The beautifully preserved city of Kuldiga is an ancient, undiscovered jewel of the Latvian countryside. Its relative isolation has preserved the medieval beauty of the city's old town, currently a candidate for UNESCO World Heritage listing. Kuldiga was recently awarded a Vista Prize for its innovation in sustainable tourism, bringing new festivals, walking tours and biking routes to the city, and helping to revive centuries-old traditions in local food and wine.
First mentioned in writing in 1242, the settlement of Kuldiga itself dates back at least 1,000 years. The mound where an 8th century fortified castle once stood can still be glimpsed rising from the banks of the Venta river. A second river, the Alekšupīte, flows in picturesque canals through the tranquil old town. Kuldiga's historic center boasts one of the longest brick bridges in Europe, the Baroque Saint Catherine’s Church, and charming 17-century wooden buildings roofed in clay tile that have miraculously survived the centuries. The square in front of the town hall remains of hub of activity, hosting markets, dances and other cultural events. The historic center's old-world mystique is so remarkable, in fact, that it’s been the site of over 30 international films.
Kuldiga, situated at the convergence of two rivers, is also known for its natural beauty. The Venta waterfall, though only 4.5 meters tall, is the widest in Europe, and is a major reason why the city exists: in days of old, ships that were unable to sail upstream had to dock at the city, transforming Kuldiga into a bustling place of trade and commerce in the 13th century. Though boats can’t make it past the Venta waterfall, fish certainly can. Salmon returning to spawn leap over the waterfall’s churning white water, their acrobatics serving as the inspiration for the Flying Fish Art Festival in April.
From the 13th century onwards, Kuldiga prospered, becoming a member of the Hanseatic League, a the prestigious trading organization. In the 1600s, it enjoyed a golden age as a center of manufacturing and shipbuilding. Tragically, the city’s success was cut short in the Great Northern War, a conflict so severe that the town was never able to recover its central role in trade.
The region’s lush farmland has given rise to a resurgence of ancient wine-making traditions. One winemaker, Martins Vagners, is producing the only Reisling made in the Baltic states, restoring the 18th century tradition of Duke Jacob. The nearby village of Sabile is, according to Guinness Book of World Records, the farthest north wine grapes are grown in Europe. The farms and rivers also supply fresh produce and fish. The best restaurants are clustered in the old town, from Goldigen, with its modern Italian fare, or the more traditional Latvian food made with local ingredients in the Metropole Hotel or Pagrabins.
Close to Kuldiga, the Riežupe Nature Park is home to rare and endangered species and to a remarkable labyrinth of sand caves. These caves, carved out in the time of Duke Jacob for glass production, remain at a chilly 8°C all year round – a thrilling way to cool off at the height of summer. If you prefer to work up a sweat, the Day & Night Cycling Festival is the biggest of its kind in the Baltic region.
Whether you're a couple seeking romance, or a family seeking relaxing fun, Kuldiga is a gorgeous town that echoes with history. Get there before everyone else does!