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