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 unique activities and events that make Riga in autumn so special.
Scale the ramparts in Riga’s Bastejkalns park. Bastion Hill is a vast 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 what was once 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 in mid-October.) The cruise 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 an unbeatable 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 historic church (which doubles as an art gallery.) 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. One of the group explained that they live near Lielie Kapi and want to preserve its cultural heritage.
Lift your spirits with the friendly barkeeps of Labietis, Riga’s hippest craft brewery. The original pub is tucked inside a courtyard on near trendy Miera iela and has dozens of experimental brews on tap. The knowledgeable staff will gladly explain the different flavors, which are 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 Quarter. 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 Imperial Russian forces and made Latvia an independent country. Locals lay flowers at the base of Riga’s Freedom Monument and light candles by the thousand 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. 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.
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. You’ll find the entrance to the zoo in the vast Mezaparks, an ideal leaf-peeping spot.
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 autumnal 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!
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.)
Looking for even more seasonal beauty? Hop the train for an easy day trip to Sigulda, Latvia’s premier autumn destination. You can find my detailed guide here.
Visiting Riga during the winter months? Then you’ll want to read this!
What do you think are the most fun and unique things to do in Riga in autumn?