15 Fun Things to Do in Riga, Latvia this Spring

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Spring in Latvia can feel a bit like chasing a unicorn. You want so desperately to catch it, but can’t be sure it even exists. Winter starts in November and by the time March rolls around, it can be hard to remember that there are in fact other seasons throughout the year. But slowly, surely, the days grow steadily longer and the snow melts away. April is the great awakening, when people once again venture outside and buds appear on the trees. Then after a few days of brilliant sunshine, spring rumbles forth like a runaway train. May is the best time to visit Latvia, when the skies are blue and flowers are plentiful, while June tends to be cool and rainy. But no matter the weather, there’s always something fun to do. Here’s my list of the top ways to make the most of the spring season in Riga!

Shake Off Winter’s Chill at Egle 

Egle can be found under the white tents in the bottom center of this photo.

Egle Riga

Egle Beer Garden is hands-down my favorite spot in Old Riga. In all my travels across Europe, I’ve yet to come across another venue that provides such quality musical entertainment for the price of a €3 beer. Local acts perform under the tents each night of the week; you’ll hear everything from Latvian folk tunes to 90s rock covers and 50s swing. There’s a large selection of Latvian beers on tap, and the food is surprisingly good. (Go for the pork belly.) And don’t be put off by cold temperatures – blankets and heat lamps will keep you warm even on the chilliest spring night!

Wade through a Sea of Blue in the Great Cemetery

small blue early spring flowers

Great Cemetery Riga

Spring’s first flush spreads across Riga’s Great Cemetery, where thousands of tiny blue flowers carpet the ground between gravestones. Internet research tells me these early spring flowers are Siberian Squill, which thrive in places with a cold winter. Latvia certainly fits that bill! The cemetery itself is a vast park dotted with the crumbling remains of 18th and 19th century tombs which survived the bulldozers of the Soviet era. In the morning and afternoon hours, you’ll find lots of locals wandering through the park, pushing baby strollers and walking dogs. But the piles of empty vodka bottles inside some of the crypts tell me this spot is best avoided after nightfall. To reach the Great Cemetery, take tram 11 which runs along trendy Miera iela. (Don’t miss Rocket Bean Roastery while you’re in the neighborhood.)

Go Cherry Blossom Peeping in Uzvaras Park

Riga cherry blossoms

Cherry blossoms in Riga's Uzvaras park

Riga cherry blossoms

Uzvaras parks riga

Riga Uzvaras Park

I was stunned when photos of pretty pink blossoms starting popping up in my Instagram feed. Could there be cherry trees in Riga? Sure enough, there’s a large cluster of them across the Daugava in Uzvaras Park. The beautiful trees were a gift from Japan in 2012 and have been delighting locals ever since. To get there, take tram 10 or any bus bound for Slokas iela.

Celebrate Freedom on Latvia’s Restoration of Independence Day

Latvian Independence Day

Latvia flower map

Celebrating Restoration of Independence Day in Riga, Latvia

On May 4, 1990, after five decades of occupation by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, Latvia declared that it was an independent nation once again. The holiday is celebrated in Riga with much pomp and circumstance on the grounds of the Freedom monument. Marching bands perform, speeches are given, and a good time is had by all. My favorite part of the day is the parade of people leaving flowers at the base of the Freedom Monument. It begins with the country’s top politicians and dignitaries, then finishes with locals and children. By the end, a map of Latvia has been created out of the blooms.

Tantalize your Taste buds during Riga Restaurant Week

Riga Restaurant Week Menu

Every spring (and autumn), Riga’s talented chefs work their magic with the seasonal bounty. Rhubarb, sorrel, and birch sap are a few of the ingredients you can expect to see on menus across town. Even better, the value pricing makes it possible to enjoy haute cuisine with a more limited budget. But don’t miss out – reservations are essential during Riga Restaurant Week.

Revel in Culture on Museum Night

Riga Art Nouveau Museum

Riga art nouveau museum

Costumed performers add to the museum’s fine ambiance.

Riga Pharmacy Museum

Don’t miss the sauna display in the back courtyard!

Riga medical museum

The Museum of Medical History occupies every floor of this grand old mansion.

Dioramas bring the museum to life.

For one night in May, many of Riga’s museums open their doors after hours for a night of culture. (You can find the schedule of events and locations for Riga Museum Night here.) The 2017 theme is “Wheel of Time” and sounds fascinating. My museums of choice are the Riga Art Nouveau Museum, the Pharmacy Museum, and the Paul Stradins Museum of the History of Medicine. Trust me, that last one is WAY more interesting than it sounds!

Find a New Favorite Ale at Latvia Beer Fest

Latvia Beer Fest

With more than 200 brews on tap, Latvia Beer Fest is the largest beer festival in the Baltics. The annual event takes place in Vermanes Park and lasts several days. All the major Latvian breweries are represented, including Valmiermuiza, Aldaris, Tervete, and Uzavas. You’ll also be able to sample some of Latvia’s finest craft beers, like those from Labietis. Classic Belgian and German brews are available, as is Guinness, though you’d do well to stick with the local varieties. Valmiermuiza is a top pick among foreign visitors.

Become a Beer Connoisseur at the Aldaris Brewery

Riga brewery tour

Riga beer tasting

Aldaris brewery Riga

If you’re not in town for the festival but still want to explore Latvia’s beer scene, head to the Aldaris Beer Museum in Riga’s Sarkandaugava neighborhood. The gleaming new museum was opened in 2015 inside one of the brewery’s historic buildings after a million euro renovation. Visitors can see original copper vats from the 1930s as well as other rare artifacts. Aldaris Brewery was founded in 1865, then known by its German name, Waldschlosschen. In Latvian, this word translates to Mezpils, or Forest Castle. Today, one of Aldaris’ most popular brands is Mezpils Alus, reportedly created to compete with the highly rated Valmiermuiza ales. To get the most out of the visit, sign up for the master class for beer connoisseurs. You’ll get to taste a variety of Aldaris brews along with expertly paired snacks. The class includes a guided tour of the museum and brewery.

Marvel at Mountainous Rhododendrons at the Botanical Garden

Riga rhododendron

Riga Botanical Garden

Thanks to my friend Jan for getting some shots of me in action!

riga rhododendron

Before coming face-to-face with a wall of blossoms at the Riga Botanical Garden, I had no idea rhododendrons could grow so big. The azaleas we have in North America are pretty but typically more petite. Apparently the cold, damp Latvian weather creates a hardier plant. The University of Latvia boasts the largest rhododendron collection in the Baltics, and maintains much of it at the Riga Botanical Garden. Several gigantic specimens welcome visitors near the main entrance, but the nursery area towards the back of the park is most impressive. Take tram 4 to reach the Botanical Garden, which is located across the Daugava.

Get Off the Beaten Path with a Walking Tour

This great mural maps out all the major sights in Riga’s Moscow neighborhood

Riga’s Old Jewish Cemetery

Riga Soviet architecture

The Latvian Academy of Sciences building, Riga’s most imposing Soviet structure

The Science building has a rooftop terrace with panoramic city views

While there are plenty of free walking tours of Riga’s Old Town, you’ll learn more about the city if you leave the medieval cobblestones behind. E.A.T. Riga Tours offers a variety of interesting options, such as the Soviet Riga Walking Tour and the Latvian Food Tasting Tour at Riga Central Market. Most tours last from 2 to 6 hours and all are led by a professional local guide. I took a tour of the Moscow District and former Riga Ghetto, and found the experience engaging and informative.

Indulge your Senses at the Opera Festival

Riga opera house

Latvian national opera

The stunning interior of the Latvian National Opera House in Riga.

Latvian opera performance Madama Butterfly

As I’ve mentioned once or twice before, I adore the Latvian National Opera and Ballet. The spring season culminates in June with the Riga Opera Festival, now in its 20th year. The highly-acclaimed festival showcases the best opera productions from the company’s repertoire, and often features award-winning singers from around the world. My favorite operas are La Traviata and Madama Butterfly, but all the performances are stellar.

Go Behind the Scenes with an Opera House Tour

Riga opera house tour

cafe opera riga

riga opera house

After Riga’s original opera house burned down in 1882, a new and improved version was erected on the banks of the canal just outside the Old Town. In order to prevent another fire, old-fashioned gas lighting was replaced with electricity that was generated by a ground-breaking power plant built directly beside the theater. Although that plant is no longer in use, its distinctive white tower remains. The Opera House’s lavish interior, with its red velvet curtains and abundance of gold paint, appears unchanged since the 19th century, but was fully refurbished in the early 1990s. For a peek behind the curtains, sign up for a Backstage Tour. Guides speak multiple languages and share a wealth of interesting information. My group was able to watch orchestra members and ballet dancers practice in their respective wings.

Enjoy the Cinema in Grand Style at Splendid Palace

splendid palace riga

splendid palace riga

Another Riga theater worth a look is the aptly-named Splendid Palace. The epitome of luxury, Splendid Palace was opened in 1923 when silent films were accompanied with a live orchestra sound track. Even after “talkies” eliminated the need for an orchestra, Splendid Palace remained the premier movie theater in the Baltics. When the Soviets took over, they didn’t wantonly destroy Riga’s beautiful structures, but did take pains to make them less ostentatious. Thus, in 1963, a large black rectangle of a building was put up directly in front Splendid Palace, renamed Cinema Riga. That Soviet contribution still obscures the theater’s entrance unfortunately, but it’s the interior you’re coming to see. (For current movie showtimes, click here.)

Stock up on Souvenirs at the Annual Latvian Craft Fair

Annual Latvian craft fair

Latvian arts and crafts fair

A Latvian woman in traditional national costume

Riga annual craft fair

One of the biggest events on Riga’s social calendar is the annual Latvian Arts and Crafts Fair. Now in its 47th year, the fair is typically held the first weekend of June on the grounds of the Latvian Ethnographic Open Air Museum. Artisans and crafts people from all over Latvia gather to show off their wares – everything from pottery and baskets to mittens and fresh cheese. It’s also a great place to watch traditional folk dances and sample local beer and snacks. Locals tend to spend the better part of a day browsing through all the treasures and soaking up the festive atmosphere. To reach the fair grounds from central Riga, take bus 1 to the Brivdabas muzejs stop. This is a popular event and buses fill up fast so go early! You can skip the line at the entrance by getting tickets in advance at the Opera House box office.

Greet the Midnight Sun during Ligo

Setting of the midnight sun in Riga, Latvia

Riga Summer Solstice Festival

By the time June 23 rolls around, the sun is barely setting in Latvia. Riga’s Midsummer Festival, which takes place on the eve of the Summer Solstice, is the party of the year. Traditionally, Latvians celebrate Ligo with friends out in the countryside, but more and more people are enjoying the festivities in Riga. Locals don their colorful ethnic costumes and perform folk dances on stages across town. In a nod to ancient pagan traditions, heads are crowned with garlands of wild flowers and oak leaves. A large farmer’s market takes over Riga’s Dome Square, while sprigs of birch branches decorate buildings and cars. Down on the November 11 Krastmala, stands sell beer, grilled meat, and special holiday cheese with caraway seeds. Though the event is often plagued by rain, a large bonfire helps chase away the chill. Expect the merrymaking to continue until the new day dawns – no one sleeps for Ligo!

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Celebrating Christmas in Taipei, Taiwan

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I have a little secret to share: While I continue to report on locales across Latvia and Europe, for the past few months those dispatches have been sent from the tropical island of Taiwan. Technology is amazing, no? Although I missed Riga terribly at first, Taipei has charmed me with its fascinating mix of cultures and religions. Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism and Christianity coexist peacefully, with temples, churches and shrines tucked in every nook and cranny. Although Christians make up just 4% of the island’s population, the Christmas holiday is widely embraced. The friendly people of Taiwan love all things cute, including Santa and Rudolf!

churches in taipei

Christmas decorations around Taipei range from the adorable (an inflatable Canadian moose) to over-the-top consumerist (an electric beer bottle topped with a star). Santas can be found shimmying up palm trees and strings of twinkle lights brighten the balmy December nights. With snow only a remote possibility in these parts, I give the Taiwanese a lot of credit for creating such a festive atmosphere!

Christmas at the Taipei Zoo

taipei love sign

Creepy anime Santa outside the Miramar Entertainment Park.

santas in palm trees

heineken christmas

Surprisingly, I was able to get my European Christmas market fix at the Strasbourg Christmas Market in Taipei. 15 wooden cabins were set up in a plaza under the shadow of the Taipei 101 and stocked with everything from mulled wine and pastries to embroidered dish towels and woolen hats. I wasn’t able to purchase any French treats, as all the tickets for the event had been sold out, but was content to wander under the vibrant illuminations and soak up the holiday cheer.

taipei 101 christmas market

christmas in taipei

While I decided to forgo getting a tree for my apartment, I did stock up on colorful poinsettias at the local flower market. Considering they cost less than US$5 a pop, how could I resist? Taipei’s Jianguo Weekend Flower Market is a veritable treasure trove of seasonal plants and lawn decor. It’s also a great place for watching locals push their pampered pooches around in baby strollers. Yup, that’s a thing!

taipei weekend flower market

taipei weekend flower market

dogs of taiwan

One thing Asia does exceedingly well is seasonal desserts. Meticulously embellished with vivid details, these confections are almost too pretty to eat! Krispy Kreme’s red Santa donuts filled with dark chocolate pudding were my favorite, though the green matcha cakes filled with red bean paste were a close second. (This was a surprise as I didn’t think I liked red bean paste. I guess tastes change!)

krispy kreme christmas donuts

reindeer bread

fancy cakes taiwan

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Celebrating Christmas in Taipei, Taiwan

A Merry and Bright Christmas in Lisbon, Portugal

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When I traveled to Lisbon in December, I wasn’t sure what to expect by way of holiday cheer. Would there be enough things to do in Lisbon at Christmastime? I’m pleased to report that the answer is a resounding yes! Elegant strings of lights glinted off the city’s renowned tile walkways, colorful window displays beckoned shoppers, and decorated trees illuminated public squares. Lisbon’s Christmas markets were overflowing with smoked sausages and wonderfully stinky cheese, while hot sangria replaced the standard mulled wine. Plus, the pleasant weather made it possible to stay outside for hours enjoying the festive atmosphere. If you are looking for a non-traditional European Christmas destination, you might want to give Portugal a try!

lisbon christmas lights

lisbon christmas lights

lisbon holiday lights

Christmas lights in Lisbon, Portugal

christmas in lisbon

lisbon in december

Lisbon’s Christmas Market, or Mercado de Natal, is held inside Campo Pequeno, a lovely red-brick bullfighting arena that was opened in 1890. Several dozen artisans and vendors set up tables around the floor and visitors can browse at their leisure. I bought some wine and cheese, of course, and regretted not having more room in my suitcase for a few pieces of pottery. This neat event is unfortunately a one-off, held either the last weekend in November or first weekend in December. Daily tickets cost a nominal €2 each.

campo pequeno lisbon bullring

lisbon christmas market

lisbon christmas market

lisbon bullring christmas market

lisbon christmas market

portuguese spices

If you miss the Mercado de Natal, you might still be able to catch the Mercado de Baxia. Once a month, tents are set up in Praca da Figueira and a glorious food market takes over. The event has a Christmasy air in November and December when local artisans also sell their wares. I loved browsing with a cup of hot sangria in hand!

mercado de baxia

lisbon food market

mercado de baxia lisbon

Don’t worry if your visit to Lisbon doesn’t coincide with either of these markets. You’ll still find plenty of treats to put you in the holiday spirit. One such treat is ginja, a sweet-and-tart cherry liqueur that owes its origins to Francisco Espinheira, a Galician friar who made creative use of the local Portuguese cherries. The potent drink was first sold commercially in Lisbon at A Ginjinha bar in the Rossio over 170 years ago. Join the crowd outside for a shot or two and you’ll soon be a festive mood!

Lisbon A Ginjinha Bar

Ginjinha Liquor in Lisbon, Portugal

Another centuries-old Lisbon specialty is the egg custard tart. In the 1830s, after a revolution resulted in the closure of monasteries, an out-of-work monk began selling homemade pastries to make ends meet. He operated out of a shop next to a sugar refinery in the Lisbon suburb of Belem. The venture was so successful that the bakery Pasteis de Belem was officially opened in 1837. The recipe for the famous tarts has remained a closely guarded secret ever since, known only to the shop’s master bakers. Whatever’s inside, you won’t be able to have just one!

Pasteis de Belem Lisbon

Pasteis de Nata Belem

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Celebrating Christmas in Lisbon, Portugal

16 Things to Do in Riga, Latvia this Autumn

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Autumn is a glorious time to visit Riga, Latvia. Golden leaves bedazzle the old city, which by this time has shed some of the flag-wielding tour groups and stag parties that clog the narrow alleys in summer. Early in the season, the weather is still fine enough to sip cider on sidewalk patios, albeit with a blanket wrapped around your shoulders. November turns dark and chilly in a hurry, although holiday celebrations still entice locals out of doors. Here are some of the fun ways I made the most of this annual crescendo.

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Scale the ramparts in Riga’s Bastejkalns park. Bastion Hill is a vast green space to the west of the Freedom Monument that was created in the 19th century after the old city fortifications were torn down. Traces of them remain, however. Follow the curving staircase up to the base of a tower, and you’ll find a vantage point ideal for surveying the realm.

Bastejkalns Riga

Riga Bastejkalns Park

Sit back and admire the leaves on a Riga Canal cruise. Wooden boats ply the Riga City Canal, the moat which once surrounded the medieval city and now runs through Bastejkalns park. The variety of trees lining the banks creates a kaleidoscopic effect for several weeks each fall. (Riga’s foliage generally peaks around the second week of October.) The cruise (€18 per person) lasts one hour and includes a scenic stretch along the Daugava River. If you’re lucky, you might even see one of the city’s elusive beavers!

Riga Canal Cruise

Riga Canal Cruise

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Head to the top of St Peter’s Church spire for a birds-eye view. I made frequent trips to the lofty observation platform and found that Riga’s Old Town looked positively ethereal in the soft autumn light. If you time your visit for the late afternoon sunset, you’ll be rewarded with a city bathed in rose gold. Tickets cost €9 and include entrance to the church (which doubles as an art gallery) in addition to a ride in the lift. Note that the ticket office closes at 5pm sharp during the fall and winter seasons. I once showed up at 5:04 and was turned away.

view of riga from st peters church

Beautiful Riga, Latvia

Return back down to Earth at Lielie Kapi, or the Great Cemetery. The final resting place of Latvia’s 18th and 19th century denizens, many of Baltic German extraction, was bulldozed by the Soviets in the 1960s and turned into a public park. But many tombstones and crumbling crypts still stand, some restored by local Latvians. I came across one small group tending the graves of Krisjanis Barons and Krisjanis Valdemars – two of Latvia’s most venerable national figures. They explained that they live near Lielie Kapi and view it as part of a cultural heritage worth preserving.

Riga Lielie Kapi

Riga Great Cemetery

Honor a hero at the Janis Lipke Memorial. This small but powerful museum is dedicated to someone who, with his family and a few close friends, saved over 50 Jews from the Riga Ghetto during World War II. Mr. Lipke was employed at the dock warehouses and responsible for transporting ghetto inmates to and from work each day. When the opportunity arose, either from lax security or by bribing the guards, he would help Jews escape. Some were hidden with trusted friends in Riga, while others were spirited away to farms in Dobele. The rest survived the war in a secret bunker Mr. Lipke created under the woodshed on his property on Kipsala, an island in the Daugava River. Amazingly, the Lipke family was never betrayed to the Nazis and continue to live on Kipsala to this day.

Janis Lipke Museum in Riga, Latvia.

The museum was built next to the Lipke home and designed by premier Latvian architect Zaiga Gaile. Ms. Gaile’s firm is responsible for rehabbing many of the island’s old wooden homes and revitalizing the area. It’s a lovely place to walk and reflect on a crisp fall afternoon.

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View of Riga from Kipsala Island

Lift your spirits with the friendly barkeeps of Labietis, Riga’s hippest craft brewery. The original pub is tucked inside a courtyard on Aristida Briana iela and has twelve experimental brews on tap. The knowledgeable staff will gladly explain the different flavors, which they’ve divided into five color families. The “yellow” beers were popular with my crowd, though I also enjoyed the Dumenis (Smoky) “red” beer. Want to know even more? Ask for a tour of the Labietis brewery!

Riga Labietis Brewery

Celebrate the Autumn harvest at a Saturday market in Kalnciema Kvartals. Country farmers show off their bounty of fall produce, along with all the jams, honeys, and breads you can eat. This is also a great spot to pick up local handicrafts and knitwear, like hats and scarves, which you will soon need. (I’m fond of the “Mice” brand of accessories.) While you’re in the neighborhood, take some time to appreciate the historic wooden Art Nouveau architecture which is gradually being restored to its former glory.

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riga-kalnciema-architecture

Pay tribute to Latvia’s freedom fighters on Lacplesis Day. November 11 commemorates the day in 1919 when Latvia’s army defeated Russian forces and made Latvia a free and independent country. Locals lay flowers at the base of Riga’s Freedom Monument and light candles by the thousands to mark the special event. I was moved to witness parents and teachers explain the significance of the day to their children, ensuring the tradition continues for generations to come.

Riga November 11

Lighting Candles for Lacplesis Day in Riga, Latvia.

Lacplesis Day Riga

Get patriotic on November 18 for Latvian Independence Day. On this date in 1918, Latvia officially declared its independence from the Russian Empire, though it would take another year for this to be fully realized (see Lacplesis Day, above). This public holiday is one of the biggest events of the year, celebrated with a military parade and spectacular fireworks display. Locals participate by laying heaps of flowers at the Freedom Monument and making torchlight processions across the city. Many torches are left in Bastejkalns park, turning it into a fairy kingdom for the night.

Riga November 18 Torch Procession

Latvian Independence Day

Take a tour of Latvia’s parliament, or Saeima. The historic building was constructed in 1867 for the Livonian knights and transferred to the Latvian government in 1920. Guided tours can be prearranged for groups and take visitors through the beautifully restored entrance hall, library, meeting rooms, and voting chamber. If you want to experience the government in action, it’s possible to observe a plenary session, though the proceedings will be entirely in Latvian.

Latvian Parliament Building

Riga Saeima Building

Amuse the kids at two of Riga’s family-friendly museums. The Latvian Railway Museum has a large collection of historical photographs, maps, and train schedules, though it’s the “rolling stock” that’s of most interest. Vintage locomotives and train cars are parked on the tracks behind the museum, and some you can climb aboard! The Latvian Firefighting Museum is chockablock with antique vehicles and fire safety equipment, such as uniforms, pumps, and hoses. You can even test your fire-extinguishing capabilities in an interactive game!

Riga Railway Museum

Riga Firefighting Museum

latvian-fire-fighting-museum

Say hello to the animals at the Riga Zoo. This sprawling park is home to dozens of animals, including lions, hippos, giraffes, bears, camels, and kangaroos. The zoo is well-tended and some of the enclosures have been newly renovated to give the large animals lots of space to roam. Picnic areas are available if you want to make a day of it – but heed the signs and don’t feed the animals! The Riga Zoo is open every day and adult tickets cost €6, though discounted family tickets are available.

Riga Zoo animals

Peruse the latest styles at Riga Fashion Week. Top designers from the Baltic countries show off their spring-summer collections in October, giving everyone something to look forward to at the end of those long winter months. Names to look out for include Dace Bahmann, Anna Led, and Narciss.

Riga Fashion Week

Light up the night with Staro Riga. For one weekend every November, Riga is transformed by art installations that illuminate the dark autumn sky. Creative and colorful displays timed to music dance across building facades and fountains around the city. Frigid temperatures can’t keep the crowds away from this much anticipated annual spectacle!

staro-riga-2014

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Enjoy a performance of the Latvian National Opera and Ballet. I know I recommended this activity in my Winter edition, but the shows are so marvelous they deserve a another mention. My favorites include La Traviata, Madama Butterfly, Don Quixote, Swan Lake, and Giselle. I was continually impressed by the talent of the performers, the stunning set pieces and costumes, and the affordable ticket prices. Nights at the theater felt like such a treat, and now that I no longer live in Riga, it’s one of the things I miss most.

Riga Opera House

Latvian National Opera and Ballet

Give Autumn a proper sendoff with mulled wine at the Riga Christmas Market. The festivities open in Dome Square at the end of November, and last through the first week of January, giving you plenty of time to soak up the holiday atmosphere. At least a quarter of the stalls sell hot food and beverages, which you’ll definitely need to combat the chilly temps. (Latvian mittens also help.)

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Kaunas Lithuania

Celebrating Easter in Kaunas, Lithuania

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As the Knights of the Teutonic Order spread Christianity across the European continent, Lithuania was the last pagan holdout. But in the mid-1300s, Kaunas Castle was besieged and eventually captured by the crusading knights. To celebrate their victory, they reportedly held a Mass at the castle on Easter Sunday. Lithuania was Christianized a few decades later, with pressure from neighboring Poland.

Kaunas Castle

Today, Roman Catholicism is Lithuania’s primary religion. Kaunas Cathedral dates to the early 1400s, though the striking interior was designed in 1771, and is the largest Gothic structure in Lithuania. Dedicated to Sts. Peter and Paul, the cathedral is the final resting place for several prominent Lithuania writers.

Kaunas Cathedral

Kaunas Cathedral interior

On Easter Sunday, a small craft market was set up in the courtyard of Kaunas Cathedral where the holiday Mass would be held later that day. While some of the decorative items looked professionally done, others were sweetly handmade. I bought two colored eggs and an egg carton chicken from an adorable little girl for one euro. I admired her initiative!

Kaunas Easter fair

Easter in Kaunas Lithuania

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My favorite Easter eggs were found at Ruta Zalioji, a small shop in the Old Town selling traditional Lithuanian costumes and accessories. The delicate shells were dyed black and filled with wax to make them sturdier, then hand painted in vibrant hues and folk patterns. I brought home half a dozen to display for many seasons to come.

Lithuanian Easter eggs

Traditional Lithuanian costumes

Locals stocked up for Easter brunch ingredients at the Saturday farmer’s market across from Kaunas Castle; bread and freshly smoked fish seemed to be popular choices. “Wise Grandpa,” a colorful mural by street artist(s) Gyva Grafika, watched over the shoppers.

Kaunas street art

Kaunas farmer's market

In many parts of the Catholic world, the faithful perform the Stations of the Cross, and Kaunas is no different. On Good Friday, I stumbled upon the city’s candlelit procession and was moved by the show of devotion by clergy and locals alike. The surprisingly fast-moving cortege was accompanied by a woman singing in the most beautiful voice, broadcast over loudspeakers for all the town to hear.

Easter in Kaunas Lithuania

Easter in Kaunas Lithuania

Good Friday isn’t a bank holiday in Lithuania, unlike in many European countries, so most museums in Kaunas were open (on Saturday, too). I enjoyed an exhibit of abstract paintings by M.K. Čiurlionis at the National Museum of Art, which is named after the artist. The rich tones and symbolism in his work reminded me of Edvard Munch and I left the museum a new fan.

National Museum of Art Kaunas

M K Ciurlionis paintings

The Museum of Lithuanian Folk Instruments was another interesting diversion. The collection of antique pianos, accordions, flutes, and assorted string instrument is spread across two floors of a 16th century home, and is accompanied by musical recordings.

Museum of Lithuanian Folk Instruments Kaunas

Thankfully, the city’s restaurants remained open as well. Kaunas is a university town, and as such, boasts an impressive array of international cuisines. I indulged in delicious Mexican nachos and fajitas, an American cheeseburger and fries, and Italian cured meats and pasta during my brief stay. (Sorry cepelinai, we met previously in Vilnius and didn’t hit it off.)

Agave Mexican Restaurant Kaunas

Tasty if not entirely authentic Mexican food at Agave.

Hopdoc Gastropub Kaunas

Great burgers and Lithuanian craft brews at Hopdoc Gastropub.

Piccola Italian Restaurant Kaunas

Excellent Italian fare at Piccola Italia Trattoria.

I was able to walk off all that yummy food on the two connected pedestrian streets linking central Kaunas and the Old Town. The streets are lined with quaint two- and three-story buildings – many painted pink! – with wrought iron balconies interspersed with old churches and theaters. The effect is incredibly charming!

Kaunas Lithuania

Kaunas old town

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Easter in Kaunas Lithuania

Kaunas old town

Any remaining calories were sweated out as I climbed the steps to the top of Aleksotas hill since the ancient funicular railway wasn’t running. The pretty view of Kaunas was definitely worth the effort!

Aleksotas funicular railway Kaunas

Kaunas Lithuania

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Would you like to welcome spring in Kaunas, Lithuania?

An Enchanted Christmas in Vilnius, Lithuania

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As soon as I saw a photo of the Vilnius Christmas tree on Instagram, I knew I had to hop the next bus to see it for myself. The fantastic fir – decked out with windows, lanterns, green garland, and enough lights to be seen from space – looked like an elf’s cottage in a fairy tale forest! Add to that a precipitously leaning tower and a Romanesque cathedral and you have a seriously stunning holiday scene.

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The Vilnius Christmas market might not have as many stalls as that of nearby Riga, but that doesn’t make it any less fun to explore. I was especially impressed with the variety of international sweet treats on offer, from Lithuanian curd donuts and Nutella crepes to churros and Belgian-style waffles.

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Vilnius decked its halls, er, streets, with a dazzling array of twinkle lights. Some displays were so bright I almost forgot it was pitch black out at 5pm! Another festive feature was the interactive 3-D Christmas tree in Vilnius Town Centre square. An illuminated silver maze was punctuated with animated games projected onto screens. I didn’t get the Christmas tree reference, but it was fun to watch the local kids transformed into dancing cartoon Santas!

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A life-size Nativity reminds visitors of the true meaning of Christmas.

For dinner, head to Kitchen and order off the winter specials menu. My herb roasted duck breast with apples and cranberries was like Christmas on a plate! The true gift, though, was the price: €15 for two courses and a glass of wine! Kitchen’s atmosphere was warm and festive, with groups of young Lithuanians celebrating the holidays together. This is arguably one of the best restaurants in town.

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My charming boutique hotel, Shakespeare, fully embraced the spirit of the season. The exterior of the building (a former palace) was trimmed with lights and garlands, while the dining room boasted not one but two decorated Christmas trees. My favorite touch was the specially embroidered slippers in my room. Located a few blocks from Cathedral Square, Shakespeare makes the ideal base for exploring the Vilnius Christmas market. I may or may not have picked up a late-night Nutella crepe on my way back to the hotel. Can one desire too much of a good thing?

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Christmas in Vilnius

What are some of your favorite European Christmas markets?

Is Vilnius on your list for Christmas next year?

visiting riga in december

Top 15 Things to Do in Riga, Latvia this Winter

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While Latvia’s summer feels all too brief, the winter months can seem endless. Daylight hours drastically diminish and the temperature plunges, making it tempting just to stay in with Netflix and hot cocoa. Thankfully Riga provides loads of fun reasons to get out of the house, and I’m not even counting the festive Christmas markets (which you can read about here). So bundle up, grab a steaming cup of mulled wine, and get ready to party with Jack Frost! Here’s my list of things to do in Riga in winter.

Attend the Opera and Ballet

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Get into the holiday spirit with a beautiful performance of the Nutcracker.

Latvian National Opera Madame Butterfly

The LNO’s Madama Butterfly uses the original wooden sets from the 1920s, which miraculously survived war and occupation.

My absolute favorite Riga activity – regardless of season – is attending a performance of the Latvian National Opera and Ballet. For a few precious hours, the professional casts whisk me away to enchanted forests and 19th century Paris, resplendent in gorgeous costumes and set pieces. The luxurious Opera House evokes another era with its colossal chandelier, gilded paint and red velvet seats. The majority of the audience dresses as befitting the occasion and promenades in the hallways at intermission, complementing the Hapsburg vibe of the place. Given the high caliber of the performances, the €25 price for prime orchestra seats is a steal! The season runs from September to June, and it’s best to purchase tickets in advance, especially for popular shows like the Nutcracker and Swan Lake.

Cheer on the Local Hockey Team

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If you are looking for something a bit faster paced, check out Arena Riga, home to the Riga Dinamos hockey team! They might be struggling a little this year, but the games are thrilling to watch thanks to the lively crowds, energetic mascot, and noise of the official cheering section. Plus, you never know who you might run into – Latvia’s new president and first lady were guests of honor at a recent match! The Dinamos have a dozen home games scheduled for 2016. I’ll see you in the stands!

Shop for Traditional Latvian Mittens

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I’m thinking about recreating this display in my apartment.

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Mittens with yellow stickers represent historically significant designs.

If you haven’t heard, it gets darn cold in Latvia. To protect hands from the harsh elements, grandmothers in the countryside have been knitting wool mittens for centuries. Today enterprising grannies sell their handiwork all over Riga, from street carts to souvenir shops. I’ve seen prices ranging from €8 to €62, with the quality varying just as much. My three favorite stores for traditional Latvian mittens are Sena Klets, Tines, and Hobbywool, all located in Old Town. The hardest part is choosing among many gorgeous colors and patterns. I have four pair and counting!

Enjoy Sunset Cocktails – at 3:30 pm

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With the sun rising at 9 am and setting at 3:30 pm, winter days in Riga are woefully short. Stave off the blues with a decadent mid-afternoon sundowner at one of the city’s rooftop bars! The 26th floor of the Radisson Blu Hotel Latvija is home to Skyline Bar, a chic cocktail lounge with fantastic city views. Another option is the Star Lounge Bar on the 11th floor of the Albert Hotel in Riga’s Art Nouveau district. The view of Old Town and the river might not be as great, but the Star Lounge boasts an outdoor terrace where you can snap sunset photos sans pesky window reflections.

Support Local Artists at the Student Art Fair

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Now in its thirteenth year, “Jarmarka” is the Latvian Academy of Art’s annual fair. Student works – everything from paintings and objets d’art to jewelry and one-of-a-kind fashions – are sold off with the proceeds going towards the restoration of the Academy’s historic building. If you’re in the market for a conversation piece for your home or wardrobe, this is the place to get it. Jarmarka 2015 runs from December 16-30 and is closed over Christmas. Note that sales are cash only.

Warm your Soul with Laima Chocolate

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Western European countries like Belgium and Switzerland might be famous for their chocolate, but Latvia has been producing its own for nearly as long. A Baltic German opened Latvia’s first confectionery in 1870 and the tradition lives on. Today, the country’s most well-known brand is Laima, and its factory is still in its original location on Miera Iela in central Riga. Stroll through that neighborhood during business hours and you will be overcome by the rich chocolate aroma. The factory has a museum and offers tours, while Laima shops can be found all over town. Be sure to try a cup of karstā šokolāde – literally a cup of hot melted chocolate. You won’t know what hit you!

Learn a Latvian Folk Dance

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Folk Club Riga

Photo gallery source: Folkklubs Ala

Every Wednesday, the popular Old Riga bar Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs throws a Latvian folk dancing party of epic proportions. People pack the medieval cellar-cum-tavern and learn to dance traditional Latvian steps with the help of professional instructors, live music, and lots of beer. There are 27 varieties of Latvian beer on tap!

Work up a Sweat at the Sauna

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If dancing doesn’t warm you up on a blustery winter’s day, how about a visit to the sauna? A tradition that’s very popular in these parts, the sauna is as fun as it is good for your health. There’s nothing quite as exhilarating as going from the hot wood-fired sauna and plunging naked into a frigid pool of water. And you might even make some new Latvian friends in the process! You can read all about my Latvian sauna experience here.

Cuddle Up with a Furry Friend

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The cat cafe craze has come to Riga and I’ve been only too happy to take part. MINKA Cat Cafe is located across the river in Riga’s Agenskalns neighborhood and is a cozy spot to while away the afternoon. There are four resident cats, though only two were out and about during my most recent visit. But considering one cuddly kitty parked himself next to me the whole time, that’s really all I needed. Oh, and the food’s pretty good, too!

Take Shelter in a Museum

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Entrance to the Riga Bourse Museum is on the right.

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Riga Bourse Museum

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Museum of the History of Riga and Navigation

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History of Riga Museum

For a relatively small city, Riga has a wealth of world-class museums. The Riga Bourse is a fine arts museum featuring a beautiful collection of European and Asian paintings and porcelain. The Museum of the History of Riga and Navigation may sound less than thrilling, but the exhibits are surprisingly engaging, particularly those on Peter the Great and Art Nouveau. Both museums are housed in stunning heritage buildings in Riga’s Old Town. The architecture alone is worth the price of admission!

Give Ice Skating a Whirl

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Be warned that the Latvians all skate like professionals.

Want to glide across the ice and unleash your inner Olympian? A new winter ice skating rink has been opened in Riga’s Esplanade park. The rink is open from 10:00-22:00 daily and is free to use so long as you bring your own skates. If you need to rent them, skates are available onsite for €3.

Get your Blood Pumping with Escape Room

Escape Room Riga

Photo gallery source: Escape Room

While I haven’t tried this interactive game myself (YET!), every person I know who has played Escape Room has raved about the experience. Some solved the puzzle and got out, while others had to be rescued by the staff. Either way, a good time was had by all. There are several different versions of the game at locations across town, and some sound scarier than others. I can’t wait to give it a go!

Cure What Ails You with Riga Black Balsam

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Riga Black Balsam

There’s a saying that if you haven’t tasted Riga Black Balsam, then you haven’t been in Riga. The city’s iconic – and potent! – liquor was developed by an 18th century pharmacist and first sold as a medicine. Indeed, the unique blend of 24 herbs and spices does lend the spirit a bitter medicinal flavor. That’s why many Latvians prefer to add a splash to their coffee or hot wine rather than drink it straight. I’m told it’s an excellent cure for the common cold. Riga Black Balsam was reputedly used to cure Empress Catherine the Great when she fell ill during a visit to the city. If it’s good enough for an empress…

Celebrate Winter Solstice Like a Latvian

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Latvians embrace their pagan roots at the annual Winter Solstice celebration, held on the grounds of the Latvian Ethnographic Open-Air Museum. Locals don animal costumes, sing and dance, and send their worries up in a puff of smoke with the burning of a yule log. Talk about starting the New Year with a clean slate!

Ring in the New Year with a Bang

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The city of Riga puts on a fireworks show like nobody’s business. The fantastic displays usually last for 10 minutes and are choreographed to music for dramatic effect. My favorite vantage point is the center of the Vansu Bridge, with Old Riga on one side and the striking new National Library on the other. The fireworks reflect on the surface of the river thereby doubling the show! New Years concerts are held on the November 11 Krastmala, or riverbank, though if you want champagne, you’ll have to bring your own.

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Riga Winter Travel Guide

What would YOU most like to do in Riga, Latvia this winter?

Swooning Over Spring in Riga

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Just like autumn before her, spring arrived in Riga seemingly overnight. The grass grew a vivid shade of green and flower beds erupted in colorful blooms – the speed of this change was almost dizzying! All it took was a few sunny days and a good soaking rain to wash away the last vestiges of winter. Azaleas, rhododendrons, tulips, lilacs, violets, and even cherry blossoms brightened the city’s parks one by one, a new dazzling display tempting me out each week with my camera in tow. As if Riga weren’t pretty enough already, spring comes along and gilds the lily!

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What better place to revel in spring’s bounty than the Riga Botanical Garden! Operated in conjunction with the University of Latvia, the 15 hectare park boasts over 6,000 plants, flowers and trees. A large greenhouse contains a rain forest habitat along with an impressive array of orchids and cacti. During the spring and summer months, the butterfly house is a fun diversion – though be warned there is a separate entrance fee (worth it) and the temperature inside exceeds 30C! In a bit of canny entrepreneurship, bottled water is for sale at the ticket booth.

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Not to be outshined by Mother Nature, Riga’s chefs got in on the action during Restaurant Week, serving up spring on a plate. Seasonal produce including artichokes, asparagus, rhubarb, and sea buckthorn livened up meats like duck and rabbit, while rye bread crumbs and fresh dairy added Latvian flair to the desserts. I partook of the specially-priced set menus at a few restaurants, with my favorites being Locale and Tinto.

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Artichoke risotto, roast duck, and vanilla semifreddo at Locale.

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Asparagus soup, fish salad, and chocolate cake at Tinto.

Always a bit of an adrenaline junkie, I jumped at the chance to enjoy views of Riga from 50 meters up with Dinner in the Sky. I went with the “Champagne in the Sky” option, which included a drink, light snack, and 20 minutes of air time. After being strapped securely to our chairs – which swiveled! – the large platform was hoisted by crane into the stratosphere and gently turned so that we could appreciate the city from a variety of angles. The fearless staff handed each guest a flute of G.H. MUMM champagne and a beautiful appetizer plate, though most of us were so busy gaping at the view and taking photos that we didn’t consume either until the way down. I’ll be eagerly awaiting this spectacle’s return to Riga next year!

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Latvians seem determined to enjoy every last second of the fleeting sunshine, and nowhere was this more apparent than gada tirgus, or the annual market. Each June, virtually every handicraft maker in the country converges on the grounds of the Latvian Ethnographic Open-Air Museum, and eager shoppers turn out in droves. Pottery, rugs, iron works, wooden furniture, beeswax candles, sausages and cured meats, wicker baskets, mittens, fresh cheese, wool sweaters, children’s toys…the list goes on and on. If I hadn’t been worried about getting my purchases home on the bus, I would have been tempted to buy one of everything!

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The weekend before gada tirgus, Riga hosted the 5th annual Latvian Beer Fest in the centrally located Vermanes Park. With over two dozen breweries represented, it’s the largest festival of its kind in the Baltics.

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Please pardon the low resolution, these were taken with my phone. And the cup on the left is pear cider. Yum!

The unofficial start of the spring season coincided with the celebration of Latvia’s Restoration of Independence. On May 4, 1990, Latvia broke free from the crumbling Soviet Union and reestablished itself as a free democratic republic. Because 2015 marked the 25th anniversary of this momentous occasion, Riga threw one heck of a party! Marching bands from cities around Latvia performed in front of the Freedom Monument before a formal ceremony featuring a steady stream of Latvian political leaders, members of the military, foreign dignitaries, and distinguished guests. Everyone laid flowers at the monument’s base and filled in a “flower map” of Latvia.

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Bottom left: Former President Andris Berzins; Bottom right: Prime Minister Laimdota Straujuma.

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How have you enjoyed spring in your part of the world?

Partying Like a Latvian on Winter Solstice

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Before ringing in the New Year, we joined in on Latvia’s winter solstice celebrations at the Latvian Ethnographic Open-Air Museum, a short distance outside Riga. According to local websites, the event would be marked with singing and dancing Latvians wearing animal masks and culminate with the burning of a yule log. I knew this was not to be missed.

German crusaders didn’t introduce Christianity to Latvia until the 11th century and it wasn’t fully enforced until the 1200s. The Latvians, however, held onto many of their pagan beliefs and traditions, simply incorporating them into the new faith. So while everyone celebrated the birth of Christ, the Latvians also honored the Sun goddess, who was reborn every December 22. The night before, on the shortest day of the year, the Latvians gathered to make merry and honor the past.

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It began to snow as soon as this group showed up. Coincidence?

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In the spirit of rebirth, they would also shed the previous year’s misfortunes. This was done by dragging a yule log through the village, gathering everyone’s painful memories, hardships and failures along with it, and then setting it on fire. All that sorrow would go up in a puff of smoke!

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I was surprised by the large turnout and level of crowd participation at the Latvian Ethnographic Open-Air Museum. Many people were dressed in folk costumes and animal hats, and even those not in costume seemed to know the songs and dances. It’s heartwarming to see this dedication to cultural traditions in our modern world.

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The Museum is actually a collection of 118 historic buildings that have been relocated to an 87-hectare park on the shores of Lake Jugla. Visitors can enter the restored and furnished structures to get an idea of what life was like for ancient Latvian farmers and fishermen.

Riga Winter Solstice

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The Museum also includes a market where visitors can buy traditional Latvian handicrafts.

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Have you ever celebrated the Winter Solstice? What’s the most unusual custom in your neck of the woods?

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?