Lights, cameras, lebkuchen! There’s perhaps no better way to get in the Christmas spirit than visiting the home of many holiday traditions: Germany and its surrounding countries, which celebrate the season jovially with markets proffering local handicrafts, holiday sweets and plenty, plenty of gluhwein — mulled wine in a keepsake mug.
Christmas market cruises, offered by a number of river cruise lines, are the warm little center of this holiday experience. The ships slowly sail from port to port, and market to market, allowing passengers to get a feel for each city’s twist on tradition.
I’m currently onboard Viking Skadi, visiting markets along the Danube in Passau, Linz/Salzburg, Melk/Durnstein, Vienna, Bratislava and Budapest. It’s my second time on a Christmas market cruise — I previously traveled onboard Viking Danube in 2010 with my German-born grandmother — and have also traveled throughout Germany and Austria a total of four times (all during December!) Here are five things I think you should know about the Christmas markets before you go:
1. If you see something, buy something. Don’t hold out until the very last day to buy your gifts and keepsakes. While many elements of the markets are the same — rows of stands with small gifts such as ornaments, statuettes, hats and tablecloths — each market has its own local specialties. For example, Passau is known for its gingerbread, Nuremburg is better known for similar Christmas cookies called lebkuchen and Salzburg is the original home of award-winning chocolates called Mozartkugel (from Mozart’s birthplace).
The moment you fall in love is when you should buy. Otherwise, you will end up kicking yourself back on the ship, empty handed and dreaming of that one little angel that looked just so.
2. Save some spending money for later ports. While it’s fun to splurge on some must-haves (it is a season of generosity and good cheer, after all), don’t run through your Christmas market fund halfway through your cruise. You want souvenirs that give a well-rounded representation of everywhere you visited, and not just one stand. Budapest, Passau and Nuremburg are typical end points on Christmas cruises, and all boast truly spectacular market experiences and wares. Trust me, you always find just what you were looking for on the last day!
3. Hours are limited. If you’re trying to get a jump on the day and think these markets host door-buster sales, you’re in the wrong time zone. Markets don’t really wind up until late morning to early afternoon, and shops promptly close around 8:30 at night. That means if you are on a day tour, you better get your shopping in during the allotted time or make a point to shop on your own during the afternoon and early evening. While markets are beautiful at night, the only stands that will be open will be for food – a brat is a must – and a mug of something hot and alcoholic.
4. Prices vary by market. Sought-after destinations and well-known markets tend to charge more: The same festive table runner we bought in Passau for eight euros was almost double in Salzburg. For larger purchases, consult your cruise concierge or program director for the best information on when and where to buy what. Nightly pre-port talks can usually prepare you for what to expect in the next day’s market. Keep in mind that bartering is not common in this part of Europe. My general advice is use your gut: If you think it’s a fair price compared with what you could get at home, then give it a whirl.
5.Indulge in the street food. Call it a Christmas miracle, but regardless of how many treats you consume, you never seem to ruin your appetite. The meter-long sausages, pretzels, pastries and spiked punch you will find in every market are delicious and totally worth the calories. Each port has a regional delicacy and while most cruise lines make an effort to include them on your dining menu, you should still try and taste every aromatic morsel that drifts your way in the town square. After all, five-star-quality cuisine is a treat, but street food gets at the heart and soul of a city’s stomach.
Hint: Included in the price of a mug of gluhwein is the mug! If you return it, you can get your one or two euro back, but the cups are great mementoes from each market you’ll visit.