Imagine fresh snow dusted over medieval streets, twinkling markets filled with mulled wine and handmade treasures, and cosy bars stocked with traditional food. Sounds magical right? You can find all of this and more when you spend Christmas in Riga, the beautiful capital of Latvia. From choir concerts and authentic Christmas markets, to unique Christmas traditions, here are all the best things to see and do during the festive season in Riga
1. Winter wonderland scenery
There are few things more dreamy than Riga at Christmas time. Imagine gorgeous snowy scenery, fresh frosty air, houses dotted with icicles and frozen lakes that are perfect for ice skating. Then throw in Riga’s UNESCO-listed Old Town, where cobbled lanes, stunning Gothic architecture and church spires are illuminated in twinkling lights and Christmas ornaments.
With nearly every street, park and square covered in fairy lights, decorations and snow, you can’t help but get into the festive spirit in Riga.
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2. Magical Christmas markets
When you’re thinking of the best Christmas markets in Europe, you probably picture Germany, France or even the UK. But what about little Riga? This gorgeous city certainly steps up to the plate, with its Christmas markets offering all the charm of Germany’s traditional fairs, but without the crowds. You’ll find all kinds of traditional gifts, delicious food and fun activities for both kids and adults, and there’s more than a few markets to explore! Here are some of our favourites:
Doma Laukums Riga Christmas Market
Held in Doma Laukums, or ‘Dome Square’, the largest square in Riga’s Old Town, this market is filled with traditional Christmas magic. You’ll instantly fall in love with the wooden chalets, huge pine tree and crackling fire pit. Plus there’s all the warm food and drinks like sausages, sauerkraut, gingerbread, karstvīns (mulled wine) and hot chocolate.
Stock up on handmade woollen scarves, sweaters and mittens, or browse the wooden toys, candles, jewellery and ceramics. You can even visit Santa Claus in the market each day, meet some barnyard animals at the farm display, and watch live bands performing each evening.
Livu Laukums Christmas Market
You’ll stumble upon the Livu Laukums Christmas Market near the entrance of Riga’s Old Town, just a few minutes’ walk away from Doma Laukums. This market is another great place to immerse yourself in an authentic Christmas experience, shop for local handicrafts in the wooden stalls and see the giant Christmas tree made out of thick wooden planks!
Esplanade Park Christmas Market
Located just outside the Old Town, the Esplanade Park Christmas Market has all the usual suspects – wooden chalets, local crafts, mulled wine, a Ferris wheel… and a rabbit village. Kids and adults alike will love exploring this curious attraction, complete with fluffy bunnies hopping around their tiny rabbit houses and a little rabbit church.
To get to the Esplanade Park Christmas Market from the Old Town, you have to walk through another park, and you’ll get to see all the gorgeous Christmas lights, plus the nearby Riga Nativity Of Christ Cathedral. There’s really no better way to see all the Christmas sights of Riga than by wandering around. Just make sure you dress for the chilly weather!
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3. Traditional Latvian food
One of the very best things about spending Christmas in Riga is getting to try out the local food. Latvian cuisine is full of rich flavours and hearty dishes, and the locals really turn it up a notch during the holiday season.
The traditional Latvian Christmas dinner is held on 24th December and there is supposed to be at least nine different dishes on the table. These include pork, fish, poultry, sausage rolls (speķa pīrāgi), stewed sauerkraut with caraway seeds, carrots, grey peas, beetroot and gingerbread cookies. The feast must also include bread, salt and fire, as this is said to bring blessings for the year ahead.
If you’d like to try some of these tasty dishes like sausage rolls and gingerbread cookies, you can find them in many restaurants and bakeries throughout Riga. And there’s nothing better than getting cosy by the fireplace with a mug of mulled wine, or the traditional shot of Black Balsam mixed with hot blackcurrant juice.
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4. Fortune telling
Fortune telling is an ancient tradition in Latvia, and there’s no better time to have your fortune told than during the Yuletide season. Many Latvians believe that New Year’s Eve is an auspicious time to look into the future, and it’s a fun thing to do in Riga that most locals look forward to.
One of the most common methods of fortune-telling involves putting molten lead into a bucket of icy water. The fortune teller then reads the curious shapes using candlelight. Have a go and see what your future looks like for the year ahead!
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5. The story of the first Christmas tree
Riga claims the honour of hosting the world’s first public Christmas tree. According to local legend, the first Christmas tree was decorated in the Town Hall Square over 500 years ago. They say that in 1510, the Brotherhood of Blackheads, a guild for unmarried merchants, decorated a pine tree on Christmas Eve, danced around it, then set it on fire.
If you visit Riga in December today, you’ll see a similar Christmas tree standing in front of the stunning House of Blackheads. While they don’t burn it down anymore, it is a great chance to learn all about Riga’s medieval past. This fascinating piece of history also spreads throughout the rest of this Christmas tree capital city, and you’ll find creative Christmas trees throughout Riga.
6. Masque Processions
Latvia is home to many pagan winter solstice traditions, like decorating fir trees, rolling the Yule log and masque processions. Also known as budēļi, kaļadas or ķekatas, masque processions are a very old tradition in Latvia.
The locals will dress up so they can’t be recognised, then go from door to door while dancing and singing. The most common masks are bears, fortune tellers, or the devil, and the procession is said to scare away evil spirits. It’s also said to bring good luck for the houses they visit, where they’re welcomed with small gifts and treats.
7. The First Advent Concert
Each year on 1st December, the Riga Cathedral holds the First Advent Concert. You can head to the cathedral to watch the Orchestra Riga performing Christmas music by the likes of Bach, Vivaldi and Schubert. You’ll also hear many soloists perform including some of Latvia’s greatest musicians. It’s a magical way to ring in the festive season and not to be missed!
Would you like to spend Christmas in Riga? Let us know in the comments below!