Top 15 Things to Do in Riga, Latvia this Winter

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While Latvia’s summer feels all too brief, the winter months can seem endless. Daylight hours drastically diminish and the temperature plunges, making it tempting just to stay in with Netflix and hot cocoa. Thankfully Riga provides loads of fun reasons to get out of the house, and I’m not even counting the festive Christmas markets (which you can read about here). So bundle up, grab a steaming cup of mulled wine, and get ready to party with Jack Frost! Here’s my list of things to do in Riga in winter.

Attend the Opera and Ballet

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Get into the holiday spirit with a beautiful performance of the Nutcracker.

Latvian National Opera Madame Butterfly

The LNO’s Madama Butterfly uses the original wooden sets from the 1920s, which miraculously survived war and occupation.

My absolute favorite Riga activity – regardless of season – is attending a performance of the Latvian National Opera and Ballet. For a few precious hours, the professional casts whisk me away to enchanted forests and 19th century Paris, resplendent in gorgeous costumes and set pieces. The luxurious Opera House evokes another era with its colossal chandelier, gilded paint and red velvet seats. The majority of the audience dresses as befitting the occasion and promenades in the hallways at intermission, complementing the Hapsburg vibe of the place. Given the high caliber of the performances, the €25 price for prime orchestra seats is a steal! The season runs from September to June, and it’s best to purchase tickets in advance, especially for popular shows like the Nutcracker and Swan Lake.

Cheer on the Local Hockey Team

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If you are looking for something a bit faster paced, check out Arena Riga, home to the Riga Dinamos hockey team! They might be struggling a little this year, but the games are thrilling to watch thanks to the lively crowds, energetic mascot, and noise of the official cheering section. Plus, you never know who you might run into – Latvia’s new president and first lady were guests of honor at a recent match! The Dinamos have a dozen home games scheduled for 2016. I’ll see you in the stands!

Shop for Traditional Latvian Mittens

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I’m thinking about recreating this display in my apartment.

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Mittens with yellow stickers represent historically significant designs.

If you haven’t heard, it gets darn cold in Latvia. To protect hands from the harsh elements, grandmothers in the countryside have been knitting wool mittens for centuries. Today enterprising grannies sell their handiwork all over Riga, from street carts to souvenir shops. I’ve seen prices ranging from €8 to €62, with the quality varying just as much. My three favorite stores for traditional Latvian mittens are Sena Klets, Tines, and Hobbywool, all located in Old Town. The hardest part is choosing among many gorgeous colors and patterns. I have four pair and counting!

Enjoy Sunset Cocktails – at 3:30 pm

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With the sun rising at 9 am and setting at 3:30 pm, winter days in Riga are woefully short. Stave off the blues with a decadent mid-afternoon sundowner at one of the city’s rooftop bars! The 26th floor of the Radisson Blu Hotel Latvija is home to Skyline Bar, a chic cocktail lounge with fantastic city views. Another option is the Star Lounge Bar on the 11th floor of the Albert Hotel in Riga’s Art Nouveau district. The view of Old Town and the river might not be as great, but the Star Lounge boasts an outdoor terrace where you can snap sunset photos sans pesky window reflections.

Support Local Artists at the Student Art Fair

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Now in its thirteenth year, “Jarmarka” is the Latvian Academy of Art’s annual fair. Student works – everything from paintings and objets d’art to jewelry and one-of-a-kind fashions – are sold off with the proceeds going towards the restoration of the Academy’s historic building. If you’re in the market for a conversation piece for your home or wardrobe, this is the place to get it. Jarmarka 2015 runs from December 16-30 and is closed over Christmas. Note that sales are cash only.

Warm your Soul with Laima Chocolate

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Western European countries like Belgium and Switzerland might be famous for their chocolate, but Latvia has been producing its own for nearly as long. A Baltic German opened Latvia’s first confectionery in 1870 and the tradition lives on. Today, the country’s most well-known brand is Laima, and its factory is still in its original location on Miera Iela in central Riga. Stroll through that neighborhood during business hours and you will be overcome by the rich chocolate aroma. The factory has a museum and offers tours, while Laima shops can be found all over town. Be sure to try a cup of karstā šokolāde – literally a cup of hot melted chocolate. You won’t know what hit you!

Learn a Latvian Folk Dance

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Folk Club Riga

Photo gallery source: Folkklubs Ala

Every Wednesday, the popular Old Riga bar Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs throws a Latvian folk dancing party of epic proportions. People pack the medieval cellar-cum-tavern and learn to dance traditional Latvian steps with the help of professional instructors, live music, and lots of beer. There are 27 varieties of Latvian beer on tap!

Work up a Sweat at the Sauna

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If dancing doesn’t warm you up on a blustery winter’s day, how about a visit to the sauna? A tradition that’s very popular in these parts, the sauna is as fun as it is good for your health. There’s nothing quite as exhilarating as going from the hot wood-fired sauna and plunging naked into a frigid pool of water. And you might even make some new Latvian friends in the process! You can read all about my Latvian sauna experience here.

Cuddle Up with a Furry Friend

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The cat cafe craze has come to Riga and I’ve been only too happy to take part. MINKA Cat Cafe is located across the river in Riga’s Agenskalns neighborhood and is a cozy spot to while away the afternoon. There are four resident cats, though only two were out and about during my most recent visit. But considering one cuddly kitty parked himself next to me the whole time, that’s really all I needed. Oh, and the food’s pretty good, too!

Take Shelter in a Museum

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Entrance to the Riga Bourse Museum is on the right.

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Riga Bourse Museum

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Museum of the History of Riga and Navigation

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History of Riga Museum

For a relatively small city, Riga has a wealth of world-class museums. The Riga Bourse is a fine arts museum featuring a beautiful collection of European and Asian paintings and porcelain. The Museum of the History of Riga and Navigation may sound less than thrilling, but the exhibits are surprisingly engaging, particularly those on Peter the Great and Art Nouveau. Both museums are housed in stunning heritage buildings in Riga’s Old Town. The architecture alone is worth the price of admission!

Give Ice Skating a Whirl

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Be warned that the Latvians all skate like professionals.

Want to glide across the ice and unleash your inner Olympian? A new winter ice skating rink has been opened in Riga’s Esplanade park. The rink is open from 10:00-22:00 daily and is free to use so long as you bring your own skates. If you need to rent them, skates are available onsite for €3.

Get your Blood Pumping with Escape Room

Escape Room Riga

Photo gallery source: Escape Room

While I haven’t tried this interactive game myself (YET!), every person I know who has played Escape Room has raved about the experience. Some solved the puzzle and got out, while others had to be rescued by the staff. Either way, a good time was had by all. There are several different versions of the game at locations across town, and some sound scarier than others. I can’t wait to give it a go!

Cure What Ails You with Riga Black Balsam

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Riga Black Balsam

There’s a saying that if you haven’t tasted Riga Black Balsam, then you haven’t been in Riga. The city’s iconic – and potent! – liquor was developed by an 18th century pharmacist and first sold as a medicine. Indeed, the unique blend of 24 herbs and spices does lend the spirit a bitter medicinal flavor. That’s why many Latvians prefer to add a splash to their coffee or hot wine rather than drink it straight. I’m told it’s an excellent cure for the common cold. Riga Black Balsam was reputedly used to cure Empress Catherine the Great when she fell ill during a visit to the city. If it’s good enough for an empress…

Celebrate Winter Solstice Like a Latvian

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Latvians embrace their pagan roots at the annual Winter Solstice celebration, held on the grounds of the Latvian Ethnographic Open-Air Museum. Locals don animal costumes, sing and dance, and send their worries up in a puff of smoke with the burning of a yule log. Talk about starting the New Year with a clean slate!

Ring in the New Year with a Bang

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The city of Riga puts on a fireworks show like nobody’s business. The fantastic displays usually last for 10 minutes and are choreographed to music for dramatic effect. My favorite vantage point is the center of the Vansu Bridge, with Old Riga on one side and the striking new National Library on the other. The fireworks reflect on the surface of the river thereby doubling the show! New Years concerts are held on the November 11 Krastmala, or riverbank, though if you want champagne, you’ll have to bring your own.

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Riga Winter Travel Guide

What would YOU most like to do in Riga, Latvia this winter?

29 thoughts on “Top 15 Things to Do in Riga, Latvia this Winter

  1. I loved visiting Riga, but was there in the dead of summer – the winter looks magical there, a place that seems more ‘wintry’ to me anyway! We were lucky enough to be at Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs to witness the craziness, and I loved it. Looks like Latvia is a place I should look up for another visit soon!

    • I was showing a friend around Riga just yesterday and she was amazed by the number of craft markets and how many people were out despite the cold. There really is a ton to do here, winter or not. I definitely recommend another visit! 🙂

  2. I loved the photos and the wonderful tour of the city.
    Thanks for sharing..

    JH

  3. Thanks, Heather! You are really the best at ‘ferretting out the fun’ and describing it in such an interesting way! And Riga has so many good things to offer, love it!

    • Thanks so much, Gaby! I really appreciate your comment! Riga really does have so much to offer, and I’ve loved every second of my time here! Happy holidays 🙂

  4. Great post. I’ve gotten to do a few of these with you. Hope to do a few more (but when it’s warmer). Love the cat.

  5. Oh wow – this blog is quite fun! Well done for bringing out the expat aspect of Riga – you guys always have time and desire to wander about the place discovering things that locals wouldn’t do! I am from Riga originally but not as well connected with the “tourist” things to do in the city that you describe so nicely – it doesn’t help that I haven’t lived in Riga since 2004. Are you mingling with many expats there?

    • Thanks, Anjci! I bet the city has changed a lot since you last lived here. I’m amazed by all the great restaurants and museums – I think it’s one of the most dynamic cities in the region! I do mingle with other expats, mostly Swedes and Finns, but you may be surprised to know that I also have local Latvian friends who like to do some of this “tourist” stuff with me 🙂

      • I visit Riga almost monthly – agree it has changed! There certainly are more visitors now. Funnily, I only realised how lovely Riga is to visit as a tourist after I left : )

        I used to spend quite a lot of time with expats when I lived in Riga, mainly through the St. Saviour’s Anglican Church – though I haven’t been in years. It used to be such a great community.

        Haha, I certainly like my balzams – I prefer the blackcurrant version though. It would be a little weird though to e.g. learn a Latvian folk dance with all the other foreigners! I hope you are having fun in the snow!
        anjči recently posted…2015 NewsletterMy Profile

        • I think that’s true no matter where you’re from. I grew up near Washington DC and never really appreciated the city until I moved away.

          And I agree – the black currant Balzams is the best! 🙂

  6. Wow! You certainly make a person want to visit Riga! I guess I’ve got another city to check off my list now….

    • Thanks so much, Elizabeth! I see that you make lovely scarves. Where do you sell them? Do you ever set up at Kalnciema Kvartals?

    • Riga is a fabulous little city, isn’t it? I’ve lived here for a year and a half and still haven’t made it to all the museums. Frankly, I’m amazed by how much it has to offer! I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one. 🙂

  7. Hi Heather

    We are a couple (guy and gal) doing a visit to the Baltic from Helsinki in December 2016, winter time.
    We are allocating 5 to 6 nights before leaving back to Helsinki.
    We are pretty much quite adventurous and okay with walking etc. And just wanna feel the xmas experience and have fun.

    How would you suggest we spend out time in this 3 countries?

    Appreciate you help.

    • Tallinn’s Christmas market is pretty magical so you’ll probably want two nights there. I’d hire a car and drive to Riga, stopping in Parnu on the way. Riga has three Christmas markets and loads to do; I’d recommend at least two nights there. From Riga you could drive to Rundale Palace and then to the Hill of Crosses, which is just over the border in Lithuania. Given the small size of the Vilnius market and general lack of holiday atmosphere, I’d spend the bulk of your trip in the other two countries. If you did want to see more of Lithuania, I’d recommend spending a night in Kaunas. Hope this helps!

      • Thanks a lot! Helpful indeed.

        How easy is it to hire a car?

        I suppose if I hire in Estonia, I probably need to return back to the car company in Estonia at the end of my trip?

        How easy is it to drive during winter time?

        • I hired a car several times in Riga and never had any problems. I even drove through a snowstorm in January and it was fine. The main roads are well-plowed. I used the Europcar company and liked their customer service. In the office, they show you a map of all the surrounding countries you are allowed to drive their cars and you just have to let them know because it costs a little extra. My guess is that if you use a big international company, you can pick up the car in Tallinn and drop it off in Riga no problem. I once rented a car in Dubrovnik, Croatia and dropped it off in Venice, Italy. It just cost extra. Driving is my favorite way to get around because I love the freedom of being able to stop whenever and wherever I want!

  8. Hi Heather,

    Great post, looking forward to taking you up on your suggestions – especially the hot chocolate!!

    I’m visiting between the 17th-20th November, and believe two key events are taking place during that time, the Staro Rīga Light Festival and Proclamation Day of the Republic of Latvia. Do you have any specific recommendations for those events? Or know what time the Fireworks take place? In addition do you have any restaurant recommendations? (nothing to fancy, just a hearty local place). Sorry for a million and one questions!

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