If “visit a European Christmas market” is on your travel to-do list, then it doesn’t get more festive than a trip to the alleged home of the first decorated public Christmas tree. Here’s what you should get up to in Riga, Latvia’s excellent capital.
There is a bit of debate as to which country can lay claim to having the very first Christmas tree. But in Riga you can visit a stone marker in its medieval Town Hall Square near Blackheads House that declares (in eight languages, no less) that this is the sacred spot (dated 1510) where the first one stood – and each festive season, Latvia’s capital goes all out to prove it. From early December you’ll find creative interpretations of the tree theme all over the city, thanks to students from the Art Academy, via light installations and all kinds of materials. The tourism information centre even compiles an interactive map to help you find them all.
Visit Europe’s largest food market
Riga’s Central Market, Europe’s biggest, is the place to give your food brain and your appetite a real workout. To fit right in, you could sip the Latvian drink Kvass (a traditional beverage made from sweet rye bread with 1 per cent alcohol) as you trawl the stalls of some 3,000 traders. They’re spread across five 35-metre-high food pavilions (former aircraft hangars built in the 1920s), selling meat, fish, vegetables, groceries and dairy. Seek out Siļķītes un Dillītes (Herring & Dill) between the Fish and Vegetable pavilions, which is the closest thing you’ll find to a fish and chip shop here. Sit down and relax over distinctly Latvian snacks, such as sprats on rye bread, pickled herring with beetroot, or a hearty bowl of Solyanka (fish soup).
Take your cocktails with rooftop views
It costs nothing to take the lift in Radisson Blu Riga Latvija Conference & Spa Hotel up to the 26th floor to the Skyline Bar for panoramic views across the city. But while you’re there, you might as well indulge in a “Baltic Winter” cocktail and watch the sunset. Or snowstorm.
Eat local Latvian food
It can be tricky to find menus specialising in Latvian food, and this is partly historical. Latvia was suppressed under the Soviets for so long that there’s an eagerness to bring multicultural influences to their cuisine, with menus that are deliberately broad and well travelled. Valtera, a restaurant in a quiet street adjacent to the Old Town, is one option that bucks the trend, however. “Meals as variable as Latvian nature” is the claim, which isn’t a cautionary note about the quality but a guarantee of the aim to use 90 per cent local produce here. Depending on the season, dishes could include new-season beetroot with hazelnuts and goat-cheese horseradish snow, or a lake pike perch with cauliflower ravioli, burnt butter and courgettes.
Drink some excellent craft beer
Beer has always been considered Latvia’s national drink. But craft beer has slowly gained popularity over the past decade, with many huge breweries closing down to make way for smaller ones as quality increased. You could join the masses knocking about the Old Town from pub to pub, but there’s also the Riga Beer District, formed officially in February 2018. It comprises 10 craft breweries, brewpubs and cafes, and is the largest concentration of local craft beer in northern Europe – and it’s just half an hour’s walk or 10-minute taxi from the city centre. Book on a three-to-four-hour tour with a guide to take in five stops with traditional snacks for €38 per person.
Party in an abandoned mansion
Since Riga got its independence in 1991, its population has shrunk by more than 25 per cent, due to continued emigration and low birth rates. One of the post-Soviet challenges is the abundance of beautiful abandoned buildings that a nonprofit group called Free Riga is determined to revitalise into creative resources. Fon Stricka Villa is one such place: a grand old brewer’s mansion that was also once a Romanian embassy but now has free concerts in the garden. You can wander inside the fully furnished, slightly crumbling rooms to buy drinks at a makeshift bar, play the piano or settle into lounge chairs to read from a heaving bookshelf in what feels like an enchanting house party frozen in time. Keep an eye on their Instagram for future events: @fonstrickavilla.
Check out the library (especially on Monday)
Apart from being one of the few buildings open on Mondays (when most of the art galleries close), Riga’s National Library of Latvia on the left bank of the Daugava river is also known as The Castle of Light, such is the architectural splendour, with its glass cladding and transparent lantern forming the apex of the building. A highlight is the five-storey People’s Bookshelf of tomes donated by Latvians. There’s also a display of favourite books from notable visitors: is Prince Edward’s favourite book really Windsor Castle: A Thousand Years of a Royal Palace, though?
Shop for distinctly Latvian products
It’s easy to assume a distinctive souvenir can be collected at the airport on the way home, but that would mean missing out on RIIJA, a design and lifestyle barn that is distinctly anti-airport in its desire to create a shopping experience that’s like visiting a Latvian home. Only high-quality local Latvian designers are showcased here, yet the store is far from intimidating, with a focus on everyone having a cosy, calming time. If your child falls asleep on the handwoven bedspread, that’s confirmation that their work is done.