Exploring Cesis, Latvia’s charming 800-year-old town
PRESS TRIP – Latvia quickly became one of my favourite countries, and I fell in love with Riga almost immediately. While we were exploring Cesis, I discovered the magic of this country. Here I found a medieval castle, cobblestoned streets and serene outdoor spaces.
I felt my senses come alive. I experienced a traditional Latvian sauna, tasted the most amazing bread and sipped artisanal lattes. Cesis is where people still collect water from a nearby spring and are as comfortable outdoors as they are in the town’s art galleries and concert venues.
As Latvia is not as overrun with tourists as other European cities, there is much to discover without the crowds. This includes Cesis, a charming 800-year-old town you’ve probably never heard of before. So, what’s there to know about Cesis?
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Exploring Cesis Latvia – the basics
Before you start exploring Cesis, here are some quick facts about this charming town.
• Cesis is the third-oldest city in Latvia, going back to 1206
• The population of Cesis is just under 20,000
• The Latvian flag had its beginning here, and you can learn more about that while visiting the Cesis New Castle
• In 2017, the city won the EDEN (European Destinations of Excellence) competition in “Cultural Tourism 2017.”
• Cesis is a very green city with pretty parks, and it’s surrounded by the Gauja National Park
• The city has a rich and diverse cultural scene, making it an international cultural center
Cesis lies about 90 km northeast of Riga, and it’s quite easy to get to by bus, train or car. If you opt to rent a car, you’re looking at less than two hours to get there. Daily trains and buses run between the two cities, so it’s easy to travel between them. Go here for more detailed directions on how to get to Cesis.
Cesis castles and manor houses
Latvia was under foreign domination for centuries. In Latvia and other Baltic countries, properties were handed out like candy to various German and Russian aristocrats and nobility. Many of them built summer homes here, taking advantage of the forests, lakes, rivers and fresh air from the Baltic Sea.
These manor estates were often set up as summer homes and functioned similarly to what we know as cottages. Some were quite spectacular, often including multiple buildings where the wealthy would escape the summer heat to spend time with their families. Today, many of these properties have been renovated and turned into hotels and summer rentals. If you’re thinking of visiting Latvia, I would recommend exploring places like those I’ve visited below and others for your stay.
Curious about exploring Cesis? You might also enjoy a trip to Rundale Palace, the Versailles of Latvia.
There wouldn’t be a point in exploring Cesis without a stop at a castle. Luckily, this 800-year-old town has two of them. Both are reminiscent of days gone by but from different times. Let’s be honest; I came here because of the castles.
Medieval Cesis Castle
The medieval Cesis Castle is the biggest attraction and the reason the town was created. The Knights of the Livonian Brothers of the Sword built the castle in 1214. It later became the key administrative and economic centre of the Teutonic Order. In 1577, about 300 people decided to blow themselves up upon the threat of invasion by Ivan the Terrible. Despite the tragedy, the Cesis Castle remained in operation till the end of the 17th century.
You can learn more about the knights and the mass suicide by visiting the Cesis New Castle just beside it. There you’ll find numerous artifacts and information about the castle and its history. Today, the castle is a fine ruin that’s still quite impressive.
Cesis New Castle
The Cesis New Castle or the manor house was built in the 18th century as part of a medieval castle fortification system. It belonged to the aristocratic families of Von Wolff and later the Von Sievers. The Sievers family lived in the manor house until the first World War. It was used as headquarters by the Latvian army. Sometime after WWII, it became an apartment building until it was finally restored in 2012.
Today you can visit the Castle complex, operated by the Cesis History and Art Museum. The finishing will give you an idea of how the Sievers family lived and you can learn more about the medieval castle’s history.
Villa Santa Hotel
At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, Cesis was a popular destination for family recreation. Here Russian nobles built their summer homes nestled in the pine forest on the Gauja River bank. Villa Santa, consisting of three separate buildings, was much like many other summer homes of that time.
In 1918, it became a sanatorium and was used for medical purposes until the 1990s. After the hospital was shut down, the property was left unused for a decade. What you see today is a result of the work done by Villa Santa’s current owners, a major Latvian publishing house.
Villa Santa Hotel is one of those luxurious boutique hotels that can be your slice of heaven in the middle of a gorgeous setting. It’s a perfect spot for exploring Cesis and the nature around it. There is an onsite restaurant, spa and sitting areas where you can marvel at the beauty around you. The decor is funky, modern and luxurious while also very homey. I already know which room I want when I go back.
The Karlamuiža hotel is centrally located between the centre of Cesis and the local ski slopes. The property is surrounded by orchards and the nature of the Gauja National Park. It’s a perfect place to decompress while enjoying all the area has to offer and exploring Cesis.
If you enjoy exploring Cesis, you might like to read about Riga, Latvia’s capital!
The original manor house on the property burnt down several times and wasn’t rebuilt. The hotel is a former servants’ house that was built in the mid-18th century and was renovated in 2016. Karlamuiža is a quaint hotel with suites named after people who lived here. Each suite is more like an apartment, with a kitchenette area.
Even in the middle of November, I could see why someone would choose this spot to build a manor house. Fog shrouded the leafless trees, hovered over the ground and beckoned us to explore. It was invigorating and soothing all at once. I wished we were able to stay there longer. There is always a next time.
Exploring Cesis, the cultural centre of Latvia
As someone who loves history, museums and culture, I’m a sucker for places like Cesis. Discovering little gems like this is why I love travelling. You can find yourself in a place so different than where you are from and find a treasure trove of delights. For me, exploring Cesis was like a delightful treasure hunt that didn’t disappoint.
Cesis Concert Hall
The Cesis Concert Hall (Vidzemes Koncertzale Cesis) is an impressive building that’s also the heart of cultural performances. World-class concerts, theatre performances and cinema screenings bring thousands of visitors each year.
The piece de résistance is the auditorium made completely out of birch. The retractable seats provide seating for the audience and can be pulled back for balls. Yes, they do fancy balls here. How awesome is that?
The purpose of the PLMC (the Global Center for Latvian Art) is to preserve Latvian artworks created by exiled Latvian artists. The gallery has an extensive collection of Latvian diaspora art for the public to research and enjoy. This is a great place to visit if you want to learn more about Latvia’s history and its artists.
The gallery’s permanent collection houses over 1,000 artworks from 1940 to 2019. All were created by Latvian artists living all over the world. The exhibit we toured was by the Latvian artist Janis Mintiks, a man with an interesting life and clever art. It is a spot you should visit while exploring Cesis.
Sarkanas Cliffs Open Air Gallery
The artistic creativity in Cesis isn’t’ just limited to the galleries. To enjoy nature and art, head over to the Sarkanas Cliffs Open Air Gallery. Here you’ll find large wooden pallets scattered around the trees, each decorated with a different painting. Artists paint these large canvasses as they like, leaving behind the art for visitors to enjoy.
The area is also great for some hiking and nature-watching. There is even a spring at the Sarkanas cliffs where locals still come to collect water. Judging by the healthy glow of the locals, the spring water is worth drinking.
Exploring Cesis for culinary delights
I wasn’t sure what to expect in Latvia when it came to food. I expected lots of meat and potatoes, somewhat reminiscent of the cuisines of northern Europe and neighbouring countries. As someone who doesn’t eat meat, I was slightly worried that I wouldn’t have many choices when it came to food. It turns out I was wrong.
Latvia has an array of amazing food options. Everything I ate was delicious. From simple dishes to more intricate ones, every meal was an experience that left me wanting more. While exploring Cesis, I had the opportunity to eat at some local places and mark these locations for your visit if you’re a foodie.
The restaurant is located on the sixth floor of the Cesis Concert Hall, overlooking the city. With an amazing view, cool vibe and tasty dishes, this is a great spot if you’re here for an event or just because. For more mouth-watering pics, check out Epikura on Instagram or Facebook.
Offering creative dishes in a modern setting, Janoga was an amazing spot for dinner. If you’re into beer, there is a great selection of Latvian beers here to choose from. The restaurant offers soups and dishes based on Latvian and European cuisine and is vegetarian-friendly.
Villa Santa Hotel
Even if you’re not planning on staying at the Villa Santa Hotel, it’s definitely worth taking a drive there for lunch or dinner. It’s a great opportunity to check out the area and the hotel while partaking in some exquisite dining.
Melnais Gulbis Coffee Shop
If you’re looking for a place to get some great coffee or just need a break from exploring Cesis, make sure to stop at the Melnais Gulbis. The name translates to Black Swan. You can find two of them hanging out at Maija Park in Cesis.
Bread baking at Cesu Maize
One of the best things about Latvia is its bread. It’s unlike any other bread I have ever had. Mixed with seeds, honey and perhaps some kind of magic, Latvian bread is the real deal.
While exploring Cesis, we had an opportunity to see the process of breadmaking at a local bakery – Cesu Maize. If you’re into making bread, you can find lots of ingredients here that you can buy to give it a try at home. As far as the process, I think it’s similar to breadmaking everywhere else, but for some reason, it tastes so much better here. You can also buy already-made bread and start enjoying it sooner.
Latvian spa experience
Latvians are big on spa culture and after experiencing it myself, I can understand why. The whole ritual, from start to finish, is designed to relax, cleanse and free your soul. It sounded very hippy to me at first, but I was open to trying it out.
When we arrived at a yurt in the middle of seemingly nowhere, I wasn’t sure what to expect. By then, it was cold and I felt like the rain had seeped through to my bones. Stepping inside the yurt was like getting a big warm hug. The wooden logs crackling in the fireplace almost made me cry with joy. We were greeted by Evija, our spa mistress and I knew it was going to be great.
There were jugs with hot tea made from special berries waiting for us in the waiting area, right by the fireplace that was also heating the spa room behind it. As we sat, surrounded by pillows and each other, Evija explained the traditions of the Latvian spa and the ritual itself. Then she told us to get undressed like it was the most natural thing in the world.
As it turns out, Latvians do their spas in the nude. They are completely comfortable with getting naked with others. Cleansing their souls starts from birth so they are comfortable with their bodies and those of others. Me, not so much.
So here I was about to get naked with a bunch of women I’d only just met a few hours earlier. As much as I was here for it, I couldn’t get past the naked part. I’m not going to lie, I chickened out and opted to keep my bikini on instead of wrapping myself in a towel like everyone else.
As we entered the sauna, it was exactly what you’d expect. The heat was both relaxing and stifling all at once. This was the first stage, designed to get us used to the heat. I think I was the first person out as it became hard for me to breathe, and I didn’t last the full 10 minutes.
After partaking in some hot tea, we went inside in pairs. The ritual involved a lot of laying down on the bench with birch branches as pillows. Evija skillfully alternated between gentle massage, swatting us with more birch leaves and dousing us in water.
After, we went outside, where we dunked ourselves in a small lake. The cold water was a jolt, but it’s supposed to be good for you. You’re encouraged to let out a scream to let go of stress and keep your breathing passages open. Surprisingly, it was cathartic.
The rest involved going back into the sauna and getting scrubbed with strawberries and honey. To complete the experience, we run around the yurt like we’ve been doing it forever. By then, we were naked, unphased and cleansed. The muddy grass beneath my bare feet didn’t even phase me. In the end, I felt great. I was relaxed, warm and happy. I think I need more Latvian spa days in my life.
You can book your spa experience with Evija directly at the Ziedu Pirts website. It definitely an experience you won’t want to miss while exploring Cesis.
Final thoughts on exploring Cesis Latvia
No matter how you set about exploring Cesis, you’ll find that it is a charming town. Stroll around the cobblestoned streets and admire the Old Town as you take the art and culture all around you. Learn about the distant past with a visit to the Cesis castles. Head to the Gauja National Park for spectacular hikes and some outdoor adventures. No matter what you decide to do, you’ll find Cesis a great place to explore.
I’m already planning on returning to Latvia. A trip to Cesis will be a part of that. Who knows, maybe there will be multiple Latvian sauna experiences on that trip.
Press trip info
I visited Cesis as part of a press trip hosted by the Cesis Tourism Board and Magnetic Latvia. As always, the views and opinions expressed here are my own.