Sailing and Shopping Europe's Christmas Markets

Nuremberg’s christkindlesmarkt is Germany’s largest and oldest Christmas market, and offers cruisers a variety of delicacies and attractions.

Nuremberg’s Christkindlesmarkt is Germany’s largest and oldest Christmas market, and offers cruisers a variety of delicacies and attractions.


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Cruisers who sail on European rivers each November and December will get to enjoy a far different experience than if they’d sailed in spring, summer or fall. While the weather is cooler, destinations are often less crowded. The sun also sets earlier in the evening, but the reward is that travelers can explore festive Christmas markets, each with a different personality, and most with twinkling lights.

The Christmas markets, which run throughout the Advent period from late November through the third week in December (some stay open a bit later), are a highly sensory experience. As the aroma of hot mulled cider wafts through the air, travelers watch local residents create and sell their local crafts. A top activity for cruisers is buying hand-made items to take home to family members and friends.

Markets foster the holiday spirit via large decorated trees, Advent clocks, Nativity scenes, carolers and other entertainment. Food stalls hawk everything from German sausages to French cakes, hot chestnuts, candied fruit, gingerbread biscuits (called Lebkuchen), and other local treats.

Scenic Cruises will offer two eight-day Christmas market options later this year. On December 1, a voyage sets sail from Nuremburg, Germany to Amsterdam, and visits markets in Bamberg, Wurzburg, Rudesheim and Cologne, Germany, and Amsterdam. One special highlight? Cruise guests will spend the day as an invited guest of the small village of Wertheim, where they’ll experience European village life as a local.

In addition, the November 24 Scenic Cruises’ sailing from Budapest to Nuremburg includes time at the large Christmas market in Budapest’s Vorosmarty Square and the markets of Vienna. At Vienna’s Spittelberg Christmas Market, we’d suggest cruisers look for exquisite fine arts and crafts, ceramics, hand-blown glass, rugs, batik, silk paintings, and silver or brass jewelry.

One exclusive for the November 24 cruise? A Christmas concert for Scenic’s guests will be conducted at Vienna’s private Palais Liechtenstein. We’d definitely eyeball the palace’s private art collections as they feature early Renaissance to Biedermeier-era masterpieces by Peter Paul Rubens, Rembrandt, Anthony van Dyck, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Frans Hals and Raphael.

Lest travelers think Christmas markets reflect modern commercialism, it’s important to know that the large Christmas market in front of Vienna’s city hall dates to 1298. Similarly, the market on Cathedral Square in Salzburg, Austria, began in the 15th century.

Some towns have one market, others many more. In Linz, Austria, the markets are held in the Baroque-style main square and at the Volksgarten. Hint? An easy way to get from one market to the other is on the Linz City Express. Cologne, Germany has six different markets, many with stalls in wooden huts, while amazingly, Vienna fields 20 official markets.

Not all holiday activities happen within the markets. New this year, Avalon Waterways offers several new culture-and-cruise options on Christmas markets cruises. Guests on Avalon Vista’s “Christmastime in Alsace & Germany” itinerary will listen to a live accordion presentation and view a woodcarving demonstration onboard. During that ship’s “Christmastime in Germany” cruises, a new beer tasting activity will be offered while the ship is in Bamberg.

Avalon Waterways has also increased the number of “Christmastime on the Danube” cruises from two to three this year; two are operated by Avalon Panorama, one by Avalon Vista. During those cruises, travelers will hear a new lecture from a local expert about the Main Danube canal and attend a Wachau wine tasting. These nine-day itineraries feature guided sightseeing in each city and visits to Christmas markets in Vienna, Regensburg, Nuremberg and Prague.

While touring the Prague Christmas market, we’d suggest trying the smoked ham or barbecued sausages. While they’re not the healthiest choices, for sure, they are very tasty, and it’s a one-time vacation indulgence. We’d wash the calories down with a cup of hot mulled wine or a Pilsner Urquell, Staropramen or Budvar brew. In addition, Avalon has added “special interest departures” that include the Christmas markets on its “Magnificent Europe” and “Romantic Rhine” departures.

the christmas market in Rudesheim am Rhein brings a distinctly festive feel to the romantic old town and its popular Drosselgasse lane.

Pictured: The Christmas Market in Rudesheim am Rhein brings a distinctly festive feel to the romantic old town and its popular Drosselgasse lane.

While Abercrombie & Kent’s “Christmas Markets on the Danube” itinerary on Amadeus Brilliant includes visits to several Christmas markets, including the one in Regensburg, guests also enjoy an exclusive A&K offering while the ship is docked in Melk; they will head out for a private guided tour of Schloss Artstetten, a castle owned by Princess Anita Hohenberg, great granddaughter of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose assassination in June 1914 led to World War I.

For the first time this year, A-Rosa Cruises will offer a Christmas market voyage designed for North American travelers. On November 30, the A-Rosa Silva will sail a “Danube Christmas Markets” cruise roundtrip from Passau to Bratislava, Slovakia; Budapest and Esztergom, Hungary; and Vienna, Krems, the Wachau Valley and Melk, Austria.

Upscale Tauck has increased its Christmas market departures by two-thirds for this year as it’s evolved from three ships to four ships on two itineraries, “Christmas Markets Along The Rhine” and “Christmas Markets Along The Danube.” For those desiring to sail on a sparkling new ship, Tauck offers the new Inspire on the Rhine itinerary along with Swiss Jewel. On the Danube, it will be the new Savor as well as Treasures.

Travelers who may have taken a Uniworld cruise in the past will discover this year’s voyages are all more highly inclusive. All gratuities, airport transfers, Wi-Fi and shore excursions are included within the cruise fare, as are a large selection of fine wines, craft and regional beers, spirits, cocktails, cappuccinos, lattes and teas.

Also new this year, Uniworld holiday market itineraries now include a fully guided “Taste of Christmas” walking tour excursion; at the end, guests receive an authentic local Christmas treat from various vendors. Among its holiday itineraries, Uniworld operates an eight-day “Danube Holiday Markets” cruise on River Beatrice between Budapest and Passau on November and December dates. We’d recommend travelers check out the hand-made porcelain at Budapest’s Vorosmarty Square market. A good treat here is kurtos kalacs, a local pastry cooked over an open fire and coated with sugar.

River Queen operates an eight-day “Classic Christmas Markets” itinerary between Nuremberg and Frankfurt in November and December. Popular with river cruisers are Nuremberg’s bratwurst, sweet-and-spicy gluhwein and gingerbread, all available at the city’s Christkindlesmarkt, Germany’s largest and oldest Christmas Market.

If a longer voyage is desired, AmaWaterways offers a 16-day “Magnificent Europe Christmas Cruise” between Budapest and Amsterdam, departing November 3 on AmaCerto and December 16 on AmaSonata; air travelers depart the previous day from the U.S. Guests can visit Christmas markets in Bratislava, Slovakia, and Vienna, Austria; participate in a “smoked beer” tasting in Bamberg, Germany; and opt for a Rothenburg excursion (from Würzburg) with a Christmas museum visit.

With AmaWaterways’ 13-day “Christmas on the Rhine” itineraries, travelers may choose from multiple departures of AmaCerto and AmaReina. What we particularly like about this itinerary is the combination of a seven-night cruise between Basel, Switzerland, and Amsterdam, and two nights each in both Zurich and Lucerne, with time to visit both cities’ Christmas markets. Located within the main railway station, Zurich’s indoor Christmas market is Europe’s largest market. If travelers are sightseeing in Zurich and wish to try an authentic local dish, they might head for the guild house Zunfthaus zur Waag and order Zurcher Geschnetzeltes (sliced veal in cream sauce), a local specialty served with Rosti, which consists of grated potatoes.

Palais Liechtenstein in Vienna gives Scenic Cruises’ guests a chance to attend a Christmas concert amid priceless private art collections.Pictured: Palais Liechtenstein in Vienna gives Scenic Cruises’ guests a chance to attend a Christmas concert amid priceless private art collections.

Another AmaWaterways itinerary, “Treasures of the Main and Rhine,” includes a tour that visits Prague’s Christmas market. This market fields great scented candles, embroidered lace, wooden toys, ceramics, and dolls in traditional costumes. One savory sweet to sample from the local food stalls is Trdelnik, a cake/pastry coated with hot sugar.

Viking River Cruises has a slew of holiday market offerings across Europe this year. Regional cruises departing from late November through mid-December typically will include Christmas market visits. One such itinerary is a week-long “Heart of Germany” itinerary between Frankfurt and Nuremberg in Germany. Among the onshore activities beyond the markets, travelers will explore Germany’s Franconian and Bavarian regions, tour Heidelberg Castle’s ruins, ride along the Romantic Road, and learn about World War II-era history in Nuremberg.

Since nothing speaks to an experience like colorful videos, we’d highly recommend viewing Viking’s holiday season videos. For example, they show how to make wreaths and a gingerbread house, and they give good tips for exploring the Christmas markets and shopping in European cities. Visit

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