When thinking of Europe, the small nation of Latvia is probably not one of the first countries to spring to your mind. Buried under the big no-go blanket of the Soviet Union, it has yet to be properly discovered by the large tourist crowds. If you manage to make it there, however, you might just find yourself most positively surprised by the charms of this Baltic country.

Latvia's dynamic capital, the historic city of Riga, is a great place to spend some time. It boasts a truly lovely old quarter, full of magnificent Jugendstil architecture, winding cobblestoned lanes and many steeples. Yet, it is a modern, metropolitan city with a vibrant nightlife and a strong economic impulse, to the extent that the rise of modernist buildings is threatening the old town's World Heritage listing. Riga's vibe gets under many travellers' skins, perhaps for the strong contrasts between old and new or maybe because of the seemingly painless blend of Latvian and Russian cultures, as almost half of the city's inhabitants are of Russian origin. To get a sense of the city, wander through its large, manicured parks, stroll through the historic quarter and then kick back in one of the many cafés or outdoor terraces. Among Riga's best sights are the impressive Riga Cathedral, St. Peter's Church and the bustling Central Market.

Although Riga is by far the country's main tourist destination, there are a bunch of other places well worth a visit. At just 40 km from the capital is Sigulda, with the nicely reconstructed Turaida Castle, an interesting castle museum as well as the deep Gutmanis Cave. The town is beautifully located in the Gauja valley and has been called the "Switserland of Latvia" for its steep cliffs and banks. It's known for its winter sports opportunities and makes a great base for explorations of the fine nature around it. The coastal city of Liepāja is known to Latvians as "the city where the wind is born", for the sea breeze it constantly enjoys. It has a nice beach and a charming town centre with a colourful mixture or architectural styles, from wooden houses and spacious parks to Art Nouveau and concrete, Soviet-era apartment buildings. Liepāja's neighbourhood of Karosta was built in the late 19th century as a naval base for Tsar Alexander III and was later used by the Soviet Baltic Fleet. Its splendid sea side panoramas, former military prison and fortress remains now make it a popular tourist sight.

Cesis is one of the country's oldest towns and has a charming centre with cobblestoned lanes, historic wooden building and a few impressive castles. Kuldīga boasts Europe's widest, though at two meters high unspectacular, water fall. It's part of the Venta Rapid, one of Latvia's natural monuments. Despite its limited hight it's still a nice sight and the town itself is worth exploring too. The colossal white Cathedral of Aglona is a worthwhile day trip from Daugavpils, the second largest city in the country. Jelgava has two fine sight in its baroque style Rundāle and Jelgava palaces.

There are many interesting and old castles around Latvia. The Association of Latvian Castles, Palaces and Manors has links and photos on their website. Note that sometimes castles are reserved for private occasions.