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The Christmas market, or Weihnachtsmarkt, in Cologne, Germany. Jason Mrachina: "Almost every town has a Christmas market, and they are always well attended. You can go shopping, listen to music, and of course drink Gluhwein. The lights are beautiful, and everyone is always in a great mood."

Jason Mrachina / Special to Cruiseable

The Christmas market, or Weihnachtsmarkt, in Cologne, Germany. Jason Mrachina: "Almost every town has a Christmas market, and they are always well attended. You can go shopping, listen to music, and of course drink Gluhwein. The lights are beautiful, and everyone is always in a great mood."

See Europe’s Christmas markets on a river cruise

Eat, drink & make merry in Germany, France, Switzerland, Austria, Hungary & Czech Republic

Interested in a Christmas market cruise? They're fun and memorable, chiefly because of the festive traditions they draw upon — many date from the Middle Ages, when they were the last chance for townspeople to stock up on supplies.

Today, folks in wool mittens from all over the world, lured by strings of lights looped over snow-capped wooden lodge stalls and the aroma of warm, spicy glühwein, come to Christkindlmarkt, Weihnachtsmarkt and Marché de Noël every holiday season to stock up on locally produced gourmet treats and gifts.

And as most markets were established along rivers for ease of merchant access, a river cruise is the perfect way to see the sights. Most run from the end of November until the first week of January.

Here are eight of the best-known Christmas markets. 

Budapest Christmas Market

The Christmas market in front of the Basilica and St. Stephen’s Square in Budapest, Hungary.
Photo by Matt Kieffer (Creative Commons BY-SA)The Christmas market in front of the Basilica and St. Stephen’s Square in Budapest, Hungary.
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Budapest is a mainstay of a Danube cruise itinerary. In the run-up to Christmas, this visually arresting port of call is rendered even more spectacular as wooden huts are erected around visually arresting Vörösmarty Square and scents of honey cookies, spit-roasted sausages and kurtoskalacs (“chimney cake”) cinnamon pastries fill the air.

Budapest Christmas Market website

Vienna Christmas Market

Vienna's Rathausplatz -- main square -- is ablaze with Christkindlmarkt light
Courtesy of Avalon WaterwaysVienna's Rathausplatz — Town Hall Square — is ablaze with Christkindlmarkt light.
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Vienna’s Christmas tradition dates back to 1298, when city citizens were granted permission to hold a December market, or Krippenmarkt. Today’s Christkindlmarkt consists of 20 separate markets, the most splendid of which is set in the Rathausplatz.  As you wander from baroque architecture to former general hospital, be sure to sample weinachtspunsch, a spiced festive punch made with wine, brandy or schnapps and fruit juice, and hot roasted chestnuts, piping hot from the fire.

Vienna Christmas Market website

Prague Christmas Market

The renowned Christmas Markets of Prague are centered around the Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square.
Courtesy of CzechTourism The renowned Christmas Markets of Prague are centered around the Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square.
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Prague’s Yuletide markets spring up in Wenceslas Square and Old Town Square, where a huge Christmas tree, brought in from Česká Lípa in the Krkonoše mountains in the north, takes center stage against the town’s Gothic skyline. While shopping for embroidered lace, wooden toys, scented candles, and puppets and dolls dressed in traditional costumes, be sure to sample the barbecued sausages (klobása) and warm sugar-coated Trdelník pastries.

Prague Christmas Market website 

Strasbourg Christmas Market

The Christmas market in Strasbourg, France.
Photo by Francois Schnell (Creative Commons BY)The Christmas market in Strasbourg, France.
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Dating from 1570, the Christkindelsmärik in Strasbourg, France, is one of Europe’s most extensive markets, featuring 300 stalls scattered over 12 locations in the city center. Aside from myriad opportunities to pick up traditional Alsatian decorations, local wines and craft beers — don’t forget your souvenir stein — and collectible books, attractions include caroling, ice skating and a lavishly decorated fir tree that towers over the town square’s six-story buildings.

Strasbourg Christmas Market website

Cologne Christmas Market

The Railway Bridge and the Cologne Cathedral at night during the holidays. At left is the floating Christmas market on the Rhine.
Richard Barrett-Small / Creative Commons BY The Railway Bridge and the Cologne Cathedral at night during the holidays. At left is the floating Christmas market on the Rhine.
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 Festive activities abound within Cologne’s seven Christmas markets. You can go ice skating, visit St. Nick’s village, soak up the maritime atmosphere at Harbour Christmas Market or catch a stage show at the gay-lesbian Christmas Avenue market between Rudolfplatz and Schaafenstraßee. The Neumarkt Christmas Market — Cologne's oldest Christmas Market, located in the city’s "New Market" against the backdrop of St. Aposteln’s Church — is a welcoming knot of light-festooned stalls encircling a huge Christmas tree and live music stage. You’ll find Cologne’s largest festive market, comprising more than 160 decorated chalet stalls, lining the streets around the Cologne Cathedral while the  charming Christmas Market within the Altstadt (Old Town), 200 yards away, is a must see for its narrow-gabled houses and half-timbered stalls, roundabout, puppet theater and Santa Claus’ grotto.

Cologne Christmas Market website

Nuremberg Christmas Market

The heady aromas of bratwurst, Glühwein and ginger cookies rise from striped awnings at Nuremberg's Christkindlesmarkt
Courtesy of Grand Circle Cruise LinesThe heady aromas of bratwurst, Glühwein and ginger cookies rise from striped awnings at Nuremberg's Christkindlesmarkt.
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Home to one of Europe’s most famous markets, Nuremberg, Germany, is often the start or culmination of a Christmas market cruise. You can opt to stroll through the stalls selling handicrafts and beautiful glass, wooden and famous Nuremberg Rauschgoldengel (gold-foil angel) tree ornaments,  or jump on a horse-drawn carriage. Don’t leave without trying the Lebkuchen, a specialty ginger cookie that has been baked in Nuremberg for more than 600 years.

Nuremberg Christmas Market website

Dresden Christmas Market

Illuminated star decorations at Dresden Christmas Market

Illuminated star decorations at the Dresden Christmas Market.

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Traditionally called Striezelmarkt — a name derived from Hefestriezel, better known as “Dresden Christstollen,” or German Christmas Cake — this Christmas market is Germany’s oldest, dating from 1434. Centered on the Altmarkt Square in the historical city center, it consists of many themed Christmas Markets that extend up to the main railway station and the Albertplatz. Specialties here include indigo-dyed textiles and pottery from Lusatia, gingerbread from Pulsnitz and blown glass tree decorations from Lauscha.

Dresden Christmas market website

Basel Christmas Market

Decorated gingerbread cookies dangle from a festive stall
Courtesy of Grand Circle Cruise LinesDecorated gingerbread cookies dangle from a festive stall.
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Basel’s center along the Rhine is home to two charming festive markets. Set over the Barfüsserplatz and Münsterplatz, together they are ranked among the most beautiful Christmas markets in Switzerland: The tree bedecked by ornaments by well-known decorator Johann Wanner is a must-see. As you peruse its 180 stalls, you’ll see everything from embroidered hats and scarves to waffles, Glühwein, Basel’s specialty gingerbread Läckerli and Swiss raclette. (By the way, Glühwein is roughly translated as "glow-wine," from the hot irons once used for creating mulled wine.)

Basel Christmas Market website

Best Christmas market cruises

So how to you get to visit the markets above? Below we highlight some of the main river cruise lines that cater to European Christmas markets, along with starting prices and itineraries. 

If you're interested in going, contact a Cruiseable travel advocate to discuss your best options. Remember that many Christmas market cruises sell out a year or more in advance so you may want to consider planning for a 2016 or 2017 Christmas market cruise. 

Here are Cruiseable's picks of the top Christmas market cruises:

AmaWaterways

  • Christmas Markets on the Rhine: 8 days, from $1,679
    Nuremberg - Regensburg - Passau - Linz - Melk - Vienna - Budapest
  • Christmas Markets on the Danube: 8 days, from $1,679
    Amsterdam - Cologne - Rüdesheim - Speyer - Strasbourg - Breisach - Basel

Christmas markets on AmaWaterways

Avalon Waterways River Cruises

  • Christmastime on the Danube: 9 days, from $2,369
    Vienna - Durnstein - Melk - Passau - Regensburg - Nuremberg - Prague

Christmas markets on Avalon

Grand Circle Cruise Lines

  • Christmas Markets Along the Danube: 8 days, from $1,395
    Nuremberg • Regensburg • Passau • Linz • Melk • Vienna
  • Christmas Markets Along the Rhine: 11 days from $1,545
    Basel - Breisach - Strasbourg - Plittersdorf - Baden-Baden - Speyer - Mainz - Koblenz - Cologne - Amsterdam
  • Christmas Markets Along the Elbe: 11 days from $1,995
    Berlin • Potsdam • Magdeburg • Wittenberg • Meissen • Dresden

Christmas markets on the Danube on Grand Circle Cruise Lines

Tauck

  • Christmas markets along the Danube: 8 days, from $2,095
    Nuremberg - Regensberg - Passau - Salzberg - Linz - Melk - Vienna

Christmas markets on Tauck River Cruising

Uniworld Boutique River Cruises

  • Classic Christmas Markets: 8 days, from $2,799
    Nuremberg - Bamberg - Rothenburg - Würzburg - Frankfurt
  • Danube Holiday Markets: 8 days, from $3,299
    Budapest - Bratislava - Vienna - Krems - Linz - Passau
  • Rhine Holiday Markets: 8 days, from $2,899
    Basel - Strasbourg - Heidelberg - Mainz - Koblenz - Cologne
  • European Holiday Markets: 8 days, from $2,999
    Nuremberg - Regensburg - Passau - Linz - Vienna

Christmas markets on Uniworld

Viking Cruises

  • Romantic Danube: 8 days, from $1,096
    Budapest - Vienna - Krems - Passau - Regensberg - Nuremberg
  • Danube Waltz: 8 days, from $2,056
    Budapest - Bratislava - Vienna - Melk - Linz - Passau

Christmas markets on Viking

More information

Interested in more information about any of these choices? Contact Cruiseable or call a travel advocate (it's free) at 1-877-322-3773.

Gemma Z Price
Cruiseable team member Gemma Price left her native England over 10 years ago and has since lived in Japan, Australia and Vietnam, covering all things luxury travel and lifestyle for titles such as WWD, Conde Nast Traveller, Travel + Leisure, USA Today, WSJ, Time and Departures.

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