Despite travelling much more these days, it's sometimes difficult to escape the idea that you only travel for the sun; for those glorious summer months when the days stretch out for hours, the weather co-operates and cobbled streets turn into sprawling bars until the wee small hours.
Setting foot on a plane to venture to a place far colder than the one in which we normally live, was always a strange concept.
Riga, a city that until December we knew so little about, may have changed that.
We sampled both sides of its winter in our short weekend break: a first afternoon of blue skies and striking sunbeams, a grey Baltic blanket of a snowstorm the next. Each offered us a different experience and perspective on travelling in Latvia in winter - that days are short but can be well spent, with evenings opening up to hours in underground cave bars or warming ourselves up with black balsam tinged coffee.
This is how to spend a winter weekend in Riga.
Things to Do In Riga in the winter
Head up St Peter's Church for an Epic View Over the City
Two words reflected in so many of the photos we had seen across social media before stepping off the plane in this Baltic country.
And the very best 360 view of them is from St Peter's Church.
Further information | Open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., except on Sundays when it opens at 12 p.m. (during summer it is open until 7 p.m.). Admission cost is 9 Euro, which includes the church, the viewing platform and the exhibitions.
Want the view but without the cost? Consider these other Riga viewpoints:
The Latvian Academy of Sciences | Built in in the 1950s, this striking structure is quite unlike anything else in the city (you can see it in the picture above - it looks a little like a mini Empire State Building). Once the tallest building in Riga, the 17th open-air observation deck is open to visitors. Entry is 5 Euro per person.
Radisson Blue Skyline Bar | Located on the 26th floor of the Radisson Blu Hotel, the floor-to-ceiling windows provide great views over the city to perhaps watch the sunset with a cocktail in hand! Entry is free before 9 p.m.
National Library of Latvia | We love discovering amazing views in surprising places - and that's exactly what this is! You'll need a temporary pass (free) to get in but then you'll have access to one of several reading rooms that look out across the city.
Understand a Little About The Country's Past
One of 14 countries in Eastern Europe that made up the Soviet Union, the scars of Russian occupation run deep. And, with independence being restored just 28 years ago, these are scars that will take some time to heal.
As difficult as it can sometimes be to hear stories of a violent past, visiting Riga should not be done without an attempt to understand this history.
You see, travel isn't experienced only in fleeting moments of joy; sometimes travel, and all that you learn through it can be emotional, can be genuinely upsetting. A tour of 'The Corner House' (the previous KGB headquarters in Riga) was not fun, but that made it all the more important to visit, especially on a frightfully cold winter's eve.
Guided through cell blocks after the sun had set, we heard stories of a vicious regime and occupation, harrowing accounts torture and years of confinement. It would be offensive to say we could imagine one iota of what these men and woman experienced, but an hour in the claustrophobic confines of the Corner House is necessary for anyone seeking an insight in to Latvia's story.
The Corner House | Open 10 a.m. - 5.30 p.m everyday except Wednesday when it is open 12 - 7 p.m. Entry to the permanent exhibit is free of charge but we'd really recommend that you join one of the hour long tours of the building which cost 5 Euro. Tours are held every day at separate times for English, Latvian and Russian speaking visitors.
Museum of the Occupation | In addition to The Corner House, those seeking a more thorough explanation about the period of occupation should visit this museum. It's temporarily housed at Raiņa bulvāris 7 whilst the impressive black monolith permanent site near the 'House of Blackheads' is being renovated. Open 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. each day, entry is free with a fee for guided tours.
Try Black Balsam
When it comes to alcohol, Eastern Europeans are not afraid to go big - or go home. Remember that when you try your first black balsam...
With a distinctive aroma reminiscent of the cough syrup you gulped down as a child, sampling this tar black liquor has become somewhat of a right-of-passage for visitors to Latvia's capital.
For sale in bars across the city, this is however not something you want to throw back in one go. For a start, it's a sure fire way to look like a tourist, and secondly, damn that stuff is strong! Instead, try it hot and served with blackcurrant or, if you're feeling indulgent, as a twist on a Irish Coffee. It's the perfect thing to warm you up on a winter's day!
For first-timers, we'd definitely recommend heading to 'Black Magic', a quaint spot full of dark wood and darker corners. Visit in the daytime to enjoy one of their signature hot chocolates (trust us, you won't regret it) and indulgent cakes but as the sun sets, be sure to disappear behind the hidden bookcase and descend into the alchemist's laboratory for a cocktail or two.
Further information | Black Magic can be found at Kaļķu iela 10, just off Doma laukums square. It's open 10 a.m. - 10 p.m everyday. If buying one of the iconic bottles to take home, it's much cheaper to buy in the city than at airport duty free.
Alternative Option | We thought that the chalkboard signs telling us to try and find the 'most romantic cafe in Riga' may be a little misleading. But then, with a few hours to kill and icy fingers, we stepped into the most wonderful place. Parunāsim, with its old vinyl records, tiled floors, cinema chairs and cosy ambience, really is a little gem of a cafe and the perfect spot to warm up.
You can find Parunāsim by heading to the impossible to photograph 'Three Brothers' and following the signs.
Get Your Folk On
There's a reason that this place comes up so much when you ask for Riga recommendations.
As cavernous as it is cosy, Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs is one of the best spots in Riga to get a taste of real Latvian culture - and a good dose of folk music. As popular with locals as it is with tourists, the deceptively large underground bar is home to an impressive beer selection (at 30, they have more than anyone else in the city), exceptionally large portions of comfort food, and plays host to some of the country's most famous folk singers.
Full tables and busy bars every night of the week, but if you're in town for a few days we'd definitely suggest popping by on Wednesday for their traditional dance night and discover how it's experiencing a real resurgence amongst the younger generation.
Further information | Open at 12 p.m each day (except Saturday when it opens at 12 p.m.) and stays open till late (some nights, that means very very late). It's easy to find in the old town at Peldu iela 19.
Check out the Christmas Markets
As we hope to make clear, winter is a wonderful time to visit Riga. But, if you have the choice, we must insist that you do so in the run up to Christmas when the streets are lined with decorations, the jolly lilt of modern-day carols fill the air, and a child-like excitement is palpable throughout the city.
And, most importantly, there are Christmas markets everywhere.
Our personal favourite was the market held in Doma Laukums square (and not just because they had a bunny rabbit that looked just like Emily's old pet, Mr Warballypants). Located outside the city's gorgeous cathedral, this little cobblestone winter wonderland is replete with a huge Christmas tree, more mulled wine stands than it's possible to visit on one day - trust us, we tried - gingerbread stalls and all sorts of Latvian treats. Its position slap bang in the middle of the old town meant that passing through it several times a day is unavoidable in December - and a regular reminder that this really is the most wonderful time of the year
But it doesn't stop there! Whilst Doma Laukums feels the most 'christmassy', be sure to check out Līvu laukums square, as well as in Esplenāde Park (they have a 'village' of real rabbits - enough said). On Saturdays, head across the Daugava River to the Kalnciema kvartāls market.
Have Some of the Best Mexican Food of Your Life!
Bet you weren't expecting that were you? Nope, neither were we.
After months in Mexico, and an unwavering desire to recreate Mexican food at least twice a week in our little apartment in London, we've become quite picky about what passes for an authentic taco.
Rarely impressed with restaurant offerings, we took the excellent online reviews of El Santo with a grain of salt - but left shocked that we'd had some of the best Mexican food we'd ever eaten outside of, well, Mexico.
Adorned with the ubiquitous day of the dead masks and a few too many sombreros, once you get beyond the slightly tacky décor, it becomes clear that the chef (a Mexican native) really knows how to cook. A little tricky for vegans, but their vegetarian options are plentiful, and as exemplified by one of the fussier eaters that make up Along Dusty Roads, they're more than happy to make substitutions.
Whilst we whole-heartedly recommend trying local cuisine when you're in a new country (and Riga has plenty of affordable options as well as some high-end restaurants in which to do this), this restaurant may just be too good to miss if you need some spice to warm you up in winter.
p.s. whenever you visit Riga, you must also seek out and devour as much Rupjmaizes kartojums as possible (a delicious Latvian dessert).
Further information | Open Thursday - Saturday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m, Monday - Wednesday 11 a.m. - 9 p.m. and 12 - 6 p.m. on Sundays. Find the restaurant at Pils iela 7, Centra rajons.
Get Lost in the Old Town
There's a reason why tourists often flock to the oldest parts of a European city - they're so damn pretty. Often, they're also where the majority of the top attractions are located.
Prior to our trip here, we read A LOT of 'Things to Do in Riga' type posts mentioning famous sights - and dutifully toddled off around the old town to tick them off - places like 'The Three Brothers', 'The House of the Blackheads', and to marvel at some of the Art Deco architecture for which the city is renowned.
Yet, whilst seeing these sights is important - you wouldn't after all visit London and not venture to Big Ben - it re-affirmed something to us; our very favourite thing to do in a particularly pretty part of a new city is to explore it, with our phone (and google maps) firmly in our pocket.
Regular tea/mulled wine/hot balsam breaks were inevitably required to defrost seizing fingers, but the great thing about visiting a popular weekend break destination in the off-season is the surprising lack of tourists. Wander beyond the main squares and souvenir stalls and the cobbled streets of Riga are all yours to explore.
Explore the Central Market
We often say that the beating heart of a city is heard and felt in its markets. Be they in small town squares, or sprawling out through street after street, each give a glimpse into local life, rhythms and tastes that are difficult to experience in tourist-heavy areas.
And Riga is no exception.
What sets it apart from most other city's however, is that its market takes place in an utterly unique location - three old cavernous Zeppelin hangars, a place for planes that never arrived.
Watch bespectacled old women in colourful berets haggle over the price of fresh fish, and try to ignore the occasional 'thwack' of strong hands finishing the wrigglers off. Wander the the fruit and veg hangar, where giant barrels of fermented vegetables sit alongside re-used jars of homemade sauces, queues clearly signalling the city's favourite producers.
Get lost amongst the small bakeries plying their trade, the smell of sweet breads and caramelised sugar maintaining a steady stream of customers to fill their plastic chairs. Just make sure you save some room for freshly made and sugared doughnuts - at only 10 cents a pop, it would be rude not to. Or buy some piparkūka dough to make some of the most delicious Latvian biscuits back home.
Further information | Open 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day, although as with markets across the world, for the best atmosphere, be sure to visit in the morning or early afternoon. Address is Nēģu iela 7, Latgales priekšpilsēta
Don't Forget the Rest of the City
On a short trip to a new city, especially one with such a beautiful old town, it's easy to find ourselves limiting our time to that one particular area. Throw in a sun that stubbornly refused to rise but was keen to set, and inevitably we focused much of our wanderings in and around the historic area of Riga.
But that's not to say that this is a city whose only attractions lie within old walls.
Besides the Central Market mentioned above, the newer part of town is a haven for those with even a passing interest in Soviet architecture and typography, or with a predilection for street photography.
We didn't spend nearly enough time here, but our couple of hours spent roaming the streets convinced us that when we return, this is a part of the city we will explore more.
We enjoyed our time in Riga so much - and can't wait to get back there in the summer for a whole different vibe! Is there anything else you'd recommend for visitors to Latvia's capital in the winter? Let us know in the comments!
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