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7 Things to Do on a Christmas Markets Cruise (Besides Shopping)

Executive Editor, U.S.
Chris Gray Faust
Marissa Wright

Last updated
Feb 5, 2024

Read time
6 min read

If the idea of endless hours of shopping and browsing is causing your travel companion(s) to balk at booking that European Christmas markets cruise, never fear. We're here to tell you that cruising Europe during the holidays is a charming proposition, whether you hit up the markets or not. Consider the list below your counterargument for any would-be Scrooges.

While shopping is one of the most popular activities on Christmas markets cruises, there are plenty of on-shore activities that you’ll be delighted by. Here are seven things you can do on a Christmas markets cruise that won't involve carting home a single souvenir.

1. Eat Your Way Through Europe’s Christmas Markets

The cities and towns in Europe pull out all the culinary stops during the holidays, with regional delicacies available in stalls throughout the markets. If you’re not interested in shopping, then your next best option is to save room for the top sweet and savory treats that Europe has to offer.

Is your cruise heading to Germany? In Germany’s Christmas markets, sausages are king. Heading to Vienna? In Austrian Christmas markets, the cake game is strong; try apple strudel or Sachertorte -- or both.

Is your river cruise stopping at Budapest Christmas markets? The fan-favorite street food is langos, which is fried dough smothered with cheese and sour cream (the essential Hungarian condiment).

Strasbourg, a French city with heaps of charm, has flammkuchen -- a very thin-crust pizza with cheese, onions and lardons (pork fat). If street food isn't your thing, there are plenty of cafes, restaurants and beer halls where you can tuck into a big plate of Wiener schnitzel or potato dumplings.

2. Christmas Drinks in Germany (And the Rest of Europe) That You’ll Adore

Where there's food, there's drink -- and in Europe during the holidays, a lot of it is alcoholic. Gluhwein (hot mulled wine) is the traditional staple of Germany’s Christmas markets, and many times it has a local spin. (We're still thinking about a delicious apricot mulled wine we sampled in Durnstein, Austria.)

Securing a mug of Gluhwein is simple. Find the nearest sign that says “Gluhwein,” or follow the scent of clove, cinnamon and citrus wafting through the market. Purchasing wine includes a deposit for Gluhwein mugs. After finishing the wine in your Gluhwein mug, you have two options: keep the mug as a souvenir or return it and get your deposit back.

Christmas drinks in Germany often include popular options like Gluhwein, Gluhbier (mulled beer), Eierpunsch (egg punch) and Heiße Schokolade (hot chocolate).

In Bratislava Christmas markets, there are endless rows of schnapps stands, and in Hungary, the locals love an extremely strong fruit brandy called palinka. Beer lovers will also be in heaven during the holidays, as many breweries put out special winter suds. Don't drink? No problem. Other Christmas drinks in Germany and other river cruise ports will warm you up.

3. Explore European Christmas Markets and More: Hike, Bike and Walk

Cycling along the Danube near Durnstein (Credit: Martin  Steinthaler/Austria Tourist Board)
Cycling along the Danube near Durnstein (Credit: Martin Steinthaler/Austria Tourist Board)

Yes, it's cold outside, but for the hardy, the outdoor activities put on by river cruise lines are still going during the winter months. If you bring the right winter gear (warm coat, hat, gloves and scarf), there's no reason why you can't hike up to Passau's castle, Veste Oberhaus, or take a bike ride along the Rhine.

We saw one person on a Danube river cruise opt for the 22-mile bike ride between Durnstein and Melk -- in rainy weather.

Even if you don't want to be that ambitious, you'll get your steps in during walking tours in Budapest, Cologne or Vienna. Venturing outside the Christmas markets is a great way to soak in the history and culture of a village or city while avoiding the hustle and bustle of the markets.

4. Spend Time Touring a Museum While in Europe

Europe's cities and even some of the small towns are chockablock with museums, from famous art and Freud to mechanical musical instruments. Some are easy to duck into during your free time, while others are offered as excursion choices (with admission either included or not, depending on the cruise line).

Hitting up a museum is a great way to learn about the local culture while also staying warm. Pop into the famous Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna to discover historical pieces from Austria and Europe.

Take a break from the busy Germany Christmas market by visiting a unique museum. River cruises that stop in Cologne are a few minutes from the Lindt Chocolate Museum, where you can learn about the cultural history of cocoa and end your visit with a sweet treat in the cafe.

5. Take in a Cultural Performance While Sailing on Christmas Markets River Cruises

Classical music in Europe is great any time of the year, particularly when you hear a piece performed in the place where the composer was born or lived. (Think Strauss' "Blue Danube" in Vienna or Mozart in Salzburg.)

Most river cruise lines give passengers an opportunity to hear a performance, either included in the fare or as an extra-fee excursion. These are often held in palaces or churches that have been decorated for the holidays, which only adds to the experience. Some European cities host free music events in churches as well.

6. Enjoy the Winter Scenery on Christmas Markets River Cruises

All Rhine and Danube river cruises include time sailing through scenic areas, such as the Rhine Gorge and Wachau Valley. While you might be a little chilly taking photos, these castle- and church-bedecked banks are even prettier with a dusting of snow.

Likewise, monuments in major cities along both rivers look quite pretty when they’re lit up with fairy lights. Chatting with staff onboard may help you time photo-taking sessions so you don’t have to stand out in the cold for long. Don’t forget to pack clothes for inclement weather.

7. Socialize With Fellow Christmas Markets Cruisers

Part of the holiday season's appeal is socializing with old and new friends. The intimate nature of river cruises makes it easy to strike up a conversation in the lounge with fellow travelers.

If you're on a line that caters to an international passenger base, you might find yourself making new friends with people from the U.K., Canada, Australia and fellow passengers from America. And some river cruise lines feature home visits, where you go into a local's home to find out what life in their country is all about.

On a recent Danube Christmas cruise, we had drinks, coffee and cake with a winemaker from Slovakia -- and bought some ceramic ornaments hand-fired by his mother-in-law.

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