Celebrating Christmas in Riga, Latvia

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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!

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Site of the world’s first Christmas tree.

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.

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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.

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You might think this represents a letter to Santa, but you’d be wrong. It’s actually a letter to the Christmas tree!

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!

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A toy house is filled with cats available for adoption.

The small white house is filled with toy furniture and cats available for adoption.

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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 Christmas market in Riga's Livu Square.

The Christmas market in Riga’s Livu Square.

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.

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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!

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I have no idea why this exists and I don’t care. It’s awesome!

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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!

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It’s raining presents in Riga!

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Even Riga’s famed Art Nouveau buildings have put on their holiday best.

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Merry Christmas! Where in the world are you celebrating?

37 thoughts on “Celebrating Christmas in Riga, Latvia

  1. What a great post! You are making me think I might want to come back again next year at this time. I love all the hustle and bustle of Christmas. Going to be a quiet one for us this year.

    • I can’t believe you came all this way and endured the cold and yet missed the glory that is Riga at Christmas. Who knew?! You might have some competition for the guest room come next Christmas 😉

  2. What a beautiful old city and so clean and neat. The beautiful photos are amazing. You have some really neat shots which requires some good
    imagination. Love the dance scene with you leading the group. I can tell you were the leader with your black gloves on. Smile..

    • Thanks, Dad 🙂 This city really is beautiful and I hope you will get to see it in person. I’d love to show you around!

  3. Beautiful place. Seems every where is filled with pretty decorations and colorful lights. And the architecture is great, too.

    • Haha, I guess I am. They are just so darned cute, the way they chew that cabbage. You could probably get one pretty easily. Doesn’t someone ride around your neighborhood with a mobile pet store?

    • It snowed here Christmas day and now it’s bright and sunny – perfect for taking walks! I still haven’t made it down to Vilnius, but would like to see its Christmas market, too. Maybe I’ll meet you there next year 😉

  4. You took such beautiful pictures! They are all so breath-taking! What was your favourite memory from the place? Wishing you Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! XxX

  5. The Christmas Tree Trail is such a cool idea, I love all the different materials they are made from and how unique they all are! And agree, I would LOVE to experience the Christmas Markets in Europe, I bet they are so special:-) Wishing you the very merriest Christmas, and a wonderful New Year, Heather!
    Jess @UsedYorkCity recently posted…UsedYorkCity Inspiration #14My Profile

    • I am continually amazed by the creativity and craftsmanship in this part of the world! Even the chocolate-covered apricots we bought at the Christmas market have “handmade in Latvia” on the label. Amazing!

      I hope you are enjoying a very merry Christmas with your family!

  6. Wonderful!
    Riga is my hometown and my the most favorite city. I am glad you enjoyed your time there!:)
    Thank you for your beautiful photo-story! It made me smile and homesick in a good way ( currently I am exploring India)!

    Happy Holidays!!
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    • Thank you, Oksana! I love your hometown! I am actually living in Riga and am enjoying it very much. Have fun in India! 🙂

  7. Heather, I’m SO glad you moved to Riga! 🙂 Totally loving all of these posts – I had no idea about the Xmas tree trail…that’s so cool. And – seriously – can we talk about major cuteness with the bunnies and cats?! Hope you had a fantastic Christmas!
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    • I’m really glad I moved to Riga, too! 🙂 We had a wonderful Christmas and I can’t wait to see what adventures 2015 has in store. Happy new year, Daina!

  8. I loved this blog when it was first posted and enjoyed it this time too. Brought back a lot of memories from my trip there. I always kick myself when I get home, cause I never buy enough of their crafts. Other than it being so cold, I really enjoyed this trip. Was so surprised by the rabbit village. I wanted to get in and play with them. Riga is just such a beautiful city. Anytime of the year is a good time to visit.

  9. Hello Heather..! I always heard about the Riga and I always ignore it, but after I saw and finished reading your article about Riga, I was totally amazed; I never thought Riga is really excellent in about Christmas. Hopefully, someday I can see that place personally.

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