Cesis Latvia: a beautiful medieval town
Cesis is a city in the Northeastern Vidzeme region of Latvia on the banks of the Gauja river. It is located in the Gauja National Park that is famous for its natural beauty and medieval castles.
Cesis in Latvia is not far from the capital Riga. It makes for a perfect day trip. However, I would recommend staying a day or two, because there is so much to see and do in the area, especially if you love being out in nature.
Why visit Cesis Latvia
Cesis is the third oldest city in Latvia. In the 13th century Cesis was the capital of Livonia and later became an important Hanseatic trade town in the region. Traders stopped in Cesis on their way from Riga to Tartu and Tallinn further north.
With its medieval castle and small old town it is a charming city. It’s easy to see everything in Cesis in one day, but to explore the nature of Gauja National Park you will need more time.
The Gauja river valley is at its most scenic between Cesis and Ligatne. With ravines and sandstone cliffs, it is an outdoor paradise throughout the year.
There are plenty of hiking and cycling trails. Both the Baltic forest trail and the Camino Latvia run through Cesis. A number of shorter day hikes into Gauja National Park start at Cesis as well, making this a great base to explore the National Park as an alternative to the more popular Sigulda.
Things to do in Cesis Latvia
The Cesis castle was built in 1209 by the Livonian Order and the Teutonic knights. The castle flourished as one of the most important castles for the Livonians and throughout the centuries the fortifications were strengthened.
During the Livonian war in 1577 the Russians took hold of the castle. The 300 people within the castle saw their defeat coming and committed mass suicide by blowing themselves up with gunpowder.
The Polish Swedish war and the Great Northern War damaged the castle further and it fell into disrepair. By 1830 the castle estate belonged to the von Sievers family. They built a completely new castle and a park around the ruins of the old castle.
In the early 20th century the castles became state property and slowly some parts of the old castle were renovated. In 1974 archeological excavations found evidence of the 1577 explosion among other medieval items that you can see in the National History Museum of Latvia
Nowadays most of the castle is still in ruins and only repaired up to a point to make it safe for visitors. The tower did see major renovations and you can climb it all the way to the top for wonderful views over Cesis
Cesis new castle
The new castle of Cesis or the manor house of the Von Sievers family is now the History and Art museum of Cesis
The new castle has a tower as well with more beautiful views over Cesis and the castle ruins.
Cesis Castle Park
The Cesis castle park was made by the Von Sievers family and is located right behind the castle ruins . It’s a romantic place with ponds and gazebos. Very scenic in winter when it is a winter wonderland.
Christ Transfiguration church
The Christ Transfiguration church that stands on the northeastern slope of the Cesis Castle Park is also the work of the von Sievers family.
The old Ekaterina church was in a bad state and the von Sievers rebuilt it into the current Christ Transfiguration church. The Russian orthodox church is still the main church for the small Russian community in Cesis.
Cesis Old town
Cesis Old town is small and due to wars and fires there are not many things left of its rich medieval past. The 18th century Harmony and Merchant houses are among the oldest buildings in the old town of Cesis.
Rozu square was the former city marketplace and is still the center of action with plenty of restaurants and cafes. A little bit further is the church square with the old man statue known as Old man’s time.
Saint John church
The Saint John church is the largest medieval church in Latvia outside of Riga. The church was built in the 13th century and is still an active Lutheran church
KGB building and memorial
Near the Saint John church stands the Latvian police building. This used to be the KGB building where political prisoners were held in the cellars of the basement.
In the courtyard there is a small memorial to the victims of communist repression in Soviet times. In Cesis alone there were almost 5000 people that suffered some form of soviet oppression and 643 people died as a result.
It’s a simple and sober memorial well worth a visit to learn more about this difficult and complicated time in Latvia’s history.
Hanseatic city walk
For a nice city walk in Cesis I can recommend the Hanseatic walking tour. It’s a self guided walking tour through the old town of Cesis and beyond to see the most important sights.
Brochures with the route and background information are available at the tourist information center in Cesis or you can download it here
Things to do near Cesis Latvia
Cirulisi Nature trails
Cesis is located in the heart of Gauja National Park and there are lots of hiking opportunities.
The Cirulisi nature trails also offer easy hikes close to Cesis. There are three trails ranging from 3 to 6 kilometers going through the forests of Gauja National Park.
The river Amata is among the most scenic areas of Gauja National Park. The Amata trail is therefore among the most beautiful trails in Latvia.
It is a challenging trail of 22 kilometers that runs from the village of Amata to Veclaucu. You can hike it in one long day. Or divide the hike in two days by staying the night at the Karlamuiza Country Hotel in Karli.
Cycling or hiking from Cesis to Ligatne
The Gauja river runs through the Gauja National Park. The stretch between Cesis and Ligatne is the most impressive part due to the sandstone cliffs and rocks.
The Gauja river valley is famous for its sandstone cliff walls. One of the most impressive are the Erglu cliffs that are 700 meters high.
The small town of Araisi, south of Cesis, is home to the Araisi archeological park. Next to the 13th century castle ruins is a reconstruction of a wooden medieval village.
It’s like an open air museum and is scenically located on Araisi lake
Cesis Latvia travel tips
Where to eat in Cesis
Cafe Priede: Cafe Priede is a great cafe in the center of Cesis. I can recommend the salmon soup that was absolutely delicious. Great with the sweet potato fries.
Where to sleep in Cesis
Budget: Cesis has plenty of accomodation options. Katrina is a budget friendly hotel with a central location in the city center. If you prefer an apartment you can’t go wrong with Piebalgas street appartment, also in the center of Cesis.
Manor houses: If you have your own transport you might want to consider staying in one of the elegant and ancient manor houses around Cesis. The Karlamuiza Country Hotel is a wonderful place to stay surrounded by the beautiful nature of Gauja National Park.
Treehouse: Another unique place to stay around Cesis is in a treehouse. Treehouse Ciekurs is scenically located at a lake and makes for the perfect nature getaway.
How to get there
From Riga there are frequent buses and trains to Cesis. The journey takes about 2 hours.
Trains leave from Riga pasazieru train station near the central market. You can buy tickets at the station or from the Latvian Railways online.
How to get around
Most things to do in Cesis are all within walking distance. The best way to get around Cesis is on foot.
When to visit Cesis
The best time to visit Cesis, Latvia, largely depends on your preferences and the activities you want to engage in. Cesis experiences distinct seasons, each offering unique attractions:
Spring (April to June): Spring is a lovely time to visit Cesis when the weather starts to warm up, and nature comes to life with blossoming flowers and greenery. The temperatures are moderate, making it a pleasant time for outdoor activities.
Summer (July to August): Summer is the peak tourist season in Cesis. The weather is typically warm, and the days are long. This is an ideal time for hiking and cycling, but it can be crowded.
Autumn (September to November): Autumn brings colorful foliage to the landscape, creating a picturesque setting. The temperatures start to cool down, and it’s a great time for hiking in the crisp air. The fall foliage is particularly beautiful in the Gauja National Park.
Winter (December to February): As you can see from my pictures, I did visit Cesis in winter and absolutely loved it. Cesis and Gauja National Park transform in a snowy winter wonderland. Some of the longer hiking trails are closed, but I was surprised how easy it was to still hike through the forests around Cesis.
Sustainable Travel in Cesis
Latvia’s national parks do not charge any entrance fees. Like in many Scandinavian countries, such as Swedish Lapland, there is free access to nature. You are free to wander in the forests and pick berries and mushrooms as you like.
The northern ecosystems are fragile though. Traveling sustainably to Latvia is essential to minimize your environmental impact and preserve the area’s natural beauty for future generations.
Support the community: You can support the community by purchasing goods and services from local markets and restaurants. It is better to try Baltic cuisine that uses local ingredients rather than imported foreign foods.
Stay in small scale sustainable hotels: It is also better to stay in small-scale guesthouses or homestays to support the local economy directly. These accommodations often have a more positive impact on the environment compared to large hotels. You can also look for hotels that prioritizes sustainable practices.
Leave no trace principle: When hiking around Cesis, stick to designated trails to protect nature. Straying off the marked paths can cause soil erosion and damage to plant life. If you are lucky enough to spot wildlife, observe quietly from a distance to prevent disruption to their habitats and help maintain their natural behaviors.
I encourage you to take all your trash back with you and dispose of it responsibly. In other words, leave no trace of your visit. Even better is when you bring something to pick up any of the trash that other people left behind.
To avoid single-use plastics, invest in reusable items. For example, you can bring your own water bottle with a filter. At last, use biodegradable and eco-friendly personal care products to minimize pollution of water sources.
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