Where does one even begin with such a legendary place as Riga Central Market? Unlike its counterparts in many Western European cities, the Riga Central Market still occupies a large chunk of the downtown and hasn't been turned into a gimmicky tourist-trap (well not yet), but by and large still serves the local population? As always we need to start - with history amd geography!
The Origins and History of Riga Central Market
Riga's history as a whole is the history of trade: the city being established by Germans looking for new trade routes later thtat would connect with Hanseatic cities like Lubeck and Bremen. The official narrative of the time was to introduce Christianity to the last pagans of Europe and this led to Riga becoming a major port; skip nearly 700 years and by the late 19th century you'll recognise our town as an emerging centre of manufacturing and industry.
Riga's proximity to the West, its railway lines, water connections and the respectable Baltic German-run city council attracted investment and inevitably sent the city's population through the roof. With the Russian Empire's "relaxed" labour laws and lower pay, when compared to the Western cities of the time, also have had a lot to do with Riga's growth. During the 20 year period leading up to the WW1 Riga changed beyond recognition, thousands of new buildings of all purposes had to be erected to meet the modern needs, but the Central Market construction plans had to be postponed due to the before-mentioned war.
As if the War wasn't enough, two more things impede the Riga Central Markets construction: the following War of Independence, that lasted two more years (1918-1920), and the Worlds struggles with the Spanish Flu pandemic. Finally in 1922 the new City Council announces that the project is back on track and, somewhat unsurprisingly and in line with the times, declares good sanitary conditions as the main goal: the old Riga market location - the overtaken riverside by the Old Town - is found to be dirty, unsafe and badly organised. Hygienic and clean stalls, modern storage units, proper waste management and easy and quick deliveries seem to be all the rage in the years after WW1.
Once the political will and economic possibilities aligned the work was on and didn't stop for the next 8 years - first around forty mid-19th century warehouses had to be taken down as they couldn't be incorporated in the project that claimed all of the former port area. The remaining warehouses still stand today, serving various purposes, but the rest of the site changed immensely, even if it's not clear right away due to a lot of this completely new infrastructure being located underground - extensive storage units, connecting tunnels, cargo elevators and delivery zone by the former defence moat.
Although most of the Riga Central Market and its 5 huge pavilions are built using "proper" and new construction materials, after the WW1 Latvia's economy required careful financial decisions and creative approach to such "mega-projects" and as a result many of the metal parts (the covering section that resemble a 19th century train station) you can still find today are recycled German zeppelin hangars from Western Latvia. A truly unique and genius way to kill two birds with one stone - deal with the military "heritage"/waste by turning it into cheap parts for the market pavilions. Hard to make out if anyone at the time could have guessed how popular this story will get, even to a point of some locals telling tall tales of zeppelins actually being stored in the middle of Riga during the war.
Finally in 1930 the market is open and within the first years of it being around much praise starts to roll in from lands near and far - and for a good reason: Riga's Central Market right after its completion is widely considered to be one of the most modern and sanitary in the World and has surely stayed as one of the largest even today. Hard to imagine this changing during the current advent of food delivery services and new supermarkets being built right into the suburbs, making the weekly trip to the market an extravagant throwback to days when time wasn't so limited.
For over 90 years the Riga Central Market has stayed open no matter what local or foreign power has exercised it's control over Riga, as no matter who is in charge, we all still have to eat something. The pre-WW2 era is characterised by a large number of independent farmers and fierce competition. The post-war Soviet era by goods provided by the kolhozes (collective farms) and how the market gave opportunity to "entrepreneurial" vendors to make some cash on the side (and off the books) by either selling their own produce or cheating unsuspecting costumers on weight (there are still calibrated "control-scales" placed throughout the market if you'd want a "second opinion" on how much onion you were just sold). The 1990s saw open boarders and capitalism reintroduced, even if the competition between vendors didn't return and most of the assortment being quite uniform over it's segment and similarly priced. Soon enough Riga Central Market became overflowed with foreign goods of all kinds - from Uzbek melons to Turkish jeans, Canadian caviar to Russian cigarettes, the latter being sold "under the counter" as if the 1990s never ended.
Modern Day Use and Future Challenges
Today's Riga Central Market has been effected greatly by the ever changing face of modern capitalism, Latvia's declining population, mismanagement by local government and some rather short sited visons to modernise the marker area. Recently we have seen a whole Pavilion loose all its food produce and replaced by booths that resemble some sad 1990s post soviet shopping mall. An attempt to bring in a touristic gastro hall, which had some popularity but outpriced the locals has seen some movement during Covid times but mostly the Riga Central Market is looking a bit sad for its self. We do hope the City Council see the potential for Riga Central Market to be the nr.1 location in Riga to get local fresh produce. A little bit of creative vision and we believe this legendary Market will be the Modern, shining example that it was back when it first opened in the 1930s.
And we managed to tell all of this without mentioning too much about the food the Riga Central Market has to offer.... We will let you find out about that for yourselves.