My grandfather was a forest ranger, and before the festive season started, he would saddle up a horse, with an open sledge and take all five grandchildren, wrapped up in thick winter coats for a ride deep into the woods to find a perfect Christmas tree.
I still remember how we wrote letters in the snow for Santa, made firewood to keep us warm, ate homemade sandwiches and bonded as a family. Christmas or as we call it in Latvia – Winter Festival – is still my all-time favourite thing to celebrate, even far away from home and snow.
Although there is nothing like travelling home to be with your family over the holiday season many people often choose to wander someplace else. Either to escape the madness and stress that comes with it, to take an opportunity to vacation throughout the holiday season or wanting to do something different – there are various reasons why people make a decision to do so.
If you are looking for festive magic in another country that comes with snow, freezing temperatures and lots of heartwarming food, why not consider travelling to Latvia – you’ll find plenty to see and do whether it’s a pre- or post- Christmas time.
Yes, in December the sun sets around 4pm, and it can be bitterly cold, but the houses are decorated with twinkling lights, there are plenty of gingerbread cookies to munch on, and the streets are lined with beautiful garnets.
Latvia travel guide: 7 festive things to do in beautiful Riga this Christmas
Every country has its own customs and Christmas time is a wonderful time of the year in Latvia and so are the New Year celebrations – after all, it is said that the first decorated Christmas tree originated in its capital Riga.
Christmas in Latvia is celebrated on 24th of December and are closely linked with pagan winter solstice celebrations, known as Yule.
As we are approaching the final month of the year, it’s time to decorate our homes with garlands, wreaths and it’s time to celebrate all things Christmas.
There are lots to do in Riga this December – you can get into the holiday spirit with watching an amazing performance of The Nutcracker, you can enjoy sunsets from a Skyline Bar and warm your soul with Emils Gustavs hot chocolate.
Here are some of our top picks to make your visit to Riga more memorable.
#1. Enjoy Winter magic
Latvia during the winter season is beautiful, the drop in temperatures marks a new stage of life and nature is transformed with the help of frosty air. Many birds prefer to migrate while others go into hibernation, trees are covered in snow, lakes freeze over, and houses are adorned with icicles of stalactites.
Old Town of Riga, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that’s gifted with beautiful gothic architecture, cobbled streets and many church towers, is a fine-looking place too and enjoys the slower path that only arrives with subtle temperatures and smaller crowds.
Add a touch of fresh snowfall and new winter parks, and you’ve got yourself a magical kingdom.
#2. Visit Christmas markets
When it comes to Europes best Christmas markets, everyone usually refers to Germany. Still, there are other countries stepping up and offering an array of fun activities for children and adults.
Exploring Christmas markets while visiting Riga during the winter month will definitely help you get into a festive spirit. There are three different markets which attract both tourists and locals alike and offer an impressive selection of thoughtful products made from natural materials such as wood and linen.
Reasonably priced wooden ornaments make for an authentic present and keepsake relique from Riga. Aromatic beeswax candles are perfect for those dark winter evenings, and local honey is ideal for unexpected colds.
- Doma Square Christmas Market is the biggest Christmas market in Riga, and here you’ll be able to feel that child-like excitement while you shop for artisan spoons, knitted mittens and socks, aromatic candles, Christmas decorations and plenty of mulled wine to keep you warm.
- Līvu Square market, near the entrance of the Old Town, is another great place to shop for local goods and beautiful craft peace as well as enjoy the medieval Christmas experience.
- Kalnciema Quarter Christmas Market takes place on the weekends with a great array of edible goodies and local dishes.
#3. Try out traditional Latvian foods
If you are in Latvia during the festive season then trying out local dishes and exciting your taste buds is a great way to learn about Latvian culture and traditions.
When it comes to traditional Christmas dinner that’s held on 24th December each year there have to be nine different dishes on the table – stewed sauerkraut with caraway seeds, grey peas, poultry, carrots, beetroot, gingerbread cookies, sausage rolls (speķa pīrāgi) pork and fish.
And on top of everything is salt, bread and fire – these three elements promised blessings in the future.
Most of the dishes that Latvians eat on Christmas Eve such as stewed sauerkraut, sausage rolls and grey peas are available in many restaurants and bistros throughout the city too.
While cosying up beside the fireplace, you can also endure the cold with hot blackcurrant juice that’s mixed with a shot of Black Balsam or with aromatic mulled wine.
#4. Give and receive presents
A big part of the festive season, just like pretty much anywhere else, is giving and receiving gifts – and Latvians do it in style, usually after dinner! To get them, you have to stand beside the Christmas tree and quote a short poem for each of the presents (preferably Christmas rhymes).
Don’t forget that giving and sharing is not limited to our loved ones or to Christmas time only. It can be as simple as visiting your neighbours, surprising your work colleague or getting something for a complete stranger – there are many people not so fortunate in their lives.
So, this year, be grateful, be present, practise random kindness, love fully and let the light in.
If you find yourself travelling through another country during Christmas, there are many kind acts you can still practice:
- Visit local homeless charities and see if they need warm clothing
- Send a present to someone living in poverty
- Purge the extravaganza and choose to enjoy eco-friendly Christmas
- Be polite to waitresses, shop assistants and fellow passengers
- Be kind to yourself
#5. Take part in fortune-telling
Fortune telling is an ancient tradition, and many Latvians believe that New Year’s Eve is a very appropriate time to look into the future. It’s a fun activity for all ages and something everyone looks forward to.
A most popular method involves adding molten lead into the bucket of icy water and ‘reading’ funnily shaped figurines by using candlelight. Next year’s harvest, following years fortunes and marriage proposals are always high on the wishlist.
#6. Learn a few Latvian proverbs
Latvians also love sayings, so I found a few regarding festive season:
- ‘If you want to know what will happen to you in the future, go to a cattle shed at midnight and hide under a manager. Then the horses will speak and tell your future.”
- ‘If the bees are singing on Christmas Eve, it will be a hot summer.”
- ”On Christmas Eve, take a black cat and go to church. Then you will have a lot of money in the next year. Or you can walk around the church three times, carrying the black cat, and bad things will stay away from your house in the new year. ”
- ”On Christmas Eve, when you go to sleep, leave one stocking on. Whoever comes in your dreams and takes it off will marry you.”
#7. Have fun at Masque Processions or Mumming
Let me tell you about Masque Processions or Mumming (ķekatas or budēļi). Everyone taking part would usually dress up, wear different masks, wigs, glasses, basically anything that makes you unrecognisable (according to old traditions, people would dress up as various animals and birds) and go from home to home, from one village to another one, singing songs and dancing.
The mummers are always welcomed and treated with food and drink because it is believed that they can scare off evil spirits and bring fertility and blessings to the household.
What to pack for winter vacation
Travelling during the festive season for a winter city break comes with its own challenges – there are blizzard related delays at airports and heavy snowfalls. Winter boots and jumpers take up much more roof than summer sandals and dresses.
Travelling during winter month has its pros too – you need fewer outfits because no one really sees what is under your coat.
We’ve been on a few winter city breaks in Europe and always managed to pack everything we need in hand luggage.
Don’t pack too much of bulky stuff – the secret to staying warm while visiting countries with freezing temperatures are to wear a warm hat that covers your ears.
- Clothes | Dress in layers! Start with a long or short-sleeve T-shirt, add long-sleeved top followed by a cardigan or a warm fleece and finish off with a waterproof outer shell.
- Accessories | Bring a pair of warm and waterproof gloves and scarf. Other accessories to consider – sunglasses (handy if you plan on driving – winter sun, when reflected off snow, can be harsh on eyes), sunscreen, lower and/or upper thermal base layer.
- Boots |Don’t hesitate to pack decent winter boots with a good grip that will keep your feet warm and dry.
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Now over to you!
What are the best things to do at the festive season in your country?
Let us know in the comments below!