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Christmas Markets Cruise: Day-by Day on the Danube River Onboard AmaWaterways

Tim Johnson

Last updated
Jun 5, 2023

Read time
19 min read

Sponsored by AmaWaterways

It’s the most wonderful of the year—when Central and Eastern Europe lights up with billions of green, red and white bulbs, hung in countless trees and cascading down almost every storefront. When whole towns are taken over by festive cheer, and the smell of sausages, bread dumplings and mulled wine floats through the cold, crisp winter air. When Christmas Markets appear, as if from nowhere, in seemingly every available space and square across the continent, from the smallest villages to the biggest cities.

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But the best part? The AmaViola takes you straight through the heart of Christmas Market country, calling at some of the biggest and best fairs in Europe. Plus, there are castles and abbeys and old cobblestone streets, creating scenes that look like a festive fairy tale with a little dusting of snow. And don’t forget beer, pretzels and the ever-present gluhwein. And all you have to do? Pack a warm coat and your Christmas spirit, and maybe a kitschy sweater festooned with snowflakes or candy canes or a red-nosed reindeer, and then get on board to enjoy this, the ultimate cruise for those who love this season.

And here's another thing: While you get the added bonus of the Christmas Markets, they’re not the only thing that set this cruise apart from a summer Danube cruise. Because, while you can do (almost) everything that’s available on those voyages, in December the festive season pervades everything. Take an evening to shop in Vienna or Budapest, and the main pedestrian street will be strung with decorations and adorned with a huge Christmas tree. Dine out for dinner and you’ll find seasonal favorites on the menu. Head to a museum, take a tour or sign up for a morning of bicycling, and you’ll be riding right through a winter wonderland. It’s everything, but more. And more jolly, for sure.

Day 1 and 2: Arrival and Nuremberg

Landing in Bavaria’s second-largest city, home to half a million people, you’ll immediately be struck by how everything is very wonderfully, stereotypically German. Many of the icons that we equate with this European nation originate here (or near here, anyway): Huge steins of beer. Lederhosen. Pretzels. Bratwurst. And you’ll find all of that in the center of town, at this city’s famous Christmas Market. But more on that in a minute.

After landing at Nuremberg’s small, easy-to-navigate airport, your transfer to the ship, moored on a quiet bend in the Main-Danube Canal, should be painless and quick—less than thirty minutes, through city streets, to the AmaViola. Check-in will be similar—a brief scan of your passport and swipe of your credit card, and you’ll be off to your stateroom, led there by a friendly crew member.

Feel free to unpack, take a nap or head up to the Sun Deck, where the heated pool stays toasty warm, even when it’s chilly outside. Or do as we did and grab a light lunch in the lounge and meet your fellow 158 cruisers, amidst all those twinkling lights. After all, you can afford to relax—you get two days in this famous German city. After being welcomed with a champagne toast by the Captain, Hotel Manager and Cruise Manager, and enjoying your first meal on board, it’s time for a good night’s sleep.

Awakening refreshed, we chose to take the morning “Franconian Specialties Tour,” a culinary adventure. (The other two options on offer were a historical tour, or an opportunity to head straight to the Christmas Market.) Our day began on a motor coach, learning about the city as we passed by castles, the state opera, the sandstone city wall, and numerous Gothic cathedrals, as well as the parade ground that held some of the Third Reich’s most infamous rallies, and the Palace of Justice where the post-World War II, Nuremberg War Trials were held.

Continuing on foot, we proceeded into the medieval core of Nuremberg, Germany, learning that people here are Bavarian, yes, but first, they’re Franconian—an unofficial, but nonetheless strong, regional identity. Typified by half-timbered buildings and very good beer (some say Franconia is home to the densest concentration of breweries in the world), we popped into a local pub for a tasting of a light “cellar” beer and then a dark one, paired quite beautifully with Nuremberg sausages, a triplet of smallish, deliciously ground pork. Then we walked a few blocks to a tiny bakery to cap it off with lebkuchen, a sort of hearty gingerbread.

This tour finishes—where else?—at the Christmas Market. One of the oldest in the world, the Christkindlesmarkt here dates back to 1628. Try a special blueberry mulled wine (made with Italian wine), or Eierzucker, “egg sugar,” a specialty at the stand of Thomas Schulz, whose roots date back centuries. You can also snap up traditional Franconian decorations, from straw stars to angels made from feathers.

In the evening, you will sail up the river, but the Christmas fun isn’t over. After dinner, we gathered with guests to hang bulbs and decorate a couple of Christmas trees, and to play a little game of “find the pickle”—perhaps a little too complicated to explain here, but it will have you up, off your seat, searching. During this time, the ship’s horn sounds, signalling that you’re crossing the Continental Divide, for which everyone is awarded a certificate declaring you a “first class sailor” in maritime tradition.

Highlights and tips Don’t be surprised if the cost of a mug of mulled wine is a little higher than expected. The price includes a few Euros deposit on the mug itself. Each market has its own unique design, and while you won’t get your deposit back, you will walk away with a very distinctive souvenir.

If you happen to have forgotten a small, essential item, don’t fret—just across the Pegnitz River, about five minutes’ walk from the Christmas Market, you’ll find the city’s primary shopping street, which is lined with shops geared to locals.

When you’re at the market, keep your eyes trained on the Frauenkirche and its Männleinlaufen (a clock and glockenspiel). Every day at noon, the timepiece moves, as painted figures of Emperor Karl IV and his seven prince electors recreate the 1356 Proclamation of the Golden Bull.

Day 3: Regensburg

Located where the Regen River meets the Danube, this town of 150,000 is famous for its 12th-century Old Stone Bridge, which spans the Danube. Founded by the Romans, it’s been a busy port of trade since the 9th century. The Old Town here is filled with Gothic and Romanesque buildings, towers and patrician houses, and charming little lanes, which led to its UNESCO World Heritage Site designation.

Options here include a bike ride to Walhalla, a 19th-century, neoclassical monument (the AmaViola has 25 bikes on board, and if demand exceeds that, they can access more), as well as a walking tour that provides a general overview of the city (both active and gentle-walker options are available), and a “Taste of Bavaria” tour. Again, we went with the food. Beginning with a hearty walk that crosses and traces the rivers here, we visited a brewery called Spital, located in a former hospital (the building dates back to 1226). There’s a strange synchronicity here, as beer was once seen as a healthier, more bacteria-free option to water—even children drank it.

Proceeding through four beers (all before eleven o’clock in the morning), we learned that one-third of the world’s hops are grown nearby. The beers from Spital aren’t exported; they’re all consumed in the local area. On this morning, we enjoyed them paired with a special white sausage and thick pretzels, as well as a drinking song sung by the woman who brought us the beers. And, proceeding out from there, we finished in the center of town, at Neupfarrplatz, where we were set loose to explore the Christmas Market, which is mostly comprised of food and filled with local people, including workers from nearby offices, here to grab lunch with friends, their pleasing chatter mixing with the savory scents emanating from the few dozen stands here.

In the afternoon, we took a short shuttle bus ride to the Romantic Christmas Market at Thurn and Taxis Palace. This market surrounds and fills the courtyard of a palace, complete with towers and turrets, and passing through the entrance —an archway dripping with ivy — feels like stepping into a fairy tale. We took it all in as we warmed our hands over a big, crackling fire.

There's food here, too, including rotisserie chicken, turned over an open flame. After enjoying a mug of mulled wine around the giant, central Christmas tree, we visited a few different stands; in some cases, the craftwork of wooden ornaments and other items was actively being carved by artisans on the spot. Then it was back to the ship—you can either ride the shuttle bus, or walk it, which takes about half an hour at a leisurely pace.

Highlights and tips At the Romantic Market, don’t miss a small, satellite building overlooking one side of the market. It serves up sparkling wine, which you can sip as you observe all the hubbub below.

A unique stand, run by a man named Deon, sells old wooden beer cases that have been re-purposed as decorations to hang on your wall. Prior to 1968, all cases in Bavaria were made from wood, and these keepsakes display the individual names and logos of the many dozens of breweries here.

Day 4: Passau and Salzburg

Today, in addition to a bicycle tour, you have two options, each very different. Most guests opt for a full-day trip to Salzburg, Austria, which is a bit of a trip (two hours each way) but worth it. Nestled under the snow-capped Alps, Salzburg is the town made famous by the blockbuster movie The Sound of Music, once the highest-grossing film in American history. You’ll probably find yourself whistling “My Favorite Things” while you browse at their Christmas Market, one of the world’s oldest. Ride up to Fortress Hohensalzburg for a view of it all. And while you’ll be tired on the return transfer to the ship, don’t sleep or you’ll miss the views from the coach as it passes through Austria’s lake district, strikingly beautiful as the moon splashes across the mirror-like water.

Having visited Salzburg on a few prior occasions, we opted to stay in Passau, Germany, where the ship moors in the morning. Walking under a blue Bavarian sky, we learned that this, the “Venice of Bavaria,” is the meeting point of three rivers: the Inn, a cold, Alpine stream; the dark-hued Ilz; and the Danube. We passed along Hollgasse, literally “hell’s alley,” which was once home to the town’s poorest people; a place where flooding was frequent and sailors drifted in, off the rivers, to drink and cavort.

Nowadays, in this university town, this area is home to the creative class. Artists have painted rainbow paths on the cobblestone paths that lead to their studios. We finished at St. Stephen’s, a massive Italian baroque church, with soaring, ornate ceilings and one of the largest pipe organs you’ll find anywhere, with 18,000 pipes in all.

Afterward, we strolled through the town’s Christmas Market, which fills the square across from the church. The food and wine is clustered in the middle, around the statue of Maximillion Joseph, and includes salmon smoked over an open flame, as well as cheesy raclette—both delicious, especially when washed down with gluhmost, a hot apple wine. The craft stands emanating out from the center sell wares including nutcracker dolls, warm furs and carvings made with olive wood, imported from Assisi, Italy.

That afternoon, it was time for relaxing. After a frosty climb up to the Sun Deck for the sail-away, where we watched the Inn flowing into the Danube, our afternoon was spent napping and enjoying each bend in the river. A full schedule of wellness activities including resistance-band training and core strengthening is on offer, if you want to help work off some of that beer and sausage. Re-joined in the evening in Linz by the Salzburg day-trippers, we were all entertained, post-dinner, by a troupe of young local singers, whose repertoire ranged from “Edelweiss” to “Good King Wenceslas,” and ended with the original, German version of “Silent Night” as their final number.

Highlights and tips If staying on board, spend part of your afternoon at a gingerbread decorating class; the cookies come ready-made, so all you have to do is add your delicious creative touch

At the Passau Christmas Market, head to the wood-fired oven near the central statue to try some sengzelten, a sort of Bavarian pizza, typically smothered in sour cream, onion, cheese and sometimes smoked meat.

Day 5: Melk and Vienna

After a night of cruising through Austria, you’ll wake up this morning moored at Melk. Those feeling active can bike along a mostly flat route tracing the Danube, but we chose to visit famous Melk Abbey, once a symbol of Benedictine power, and an iconic site perched on a rocky cliff over the Danube. Dripping with gold, its Baroque splendor spreads to the surrounding 16th-century village. Opting out of the shuttle back to the ship, we instead took a 30-minute stroll through town, as a light snowfall made everything feel wintery and festive.

This afternoon is spent cruising through Austria’s Wachau Valley, one of the most scenic stretches of the river. Our Cruise Manager Kata narrated the sites, pointing out the Gothic church towers and walled towns and castles all along the way. We took in some of the commentary and then, like many on board, retreated to our cabin for a nap, curtains open to watch the world go by as we drifted off.

In the evening, we moored in Vienna, Austria—once the beating heart of the Habsburg Empire, and a city where Christmas Markets seem to occupy every available space. Many guests got gussied up for an optional Mozart and Strauss concert, but instead, we took a shuttle into town to explore the city’s largest market, Christkindl at Rathausplatz (city hall). Lit up by what feels like a billion lights formed into snowflakes, angels and stars, the market is divided into several sections. On one side, a skating rink rambles through a complicated course; on the other, a fun fair offers attractions, including a Ferris wheel. And in the middle, dozens of stands sell everything from local wine to a wide array of fresh food—the largest lines, seemingly all locals, seem to form for goulash soup in a bread bowl.

Highlights and tips The market at Rathausplatz can be very busy. If you’re looking for something a little more intimate, take a short stroll to the nearby Old Viennese Market Freyung, much smaller, which focuses on handmade items.

Don’t worry if you didn’t pack your skates in your carry-on— you can rent them there for a few euros.

Day 6: Vienna

Our day in Vienna, Austria began with a tour of this once-imperial city. Beginning in a coach, we toured past many of Vienna’s most recognizable sites, including the Hofburg Palace and the opera house, and traced the ring road, where once the city wall stood. Then we proceeded on foot through the Greek Quarter, past a former home of Amadeus Mozart to the grand, Romanesque and Gothic St. Stephen’s Cathedral, which dates back to 1339. Everything here feels regal.

After a hearty lunch on board, we boarded a coach and headed to the Christmas Market at Schönbrunn Palace. This massive estate once served as the summer palace of the Habsburgs, who resided in its more than 1,400 rooms here, away from the heat and hustle of the central part of the city. Here at the market, a massive tree rises in the middle of it all, and the grand eminence of the palace dominates everything, its wings flanking each side of the market. One of the more traditional markets, here you can find Austrian staples like bread dumplings, roasted potatoes with ham and bacon, and sweet doughnuts called Germknödel. (One stand presented them on a tiny Ferris wheel, spinning them around, and around, and around.)

Stands surround a large main area, and in the middle, friends and families cluster together at round tables over steaming food and drinks. Grabbing some mulled wine, we browsed around the sides for hand-printed cards and festive stationery, pillows, and hand-painted, papier-maché ornaments. And if you tire of shopping (not likely), you can tour around inside the palace, or in the expansive gardens behind, with 1.2 kilometres of manicured parkland.

On this almost-final evening, everyone gets a little dressed up and gathers in the lounge for the Captain’s Farewell Cocktail, an opportunity to reflect on our voyage, applaud the crew and staff, and raise a glass together. After dinner, we all regrouped for a surprise appearance—the big man himself. A line formed to sit on his lap, take a photo, and tell Santa your Christmas wish, which we took a pass on. But no matter—staff circulated through the crowd, distributing wrapped presents to every guest.

Highlights and tips Vienna is an excellent city for walking and exploring on your own. Take the walking tour and then whenever you like, you can get a taxi or the Metro back to the ship. The latter costs only a few dollars, and the ship is moored near a main station.

Originally concieved to be the universal second language of the world, Esperanto never really took off. Still, there’s a museum in its honor in the middle of Vienna, tucked away in the Austrian National Library. Entrance is just five euros, and you may be the only person there

Day 7 and 8: Budapest

The final city on our cruise, Budapest, Hungary is a spectacular grand finale for the voyage; there are few cities in the world more beautiful, especially at Christmas. Palaces and castles peer over the river from the heights. Markets steam with goulash and paprika-spiced stews. And it’s all best after dark, when the many bridges over the Danube come alive with light.

Here, after a week on the river, you have three choices, each with its own level of energy attached. Those eager to work off a few of those calories collected along the way can take a relatively short but still heart-pumping hike to Buda Castle, originally completed back in 1265 and once home to the Hungarian kings. (Afterward, cool down while touring the national gallery and a historical museum, both located on site). Option Two takes you to the same place by motor coach after a bit of touring around the city, followed by a walking tour of the castle area.

And for those looking for more Christmas? Kata, our Cruise Manager, led our small group by foot to the main market in Vörösmarty Square, along the city’s main shopping street. Food here leans toward regional classics; goulash in a bread bowl and meaty pork knee are favorites. And make sure to keep an eye on the stage, where local performers present an eclectic variety of shows, from skills with the cskikos (a whip used by Hungarian herders) to seeing how many people can fit into one very large pair of pants (answer when we were there: 15).

On the last night before disembarkation, we still found plenty to do on board the ship. In the late afternoon, a troupe of local dancers and musicians put on a high-energy show in the lounge, with two couples swirling and high-stepping to a three-piece string band playing songs ranging from old folk pieces to modern pop. (And take it from us—if you sit close to the dance floor, you’ll be asked to join in the show.)

Bring your jacket with you, because at 6 p.m., the ship repositions to a different dock, just north of central Budapest. We all gathered up on the Sun Deck for the after-dark sail downriver, passing under shining bridges and past the national parliament, everything lit up like some sort of dream town. The next morning, we have to leave off the ship. But the memory of those million lights? That will be with us forever, every time we think of Christmas.

Highlights and tips Hungary is the first country on this voyage that doesn’t use the euro as currency; remember this when you’re budgeting your cash for the trip. However, you can easily buy Hungarian Forints (HUF) at many local exchange booths, including some very close to the Christmas Market.

After dark, head to the smaller Christmas Market at St. Stephen’s Basilica, where every half hour, the side of the church is lit up with a 3D projection. (You can buy 3D glasses at any of the market stalls.)

Even when it’s freezing, grab your bathing suit and head to the Szechenyi Bath, a series of 18 geothermal pools located inside and outside a century-old building. When the air is cold, it’s amazing to wade through the waters while steam rises, thick off the surface. And just across the way, you’ll find Budapest’s biggest skating rink—even if you didn’t pack a pair of skates, it’s fun to watch hundreds of others, whirling around on the ice.

Looking back, here's what we've learned from our Christmas Markets cruise

Sometimes Christmas Markets can seem quite similar, at least on the face of things, but they all have their specialties. As I headed home, I thought about the differences, and wanted to share some final insights.

Nuremberg: Best for a real Bavarian feel—bratwurst and lebkuchen, mulled wine and rum punch, with a small side-markets specializing in goods from their sister cities. Grab tree ornaments, or for a true specialty, figurines made from dried prunes.

Regensburg (Neupfarrplatz): Excellent local buzz, filled with patrons from surrounding homes and offices, coming here with family and friends for a bite or a drink at this food-and-beverage dominated market.

Regensburg (Thurn and Taxis Palace): Very romantic, perfect for walking hand-in-hand through palace courtyards, sipping champagne and warming up next to a crackling fire.

Passau: Small but friendly—try some gluhmost (hot apple wine) paired with wood-fired sengzelten (Bavarian pizza).

Salzburg: One of the oldest in the world, set in the world of The Sound of Music—surrounded by a cathedral and castle, in the shadow of the Alps.

Vienna (Rathausplatz): An absolute winter wonderland, where you can skate through a small, illuminated forest, ride a Ferris wheel and sip rum punch, all under maybe the most Christmas lights and decorations you’ll ever see in one place.

Vienna (Schönbrunn Palace): A regal feel here, at the former summer house of the Habsburgs—try local food like sweet doughnuts called Germknödel.

Budapest: A distinct change with a strong Hungarian feel, from the food (bread dumplings, pork knee) to the entertainment (on-stage demonstrations of the whip skills of Hungarian herders).

Always in search of the next great story to tell, Tim Johnson is often found circling the globe. He's visited 145 countries across all seven continents and taken almost three-dozen voyages, including several expeditions to the polar regions, small-ship luxury adventures and cruises with major lines. Based in Toronto, his work has been published in the New Yorker, AFAR, the Globe and Mail, Reader's Digest, Bloomberg, CNN Travel and many others.

**Don't miss our other stories about the how a river cruise can transform you. Follow these links. **

Publish date January 31, 2020
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