Mention Christmas market cruises in almost any group and you'll find that many people have these special European river sailings on their bucket lists. For most, it may simply seem like a charming way to kick off their own holiday season, but some aren't sure about the logistics. After spending time in the markets and onboard a market cruise, here are the reasons we found to help you decide if your own holiday cruise plans need some sprucing up.
--By Melinda Crow, Cruise Critic contributor
Doing your Christmas shopping in the European markets visited on a river cruise almost guarantees that the gifts you put under the tree when you return home will be unique. Think wooden toys, hand-blown glass, scarves, hats and leather goods. There are specialty teas, honey, wine and liqueurs. A vast array of ornaments awaits you, made of wood, paper, lace and glass.
The real secret to market shopping is pacing yourself. On an average seven- or eight-day cruise, you may visit as many as 10 different Christmas markets, and although there is some duplication of the goods from market to market, you will find items that are special to that city or town at each one.
Some market stalls will have English-speaking attendants, others will not, but prices in euros are usually clearly marked. Cash is the easiest way to shop in the markets themselves, but some stalls may also accept credit cards, particularly for larger items.
There's no shortage of festive decor onboard the ships themselves, but the real treats are the markets and their settings. From the red-and-white canopies of the market in Nuremberg, set in the medieval city center, to stalls in Regensburg's Thurn and Taxis market topped with pine branches in front of a towering palace, each market has a unique decorating style.
The aromas of the season drift through the markets in the form of fire pits and barrels burning for warmth, gingerbread baking and chestnuts roasting.
Most cruises afford you the opportunity to visit at least a few markets after dark to enjoy the lights that decorate stalls and the squares and parks where the markets take place. Cities and towns in Europe also adorn public buildings and plazas with wreaths, bows and lights.
There's certainly no guarantee that there will be snow during your cruise but if the white fluff falls, the best news is that you can sit back and enjoy it without all the work that comes with it.
Weather in Germany, where the bulk of the Christmas market cruises take place, is relatively mild during December. Daily highs average in the mid-30s. Precipitation, averaging only 2 or 3 inches along both the Danube and the Rhine, is as likely to be in the form of rain as it is snow. Make sure you plan your outerwear accordingly.
Hot spiced wine is a staple of Christmas markets throughout Europe, known by the German name of gluhwein or the Swedish glogg. Even serious oenophiles find joy in wandering through street vendors sipping steaming cheap wine from kitschy souvenir mugs. Each vendor uses their own recipe, but expect some version of red wine, lightly spiced with cinnamon, cloves and oranges heated to around 170 degrees.
Most sellers also offer wine with a little more kick to it in the form of add-ins like brandy, amaretto, Grand Marnier or vodka. And, of course, there is a nonalcoholic version known as punch or kinderpunsch.
In most markets, you pay for the wine and a deposit on the mug, which is then refunded upon return if you don't care to have the souvenir. Refills are then available for purchase at subsequent stalls as you wind your way through the market.
Sweets range from simple chocolate-dipped dried fruit on skewers to elaborate pastries. Waffles topped with fruit or Nutella are favorite eat-on-site market foods. In Germany, fried apples, doughnuts and, of course, strudel are abundant. Here's a quick dictionary of sweets by their common market names:
- Schmalzkuchen: vanilla- or lemon-flavored balls of fried dough, rolled in sugar
- Lebkuchen: gingerbread cookies, often heart-shaped and coated in chocolate or sugar icing
- Maroni: sweet, roasted chestnuts
- Heibe Schokolade: Hot chocolate, for those not interested in mulled wine
- Pfannkuchen: crepes, often filled with cream, Nutella or fruit
Sausages top the list of savory treats at the markets. Fat or thin, fried or flame-grilled, sausages are normally served in fresh, crusty rolls, topped with optional sauerkraut and mustard. Recipes vary from region to region, so trying one at each stop of your cruise is perfectly acceptable.
Also look for potato pancakes called kartoffelpfannkuchen and potato dumplings, kartoffelknodel.
Aficionados of European culture can delight in the traditions and celebrations of the holiday season. Church and family play huge roles in those celebrations, as does food. Christmas market cruises are an ideal way to immerse yourself in the cultures you visit, even beyond the markets. A ship's tours include plenty of stops at cathedrals and abbeys. Onboard entertainment usually includes local singers and musicians brought on in ports of call, most of them performing Christmas music.
European crew members are also eager to share their own holiday traditions with guests, including games, music and visits from Saint Nicholas. And, tour guides in every city impart the details of how their city and its inhabitants celebrate.
River cruises are never short on scenery along the banks of the rivers they sail, but there is something seasonally romantic about the winter landscapes, often dusted by snow, as you sip coffee or hot chocolate in a festive lounge full of fellow cruisers. With fewer outdoor activities available to passengers on these winter cruises, the itineraries often include a bit more daytime cruising between ports.
One word of caution: Days in December are short, with sunrise near 8 a.m. and sunsets around 4 p.m. Add in the potential for gray skies running days on end, and sunseekers might be disappointed. Though ships make an effort to open their top decks when conditions allow, these open-air areas that are so popular during the summer cruise season are often off limits or frigid at best.
While the Christmas market cruise season is fairly busy, it is a far quieter season than summer. That means smaller crowds almost everywhere you go other than the markets. Sightseeing is easier, and lines are shorter at museums, theaters, galleries and other non-shopping areas.
Cruise prices during the market season are often as much as 30 percent lower than in midsummer and may come with lower airfare and hotel add-ons. Look for Christmas market cruise deals on lines like Viking, AmaWaterways, Avalon, Emerald Waterways, Uniworld, Scenic and Tauck, among others.