If you want to mull over a short break somewhere different, then let the aroma of mulled wine draw you towards the Christmas markets in the historical capital of Latvia, Riga. Let the city capture your Christmas imagination with Santa’s grotto, hand crafted decorations or more importantly the array of different food.
Generally, Latvia wouldn’t have been in my list of places to visit, why? Well, I didn’t ever consider it as I didn’t know too much about it. Fortunately, I was presented with an opportunity to visit Riga for the Christmas markets which I accepted straight away. Once I excitedly told people that I am off to Riga the response was a confused frown followed by a “where’s that?” I must admit I had to look up where it is, I would laugh and answer “well duh it’s in Latvia”, little did they know I looked it up on my phone first. The most I knew is that it’s located in Eastern Europe and used to be under the Soviet rule. The main tourist market that has discovered Riga is the stag/hen party group, however, the Christmas markets has started to reach the tourist radar slowly but surely.
You can catch a direct flight from the UK, which is just a little over 2 ½ hours. There are many hotels in the centre of the old city which is ideally where you need to be if you want to have the restaurants, bars or shops within walking distance. When venturing out to the restaurants or to a bar, you start to have an understanding why there is an attraction for a stag or hen group to visit as the prices are incredible. The currency is Euro which led me to believe it might be costly; after sampling a few restaurants it is becoming very clear that this will be a good value break.
The old city of Riga is postcard perfect; they pride themselves on their famous Art Nouveau buildings that surround the city, which is unique. They are not just average buildings, they are expressive and almost tell a story just by looking from top to bottom. They fill the streets of Riga and if you take a walking tour of the old city you will have a more in depth understanding of the story behind each, as well as the main architect Mikhail Eisenstein. A half day city tour gives you a good insight in to what Riga has to offer, along with the Art Nouveau buildings, there is the Freedom monument that stands proudly in the centre of the old city representing the Latvian War of Independence. The building that took my breath away from the outside and inside is the Russian Orthodox Church, a stunning church with beautiful gold domes highlighting the apparent Soviet influence. To mix with the locals your city tour takes you to Central Market, this is one of the largest markets in Europe housing stalls of fresh produce such as fish, dairy products and home-made pickles chutneys or pastries. The mix of smells are inviting, until you hit the fish section! I would say bear the smell for a few minutes just to see this incredibly huge array of fresh fish.
You must try some of the local food, there is a chain of restaurants called the Lido which offers traditional Bavarian cuisine, you can try the famous grey pea which is a staple dish served in Latvian cooking or sample a heart-warming soup, the Lido serves a buffet style which gives you the opportunity to try everything. For the drinkers, there is the national drink called Black Balsam, a herbal liquor mixed with Vodka making it a 45% proof drink, not for the faint hearted, or for the light weights like me who will pass out after one sip. The best place to try the Black Balsam in its various cocktails or coffees, is at a small cafe called Black Magic, the décor alone is very exciting and feels like a witch’s house. Not that I have frequented a witches’ home in my life time, this is merely how I imagine it would be.
For a cultural experience, book a Bavarian dinner experience, which will give you delicious local food along with traditional folk dancing. Wear your dancing shoes as you will be pulled up to dance allowing you to burn a few pounds before tucking in to your food, I have two left feet but still managed to collaborate my own style of awful dancing with their well-co-ordinated routine. I enjoyed myself, bad dancing aside this makes an enjoyable and memorable evening in Riga.
If you have booked a few days, then try and venture outside of the main city centre and visit Gauja National Park. You will make a stop en-route to a local village, approximately 30 minutes outside of the city called Sigulda, this is where you will see a lot more of the Latvian life and way of living. Sigulda also houses an Olympic bob sleighing track, used for team training and used for the thrill seeker tourists that want to try their hand at some cool running’s down the track, led by a professional of course. I am neither brave nor adventurous so a quick picture stop and then we continue onwards. Visiting the national park gives you a great insight into the natural beauty that the country has to offer. You can climb to the top of Turaida Castle located in the park, which has a tower with a short walk up for the most stunning views of the park and the villages.
Riga is a great short city break, there isn’t a set time of year to go, it is a year-round destination. Being December when I took my trip, this tied in with the Christmas festivities. They have 3 small markets located a short distance of one another, the markets are a great opportunity to sample all different food from the stalls such as bratwursts, mulled wine and homemade jams or pickles. They have geared the markets for everyone, Christmas isn’t complete without Santa’s grotto, pony rides as well as a carousel and Christmas carollers, I wasn’t saying bah humbug to that. It is a very cold time to go, and even though I had to wear every item of clothing I possibly own to stay warm, I would do it again in a heartbeat.
The trip has been an educational one and whilst my three-night stay allowed me to see a fraction of what is on offer it has left me with a desire to see more. If you travel in June, which will be warmer, this will be in time to enjoy another big event in Latvia, the summer solstice. Riga can also be a starting point for you to spend a few nights and then continue onwards to Estonia, there are buses that can take you to Tallinn for a few nights stay followed by a ferry from Tallinn to Helsinki to finish up your extended trip. Riga isn’t just a party city it offers whole lot more, the city is not over run with tourists and still holds a lot of tradition and culture, this is the perfect time to add Riga to your list.
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