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AARP's Guide to Europe’s Christmas Market Cruises

It's not too early to book these popular river journeys along the Danube, Main and Rhine for 2022​​​

Cologne Christmas market

Courtesy AmaWaterways

Christmas market shoppers in Strasbourg, France

En español

Cruising Europe’s rivers is an increasingly popular way to explore quaint towns and historic cities in countries such as France and Germany, especially in summer. But another peak time for these journeys is around the holidays, the season for Christmas market cruises — immensely popular sailings on small river ships that offer guests easy on-and-off access to these festive markets that transform city and village centers across the continent into magical winter wonderlands.

The continued uncertainty about COVID-19 and the complicated pandemic-related entry requirements and safety measures have prompted many people to skip cruising Europe in 2021 and book their Christmas cruises for 2022 or 2023 — joining travelers who rescheduled their canceled 2020 cruises for later years. And some of those who did schedule 2021 sailings are now learning their cruises have been canceled or itineraries changed because of the COVID-related lockdown recently announced by Austria and the threat that Germany may do the same.  

That means the 2022 holidays sailings are filling up even faster than usual, with 60 percent of the space on AmaWaterways’ cruises already booked, for example, and 40 percent on Uniworld Boutique River Cruises. Pre-pandemic, Uniworld’s Christmas market cruises would only be about 17 percent booked a year from departure, says Uniworld CEO Ellen Bettridge.

So if you’re considering one of these festive journeys for next year’s holiday season, now is the time to be making your plans. 

“For 2022, you need to be booking now to get the best holiday cruises, and cabins with the best locations, at the best prices,” says Susy Schreiner, owner of Azure Blue Vacations in Seattle, who started booking the 2022 holiday cruises in September to ensure her clients got their preferred choices. If you wait, she adds, your pickings will likely be slim and you’re unlikely to get a price break because fares typically don’t dip for these popular trips.

Schreiner notes that you’ll have to pay a nonrefundable deposit but that your dates are moveable. “The cruise lines know there has to be some flexibility,” she says.

Cost

Prices for these cruises vary widely. You can spend as little as $1,195 per person (all prices are for double-occupancy) for a lower-deck cabin with no balcony on four-night sailings on Emerald Cruises to more than $20,000 per person for a top-of-the line suite on a 10-night sailing with the luxury Crystal line. But generally, prices on most lines run about $500 or $600 per person a night for an upper-deck cabin with a balcony.

What is a Christmas market cruise?

Europe’s oldest Christmas markets date back to the 1400s and 1500s, with Dresden, Germany, and Strasbourg, France, each claiming the oldest. Budapest, Prague and Vienna also boast some of the original markets. But over the past 20 years, these holiday people-pleasers have dramatically expanded across Europe, and in more recent years they have become increasingly popular for river cruise lines, which typically operate holiday sailings along the Danube, Main and Rhine Rivers. The cruises hit some of Europe’s top markets in Austria, France, Germany and Hungary — as well as smaller markets in the Alsace region of France and Slovakia.

“It’s just gorgeous,” says Mary Kate Beard, 77, of Guntersville, Alabama, who took a holiday cruise along the Rhine from Amsterdam to Basel, Switzerland, and wouldn’t hesitate to do another one. “It was like being in a fairy land every night,” she says of the brightly decorated towns, giant Christmas trees and festive atmosphere across the markets.

Brenda Kyllo, vice president of strategic alliances for AmaWaterways, thinks Americans are drawn to the markets “because the spirit of Christmas in Europe is stronger and less commercial than here,” not to mention their long history and deeply rooted local traditions, their arts and handicrafts, and the tasty local foods sold at each market.

Kyllo compares the Christmas market cruises to the springtime tulip cruises in Holland and Belgium: “Both run for about a five- to six-week period and both have become much more mainstream experiences.”

While the cruise itineraries may seem similar to the regular Danube and Rhine sailings, guests say they have “a totally different feel,” given that they mix traditional day tours with visits to the festive Christmas markets in late afternoon and into the evening. “In Austria we went to a church [in Oberndorf] and listened to an organ concert and they did ‘Silent Night.’ I thought, ‘Oh my god, this is where Silent Night was written!’ ” says Kathie Elowitt, 78, of Hidden Hills, California, of her Uniworld cruise on the Danube between Budapest and Passau, Germany.

“It definitely puts you in the spirit of the holidays,” says Camille Cutrone Holubar, president of Vista Travel Consultants, a Virtuoso-affiliated travel agency in New Jersey, who has taken six of the cruises.

Why families love them

Like the markets, the ships themselves are decked out with Christmas trees and holiday decorations throughout. Plus, activities and excursions are holiday-focused, making them great for families and multigenerational travel. “More and more families and multigenerational groups are seeing the value and ease. And I think Christmas markets will continue to drive interest ... as we talk about people coming out of COVID wanting to have more family time and making up for lost time,” says Susy Schreiner, owner of Azure Blue Vacations, who’s taking a group of 12 on a Danube cruise at Christmastime this year.       

Uniworld has designated select sailings of its Classic Christmas Markets itinerary from Nuremburg to Frankfurt as family-oriented cruises called the Generations Collection. On those cruises, the line offers kid-friendly menus, onboard activities such as cooking classes and dessert-making for kids, craft workshops, games, movie nights and more.

On AmaWaterways cruises, the ships redecorate every sailing so that guests can pick a tree to decorate with gingerbread cookies they make onboard, Kyllo says. Santa also makes a visit, although Kyllo notes that this year guests may need to keep their distance, due to COVID-19.


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How to choose a cruise

While travelers may see many of the same products across the bigger markets, each also has its own history and unique style of Christmas ornaments and arts and crafts. In Germany, for instance, you’ll find more wood crafts such as hand-carved nutcrackers, while in Austria you’ll see more glass ornaments and snow globes, which were invented there.        

“Everything has to be locally made... That’s one thing I loved,” says Beard, who collects nativity sets. “There’s no telling how many I bought,” she adds.

Beard also loaded up on chocolate and Christmas ornaments that she gave as gifts to her grandchildren and friends. Most of the items were inexpensive. “I spent $2 to $5 on the ornaments, and just $5 to $10 on most of the nativity sets. You can get good bargains on things you don’t see everywhere,” she notes, though “some items are very expensive.”        

Visiting the markets isn’t just about shopping, however. Some cruisers are content just browsing through them and enjoying the merry atmosphere.

“What attracted me was the community,” says Elowitt. “They set up all these booths and decorate them and all the local people come, and they have music. We didn’t buy the products. We just listened to the music and walked around and took pictures.”

Another draw is the food, with each market offering its country's tasty specialties. Almost all of them also serve hot mulled wine, or Glühwein, in colorful collectible mugs unique to each market and typically made of ceramic, clay or glass. You get a refund on the deposit you pay for a mug if you return it to a vendor, or you can bring it home as a souvenir, which many people do. “I brought back every mug from every Glühwein I drank,” says Beard. “I love to use them at Christmas when friends come over. It brings back so many good memories.”

What to expect at markets in different countries …

Austria

Austria’s markets are often described as the most romantic. They're often located outside some of the country’s most historic buildings and stately palaces, such as Vienna’s imperial Schönbrunn Palace. The Salzburg market, located on Festungsberg mountain at the foot of the Hohensalzburg fortress, overlooks the city; and the Krems market takes place right in the center of town. Advent concerts featuring choirs and brass bands add to the markets’ ambience.

What to buy: Blown glass and snow globes are especially prevalent. You’ll also find candles, pottery, wood carvings and other items made by local artisans.

Foods to try: Krapfen, a yeast dough pastry filled with jam or sauerkraut.

Germany

Markets in Cologne and Nuremberg rank among the most popular ones on river-cruise routes in Germany. Cologne is known for its themed markets, including the “Market of Angels” and “Santa Claus Village.” “Heinzels Wintermärchen,” the city’s largest market, delights with an added feature: an ice-skating rink. Nuremberg hosts one of the country’s largest and most famous markets, set in the center of Old Town.

What to buy: Hand-carved wooden nativity scenes and nussknackers (nutcrackers), and Zwetschgenmännles (figurines made from decorated dried plums).

Foods to try: The bratwurst, of course, but also Lebkuchen gingerbread cakes, potato cakes and candied almonds. Do sample the Eierpunsch, an egg-based drink similar to eggnog made with wine and brandy or rum and served warm.

Hungary

Many people consider Budapest, the only Hungarian city where the holiday cruises stop, home to Europe’s most beautiful Christmas markets. The biggest, in Vörösmarty Square in the heart of the city, runs longer than many, starting in early November and ending on Jan. 1, rather than on Christmas Eve or a day or two before. Its free daily concerts featuring a wide range of music, including Hungarian folk music, are an added plus.

What to buy: Beaded bracelets, embroidered ornaments and gloves, fragrant dried spices and sheepskin hats.

Foods to try: Goulash, kolbasz (hot dogs), strudel and cabbage rolls stuffed with ground beef, ground pork and rice.

Santa Claus doll at a market

Courtesy AmaWaterways

Santa at the Christmas market in Riquewihr, France

France

Rhine cruises, which generally sail between Amsterdam and Basel, Switzerland, feature stops at markets in the Alsace region of France, including the country’s oldest Christmas market in Strasbourg and smaller markets in villages such as Riquewihr.

What to buy: Storks are a centuries-old symbol of Alsace, so the markets sell stork ornaments, stork figurines and table linens embroidered with storks.

Foods to try: Nut’Alsace, a hazelnut cocoa spread; bredles, small cakes or cookies often shaped like stars, Christmas trees and storks; and knack, a sausage traditionally flavored with black truffles and smoked with beechwood.

Something new this year: You’ll get a different experience along the Rhone in Provence, where AmaWaterways is offering a holiday cruise for the first time this year, and where Emerald Cruises will sail next year. In this region, popular sellers are santons, clay figurines that people in the South of France collect for nativity scenes in their homes. But they go beyond the usual nativity figures to include figures of community members, from the butcher and the baker to children. Food is a focus, too. “The locals are there buying their foie gras, oysters and champagne,” Kyllo says. “It’s not staged for tourists.”

Slovakia

Many Danube sailings stop in Bratislava, the capitol of Slovakia, home to several markets, including one in the courtyard of the Old Town Hall and another one at Bratislava Castle, which overlooks the city.

What to buy: Embroidered linens, handmade candles, hanging potpourri, Slovakian ceramics and handmade jewelry.

Foods to try: Homemade lokshe (potato pancakes with various sweet and sour fillings), cabbage soup, traditional Bratislavské rožky pastries filled with poppy seeds or walnuts, and Trdelnik (chimney cake), raised dough cooked over fire and then rolled in cinnamon, coconut, chocolate or poppyseed.

Editor's note: This article was originally published on October 26, 2021. It's been updated to reflect new information. 

Jeri Clausing, a freelance writer based in Corrales, New Mexico, has covered the travel beat for more than a decade. Most recently, she was a senior editor at Travel Weekly, where she regularly wrote about river cruising. 

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