In November and December, the air in Europe becomes scented with gingerbread and mulled wine as the continent’s famous Christmas markets set up shop. Expect scenes brimming with colorful lights, local choir groups performing, and sweets and handmade crafts and ornaments being sold from spruce huts. Often this seasonal show is in the heart of the city, or in a popular town square, and sometimes the events are massive—the famous market in Nuremberg, Germany, for instance, has more than 200 stalls. You can do your holiday shopping all while taking in the celebratory city sights.
One of the best ways to visit these festive fairs is on a river cruise. River cruise lines will deliver you directly to them with their Christmas market cruises—highly popular sailings along the Danube and the Rhine, Germany’s Main River and France’s Seine that include visits to the merry markets. While there may still be some availability on 2019 holiday sailings, your best bet is to get a jumpstart on planning for 2020 as these cruises tend to book far in advance.
Best for exploring historic traditions
Avalon Waterways’ Germany-focused Main River Christmastime itinerary from Nuremberg to Mainz (near Frankfurt) visits Bavarian towns and villages decked out for the holidays. A shipboard lecturer discusses German holiday traditions along the way. Stops include historic Bamberg, where throughout town locals build nativity scenes. An optional excursion visits the town of Rothenburg and the Käthe Wohlfahrt German Christmas shop there, home to a massive collection of traditional German Christmas decorations. Onboard, the ship is embellished with holiday-themed decor, and you can learn how to bake traditional cookies from the region.
Best for Francophiles
Experience Christmastime in Paris and Normandy with Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection, a spirited sailing on France’s Seine River. Included are château visits such as a private cocktail reception with the owners of the 17th-century Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte, colorfully decorated for the holiday. You will also experience Christmas traditions in the medieval city of Rouen. At the Cathédrale Notre-Dame in Paris, view the impressive crèche (nativity scene) and hear a choral performance. The square in front of the cathedral hosts a Christmas market with venders selling French crafts, crepes, and roasted chestnuts. Some sailings are designated for families, with special activities for kids age 4 to 17.
Best for an over-the-top holiday experience
Beyond holiday celebrations in places such as Vienna and the historic Bavarian town of Vilshofen, Germany, which hosts a floating Christmas market on the Danube River, Crystal River Cruises’ luxury ships dazzle with their own exaggerated holiday displays. Think life-sized toy soldiers, meticulously decorated Christmas trees, and poinsettia garlands galore. The food, too, is designed to be an extravagant representation of European Christmas traditions. Sailings on the Danube include seasonal activities, such as snowshoe hiking in the Bavarian forest. In medieval Regensburg, Germany, there’s a visit to a Christmas village and market at a former Benedictine monastery that is now an exquisitely restored baroque palace.
Best for families
Adventures by Disney hosts a very merry Christmas celebration on the AmaViola, a vessel Disney’s touring arm charters from river cruise line AmaWaterways. The sailings are on the Danube between Budapest and Vilshofen, with several market experiences along the way. In Vienna, guests experience the impressive Schönbrunn Palace, where the outdoor Christmas market offers music, handicrafts ,and children’s activities. Also in Vienna, guests can go ice skating in the center of the city. The itinerary includes an excursion to Salzburg, Austria, showcasing sights from the iconic movie The Sound of Music, as well as the charming city’s own famed Christmas extravaganza.
Best for revelers
U River Cruises’s Dashing Through the Danube sailings combine visits to Christmas markets with pub crawls, onboard silent disco parties, rooftop yoga, and mixology lessons. In Budapest, you might attend some raves; in Bratislava, Slovakia, check out one of the microbreweries in between searching for handcrafted Bohemian Christmas decorations and toys; and in Passau, Germany, do a torch-lit walk along the river while drinking mulled wine and singing Christmas carols. An optional tour in Regensburg visits the high-tech BMW factory, where you can fantasize about your ultimate holiday gift.
Best for the wellness-minded
For those hoping to burn off some of those holiday calories, AmaWaterways has fitness instructors on its ships running a full roster of fitness classes such as stretching, dance, and cardio training. If the weather allows, you can borrow bikes for exploring the ports, too. The line’s holiday sailings on the Danube and Rhine get you to famed Christmas markets such as the Alsatian delight of Strasbourg, France, and Nuremberg’s Christkindlesmarkt, where resisting the baked goods is particularly difficult in the self-proclaimed “gingerbread capital of the world.”
Best itinerary and excursions
Tour operator Tauck puts an emphasis on beyond-the-norm excursions that are included in its cruise fare. A holiday sailing on the Rhine from Basel, Switzerland, to Cologne, Germany, includes a day trip into the Black Forest and to Baden-Baden, Germany, for the famous spa town’s Christmas market, held in the complex of the belle époque casino there. Witness local bands and choirs perform holiday music and real sheep appear in Baden-Baden’s “living nativity.” From Cologne, there’s a visit to the German town of Aachen to try the special gingerbread they’ve been making there for 600 years.
Best for cultural immersion
On Viking River Cruises’ Christmas market sailings on the Rhine and Danube, guests have the opportunity to learn new traditions both at the festive markets on shore and shipboard. On the ships, you can enjoy holiday cookies and other baked treats, special musical presentations by local performers, tree trimming, and gingerbread and strudel-making demonstrations. There are also hands-on sessions in creating regional crafts such as wreaths and ornaments, plus holiday-themed quizzes in the lounge. While you sail past a parade of holiday lights from your ship’s festooned sundeck, the crew serves mulled wine to keep you warm.