Following lengthy lockdowns in 2020, last year's Christmas market vendors were forced to shutter their stalls. This year, many are returning, allowing river cruise lines sailing the Rhine, Main and Danube to bring passengers the sweet scent of mulled wine, spiced gingerbread cakes, and roasted chestnuts.
Popular river cruise lines, including Viking, Tauck, Uniworld, AmaWaterways, Crystal River Cruises, Avalon Waterways, Gate 1 Travel, and Adventures by Disney, among others, are operating Christmas markets itineraries, with short sailings of just three nights up to lengthier 15-night cruises available.
There's still time to book a 2021 Christmas markets cruise, too, according to Avalon Waterways. "In a typical year, these cruises can sell out as early as six months prior to sailing. This year, there is limited space still available on select Christmas cruises with Avalon Waterways."
As confidence returns to the market, bookings for next year are selling quickly. An Avalon Waterways spokesperson said: "The 17 Christmas Cruises we have for 2022 are selling fast with more than 60% of our capacity already booked."
Luxury river cruise line Crystal, with ships on the Danube and Rhine, reported that "Christmas markets are selling very well with high occupancies and lots of enthusiasm amongst booked guests to travel and enjoy this festive season."
The good news is that many of Europe’s most popular Christmas markets -- Basel, Nuremberg, Vienna, Koblenz, Strasbourg, Cologne, and Salzburg, among others -- are planning to open. Some Christmas markets, including Rudesheim’s in Germany, will sadly remain closed, though there is a Christmas market taking place at Johannisberg Castle, a short distance from the city.
In Regensburg, the municipal Christmas market has been canceled for 2021, though the city’s old town will still be filled with twinkly lights, decorations, Christmas trees, and individual stalls selling German handicrafts and food.
For those that are running this year, they’ll typically open by the end of November and close by Christmas Eve. The main difference visitors will likely notice this year from previous years is that stalls will be more spaced out around the river cruise port to accommodate social distancing.
The city’s Christkindlesmarkt, considered one of the largest Christmas markets in Germany, will be spread out over several areas of the Old Town to create more space between vendors. Open from November 26 to December 24, the traditional red-and-white stalls will be scattered on and leading off the Main Market Square.
Closed last year due to COVID-19 regulations, the market last opened in 2019, attracting over two million visitors, according to data from Nuremberg’s Town Hall.
Try this: AmaWaterways' seven-night 'Iconic Christmas Markets' voyage between Budapest and Nuremberg with a post- or pre-cruise land package in Prague. Departures on November 28 and December 5, 12 and 19 on AmaVerde. This itinerary is also available on AmaViola and AmaCerto.
In historic Würzburg, which lies on the River Main, roughly 140 traders will be based on the upper and lower Market Square from November 26 to December 23.
Try this: Avalon Waterways’ five-night 'Festive Season in the Heart of Germany' from Frankfurt to Nuremberg, or reverse, departing December 9 with calls to Würzburg and Bamberg.
The month-long Mainz Christmas Market, a winter attraction in the city on the Rhine since 1788, will run from November 25 to December 23. Passengers can pick up trinkets, toys, woodcrafts, and chow down on festive foods. Expect some changes to previous programs, though. The city’s administration of Mainz says it is planning a Christmas market in a different form and adapted to the current situation. No further details have been provided just yet.
Try this: Gate 1 Travel’s eight-night ‘Christmas Markets Frankfurt to Amsterdam’ voyage on the Main and Rhine, calling at Mainz, Koblenz, Cologne, Dusseldorf and Amsterdam, departing December 3 on Monarch Empress.
This Swiss city’s Christmas market -- a must-visit on Rhine cruises -- takes place on Barfüsserplatz and Münsterplatz and is the largest in Switzerland. This year the market will go ahead from November 25 to December 23.
Try this: One of Crystal’s 40 festive river cruises operating this year, try the seven-night ‘Christmas Time on the Rhine’ from Amsterdam to Basel, on Crystal Debussy. Various departures are still available, including December 2 and 16. Passengers will get to glug on gluhwein at markets in Koblenz, Mannheim, and Strasbourg.
Four main Christmas markets and several smaller ones will operate in Vienna, a standout on the Danube, with authorities indicating they expect to license around 20 markets in total (12 are currently listed) -- subject to local COVID-19 regulations. Highlights include Schloss Schönbrunn Christmas market, from November 20 to December 26, taking place at the city's sprawling Schönbrunn Palace; Christmas Village at Belvedere Palace, from November 19 to December 26, and the gorgeous Vienna Christmas World at Rathausplatz, from November 13 to December 26, which sees the trees in City Hall Square illuminated during advent.
The markets are expected to adhere to Vienna’s public health regulations, which may mean visitors will be required to display one of three things: proof of double vaccination status, timely proof of a negative test, or proof of having recently recovered from the disease. Passengers should check with their river cruise line and local health authorities to see the most up-to-date regulations.
Try this: Take in the seven-night ‘Christmas markets of Germany, Austria and Hungary,’ on the family-fun Adventures by Disney’s Danube River cruise, departing December 20. Departing from Vilshofen, Passau, Linz, Melk, and overnights in Vienna and Budapest.
There are two main Christmas markets in Salzburg this year. Listen to carols and admire the Nativity display at the famed Christkindlmarkt on Salzburg’s Cathedral and Residenz Square, from November 18, 2021, to January 1, 2022. Mirabell Palace Christmas market will operate from November 18 to December 24.
Try this: Vantage Travel’s eight-night 'Christmas Markets Along the Danube' on River Splendor. This journey departs Regensburg on November 22 and calls at Passau, Linz, Vienna, Bratislava and Budapest.
With a history that dates back to 1570, Strasbourg’s Christmas market is the oldest in France and a highlight of a Christmas market cruise on the Rhine. Centered on the 30-meter Christmas tree in Place Kléber, up to 300 chalets will offer crafts, foods and drinks for one month from November 26.
Try this: Emerald Cruises’ seven-night 'Christmas Markets on the Rhine' itinerary from Amsterdam to Basel. This cruise takes in several Christmas markets, with calls to Cologne, Koblenz, Mannheim/Heidelberg, Kehl (for Strasbourg) and Breisach.
One of the most charismatic cities in the world, a visit to Budapest -- Buda lying on the west of the Danube and Pest on the east -- is made all the more spectacular during the festive season.
The Advent Basilica opens on November 29 until January 2, when the city’s streets are dressed with Christmas lights and over 100 stalls are set out around St Paul’s Basilica, which is lit up in eye-popping lights by the river. There’s a free ice-skating rink, carol singing and a festive laser show.
Try this: Tauck's seven-night 'Holiday Magic: Danube Family River Cruise,' departing from Regensburg taking in Salzburg, Wachau Valley, Vienna, Bratislava and Budapest, departing December 20 on ms Joy.
Passengers arriving in vibrant Cologne will be spoiled for choice this year with several markets taking place around the city from the end of November. The nearby Heinzels Wintermärchen is the go-to-market for ice skaters, with a rink stretching Alter Markt and Heumarkt. Heinzels Wintermärchen is the city's largest, with 140 artisan stalls. Visitors can also admire the hulking-green fir tree at the Christmas Market at the Cathedral, featuring a Christmas stage, plus all of your typical festive stalls.
By the Chocolate Museum on the banks of the Rhine is the Hafen-Weihnachtsmarkt, which takes a seafaring-festive theme. Look out for fish delicacies and the cutesy decorated pagoda tents. On the city's main shopping street, Neumarkt, the Market of Angels stands below 800 illuminated wooden stars that adorn the trees. Santa Claus Village will also return to Cologne this festive season, next to the city's 13th-century Hahnen Gate.
Try this: Uniworld’s seven-night 'Rhine Holiday Markets' cruise from Basel to Cologne, and vice versa. Departing November 28, December 5, 12 and 19 on S.S. Antoinette and calling in Strasbourg, Heidelberg, Mannheim, Mainz, Rudesheim and Koblenz.
Dresden’s long-running Striezelmarkt started out in 1434 and marks its 586th year in the city from November 22 to December 24. Located close to the Elbe in the old town, visitors will find the city’s famous stollen cake, wood-carved artwork, ceramics, and glass Christmas tree ornaments at the market. Several other markets are scattered around the city, including the Winterlights of Dresden on Prager Street and Stallhof Advent Festival at Dresden Royal Palace.
Try this: Viking’s nine-night 'Christmas Along the Elbe,' starting with a pre-cruise stay in Berlin and ending with a post-cruise stay in Prague (both cities also hosting fabulous Christmas markets this year). This sailing departs Wittenberg on November 25 and December 15 on Viking Astrild and December 20 on Viking Beyla, with calls to Meissen, Dresden and Saxon Switzerland.
Updated October 25, 2021