If we could only pick one more river cruise to take, it wouldn’t be a difficult decision. Both River Cruise Advisor’s Ralph Grizzle and myself would, without hesitation, hop aboard one of the festive Christmas Markets river cruises that close out the year on the rivers of Europe.
Typically operating between November 25 and December 24, these Christmas Markets river cruises are identical to their summertime counterparts, with one notable exception: Excursions are designed to coincide with the historic Christmas Markets that pop up in outdoor squares in the smallest of towns and the largest of cities all over Europe.
This is Christmas as it rarely exists in North America. Throughout much of Germany, Austria, France, Hungary, and other European countries, wooden stalls are erected in the town’s historic squares. Some towns have but one market; we fondly remember visiting tiny Breisach, Germany, with its market that consisted of perhaps a dozen stalls and held plenty of warm, friendly holiday spirit.
Big cities, on the other hand, can have more than one. Vienna is one of the most amazing in this regard, with nearly a dozen different markets in any given year – most of which are clustered around the famous Ringstrasse (ring road) that encircles the city’s historic core.
Markets vary wildly in terms of souvenirs. Some are hand-made; others are mass-produced. One thing that doesn’t vary, though, are the amazing local specialties you can indulge in, like hot mulled wine known as Gluhwein. This is frequently offered as either red or white wine (though red is far more common), and locals will quite often take it mit schuss – or with a shot of something else. We did that once, on one memorably cold day in Vienna. Let’s just say adding a shot of brandy to our mulled wine really hit the throttle on our day.
Food plays a huge part in these markets, and is authentic, local and regional. Don’t expect to get the same kind of food in every market. In Hungary, spicy sausages and goulash soups are the order of the day, while Germany is all about the bratwurst and warm soups like kartoffelsuppe, or potato soup. Often, this is served in an edible bread bowl. In Slovakia, we indulged in the most amazing shaved potato wedges we’ve ever had; while in Strasbourg, French and German-influence combined in a bowl of spätzle topped with heavy cream from Alsace.
The Christmas Markets river cruises are also an ideal time for families to cruise together. In fact, we’ve seen more multigenerational families on our various Christmas Markets sailings over the years than at almost any other time of the year. It’s also popular with couples in their thirties, forties and fifties looking to escape the frantic rush of the month of December in North America.
These sailings are also addicting. Many of the guests we’ve talked to have admitted that these sailings have become a new holiday tradition for them. We can relate: We try to get onto the rivers of Europe as much as we can during the holiday season to experience these festive Christmas Markets.
So which lines are offering Christmas Markets sailings this year? Here’s a rundown of some of the major lines. Note that we’re only including actual Christmas Markets sailings and not Christmas or New Year’s cruises which, although fun, often do not have the added benefit of the markets, which typically all shut down by December 24.
AmaWaterways offers two primary Christmas Markets itineraries this year:
- Christmas Markets on the Danube: Budapest to Nuremberg
With departures between November 20 and December 18, 2016 aboard AmaSonata, AmaViola, AmaStella and AmaSerena. Ports of call include Regensburg, Passau, Melk, and Vienna. Itinerary also operates in the reverse order.
- Christmas Markets on the Rhine: Amsterdam to Basel
Departures between with calls on Cologne, Rudesheim, Speyer, Strasbourg, and Breisach. Also operates in the reverse order. Departures between November 20 and December 20 aboard AmaCerto and AmaPrima.
Avalon Waterways offers seven different Christmas Markets river cruises this year, ranging in length from five to 17 days. That’s the good news. Now for the bad news: All but two are completely sold out for 2016 (though Avalon will let you book right now for the 2017 Christmas Markets season).
The two itineraries with availability are the eight-day Christmas in the Heart of Germany itinerary (with suites open) that sails between Frankfurt and Nuremberg, with an overland extension to Prague. This sailing departs on December 6, 2016 aboard Avalon Artistry II.
The other 2016 itinerary with availability (as of right now) is the nine-day Christmastime on the Danube (Eastbound) voyage that operates as a cruisetour between Prague and Vienna. Category A, B, P staterooms are still available on this voyage, which departs aboard Avalon Impression on either November 27 or December 9, 2016.
Crystal River Cruises
Crystal’s newly refurbished Crystal Mozart will sail three Christmas Markets sailings this December; 10-day voyages operating roundtrip from Vienna, Austria. Departing on November 22, December 2, or December 12, 2016, these voyages cruise from Vienna to Melk, Linz, Passau, Vilshofen, Passau, and Bratislava, with a day of scenic cruising on the Danube and an overnight call in Vienna prior to disembarkation.
Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection
Uniworld is offering six different Christmas Markets itineraries this year, including:
- Classic Christmas Markets: Nuremberg to Frankfurt
- Danube Holiday Markets: Budapest to Passau
- European Holiday Markets: Nuremberg to Vienna
- Rhine Holiday Markets: Basel to Cologne
There are still spaces left on many of these voyages, and Uniworld’s 2017 Christmas Markets and Holiday cruises are also open for booking. Next year, Uniworld will also offer a Parisian Royal Holiday Christmas Markets cruise that will operate roundtrip from Paris aboard the forthcoming S.S. Joie de Vivre.
Viking River Cruises
Last but not least, Viking River Cruises easily offers the most Christmas Markets departure dates this year, thanks largely to its massive fleet of Viking Longships. In fact, the line offers an astonishing 19 different itineraries that operate during the Christmas Markets, clustered throughout France, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, and other countries. There are so many itineraries that it’s absolutely impossible to list them all here.
Instead, take a look at what a Christmas Markets sailing with Viking River Cruises looks like with our Voyage Report from onboard Viking Baldur in 2014. Click the links in the table below.
Viking Baldur - Danube Waltz Christmas Markets
|November 29, 2014||Budapest, Hungary||Flight from Bordeaux, France to Budapest, Hungary. Overnight in Budapest at the Kempinski Budapest|
|November 30||Budapest, Hungary||Embark Viking Baldur; free time to visit the Christmas Market. Traditional Hungarian dinner onboard.|
|December 1, 2014||Budapest, Hungary||City tour of Buda and Pest, including Castle District - a UNESCO World Heritage Site.|
|December 2||Bratislava, Slovakia||City tour through Slovakia's capital|
|December 3||Vienna, Austria||Ringstrasse tour or free time; optional excursion to the Christmas Market at Schonbrunn Palace; optional evening concert.|
|December 4||Durnstein & Melk, Austria||Free time or optional walking tour in Durnstein; tour of Melk Abbey.|
|December 5||Linz, Austria / Salzburg, Austria||Full day excursion to Salzburg, Austria; free time. Return to ship late at night.|
|December 6||Passau, Germany||Walking tour & free time|
|December 7, 2014||Passau, Germany||Disembark Viking Baldur; transfer to Munich, Germany for onward journey home.|