Christmas market river cruises: What to expect on a holiday sailing – The Points Guy

Sailing down one of Europe’s stunning rivers is a dream trip no matter the time of year, but at Christmas time it’s even more special. Ships take travelers from port to port to experience the incredible Christmas markets where stalls are adorned with glittering lights, the smells of sausages and baked goods fill the air, and the sounds of carols can be heard.

Starting in late November through Christmas every year, the cities and towns along the Danube, Rhine, Seine and other rivers set up markets that display each region’s holiday traditions. Many of the most popular river cruise lines with ships based in Europe schedule festive cruises to take travelers to shop and dine at these seasonal markets.

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If you’re thinking about booking a Christmas market river cruise but don’t know where to start, we’ve got you covered. Here, we’ve answered the most popular questions about Christmas market river cruises and shared our top tips and tricks to get the most out of the trip.

Is a Christmas market river cruise worth it?

The Linz Christmas market. MEGAN DUBOIS/FOR THE POINTS GUY

The number-one question people asked me in person and online after I did a Christmas market river cruise down the Danube with Viking in December 2023 was: Is the trip worth it? I vote yes, but there are some things you should know before booking a Christmas market cruise.

If you’ve had visiting the Christmas markets of Europe on your bucket list, a river cruise is a great way to explore multiple markets in one trip. One of the biggest perks of a river cruise versus a land-based trip is that you unpack once, and your accommodations and dining options float with you down the river from town to town.

Additionally, the cruise director on board acted more like a personal concierge for guests who had questions, giving suggestions for things to do, places to eat and what each Christmas market was known for.

On my seven-night river cruise, I visited six ports and enjoyed a half day of scenic sailing through the Wachau Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Our ports of call were Budapest; Bratislava, Slovakia; Vienna; Krems, Austria; Linz, Austria; and Passau, Germany. Each port had at least one Christmas market.

I was most impressed by Vienna, which had two, but the one near City Hall is the one that makes most of the viral TikTok videos and Instagram reels. The City Hall Christmas market is the larger of the two in the city center and is more photogenic. But be sure to go to both Christmas markets in the city. They are about a 10-minute walk from each other and have different foods to try and souvenirs to buy.

Related: The best Christmas market river cruises to book

Which rivers are the best for a Christmas markets cruise?

The Christmas market in Cologne, Germany. FOKKEBOK/GETTY IMAGES

Picking a river for your cruise can be a challenge, especially if you’re not familiar with the destinations on the itinerary. Cruises on the Danube and Rhine are the most popular at this time of year because their ports of call are where most of our Christmas traditions were first created.

On the Danube, you can visit destinations like Vienna, Austria and Passau and Regensburg, Germany. Alternatively, on the Rhine, destinations of interest include Amsterdam; Cologne, Germany; Mannheim, Germany; and Strasbourg, France.

After you find a few river cruises that fit your travel dates, dig into each destination and what it has to offer. Christmas markets are open from midmorning until between 8 and 10 p.m., but there’s not enough to do at each market to fill that entire time. I usually spent about an hour at the smaller markets in places like Passau and Linz and about two to three hours at the larger markets in Vienna and Budapest. In each port, you’ll want to be sure there are more activities and attractions to fill the rest of your time in port.

Related: Best river cruise lines around the world

Which river cruise line is best for a Christmas cruise?

A Viking river cruise on the Danube. CHARISSA FAY/VIKING

Cruise lines that offer Christmas market cruises include Viking, Avalon Waterways, AmaWaterways, CroisiEurope, Uniworld and Tauck.

Uniworld cruises are the most expensive, with prices ranging from $3,399 to $7,199 for 8- to 11-day sailings throughout the season. Tauck is also pricier than its competitors, but it’s one of the few options that has a family cruise option.

Avalon Waterways offers a more affordable way to see the Christmas markets, with cruises starting at $2,167 for six days of traveling from Budapest to Vienna. But be warned, some cruises do sell out almost a year in advance. CroisiEurope cruises are also more affordable and offer closed-loop cruises where you start and end in the same destination, which is not something that most other river cruise lines offer for Christmas market cruises.

If you’re looking for a more active cruise, consider AmaWaterways, where bikes are always available to use in port. On the Danube Christmas Markets tour, you can bike from Weissenkirchen to Melk, passing picturesque villages and vineyards.

Viking is known to be slower-paced than its competitors, with a relaxed vibe. Guest won’t have as many choices of activities off or on the ship. The included tours are mostly walking tours.

Related: AmaWaterways vs. Viking: Which of these popular river cruise lines is right for you?

How do I get a good deal on a Christmas market cruise?

Because of the short season for Christmas market river cruises, getting a deal can prove to be a challenge. The best way to get a deal is to book early.

It’s common for people to book a Christmas market cruise a year or more in advance. Some companies will offer a discounted deposit for those who book early, and others will offer monetary savings for booking well in advance. Look for wave season (January through March) or Black Friday, Cyber Monday and Travel Tuesday deals for river cruise discounts or other promotional offers.

Related: Booking your first river cruise? Here’s what you need to know

Do Christmas cruises sell out?

Yes, Christmas cruises can and do sell out. Most riverboats only hold 100 to 200 passengers. The best way to ensure you get the type of cabin and sailing date that you want is to book early.

The more desirable balcony and suite rooms often sell out first, followed by rooms with only upper windows. Cruises that take place in the middle of the season, meaning the first two to three weeks of December, are often more popular than the last week of November or the week of Christmas since some markets might not be open at those times.

Related: These are the best Christmas cruises you can book

How cold is Europe in winter?

The Linz Christmas Market. MEGAN DUBOIS/FOR THE POINTS GUY

The weather is, of course, determined by when and where you’re going. Middle and Eastern Europe is often colder than Western Europe, the latter of which has a milder winter season. The later in the Christmas market season you travel, the more likely you are to get rain or snow since winter is setting in across the continent.

On my Viking river cruise from Budapest to Passau in Eastern Europe, the winter weather varied from days with cold rain where I needed to bundle up with extra waterproof layers, to beautiful sunny days where I could strip off my winter jacket for a few hours while touring the Christmas markets.

I used the weather app on my phone to help me determine what to pack. Even 10 days out from my trip, the app was fairly accurate with what the temperatures would be, which ranged from the 20s to the high 40s, and what the day would look like.

What should I wear on my river cruise?

AMAWATERWAYS

Packing for a river cruise in the middle of winter was the most challenging part of the trip for me. Not only did I have to buy winter clothes since I live in Florida, but I needed to make sure I brought enough layers to keep me warm.

For days exploring the ports, I wore jeans and waterproof boots with long cozy socks, plus a thermal long-sleeved shirt under a sweater. I also brought a midweight puffy winter jacket to wear off the ship. Accessories like a warm hat or ear warmers, gloves and a scarf were also helpful.

Depending on the river cruise line you book, the onboard attire may range from casual to a little more fancy. During the day on Viking, many people wore jeans or sweatpants and a casual shirt. Evenings brought out the more elevated fashion; women donned cute sweaters and dresses, while men dressed in jeans and nicer tops or sweaters.

If you can, I suggest bringing at least two pairs of outdoor shoes in case your waterproof shoes can’t handle the snow or a few days of rain in a row. I brought a pair of fleece-lined Crocs to wear off the ship in a few ports where the weather was warmer with no precipitation.

Related: River cruise packing list: What to pack when traveling by riverboat

When should I arrive at the embarkation port?

Always try to arrive at least a day early for any river cruise, especially if you’re flying overseas. For some river cruises, the embarkation port is just that, a place to get on the ship and leave. If you arrive the day your cruise begins, you could miss out on exploring the city.

Even if your Christmas market river cruise does have an overnight stay in the embarkation city with tours the next day, it’s still best to arrive a day early. Travel days from the United States to Europe can be unpredictable, with delays and missed connections, so you should give yourself plenty of time to get to the ship so you don’t miss it.

Some river cruise lines offer pre-cruise extensions that you can bundle with the cruise booking and allow you to arrive early at the embarkation port. These extensions include a hotel stay, and some include a few meals and a guided tour, plus transfers from the airport to the hotel and from the hotel to the ship.

Are the markets all the same?

The Budapest Christmas market. MEGAN DUBOIS/FOR THE POINTS GUY

Every Christmas market is different in the overall vibe and what it has to offer for visitors. Do some research before you leave home to see what the highlight of each Christmas market is. I did a lot of my research on TikTok and Instagram so I could see what the person was talking about.

In Budapest, the Christmas market in the square in front of St. Stephen’s Basilica was a good mix of crafts, decorations and tasty food to try. On the other hand, the Christmas market in Bratislava was more of a food market with just a few stalls for buying goodies to bring home with you.

My favorite Christmas market was the one at City Hall in Vienna, which happens to be one of the most popular in Europe. It had everything from ice skating and photo-worthy backdrops to prepackaged sweets and plenty of Christmas decorations to try to fit into my already full suitcase.

What are the best things to buy at European Christmas markets?

Popular things to buy at Christmas markets throughout Europe include nativity scenes, handmade toys, nutcrackers, candles and glass or wood ornaments. If something catches your eye, buy it; there’s no guarantee you’ll find a similar item at the next market.

For example, in Vienna, I spotted a gold beaded ornament that I loved, and I bought it for about 10 euros (about $10.86). I never saw any other beaded ornaments at the Christmas markets before or after Vienna, so I was glad I purchased it when I saw it.

Do make sure that you’re buying local products. On my Viking cruise, we were told that some markets are starting to sell mass-produced goods from China. If you want to support local artisans, ask the vendor or look for stickers that say where the products were made.

What should I eat or drink at each market?

The Nuremberg Christmas market. CHARISSA FAY/VIKING

Eating and drinking is a key component of the Christmas market experience. Each market sells an abundance of food, and the food options change from town to town.

Before you cruise, make a list of regional foods you wish to try in each market. Once at the market, look around to see which food stands are popular with locals. Follow their lead because they likely know who has the best treats.

Here are my favorite sweet and savory treats from each Christmas market I visited on my Viking cruise.

Drinking at Christmas markets around Europe normally means getting a hot glass of glühwein, which is mulled wine made with red wine, spices and fruit. The drink is normally served in cute mugs that you can keep as a fun and cheap souvenir. If you don’t want to keep your mug, you can return it and get back a euro or two.

What else can I do in each market besides shop?

The Cologne Christmas Market. MARY QUINCY/VIKING

Each Christmas market is different, and the things to do besides shopping are also varied.

Most of the larger markets, like the ones in Bratislava and Budapest, have live music playing from a bandstand that you can enjoy. In Budapest, the market near St. Stephen’s Basilica had a projection show on the exterior of the church, too.

While touring one of the Linz markets, I stumbled upon a small carnival where rides and games were set up for kids to enjoy. Then in Vienna, the City Hall Christmas market had an ice skating rink that was popular with families and couples.

Related: Are river cruises right for kids?

What times do the markets open and close?

Generally, the Christmas markets open in midmorning, anywhere from 9 to 10 a.m., and close between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. Some markets will open earlier, and some will close later.

The best way to know the times of each market you’re visiting is to do a quick internet search close to the time of your river cruise. Put the name of the city and the words “Christmas Market hours” into your preferred online search tool to get the operational hours for each market.

Do you need cash for the Christmas markets?

A drink at Vienna’s Christmas Market. MEGAN DUBOIS/FOR THE POINTS GUY

You should always carry some cash with you for the Christmas markets. While many of the vendors will take credit cards or Apple Pay, others only want cash.

It’s also a good idea to know the currency of each destination you’re going to. For example, in Hungary, euros are not accepted anywhere, so I exchanged dollars for Hungarian forints to use at the Christmas market.

What can I do in each city before or after the Christmas market?

Your river cruise will offer an included tour every day. On my Viking river cruise, each day’s included tour was a walking tour of the city to point out historic landmarks and show people how to get to the Christmas markets.

After a few days, I found the walking tours somewhat repetitive. They all showed off the major church in the city center and described how the city navigated various wars. The guides make or break the tours, and you never know who you’ll get. So I used the tours to help navigate to the city center, then ventured off on my own with my travel companion. We used walking directions on Google Maps as a way to get to destinations we were interested in and to get back to the ship once we were ready to warm up for a while.

River cruises include a lot of perks, including docking right at the edge of most of the towns you visit. This means that in many destinations, you can walk from the ship to the middle of town in mere minutes. Before or after visiting the Christmas market, you can spend your time exploring the city, dining in a local restaurant, sipping hot coffee in a cafe or popping into shops.

For larger destinations like Vienna, Paris or Amsterdam, you might want to do extra research on what there is to do in the city for free or at a discount. Many museums offer free or discounted entry on select days or to select ages.

Bottom line

If you’ve ever wanted to explore European Christmas markets, a river cruise is an easy way to do it. Many of the best river cruise brands and guided group tour companies offer Christmas markets river cruises throughout Europe.

You’ll make the most of your vacation if you do a little bit of research to determine what there is to do in each city before or after your market visit, which local foods you should try and what to shop for at the markets themselves.

No matter which river you traverse, cruise line you pick, or Christmas markets you visit, you’ll be able to immerse yourself in European holiday culture, learning about the food and drink specialties of the places you visit and how each destination celebrates the holidays. And since you’re on a river cruise, you can experience multiple cities and countries while someone else does the navigation for you, and you only have to unpack once.

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