Cozy as a handmade mitten, try on the Latvian capital for culture, craft beer, and endless outdoor opportunities
I haven’t been on a plane since November 2019. You either? The uncertainty of a still looming pandemic has made it difficult to plan new adventures with last year’s lockdowns endlessly melding into this one, 2021. But I’m feeling hopeful that exploring will be available once more, maybe even later this year. Looking back at travel memories we’ve made and what we loved while exploring abroad has helped while we wait.
That last flight? You’ve probably guessed. It wasn’t a long one from here – a quick pop across the brilliant blue Baltic Sea from Copenhagen to Riga, the capital of Latvia. It was my second visit to this unique city, though I will sheepishly admit that Riga – nor Latvia – were ever on my travel wish list… before moving to Scandinavia. But after last-minute quick and easy flights (remember those?) from Denmark – we were delighted with what we found. Even mid-winter.
WHERE IS LATVIA?
One of the Baltic States that include Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia – this area is gaining world attention for its stunning architecture, unique history, beautiful landscapes, and innovative cuisine. Once considered Eastern European, Latvia would prefer to define itself as nearly Nordic. Or at least -Northern European – definitely shedding the mantle and character of their former status as a Soviet state since independence in 1991. You can feel all of these forces here in the Latvian capital Riga.
Population of Riga: 632,614 (2019)
Population of Latvia: 1.92 million (2019)
Average Air Temperature: December – February |-1°C (30°F) to -2°C (28°F)
Main Airport: Riga International Airport
Come for the Culture
UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE OLD CITY
Meander the alleys and streets that weave through the charming and medieval old town. Founded in 1201, the historic center has been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Take in the view from atop St. Peter’s Cathedral to get a feel for the compact and pastel-colored charm. Views out to the Daugava River that flows into the Baltic Sea and gave this historic seaport trading advantage and made Riga a prominent member of the Northern European Hanseatic League from the 13th to 15th centuries.
ART NOUVEAU CAPITAL OF EUROPE
Riga’s trading prosperity grew and the city saw a great expansion in the 19th century into the early 1900s. Buildings still reflect the perferred Art Nouveau style at that time. And even if you know nothing about architecture, you can’t help but notice the unique designs and details about the buildings in Riga. There are angels in the architecture here. And animals and dragons and damsels and cats.
Little ones in tow will love finding the hidden figures on the facades. In fact, it’s another reason the city can claim world heritage status. Here you’ll find the highest concentration of this Art Nouveau design of anywhere in Europe. Easy to spot throughout Vecrīga, or the old town – if you’re really interested in these beautiful buildings – head to Albert iela for some seriously detailed finds.
RIGA MOTOR MUSEUM | RĪGAS MOTORMUZEJS
If you’re like my husband, your idea of good design looks more like something you’d drive than live in. But the whole family loved the impressive collection at the Riga Motor Museum, in a suburb outside the center of town. Boasting the largest curation of classic cars in the Baltics with informative interactive displays, it was a great way to spend a cold winter afternoon. You can read more about our experience below:
Explore the outdoors less than an hour from the capital
So while this rich cultural capital has so much to offer in any season and there was something special about a dusting of snow as we tromped through the meandering lanes of the medieval old town. And in under an hour, we could explore pristine Latvian forests blanketed in white.
Do you seek out active options for winter fun? How about screaming and laughing out loud as you whiz down a bobsled track or driving your own dog sleds with adorable rescued dogs? There are plenty of places to go for a hike, but would you consider bog-shoeing across the top of squishy and wild Latvian peat bog? You can do that too.
SLIP DOWN THE BOBSLED TRACK IN SIGULDA
Just over an hour by train from the Riga central station, we made our way to the little town of Sigulda. Here sits the Latvian Olympic Bobsled, Luge and Skeleton track. It was such a blast for our family of five to sit in a makeshift “soft bob” and slide down that track. For videos and details, you can read more in this post:
CATCH A DOG SLED RIDE WITH RESCUED HUSKIES
When there is snow on the ground, you can arrange for an afternoon of meeting the most beautiful rescued dogs and learn to drive a sled as they pull you along. With hard to please teens and tweens along, it was definite family favorite. You can find video and more of our day out with the dogs here:
STRAP ON SOME BOG SHOES TO WALK ATOP AN 8000-YEAR-OLD QUAKING BOG
On my second trip to Latvia – that last flight I flew – I had the amazing opportunity to take a bog shoeing tour of the Kemeri National Park – only an hour’s drive from Riga. It wasn’t something I ever thought I wanted to do, until I did. It’s squishy, spongey, damp and different. And so beautiful. I was happy to have a guide who knew where to go and how to keep us safe. Take a deeper dive (but don’t fall in) about the outing in this previous post:
Where to eat and drink after all your exploring
When we travel, we love to wander through the local markets to see what flavors the regional cuisine. When you get to go to Riga, don’t miss the enormous Central Market. Europe’s largest market and bazaar sits inside four former German Zeppelin hangars. Here you’ll find produce, sweet treats, cheeses, meats, and seafood. A LOT of seafood, an entire hangar full in fact. Being a seaside city, it makes sense. Try the smoked or dried fish many shops had for sale.
LOCAL FLAVOR IN A 13TH CENTURY WINE CELLAR
In the old town, step down inside Folkklubs ALA for regional cuisine and a fun atmosphere. Great food, a LOT of local beer on tap, and often live Latvian music make this a great evening out. Book ahead to make sure they have space for your group.
Folkklubs ALA Pagrabs
Peldu iela 19, Centra rajons, Rīga, LV-1050
WHET YOUR WHISTLE WITH A LOCAL CRAFT BEER
This town has it going on when it comes to artisan craft brewing. There are many breweries where you can get a pint or savor a sampler of what’s on tap. You can even take a tour of the entire Beer District where you’ll learn a little about the historic brewing in the region and who is creating the best modern takes. Sign up online through Valmiermuiža, one of the breweries in the tour. Serving delicious snacks with organic local ingredients, Valmiermuiža was our favorite stop. Labietis is also a worthy pub for a pint and not far from Valmiermuiža. Last, but not least is Alkīmikis in a cool red building closer to the center city.
Aristida Briāna iela 9a, Centra rajons, Rīga, LV-1001
2, Aristida Briāna iela 9a, Rīga, LV-1001
Lāčplēša iela 12, Centra rajons, Rīga, LV-1010
So what are you waiting for? Oh yes. The world to open up. When we can travel again, I can really recommend Riga. A perfect compact and cozy base for a long winter weekend away. And here are all the recommendations in one spot, so you can save for your own future planning. Soon, we’ll be able to explore again. I can feel it. Cheers from here.
NOTE: This post is a paid collaboration with Magnetic Latvia to share my personal travel memories of time exploring this lovely country.