Autumn is a glorious time to visit Riga, Latvia. Golden leaves bedazzle the old city, which by this time has shed some of the flag-wielding tour groups and stag parties that clog the narrow alleys in summer. Early in the season, the weather is still fine enough to sip cider on sidewalk patios, albeit with a blanket wrapped around your shoulders. November turns dark and chilly in a hurry, although holiday celebrations still entice locals out of doors. Here are some of the fun ways I made the most of this annual crescendo.
Scale the ramparts in Riga’s Bastejkalns park. Bastion Hill is a vast green space to the west of the Freedom Monument that was created in the 19th century after the old city fortifications were torn down. Traces of them remain, however. Follow the curving staircase up to the base of a tower, and you’ll find a vantage point ideal for surveying the realm.
Sit back and admire the leaves on a Riga Canal cruise. Wooden boats ply the Riga City Canal, the moat which once surrounded the medieval city and now runs through Bastejkalns park. The variety of trees lining the banks creates a kaleidoscopic effect for several weeks each fall. (Riga’s foliage generally peaks around the second week of October.) The cruise (€18 per person) lasts one hour and includes a scenic stretch along the Daugava River. If you’re lucky, you might even see one of the city’s elusive beavers!
Head to the top of St Peter’s Church spire for a birds-eye view. I made frequent trips to the lofty observation platform and found that Riga’s Old Town looked positively ethereal in the soft autumn light. If you time your visit for the late afternoon sunset, you’ll be rewarded with a city bathed in rose gold. Tickets cost €9 and include entrance to the church (which doubles as an art gallery) in addition to a ride in the lift. Note that the ticket office closes at 5pm sharp during the fall and winter seasons. I once showed up at 5:04 and was turned away.
Return back down to Earth at Lielie Kapi, or the Great Cemetery. The final resting place of Latvia’s 18th and 19th century denizens, many of Baltic German extraction, was bulldozed by the Soviets in the 1960s and turned into a public park. But many tombstones and crumbling crypts still stand, some restored by local Latvians. I came across one small group tending the graves of Krisjanis Barons and Krisjanis Valdemars – two of Latvia’s most venerable national figures. They explained that they live near Lielie Kapi and view it as part of a cultural heritage worth preserving.
Honor a hero at the Janis Lipke Memorial. This small but powerful museum is dedicated to someone who, with his family and a few close friends, saved over 50 Jews from the Riga Ghetto during World War II. Mr. Lipke was employed at the dock warehouses and responsible for transporting ghetto inmates to and from work each day. When the opportunity arose, either from lax security or by bribing the guards, he would help Jews escape. Some were hidden with trusted friends in Riga, while others were spirited away to farms in Dobele. The rest survived the war in a secret bunker Mr. Lipke created under the woodshed on his property on Kipsala, an island in the Daugava River. Amazingly, the Lipke family was never betrayed to the Nazis and continue to live on Kipsala to this day.
The museum was built next to the Lipke home and designed by premier Latvian architect Zaiga Gaile. Ms. Gaile’s firm is responsible for rehabbing many of the island’s old wooden homes and revitalizing the area. It’s a lovely place to walk and reflect on a crisp fall afternoon.
Lift your spirits with the friendly barkeeps of Labietis, Riga’s hippest craft brewery. The original pub is tucked inside a courtyard on Aristida Briana iela and has twelve experimental brews on tap. The knowledgeable staff will gladly explain the different flavors, which they’ve divided into five color families. The “yellow” beers were popular with my crowd, though I also enjoyed the Dumenis (Smoky) “red” beer. Want to know even more? Ask for a tour of the Labietis brewery!
Celebrate the Autumn harvest at a Saturday market in Kalnciema Kvartals. Country farmers show off their bounty of fall produce, along with all the jams, honeys, and breads you can eat. This is also a great spot to pick up local handicrafts and knitwear, like hats and scarves, which you will soon need. (I’m fond of the “Mice” brand of accessories.) While you’re in the neighborhood, take some time to appreciate the historic wooden Art Nouveau architecture which is gradually being restored to its former glory.
Pay tribute to Latvia’s freedom fighters on Lacplesis Day. November 11 commemorates the day in 1919 when Latvia’s army defeated Russian forces and made Latvia a free and independent country. Locals lay flowers at the base of Riga’s Freedom Monument and light candles by the thousands to mark the special event. I was moved to witness parents and teachers explain the significance of the day to their children, ensuring the tradition continues for generations to come.
Get patriotic on November 18 for Latvian Independence Day. On this date in 1918, Latvia officially declared its independence from the Russian Empire, though it would take another year for this to be fully realized (see Lacplesis Day, above). This public holiday is one of the biggest events of the year, celebrated with a military parade and spectacular fireworks display. Locals participate by laying heaps of flowers at the Freedom Monument and making torchlight processions across the city. Many torches are left in Bastejkalns park, turning it into a fairy kingdom for the night.
Take a tour of Latvia’s parliament, or Saeima. The historic building was constructed in 1867 for the Livonian knights and transferred to the Latvian government in 1920. Guided tours can be prearranged for groups and take visitors through the beautifully restored entrance hall, library, meeting rooms, and voting chamber. If you want to experience the government in action, it’s possible to observe a plenary session, though the proceedings will be entirely in Latvian.
Amuse the kids at two of Riga’s family-friendly museums. The Latvian Railway Museum has a large collection of historical photographs, maps, and train schedules, though it’s the “rolling stock” that’s of most interest. Vintage locomotives and train cars are parked on the tracks behind the museum, and some you can climb aboard! The Latvian Firefighting Museum is chockablock with antique vehicles and fire safety equipment, such as uniforms, pumps, and hoses. You can even test your fire-extinguishing capabilities in an interactive game!
Say hello to the animals at the Riga Zoo. This sprawling park is home to dozens of animals, including lions, hippos, giraffes, bears, camels, and kangaroos. The zoo is well-tended and some of the enclosures have been newly renovated to give the large animals lots of space to roam. Picnic areas are available if you want to make a day of it – but heed the signs and don’t feed the animals! The Riga Zoo is open every day and adult tickets cost €6, though discounted family tickets are available.
Peruse the latest styles at Riga Fashion Week. Top designers from the Baltic countries show off their spring-summer collections in October, giving everyone something to look forward to at the end of those long winter months. Names to look out for include Dace Bahmann, Anna Led, and Narciss.
Light up the night with Staro Riga. For one weekend every November, Riga is transformed by art installations that illuminate the dark autumn sky. Creative and colorful displays timed to music dance across building facades and fountains around the city. Frigid temperatures can’t keep the crowds away from this much anticipated annual spectacle!
Enjoy a performance of the Latvian National Opera and Ballet. I know I recommended this activity in my Winter edition, but the shows are so marvelous they deserve a another mention. My favorites include La Traviata, Madama Butterfly, Don Quixote, Swan Lake, and Giselle. I was continually impressed by the talent of the performers, the stunning set pieces and costumes, and the affordable ticket prices. Nights at the theater felt like such a treat, and now that I no longer live in Riga, it’s one of the things I miss most.
Give Autumn a proper sendoff with mulled wine at the Riga Christmas Market. The festivities open in Dome Square at the end of November, and last through the first week of January, giving you plenty of time to soak up the holiday atmosphere. At least a quarter of the stalls sell hot food and beverages, which you’ll definitely need to combat the chilly temps. (Latvian mittens also help.)
What do YOU think are the best things to do in Riga in Autumn?