Riga is home to one of the best Christmas markets in Europe! The capital of Latvia, Riga might not be as popular as some of the other European Christmas markets, but this makes the experience even better.
In this guide to visiting Riga at Christmas time, I’ll share why you should book this Baltic destination for your next winter getaway, along with the best things to do, restaurants to eat at, hotels, and more!
CHRISTMAS HISTORY IN RIGA
The custom of a decorated tree at Christmas time dates back centuries, to at least the 15th or 16th century and it is widely thought that the first Christmas tree was in fact in Riga. The City Center of Riga is a UNESCO World Heritage Site filled with beautiful buildings and architecture, the area includes Town Hall Square which is where the House of the Brotherhood of the Blackheads is situated. It is at this spot that the story of the first Christmas tree takes shape.
If you visit the building (which you should during your time in Riga!), head towards the northwest corner where you will discover a domed stone marker that is embedded in the cobblestones that stakes Rigas claim as the spot of the first public Christmas tree.
WHEN TO GO TO RIGA’S CHRISTMAS MARKET
The Riga Christmas Market opens on December 1st with an opening ceremony and the lighting of the Christmas tree lights. We arrived in Latvia on the 31st of November, just in time to see the final preparations and join the opening night.
The market on opening evening was packed with locals who likely have the tradition of going every year. But after that, the market was very quiet every day, easy to wander around and far more pleasant than some of the other hectic Christmas Markets that I have visited in Europe.
The market is open every day from December 1st to January 8th at the below hours:
- Sundays to Thursdays: 10:00 am to 8:00 pm
- Fridays and Saturdays: 10:00 am to 10:00 pm
- December 24: 10:00 am to 6:00 pm
- December 31st: 10:00 am to 2:00 am (with New Year’s celebration)
RIGA IS ONE OF THE BEST CHRISTMAS MARKETS IN EUROPE
Having visited other European Christmas Markets and been disappointed (Sorry Prague, you just didn’t do it for me…) I fell in love with both the old town of Riga and its market. Why? Because it felt far more authentic than many others that I had been to.
The nice thing about this market was that it had diversity in its offerings. Each of the stalls sold something different, there was a variety of food and drink on offer, and there was a lovely seated area with furs and a small indoor restaurant.
At other markets, I have found that often it’s just rows and rows of huts selling the exact same food, and hardly any gift stalls, or every stall that didn’t sell food sold the exact same products.
At Riga’s Christmas Market you can expect to find a nice mix of delicious food, hot mulled wine and souvenirs and gifts to bring home to your family.
THERE IS MORE THAN ONE CHRISTMAS MARKET
The main Christmas Market in Riga is the one in Cathedral Square or “Doma Laukums”, so I recommend basing yourself somewhere near to this when booking your accommodation.
You will also find a smaller market next in Esplanade Park in the shadow of Riga Nativity Of Christ Cathedral. The market has similar stalls to the main market, but the mulled wine is 1 Euro cheaper than the main square!
Oddly, you will also discover that this smaller Christmas Market comes with a giant rabbit enclosure. Before the market opened we assumed this fun play area was for children, but when we returned to browse the market when it opened we found the area filled with larger fluffy bunnies – I assume there is some significance to this but it was lost on me!
WHAT CAN YOU EXPECT TO BUY
The Riga Christmas markets are packed with traditional Latvian gifts. If you are thinking of waiting to do your Christmas shopping until you arrive in Riga you won’t be disappointed!
You can expect to find linen tablecloths (often Christmas themed), wool sweaters, socks and mittens, furry hats, a variety of ceramics and glassware, wooden toys, wooden ornaments or kitchenware, jewelry, and other souvenirs.
Beyond the Christmas Market for shopping, you can go to Galleria Riga (Galerija Centrs) where you will find familiar shops such as H&M and L’Occitane, as well as lots of individual Latvian shops. Or simply wander the old town and discover plenty of boutiques and souvenir shops.
FOOD & DRINK
There are a variety of different food stalls that offer sweet and savory crepes, dutch poffertjes (I will always locate these at a food market!), gingerbread cookies, chocolate covered apples and local food like grey peas with bacon and sausages with sauerkraut, hot dogs, burgers, Georgian breads and a variety of cooked meats.
The food prices are reasonable, with large crepes costing about EUR €4 and 10 poffertjes for EUR €3. Safe to say you won’t go hungry or run out of choices if you spend a few days in Riga.
There are a variety of drinks on offer at the markets, but to be completely honest in this environment a hot mulled wine is the number 1 drink most visitors are opting for! You might also want to try some of the hot Black Balsams cocktails or a hot chocolate with Baileys. There are plenty of stalls offering all these, and a cup of mulled wine will set you back about EUR €3.50.
FOR THE KIDS
I don’t have children myself, but I appreciate that the kids would love festivities at a European Christmas market.
At Riga’s Christmas Market there is a traditional carousel with wooden animals that the children sit on. The carousel is spun around manually by the operators and honestly, I have never seen a carousel spin so fast, so this ride is only recommended for the adventurous little ones!
Children can also meet some barnyard animals, play with giant rabbits at the market and even catch a glimpse of Santa Claus who makes a daily appearance at the market.
OTHER THINGS TO DO IN RIGA
Whilst I love a good Christmas Market, there is only so much mulled wine one can drink so at a certain point its time to go and visit some of Riga’s other attractions. Here’s a quick summary of my top 10 things to see and do whilst you are visiting Riga.
- Three Brothers – The so-called Three Brothers are three houses side by side on Mazā Pils Iela 17 that together form the oldest dwelling houses in Riga. Each of the houses represents a different period of development in housing design and construction in Riga. They are situated just a street away from the main square so they are easy to visit before you see the Christmas Market.
- Riga Central Market – The Riga Central Market is not only one of the largest in Europe, but also one of the most visited. In fact, 80,000-100,000 people shop there per day on average! At the market, you can buy Latvian-grown and homemade products, a variety of exotic fruit and spices and other manufactured produce. The market is made up of 5 different pavilions each with its own food type – meat, fish, dairy, vegetables and gastronomy products. You can also explore an outdoor area, a Night Market and the Farmers Market.
- The Freedom Monument – Located in the central district of Riga you will find the Freedom Monument, a memorial honoring soldiers killed during the Latvian War of Independence. The monument is considered as an important symbol of freedom, independence, and sovereignty of Latvia and you may discover that soldiers are standing at or walking at the monument when you visit.
- St Peters Church – This is Rigas’s tallest church as is known as one of the best viewpoints to look over the city. Originally constructed at the end of the 15th century and reached 130 meters tall, over the years the tower has been rebuilt more than once and now visitors can go up to the second gallery at the height of 72 meters.
- Riga Castle – This gate dates back to 1698 and is part of the Riga Wall to provide access to barracks outside the city wall. It is quite likely you will pass this at some point during your
- Latvian National Museum Of Art – The Latvian National Museum of Art is the richest and largest collection of Latvian art in the country. It is home to more than 52,000 works of art from Latvia and the Baltic area from the middle of the 18th century.
- Swedish Gate – The Swedish Gate was first built in 1698 as a part of the Riga Wall which was created to provide access to barracks outside of the city wall. You can now wander through the gate as part of your walking tour and exploration of the city.
- Latvian National Opera – If you enjoy opera or ballet a visit to The Latvian National Opera in Riga is a must. This is, in fact, the national opera for the whole of Latvia and also includes the Latvian National Ballet.
- Our Lady Of Sorrows Church – This pretty white a blue church is a roman catholic church situated 5 Pils Street.
- Latvian Museum Of Pharmacy – Even if the pharmacy or museum element doesn’t appeal to you, then the beautiful art nouveau entrance may appeal!
- Holy Trinity Church of Pārdaugava – Theis 17th century Russian baroque-style building was completed in 1893 and replaced an older church dating back to 1453. The building was designed in the shape of the Orthodox cross with a soaring red belfry that can be seen from quite a distance!
WHAT TO KNOW FOR VISITING LATVIA
Latvia is part of the European Schengen zone, which typically provides 90 days of free entry every 180 days to visitors from many countries. This means you can enter Latvia and travel between other European countries for up to 90 days per stay.
Be sure to check the EU Schengen website for the latest information for your specific country.
The currency used in Latvia is the Euro (EUR). The current exchange rate is approximately 1 EUR to 1.10 USD. You can check the latest EUR exchange rate on Google.
While traveling, our number one tip is to use a free Charles Schwab Debit Card which gives unlimited worldwide ATM Fee Refunds and the true exchange rate.
BEST TOURS IN RIGA
Some of the best tours and things to do in Riga are:
- Riga Old Town: 2-Hour Private Walking Tour
- Riga: Food Tasting Tour of Central Market
- Riga’s Old Center and Art Nouveau Tour
WHERE TO STAY IN RIGA
We recommend booking your hotels on Booking.com to get the best rate and many hotels offer free cancellation in case your plans change.
Some of our favorite hotels in Riga are:
- Hotel Bergs: A member of Small Luxury Hotels, this hotel has a great location very close to the center of Old Town.
- Grand Palace Hotel: High end hotel with beautiful interior and gourmet dining.
- Grand Hotel Kempinski: 350 feet from the National Opera, this hotel has an indoor swimming pool and spa.
AirBnB is also a great option in Riga (and you can save $44 using that link to sign up!).
BEST TIME TO VISIT LATVIA
The best time to visit Latvia depends on if you are looking to embrace the winter or get outside for the summer. If you are going for the Christmas markets (like we recommend!) then plan to visit any time in December.
If you are more interested in being outside in nice weather, then plan to visit between April and September when the weather begins to get warmer.
BEST BOOKS ABOUT LATVIA
Read more about Latvia before you go! Some of the best books about Latvia are:
WHAT POWER ADAPTERS DO YOU NEED
Latvia uses standard 2 prong Type C adapters also commonly used throughout Europe.
You can buy a universal adapter that will work in any country and has extra ports for USB cables to charge your phone and other devices.
We also always travel with a portable battery pack which is great to keep your phone charged on long journies.
TRANSPORTATION IN LATVIA
- Public Transportation: Latvia has good public transportation, with both local buses and trams. If you are going between Latvia and neighboring Estonia or Lithuania (about a 4 hour journey either direction), we used the longer distance Lux Express buses which were great.
- Rental Cars: If you want flexibility, we recommend renting a car at the airport. Parking at Old Town can be challenging but it is available.
- Uber: Uber is not available in Riga. However, there is an app called Bolt which is the European equivalent of Uber which we frequently used in Riga. Use code BC222 to get a free ride when you sign up!
Our top recommended travel insurance companies for Latvia are:
- World Nomads: Comprehensive coverage for medical, travel delays, and electronics.
- SafetyWing: Cheaper monthly coverage primarily for medical, starting at $37 for 4 weeks of coverage.
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