How to Spend a Festive Weekend in Riga, Latvia
A couple of weeks ago I returned from my last trip of the year (and the decade, which sounds WEIRD!) after visiting the beautiful Baltics for the first time with my sister. We spent a festive weekend in Riga exploring the cobbled streets of the Old Town, wandering around the gorgeous Christmas markets and enjoying some traditional Latvian food which made for a fantastic weekend getaway before the madness of Christmas was here! I actually won this trip as a competition prize from Traverse Events and Magnetic Latvia when I was in Italy attending Traverse 19 in June, so it was a great way to end my wonderful year of travel and made a change from heading to sunnier climes! Here’s what I got up to on my festive weekend in Riga, and what I’d recommend you do there too…
Check out the Christmas Markets
With not one, not two but THREE Christmas Markets dotted around the city, it’s not hard to see why you’d opt for a fantastic festive weekend in Riga. The biggest (and best) ones are located in the Doma Laukums (Cathedral Square) and are breath-takingly beautiful. Situated right in front of the impressive Cathedral, the wooden markets are decorated in traditional European style and sell everything from mulled wine and hot chocolate to gingerbread houses, sweets and hog roasts. Christmas music fills the air, with live folk dancing and carol singing occurring daily, and there’s often real snow falling from the sky as Riga is notoriously cold in December! The entrance arch, with Christmas trees and twinkling lights lining the opening really makes you feel as if you’ve stepped into a scene from Narnia, and its such a magical place to walk around at any time of day, but especially in the evening when the skies are dark and the lights are out in force! Take a walk over to the Esplanade to check out one of the other markets, located just in front of the striking Nativity of Christ Cathedral, a Russian Orthodox Church which is free to enter and definitely worth a visit. At these markets you’ll find stalls selling similar products and a real life rabbit village (yes, you heard me right) where super cute fluffy bunnies are kept in a huge pen complete with Lego houses, toy buildings and more. What a place!
Try traditional Balsam at Black Magic
I had heard lots about Balsam before my festive weekend in Riga and knew that it was a ‘rite of passage’ when visiting Latvia, so where better to try some for ourselves than in Black Magic, a beautifully medieval café/bar which was a former apothecary selling all sorts of lotions and potions back in the 1700s, and in particular black Balsam which was used to treat ailments and made from 24 different ingredients. Inside, the lights are dimmed and you are served by candlelight – choose from a range of delicious chocolate truffles, cakes and sweet treats, all made from the traditional black Balsam, or just order shots or cocktails of it at the bar if you’d rather taste it that way (and if you’re made of strong stuff!) If, like me, you’re a bit of a lightweight, I would suggest ordering a hot blackcurrant drink with Balsam as it’ll warm your cockles slowly and allow you to taste it a little more gently than just ordering a hard core shot which is full of alcohol! Black Magic was a hidden gem and even had a secret room behind a bookcase which you pushed open to enter – I had read a few blog posts recommending this place and I can agree that it is definitely worth a visit during your festive weekend in Riga!
Wander around the Old Town
Probably our favourite thing to do during our festive weekend in Riga was simply just to walk around the Old Town soaking up the festive spirit in the air and admiring the historic buildings that were dotted around. I felt the cobbled streets and red coloured buildings were reminiscent of Prague and other European cities, but Riga is much smaller and I felt had much more character too. Whenever I visit somewhere new I always make a point of learning as much as I can about its history, so we paid a visit to the War Museum and the Museum of Occupation, both of which gave a fascinating insight into Latvia’s history. I was absolutely shocked and saddened to learn that Latvia has only been ‘unoccupied’ for 50 years of its 800 year history after the city was founded in 1201, and it was very moving to read stories of occupation from older times, as well as more recent times in the Second World War, right up until Latvia was listed as Independent from the Soviet Union in 1991. The House of the Blackheads is well worth a visit if you are interested in learning more about this – the building was destroyed in World War Two and only reopened in 1999, so it is literally only 20 years old and the restoration is remarkable. Tickets cost just 6 Euros for entrance to all parts of the House, including the original cellar and the grand ballroom.
Climb St Peter’s Church Tower
I have climbed many a Church Tower in my time, and have seen some epic sights from up high whilst on my travels, but the views that greeted me from the top of St Peter’s Church were truly breath-taking and really made our festive weekend in Riga extra special! Taking an elevator 123m up to the top made a welcome change from climbing god knows how many hundreds of steps I usually have to tackle when taking part in this kind of thing, but the views at the top were one of the most rewarding I have ever witnessed! You could see for miles in every direction from the top of the Church, and we were able to spot the red roofs of the buildings below, the blue waters of the Daugava River in the distance and the various landmarks and sights that make Riga so special from up high. Tickets cost 9 Euros but they are definitely worth it for the incredible panoramic views you get from the top – just don’t forget to hold on to your hat as it is ridiculously windy up there!
Have lunch at the Centralais Market
We did this on our last day once we had seen all the sights so that we could spend a bit more time and really enjoy our visit to the Centralais Market! Brimming with food, drink, arts and crafts stalls, as well as fantastic places to sit down and eat lunch/ dinner or have a drink at the bar, the Centralais Market was a great place to warm up from the cold and while away a few hours. We wandered around the stalls, tasted some samples of cheese and other yummy delights and enjoyed lunch from one of the food stands – delicious potato rosti’s with amazing toppings which were sooo good! I think in the evening this place really comes alive and is a great place to party, but we were just happy to find somewhere warm for a few hours and enjoy some fantastic food during our festive weekend in Riga!
Where to stay
We stayed at the Wellton Riga Centrum Hotel and Spa during our festive weekend in Riga, located on Kaleju Iela, just opposite the Galerija shopping centre and within striking distance of the centre of the beautiful Old Town. Café’s, bars, souvenir shops and supermarkets lined the streets surrounding our hotel, which were super handy and being just a few minutes’ walk in any direction from the Old Town meant we were in the perfect location for being able to get around and see all that the city had to offer. The train station was just a 10 minute walk away, as was the nearest bus stop which served the 22 line, making it super easy for getting to/from the airport (tickets can be bought on the bus for just 2 Euros each way!) I think there are 3 Wellton’s in Riga, and I would highly recommend the one we stayed in as it had a fantastic Spa which was sooo needed after a busy day of sightseeing in sub zero temperatures! Our room was clean, spacious and modern and breakfast was served until 11am which was perfect for us as we struggled to wake up early what with the 2 hour time difference from the UK and the lack of daylight that saw the sun rising much later than we were used to!
Where to eat/drink
There are an abundance of quirky restaurants, bars and cafes in Riga serving a mixture of traditional Latvian food and modern, Western menus as well as chain restaurants including Costa and TGI Fridays if you like your home comforts! Classic Latvian dishes include stewed sauerkraut, potato rosti’s, meats marinated in rich sauces, soups served in bread bowls, dark rye bread and of course the famous Balsam which Riga has become so well known for. We chose to eat our evening meals at traditional restaurants during our festive weekend in Riga, including the legendary Folkklubs, one of the most popular places in the city which serves classic Latvian dishes alongside live folk music as you dine! I would highly recommend Folkklubs on Peldu Iela for an authentic Latvian dining experience, but be prepared to wait ages for a table, and even longer for service as the place seems to be super busy every night of the week! For something more modern, head to OGLE restaurant near the House of the Blackheads where you’ll be treated to pizzas, pastas and dishes from the woodfired grill as well as delicious cocktails at great prices.
As you can see, my sister and I had a magically festive weekend in Riga and we came home feeling full of Christmas spirit! I would highly recommend visiting Riga at any of time of year as it is super interesting to learn about its history, see its beautiful landmarks and indulge in its traditional Latvian food, but all of this is heightened at Christmas, so December is a definitely a great time to be heading over there. Have you spent a festive weekend in Riga before? Or have you got plans to head up to the Baltics any time soon? Vilnius and Tallinn are next on my bucket-list, so I’m sure I’ll be planning trips there for 2020 very soon – send me allll your travel tips please!
NB. I won this trip as part of a competition prize with Traverse Events and Magnetic Latvia with no obligation to post. All words and photos are of course my own.