Live musical performers entertain shoppers in Cologne — Photo courtesy of Erica Lamberg
If you want to celebrate the festive holiday season abroad, one of the most incredible ways to experience European Christmas markets is to take a river cruise. This season, I embarked on Christmas on the Rhine, an eight-day river cruise, on the Viking longship Sigyn. It began in Basel, Switzerland, and ended in Amsterdam, The Netherlands.
The itinerary wound its way through the very best of Europe's festive Christmas villages, each with handcrafted holiday décor and treasures from local artisans. Passengers could wander the markets by day and explore twinkly streetscapes by night. We enjoyed holiday music concerts, sampled regional fare offered by food vendors, and tried mulled wine and craft beers.
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With Strasbourg Cathedral in the background, a festive holiday vendor sells handmade cookies, baked goods and other delectables — Photo courtesy of Erica Lamberg
Some of the ports along the way included the German towns of Breisach, Mannheim, Rüdesheim, Koblenz and Düsseldorf. We also visited Dordrecht, The Netherlands, and Strasbourg, France. Three of my favorite stops were Strasbourg, Cologne and Rüdesheim.
In Strasbourg, the gorgeous canals, brightly hued houses, charming cobblestone streets and friendly residents at every turn stay with you, long after leaving this idyllic French city. For beer enthusiasts and history buffs, Cologne exceeds expectations. Open-air Christmas markets offer handcrafted collectibles, ornaments, woolen goods and more. Dozens of food vendors share culinary masterpieces that add to the fun.
The entrance to one of the Christmas markets in Cologne — Photo courtesy of Erica Lamberg
In Rüdesheim, we took an evening stroll along the city's cobblestone streets, so beautifully appointed with festive lights and traditional garb. Around every corner, we discovered more food stands, crafters and shops to explore.
“Christmas markets are absolutely magical this time of year; it’s like walking inside a snow globe,” says Colleen McDaniel, editor-in-chief of Cruise Critic. “I have a hard time thinking of anywhere else you’d experience the level of Christmas spirit you do at Christmas markets. The sights, sounds and scents are enthralling.”
What to expect on a river cruise
A festive evening scene from Basel's city center — Photo courtesy of Erica Lamberg
McDaniel says if you’ve cruised on an ocean-going vessel, expect a more intimate onboard experience on a river cruise.
“River ships carry far fewer guests, have a higher crew-to-guest ratio, and don’t have those larger bells and whistles,” she says. McDaniel says travelers will find plenty of spaces on board to enjoy the views, as well as a plethora of enrichment opportunities that immerse travelers in the places they visit.
Because of their small size, river ships are able to pull right into the heart of some of the most quaint and special towns Europe has to offer. If you feel inspired to dive deeper into the history of a place, Viking and other river cruise companies often offer guided excursions, some included and some optional.
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“It’s an incredibly pleasant way to travel, even more so than if you were following the same itinerary by land, because you completely erase the frantic parts of the travel process," McDaniel says. "There are no trains to catch, no airports to brave, and you’ll have just one room to call home for the duration of your trip."
When it comes to planning a Christmas market cruise vacation, there are many river cruise carriers from which to choose.
“These holiday sailings tend to sell out quickly, as much as a year in advance," says McDaniel, "so plan accordingly.”