Christmas Markets in the Baltics

I know it’s been a while since I’ve posted, but with travel, visitors, and my extremely busy dog-walking career, I haven’t had any time to sit down and be productive. Luckily, with the holidays being over, my schedule is becoming slightly more bearable, so I first want to write about my trip in early December to the Baltics.

This tiny cluster of countries always fascinated me because I didn’t know anything about them, and as you’ve probably noticed, I’m all about exploring underrated destinations. Ryanair made it easy with $50 round-trip flights. I knew it was going to be cold and the hours of daylight would be even more limited than they are in Germany, but I truly believe Christmas markets and other festivals are the best way to experience a city’s culture.

When my mom and I landed in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, at 4:30 p.m., it was about 19 degrees, snowing and already completely dark. I was praying the snow wouldn’t ruin our trip, but it actually did the exact opposite. The city felt like a winter wonderland. It was a Saturday night so people were all out despite the less than favorable weather (by American standards at least). Our Airbnb was just a short walk from Town Hall Square so we started our evening there at the Christmas market, which was actually set up in these cool glass bubble things. We warmed up inside one of the bubbles with mulled wine and snacked on raclette.

Then, we heard the Christmas tree lighting at the main market in Cathedral Square was scheduled for 7, so we headed over there. I ate a delicious salted caramel crepe as we wandered around the stands, though this market was much more crowded, probably because of the tree lighting. We waited in the frigid cold air for nearly 30 minutes to see the lights but by 7:15 a choir was still singing, so we gave up so we could make it to our dinner reservation.

We managed to fit a lot into our one full day of sightseeing in Vilnius. We started as we do on all of our trips with a free walking tour. This was the roughest one yet just because the temperature was in the teens, but I was really proud of us and the twelve or so other people on the tour who braved the winter weather to learn more about Lithuania. After all, we knew nothing about the country, but these tours always give a good insight into history and culture. 

We were nearly frozen so we warmed up with lunch at the city’s cat cafe, or as I like to call it, heaven. As the kitties roamed around freely, I ate crispy little turkey-stuffed dumplings similar to tortellini in a creamy mushroom sauce.

In the afternoon, we went back to the Christmas market so we could shop while it was less crowded, and then we finished the day in the Užupis republic, which we had passed through earlier on our tour. This artist neighborhood calls itself a “republic,” has a constitution and they even have a post office that will stamp your passport to indicate you’ve been to their “country.” The streets are decorated with murals and other cool art exhibitions, so this was definitely a unique cultural experience.

The next day, we took an early morning coach bus to Riga, the capital of Latvia. The four-hour ride was actually quite pleasant, as the bus had TV screens for every seat with a good variety of shows and movies!

When we arrived in Riga, it was yet again snowing, making it seem even more magical. We knew we only had an afternoon to explore so we set out right away for some lunch and then headed to the Christmas market.

I think this may be the best Christmas market I’ve ever seen. First of all, it had live animals, an automatic win in my book. But more importantly, the stalls were all natural wood looking like they came straight out of a forest. Pig snout and other body parts stewed in a big pot where you could watch people cook the traditional food. A man served mulled wine from a cauldron over a fire. It was like a step back into medieval times. I would say this market seemed the most traditional and less commercialized than any other one I’ve visited.

By this time, we were again freezing so we headed back to our incredibly nice spa hotel to warm up in the hot tub and sauna.

We went back out into the cold for dinner to one of the top-rated restaurants in the city and we were not disappointed. It’s hard for me to pick a single type of cuisine to be my favorite, but I will say that Eastern European is definitely up there. The flavors of roast meats, beets, and potatoes just scream “Christmas” to me, and nearly every restaurant had my favorite protein, duck, on their menu.

The next morning, we were hopping a plane back to Germany, but we were definitely ready for our trip to be over. One can only tolerate that weather for so long, which is why I knew only staying for three nights was the right move. I would have loved to do more sightseeing and learning about these interesting little countries, but I was in pain from being so stiff in the cold and trying to walk without slipping on the icy cobblestones. It was a quick, cheap trip and I’m so glad I was able to cross two more countries off my list. Although I was basically a popsicle the whole time, I couldn’t have picked a more perfect time of year to visit the Baltics.

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