One of the things I was most excited about when we moved to Europe was getting to celebrate Christmas on the continent most known for its holiday markets and festive decorations. I had especially high hopes for Riga given its claim to be the birthplace of the decorated Christmas tree, and fortunately the city has delivered in a big way!
According to local legend, in 1510, the Order of the Blackheads – a guild for unmarried merchants – decorated a pine tree on Christmas Eve, then set it ablaze. Today, a similar tree stands in front of the beautifully restored House of the Blackheads, giving visitors a glimpse into Riga’s medieval past. As far as I know, there are no plans to burn down the current tree.
In a nod to that storied past, local artists have created a Christmas Tree Trail, a collection of 77 works inspired by the Christmas tree and other Latvian traditions. The artistic trees are made of a variety of materials and many are illuminated. Maps are available at Riga tourism offices should you want to hunt them all down.
The Riga Christmas market is situated in the heart of Old Town, in the large square next to Dome Cathedral. The market consists of dozens of wooden stalls with white-and-red striped awnings selling an impressive array of reasonably-priced items, such as wool hats, beeswax candles, straw baskets, and glass Christmas ornaments. Food options are just as plentiful, ranging from the traditional Latvian feast of sausage, sauerkraut, and potatoes to ostrich meat pies. You can wash it down with karsts vīns (mulled wine), Black Balsam with hot black currant juice or hot sea-buckthorn juice. The Riga Christmas market is your oyster!
Not content to have just one market, Riga has set up two others to spread the Christmas cheer around. The market in Livu Square, near the main entrance to Old Town, is riotously colorful, with blue-and-white striped stalls and bright red signs.
The third market is set up in Riga’s Esplanade Park, near the onion-domed Russian Orthodox Cathedral. While this market might not be as visually stunning as the other two, it’s still worth a wander. It’s also the only place in town where you can get roasted corn on the cob.
My favorite addition to the holiday scene is the Bunny Kingdom in the middle of the Esplanade Christmas market. A miniature walled city complete with wooden churches and watch towers has been created for dozens of resident rabbits. Men dressed as Santa walk around the perimeter carrying buckets of cabbage and carrots, which delighted visitors can feed to the bunnies through the chain-link fence. I stop by so often that the Santas are starting to recognize me!
On top of all this, Riga has strung Christmas lights along nearly every street and installed fanciful decorations in many parks and public squares. If this city doesn’t put you in the holiday spirit, nothing will!
Merry Christmas! Where in the world are you celebrating?