Latvian awaydays: Vārnukrogs

Rīga Old Town, Jūrmala beach and Rundāle Palace are all great, but there's a lot more to discover in Latvia if you're prepared to venture off the usual tourist routes. In a new series, we'll tell you about some lesser-known and freely-available attractions. 

When it comes to Rīga and rivers, you probably think of the mighty River Daugava. But there are other notable rivers and streams which add to the city’s aquatic life.

For example, the Lielupe (literally, the 'Big river') snakes its way along the northwest fringe of the capital before emptying into the Gulf of Rīga, conveniently separating the mansions of Jūrmala from the hoi polloi. And fortunately, there’s a hidden swimming spot on the Rīga side of this waterway which makes up in charm what it lacks in Instagram chic.

Turn off the A10 ring-road, trundle down several kilometres of forest-lined road and you arrive at Vārnukrogs. This hamlet is a blend of Soviet-era vacation cottages in diverse states of repair and heftier, year-round residences of more recent vintage, whose population is expanded by daytrippers from Riga’s Pārdaugava side. They come to swim, sunbathe and roll down an iconic sand dune thrown up when the Lielupe changed its course in 1757.

Cottage at Vārnukrogs

On summer weekends, there’s barely room to chuck your towel down amidst the bronzing bodies. But off peak it’s a deserted, pine-scented nook of paradise. Unlike seaside beaches where you have to muck in for ages, here you are in deep water just a few metres from the bank, allowing for a proper swim. You may be kept company by a family of swans which glides about, unperturbed by the floundering featherless creatures.

Humans have actually been hanging around the area for centuries. The Museum of Riga’s History and Navigation holds arrowheads found at Vārnukrogs thousands of years ago. In the Middle Ages, it was the landing post for the only ferry across the Lielupe, a vital link on the road between Rīga and Kurzeme.

Couple walk on the beach at Vārnukrogs

Vārnukrogs means “Crows’ pub,” suggesting some lively boozing went on before the crossing. There’s no sign of the legendary tavern today, or any other tourist amenities, for that matter. There are no cafes or shops for miles. Who needs changing sheds when you can nip into the bushes? There are also few bins and no public toilets, in spite of which the place is remarkably clean and tidy.

In fact, if it wasn’t for the odd moron-piloted jet-ski or powerboat thrashing down the river, it's still an uncommercialised arcadia.

Need to know

  • There’s no direct public transport to Vārnukrogs. But you can take the train to Babīte station, cross the highway, then stroll down the forested road to be at the river in about 40 minutes. If you’re cycling, take the Riga-Jūrmala bike path to Babīte station and do as above.

  • There’s a small parking lot (no charge) at the end of the road, followed by a five minute walk to the beach. If this is full, you can park by the roadside further up and walk down to the beach through the forest.
  • Bring your own lunch and take your rubbish home with you.
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