Craving more of our family’s global adventures? Stay updated and join our journey on Instagram! Follow @holanewmans!Β 

A Slice of Heaven on Earth/The Airbnb We Never Wanted to Leave in Sigulda, Latvia

Many travelers visit Sigulda as a daytrip from Riga to see its well-known, impressive castle, built in 1207 by the Livonian Order but with significant components still standing and some partially restored, surrounded by the peaceful Gauja National Park valley. Sigulda has made it quite easy for visitors to enjoy this large castle complex as its main attraction, with adjacent cafes, small shops, and the nearby Raina Park with several playgrounds. As we keep encountering on this trip, Sigulda is another example of what we’re calling “thoughtfully designed tourism,” with walkable sites from reasonably priced or free parking, helpful signage, free toilets, free water fountains, adequate food options, nearby playgrounds, etc. Sigulda also has a lovely town center with attractive cafes, restaurants, and a modern food hall, Jāņa Tirgus, which has enticing options for lunch or dinner. We opted to spend several days in Sigulda since there’s a lot to do in nature and it wasn’t out of the way for our continued roadtrip through Latvia and eventually into Estonia.

But once we got to our Airbnb outside of the small town of Malpils (about a 15-20 minute drive south of Sigulda), we changed our plans. Because all we wanted to do was soak in and savor this magical place; we did not leave except to buy groceries in the nearby Malpils town about a 10-minute drive away. The cabin had everything needed for a comfortable, family-friendly stay, as well as an outdoor jacuzzi, stand up paddleboard for the private pond, grill, firepit, and barbecue area, and best of all, a completely private, secluded, and remote property, with zero noise except for nature. It also had a traditional, indoor, dry sauna, heated by firewood (the sauna experience is a big thing in Latvia and Estonia, as we continued to find saunas at nearly every place we stayed, even small apartments). The Airbnb hosts were incredibly warm and welcoming; it’s rare nowadays to have much interaction with hosts (unlike in the early days of the platform), but in this situation, our host Girts showed us how to prepare and utilize the sauna to best effects, helped us get the grill going, and shared a glass of wine with us as we started dinner preparations. We learned more about the history of the family’s property, how they designed and built this cabin and even lived in it for the years before they had their children, and that the winter is actually the most popular time for visitors (I imagine they spend a lot more time in the sauna!). Our only regret was that we didn’t stay longer. Dave had a really hard time driving away on the morning of our departure: “I don’t think I’ve ever been happier in a physical location than this place.” And that’s saying a lot, given some of our favorite, relaxing destinations we’ve visited like the Maldives, Fiji, Tahiti, Hawaii, the Swiss Alps, and many a national and state park in the U.S. We hope to find our way back to Malpils, or someplace approximating the feelings and experiences it facilitated, again.

On the drive from Malpils into Estonia, we spent the morning in the town of Cesis to visit another Livonian Order and Teutonic Order castle. It’s well-preserved considering several tumultuous periods of history, which we learned about via an interactive, engaging, self-guided tour through dark corridors (they provide you with your own lantern, which was a really nice, and necessary, touch) as well as a short film projected onto the interior castle dome walls. We appreciated how the film led viewers through the castle’s 800 years of history through visuals, music, live action, and without narration (thus effectively removing any language barriers), in seven minutes. Yet we came away with a good understanding and it was the right amount of time for the many kids in attendance as well. The castle complex is also a great place to visit with kids as there were traditional guild workshops from the medieval period (blacksmith, woodcarving, wool dyeing, musical instruments, etc.), a more accessible way of getting a window into the cultural arts of the time. We also loved walking through the town of Cesis, with scenic plazas, cafes, restaurants, and the scenic Maija Park. Cesis is a truly charming town and we wished we had more time here; it’s definitely worth a night or two instead of just a daytrip, if you can swing it.

It may seem like we visit a lot of castles in Europe, and we do. We’ve found that they’re not only interesting to us from a historical perspective but that they offer ways to make history more tangible and exciting for Jacob, and an opportunity to learn how people lived a long time ago. We now have several more kings, queens, dragons, and soldiers in the bedtime story repertoire as well.