Who visits Riga in December? Well, I do! And before you start shivering, let me tell you that there are plenty of things to do in Riga in winter and that it really isn't as cold as you probably think.
I spent four days in the capital of Latvia to visit the Christmas markets and get a feel for what the city has to offer.
Below, you can find my itinerary for four days in Riga, full of fun things to do in Riga, as well as tips on where to have a coffee, go for dinner and spend the night.
- Things to do in Riga in winter
- How to get to Riga
- How to get around Riga
- Where to stay in Riga
- Day 1: Riga Christmas markets
- Day 2: from old to new
- 1. The Bremen Musicians
- 2. St. Peter's Church
- 3. Coffee break at Pienene
- 4. House of the Blackheads
- 5. The first Christmas tree story
- 6. The Riga Cathedral
- 7. The Three Brothers
- 8. The Nativity of Christ Cathedral
- 9. Lunch at Big Bad Bagels
- 10. MiiT Coffee
- Shopping around Terbatas iela and Krisjana Barona iela
- 11. Dinner at Ogle Wood Fired Grill
- Day 3: from the Riga market hall to the art side
- Day 4: quick walk around Miera iela
- Stay connected while visiting Riga
- Don't forget travel insurance
- Pin for later
Things to do in Riga in winter
How to get to Riga
I flew directly from Brussels Airport to Riga Airport with Air Baltic and then had a private transfer into the Old Town, which took a little less than half an hour. This cost €15 one-way.
If you don't want to book transportation ahead, you can catch a taxi (choose the Red Cabs or the green Baltic Taxis) right outside the terminal. This will set you back €12-€13 one-way. As that's only a little cheaper, you'll need to wait for a taxi to be available and you'll need to have cash or card at hand, I recommend avoiding the hassle and just booking a transfer beforehand.
The cheapest option is to take bus 22 or minibuses 222 and 241 from behind Parking 1 across from the terminal building. Tickets can be purchased at the Welcome to Riga! Bureau in Arrivals Hall E, from a ticket vending machine at the bus stop and in retail outlets at Levels 1 and 2 of the terminal. You cannot buy your ticket on the bus so make sure to get it before you leave the airport.
How to get around Riga
Riga is a very walkable city, especially if you plan to stick to the main tourist areas. If you do want to venture a bit further out, you can make use of the public transportation system, which includes buses and trams. Single-use tickets can be bought straight from the driver.
Want to do some sightseeing while getting around the city? Get tickets for the hop-on/hop-off bus.
Where to stay in Riga
My Riga hotel
I spent three nights at the Wellton Riga Hotel & Spa. This is what my room looked like:
As the name says, this hotel also has a spa area where you can book a treatment or simply enjoy the pool, sauna or steam bath. There's also a cigar room and in the mornings you can enjoy the breakfast buffet which includes sparkling wine.
The hotel is located at the edge of the Old Town, right by a big shopping mall. Be sure to also check out Kafka Kafija, a cute cafe on the second floor of a bookstore in the same street as the hotel.
Want to stay at the Wellton Riga Hotel & Spa too? Check here for prices and availability.
Budget option: Riga Hostel
Riga Hostel is located in Riga's Old Town and has rooms for two, four and ten people as well as for solo travelers. There's a shared kitchen as well as a lounge area with a TV, a DVD player, and a book exchange corner. Practical items such as hairdryers and irons are available upon request. WiFi, bed linen and towels are included.
Boutique option: Redstone Boutique Hotel
The Redstone Boutique Hotel lies in Riga's historic center just a short walk from the cathedral and the opera. All rooms are air-conditioned and equipped with a flatscreen tv with satellite channels, bathrobes, slippers, and toiletries. Both a delicious breakfast and WiFi are included in the room price.
Luxury option: Grand Poet by Semarah
This five-star luxury hotel is located in the center of Riga, walking distance from all main sights. Its rooms are equipped with all modern facilities and all have a seating area and desk. Guests have free access to the fitness and wellness center once a day and can book massages and other treatments at a surcharge.
The hotel also has its own restaurant, cafe, and bar where the included breakfast is served. WiFi is free of charge as well.
If you prefer looking for apartment options, check out Airbnb. While I use Booking for hotels, I always check Airbnb for apartments as they have such a large selection.
If you'd like to try Airbnb but don't have an account yet, I can give you a discount on your first booking if you book through my link. This doesn't cost you anything.
If you already have an account and found this post helpful, please consider booking your next Airbnb through my link. I'll earn a small commission while the price for you stays exactly the same. Income like this helps me travel independently and create new content.
Day 1: Riga Christmas markets
As I'd arrived in the afternoon, I decided to spend the rest of my first day in Riga exploring the Christmas markets. But not before getting some food and liquid warmth inside of me.
1. Mon Amour Café
I met up with Lelde from the Latvian tourism board who guided me to Mon Amour Café, a lovely cafe that's larger inside than you'd expect at first glance.
Narrow but deep, Mon Amour consists of three different seating areas in adjoining rooms. This creates a homely vibe allowing visitors to catch up or quietly enjoy a book in their own little space.
The lovely Baiba serves locally-roasted coffee from the Rocket Bean Roastery (a place I'd visit later on this trip), a selection of teas as well as home-baked cakes and quiches.
As I hadn't had lunch yet – packed sandwiches on the plane don't count, right? – I ordered a slice of quiche and some Earl Grey. I'm usually hesitant to order quiche when eating out as it often ends up being soggy when heated. This slice was still perfectly crunchy, though, and came with a bit of greens.
I wouldn't be me if I hadn't been tempted by the sight of the cakes and so I ordered a slice of chocolate cheesecake for dessert.
Yes, chocolate cheesecake. It was even better than it sounds. It was the most perfect cheesecake I've ever had. I cannot stress this enough. Just go try it. You'll see.
Mon Amour Café
Jāņa iela 14
Check their Facebook page for up-to-date opening hours.
2. The Riga Christmas markets
All refueled, it was time to hit up the Christmas markets. Riga has three of them right in the city center – two in the Old Town and one at the Esplanade Park.
For 2017-2018, the Riga Christmas market dates are December 2, 2017 – January 7, 2018.
Doma Laukums Riga Christmas Market
The Christmas market at the Doma Laukums or “Dome Square” was the one that most resembled the idea I have of a traditional Christmas market. It had a large pine tree, classic wooden shacks and a fire pit.
The smell of hearty foods mixed with the warmth of drinks like Glühwein and hot chocolate while people looked at the warm woolen scarves, mittens and winter slippers on display at one of the stands.
Other things to buy were wooden toys and Christmas ornaments.
If those aren't exactly your thing, pop in at ???, a store selling locally produced gifts and home decorations.
By the way, Christmas in Latvia is celebrated on the evening of the 24th, in case you'd want to unwrap your souvenirs the Latvian way :-) And “Happy Christmas” in Latvian is “Priecīgus Ziemassvētkus”. Try pronouncing that ;-)
Livu Laukums Christmas Market
Just a few minutes walking from Doma Laukums lies Livu Laukums. Here you can find another small but interestingly modern Christmas market. While the stands here are still wooden, they consist of straight lines without any curls or other decorations.
The Christmas tree at this market is also quite special, being made out of thick wooden planks.
Esplanade Park Christmas market
The Esplanade Park lies just north of the Old Town and the Christmas market consists of two rows of wooden shacks, a Ferris wheel and… a rabbit village.
Yes, there's a big rabbit village, complete with a little rabbit church and little rabbit houses. Needless to say, this is the main attraction of the market.
To get to the Esplanade Park from the Old Town, you need to walk through another park which is beautifully lit during the holidays. Honestly, you can spot the best Riga sights by simply walking around. Just make sure you dress according to the weather, as it can get quite cold.
3. Dinner at Restaurant Domini Canes
As the sun sets before 4 p.m. in Riga in December and it was already dark by the time I'd visited the three Christmas markets, I decided to go freshen up at the hotel before heading out for dinner.
I ended up going to Restaurant Domini Canes simply by doing a Google Maps search, reading the reviews of restaurants close to my hotel and checking their menus.
Domini Canes has a small menu offering meat, fish and two vegetarian hot dishes. You can also get a salad. My salmon with potatoes and vegetables was lovely and very reasonably priced at €13.5.
The staff was friendly and I liked the vibe here. The restaurant isn't too big and tables are placed in such a way that you never feel like you could join the conversations of other guests.
I do recommend making a reservation if you want to dine here. I got lucky as I came early and they still had a table for one available, but saw many people being turned away as the rest of the tables had been booked.
Skārņu iela 18/20
Find the menu on their website.
Day 2: from old to new
1. The Bremen Musicians
I'd already seen a bit of Riga Old Town while visiting the Christmas market, but now it was time to get serious about my Riga sightseeing. My first stop was at the statue of the Musicians of Bremen, right by the St. Peter's Church at Skarnu iela.
The statue shows a cockerel standing on a cat standing on a dog standing on a donkey and was inspired by a fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm. In the tale, the four animals are left by their owners who no longer deem them useful. They decide to travel to Bremen to become musicians and happen upon a cottage in which robbers are feasting on food and drinks.
They decide to go stand on each other's backs and make as much noise as possible to scare away the robbers so they can have the cottage (and the food) instead. Their trick works.
The animals of the statue aren't looking into a cottage, though. They're actually peering through the Iron Courting into a new world where they hope to find a better life.
It was the Bremen artist Krista Baumgaertel who gave the statue, a gift from Riga's sister city Bremen, this political subtext.
The story goes that rubbing the animals' noses brings you luck. I could only reach the bottom two noses, so let's hope that was enough :-)
2. St. Peter's Church
While I'm not big on churches, I highly recommend visiting the St. Peter's Church as well. It's one of the top Riga attractions because you can take the lift up to the top of the church tower to get an amazing 360° view of the city.
Aside from that, the church also hosts art exhibitions. When I was there, it had a photography exhibition showcasing scenes from daily Latvian life, mostly in the countryside.
Entrance to the St. Peter's Church, including the tower visit, is €9.
3. Coffee break at Pienene
Pienene is located right across the street from the St. Peter's Church and describes itself as a “Latvian design studio and cafe”. It's both a store selling Latvian products (clothes, home decorations, local foods) and a cafe where you can get a light bite and a drink.
Perfect for a mid-morning stop.
Pienene Latvian design studio and cafe
Kungu iela 7
Open daily from 10 a.m. – 8 p.m.
4. House of the Blackheads
The beautiful House of the Blackheads dates back to the 14th century and used to be the home of the Brotherhood of the Blackheads, a guild of young, unmarried and foreign (mostly German) banquet caterers to upper classes. It's currently the temporary residence of the Latvian president, but can still be visited.
I got there before it opened, though, and so I only admired it from the outside. Thanks to the beautiful facade, it's a real Riga must-see!
House of the Blackheads
5. The first Christmas tree story
In front of the left corner of the House of the Blackheads when standing with your back to it, at the height of the corner of the Museum of Occupation, you can see a marker embedded in the cobblestones or – if you're visiting Riga in December – a large Christmas tree.
This is the spot where Latvia claims that a Christmas tree was decorated for the first time by the Brotherhood of the Blackheads in 1510.
According to the legend of the Christmas tree, the decorations on the original Christmas tree would have consisted of ribbons, dried flowers, figurines made from straw and paper shapes. At the end of the celebrations, the tree supposedly was burned, presumably to scare away the winter.
However, The Brotherhood of Blackheads also had a chapter in Tallinn in Estonia and that country claims the first Christmas tree was actually decorated there. Until this day, it remains unclear who invented the Christmas tree. It's quite possible that the decoration happened in both cities in the same year. It's also possible that neither of the cities were the first to have a decorated Christmas tree.
Stories like this are hard to trace. But hey, they're fun to learn about!
6. The Riga Cathedral
My next stop was at the cathedral of Riga. I only had a quick peek inside from the entrance, meaning I didn't get to see the famous organ.
If you do want to visit the cathedral, the entrance fee is €3.
7. The Three Brothers
The legend goes that these three medieval houses were built by three men of the same family. They used to be located in the craftsmen area of town. Today, they house the Latvian Museum of Architecture and the State Inspectorate for Heritage Protection.
Maza Pils iela 17
Would you rather explore the Old Town with a guide? This Riga walking tour gets good reviews.
8. The Nativity of Christ Cathedral
I'd spotted the Nativity of Christ Cathedral the day before when I went to the Christmas market at Esplanade Park. The cathedral is located in the park as well and I do have to say, it's a stunning building.
Even if you don't go in, I think it's one of the things to see in Riga for anyone who likes architecture.
Entrance is free, but make sure to cover your head if you're a woman and not wear a hat if you're a man (yes, I know…). If you go in summer, you can't wear shorts or a short skirt and you have to cover your shoulders.
9. Lunch at Big Bad Bagels
From the cathedral, Big Bad Bagels is just a short walk away and a fun place to go for a quick and light lunch. They have a great deal where you can get soup and a bagel for less than €6.
Choose from a bunch of different bagels or put together your own. They also have smoothies and a selection of hot and cold drinks.
Big Bad Bagels
Baznīcas iela 8
10. MiiT Coffee
Don't have your coffee at Big Bad Bagels, but go to MiiT instead. It's just around the corner. At this large and spacious coffee bar, you'll find people (co-working), reading a book or chatting with friends.
Aside from coffee, you can also get vegetarian and vegan foods.
Lāčplēša iela 10
Shopping around Terbatas iela and Krisjana Barona iela
After all that sightseeing, it's time for a bit of shopping. You'll find lots of non-typical stores around Terbatas iela and Krisjana Barona iela.
Paviljons (Tērbatas iela 55) sells Latvian designer wear. Riija (Tērbatas iela 6/8) is a Latvian design and lifestyle concept store. Outlets Cetras Zolas (Tērbatas iela 13) has a wide range of shoe and clothing brands at outlet prices.
Bang Bang Shop & Coffee (Tērbatas iela 55) combines sneakers with a little coffee corner. They have another store in the Old Town (Kalēju iela 18/20) which I liked better, though. It has a cozier vibe and a bigger coffee bar that's more naturally integrated in the store.
Another cool sneaker store in the Old Town is Commune (Audēju iela 3). There really are plenty of places to visit in Riga for sneakerheads such as myself :-)
When the blue hour comes, head to the sky bar at the Radisson Blu hotel at Elizabetes iela 73, between the two big shopping streets. It might be a bit more pleasant in summer, but you can still check out the views for the price of a drink.
Afterward, you can head back to your hotel for a little rest before dinner.
11. Dinner at Ogle Wood Fired Grill
I'd actually planned to go to an Italian restaurant this evening, but as it started snowing (yaay!) when I walked by Ogle, I decided to try that place out instead.
Personnel was friendly, the interior and the vibe were great, but the pizza I had was only so-so. It's probably a great place to spend an evening with friends, but based on that one meal alone, I wouldn't necessarily recommend it for the food.
Ogle Wood Fired Grill
Kaļķu iela 4
Day 3: from the Riga market hall to the art side
1. Riga Central Market
Riga's Central Market is a feast for the senses. Located in and around five historical hangars that were originally built as zeppelin hangars, the market offers everything from fresh produce to clothes and flowers.
Every hangar is dedicated to a food category. In one, you'll find meats. In another, dairy products and in yet another, fish.
The market is more than 72,000 m² large and comprises more than 3000 stands. Most of those look like fairly traditional market stands. Contrary to the modern market halls you see pop up in cities like Rotterdam, this is still a place for and by locals.
My favorite stand? The donut one! It's a bit tucked away and run by a vivid older lady who wore her make-up as if every donut entailed a photo opportunity.
I need to warn you though: after having tasted her donuts, all the other ones will let you down. They're so crispy on the outside, so soft on the inside. And they only cost €0.15 per donut!
The easiest way to find the stand is by entering the dairy hangar by its side entrance and then immediately turning left.
When you visit, make sure to also have a look around outside. You'll find more stands next to and behind the hangars. I loved this little shack selling all kinds of old-school kitchen supplies.
Want to visit the Central Market with a guide? Check out this Riga food and culture tour.
Lastly, the impressive building of the Latvian Academy of Sciences sticks out over the rooftops behind the markets. It's worth it walking up to it just to admire its architecture, but when the weather's nice, you can also go up to its viewing platform.
Riga Central Market
Nēģu iela 7
Panorama Latvian Academy of Sciences
Akademijas laukums 1
2. Lunch at Valtera Restorans
Valtera Restorans is a popular lunch spot, so making a reservation is recommended. The chef puts a contemporary twist on typical Latvian dishes using only local products. The menu changes along with the seasons.
Miesnieku iela 8
3. Art Nouveau in Riga
Aside from having a quaint Old Town, Riga also boasts some impressive Art Nouveau so, after lunch, I went for a walk through Alberta iela and Elizabetes iela, two streets known for their Art Nouveau architecture.
On Alberta iela 12 you'll also find the Riga Jugendstil Museum, but the entrance is actually located around the corner at Strelnieku iela. It's on the ground floor, but make sure to look up before you go in as the staircase in this building is absolutely gorgeous.
The museum itself is styled as an Art Nouveau apartment, showcasing the various rooms in the house along with furniture and other objects.
I believe the entrance fee was €5. There are various discounts available and there's also the option of having an audioguide, which costs a bit more.
Want to discover Riga's Art Nouveau neighborhood with a guide? Check out this positively reviewed tour.
If you're in need of a coffee after, just cross the street and step into cafe Britt. They make a lovely mocha and it's a pretty tranquil place to sit for a while.
I also went to A.L.L. Cappuchino (Antonijas iela 11), a bit of a dark but very cozy cafe. I liked the coffee at the other places I went to better, though.
4. Latvian art at the Latvian National Museum of Art
Just a few minutes from the Art Nouveau streets, lies another of the Riga museums: the Latvian National Museum of Art. The building is quite impressive and especially the big entry hall will make you grab your camera. For art lovers, it's a must-do in Riga.
The museum combines a permanent exhibition of Latvian paintings with temporary exhibitions and I especially liked the temporary one they had on while I was there.
It also has a rooftop terrace, but that was unfortunately closed during my visit as they were putting up a new display on the top floor.
Latvian National Museum of Art
Jaņa Rozentāla laukums 1
5. Dinner and dancing at Folkklubs Ala
After my artful afternoon, I headed back to the hotel to rest a bit before heading to Folkklubs Ala, one of the best-known Riga bars where you can also have a meal. It's popular with locals and visitors alike and after having spent a night there, you understand why.
Folkklubs Ala serves huge Latvian dishes at small prices. It has a large selection of beers and other drinks and a stage that's filled with live music acts at least five times a week.
Wednesdays are folk days on which Latvian youth flock to the bar to dance to traditional music. Unlike in many other places I've visited during my travels, folk dance in Latvia is not just something that's done for tourists. It's actually quite normal for young people to join folk dance groups and dedicate several hours in a week to practicing the dances.
When I went to Folkklubs, I was actually super tired and struggling with a cold. The plan was to have dinner, catch a bit of the live music performance and then head to bed early.
Obviously, that didn't happen. I started talking to people and before I knew it, it was close to midnight. If you want to experience Riga by night in a fun, relaxed ambiance with some local food, I highly recommend Folkklubs.
Peldu iela 19
Day 4: quick walk around Miera iela
As I had to catch a flight back home in the afternoon, I decided to spend my last hours in Riga around Miera iela or Peace Street. It's a 30-minute walk from the Old Town Riga, but you can also take tram 11 which goes directly there.
Miera iela looks a bit gritty, with old abandoned wooden houses and graffiti protesting the gentrification of the neighborhood. It's where hipsters and bohemians open coffee bars, boutiques and art galleries.
The Rocket Bean Roastery (Miera iela 29), for example, doesn't just do coffee, but also a lunch buffet while giving you a behind-the-scenes look inside the roastery.
Miera iela is up and coming. It won't be long until it's a proper part of the Riga tourist map.
If you were wondering “Is Riga worth visiting?”, I hope this post has helped you put your doubts aside, because it is! I had a great time exploring this city and already decided to go back in summer to experience it in warmer temperatures and longer light :-)
Stay connected while visiting Riga
Traveling to Riga from outside the EU and want to stay connected so you can share photos, call loved ones over WiFi and easily use apps like Google Maps? Then check out Skyroam mobile WiFi.
They offer both day passes and monthly subscriptions providing you with 4G throughout your trips. I've been using their daily passes not just when I travel outside the EU (no roaming charges for me in the EU) but also as a backup for when I think I'll go over my phone's data plan.
Don't forget travel insurance
Plan for the best, prepare for the worst. Travel insurance has you covered in case (part of) your trip gets cancelled, you get sick or hurt abroad and even when your electronics break or get stolen. I've had ongoing travel insurance ever since I started traveling to make sure I'm covered for every trip I go on.
Rather be safe than sorry too? Check out World Nomads. They cover a wide range of activities for people from 140 countries.
Pin for later
I was invited to come and experience Riga in winter by the Latvia Tourism Board. As always when I do collaborations like this, what I wrote was entirely up to me.
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