As the Gauja National Park gateway town closest to Riga, only 50km southwest, Sigulda attracts its fair share of tourists, and deservedly so because it is one of the nicest small towns in Latvia. It is located on the banks of the Gauja river that winds through the forested hills. The town's history is similar to other places in the Vidzeme region (northern Latvia), including Riga and Cesis. The area was settled around 1000AD by the Finnic Liv people. They constructed many wooden forts, including at least seven in the Sigulda region, in order to defend themselves from the crusading German Teutonic Knights. The Germans constructed a technically superior brick fortress called Siegewald (Victory Forest) in present day Sigulda and in 1200 they controlled the whole area. Under German control the town was a flourishing trade centre, only ending with the Livonian war of the 16th century. The town came under Polish-Lithuanian control, but this war and several other conflicts between the Commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania, Russia and Sweden left the town in rumbles, only to be restored during the Russian rule of the 19th century. WWI and WWII damaged the town heavily again, but during Soviet rule over Latvia after WWII the town flourished once again due to the growth in tourism from Soviet officials. Since Latvian independence the apparatchiks have been replaced first by local tourists, but nowadays many foreign tourists followed them in order to see the historical town and the nearby Gauja National Park.
Despite the fact that most people immediately wind through the town en route for the National Park, Sigulda's long history justify a visit of at least a few hours to the town. The main street, Gaujas Iela, houses the helpful Tourist Information, offering leaflets, maps, accommodation info, etc. about the town and the park. The white 15th century Lutheran church next to a small lake is only 50m away. A little north is the Pils Parks (Castle Park), containing the 19th century Sigulda New Castle. The castle houses public offices and a restaurant, and offers good views of the surrounding national park. Behind it are the impressive ruins of the 12th century Siegewald castle. The Gaujas Iela goes into the Gauja river valley and offer access to other great sights of the area. Northeast of the castle a few trails lead past some viewpoints like Paradise Hill towards the pristine Vejupite river valley, running through rocky scenery. Next to the river is the cracked surface of Peter's Cave.
(continued in part II)