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 €35 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! The games are thrilling to watch even when the team is struggling to make a goal 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 president and first lady were guests of honor at one match I attended!
Shop for Traditional Latvian Mittens
If you haven’t heard, it gets pretty 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 €68, 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! (For my complete Riga shopping guide, click here.)
Enjoy Sunset Cocktails – at 3:30 pm
With the sun rising at 9 am and setting at 4 pm, winter days in Riga are woefully short. Stave off the blues with a decadent mid-afternoon sundowner at a rooftop bars! The 26th floor of the Radisson Blu Hotel Latvija is home to Skyline Bar, a chic cocktail lounge with fantastic city views. I visited once during a winter storm and it felt like I was inside a snow globe.
Support Local Artists at the Student Art Fair
“Jarmarka” is the Latvian Academy of Art’s annual fair. Student works – everything from paintings and sculptures 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 runs for two weeks in December and is closed over Christmas. Note that sales are cash only.
Warm your Soul with Hot 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. Two of Riga’s most popular chocolatiers are V. Ķuze and Emils Gustavs. Both shops offer a delicious array of truffles, but the true star is 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 cellar of this medieval 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.
Take Shelter in a Museum
For a relatively small city, Riga has a wealth of world-class museums. 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 the city’s Art Nouveau movement. I could easily spend half a day here. Another great option is the Riga Bourse, which holds Latvia’s extensive collection of foreign art. (Bonus tip: there is a unique view of the Dome Square Christmas Market from a top-floor window.) Both museums are housed in stunning heritage buildings and the architecture alone is worth the price of admission! Check out my complete museum guide for more options.
Give Ice Skating a Whirl
Want to glide across the ice and unleash your inner Olympian? Strap on a pair of skates at one of several ice rinks in Riga. The most popular location for this activity is probably the Lido Leisure Center, which is located in the Latgale suburb and easily reached by bus and tram. In past years rinks have been set up in the Spikeri warehouse district and Esplanade park in central Riga.
Test your Endurance with Cross-Country Skiing
If ice skating seems a bit too dangerous, cross-country skiing might be more your speed. While I’ve seen locals skiing along Riga streets during particularly heavy snowstorms, there are much safer routes. Rīga Slēpo sets up courses in suburban locales, including Uzvaras parks, and charges a reasonable hourly rate. If you have your own skis and want a truly unique experience, hop the train to Jurmala and propel yourself over the snow-covered sand!
Get your Blood Pumping with Escape Room
I have tried my hand at two Escape Room games in Riga and can confirm that even if you don’t succeed, it’s still tons of fun to play. In each game, you will have one hour to solve puzzles and find a way out of the room. My friends I and successfully escaped in one scenario, but had to be rescued by the staff in our second attempt. We enjoyed the experience regardless.
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 Year’s events are held on the November 11 Krastmala, or riverbank, though if you want champagne, you’ll have to bring your own.
Know of any other fun things to do in Riga in winter?
Tell me about them in the comments!