Culture / Travel

Europe’s Most Magical Christmas Markets — and Rhine River Cruises

Insider Tips on the Ultimate Holiday Trip

BY // 11.09.18

With temperatures dropping and holiday tunes already chirping at stores, Christmas is inevitably on the brain for Americans. In Texas, we enjoy the sparkles of Highland Park Village in Dallas, or the lighted up palm trees of River Oaks Shopping Center in Houston.

But for the ultimate celebration of the advent season, grab your passport and venture to Europe for Christmas Markets galore.

Christmas Market 101

Dating back to Germany in the 1400s, Christmas Markets have been a popular holiday staple, providing Christmas joy to market-goers during the jovial season and some of the world’s most unique shopping. Tiny Christmas villages are sprinkled all through out the cities, and merchants retreat to tiny booths, offering up handmade toys, decorations and time-honored dishes.

If you go to one of these markets, be sure to indulge in mulled cider, Thuringian sausage or chimney cakes for dessert.

Other European countries caught on to the German trend and now millions of people from all over the world flock to Europe to be filled with glad Christmas tidings. And depending on the country to which you travel, you’ll notice food and cultural influences shared across country lines.

Making it a Christmas Holiday Trip

We’ve scouted out several ideal routes that portray the pure essence of European Christmas Markets, along the Rhine River. Whether you’re seeking the spirit of the season in Germany, or under a canopy of stars in Switzerland, merriment is inevitable. So reach for a toasty mug of gluhwein and cruise down the river on a Viking Longship or other river cruise company’s ship, embarking on the ultimate Christmas extravaganza.

And the best part? Aside from hot cocoa and out-of-this-world Christmas enchantment? You only have to unpack once. On a Viking cruise, the team will take care of every single detail for you: meals, libations, sightseeing, and Christmas Market tours.

Just be sure you remember your passport, cozy sweaters and some extra room in your suitcase for all the treasures you’ll find at the open-air markets. Since Christmas Markets are so popular, tiny European streets will be filled with extra hustle and bustle this time of year. So taking out logistical obstacles such as transport and hotel check-ins in a foreign land just amplify  the opportunities to relax and enjoy the festivities.

On Board a River Cruise

Viking also curates Christmas memories for jolly travelers on and off the ship. Although the main attractions are on land, the river cruise experience is half the fun. All sorts of holiday activities can be found on board. And only a couple of hundred passengers are aboard each trip. So you won’t be bumping elbows with kiddos at the buffet, fighting for the last bagel.

Quite the contrary, as these cruises cater to adult vacationeers and doesn’t pack guests in by the bushel. Instead it’s a much more intimate feel, accompanied with luxurious meals prepared by top chefs.

The holiday fun trickles its way into onboard experiences, such as gingerbread house making, and learning to make the most delicious and festive drinks. Not to mention how each ship is decked out with all the trimmings. And a river cruise also ensures an easy transition from city to city.

You sail down the river at night, so no time is wasted on catching trains or planes. You simply wake up in a new city or country, awaiting for your Yule-filled adventure to unfold.

Christmas market Cologne
Christmas comes alive in German cities such as Cologne in an almost magical way.

Best Times To Go

The best time to experience these European Christmas Markets is late November through December, with both daytime and nighttime activities available. Although the most magical moments occur during the evening, as carolers stroll the streets and families glide about the town center’s ice skating rink. Time slows down, and no one is in a hurry to rush home.

From Deutschland to the Swiss Alps, you will feel as if you’re in a snow globe, surrounded by candlelit winter scenes and cobblestone paths. Imagine catching the first snowfall under thousands of twinkling lights and a towering Christmas tree, lit up in a quaint town square. Oom-pah-pah music rolls through the twisty streets, and the smell of chestnuts roasting fills the air.

It embodies the lyrics of your favorite Christmas song, even pulling on the heartstrings of Grinches and Scrooges alike.

Rhine River Must Sees

Whichever route you take, make sure Germany is on the itinerary. It’s credited as the motherland of Christmas Markets, so it has to be one of the stops on your river cruise. Of course, right? And many of the routes intentionally include German cities for that very reason this time of year.

The Danube Waltz sailing makes its way from Passau, Germany to Budapest, Hungary. Perhaps one of the most festive stops along this route is Vienna, Austria. Vienna is home to many Christmas markets, and Freyung is among the most popular, as it’s situated in one of the most picturesque squares. This particular market is also home to the longest nativity scene in Austria.

The Rhine Getaway is packed with Christmas Markets in each country it travels through. Roving from Amsterdam, Netherlands to Basel, Switzerland, this itinerary also stops in France and Germany. Strasbourg, France is one of the most dreamlike storybook cities and even claims to be the Capitale de Noël (Capital of Christmas). The French corridors are bursting with yuletide glee, and make sure to snag a glimpse of the 100-foot Christmas tree.

How could you miss it?

Nothing says winter delight like the Swiss Alps. The Paris to the Swiss Alps tour makes its way through four countries along the Rhine, and either begins or ends in Paris, the City of Light. And Zurich has Christmas markets to appease every taste. From the urban Wienachtsdorf Christmas village to the Christkindlimarkt at Zurich Main Train Station, there is no shortage of snowy sites among the glittery bulbs strung throughout the city.

Part of the Special Series:

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