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Women wrapped in fur coats, frost-covered buildings, twinkling lights in the early night: Riga in winter offers a quiet beauty that rewards attentiveness with wonder.

It is a city marked with scars of foreign occupation displayed in the blend of Medieval, Art Nouveau and Soviet architecture. Yet it is resilient in its celebration of Latvian culture.

Riga is the capital of Latvia, and the largest city in the three Baltic Countries (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania). It’s tucked away on the East Coast of the Baltic Sea.

Home to a third of Latvia’s local population (632,614 in 2019, roughly the population of Boston), it is best known for its old town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Affordable and culturally rich, Riga is a must-see travel destination, whatever the season.

READ MORE: Top 10 Things to Do in Riga, Latvia

What to See When You Visit Riga

House of the Black Heads, an iconic landmark in Riga
House of the Black Heads, an iconic landmark in Riga.
Photo by Kim Lefort

1. Diving Into the Past: Guided Tour of the Occupation Museum

To understand Latvia, especially as a post-Soviet state, you must do a guided tour of the Occupation Museum. Expertly curated, the guide will take you through an interactive retelling of Latvia’s history during its Nazi and Soviet occupations.

You will learn of national pains and terrors, but most importantly, of survival and hope. The exposition aspires not only to grief, but most importantly to thoughtfulness and empathy towards the tumultuous history of Riga and Latvia in general.

2. A National Treasure: The Opera

Chandelier inside the Latvian National Opera.
Inside the Latvian National Opera. Photo by Kim Lefort

Going to the National Latvia Opera is a fun, inexpensive and culturally immersive activity in Riga. Tickets range from 10-50 euros depending on your seat location, and the theater is almost always full—even during the week.

The Nutcracker is especially popular during the holidays (no surprise, given that a large population of the city is Russian speakers). Thus it is impossible to get tickets at the last minute.

Whether you are a fan of opera singing or ballet, the venue itself is worth a visit. Impressively gilded walls, painted ceilings, elegant chandeliers and beautifully dressed patrons give the space a very graceful ambiance.

And don’t worry there are English subtitles.

More on the National Latvia Opera

3. Warm Medicine: Balsam Tasting at Black Magic

Visit Riga Black Magic's secret door
Black Magic’s secret door. Photo by Kim Lefort

Black balsam is very proudly advertised as the liquor of choice in Riga. The best place to taste it is at Black Magic, a medieval-themed bar in the old town. Albeit a very tourist-centered attraction, Black Magic is quite a fun and intriguing venue.

The tasting is held in an underground vault, accessible only through a secret door. There, you will taste locally crafted balsam (and chocolate). Plus you will get to listen to a very enthusiastic storyteller elaborate on the history of Latvian balsam and its medicinal properties. Magic may or may not be involved, but you are guaranteed to leave the bar warm and joyful.  

4. A Frozen Beach: Jurmala

Jurmala's frozen beach
Jurmala’s frozen beach. Photo by Kim Lefort

A 30-minute train ride west of Riga will take you directly to Jurmala Beach and the Baltic Sea. While especially popular in summer, Jurmala’s winter landscape is not to be missed. Layers of hardened snow, like frozen pieces of the tide, line the beach as far as the eye can see.

The sky is wide and open, and so is the land, colored in hues of blue and gray, white and pink. A sliver of ocean separates them, made evident by the distant lull of the waves against sheets of ice on the shore. 

Fair warning: make sure to wear many layers and prepare mentally for harsh and insistent winds if visiting in the winter. The seaside is extremely cold, and unforgivingly so. But it is truly beautiful, which is why you will see many locals bundled up in their winter furs walking up and down the beach no matter the season.    

Jurmala beach day trip

5. Folk Tradition: Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs

Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs
Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs. Photo by Kim Lefort

Latvia prides itself as a “nation of singers” and fosters an important tradition of choral music and folk dancing. The language is beautifully lyrical and lends itself to melody with ease and grace.

Located in old town, with its underground brick archways and warmly lit halls, Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs is a local tavern that celebrates such heritage. Live music, traditional Latvian food and folk dancing liven the place every night. It is a popular spot amongst locals (especially students, due to their happy hour deals).

The premises were once used as ancient wine cellars, and the old vaults create a cozy medieval atmosphere, where laughter and friendly conversation can be held over delicious local draft beer.

6. The Food in Riga

Latvian potato salad
Latvian potato salad Image from Canva

LIDO

Offering cottage cheese-filled pancakes, pickled salads, potatoes and stewed meats, LIDO is a place of comfort food. It is a cantine-styled Latvian chain restaurant, very popular amongst locals for its low prices and quick service. The “medieval-folk” themed decor is quite endearing as well.

Hedgehog in the Fog (Ezītis Miglā)

Hedgehog in the Fog is another proudly Latvian franchise of cafe bars, named after an old Soviet art house animation. Popular amongst students, it offers a cozy atmosphere and an affordable menu. Choices include amazing burgers, vegetarian options and beer (the cherry beer is a personal favorite).

Hidden Gem: Muffins Muffins

Muffins Muffins is a small cafe that sells (you guessed it) muffins with a wide variety of delicious flavors. Options range from marzipan to currant and cottage cheese, or simple chocolate, all perfect for a little treat. It is a bit far from the old town, which means it is not often frequented by tourists.

Surprise Favorite: Karums

Want to try a special Latvian sweet treat? Go to the cheese section of any supermarket and look for a little package labeled Karums. In it, you will find chocolate glazed curd cheese, a sweet, smooth and creamy little treat. Originating in the Soviet Union, curd cheese bars are very popular in the Baltic states (Karums is the Lavian brand) and definitely worth a try.

Best Tips & Tools to Plan Your Trip

If You Go:

  • For all things bus tickets and SIM cards, Narvesen is your go-to convenience store.
  • Most people will speak some English, but knowing a few Latvian phrases is always helpful.
  • Hostel World is an excellent place to look for accommodation options.
  • January and February are the coldest months. Remember to pack a good pair of boots and a warm coat.

READ: Filling in the Holes, Discovering My Roots in Riga

Read More:

Author Bio: Kim Lefort (she/her) is based in Montreal, Canada. Her previous work (fiction and nonfiction) has been published in the McGill student journal Samizdat and the online magazine Red Rose Thorns.

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