We found a deal for a Riga Christmas market trip that we couldn’t pass up. While Riga, Latvia, may not be the first place you think of to visit for the Christmas season, they do take the holidays seriously. Legend has it that they started the tradition of decorating Christmas trees. All the way back in 1510, some Riga merchants first decorated a fir tree with flowers for Christmas in the market square. If that hasn’t peaked your interest, you might be surprised to learn that Riga was named the best-value city for a Christmas market mini-break in Europe by UK Business Insider.
Let me tell you what to expect at the Christmas Markets in Riga and the festival called “The Way Through the Christmas Trees.”
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Christmas Markets in Riga
First of all, there is more than one Christmas Market in Riga. We tried to see as many as we could, which ended up being four. All the Riga Christmas markets we visited were located either in the Old Town area or close to it. There is another Christmas Market across the Daugava River called the Kalnciema kvartāls market which is open only on Saturdays, but we didn’t have time to go there during our short time in Riga.
We visited the Christmas markets on a Friday so that we would avoid the weekend crowds. The Riga winter weather was cold and rainy with some snow mixed in, so the markets were pretty empty. From what I read, the Riga Christmas markets are open from 10 am to 8 pm, but from my experience, some stalls made their own hours. Most markets open in early December and will stay open through the first week of January.
Kalku Iela at Tirgonu Iela
In my pre-trip research, I had not seen anything about this Riga Old Town Christmas market, so I was pleasantly surprised when I spotted it down the street from Town Hall Square. It had a lot of great artisan gifts. We saw these simple cute wooden angel Latvian Christmas ornaments which I was tempted to buy. I decided I would wait and see what we found at the other markets. They also had a lot of nice knitted pieces.
One of the nice things about this market is the booths are inside and it is relatively warm. It was so nice to be able to go inside especially when it was raining. They also have a restaurant inside a tent where you can grab a bite and beverage of your choice.
Next to the restaurant, we saw an interesting piece of art. It was pieces of a mirror hanging inside a tall open metal box. The pieces of mirror were moving with the breeze and creating a sparkling effect which definitely caught your eye. We didn’t realize it was actually part of the Way Through the Christmas Trees public art exhibition (more on that below). This one is either called the ‘Mirror Fir Tree’ or the ‘Shooting Tree’ – we saw if referred to as both.
Doma Laukums (Dome Square)
The Dome Square market was my favorite Riga Christmas Market. It is located in Dome Square right next to the Riga Cathedral which makes for a beautiful backdrop. They also had some nice Christmas music to help get you in the holiday spirit. I also loved the red and white striped roofs on the booths.
This market was the largest and had more different food and beverage options than the other markets we went to. I loved that some of it was being cooked in a cauldron over an open fire. The men tending to the pots were wearing capes right out of medieval time.
For food, they had soups, meats, potatoes, other vegetables, Latvian Christmas cookies, and some snacks like roasted nuts. While they had tables where you could stand and enjoy the Latvian Christmas food, since there were no heaters so we didn’t eat any. (Well, except for the sample of nuts I was offered)
We did have some mulled wine though. Not just any mulled wine but local Latvian Black Currant Mulled Wine. After I sample two different kinds, I decided to order a glass of the blackcurrant one to share with Russell. The lady was so nice and split it for us into two cups. I also saw booths selling black balsam drinks, warm ciders, and beer.
Of course, this Christmas Market also had a Christmas Tree. It was a tall tree decorated with white ornaments. Later, I would learn that it was another part of the city-wide art exhibition called the Way Through the Christmas Trees. This tree was titled the White One.
Livu Laukums (by the Cat House)
As we approached the Livu Laukums market, I noticed something on top of the roof of one of the buildings. At first, I thought it was a swan, but then realized it was a cat. Now, it made sense why I had seen so many cat-related souvenirs.
Most of the wooden booths at this Riga Latvia Christmas market were selling souvenirs and crafts that would make great presents. I saw some nice wooden coasters, cutting boards, and other traditional Latvian Christmas gifts. Of course, I also saw a booth that had mulled wine.
We were a little cold by this point so when I saw a tented area, I headed straight there. Inside the tent is a restaurant called Sunshine. They sat us inside along the edge of the tent, where we had a nice view of the market and also our own heater. We ordered some mulled wine and a little snack (Latvian Garlic Bread). Much to our surprise, they played 80s music, which we both love.
As we were relaxing at Sunshine, we couldn’t help but notice another unique Christmas Tree outside. It was made of wood and the ornaments were candles. I had to look closely to confirm in fact they were real candles. They keep the candles on the tree lit 24 hours a day. They are inside candleholders to protect them from the wind. If you look closely there are red hearts on top of each candle holder and a collage of hearts top the tree.
At the time, I didn’t realize that this was the Fir Tree of Love, yet another of the Way Through the Christmas Trees! I loved how artistic and original the tree was and I thought about how pretty it would look at night.
Esplanade Park (by the Nativity Cathedral)
This Latvian Christmas market is known for its rabbits. Yes, they have real live rabbits. There is an area fenced off where they have the cute rabbits in a Christmas setting that you can watch and of course photograph. By the time we got to the market, it was dark so it was a little hard to see them. I also read that they have Santas that will sell you carrots to feed the rabbits, but I guess we got there too late.
I think this might be the best Riga Christmas market for kids because there is also a Ferris wheel. When we were at the Christmas market, there wasn’t a line for the Ferris wheel. It wasn’t a very big one, so I didn’t feel the need to ride it.
We saw booths selling craft items and also a few that were selling meat. We tasted some of the hams when we visited the Riga Central Market and I thought they were good. A lot of the stalls were already closed when we got there although it was only 5 pm on a Friday.
The Way Through the Christmas Trees
Since Riga claims to be the first place to decorate a Christmas tree, they do pride themselves on Christmas decorations. Many streets had festive lights, other Latvian Christmas decorations, and there were Christmas trees everywhere. At first, I didn’t quite realize that these Christmas Trees were part of what is called “The Way Through the Christmas Trees”.
Each December for the last seven years, Riga has become the Christmas tree capital of the world, with over 40 different Christmas tree art installations set-up throughout the city. These modern-day Christmas trees each have their own take on the Christmas theme. I thought the ones we saw were so creative. It was kind of like visiting a modern art gallery around Riga, similar to London during the Lumiere Light Festival.
Most of the Christmas Trees we saw look good at any time, but they are probably best viewed at night when they are lit up. Luckily in Riga, it gets dark early especially in December so anytime 4 pm or later will be fine. I read that the exhibition would run from December 8th, 2017 to January 14, 2018; however, we did see some of the Christmas Trees on December 7th. Note: The dates for 2018 are December 7, 2018, through January 13, 2019.
We didn’t have time to see all 41 Christmas Trees but we wanted to see as many as we could. Russell noticed that there was a big concentration of trees close to the Freedom Monument in Esplanade Park, so we headed there.
Russell was in charge of the map, so he could see the names of each Christmas Tree. To make things fun, I would try to guess them. I didn’t do so well with that game. First up was the Christmas Cucumber, which I originally thought looked like a Christmas Hand Grenade. Not sure what that says about my thinking! Of course, once he told me it was the Christmas Cucumber I could totally see that, but it would never have been my first guess. I am not sure I would have ever guessed it.
Another Christmas tree that stood out in Esplanade Park was the Butterfly. This is a dramatic light display with changing colors that is mesmerizing! (You can see more of the Christmas Butterfly in action in the video below.)
I think from a distance the butterfly actually looks more a Christmas tree. It is worth going into Esplanade park to take a closer look at the artwork. Then you will see the resemblance to the butterfly in the shape. It took me a few minutes to notice the antenna that makes it most definitely a butterfly.
Christmas in Riga, Latvia
Riga helped get me in the holiday spirit. There are so many things to do in Riga at Christmas. I enjoyed the markets, I just wish there would have been a few more heaters. It would have been nice to hear some Latvian Christmas songs too. All the holiday decorations were lovely. I just wish I could have seen all 41 pieces of art that make up the Way Through the Christmas Trees.
You can see more of what our day at the Riga Christmas Markets was like in this video.
Have you visited Riga at Christmas time? Or are there other places that have helped get you in the holiday spirit?
Priecīgus Ziemassvētkus (Happy Christmas in Latvian)!
Expert Tips for a Riga Christmas Market Break
- Dress warmly. Riga weather in December is cold and much of the Christmas markets are outside.
- Visit as many Latvian Christmas markets as you can fit into your itinerary.
- Try the local mulled wine, it was delicious!
- See the Way Through the Christmas Tree when it is dark. You can use this map to locate the artwork.
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