When I told people that my annual Christmas market pilgrimage took me to Riga, I got lots of quizzical stares and queries asking where this place was. Mentioning that it was the capital of Latvia sometimes resulted in a slight head nod indicating they may have, possibly heard of it, but maybe not, while informing them that Latvia was the largest of the Baltic countries got me a couple of “Oh! Like in Monopoly!” replies.
But Riga is so much more than that. The Latvian capital, which sits on the Baltic Sea mixes modern and medieval with its UNESCO World Heritage Site Old Town, gothic spires and stunning Art Nouveau district. Riga is a cultural hub and home to countless museums, world-class restaurants, and wonderful shops and boutiques.
It’s a beautiful city no matter the season, but in winter, it’s simply splendid.
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The Christmas markets in Riga don’t have as much history as those in Germany and in the German-style that you find in other parts of Europe and there are only a few to choose from, but for those looking for something a little less full-on and more quaint, this might be the way to go.
The main market is at Līvu Laukums in Old Riga next to Dome Church and the old Stock Exchange building, now the Latvian Foreign Museum. All of the markets sell handmade crafts, such as toys and decorations (many of them carved from wood), as well as traditional foods like sauerkraut, smoked meats, and more. There is also the signature drink of warm blackcurrant juice, spiked with a Latvia’s herbal alcoholic drink, Black Balsam. For those who have built up immunity to gluhwein, this is definitely worth a try.
There’s also a nice market in Esplanāde Park next to Nativity Russian Orthodox Cathedral. In addition to a handful of stalls, this market also has attractions for kids, including a herd of rabbits hopping around in their own little Christmas village.
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OTHER WINTER TRADITIONS
Though the Christmas market has only been in operation for a few years, Riga itself has centuries’ worth of holiday traditions most notably decorated trees as Riga has been officially recognized as the home of the first decorated Christmas tree.
According to legend, the tradition began on Christmas Eve in 1510 when a bunch of rowdy merchants brought a large pine tree to Riga’s Blackheads’ House – a clubhouse for unmarried merchants – and covered it with flowers.
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Whether the legend is true or not, Rigaeans enjoy playing along with it, and the city hosts an annual open-air art installation featuring a variety of artistic interpretations of the Christmas tree displayed around Riga.
There is also a lot of art around Riga that celebrates not just Christmas trees, but winter, in general, which isn’t very strange when you consider Latvia’s pagan history and the fact that Christmas is a mixture of pagan and Christian customs.
As I walked around Riga admiring these winter-themed art installations, it seemed the art provided a contrast – a certain “lightness” – to the cold, dark winter days. Since the winter solstice is the celebration of the return of the light, maybe that was precisely the point.
The Riga Christmas markets are open from – December 1, 2019 – January 6, 2020
HOW TO GET THERE
Riga International Airport welcomes flights from more than 85 destinations in 30 countries. Riga Central Station has connections from a number of cities and countries, but the most popular routes are from Russia and Belarus. Riga is also accessible via ferries and cruise ships.
So, what do you think about Riga? Have you been?
If not, is it on your list? Let us know in the comments.
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