Cruising Through Christmas Markets

During a recent holiday season, Luxury Travel Advisor boarded AmaWaterways’ 156-passenger AmaStella for a Christmas Markets cruise between Amsterdam, Netherlands, and Basel, Switzerland. Strolling through a Christmas Market in Speyer, Germany, we savored the aroma of freshly baked gingerbread cookies wafting through the air, listened to carolers serenading with the songs of the season and sipped on gluhwein (hot mulled wine).

At Strasbourg’s robust Christmas Market, France’s oldest as it dates from 1570, we watched cruisers browse and buy hand-crafted holiday gifts and gorgeous ornaments in the shadow of the city’s magnificent Romanesque-Gothic cathedral. We even caught a glimpse of St. Nick himself walking through the market in his red suit and carrying a bag of goodies. 

For curious travelers with an exploratory mindset, the Christmas Markets season on European rivers can be an incredible, memory-making experience, especially if traveling with family or friends. Cruisers can dive into local seasonal traditions and treats. They also see famous sites, of course, but with a holiday glow. So, what’s new and nifty for the holidays this year or beyond on Europe’s rivers? Here’s a sampling of options to entice luxury travelers.

Holiday Season on the Douro

New in 2023, AmaWaterways will extend its sailing season on Portugal’s Douro River, given that region’s mild winters. The 102-passenger AmaDouro will sail through the end of December 2023 on additional departures of the line’s seven-night “Enticing Douro” itinerary. Sailing roundtrip from Porto, Portugal, the itinerary allows time for cruise guests visiting in late November through December to head to Porto’s intimate Christmas Markets to peruse charming, hand-made gifts and festive treats. 

Good to know? Cruisers shouldn’t expect snow, given the milder climate than many other spots in Europe. At Porto, they also shouldn’t expect one huge Christmas Market, but rather numerous small, delightful ones spread throughout the city. What’s to buy? We’d suggest checking out the lovely, traditional Portuguese items made of pottery, wool, linen, wood, leather, stone and iron.

Other great buys for gifts or souvenirs are traditional toys and games, hand-crafted soap, holiday decorations and rag dolls. Depending on the market, cruisers can also view savory Portuguese food products, urban-design household or decorative items, lovely jewelry and original artwork. Be sure to sample the Bolo Rei or “King Cake,” a popular Portuguese brioche-like cake; it’s sweet with nuts and dried, crystalized fruit.

As for the AmaDouro cruise itself, we’d suggest booking one of the ship’s suites, Nos. 301, 302, 303 or 304; each span 323 square feet of space and have an outside balcony. Suite features include in-room temperature control; deluxe hotel-style bedding with Egyptian linens, down pillows and a duvet; spacious bathrooms with multi-jet showerheads; a large wardrobe, full-length mirror, hair dryer, safe and direct-dial telephone; and desk and chair. 

AmaWaterways’ 102-passenger AmaDouro will sail the line’s seven-night “Enticing Douro” itinerary through the end of December 2023. (AmaWaterways)

In addition, the suite’s flat-screen TV has an on-demand entertainment system with complimentary TV, movies and a music library. Other suite perks include complimentary bottled water replenished daily and complimentary Wi-Fi. 

During AmaDouro’s picturesque voyage through the Douro Valley’s wine region, cruisers will visit the village of Entre-os-Rios for a traditional Portuguese lunch at a local quinta (a country estate). They’ll explore Salamanca, Spain, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And, if desired, they can opt for a guided hike of Porto, followed by a port wine tasting. Those are just a handful of the many activities during this cruise. 

As with other river lines, AmaWaterways is seeing consumer demand for longer voyages or more back-to-back cruises. Those wishing to extend their time in conjunction with this cruise can opt for the three-night, pre-cruise Lisbon extension. That add-on package includes a “City of Seven Hills” city tour and a morning excursion to Serra de Sintra, a lovely Portuguese mountain village. Late in the year too, Lisbon takes on a holiday aura with millions of twinkling lights and Christmas Markets to put cruisers in the holiday spirit.

Christmas Cruising on the Seine 

For the holiday seasons in 2022 and 2023, Viking is introducing a new, eight-day “Christmas on the Seine” itinerary, designed for guests who desire to explore France’s Christmas Markets. Sailing roundtrip from Paris, the 168-passenger Viking Radgrid and Viking Fjorgyn will take cruise guests into the French countryside, where cruisers can get into the holiday spirit by possibly viewing snowy landscapes in Normandy.

Viking includes six shore trips within this itinerary’s cruise fare. Holiday-centric shore excursions will include such seasonal activities as baking homemade gingerbread at the 850-year-old Abbaye du Valasse, France, or attending a festive Christmas ornament-making workshop in Rouen, France. Aboard their Viking river ship, guests also will discover holiday-themed festivities, including regional dining specialties, seasonal treats and more. 

Christmas Market
Treats on offer at a Christmas Market in Strasbourg, France. (Getty Images)

This itinerary is offered on multiple dates between November and the end of December. Viking’s cruisers will overnight on the ship in Paris for their first night. Then the ship will sail for Vernon, France, known for its cobblestone streets and half-timbered houses, and Caudebec-en-Caux, home to some of Normandy’s oldest buildings such as the Maison des Templiers, built in the 12th to 13th centuries. At Rouen, they can get into the holiday spirit by perusing the city’s Christmas Market with more than 70 stalls, a “winter wonderland” aura at Square Verdrel and local residents skating on an outdoor ice rink.  

At Les Andelys, France, the draw is the 12th-century, hilltop Chateau Gaillard, built by Richard the Lionhearted. And finally, the ship will return to Paris for guests to visit Christmas Market stalls and enjoy such gourmet treats as escargot, roasted chestnuts, cheese and chocolates. Many departures this year are either sold out or offer limited accommodation choices, while 2023 dates have much more availability. 

Top digs on Viking’s Seine ships operating this itinerary are the 445-square-foot Explorer Suites (ES), No.s 336 and 337. We love the suite’s private wraparound balcony offering 270-degree views. Guests also enjoy a spacious, separate sitting room and a French balcony in the sleeping quarters.

Belgium Holiday Markets

Offering a robust portfolio of Christmas holiday season cruises on multiple European rivers, Uniworld Boutique River Cruises has a new twist for 2023. The luxury river line will offer a new eight-day “Belgian Holiday Markets” itinerary, giving cruisers a chance to explore the Christmas Markets in Brussels and Bruges, Belgium and Aachen, Germany, among others. 

Travelers can sip vin chaud (French mulled wine) or hot chocolate between bites of warm Liege waffles and spiced gingerbread. Or, how about some Belgium frites (fries) or craft beer? This new itinerary should definitely appeal to those luxury travelers who’ve been to other classic Christmas Markets in other European countries on past trips, or to those simply seeking something a bit different. 

Uniworld’s “Belgian Holiday Markets” on the 130-passenger River Empress will sail roundtrip from Brussels, Belgium. The voyage is an extravaganza of Christmas Markets, each with its own quintessential setup with rows of stalls offering handcrafted gifts and delicious wintertime treats. The markets also have a festival aura with ice skating rinks, elaborate light displays, Ferris wheels and other signs of the season. 

Christmas Market in Brussels Belgium
Uniworld Boutique River Cruises will offer a new eight-day “Belgian Holiday Markets” itinerary in 2023. Shown here is a Christmas Market in Brussels, Belgium. (Getty Images )

On Day 2, Uniworld’s featured excursion will take cruisers on a “Brussels Walking Tour with Christmas Market and Chocolate Tasting.” On Day 3, cruisers can choose to visit either the “Bruges Christmas Market” or the “Ghent Christmas Market.” Subsequent days feature a “Hasselt Walking Tour with Christmas Market,” plus either the “Aachen Christmas Market” in Germany or the “Maastricht Christmas Market” in the Netherlands; the latter is a great spot to snack on bratwurst and gluhwein. This cruise also will take guests to the Christmas Market in Antwerp, Belgium.

Top accommodations on River Empress are four, lavishly appointed, 214-square-foot Suites with a French balcony; four of those are located mid-ship on the Rhine Deck. Among the Suite features? Guests sleep on handcrafted Savoir beds and the suite has a marble bathroom with Asprey bath and body products.

Longer Holiday Journey  

For travelers who desire to sail over Thanksgiving and into December, plus enjoy a lengthier vacation, one inclusive, appealing holiday season option we’d suggest is Scenic Cruises’ 18-day “Christmas Markets and Prague” itinerary. Guests journey from Prague to Amsterdam on either November 18, 2022, or November 20, 2022, departures. 

Up first is three nights on land in Prague with a highlight dinner with live music at Lobkowicz Palace in the heart of the castle district. Travelers also will receive a Scenic Freechoice excursion that’s a walking tour of Prague, with the chance to taste locally produced beer along the way. On that tour, they’ll also learn about the 900-year history of Strahov Monastery and see its treasury and art gallery. Guests also have a full day of free time to pursue their own interests in Prague. 

Then, they’ll board their river vessel—either the Scenic Opal or Scenic Jasper, both 163-passenger vessels—in Budapest, Hungary for an overnight stay. In Austria, they’ll explore Vienna, also with an overnight stay, before heading to Durnstein/Melk and Salzburg. For those seeking a “deep dive” into Germany’s culture, heritage and holiday traditions, this cruise delivers. The ship will call at Regensburg, Nuremburg, Bamberg, Wurzberg, Miltenberg, Rudesheim and Cologne.

The journey will conclude in Amsterdam with an overnight stay. At press time, Balcony Suites, Deluxe Balcony Suites and Junior Balcony Suites still showed availability, although the top suites were sold out. Scenic also offers a robust slate of other holiday itineraries on European rivers.

Regensburg, Christmas Market
Scenic Cruises will call in Regensburg, Germany during an 18-day “Christmas Markets and Prague” itinerary.   (Courtesy Scenic Cruises)

Looking ahead, another longer journey that’s planned further out—in 2024—is Avalon Waterways’ 19-day “Christmastime on the Danube” from Budapest to Basel, Switzerland. Guests will sail on either the 166-passenger Avalon Envision or the 128-passenger Avalon Tranquility II. This itinerary traverses five countries and features two nights in Budapest. Two good accommodation choices for luxury travelers are the 200-square-foot Panorama Suites or the 300-square-foot Royal Suites.

Starting in Budapest, the cruise sails to Vienna, Krems and Melk in Austria as well as Passau, Regensburg and Nuremberg in Germany. During the itinerary, the ship has a mid-journey, turnaround day in Nuremberg (for other guests who’ve sailed on a shorter segment to get off), so cruisers on the 19-day itinerary will disembark too, but take a line-provided excursion to Munich, Germany, before reboarding the ship on the same day in Nuremberg. 

One perk of a holiday sailing? Guests on this cruise will learn about European Christmas traditions during an enrichment lecture. One stellar touring highlight is a guided sightseeing tour of the glowing Christkindlesmarkt (Christmas Market) of Bamberg, Germany, which is famed for dozens of nativity scenes of every size. As the cruise continues, travelers can stroll through the Christmas Market in Wurzburg, Germany. 

The following day, cruisers will take an Avalon Waterways’ guided tour of a village on the Main River, and then from Frankfurt, Germany, they’ll head out on an excursion to Rudesheim, Germany. Other calls include Speyer, which provides the chance to take an excursion to Heidelberg for its Christmas Market; Strasbourg, France; and Breisach, Germany, where cruisers can visit a local winery or take a Black Forest excursion. The journey then ends in Basel.  

MS William Wordsworth
Riviera River Cruises’ William Wordsmith willsail a five-night “New Year on the Blue Danube” itinerary in 2022. (Riviera River Cruises)

Finally, it’s not just Christmastime holiday cruises that guests enjoy. Some travelers desire to spend New Year’s Eve and Day on European rivers. For example, this coming holiday season, Riviera River Cruises offers a five-night “New Year on the Blue Danube.” The 169-passenger William Wordsmith departs Budapest on December 29, 2022, and the voyage concludes on January 3, 2022.

Guests spend an overnight in Budapest, then the ship sails for Bratislava, Slovakia, and Vienna, Austria for New Year’s Eve. Onboard guests enjoy a New Year’s Eve dinner, and as the clock strikes midnight, the crew will serve celebration drinks and canapés to welcome in 2023. 

New Year’s Day is also spent in Vienna. One fun activity for Riviera guests is the New Year’s Day visit to Vienna’s Schonbrunn Palace, as its Yuletide market that specializes in traditional handicrafts and nostalgic toys will still be open. The ship sails back to Budapest for an overnight and then disembarkation. 

One tip for travelers? Before booking a specific river cruise departure, compare the timing with the open dates for individual Christmas Markets considered a “must see.” Most markets are open from late November to mid-December, some a bit later. For example, the big Strasbourg Christmas Market runs from November 21 to December 23, 2022. Others may run through year’s end, but not all. 

But this year and beyond, luxury travelers seeking holiday fun on European rivers have many options. Some desire to explore Christmas Markets, others to share the holiday spirit with family and friends on an amazing adventure. And then there are others who simply want to kick off the New Year in style. Whatever the case, Europe’s rivers beckon with upscale ships, pampering onboard service, great cuisine and incredible destinations.

MS William Wordsworth
The Restaurant on the 169-passenger William Wordsmith (Riviera River Cruises)

U.S. Holiday River Cruises

European river lines and destinations aren’t alone in serving up holiday cheer for river cruise guests. During Christmastime 2021, Luxury Travel Advisor sailed on American Queen Voyages (AQV) from Memphis, TN, to New Orleans, LA, so check out “Christmastime on the Mississippi” our first-hand impressions from that holiday cruise with tips for cruisers and a look at the 2022 Mississippi River holiday voyages of AQV, American Cruise Lines and Viking.  

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