Umea, Sweden

Umea, Sweden (Holger Leue, Getty Images/Lonely Planet Image)

Two wintry cities at either end of the Baltic Sea — Umea, Sweden, to the northwest, and Riga, Latvia, to the southeast — share yearlong tenures as the official European Capitals of Culture in 2014, a tradition dating to 1985.

Umea, subarctic and the most northerly Cultural Capital ever selected, is hoping to make itself more visible to Europe and the world, and it has lined up cultural events for almost every day on the calendar. Umea is the ultimate college town: Of 75,000 residents, 39,000 are students.

By contrast, Riga, Latvia's capital, is the Baltic's largest city (population 700,000). Also unlike Umea, its average July high temperatures reach the 70s. At its heart is its medieval Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site surrounded by the largest collection of German art nouveau buildings in the world, erected from 1875 to 1914.

With their combined cultural riches under full sail this year, Riga and Umea should make the Baltic the most festive waterway in Europe.

Riga, Latvia

As Riga kicks off its 2014 cultural program Jan. 15-19, three events take center stage. First, the Museum of Natural History opens Jan. 17 for a major exhibition, "Amber Through the Ages." For centuries the amber trade was central to the cultural identity and mystique of the Baltic states, and Riga's master amber carvers are still in abundance at the Central Market, a shopping complex fashioned from old zeppelin hangars.

The next day, Jan. 18, brings the launch of the "Chain of Book Lovers," as citizens and visitors line the streets and relay the collection of the National Library of Latvia to the new library, the Castle of Light.

On Jan. 19, the Latvian National Opera opens its season with a multimedia production of "Rienzi" by Richard Wagner, a German composer who once lived in Riga.

Until October, Esplanade Park, in the center of Riga, will be the main showcase for outdoor performances and interactive events. Street events will unfold along Brivibas (Freedom) Street, near Old Town, and along the banks of the Daugava River, which ties Riga to the Baltic Sea.

Among the notable dates on Riga's culture calendar:

March 1-9: Winter Festival — Riga's pivotal celebration of ice and snow brings together skiers and snowboarders competing in 10 events, vintage automobiles showing off on ice, and competitors displaying their slipperiest moves on shovels and frying pans.

March 31: "329th Jubilee of Bach" — Riga's brass orchestra fills the Great Guild Hall with dance suites and instrumentals from the Baroque composer.

April 11: "The St. Matthew Passion" — Bach again, with the Latvian Radio Choir performing the sacred oratorio in the Church of St. Peter.

May 18: Freedom Run — Marathon runners and others fleet of foot flood Brivibas Street.

June 21: Summer Solstice — The forest village of Sigulda, an hour by train from Riga, hosts a gathering of Latvian folk musicians, dancers, cheese-makers and fire-throwers honoring the mystery of Midsummer Night.

July 9-19: 8th World Choir Games — 20,000 singers compete in the concert halls of Riga.

Aug. 1-3: Sigulda International Opera Festival — An original staging of Bizet's "Carmen" takes place in Sigulda Castle's open-air concert hall.

Oct. 16: "Fairy-tale" — Contemporary nods to the works of Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm precede the premiere of American composer David Lang's "Girl With Matches" in the Church of St. Peter.

Nov. 14-18: "Shine, Riga!" — A festival of light illuminates 100 finer points of the city, including facades, bridges, monuments and parks.

Dec. 13: European Film Academy Awards 2014 — Riga hosts 1,500 cinematic pros and performers in search of statues.