A little under two hours east of Riga on the last trainline to Estonia, Cesis is easily manageable as a daytrip from the capital. Well-preserved and quiet, it's touted as one of the most authentically Latvian towns left after half a century of Soviet occupation, "so homely and cosy that a visit here seems like a holiday to a kind Latvian granny," if you believe Cesis's official tourist guide.
No matter whether you arrive by bus or by train, you'll end up half a kilometre east of the main square, Vienības laukums (Union Square), where you'll find the town's Victory Monument, a concrete obelisk in the middle of two roads. Celebrating the 1919 Battle of Cesis, in which a combined Estonian and Latvian force defeated the remnants of the Baltic German army, it was demolished by the Soviets in the 1950s and only reconstructed after independence.
The monument marks the centre of Cesis. Behind, the Kolonna Hotel has a basement restaurant (the entrance is down a flight of steps on the side of the building) with point-and-order Latvian food, pizzas and pints of the local Cesu beer on tap. Turn left and you'll enter Rigas iela, which has been Cesis's busiest street for the past eight hundred years. Halfway down, Rigas opens out into a square dominated by the 13th-century church of St John's (50 santimes entrance), which contains the tombs of several Knights of the Sword, the crusading German knights who first conquered pagan Latvia. Below St John's, the cobbled streets and one-storey wooden buildings of the old town are worth a few minutes of exploration.
Cesis's premier sight, however, is the remains of its 13th century castle. Left in a ruinous state after the Russians took it in 1703, a combined ticket for the castle and the adjoining Museum of History and Art costs 3 lats. Both are interesting enough, though nothing spectacular. If you don't want to pay, follow the monumental staircase down into Castle Park where you can scramble up the banks to the castle walls and have a peek over the top for free.
On its own, you can see all there is to see in Cesis in two or three hours. The only reason to stay overnight is that along with Sigulda - thirty kilometres back towards Riga - it makes the best base for exploring the Gauja Valley, Latvia's hiking, rafting and skiing capital. In winter one of the country's best ski slopes is located just three kilometres outside Cesis itself; in summer there are a multitude of forest and riverside hiking trails.