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Wooden booths offering souvenirs during Christmas Market in Prague, Czech Republic (Photo: Rostislav Glinsky/Shutterstock)

The Best Christmas Markets in Europe to Visit on a River Cruise

Wooden booths offering souvenirs during Christmas Market in Prague, Czech Republic (Photo: Rostislav Glinsky/Shutterstock)
Jeannine Williamson

Apr 25, 2023

Read time
6 min read

The best Christmas markets in Europe draw revelers by the thousand to enjoy the aroma of gingerbread and mulled wine alongside charming stalls selling traditional toys, local crafts, specialty foods and more. And they've been doing this, in some cases, for hundreds of years.

Numerous destinations on river cruises across Europe could hold the title of best European Christmas market, from Germany to Hungary and beyond. These markets typically run from mid-November right up until Christmas, and Europe's river cruises allow you to visit several holiday markets in Europe often in the space of a week or less.

So where are the best Christmas markets in Europe and how can you get to them on a river cruise? Read on and get planning your holiday festivities.

Nuremberg, Germany: Best European Christmas Market for Traditional Sweets and Toys

Traditional Gingerbread heart cookies from the Christmas Market in Nuremberg, Bavaria, Germany (Photo: Corinna Haselmayer/Shutterstock)

When it comes to the best European Christmas markets, the historic festivities in Nuremberg top most lists. Nuremberg's Christmas market dates back to the 16th century and the city is referred to as the world's "Gingerbread Capital of the World." Why? During the 1500s, the city's bakers -- already creating the city's famed lebkuchen (gingerbread cookies) -- began building elaborate gingerbread houses and the tradition spread throughout Europe.

If you're after a kind of one-of-a-kind gift, Nuremberg is a great stop. The city is famous for Schuco tin cars and Fleishmann train sets, and its holiday market is a great place to find nostalgic toys. Nuremberg's other claim to fame is its pork sausages -- much smaller than typical German sausages or wurst -- which are sold in portions of six to a dozen.

What River Cruises Visit Nuremberg's Christmas Markets?

Nuremberg is a tour stop on many Danube River cruises and some itineraries that include the Rhine River. You won't sail into the heart of the city, though. Instead, tours depart from the nearest port on the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal nearby.

Vienna, Austria: Best European Christmas Market for Classical Music Buffs

Traditional Christmas market in Vienna, Austria (Photo: S.Borisov/Shutterstock)

Vienna is easily the best Christmas market in Europe for anyone who loves classical music and Christmas carols given the full choral treatment. Austria's capital is famous as the former home of Strauss, Beethoven and Mozart and during the holiday season international choirs stage free performances at the Christmas market held beside Vienna City Hall. It's one of the largest markets in Europe and also features a large skating rink.

The grand Schonbrunn and Belvedere Palaces provide the settings for Vienna's other Christmas markets. But you'll want to budget time for a stop or two as you journey from one market to the next. Vienna is renowned for its coffee houses and at Christmas they serve crescent-shaped vanillekipferl cookies, a seasonal treat created in the city 400 years ago.

What River Cruises Visit Vienna's Christmas Markets?

Book a late fall cruise along the Danube if you'd like to visit Vienna's Christmas markets. Nearly every major river cruise line in Europe makes stops here.

Cologne, Germany: Best European Christmas Market for Rhine Views

Cologne (Photo:S.Borisov/Shutterstock)

Germany is the undisputed heartland of Europe's festive holiday market scene and Cologne is undoubtedly among the best European Christmas market destinations. It has seven holiday markets in total, with the most famous held against the magnificent backdrop of the city's UNESCO-listed Gothic cathedral. A huge Christmas tree forms the centerpiece of the market and it's well worth climbing the 509 steps to the top of the cathedral tower to get a panoramic view of the city and riverscape.

While you're at the market, try the rievkoche, a potato pancake traditionally served with applesauce at Christmas, and a glass of local Kolsch beer.

What River Cruises Visit Cologne's Christmas Markets? Most Rhine River cruise itineraries make a stop in Cologne no matter what time of year. You'll have your pick of river cruise lines, as nearly any that traverse the Rhine stop here.

Budapest, Hungary: Best European Christmas Markets for Local Eats

Scenic Jade sails the Danube River past the parliament building in Budapest. (Photo: Scenic Cruises)

Already a classic river cruise destination, the Hungarian capital Budapest -- divided into Buda and Pest by the Danube River -- is particularly beautiful during the Christmas market season. The two largest Christmas markets take place on the Pest side, and both could double as a foodie tour of Hungary with the amount of local eats on offer. Be sure to try a sugar-coated chimney cake, a traditional Hungarian pastry, or a warm honey cookie with a glass of mulled wine. You'll also find plenty of savory items.

The largest Christmas market on the Pest side takes place at Vorosmarty Square, which is considered one of the best Christmas markets in Europe and has more than 100 stalls, a giant tree and nativity scenes. The market on St. Stephen's Square, also on the Pest side, specializes in crafts made by skilled local artisans. If you're after something more local, you can also hop the river to the Buda side of the city to visit the Obuda Christmas Market.

What River Cruises Visit Budapest's Christmas Markets?

Nearly every Danube River cruise stops in Budapest, often as a port of embarkation or disembarkation. You'll have your choice of the full spectrum of European river cruise lines here.

Dusseldorf, Germany: Best European Christmas Market for Sampling Local Spirits

Dusseldorf Christmas market 2021 (Photo/Jeannine Williamson)

If you want to enjoy a glass or two of seasonal cheer with your holiday shopping, Dusseldorf is a great river cruise Christmas market pick. The city's Old Town has 260 bars, which have given it the nickname "the longest bar in the world." You can try the copper-colored altbier -- essentially a hoppy cross between an ale and a lager -- or warm up with fiery Killepitsch, a local herb liquor.

The city hosts seven Christmas markets with different themes such as the charming Little Angel's children's market (Engelchen-Markt) and a market dedicated to handicrafts. If you're after festivities beyond traditional holiday merriment, Dusseldorf is also the home of the pioneering electronic music band Kraftwerk and you can still find traces of the city's techno legacy in its nightlife.

What River Cruises Visit Dusseldorf's Christmas Markets? Dusseldorf is a port on many longer Rhine River itineraries. Lines including Viking, Scenic, Avalon and Tauck all stop here.

Strasbourg, France: Best European Christmas Market for Picture-Perfect Scenery

Strasbourg Cathedral (Credit: Viking)

Strasbourg, the capital of France's Alsace region, is also known as the "Christmas Capital of France." The city's Christmas market was founded in 1570 and is held in front of the city's distinctive one-spired cathedral (money ran out to complete the second spire). Popular souvenirs include Alsatian beer steins or plush white storks -- a local symbol of good luck.

The city itself is an almost picture-perfect holiday destination, with Franco-German half-timbered buildings crowding the delightful Petite France district. Take time out from the market to visit the cathedral to see the mechanical figures on the amazing astronomical clock; especially at 12:30 p.m. when they all come to life.

What River Cruises Visit Strabourg's Christmas Markets? Strasbourg is a stop on most Rhine River cruise itineraries, with visits on major lines including Viking, AmaWaterways, Avalon and Tauck.

Honorable Mentions: Great Christmas Markets in Europe to Try If Time Permits

Christmas Market on Old Town Square in Prague, Czech Republic (Photo: Rostislav Glinsky/Shutterstock)

Prague, Czech Republic

In the capital of the Czech Republic, Prague's fairy-story cobbled streets, decorative bridges and huge UNESCO World Heritage listed castle create a perfect festive setting. One of the main markets is in Wenceslas Square, named after the so-called good king Svaty Vaclav, who is the country's patron saint and the inspiration behind the famous carol "Good King Wenceslas." Shop for Czech marionettes, the regional handicraft, while munching on carp -- a seasonal treat.

Linz, Austria

The market held in the Volksgarten Gardens in Linz is a magical place for adults and children alike. It features Austria's largest wooden nativity scene, featuring life-size, hand-painted figures. Every 30 minutes in the late afternoon there is a short nativity play with special effects and a classical music soundtrack.

Gengenbach, Germany

Each year the town of Gengenbach, near Strasbourg, turns its town hall into a giant advent calendar. Twenty-four windows are decorated with a Christmas scene, with a new one revealed each night until Christmas Eve. Excursions to Gengenbach are offered on Basel to Amsterdam festive market sailings.

Updated April 25, 2023
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