Festive Season: Cruising to Europe's Best Christmas Markets

European river cruising in spring, summer and fall is typically culturally immersive. But luxury travelers who love late-year holiday season festivities can ratchet up their vacation a notch by heading out on a Christmas Markets cruise.

Luxury Travel Advisor experienced that first-hand during an AmaWaterways cruise on the Upper Rhine River. So, here’s a bit of “intel’ from our sailing with examples of savory, fun holiday activities that cruisers can expect. Plus, we also highlight what’s new for major European river lines offering Christmas Markets voyages in 2023 or 2024.

Elevating the Experience

Simply put, a Christmas Markets voyage takes the absolute best of what a river cruise offers—ease of travel, pampering service, luxurious accommodations, savory dining, immersive enrichment, a small-ship ambiance, and direct access to interior European destinations—and elevates that. Sailing on the 156-passenger AmaStella during Christmas and New Year’s weeks (on back-to-back cruises between Amsterdam, Netherlands, and Basel, Switzerland, for 14 nights), we bundled up for bit cooler temperatures and headed out.

Yes, we experienced heritage, culture and cuisine along the Upper Rhine River—as all river cruisers can do throughout the year—but, for example, we also strolled amid twinkling holiday lights and a wafting cinnamon aroma, for example, at “Christkindelsmarik” in Strasbourg, France. Nestled within Place Broglie and Place de la Cathedrale, that colorful Christmas Market dates from 1570.

We watched locals and visitors shop for holiday crafts and gifts, sample Alsatian foods, peruse lovely, hand-made ornaments, enjoy pretzels and sip vin chaud (mulled wine similar to German gluhwein). We also chuckled as we spotted a tall, quite thin Santa in full red attire wandering along the market and carrying his own bag of goodies, perhaps heading home to pack on a few pounds with holiday treats before “the big day.”

Nurnberg market stall
Tauck has itineraries on Danube that will give guests a chance to visit Nuremberg’s holiday market, which dates from 1628. (Tauck)

After a bit of shopping and people-watching, we then entered the nearby Cathedral of our Lady of Strasbourg. Its 11th-century, Romanesque-era crypt and design footprint remain, but today, it’s admired as a mid-15th century Gothic masterpiece with one spire. It’s a “must see” site with more than 4,600 panels of stained-glass windows dating from the 12th to 14th centuries.

Back aboard AmaStella, we then enjoyed the ship’s holiday aura with festive, seasonal lighting in public spaces, and a large Christmas tree and garlands gracing the atrium. During the cruise, AmaWaterways also introduced guests to local holiday traditions from communities along the Upper Rhine. One evening we were instructed to put our shoes just outside our stateroom/suite door. Presto, the next morning we opened the door to discover a large, wrapped chocolate Santa treat in each shoe.

The line also nicely arranged transportation for those guests who wished to attend religious services ashore on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. Onboard, we participated in traditional caroling in the ship’s lounge and sampled freshly made gingerbread cookies. On one evening, crew members and guests wearing Santa hats joined together to sing a lively “Feliz Navidad,” as they encircled—in conga line fashion—the festively lighted and decorated room. On that evening, guests also were greeted by several "angels” leading a procession, and, of course, Santa Claus himself.   

New Developments

So, now that we’ve set the stage, what’s newsworthy or notable about Christmas Markets voyages in 2023 and beyond? In recent years, Portugal’s Douro River—with its vibrant wine scene—is drawing more experienced European river cruisers seeking something a bit different. The narrower, winding Douro typically has less commercial river traffic. Guests tour many small villages, wineries and other less trafficked spots and there’s a strong viniculture focus. Typically, the lines stopped sailing the Douro in early November, but now several lines have stretched the season.

That’s opportune as Porto, Portugal, the prime embarkation/disembarkation point for Douro cruises, has enticing Christmas Markets, temperate winter weather and fewer crowds. In 2023 and 2024, AmaWaterways will sail an extended Portugal season, so the 102-passenger AmaDouro will sail 14 additional Douro sailings this year through the end of December. For example, the river line will operate a seven-night “Enticing Douro” itinerary roundtrip from Porto, and offer an optional three-night, pre-cruise stay in Lisbon, Portugal. In 2024, Douro cruises will begin in March and continue through late December.

AmaWaterways also continues to offer a diverse range of holiday sailings on other European rivers too. One enticing holiday option for customers seeking “the grand shebang” is AmaWaterways’ 14-night “Grand Danube Cruise,” on the 160-passenger AmaVerde between Giurgiu, Romania, and Vilshofen, Germany, on November 20, 2023. A reverse itinerary is also operated by the similarly sized AmaBella departing December 11, 2023. Guests can check out the Christmas markets of Salzburg, Austria, during a full-day shore excursion, and also spend time at Vienna’s Schonbrunn Christmas Market, which has a strong arts-and-crafts focus.

Rathausplatz Christmas Market
Vienna's Rathausplatz Christmas Marketis one of the most popular in Austria, which attracts huge crowds. (Rathausplatz Christmas Market)

Viking recently added 20 additional sailings to its Christmas Markets lineup for Europe’s Rhine and Danube rivers in 2023. That added greater timing flexibility for cruisers. During those additional departure dates for its eight-day “Christmas on the Rhine” and “Danube Christmas Delights” itineraries, Viking will take an additional 3,686 guests on 190-passenger Viking Longships for a holiday season sailing.

In addition, Viking announced a new 10-day “Treasures of the Rhine” river itinerary, with eight included guided shore tours within the Middle Rhine River region. What’s unique? While this itinerary debuts in December 2023, it actually will operate through March 2024. So, for the first time in Europe, guests have an option for river cruising throughout the winter, even beyond the holiday season. Guests can travel with fewer crowds and often have a bit easier access to landmark sites. With these new wintertime voyages, Viking also becomes Europe’s first major, year-round river cruise operator.

Scenic Luxury Cruises & Tours is now offering eight- to 18-day Christmas Market cruises earlier than usual on the Danube and the Rhine this year. In addition, the line’s 15-day “Christmas & New Year’s” itinerary, sets sail between Amsterdam and Budapest, Hungary, on December 19, 2023. On that voyage, cruisers will sail the Rhine, Danube and Main-Danube Canal.

Scenic’s guests on that itinerary will explore Nuremberg’s holiday market, dating from 1628, as well as the 420-year-old Christmas Market in Cathedral Square in Salzburg, Austria. At Cologne’s Christmas Market, they’ll gaze at puppet theaters, toy stalls and the German Rhineland’s largest Christmas tree. Other holiday season perks? Travelers can attend a traditional Christmas Mass in Würzburg, Germany, and then celebrate New Year’s Day in Budapest.

Gaining in popularity for holiday river travel is Belgium. In 2023 and 2024, Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection will offer a new eight-day “Belgian Holiday Markets” itinerary on the 130-passenger River Empress. On Day 2, for instance, guests can explore the Bruges Christmas Market, or alternatively, the Ghent Christmas Market.

On another day, cruisers can head ashore to shop for holiday gifts or just “people watch” at the Antwerp, Belgium Christmas Market. And along the route, cruisers can sample luscious holiday treats. Among them is the region’s famous Yule Log—a sponge roll covered in chocolate buttercream.

On Tauck’s eight-day “Yuletide Spirit: Amsterdam to Brussels” river itinerary later this year, guests can visit Gouda and Rotterdam in the Netherlands, as well as Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp in Belgium, among other destinations. Operated by the 130-passenger Grace, this itinerary will offer visits to Dutch and Belgian holiday markets and quaint medieval squares along the waterways.

Christmas Market
At Christmas Markets, locals and visitors shop for holiday crafts and gifts. (Christmas Market)

Guests also will have opportunities for holiday shopping, music, traditional foods and drinks, and even ice skating, if they so desire. In Amsterdam, Tauck’s guests will take a canal cruise to view the Amsterdam Light Festival. In some locales, travelers also can board a Ferris wheel for a bird’s-eye perch view of holiday lighting and markets.

For those customers who’d like to celebrate the holidays in Europe with their families including children, Tauck offers a Tauck Bridges’ river itinerary, “Holiday Magic, Danube Family River Cruise” in 2023 and 2024. Individual families and multi-generational family groups will spend time together in Budapest, as well as the Austrian destinations of Vienna, the scenic Wachau Valley, and Salzburg.

If clients are seeking a short holiday-season cruise on the Danube that they can couple with an independent land stay, one good option is the new Riverside Luxury Cruises, which operates the former Crystal Cruises river vessels. Riverside’s four-night “Delightful Danube Christmas” sets sail between Passau, Germany, and Vienna, Austria this December. Traveling on the 162-passenger Riverside Mozart (the former Crystal Mozart) guests can savor gingerbread cookies and sip mulled wine while visiting Christmas Markets in Passau, as well as in the Austrian destinations of Linz, Salzburg, Krems and Vienna.

The popularity of Christmas Markets and holiday voyages continues to grow. Avalon Waterways said in May 2023 that its “Festive Season cruises are nearly sold-out for 2023.” Consequently, it’s added two new cruises between Budapest and Vienna in late November; those will include opportunities for guests to visit popular Christmas Markets on the Danube.

Riviera River Cruises, Emerald Cruises and others also offer holiday or Christmas Markets voyages. Whatever line is chosen, though, a European river journey in November and December can certainly elevate the cruise experience for travelers who love the sights, sounds, flavors, feel and traditions of the holiday season.

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