Last Updated on December 13, 2023 by Editor G
Embarking on a Christmas shopping journey in today’s world often leads us down two familiar paths: braving crowded malls, wandering through ubiquitous high street stores, or endlessly scrolling through online sales, hunting for those elusive bargains and unique gifts.
Yet, this modern ritual is a far cry from a time-honored tradition that has warmed the hearts of Europeans for centuries. With their rich historical roots, Christmas markets have always been more than just places to shop. They are vibrant, festive gatherings, buzzing with the spirit of the season and offering a unique opportunity to find special gifts for our loved ones.
This enchanting tradition continues to thrive, contrary to fading into the annals of history. Across the continent, these markets rekindle the magic of Christmas each year, offering a delightful alternative to the usual Yuletide shopping experience. In the heart of Latvia, the capital city of Riga holds its own in celebrating these age-old traditions. Its Christmas markets are a festive spectacle, bringing to life the city’s rich customs. Prepare to be immersed in a world of seasonal wonder as we guide you through the charming Christmas markets of Riga.
Where did it start?
The idea of holding a Christmas market may sound like a relatively new phenomenon, but in actual fact, it dates back to the 13th century in Germany – which technically makes the Germans the inventors of Christmas shopping.
In the beginning, just a few stalls selling handicrafts used to be set up outside churches in the hope that the congregation would stop and purchase a trinket or two after the service. This quickly expanded to traders in local squares who sold handicrafts as well as food and drink. As the years passed, more and more seasonal goods started to be sold, and entertainment, such as singing and dancing quickly became a central feature of these markets.
Modern markets often now include innovations such as ice rinks to help create a winter wonderland atmosphere but nevertheless still feature long-standing customs and traditions as well as locally produced food and drink.
Folk from Riga celebrate Christmas in style with a wonderful market that captures the essence of the original stallholders who braved the cold centuries ago. Although the market in Riga has only been running for a few years, the traditions date back to the 16th century; a decorated Christmas tree was first recorded as being erected in the main square as long ago as 1510!
Riga’s claim to fame
If the idea of celebrating Christmas in a location that has long-standing ties to Yuletide traditions, Riga could well be the perfect place to visit.
It is widely believed that the idea of decorating a Christmas tree may well have originated from Riga and that the tree that stood in Town Hall Square in 1510 could have been the first of its kind! Latvia and Riga in particular, is therefore viewed by the majority of Christmas experts of the birthplace of the evergreen Christmas tree, which is popular in so many countries around the world today.
However, whilst Riga’s Christmas tree custom caught the imagination of the masses, there was one aspect that was dropped. In the original custom, once the festivities were over, the tree was burnt to cinders – not something you will want to try in your front room!
As you would expect from the birthplace of the Christmas tree, Riga loves to celebrate the festive period, and its market is visited by those from near and far.
The market opens on the First Advent Sunday in December each year and is marked by a ceremony to officially light what is described every year as ‘The First Christmas Tree.’ This usually takes place around dusk – between 4-5 pm – and with a beautiful setting of the river nearby and the historic town hall provides the perfect backdrop to get everyone feeling full of goodwill and festive.
The market is the perfect place to buy traditional gifts or handcrafted products from a wide range of materials, including sheepskin, wool, linen, wood, and glass. Painted silks, wooden toys, and woolen items are particularly popular choices.
And, of course, a Christmas market would not be the same without seasonal food and drink, and Riga doesn’t disappoint. A wide range of Latvian Christmas food is on offer, from smoked meat and fish right through to sauerkraut and baked potatoes. And if you are feeling the winter chill a little more than you would like, you can sample the local hot blackcurrant drink, but beware! It is not quite as innocent as it seems… spiced with a shot of ‘Black Balsam’, a potent Latvian herbal alcohol, the blackcurrant drink delivers a warm glow guaranteed to keep the cold night at bay.
Few people realize that Riga is quite literally one of the birthplaces of Christmas as we know it today. By joining the 350,000 people who visit the market every year, you could enjoy Yuletide with a Latvian twist and pick up some wonderful gifts for family and friends in the process.
Is Riga good for Christmas markets?
Absolutely! Riga is renowned for its enchanting Christmas markets, which are an integral part of its festive celebrations. These markets are not just shopping destinations but cultural experiences, showcasing traditional crafts, local delicacies, and a warm, festive atmosphere.
What is Riga like in December?
December in Riga is a winter wonderland. The city is adorned with festive decorations and lights, creating a magical atmosphere. The temperatures are cold, often dipping below freezing, so warm clothing is essential. Snowfall adds to the picturesque charm of the city, making it a perfect setting for Christmas markets.
Is Riga worth going to?
Definitely. Riga is a gem of the Baltic region, offering a rich blend of history, culture, and architecture. Its well-preserved Old Town, vibrant art scene, and lively markets make it a worthwhile destination for travelers seeking a unique European experience.
Is Riga cheap or expensive?
Compared to many Western European cities, Riga is relatively affordable. While prices have risen with its growing popularity as a tourist destination, it still offers good value for money, especially in terms of accommodation, dining, and cultural experiences.
Which is better Tallinn or Riga?
Choosing between Tallinn and Riga depends on personal preferences. Tallinn is famous for its medieval charm and compact size, making it easy to explore. Riga, on the other hand, is known for its Art Nouveau architecture and a slightly more cosmopolitan vibe. Both cities have their unique attractions and are worth visiting.
How many days in Riga is enough?
A stay of 2-3 days is usually sufficient to explore the main attractions of Riga, including its Old Town, art nouveau districts, and museums. If you want to fully immerse yourself in the local culture or visit during the Christmas market season, an additional day or two would enhance your experience.
Are people in Riga friendly?
Yes, people in Riga are generally friendly and hospitable, especially towards tourists. While there might be some language barriers, as not everyone speaks fluent English, the locals are often helpful and welcoming.
What is the currency in Riga?
The currency used in Riga is the Euro (EUR). Latvia adopted the Euro in 2014, replacing the Latvian Lats. This makes transactions convenient for travelers from other Eurozone countries.
Jane Freeman is a travel blogger and digital marketer based in the UK. Jane splits her time between London during the Spring/Summer and Asia in the winter.