free country, since 1991, who don´t even speak Russian or refuse to respond in Russian. It has been only three decades since the renovation of the independence, the generations are changing, both Latvians and Russians.

Latvian language (Latviešu valoda)

The official language of Latvia is Latvian, which belongs to the Baltic language group of the Indo-European language family. Another notable language of Latvia is the nearly extinct Livonian language of Baltic-Finnic sub-branch of Uralic language family, which enjoys protection by law. The Latgalian language (a dialect of Latvian) is also protected by Latvian law as a historical variation of Latvian language. Russian is by far the most widespread minority language. Latvian is a pretty hard languge and it has no similarities with russian.

Try pronouncing this: Šaursliežu dzelzceļš, Pretpulksteņrādītājvirziens

1/3 of Latvians live in Riga

Everything happens in Riga. If you want to study, you go to Riga, party, or even go shopping, you go to Riga. No wonder Riga has over 700 000 inhabitants. It has become a big and vibrant European city with many foreigners living and studying there. I have visited many European cities and Riga it still one of my favourites. (And it is not only because I am Latvian). I will write another blog post explaining what´s so special about Riga, stay alert my dear readers. If you happen to be in Riga right now, there a couple of very nice walking tours around Riga or go to Jurmala.

How latvians spend free time?

Having more than 50% of Latvia covered with forest makes it one of the greenest countries in the world. So no wonder that Latvians ar so connected to nature.

Picking up berries and mushrooms

In summer months Latvians go to pick up raspberries, blueberries strawberries and mushrooms of course. If you happen to visit Latvia in late summer, don´t miss out this unique experience!

Nature and hiking

To say that Latvia boasts pristine nature is no exaggeration, which means that there are many options for green tourism from simple walks in the woods to special offerings for bird-watchers, hunters and friends and connoisseurs of nature.

Latvia has 4 National Parks

  • Gauja NP
  • Rāznas NP
  • Slīteres NP
  • Ķemeru NP

With over 48 percent of its territory covered by forests, a vast network of free-flowing rivers and thousands of lakes, Latvia is one of Europe’s best-preserved havens for a wide variety of wildlife. Over 27 thousand species of flora and fauna thrive in natural settings that are still relatively undisturbed by man. Many rarities, such as the black stork and lesser spotted eagle, make their homes in Latvia’s mixed forests, marshes, and meadows.


Sauna (Pirts)

What can be better than a cold beer and a steamy sauna on a cold winter day? You can find these in northern Europe and all Slavic countries. Besides having many health benefits, sauna is a very fun activity during both the winter and summer season. See the video below to understand how its done.


Latvia´s main sport in hockey and basketball. Its national hockey team is one of 10 strongest in the world. Also luge, skeleton and bobsledding is one of those winter sports where latvians hope to win some Olympic medal.

Typical snack during games: Garlic Bread (Ķiploku Grauzdiņi)

And beer: Valmiermuizas alus

Culture and festivities

Introverts, reserved, timid?

Last June BBC published a post about Latvians, saying they are the nation of introverts. I have to agree with pretty much everything they say.

Latvians are often self-deprecating about their culture’s tendency towards introversion, a personality type that gets overstimulated easily and prefers solitude, quiet and reflection. Examples abound, from the Riga neighbourhood called Zolitūde (Solitude) to many ingrained habits, like not smiling at strangers. When Philip Birzulis, a Riga tour guide, moved to Latvia in 1994, he was surprised to see that some Latvians would cross the street to avoid passing another person. “I noticed that people were making these decisions [on] how to avoid each other about 5-10m in advance,” he said.

I have done this! It is true.

It is not far from the truth. Latvians may seem an angry nation but it´s just an appearance. Once they open up, they become kind and friendly people.

A Nation of Singers and Dancers

Latvia is called “the singing nation”. It unusual to find a Latvian who has not sung in a choir or some other group at some point in their life. Every few years all Latvia’s choirs, as well as folk dance groups, gather together for the Song Festival, which includes several thousand singers.

Folk songs are one of Latvia’s national treasures. The Latvian folk song (daina) is one of the distinguishing features of Latvian culture. There are three essential elements of these folk songs: tradition, literature and symbolism. The daina is a form of oral art and is a symbol that has both shaped and epitomized Latvia’s national identity for the last two centuries. Dating back well over a thousand years, more than 1.2 million texts and 30,000 melodies have been identified.

The Latvian Song and Dance Festival (Latvian Vispārējie latviešu Dziesmu un Deju svētki) is one of the largest amateur choral events in the world and an important event in Latvian culture and social life. It is also a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. The All-Latvian Song and Dance Festival have been held since 1873, normally every five years.


Go to Folkklubs ala to try the folk dance yourself!

Summer solstice Jāņi (Liigo!)

Do not miss the most Latvian holiday of all – Jāņi or “Liigo!”, the night from June 23 to June 24 (in harmony with the summer solstice), when people participate in joyous festivities just as their ancestors did centuries ago.

Drinking beer, folk dances, eating grilled meat and cheese is only a few things to mention! It is the longest day of the year followed by the shortest night, with centuries-old pagan rituals lasting until the sunrise!

Summarising it all, Latvia has a lot to offer for a curious traveller. You will connect to nature, see lush plains in the summer and a thick blanket of snow covered trees in the winter. You will drink the best and cheapest beer you have ever tasted. You will learn about Russians, Hitler and Soviet times and enjoy many beautiful and medieval festivities that you will remember for the rest of your life. You will do what the Latvians do – to really understand what this previously dark corner of eastern Europe has been hiding under the rock.

Travel guides

If you travel to Baltics, I recommend you purchase and read Lonely Planet travel guide. Buy your guide here. 

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Have you been to Latvia? If so, what did you like the most about it?


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