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
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.
Vienna Christmas Market
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.
Prague Christmas Market
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.
Strasbourg Christmas Market
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.
Cologne Christmas Market
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.
Nuremberg Christmas Market
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.
Dresden Christmas Market
Basel Christmas Market
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.)
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:
- 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
Avalon Waterways River Cruises
- Christmastime on the Danube: 9 days, from $2,369
Vienna - Durnstein - Melk - Passau - Regensburg - Nuremberg - Prague
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 along the Danube: 8 days, from $2,095
Nuremberg - Regensberg - Passau - Salzberg - Linz - Melk - Vienna
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
- 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
Interested in more information about any of these choices? Contact Cruiseable or call a travel advocate (it's free) at 1-877-322-3773.