If you pay a visit to Riga Central Market, you might see my face on the fliers inside the entrance. I recently was interviewed about my impressions of the market and also talked about the joys of visiting food markets while traveling.
If you don’t speak Latvian, though, never fear – here’s the English version of the interview, along with some bonus pictures (now that I’ve finally gotten a chance to edit them!) Many thanks to Riga Central Market for interviewing me and featuring my photography – I really appreciate it!
While visiting a new city, what are the “top” or “must see” places you visit or the things you do?
I don’t have any strict rules that I impose. However, looking back on some of my favorite experiences, they have all included visiting at least one of the following places: a place of worship (church, cathedral, basilica, synagogue); a green space (park or garden); a food market; a flea or antique market; a grocery store; a design, art, or clothing shop with handmade local goods; a free walking tour (almost every city has one); and a well-rated local restaurant (preferably with regional cuisine and well-rated by locals, not just tourists!)
The grocery store might seem a bit odd at first, but if you aren’t from the country you’re visiting, I strongly believe you can learn a lot about that place just by visiting a grocery store.
For example, I discovered that there’s an astounding assortment of kefir in the Baltic countries. In fact, it’s so popular it even comes in bags. By going to grocery stores in Germany I discovered kefir isn’t all that common, but flavored buttermilk is – there’s even a lemon basil variety. So, aside from being a great place to pick up inexpensive food while traveling, I really love grocery stores because they tell you about interesting eating habits.
Is visiting marketplaces always on your “to do” list?
Yes, absolutely. Whether it’s a food market or a flea market, if I’m spending more than a day in a particular place I almost always visit a market. I’ve even been known to move my travel plans, thus ensuring my visit overlaps with a Saturday or Sunday market!
What do you find the most interesting while visiting a marketplace for the first time?
Firstly, I like to see what produce is in season. You can tell this based upon what shows up repeatedly, is ripe, and is being grown locally. For example, in the Scandinavian countries I visited, I repeatedly saw chanterelle mushrooms and summer berries like raspberries, strawberries, etc. In Finland, snow peas were everywhere.
At Riga Central Market in August, I saw a huge variety of fruits and vegetables that were in season: incredibly ripe tomatoes, strawberries, red and white currants, melons, cucumbers, and tons of other fresh produce.
Which marketplaces have left the strongest impression and why?
Among produce markets, Riga Central Market stands out due to its incredible size and wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables. I was also quite astounded because it even manages to squeeze in a grocery store. It’s also quite architecturally stunning.
For markets dedicated to food stalls and restaurants, Berlin’s Markthalle Neun stands out because it offers an amazing array of street foods from food trucks within a warehouse. It soundly trumps both Oslo’s Mathallen and Sweden’s Ostermalm’s Saluhall by virtue of having a wider variety of foods to offer… and because it’s much quirkier!
What was your impression of Riga Central Market? Did you buy/try anything?
At first glance, I couldn’t believe how huge the market was – not only did it span four airplane hangars, but there were produce stalls wrapping outside, around, and behind the hangars as well. It was incredible how large the market was.
I tried several different foods while I was there: first, I made a beeline for a bakery to try some pastries. I couldn’t believe how cheap they were – less than 30 cents per pastry. I tried one with a vanilla custard, and another that was like a cinnamon roll. Both were delicious.
After boosting my blood sugar with those sweets, then I went savory: along the wall in one of the hangars I found a vendor who was serving pre-prepared dishes. They seemed to be traditional Baltic cuisine. I tried a cabbage leaf stuffed with meat, while a friend tried a fish-based dish and a beet salad. Both were fantastic, and, again, very reasonably priced. At this woman’s stall there were many other different dishes as well – some meat- or fish-based, some vegetarian.
Can you name 5 (or more) things a traveler should definitely try or see while visiting Riga Central Market?
Definitely! If you get a chance, you should be sure to try smoked fis, cheese, pickled vegetables, mini cheesecakes (like Karums – they’re cheap and tasty, though a little sweet), fresh seasonal fruit, bread, pastries, and kvass (it’s a fermented drink made from rye bread and tastes very interesting.)
From my own experience at the market, I have a couple other tips for people. Here are some ways you can prepare and get the most out of your experience:
- Bring a sturdy shopping bag for any provisions you plan to buy.
- Expect to pay with cash. (Some vendors take cards, but many still prefer cash.)
- Check your map to see if there are any nice areas nearby. If so, it’s nice to pick up some bread, cheese, cured meat/salami, olives, pastries, and other such items and go to a nearby park, beach, or another scenic spot for an impromptu picnic.