Last updated on January 3rd, 2020
Disclaimer: I was a guest of the Cesis Tourism Board and Magnetic Latvia on a press trip to Cesis, Latvia.
Tilting buildings and cobblestone streets. Spiritual sauna experiences and locals who still collect water from the nearby springs. The best bread you’ve ever tasted and a tiny coffee shop where the whole town gathers. This is Cesis, Latvia.
Ever heard of it? Probably not. And yet this tiny town an hour and a half away from the capital city of Riga will steal your heart before you even know it’s happening.
After spending two days on an action-packed press trip to Cesis, I’m fully convinced that it’s a must visit place-not just in Lativa, but in all of Europe! And thankfully, I’m now full of ideas for things to do in Cesis, so you won’t be lost when you finally make it there.
Here are some of the most charming things to do in Cesis, Latvia, as well as a mini guide on how to get there, where to stay, and where to eat. I hope you enjoy!
How to Get to Cesis
The closest airport to Cesis is Riga International Airport (RIX). From there, it’s a 1 1/2-hour drive (check rental car prices here) or 2 1/2 hours by public transport. Keep reading below for those directions on how to get to Cesis!
To get to Cesis from Riga by car, take the A2 highway. The travel time is approximately 1 hour and 20 minutes.
By Public Transport
Where to Stay in Cesis
Karlmuiza Manor Hotel
We stayed in the Karlmuizia Manor Hotel, just outside of Cesis, and it honestly might have been the most charming little hotel I’ve ever stayed in! Located in an old staff house of a manor, each of the rooms are individually decorated and named after a different person who used to live in the house.
I got the luck of the draw (we literally drew keys to see who stayed in which room on the press trip) and was in the absolutely HUGE Elizabeth room which is on all of their marketing materials. It was so gorgeous and full of little details that I just loved.
There are also gorgeous grounds which I unfortunately didn’t get the time to explore, but I got a glimpse of them out of the balcony!
And when it comes to breakfast, Karlmuizia does it right. There’s a big spread in the morning with bread, cheese, meat, pastries, fruit, juice, coffee, and more, and it filled me up perfectly for the long day ahead.
We stopped by Villa Santa for lunch on our second day in Cesis (it was absolutely delicious, but more on that later) and also had the chance to peek into some of the suites.
If you’re looking for a luxurious boutique experience (I mean, just look at that tub) with an amazing on-site restaurant and plenty of beautiful grounds to explore, then this is definitely the place to stay!
What I especially liked about Villa Santa is that it had plenty of quirky and fun design details (like a gold velvet wallpapered elevator) that make it feel like a much more relaxed and friendly place than a lot of luxury hotels. Aka the kind of hotel I DREAM of staying in one day (want to invite me back???)
Hostel Old Town Apartments
If you’re on a budget, or just want to stay closer to the centre of town, then you can’t go wrong with Hostel Old Town Apartments. Located just a 2-minute walk from Cesis Castle, you can book either a bed in a dorm or a full apartment.
Top 3 Things to do in Cesis, Latvia
Visit Cesis Castle
Cesis is by far the most famous for its castle, and for good reason. It’s the best preserved medieval castle in Latvia.
Cesis Castle is partly ruins now, thanks to an explosion that took place in 1577, but it’s still a fascinating spot to visit.
The castle museum, housed in the “New Castle” next door, will teach you plenty of things about the history of Cesis and its castle, but the castle is best experienced with a knowledgeable local guide.
Wander the Old Town
If you’re only going to do one thing in Cesis, make it wandering around the Old Town. From the small, colorful, old buildings, to the different shops, cafes, and bakeries, there is so much to be explored in a relatively small area.
My personal opinion is that the old town is best experienced in the early morning. Grab a cup of coffee at the local cafe and wander the streets as the town wakes up. And if you’re there in December, then be sure to check out the Christmas market in the main square!
Experience a Traditional Latvian Sauna
Nordic countries and Russia are both well known for their sauna culture, so it should really be no surprise that the Baltics, sandwiched in between the two, are also fans of the practice.
Latvian saunas do things a little bit different though, so even if you’ve experienced a sauna ritual in another country, you’re going to want to try a Latvian sauna on for size–especially if you’re in Cesis.
When we first stepped out of the van and caught sight of the little wooden yurt in the middle of nowhere, we didn’t know what to expect. Then, we walked inside and met Evija–our sauna mistress–and knew that we were in for a true treat.
We sat down in a small sitting area on comfy couches, with fruit-infused water and tea waiting for us while a warm fireplace burned and heated up the sauna on the other side. Evija explained to us all about the tradition of the Latvian sauna, what we were going to be experiencing that afternoon, and her own personal approach to the sauna ritual.
For her, it’s all about cleansing the soul, not just the body. So while, of course, we would be getting all of the physical benefits of the sauna, we would also be getting a psychological treatment as well.
With that out of the way, Evija announced it was time to get undressed (as is custom) and head into the sauna. We were all initially off-put, especially seeing as how we had only met each other that morning, so Evija reassured us that it was totally fine to go in in swimsuits as well, while some of us through caution to the wind and wrapped up in solely towels. By the end of the evening, though, we were all naked, fully comfortable in our own skin and around each other. It truly was the most amazing experience.
The Actual Sauna Experience
The actual sauna experience was, honestly, a work of art. First, we went into the sauna for about 10 minutes, or as long as we could stand, just getting used to the heat. Evija was quick to remind us that it wasn’t about pushing ourselves to stay longer, just to do what feels good, which honestly made me feel so much less pressure than what I was putting on myself before!
After warming up in the sauna, we all went out to the sitting area again to sip on tea while we went in pairs for the actual sauna ritual. This involved laying on the top bench of the sauna, with birch leaves as a pillow, while Evija lightly beat us (for lack of a better word) with more birch branches and gave us little massages.
Then, it was time to run into the freezing cold lake. Or, if you couldn’t hack it (like me), get a bucket of cold water dumped over you. We were encouraged to scream either way, because it let out stress and made sure we kept breathing.
Then, it was back inside for more sauna and a honey and strawberry body scrub–delicious and great for your skin!
At one point, we were even running around the yurt, totally naked, and completely without care.
At the end of the sauna experience, we showered off before getting dressed again and saying goodbye.
How to visit Evija’s Sauna
Going through the sauna experience with Evija was truly one of the most life-changing things I have ever done, and I couldn’t recommend it more. If you’re wanting to experience a sauna ritual while you’re in Latvia, then she’s absolutely the sauna mistress to do it with.
Evija’s sauna is located just outside of Cesis. You can reach it most easily by car, or there’s a bus stop (Auciems) about a 10 minute walk away.
Of course, pre-booking is required. You can either book a day sauna experience, or you can book into the sauna for the night, having the whole place to yourself, with a bedroom on the second floor! This is definitely what I’m planning to do when I make my way back to this magical place 🙂
You’ll find everything you need to know on the Ziedu Pirts website.
Art & Nature Things to do in Cesis, Latvia
Cesis is by far one of the most cultural places in all of Latvia, and is actually a strong contender to be Europe’s next capital of culture, so checking out some of the art (and nature) is definitely one of the best things to do in Cesis!
Take in a show at the Cesis Concert Hall
Cesis Concert Hall (Vidzemes Koncertzale Cesis) is a state-of-the-art concert hall in the centre of town. Built just a few years ago, it’s become the centre of the community, housing an art school and even the only movie theatre in town!
Of course, its crowning jewel is its auditorium, which is state of the art and made entirely out of birch wood. It is absolutely gorgeous, and the acoustics are incredible. So seeing a performance here should be a no-brainer.
You can check out what’s on at the Cesis Concert Hall on their website here!
Visit the PLMC Gallery
If you’re a fan of small but powerful art galleries, then you’re going to fall in love with the PLMC Gallery. It houses the work of many talented Latvian artists, and is one of the greatest things to do in Cesis for culture lovers!
While we were there, there was a special exhibition of Janis Mintiks, one of the most famous Latvian artists out there, and the curator of the gallery took us around telling us all about his life and his art. It was absolutely amazing!
Heading to the PLMC Gallery is a great way to spend an hour or two in Cesis.
Enjoy the Nature at the Sarkanas Cliffs Open Air Gallery
If you’re less of a gallery person and more of an outdoor lover, then you’re going to die over the Sarkanas Cliffs Open Air Gallery. With tons of blank wooden pallets erected in the middle of the woods, artists come in the summer to paint them however they want. And the result is absolutely incredible.
It actually reminded me a lot of the forest art museum in Valle di Ledro, Italy I visited last summer, which I was also a huge fan of!
You can also see locals heading to the springs with empty water jugs at the Sarkanas cliffs. Even though the tap water is totally drinkable, it’s still common to get drinking water from the super fresh springs!
Visit the Black Swans
Another small thing that Cesis is famous for-therefore making it one of the must-do things to do in Cesis, is it’s black swans!
The two black swans of Cesis were actually a gift from the city of Lisbon, and they’ve become a major symbol of the city. The locals are fiercely protective of the swans, too, making sure that nobody feeds them bread or anything else that might harm them.
You can find the Cesis black swans in May Park.
Foodie Things to do in Cesis, Latvia
Perhaps a bit surprising for a small town in the middle of Latvia, Cesis is actually an amazing foodie destination as well! Here are a few can’t-miss foodie things to do in Cesis.
Try the bread
Holyyyy cow. I thought I had had good bread before I went to Cesis, but I was wrong. Because when I first tried the bread in Cesis, it totally blew my mind. This stuff is straight up fire, and honestly I don’t know of a good way to explain it. So I guess you’ll just have to go to Latvia and try it for yourself 😉
Most of Cesis gets their bread from a bakery in the old town called Cēsu Maize, where we were lucky enough to go behind-the-scenes for a bread making demonstration. So cool!
And the Coffee
Literally every single local that we talked to while we were in Cesis told us that, if we had the chance, we had to try the coffee at the Black Swan Cafe. So on our second and final day in Cesis, when we were passing by, we convinced our guide to let us stop. And it was so worth it!
This local coffee shop, owned by a coffee-loving local, is a cozy little hole-in-the-wall with amazing antique teaspoons, single-origin coffee roasts, and a guy who does custom latte art for each and every one of his customers.
So yeah, it’s definitely a can’t miss when you’re in Cesis.
…And the rest of the food
Along with the delicious bread and coffee, Cesis has a number of absolutely amazing restaurants that you should absolutely try if you have the chance!
Top 3 places to eat & drink in Cesis
- Restaurant Epikura Darz – Set on the top floor of the Cesis Concert Hall, this is a great place for a delicious meal before a show or just for an amazing view over the city. Be sure to try the caramel cranberry cake. It sounds like a weird combination, but it was soooo good!
- Janoga Restaurant – Janoga Restaurant is the hotspot restaurant in Cesis, and for good reason. We feasted on a goat cheese appetizer, amazing salmon, and delicious rice pudding, and it was truly one of the best meals of my entire life.
- Villa Santa – Another amazing meal can be found at the restaurant in the Hotel Villa Santa, overlooking their gorgeous grounds. The mushroom ravioli was absolutely heavenly, and we also got to try a traditional Latvian dessert of floating islands that was so yummy!
If you’re looking to go a bit more in-depth with your Cesis trip, then I absolutely couldn’t recommend getting a knowledgable local guide more. Not only did they provide insight on Cesis past and present, but getting to talk with them about their own lives (especially during and after Soviet times) was completely invaluable. Here are a few tours that I would recommend.
Get Off-the-Beaten-Path with Cesis Inside
Sigita was our guide on our second day of Cesis, and she was so knowledgable and lovely. Normally, she runs a tour company called Cesis Inside, where all of her tours are about getting off-the-beaten-path and getting to know Cesis beyond it’s historic castle.
You KNOW I’m all about that.
You can find out more about Sigita’s tours at Cesis Inside on her website, here.
Cesis Castle Tour
A guided tour of Cesis Castle is an absolute must. You can book one with a local guide through the Cesis Castle website here.
Cesis Old Town Tour
For even more insight into Cesis and its history, a tour of the old town is going to be one of the best things to do in Cesis!
You can book the Old Town Cesis Tour here.
Torchlit Cesis Tour
If you’re looking for a bit of magic, then you absolutely can’t go wrong with the Torchlit Cesis Tour. Grab an old lamp and wander through the streets while your guide takes you back in time.
You can book the Torchlit Cesis Tour through the Cesis Castle website here.
Riga to Cesis Day Tour
If you’re short on time and want to visit Cesis on a day trip, then going with a guided day tour is probably your best bet. This tour will take you to both Cesis AND Sigulda and has great reviews, so I’d definitely recommend it!