There's perhaps no better way to get in the Christmas spirit than visiting the home of many holiday traditions: Germany -- as well as its surrounding countries -- which celebrates the season jovially with its famous markets. And one of the best ways to get the full experience is to indulge in a Christmas market cruise.
Christmas markets have been an annual tradition in Europe for centuries, but they have only opened to cruises in the last few decades. In the late 13th century, winter markets offered a way for townspeople to stock up on supplies before the long, cold season. They've since been replaced with the hallmarks of seasonal excess: holiday cookies, toys and trinkets, ornaments, hot food and plenty of mulled wine.
Christmas market cruises, which are offered by a number of river cruise lines, are the perfect way to absorb this special 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. Here are eight tips for making the most of Christmas market cruises.
You can expect most Christmas market itineraries to depart and return from a major central European city. However, just like each Christmas market has its own vibe and style, each cruise line will offer a different itinerary. We recommend taking some time to do research and pick the itinerary and cruise line that makes the most sense for you.
Cruise lines that offer designated Christmas markets cruises include Viking, Uniworld, P&O, Saga, Emerald, Gate 1 Travel, Avalon Waterways, AmaWaterways, CroisiEurope, Abercrombie & Kent and Scenic. However, some cruise lines may offer multiple seasonal cruises that sail on different rivers. For example, a Viking Christmas markets cruise can take you down the Rhine River, the Moselle, the Danube and even the Seine or the Elbe.
Popular ports on cruises weaving through Christmas markets include the following:
Nuremberg: Nuremberg’s holiday marketplace is known for its authentic feel (pine wreaths, crafts made in Germany). Vendors sell plenty of the city's famous gingerbread and mulled wine as you browse the striped stalls for "plum people" (figurines made from figs, plums and walnuts) and shuffle past the cathedral.
Strasbourg: A popular stop on Rhine Christmas market cruises, Strasbourg’s market has everything you would expect from a European holiday market, including classic Christmas charm with ice skating, caroling and a sparkling, and Christmas tree that's nearly 100 feet tall. Popular souvenirs include Alsatian beer steins or plush white storks -- a local symbol of good luck.
Vienna: The Christkindlmarkt hosts millions of visitors each year to shop for ornaments and drink Weinachtspunsch, a spiced Christmas punch spiked with wine, brandy or schnapps and fruit juice. If you're making a stop in Vienna, keep an ear open; it's well known for its music scene and many cruises include the option to go to a classical music concert.
Budapest: Wooden stalls and stages flank Budapest’s Vorosmarty Square with sausages on a spit, coffee drinks and even modern stands from cell phone providers. Keep an eye out for the twinkling streetcar known as the city's "Christmas Light Tram."
Copenhagen: Celebrating "Jul" (yuletide), Copenhagen’s market glitters with Tivoli Gardens all aglow in glass lighting. Try the local specialty, an iced donut with black currant jam, and wash it down with glogg, a Danish take on mulled wine with raisins, cinnamon, cloves, almonds and a shot of aquavit.
Prague: Prague lights up for the holidays with multiple markets, the most popular of which are located on Wenceslas Square and Old Town Square. Shop for Czech marionettes, the regional handicraft, while munching on carp -- a seasonal treat.
For something a little bit different, U.S.-based river line American Queen Voyages has worked with the city of Natchez, Mississippi in developing Christmas markets in the southern U.S. Cruisers can enjoy traditional music performances on the levee, as well as traditional Cajun/Creole holiday traditions.
Holiday market river cruises typically begin sailing in late November, with cruises over Thanksgiving as well as during Christmas and New Year's. European (and American) Christmas markets usually take place during the four weeks of Advent -- the Christian holy season leading up to Christmas -- and extend into the first week of January.
Because the timeframe is limited, holiday river cruises are in high demand. Considering the capacity of riverboats, which is significantly less than that of oceangoing cruise ships, cabins quickly fill for prime sailings. Booking a year in advance for a Christmas market cruise isn't crazy; it's common (and encouraged).
If you want the full experience of a holiday market in each port of call, make sure your sailing falls during the four-Sunday span before Christmas (or during the one week after). Take note: Some Christmas markets won't be fully swinging if you're there in late November, before this four-week period.
While the majority of modern-day Christmas market stalls accept credit cards, others stick strictly to the local tender. Bring along some cash to make sure you're properly prepared.
Note that most banks will charge a hefty fee for withdrawing cash in other currencies and/or countries. Plan ahead and talk to your bank before you travel to understand additional charges for using ATMs abroad.
Even if you don’t go on a Christmas markets cruise, Europe is hands down one of the best winter cruise destinations. It’s cold outside but cozy inside, and the charming historic city centers are decorated with Christmas lights and sumptuous holiday ornaments.
Although snow is not necessarily a given, it's December in Europe, and Christmas markets continue after sundown. Your packing list should include multiple layers and all your winter outerwear essentials like a hat, gloves and scarf. Don't forget comfortable shoes or waterproof boots.
Don't hold out until the very last day to buy your gifts and keepsakes. While many elements of the markets are the same, each market has its own local specialties. For example, Passau is known for its gingerbread; Nuremberg for Christmas cookies called lebkuchen and Salzburg for its award-winning chocolates called Mozartkugel (from Mozart's birthplace).
The moment you fall in love is when you should buy (unless you feel like you're being ripped off). Otherwise, you will end up kicking yourself back on the ship, empty-handed and dreaming of that one little angel ornament you fell in love with three ports ago.
Just keep in mind that 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. Bartering is not common in this part of Europe.
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 Nuremberg are typical end points on Christmas cruises, and all boast truly spectacular market experiences and wares. Keep the larger markets in mind when budgeting.
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 get going until late morning to early afternoon, and shops promptly close around 8:30 at night.
Even if you are in a port overnight, you'll need to get your shopping in during the allotted time on a day tour, or make a point to shop on your own during the afternoon and early evening. While markets are beautiful at night, typically the only stands that will be open will be for food -- a brat is a must -- and a mug of something warm and alcoholic.
Call it a Christmas miracle, but regardless of how many treats you will consume, you'll never seem to ruin your appetite. The meter-long sausages, pretzels, pastries and spiked punch you will find in every market are undeniably delicious.
Each river cruise 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, 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 euros back, but the cups are great mementos from each market you'll visit.