For us at Travel with Grace and Style a River Cruise Advisor, Christmas remains our favorite time of the year for traveling in Europe. Offering an equal mix of Old World charm and holiday cheer, eight days of holiday markets on the Rhine river, traveling throughout France and Germany, will keep the spirits merry. Covering the Netherlands, Germany, France, and Switzerland, the itinerary offers fairytale castles and historic vineyards alongside Christmas markets.
Christmas river cruising was once offered along just a few European rivers; today, almost all the leading river cruising lines offer trips spanning the Danube, Main, Rhine, and beyond. Over the last 20 years, the oldest European holiday markets have expanded greatly throughout Europe, and have in recent years become increasingly popular with river cruise lines, who generally offer festive cruises on the Danube, Main, and Rhine rivers. While the oldest Christmas markets in Europe might look like regular sailings on the Danube and Rhine, guests say that it has a completely different feel, considering they combine traditional day tours with visits to the Christmas markets at night, in late afternoon.
Usually held outside, the Christmas markets can offer incredible varieties of crafts and native products, and -- maybe best of all -- tasty, locally-made Christmas specialties. Of course, being able to experience some of the biggest cities in Europe in their snowy glory is yet another reason to embark on a river cruise around Christmas markets, though there is certainly no guarantee you will get any snow. Taking a river cruise during the holidays means that you will experience time-honored traditions, such as European Christmas markets
River cruises that sail along the Danube, Rhine, and Elbe rivers around the holidays bring you directly to several of the most iconic Christmas markets in the world. Holiday Market River Cruises usually start sailing at the end of November, with trips running through Thanksgiving, and through Christmas and New Years. Christmas and New Years Eve cruises are still very popular, often selling out far in advance.
One of the best ways to see multiple festive markets on one trip is on a cruise. If you want to get the full holiday market experience at every port of call, be sure that your sailing falls within a four-Sunday period leading up to Christmas (or within one week of it). While festive river cruises are offered up to Jan. 1, European ones usually open on Nov. 25 and remain open until Dec. 23 or 24. As a result, as well as the limited schedule time for holiday cruises, river cruises are filled quickly.
Now Winter Cruises are becoming very popular because river cruisers want to experience many European Christmas markets, most of which are located close to one of Europe's main rivers or tributaries. Most major luxury river cruise companies, Viking, AmaWaterways, Emerald Waterways, and Uniworld, bring curious visitors to the heart of many European Christmas markets, in order to experience the excitement of the arrival of Christmas with an experience in a European Christmas Market. U.S.-based river cruise company American Queen Steamboat Company has worked with port cities of Nottoway, Louisiana, and Greenville, Mississippi, in developing holiday markets throughout the Southern United States, where passengers can enjoy traditional levee-side musical performances and traditional Cajun/Creole holiday traditions.
You can skate at the Christmas World market in the city hall, watch the folks over glasses of mulligan gluhwein at the foot of St. Stephens Cathedral, or peruse beautiful, handmade items in a booth outside the Belvedere Palace. Save some space for fantastic excursions, including a guided tour of the Melk baroque abbey, the opportunity to explore the Thurn und Taxis palace and its private Christmas market in Regensburg, and a festive dinner and performance by the children's choir in Vienna's Pallavicini Palais. While on the Rhine, holiday experiences aboard the ship include sipping gluhwein (German mull wine), tree-trimming parties, and a lesson in the Strasbourg tradition of storytelling.
Held annually from late November to Dec. 31, Strasbourg's markets provide classic Christmas charm, featuring skating, carol singing and a shimmering, 100-foot-tall Christmas tree. The large Christmas tree is located at Place Kleber Market, which is widely considered the symbol of Strasbourg during the Christmas season. The eye is delighted by dazzling decorations and lights, and by the sounds of the carolers singing and church bells filling the air.
Start getting into the Christmas spirit as you join crew members and your fellow passengers to decorate a riverboat Christmas tree. If you are sailing on the Elbe in early December, you may want to time your trip so that you are there on St. Nicholas Day, which is celebrated almost two weeks before Christmas, on Dec. 5, when the man himself walks through town, accompanied by angels and a devil. If you are sailing on Christmas Eve, expect to find some holiday cookies in your stateroom.
For cultural nerds, there is no better time to really embrace the local's culture than during the holidays. Immerse yourself in Europe's winter wonderland. Whether it is the Danube, Rhine, or the Canals of History, or a land-based exclusive experience, you are going to have the time of your life with the best river cruise Christmas tour for you -- holiday-lovers, family-friendly holidaymakers, or experienced travelers will all enjoy a river cruise for a European Christmas experience.
Everyone should experience a European Christmas River Cruise once. Has it been on your bucket list? Reach out and we would love to help you plan your own European Christmas Experience River Cruising. So you too can sip Gluhwine gliding past castles as you soak up the holiday season on your own luxury river cruise.
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Dating back to 1400s Germany, Christmas markets are a popular festive tradition that brings holiday cheer and some of the worlds most unique shopping experiences to those who visit the markets in this jolly season. There are many famous Christmas markets, which open on Mondays prior to the First Advent (the Advent Season is the 4 Sundays leading up to Christmas).
My own initial Christmas Markets River Cruise Plan was a seven-night journey along the Rhine from Amsterdam, Netherlands, to Basel, Switzerland, traveling with AmaWaterways.
Onboard an Amawaterways Rhine River Cruise you will experience river cruising in luxury in one Amawaterways beautiful riverboats. Make sure to secure the French Balcony cabin if you want to wake up to the river going by each day. Your Experience on a European River cruise will take you through various towns and cities along the way. Your European River Cruise experience will include cities such as Koblenz, Rudesheim, Mainz, and Strasbourg, for a look at the many famous Christmas markets you will stop at as you visit these iconic Christmas destinations.
Upon arrival, you are free to go out and enjoy some of the charming Christmas lights and decorations and explore some of the Christmas markets that are set up around Cologne. Expect wood toys, arts and crafts, colorful Christmas decorations, and cheerful Christmas music while exploring the markets.
There are handmade toys, gorgeous Christmas decorations, and seasonal gifts. Tiny Christmas villages are scattered throughout the town, with traders retreating into small booths, offering hand-made toys, decorations, and dishes commemorating the season
The Cologne Christmas market is made up of six markets in one and the best part the four largest are located right next to the UNESCO World Heritage Cologne Cathedral. If you get a chance try and book a tour that will take you to the top of the Cathedral. You will be able to see the city with an amazing vantage point.
Christmas comes to life in German cities like Cologne almost in a magical way. Whether seeking out Christmas spirit in Germany, or beneath the stars in Switzerland, revelry is unavoidable. While no snow is guaranteed, however, you can expect to experience a setting right out of a Christmas card, complete with traditional hand-made decorations that are wonderfully lit up at night
After your Cologne stop your next journey will be a scenic cruise along the breathtaking Rhine George.
This part of your Rhine River cruise will have you sailing along the Rhine river at its most popular and photographed section, the Rhine Gorge. It is truly stunning as you glide past castles and listen to the stories and history of the castles and fortresses. This is know as Castle Day!
Your afternoon stop is the wine town of Rudesheirm and delightful village known and famous for it’s Riesling, taverns and Siegfried’s Musical Cabinet museum.
The next stop on your journey is Heidelberg or Speyer and we have done both. I don’t know which I enjoy more. On our last trip though we decide don Speyer as it is one of Germany’s oldest cities founded by the Romans. It is home to the UNESCO World Heritage Site Jewish courtyard dating back to 1104 and you can still experience one of the earliest documented Mikvah’s in Europe. You can actually walk down into the subterranean bath house whose components have been nearly unmodified for centuries.
Next stop one of my favorites Strasbourg. The entire town center has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Filled with rich history, incredible cuisine and it’s unique Alsatian atmosphere The cities main site the Cathedral Notre Dame de Strasbourg where you will find its famous astronomical clock. The
The Christmas Market in Strasbourg “Christkindelmarik whose origin dates back to 1570 and is one of the oldest France.
Then on to Riquewihr France or Freiburg Germany. For this we chose Riquewihr and I could not have been happier. It is listed as officially one of the beautiful villages in France and just northwest of Colmar and it is in the heart of the Alsace. It is like stepping back in time to a world that no longer exist. Thankfully it mostly escaped WW11. It is delightful just to stroll through the town.
Our Christmas Market River Cruise final stop is Basel Switzerland. It is here we are scheduled to depart home. We had some time to explore the city of Basel, and took advantage to fill in Barfusserplatz and Munsterplatz Christmas markets, known to be Switzerland’s largest. Just one last little bit of European Christmas Markets before we caught our train to Zurich.
We really enjoyed this itinerary, and I can’t wait to experience it again. Maybe next year.
If this itinerary interest you we could even make a cruise a part of an extended vacation.... Touring some parts of Germany before you start the cruise in Amsterdam... Go skiing in Switzerland when your cruise is done. If you can budget time and money, book back-to-back River Cruises.
We opted for a pre-cruise stay in Paris on one of our European River Cruises on the Rhine. We then simply took the train to Amsterdam to catch our River Cruise.
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7 Incredible countries you’ll explore on the Danube River
In Central and Eastern Europe, you’ll find some of the most spectacular landscapes, architecture—castles, churches and war memorials—as well as some of the most colorful, inviting cultures in the world. But what’s the best way to see it all? An AmaWaterways cruise down the Danube River, of course. With a River Cruise your hotel travels with you and you just enjoy the scenery along the way.
The journey begins with a guided tour through the beautiful medieval city of Nuremberg where you’ll see the Imperial Castle, the famous town wall and the legendary fountain of the Market Square. For history buffs, there’s a guided tour of the city’s most significant WWII sites, including the Documentation Center Nazi Party Rally Grounds, and the Nuremberg Trials Memoriam and Courtroom 600 (if the courtroom is not in session).
Next, you can savor traditional Franconian specialties including Nuremburger bratwurst, rotbier (red beer) and lebkuchen (gingerbread). While en route to the next destination, Regensburg, you’ll cruise through the man-made Main-Danube Canal.
At Regensburg, you’ll be treated to a guided walking tour through one of Germany’s best-preserved medieval cities. In Regensburg, you’ll see all the city’s architectural highlights, including the Old Town Hall and the Porta Praetoria. And if all that walking makes you hungry, there’s the old Bavarian specialties to satisfy you—beer, sausage, and pretzels.
Next, take a bike tour to Walhalla where you will see the neoclassical white marble temple inspired by the Parthenon in Athens. (B,L,D)
The journey continues as you cruise to lower Bavaria’s city of Passau, where you’ll enjoy a walking tour along cobblestone streets and see Gothic and Italian Baroque architecture as well as St. Stephen’s Cathedral. If you’re looking to work in a little exercise, choose between a guided bike tour along the Danube, or a guided hike up to the Veste Oberhaus Fortress.
Continuing down the Danube, you’ll next stop at the scenic town of Melk, which is celebrated for its magnificent Benedictine Abbey. The abbey contains the tomb of Saint Coloman of Stockerau and the remains of several members of the House of Babenberg, Austria's first ruling dynasty. If you’d like something more active to do, you can join a guided bike tour that takes you through the UNESCO-designated Wachau Valley; or go on a walking tour along Dürnstein’s cobblestone streets to the famed Baroque church tower, Stiftskirche. Later in the day, set sail through the vineyard rich Wachau Valley. (B,L,D)
No trip to Austria would be complete without a stop in Vienna, “The City of Waltzes.” Vienna is a treasure trove and your tour showcases its regal splendors, including the majestic Opera House and the former Imperial Palace of the Habsburgs. Conclude your tour in the designated historic city center and visit St. Stephen’s Cathedral. For a more active exploration, take a guided bike ride to Klosterneuburg Monastery.
The city of Budapest is known as the Queen of the Danube, and your tour begins with a visit to the Great Market Hall. The remainder of this tour takes you to both the Buda (hilly) and the Pest (flat) sides of the river. Alternatively, hike up to Castle Hill for breathtaking views of the city. Cap the day off with an illumination cruise. (B,L,D)
Continue your trek through Hungary with a pitstop in Puszta. Known as the Great Hungarian Plain, tour a genuine Hungarian csárda (farm) run by world-champion carriage-drivers. Afterward, be treated to an unforgettable performance of horsemanship and then experience the Hungarians’ warm hospitality, along with a traditional lunch complete with authentic goulash. (B,L,D)
From Puszta, set sail to Mohács where you’ll enjoy a scenic morning cruise past a town sprinkled with magnificent churches, including the 18th-century Baroque Protestant church, the Roman Catholic church (1776), the Serbian Greek Orthodox church, the votive church (1926), and the Avas church with its bell tower. Next, you’ll cruise to Pécs, a city founded more than 2,000 years ago by the Romans. In Pécs, you’ll find a city filled with historic architecture including the Christian Necropolis; St. Peter’s Basilica, the city’s main Catholic cathedral along with its catacombs; and Széchenyi Square, the heart of Old Town Pécs. For wine connoisseurs, there’s the Szekszárd wine region, one of the oldest red-wine-growing areas in Hungary, established more than 2,000 years ago.
The beautiful Baroque Croatian city of Vukovar is situated at the banks of the Vuka and Danube Rivers in the region of Srijem/Syrmia. Known as the “hero town” for the valor of brave Croatian civilians and volunteers during the 1991 war with Serbia, your city tour will include important war landmarks such as Ovčara Memorial and Eltz Castle. Or, you can opt to go wine tasting in Ilok, a center of wine production since Roman times, where you’ll sample its famous Grasevina, Traminac and Frankovka wines. Back on board, cruise to Novi Sad, sometimes called the “Serbian Athens.” Discover Novi Sad on a walking tour to Dunavski Park and through Stari Grad, the Old Town center. If you prefer a more active exploration, join a guided biking or hiking tour. During the evening, visit Petrovaradin Fortress. (B,L,D)
Explore Serbia’s capital, Belgrade, on a city tour that includes the Kalemegdan Fortress and the Serbian Orthodox Temple of St. Sava. Later, choose from three intriguing excursions. Visit the Royal Palace, the official residence of the Serbian Royal Family; and then tour the House of Flowers, the mausoleum of Marshal Tito, who became the first President of Yugoslavia. Or enjoy a taste of the region by sampling Serbian plum brandy, Šlivovitz, and delicious local delights at the Quburich Distillery. For those wishing a more active adventure, join a guided bike tour. (B,L,D)
Enjoy a full day of scenic cruising as you pass through the Iron Gates, one of Europe’s most awe-inspiring natural wonders. At the Iron Gates, the Danube narrows as it winds through a series of magnificent gorges between the Carpathian and Balkan Mountains.
Explore Vidin, one of Bulgaria’s oldest cities, and surrounding areas with a choice of excursions. Discover Baba Vida Fortress, the largest preserved medieval castle in Bulgaria. Continue on to Belogradchik, one of Bulgaria’s natural wonders, where you can hike around its most spectacular rock formations. Alternatively, visit a local home for a demonstration of traditional Bulgarian yogurt and Banitsa, a pastry you will also get to make. You also have the choice to bike through Vidin and to the castle. (B,L,D)
Visit Bulgaria’s ancient capital, Veliko Tarnovo, with its medieval fortress and multiple orthodox temples. You can opt instead to go to Rousse, known for its 19th- and 20th-century Neo-Baroque and Neo-Rococo architecture, and then afterward visit the Rock-Hewn Churches of Ivanovo with frescos revealing exceptional artistry of 14th-century paintings. (B,L,D)
Discover river cruising for Christmas. The air is crisp and the scents of spice and roasted chestnuts are in the air as you walk through the village inspired Christmas scenes. As you glance around you notice Christmas lights fill the streets with a soft warm glow where bobbles, bows, candy and special treasures await. It’s an old world style atmosphere, markets are often at the center of town squares beneath the spires of the local parish church steeples. This is European River Cruising, This is Christmas in Europe.
Laughter and music fills the air as shoppers pass by snuggled in their winter coats. There is just something about Europe’s Christmas Markets that I don’t feel we have quite captured in the United States. Perhaps it’s the community aspect, the gathering together sipping mulled wine as you let go the stress of the day. Perhaps it’s people coming together and catching up as they experience the warmth of Gluhwein and nibble on delectable pastries. Europe’s Christmas Markets are simply Magical.
It’s the start of Holiday Season as during the first weekend of Advent Christmas Markets begin to pop up throughout Europe. This annual tradition has been bringing happiness to locals and visitors alike for centuries. It’s almost like you have been transported back in time to a place of happy memories and the warmth of the season. Christmas carols surround you as you experience your first glance of the sparkle of snowflakes as they gently fall around the merchants selling their wares. Many of these markets can take over blocks and blocks and are filled with everything Christmas.
Your taste buds will be filled with sweet, spice, and nutty flavors. The food of the Christmas markets change with the village or city and sausage rules and changes according to region. Gluhwein which is a mulled style of spice wine also changes with region, hot coco, and even non alcoholic versions are available for those who don’t imbibe. Every market also provides a mug for your journey. You can choose to turn it in after your visit for a deposit refund or take it with you as a souvenir. These make great little keepsakes and or gifts.
The Markets are filled with everything from food to trinkets. Many favorites are the classic wooden Christmas ornaments. Lace and varieties of Christmas ornaments are also available and many of the items in the markets are hand crafted from local artisans.
Bundle up though as winter is starting to set in and you will appreciate the warmth of the heat lamps that surround some of the merchants. If you forget something don’t worry you will find many selections of hats, mittens, scarves, and socks. I recommend a couple of cups of the local Gluhwein to spice up and warm up the day or evening. It will slowly melt away any breath of cold that sweeps the area.
If you are a lover of all things Christmas I can’t recommend these enough. Once you go every year you will have a longing to re experience the magic again and again. Christmas in Europe is a memory maker. Experiences are to me more precious then things so go out and experience and build your memories. Better yet make it a River Cruise where you can see and experience these treasures as you glide along one of Europe’s historic waterways.
If you would like help and more information please reach out as we would love to help you book your own Christmas River Cruise. Just hit the link below.
Teresa is the owner and lead agent at Travel with Grace and Style and has been in the travel industry for over 25 years. She currently loves traveling throughout the world discovering new and old places with her husband Paul.