Christmas is my favourite time of the year, and my mom’s too. We’re both Christmas crazy and go all out during the festive season. Both of us love the bustle of holiday crowds, the Christmas songs, and of course the lights and decorations. And while neither one of us would trade our (normally) white Christmases at home, we both love the idea of Europe’s Christmas markets; something that Canada just doesn’t really have.
Every couple of years I try to do something special with my mom. Two years ago we did some of the Christmas markets in Austria and Germany; a must after I discovered European Christmas markets when I was living in Ireland. Although we loved it, my mom found it tiring. Hours spent on trains to get to and from picturesque towns that, although magical, really only require a day to visit. It felt like we spent more time packing/unpacking and travelling than actually exploring the markets and quaint towns that we came to see.
This time, I wanted to do something different. To somehow experience Europe’s magical Christmas markets without spending all of our time travelling back and forth between them. I wanted something easy and relaxing, but fun. Something that would allow us to see a number of different places without the stress. It was a high order, for sure, but I found the solution in a Viking River Cruise: The Romantic Danube Christmas Market Cruise.
The Romantic Danube route is an 8-day trip running from Nuremberg, Germany to Budapest, Hungary (or vice versa). Over the course of eight days we stopped in several other spots along the way: Regensburg and Passau (Germany), and Krems and Vienna (Austria). It was a perfect mix of picturesque villages and large cities.
Of course, while the stops are amazing, one of the highlights of travelling by a long ship is also the cruising. Much of the cruising was done at night to allow us more time in port, however the scenic routes were done during the day to allow the passengers a glimpse of some of the most beautiful scenery in the area.
The highlight on the Romantic Danube route was the Wachau Valley. We had about two hours of sailing past vineyards, colourful villages, towering abbeys, and crumbling castles. Each of which seemed to have a story of its own. One of the most interesting sights, for me, was the remains of a castle perched on the hill over the town of Durnstein. While it didn’t look like a fairytale castle, it once held Richard the Lionheart as it’s prisoner hundreds of years ago.
The Christmas Markets
While this route isn’t Christmas specific, there’s no doubt that the holiday season added something special making it the perfect pick for a Christmas market cruise. All but one of our stops (Krems, for Gotttweig Abbey) had Christmas markets, and I have to say some the markets quickly made their way onto my list of all-time favourites.
Germany’s markets seemed to have the most authentic items; good quality and German made decorations and ornaments along with a variety of artisanal works from local craftsmen and women. Nuremberg’s main Christmas market is heaven for any Christmas addict looking for special decorations; tin and wooden ornaments, nut crackers, adorable smokers, and quaint Christmas villages are a few of the thing to find.
Regensburg has four small markets in the city centre that are good to wander, but the real gem is the Christmas market at the Thurn and Taxis Castle at the edge of town. Viking offered a tour to the Castle and the market, however if you only wanted to see the Christmas market and not tour the castle you can go on you own. There is a fee; ranging from 4-7 euro depending on the day but it absolutely worth it. The fairytale backdrop of the castle behind decorated stalls made for beautiful photos. The items for sale were more craft/artisanal and there were plenty of food and gluwein vendors and adorable benches beside outdoor fireplaces for when you were hungry or wanted a break. It was the perfect place to spend a couple of hours getting into the Christmas spirit.
Vienna has what might be some of the most beautiful Christmas markets. Though I didn’t find the items for sale to be as good quality/interesting as what we say in Germany, I absolutely love the market in front of Schonbrunn Palace and of course the big one in front of the Town Hall. The Town Hall market is especially beautiful at night; all the trees are decorated and each of the stalls have lights as well. It’s a winter wonderland, even without the snow. If you’re hungry, make sure to grab one of the soup in a bread bowl; they are delicious.
Budapest’s Christmas markets came as a surprise to me. After being in Germany and Austria which are known to have the probably the best market in Europe, I was pleasantly surprised by what I found in Budapest. There are several markets but the main ones are in front of of St. Stephen’s Basilica and in the main square by the Vigado Concert Hall (along Vaci Street; the main shopping street). The market in front of the Basilica is prettier, but the market I liked the market by the concert hall more. The items for sale were more craft and handmade items from local artisans. Everything from leather wallets and artwork to stuffed animals and jewelry. It was very different than what we saw in both Germany and Hungary and fun to explore.
Of course there are dozens of other markets between all the stops on the cruise, but the ones I’ve listed above are my favourites and top suggestions.
Life on Board
Life on board is easy, relaxing, and never boring. Our ship, the Viking Jarl, held just under 200 passengers though it never felt full or over-crowded. To be honest, I was worried I might be bored but we spent so much time exploring both on our own and with the tours in the ports that by the time we needed to be on board, I was more than happy relaxing in the lounge with a warm cup of hot chocolate or curling up in my stateroom to watch a movie. It never felt too slow and there was plenty of onboard entertainment and good company to be found in other guests.
Both my mom and I quickly fell in love with the ease of travelling on a Viking River Cruise. Being able to actually unpack (and stay unpacked for a whole week) was so refreshing. Another aspect we both loved was the dining; three meals a day were included and while we were welcome to eat while exploring at port, it was really nice to know we had a warm, good meal waiting for us onboard as well. Especially at night when it was colder, dark, and we were tired from exploring. There was no need to bundle up and try to find somewhere good with an available table. We just needed to walk downstairs for a delicious three course meal.
While the relaxing time and ease of travel were definite highlights of river cruising, what made our Viking experience so incredible was the service. My mom (who travels frequently for work) and I both commented that neither one of us had ever experienced such good service. The Viking Jarl team was fast, efficient, friendly, and welcoming. By the end, it felt more like being among friends than being a guest on board.
The Best Way to Experience Christmas Markets in Europe?
This was the third time I’d travelled to Europe for the Christmas markets. My first trip I used busses and planes. My second trip with my mom we used trains, so after all of that I think I can I can honestly say that cruising was by far the best way to get around. Our travel times were shorter (often cruising far distances at night) and those times we did travel during the day it was scenic. The ability to unpack and really settle in made a huge difference in terms of being able to relax, and there was more than enough to do and see to keep us entertained and occupied. Pair that with a route that encompassed a good mix of small towns, big cities, and plenty of wonderful Christmas markets and you have the ultimate European Christmas market vacation.
Our experience with the Viking River Christmas Market Cruise: Romantic Danube route on the Viking Jarl, was without a doubt the perfect mother-daughter trip and provided hundreds of memories that we will both cherish for the rest of our lives.
*This is not paid content, however, my mom and I were both invited by Viking River Cruises to take part in this trip. All opinions are as always, my own.