Sailing and Shopping


Cruisers love visiting Europe’s Christmas markets on a river cruise

David Rentsch

President, Cruise Holidays

Cruisers who sail on European rivers each November and December will get to enjoy a far different experience than if they’d sailed in spring, summer or fall. While the weather is cooler, destinations are often less crowded. The sun also sets earlier in the evening, but the reward is that travelers can explore festive Christmas markets, each with a different personality, and most with twinkling lights.

Markets foster the holiday spirit via large decorated trees, Advent clocks, Nativity scenes, carolers and other entertainment. Food stalls hawk everything from German sausages to French cakes, hot chestnuts, candied fruit, gingerbread biscuits (called Lebkuchen), and other local treats.

Lest travelers think Christmas markets reflect modern commercialism, it’s important to know that the large Christmas market in front of Vienna’s city hall dates to 1298. Similarly, the market on Cathedral Square in Salzburg, Austria, began in the 15th century.

Not all holiday activities happen within the markets. This year, Avalon Waterways offers several new culture-and-cruise options on Christmas market cruises. Guests on Avalon Vista’s “Christmas in Alsace & Germany” itinerary will listen to a live accordion presentation and view a woodcarving demonstration onboard. During the ship’s “Christmas in Germany” cruises, a new beer tasting activity will be offered while the ship is in Bamberg.

Avalon Waterways also increased the number of “Christmas on the Danube” cruises from two to three this year. During those cruises, travelers will hear a new lecture from a local expert about the Main Danube canal and attend a Wachau wine tasting. These nine-day itineraries feature guided sightseeing in each city and visits to Christmas markets in Vienna, Regensburg, Nuremberg, and Prague.

The Christmas markets, which run throughout the Advent period from late November through the third week in December (some stay open later), are a high sensory experience. As the aroma of hot mulled cider wafts through the air, travelers watch local residents create and sell their local crafts. A top activity for cruisers is buying hand-made items to take home to family members and friends.

While touring at the Prague Christmas market, we’d suggest trying the smoked ham or barbecued sausages. You can wash these local specialties down with a cup of hot mulled wine or a Pilsner Urquell, Staropramen or Budvar brew. In addition, Avalon has added “special interest departures” that include the Christmas markets on its “Magnificent Europe” and “Romantic Rhine” departures.

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Some towns have one market, others many more. In Linz, Austria, the markets are held in the Baroque-style main square and at the Volksgarten. An easy way to get from one market to the other is on the Linz City Express. Cologne, Germany has six different markets, many with stalls in wooden huts, while amazingly, Vienna fields 20 official markets.