Christmas and New Year’s in Riga, Latvia
By Olga Volbuyeva
We went to Riga in the middle of December for a few days and left several days before Catholic Christmas, but in my head I still have the carols singing, the tower clock striking, and the snow crunching.
Winter in Riga is beautiful and exhilarating, and Christmas Eve definitely brings some additional magic. With a great number of traditional, stylish and unusual Christmas trees, magnificent architecture, churches, splendid Christmas decorations, markets, inspiring music and delicious food and drinks, Riga will make your Christmas unforgettable, no matter whether it’s a pre- or post-Christmas time.
Getting to Grips with Riga
Riga, the capital of Latvia, was founded in 1201, on the river Daugava. It is the largest city of the Baltic states. The city is so picturesque that it makes you wonder why you haven’t discovered its sumptuous sights before.
There is a wide range of hotels and hostels for every budget in Riga. My husband and I were lucky to find a good price just before the Christmas price increase in a Hotel Centra, which is conveniently located not far from the railway station right in the Old Town. The twin room with a magnificent view was about 30 Latvian lats per night, decent breakfasts included. Which brings us to the question of currency and prices.
One lat is subdivided into 100 santimi, and equals 1.87 dollars, 1.41 euro, and 1.20 pounds. Yes, lat is the highest-valued currency in Europe. However, Latvia is planning to adopt the euro as its official currency in 2012 or 2013.
The official language in Latvia is Latvian, but Riga is a bilingual city with Latvian and Russian as the main languages. If neither Latvian nor Russian sounds like good news to you, don’t worry: English is widely spoken by younger people and by people in the tourism industry.
The Old Town (Vecriga)
Old Riga is the place where gothic, Renaissance and art nouveau architecture styles compete for your attention. In winter the architecture really stands out, as the colors are subdued and nothing distracts you from admiring the beauty of the buildings. By the way, Old Riga is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Riga’s Old Town is best explored on foot. First of all, it’s not a very big area, and secondly, cars are not allowed in the Old Town. The streets there are mostly cobblestone, so make sure your shoes are cobblestone-proof and snow-proof.
On the day of our arrival Riga welcomed us with a heavy snowfall. The work of the snowplows and all those snow-removal activities tackling the slopes of roofs added to an impression that we were in a miniature Snow Kingdom.
Riga Cathedral (the Dome Cathedral), one of the landmarks of Latvia, is certainly worth visiting (the entrance fee is two lats). It’s a shame that we didn’t have a chance to listen to its famous pipe organ, but we were impressed even by the sight of it.
It turned out that the organ concerts take place on Friday and Saturday nights, so make sure you schedule your time in Riga for this event. On the left as you make your way to the exit, there is a special gallery displaying a variety of objects and sculptures belonging to this place or found there in different centuries.
Dome Square is the area with Christmas market, cafés and counters where you can buy some tasty cakes, baked pastry, hot cardinal, coffee, or hot black currant juice with Black Balsam (highly recommended). You can ask for this drink in almost any café or restaurant, though it can be expensive (3-4 lats). After trying Riga Black Balsam, we made it a point to bring it back for drinking with coffee or tea on cold winter days.
Besides Black Balsam, tourists buy mittens, socks and slippers made of lambswool. They are usually of good quality and with pretty Latvian patterns. Other worthy souvenirs from Riga include a variety of amber ornaments.
During this long Christmas holiday period Riga offers a great variety of events and things to do: Christmas concerts at Dome Square, and different activities for kids are some that we saw.
Riga Cathedral is the center of the Old Town, and starting from there you can choose any route to explore the magnificent sights further on.
You won’t miss St. Peter’s Church. It is the highest building in Riga, with a rich history, starting from 1209. We took an elevator to the top to see Riga from the viewing point, from a height of 72 meters (236 ft). The fee is 3 lats. On a cold windy winter morning it was both stunning and piercing experience. Bareheaded tourists who went up there after us, returned in no time, frozen.
Livu square is also a very nice place to visit at Christmas. It has a Ferris wheel for the brave and cold-resistant, and a nice market where you can find a variety of souvenirs and tasty Latvian snacks.
We loved the Konditoreja, a small stand-alone café located on the square: the baking was always fresh, deliciously tasting and not expensive (20-30 santimi). We returned to check the new tastes every day!
Other highly recommended sights in the Old Town are the Cats’ House (a cat standing on top of each of the building’s two towers), Three Brothers (three oldest stone houses of medieval architecture), and the House of Blackheads (Gothic building with a Dutch Renaissance façade rebuilt in 2001).
You will undoubtedly notice beautiful roosters at the tops of the church spires and some other buildings in Riga. Rooster is one of the symbols of Riga, and you will also see it crowning some of the Christmas trees, on postcards and as souvenirs. Riga roosters on roof spires serve not only as symbolical defenders against evil but also as wings, wind indicators.
If you linger on the Dome Square for more than three minutes, or stop to make a shot of some significant building, you are likely to be approached by a man or a lady who will offer you their services of guide. Guides speak Russian, English, German, and some other languages, and charge about 7.5 lats per person for an excursion of 1.5 hours.
You can bargain if you are interested in a walking tour with a guide. We didn’t use their services as we wanted to explore the city at our own pace, but more importantly, we already knew some basic information about Riga’s must-sees from the Internet and from the kind elderly lady of Latvian origin who happened to travel in our train compartment.
When you leave the Old Town area, there’s still plenty to see. There is a nice park near the Freedom Monument, Riga Opera House, important-looking ducks sitting in the snow, cute bridges, gigantic snowmen etc.
The Freedom Monument is a 42-metre (138 ft) high monument, a symbol of the freedom and independence of Latvia, and also a point of public gatherings, official ceremonies, and just a popular meeting point in Riga.
Eating Out in Riga:
Not that we were hungry all the time, but when you do your sightseeing on a frosty winter day, you somehow end up wishing to warm up a bit and indulge in national cuisine if you can.
We heard much about the big Lido Center in Krasta Street, so we went to see it with our own eyes. You can reach it by tram (#7 from the tram stop opposite the Riga Opera House). The ticket price is 70 santimi if you buy it from the driver.
In fact, Lido is a chain of democratic restaurants and bistros in Latvia. This particular one is also a family recreation center, with a variety of tasty dishes, beer, live music and concerts. There is a great skating-rink there in winter, too.
We also ate at Lido in Tirgonu Iela, not far from the Riga Cathedral; it’s a good value for money and a wide choice of foods and drinks. Then, all the cafés we dropped in to have a coffee or a cup of hot chocolate were quite decent, with a great choice of bakery and cakes, for example, the one on Tirgonu iela, or Audeju iela.
You will see a number of restaurants with the dates instead of names. Those dates are the years when the restaurants started working or sometimes they refer to the year when the building was erected. The prices in such restaurants may surprise you as much as the dates.
Riga Central Market
Behind Riga Central Train Station you will find this market, the largest in Europe, which consists of four huge hangars. Dairy, meat, grocery and fish pavilions welcome everyone who wants to buy fresh goods and take advantage of the opportunity to bargain. Cheese, sausages, spices, sweets, — everything looks rather tempting, so make sure you don’t take this excursion on an empty stomach.
If you are not a great market fan, there’s a supermarket “Rimi” in “Galerija Centrs” in the Old Town. It is not very expensive, and you will still be able to find Riga Black Balsam, Latvian candies, cheeses and some Christmas gifts there.
About 23 km west of Riga and you are in Jurmala, enjoying breathtaking view on the Gulf of Riga. It takes a 30-minute trip by train for 71 santimi (the price may vary depending on the time of the day) to get to the famous resort town boasting of a white quartz sand beach stretching for 33 km.
The train goes every half an hour or so, you will need to find “Tukums 1” platform at the railway station and get off the train when you hear “Dzintari.” You can also reach this destination by bus or by car.
Jurmala is quite a different experience from Riga. It combines it all: it’s a spa destination, a historical place with wooden houses of different colors dating from the 19th century, a center of music (hosting a competition for young pop singers from all over Europe called “New Wave,” as well as the International Piano Competition), and just a great place to walk around and admire. Significant events and concerts take place in the “Dzintari” concert hall.
Pine trees, Baltic air, seagulls drifting on ice floes, ice encrusting the edges of the gulf, mist, and practically no soul in this vast whiteness -– I had a feeling that we were magically transported from the miniature Snow Kingdom to the large one near Arctic Ocean or somewhere round there.
Winter beach is rather chilly so we were lucky to drop to “Jura orients” (the same side as the “Dzintari” concert hall). This restaurant in marine style offers an extensive menu, and the prices are not as high as you could expect in such central places.
Merry Christmas everyone!
According to the legend, the tradition of decorating a Christmas tree began in Riga in 1510, when merchants decorated a fir-tree in honor of Jesus’ birthday. So Riga claims to be the small Christmas capital of the world.
Indeed, if you want to experience Christmas or New Year’s far from home but still feel at home, Riga is the place to be. It’s a great period starting long before the Catholic Christmas, through the New Year celebrations till the Orthodox Christmas. In Riga they celebrate New Year’s Eve and Christmas twice, so that you won’t miss the beauty of it whether you come in December or January.
Make sure you can devote at least three days to Riga and a day or two to Jurmala. You will benefit if you stay longer as there is yet a lot to see and explore in and outside Riga!
Olga Volobuyeva, a Russian-based translator, editor and copywriter, keen on traveling, writing and photography. Loves her country and wants to see many others.
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