Riga in Winter: the ultimate travel guide
This post is all about visiting Riga in winter. Riga, the capital of Latvia, is located on the coast and emerged as an important trade post in the 12th century. It has remained the biggest city in the Baltics ever since.
Riga in winter gets cold, but the people in Latvia are used to the icy conditions. For them, winter is also a festive and cozy time. A time they have the city for themselves, because few tourists visit Riga in winter.
Why visit Riga in winter
There are, however, many reasons to visit Riga in winter. Riga is more or less on the same latitude as Southern Sweden. Due to climate change, frost is no longer a guarantee when you visit Riga in winter. Still, temperatures often drop well below zero.
Chances are high that you will see Riga covered in a thick blanket of snow, making the city’s old town even more picturesque.
Riga’s strategic position made it a city fought over by many powers. It once belonged to the Germans, the Poles, the Swedes and the Russians. Riga has layers of history and the 20th century was especially difficult. Both the Nazi and Soviet occupations left deep scars.
A cold and snowy grey winter day is the perfect time to visit the city’s museums to learn more about Latvia’s long road to independence. When the weather isn’t too bad, take your time to wander the streets of the old town or the art nouveau district or head out of the city to explore Latvia’s stunning nature
One of the biggest advantages of Riga in winter is the lack of other tourists. There will be some, but nowhere near the amount that overwhelms the city in summer. As a result, prices for accommodation will be lower. And you don’t need to worry about restaurant reservations or waiting in line to enter a museum.
Things to do in Riga in winter
There are plenty of things to do in Riga in winter. Basically everything you can do in summer, you can also do in winter. It’s just less busy.
There are a few winter specific activities too like the christmas markets and ice rinks. Below you find the best things to do in Riga in winter
Riga’s christmas markets and christmas tree
Riga and Tallinn compete with having the first christmas tree set up in a town square in Europe. No matter who was really first, it is a yearly tradition that returns along with nice christmas markets throughout the city.
The christmas tree is set up at the town hall square in front of the House of the Black heads. Outside the season you can still look for the first christmas tree marker. For the best christmas markets head to Doma laukums or the Esplanade Park.
Ice skating and cross country skiing
Ice skating is a popular activity in Riga in winter and there are several ice rinks. The one in Spikeri is very popular.
There is also one in Uzvaras Park (Victory park) that is also a popular place for cross country skiing.
Visit Riga old town
I was surprised by how small Riga’s old town is and yet, how easy it was to get lost. Luckily, this is the kind of place when simply wandering around is the best thing you can do.
Personally, Riga’s old town wasn’t really what I expected. Most pictures you see are from just a few medieval sights. What the pictures don’t show is that they stand next to more modern buildings as well.
Riga’s old town is a strange mix of different styles that don’t always fit well together. Maybe not a surprise considering the city’s turbulent and multicultural history. In winter the snow certainly adds extra charm to Riga’s old town.
House of the Black heads
The most famous structure in Riga’s Old town is the House of the Black Heads. This is actually one of the newest buildings in this list and construction finished in 1999.
It is an exact replica of the 14th century building for the Black Heads. This guild of unmarried men played a big role in the Baltic trade networks. Among them were merchants and shipowners.
Although way less ornamental, the headquarters of the Black Heads Brotherhood was in Tallinn. Initially, the building in Riga was more simple as well. The beautiful facade was an addition from the 17th century. It was considereff the most beautiful structure in Riga till the fateful day when Germans bombed it to ruins in 1941.
The Three brothers
For the oldest buildings in Riga head to the three brothers. You can see immediately that these buildings have a long history.
The oldest is from 1490 and stands slightly skewed. The other two are from the 17th century. Apparently they are all three built by different generations from the same family. The Dutch influences reveal the close trade relationships between Riga and the Netherlands.
The Cat house
The Cat house gained its popularity as a symbol of Riga as well as a symbol of protest. The owner of the house had its personal problems with the Guild and the Riga Town Council.
To bother them he placed two black cats on his roof that were looking towards the Guild and Riga Town Council. With superstitious beliefs about black cats bringing bad luck, the owner finally got what he wanted.
The black cats no longer point to anything in particular. It’s easy to overlook the feline creatures when you don’t know they are there until you see other people taking pictures of them.
Dom of Riga
The Old town of Riga is home to three important churches. The 13th century Dome cathedral is the largest medieval church in the Baltics as well as the seat for the archbishop of Riga.
Behind the church you will find a statue of the town musicians of Bremen looking through a crack in the wall symbolizing the iron curtain. The crack was the result of Gorbachev’s perestroika allowing the animals to see a new world. Rubbing their noses brings good luck.
The St Peter church is also from the 13th century and is another Lutheran church like the Dome cathedral.
St.Peter was reconstructed several times and is now home to the tallest peak. You can visit the tower for beautiful views over Riga.
The St. James Cathedral or the Saint Jacob Cathedral is the main roman catholic church in Riga. Like the other churches it was built in the early 13th century
The church is dedicated to Saint James. One of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus and the patron saint of Spain.
Visit the Art nouveau district
Besides the Old Town, Riga is also famous for its Art Nouveau. Almost a third of the buildings in the center have art nouveau characteristics making Riga the city with the highest concentration of Art Nouveau architecture.
The Art Nouveau style was popular in Riga at the end of the 19th and early 20th century. During this time the city was expanding rapidly beyond the medieval city walls and most new structures were designed with Art Nouveau and Jugendstil decorations.
There are some beautiful examples in the Old Town, but the most extravagant buildings are in the city’s Art Nouveau district around Albert iela and Elizabeth iela.
Riga central market
Riga’s central market is one of my favourite places in Riga. It is one of the biggest markets in Eastern Europe and besides lots of local and fresh products, there are also delicacies from all over the former Soviet Union.
From Georgian candies, Central Asian nuts to Uzbek bread from a tandoor oven. Local products include smoked fish, honey, pickles and lots of fresh herbs and vegetables.
The market is right next to the train and bus stations. There are 5 market halls that used to be zeppelin hangars with over 3000 market stands including a nice food court too. It’s a great place to try Latvian food products so come with an empty stomach
Riga Academy of sciences
The Latvian Academy of Sciences might look familiar to those who have been in Moscow. The building is typical of the so-called Stalinist architecture and resembles other Soviet buildings like the Moscow State University.
Locals also call it Stalin’s birthday cake. Look well and you can still find the hammer and sickle symbols on the outside. Inside things haven’t changed much either and even the cafeteria is like a Soviet canteen style stolovaya.
The main reason to come here is for the panorama view you get on the top floor. In my opinion, cheaper and better than the one you get at the St. Peters church.
National Library of Latvia
Another place that offers views over Riga is the top floor of the National Library of Latvia. In this case it is even free after registering for a visitors pass.
The National Library is a brand new building with an interesting style. It is also known as the castle of light.
It is a beautiful library, but the ultra modern design is in stark contrast with the rest of Riga. Besides the view, there are some interesting exhibitions for visitors. I enjoyed the one about the history of books.
Uzvaras park is a large park in Riga that is very popular in winter for cross country skiing. It is also home to the monument for the victory of the Soviet army over Nazi Germany.
In Riga it is a controversial memorial as for many Latvians it is also the start of the reoccupation of Latvia by the Soviets.
In recent years there have been a number of petitions. Some supported removal, others called for the preservation of monuments.
Update: In August 2022 the Soviet memorial was removed from the victory Park in an effort to show solidarity with Ukraine.
To understand the controversy of the victory memorial in Latvia better I recommend you visit the nearby Tornakalns station.
On 14 June 1941 the Soviet authorities deported more than 15,000 Latvians to remote locations in Siberia. In 1945 another 42,000 Latvians were deported in a similar way.
At the Tornakalns train station there is now a small memorial. In front of the station there are some glass panels with information and stones with the names of places where people were deported to. This includes places like Vorkuta and Magadan that are in the Russian Arctic regions as well as Karaganda in Kazakhstan.
Next to the station is the example of a cattle wagon that was used in the deportations. About 40 people were inside and the journey could take weeks.
The freedom monument is another memorial. This time commemorating the soldiers who died in the first war for Latvia’s independence in 1918.
The monument was built in 1935 and surprisingly the Soviets did not take it down. It remained a symbol of national independence and in 1987 it became a gathering place for the new national independence movement that finally succeeded in 1991.
The Nativity Cathedral is the largest Russian Orthodox church in Latvia. It is still an active church for the Russian people living in Riga.
It’s a bit outside of the center, but not far from the corner house.
Visit a museum
Riga has a large number of museums. Surprisingly a lot of them are free of charge or on a donation basis.
Quality and size differ a lot, but there are definitely some worthwhile museums to visit among them.
Museum of the occupation
Unfortunately the Museum of the occupation was closed for renovations when I was in Riga in february 2022.
This museum gets good reviews already for the insight into life during Soviet times and I guess it can only get better.
I did visit the museums of occupation and freedom in Tallinn and Vilnius. Both were really informative and provided a better understanding of the history of the Baltic capitals. I hope to visit the one in Riga in the future
The Corner house was the former KGB building in Riga. It has a free museum on the first floor and you can take a guided tour to the cellars that were used to imprison and question political prisoners.
The tour takes about an hour and the guides are very informative. The basement is pretty much the way it was during KGB times.
Museum of the Popular front
The Museum of the Popular Front is a small museum about the Popular Front. This political organisation developed in the late 80’s and played a big role in the independence of Latvia.
It’s a very informative museum that is not only about the organisation, but also the events, such as the Baltic Way and the Barricades, on the long road to independence.
1991 barricade museum
After the Museum of the Popular Front, I suggest you go to the Barricades museum. This museum is very small, but in my opinion one of the best.
In just a few rooms it brings back the days in January 1991 when the people of Riga barricaded important public buildings in the center to prevent the Soviets from taking over again.
The Soviets did try and a few people died, but in the end the barricades held. Full independence was restored on 21 august 1991.
The museum actually provides little textual information. I suggest you first visit the occupation museum and the museum of the Popular front to have a better understanding of the barricades event.
Riga ghetto and Holocaust museum
The Riga ghetto and Holocaust museum is a must visit in Riga. This open air museum has several exhibitions telling the story of the Holocaust in Latvia and the Riga ghetto.
A very dark page in history and the events that happened in and around the Riga ghetto are just as cruel as the stories from Auschwitz. Jews from the ghetto were mostly executed by mass shootings in the Rumbala forests around Riga.
The information and reconstruction of the Riga ghetto do a good job in telling the story that is hard to process. Do dress warm in winter as most of the exhibition is outside where you will stand still for long periods to read the information panels.
Things to do near Riga in winter
Salaspils was a prison and correctional labor camp, 18 kilometers south of Riga, set up by Nazi Germany in 1941. The camp was built by Jews from Germany that were later brought to the Riga ghetto.
There were plans for Salaspils to become a concentration camp for Jews, but in the end it was mostly used for prisoners, including political prisoners, Soviet prisoners of war, resistance fighters, work avoiders and suspected communists.
The camp saw about 20,000 prisoners coming through in the years of operation from 1941 to 1944. Due to heavy labour and harsh conditions around 2500 people died including a number of children.
The Soviets built a memorial in 1967 to commemorate the victims of Nazi Germany. There are no structures left of the camp itself, but three large statues stand in the empty field that was once the camp.
There are also some exhibitions about the history of the camp inside the concrete walkway of the main memorial.
Another Soviet memorial for Soviet victims in WW2 is in Salaspils town itself, about 500 meters from the train station. I took the time for a short walk through Salaspils itself. A small town dominated by Soviet flat apartments.
How to get there: Take the train from Riga to Salaspils (45 minutes). From Salaspils train station it is a 30 minute walk to the Salaspils memorial in the forest. The trail is easy to follow, even in winter.
Kemeri National Park is the perfect nature getaway from Riga. This national park of wetlands, bogs and forests has a number of hiking and cycling trails.
The most accessible trail is the Kemeri bog trail. A 3.5 kilometer loop over boardwalks and an observation tower in the middle.
The trail is popular enough that in winter you can still follow the trail when the bogs are covered in a white layer of snow.
How to get there: Take a train towards tukums 1 or 2 and get out at Kemeri train station (50 minutes). It is a 3 kilometer walk from the station to the beginning of the trail. It is a nice walk through the forest.
One of the most popular day trips from Riga is the Jurmala beach resort. Already in Soviet times this was a popular holiday destination with sanatoriums providing rest and recuperation to Soviet labourers.
To be honest, winter is probably not the best time to visit Jurmala. A lot of the beach resorts and restaurants will be closed and the place feels somewhat desolate.
That said, Jurmala is definetly still worth a visit. Personally, I enjoyed the peace and quiet in town. I visited on a rare sunny day when there was still snow on the beach. With a backdrop of pine tree forests it was simply beautiful.
How to get there: Trains run frequently towards Jurmala (30 minutes). Jurmala is quite spread out and there are several train stations where you can get out. I suggest Majori that brings you near the main shopping street and close to the turtle statue at the beach.
Sigulda is located in Gauja National Park. This town is the gateway to lots of hiking and cycling opportunities in the Gauja forests. It is also in the vicinity of a number of castles and manors.
There are enough things to do in Sigulda to actually stay longer here than just a daytrip from Riga. If you have just one day don’t miss the Sigulda and Turaida castles.
There is a 6 kilometer hiking trail connecting the major sights in Sigulda with each other. The trail does include several stairs up and down the rocky cliffs next to the Gauja river.
They can be a bit tricky and slippery in winter, but the views are spectacular.
How to get there: trains run from Riga to Sigulda (1 hour) several times a day. The tourist info centre in the train station has a wealth of information about the hiking and cycling trails in the area.
Cesis is a small town that is mostly famous for the Cesis Castle and its Hanseatic Old town. There is just enough to see and do for a day trip from Riga.
You can also combine it with a longer trip including Sigulda and Gauja National Park. From Cesis there are also lots of hiking and cycling opportunities. In fact, the most scenic stretch from the Gauja river valley runs from Cesis to Ligatne.
How to get there: trains run from Riga to Sigulda (2 hours) several times a day
Where to eat in Riga in winter
Riga as the capital of Latvija is obviously a great place to try Latvian food. Latvia has lots of local products such as smoked fish, pickles and foraged foods like berries and mushrooms.
For dinner the combination of pork, potatoes and cabbage is very popular and you will find different ways it is prepared. Pork chops, pork ribs or roasted pork with cabbage stew. Potatoes can be boiled, roasted or mashed. Potato pancakes are also very popular and often served with salmon.
Lido is a great chain for budget conscious travellers wanting to try Latvian food. It’s based on a more deluxe version of the Russian style stolovaya.
There is a buffet and you can choose whatever you like. You pay per item. There is a wide choice in meat or fish dishes, different kind of potatoes or rice and salads.
Lido is therefore also a good option if you are vegetarian. There is one at the station and one in the old town.
Old traditions is actually a Russian restaurant and was my favourite in Riga. The food is based on ancient 19th century recipes and are not the usual Russian dishes you expect. The food was very delicious. I can recommend the pike croquettes and the koendjubki dumplings.
Milda is a midrange restaurant specialized in Latvian and Lithuanian food. It is not as cheap as Lido, but you get a more restaurant like experience.
I tried the potato dumplings with meat (cepilinai) and beetroot soup. Both well prepared and delicious.
Riga in Winter Travel Tips
Where to sleep in Riga in winter
Budget dormitories: Riga’s old town has a number of cheap backpacker hostels to stay for less than 15 Euro’s per night in a dormitory. Hostels that are centrally located with good reviews are Tree house, Blue bird hostel and Cinnamon Sally
Budget rooms: If you prefer a private room, Hotel Saida is not far from the centre and has good budget rooms.
Midrange Appartments: If you stay for a longer period of time I would suggest staying in one of the plenty appartments that are on offer in Riga. Green garden and Barona residence are near the center of Riga and have good reviews.
How to get to Riga
Riga is easy to reach. Riga’s international airport has direct flights to most other European capitals.
There are also good bus connections with neighbouring countries. I would recommend Lux express. Lux express has very comfortable buses that I have used on a number of occasions. They have buses between Tallinn and Riga as well as Vilnius.
How to get around Riga
Most sights are within walking distance of each other so I rarely used public transport. The few times I did I bought a bus ticket at Narvesen. A single ticket costs 1.15 euro.
For day trips around Riga I used the trains. You can book tickets online or at the train station.
In general, Riga is a safe city for travellers, including solo female travellers. Like in any large city the biggest thing to look out for is pickpocketing and petty theft. If you use your common sense it will be easy to prevent any problems.
In winter though, ice becomes another danger. Coming from Holland, real cold winters are something from the past. I am obviously not used to ice and I sometimes had a hard time walking on the sidewalks that can be very slippery. The most tricky is when there is fresh snow and you can’t see the ice underneath. But trust me, it is there.
Watching the sidewalks carefully for slippery parts is important, but it is also a good idea to look up once in a while. Icicles hanging from the roofs of buildings occasionally fall down.
Dress warm: Due to climate change freezing temperatures are no longer a guarantee. It can happen that there is no snow and no ice during your visit.
When I visited in February temperatures were between -1 and +3 degrees celsius. On a windy day it can feel much colder though.
My biggest advice is to dress warm and bring enough warm clothes. At least a good windproof jacket, a woollen hat and warm gloves.
Short days: Keep in mind that days are short. To make the most out of daylight hours requires a bit of planning. For example, saving museum visits at the end of the day when it already gets dark.
Sustainable Travel in Riga
Riga sees more tourists every year. While Tourism is a welcome source of income it can also have negative consequences. Traveling sustainably in Riga, involves conscious choices that minimize your environmental impact and support the local community.
Support the community: You can support the community by purchasing goods and services from local markets and restaurants. A great place to start are the websites Tours by Locals and Eat with Locals. It is better to try Baltic cuisine that uses local ingredients rather than imported foreign foods. Latvian food is not very vegetarian friendly, but there are a few vegetarian restaurants in Riga. You can check Happycow for the best vegan and vegetarian restaurants in Riga.
Stay in small scale sustainable hotels: It is also better to stay in small-scale guesthouses or homestays to support the local economy directly. These accommodations often have a more positive impact on the environment compared to large hotels. You can also look for hotels that prioritizes sustainable practices.
Use public transport: Riga has a well-developed public transportation system. Opt for public transport, whenever possible, instead of taxis or private cars to reduce carbon emissions. Even better is exploring the city by foot.
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