Having a bauble in the Baltic – Christmas markets out east

By | Category: Travel destinations

Bergs Bazaar in Riga

It’s hard to beat the Baltic Christmas markets for location. Each capital has an old town to die for, blissfully free of concrete slabs from the Soviet era, and instead brimming over with graceful historic buildings dating back to medieval times, often with a pleasant dusting of pristine snow, adding to the festive atmosphere. Christmas markets have really taken off in this part of Europe, where the tradition is not as long-standing as e.g. in Germany or Scandinavia. By now each capital hosts several markets in different scenic settings, making them excellent pre-Christmas shopping-break options. Or, if you’re short of time before Christmas, there are plenty that carry on into the New Year.

 

Latvian capital Riga is home to three markets this Christmas season. The biggest and best known is the Old Town Christmas Fair, this year celebrating its 10-year anniversary. It takes over Dome Square in the heart of the old town from 1st December and stays open as late as 12th January. Expect a wide range of traditional Latvian handicrafts including knitwear and woodcraft, as well as plenty of tasty local nibbles, including smoked meats, honeys and much more. This is also the place to learn more about Latvian cultural pursuits – there will be creative workshops, traditional music and Christmas cooking going on in addition to the multiple shopping opportunities.

the Dome Square in Riga

A particular hit with a younger audience, the market in Līvu Square is the place to visit Santa Claus and his elves, enjoy a Christmas carol sing-along, receive presents from the breaded man himself or try some Christmas crafts and games. Finally the Esplanāde Christmas Fair, held in a part of the old town where festivities and gatherings have been taking place for centuries, offers a chance to get into the Christmas spirit at a gentler pace with fewer crowds. Both markets run right through to 12th January.

 

Town Hall, Vilnius © Vilnius Tourism

Further south, in Lithuanian capital Vilnius, there are numerous Christmassy events and activities to choose from. You can catch the Christmas train, driven by Santa’s elves (they must have been all out of reindeer), through the old town from Town Hall Square to main shopping street Gedimino Avenue, throughout December and right up until 7th January. Imposing Cathedral Square gets turned into a Christmas Town 5th – 29th December and this is the place to find the best of handicrafts including glassware and decorative jewellery. If you get peckish there are Lithuanian seasonal delicacies, such as “Christmas Eve biscuits” to sample. Festive walking tours also leave from Cathedral Square, 28th December to 5th January. The two-hour tours, given in English or Russian, take in some of the best sights in Vilnius.

 

Tallinn © Allan Alajaan

Up north in Estonia, Tallinn is perhaps the most established destination for UK visitors and also the capital with the best known Christmas markets. This year the city has three different markets, each in a beautiful location, such as the old town or on the Baltic seafront. As well as the market favourites, Tallinn has plenty of additional Christmas cheer in store with many events taking place this winter throughout the city. The main market, in Town Hall Square in the old town, has been in full swing since 22nd November and commerce carries on until 8th January, making it the longest-running in the Baltic countries. Town Hall Square’s picturesque setting further adds to the medieval feel of the market and chances of snow are good throughout the festive season. Most of the quaint, wooden stalls surrounding the large mid-square Christmas tree sell traditional Estonian handicrafts and Christmas food – the German influence is more noticeable here, you can sample sauerkraut and generous helpings of pork. Of course there’s also a chance to meet Santa, who does get around this time of year.

 

Tallinn © Toomas-Volmer

Two open-air museums, Viimsi and Rocca al Mare, are hosting markets, the former on Saturdays, right up until 12th January and the latter for a long weekend, 13th-15th December. Both markets promise to offer a more traditional, old-fashioned take on Christmas, with Rocca al Mare in particular, emphasising past traditions, old yuletide songs and Estonian history. If you’re all shopped-out, but fancy checking out other interesting events, Christmas jazz takes place in a variety of venues until 13th December, while Gingerbread Mania, a creative fair of gingerbread biscuit design carries on until 8th January. Harju ice-rink, also in the old town, is open daily between 10am and 10pm and if you’re feeling really energetic, why not learn to cross-country ski with an English-speaking ski instructor in Tallinn’s Pirita district. No previous experience is necessary and the 3-hour session includes all equipment, transportation and a hot drink to keep the cold at bay.

 

Shopping done, activities tried and medieval atmosphere absorbed, the time has come to get into a Christmas spirit of a different kind – check out the cosy old town bars in any of the three capital cities, to sample local beers, vodkas or fruit liqueurs, all part of the multicultural Baltic Christmas experience.

Images of Riga © www.LiveRiga.com

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