With the Christmas holiday fast approaching, I did what any teacher in their right mind would do… I applied for a personal day! I had been meaning to get over to Riga, Latvia for sometime, hearing tell of Art Nouveau buildings and a quaint Old Town. Leading up to the holiday, many European cities put on some version of a Christmas market. Riga, it turns out, had markets to spare.
A quick direct flight from Moscow landed me on the outskirts of this city of brown bread and cobblestones. A small port city, Riga boasts both seabirds and strong, gusty winds. Weather vanes here are painted gold and black on opposing sides. Gold signaled fortuitous trade winds, bringing ships into port. A black arrow facing the water meant that it was time to resume life on a budget. Riga’s positioning on the Baltic Sea also brings the threat of city-wide flooding, the most recent of which occurred in 2009.
With just under 7 hours of daylight as we neared the winter solstice, Riga certainly knows how to light up the night. Moscow, by comparison, gets just 20 mins more versus Burlington, VT which gets just under 9 hours this time of year.
I caught the bus in from the tiny airport with ease (Bus 22, take a right onto the airport sidewalk and follow around the U-bend, buy a metro card within the bus shelter). After a quick 20-minute ride to the edge of Old Town (hop off at the cinema), I was greeted by the soft-falling snow and a violinist playing Christmas carols. Riga laid that charm on real thick and I was more than happy to dive in.
Booked at the Hotel Mantess, I made my way through Old Town’s narrow, winding streets with ease. To set the scene – everything about Riga is dripping in warm light. Bird cages are big here; in hotel lobbies and cafes alike. Yarn shops and design stores provide hours of amusement alongside the local architecture museum and a number of art galleries. Many people still speak Russian, but English is plentiful as well.
On my first morning there, I made my way over to St. Peter’s Church to meet the Yellow Suitcase Tour. Led by a local guide carrying – you guessed it – a yellow suitcase, this free walking tour gives a ton of information about the history of the country (occupied by nearly everyone at some point) and Old Town itself. There were nearly 40 of us on the tour and I was the only American.
After the tour, I was in need of some sustenance so I checked out my first Christmas market. Nestled in a church square, the market featured everything from handicrafts to bao buns (unexpected, to say the least).
I opted in for the Bailey’s hot cocoa and posted up to enjoy the people watching. I heard English, French, and Korean while sitting around the center hearth. Despite the influx of tourists, the market was cozy with an excited, positive vibe.
The markets were really fun but I found the local shop even more fun and original.
Jaunais Kolekcionairs was my favorite by far – I sat sipping tea for an hour or more, painting in a window booth, and later raided their collection of crafts made by local artisans. Globuss bookstore had an extensive English selection. With 50+ vendors including delicious local breads, cheese, and more lovely woven handicrafts, the Kalnciema Saturday Market across the river proved 100% worth the tram ride.
Riga made for the perfect weekend getaway, especially given the markets at holiday time. A friend who taught abroad there before coming to Moscow shared a few dining recommendations which really made my experience:
- Ala Pagrabs – traditional Latvian food and folk music. Try to get a seat by the stage but bar stools are fine, too.
After dinner, I headed back out to make the night market rounds. Everything looks better under twinkle lights and freshly fallen snow!
Not to be missed is Riga’s Art Nouveau architecture north of the Esplanade. With strong vibes of Embassy Row in DC, Alberta Iela features enchanting building facades with ornate entrances adorned with griffins, goblins, peacocks, among other fantastical beasts.
Overall, Riga was the idyllic winter getaway. For anyone touring European Christmas markets, this is an easy and welcoming spot to stop. Bright, charming, and artsy, I couldn’t have asked for a better refresher prior to the final week before school break. Certainly put me in the Christmas mood. Happy New Year, everyone!