Christmas Markets with Viking River Cruises: What’s It Really Like?

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We've all seen the commercials interspersed in episodes of Downtown Abbey on PBS: those tranquil ads narrated by a soothing British accent, starring a Viking longship sailing down the Danube in Budapest or some other picturesque river in Europe.

And we've thought to ourselves, “That looks pretty cool. I'd like to do that someday.”

Well, there's no better time than the present, people.

Sailing the Upper Middle Rhine

I'm not really new to river cruising – my partner Elliot and I went on our first river cruise in April 2015, when we sailed down the lower Danube through Eastern Europe – but I still get a little flutter when I see those Viking commercials.

Everything about river cruising appeals to me: the small ships, the port stops every single day, the fact that just about everything is included. And, of course, the luxury of unpacking a suitcase in a cozy state room and not having to re-pack it until the end of the cruise.

So when Viking River Cruises contacted me inviting me to check “visit Christmas markets in Europe” off my bucket list last year, I just about leapt at the chance. Not only would it mean a river cruise down a new river in Europe, but it was also going to be in December, when European cities deck the halls, streets, and everything in between for the holidays.

Cologne Cathedral Christmas market
Cologne Cathedral Christmas market
Speyer, Germany
A festive Speyer, Germany

I ended up going on Viking's Rhine Getaway, which sails down the Rhine between Amsterdam and Basel, making stops in both Germany and France. You can book this same cruise at any time of year, but in December the focus is almost entirely on the region's Christmas markets.

Before going on this cruise, I had a hunch that a river-based tour might be one of the best ways to visit a lot of different cities and Christmas markets in a relatively short period of time. And I think I was right.

Heidelberg Christmas market
Heidelberg Christmas market
Christmas market in Colmar, France
Christmas market in Colmar, France

Read on for answers to some of the most frequently-asked questions about sailing on a Christmas market cruise with Viking River Cruises.

How is a Christmas market river cruise different from a regular one?

Like I mentioned above, you can book Viking's Rhine Getaway cruise at any time of year. The cruise sails between Amsterdam and Basel, with multiple departures each month. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, however, the itinerary focuses on the Christmas markets that Europe is so known for.

Christmas market in Rudesheim, Germany
Christmas market in Rudesheim, Germany

The itinerary doesn't change, though, and the tours offered in each port city don't change in December, either. But your guides will point out all the Christmas markets in the city for you to explore during your free time, and that's what most people end up doing.

Gluhwein mug in Germany

On board the ship, you'll enjoy festive activities like tree-trimming and gingerbread house decorating, and warm drink options will usually include mulled wine. On my cruise, our program director even did an intro to European Christmas markets on one of the first nights, giving us a brief history lesson and suggestions on what to buy in each city.

The atmosphere in most European cities around Christmas is already so festive that Viking doesn't really have to do a whole lot to create a “Christmas market” cruise itinerary.

Christmas market in Rudesheim, Germany
Christmas market in Rudesheim, Germany

RELATED: 23 Photos That Will Make You Want to Go to a European Christmas Market Right Now

What are the cruise highlights?

The Rhine Getaway cruise sails down the Rhine, the busiest river in all of Europe. Port calls are almost all in Germany and France, and you make at least one stop – sometimes two – per day.

My personal highlights included:

  • A stop and tour at Kinderdijk to see the famous traditional windmills that help keep the Netherlands above sea level.
  • A full day in Cologne to explore and visit the city's eight Christmas markets.
  • Sailing the Upper Middle Rhine for half a day, passing lots of cute towns and hillside castles.
  • An evening stop in Rudesheim to visit its Christmas markets at night.
  • A tour of Heidelberg that included a visit to the city's half-ruined castle.
  • Wandering around gorgeous Speyer, with its huge cathedral and adorable Christmas market.
  • Finally visiting the Alsace city of Strasbourg.
  • Optional tours to Freiberg, Germany and Colmar, France.
Traditional Dutch windmill at Kinderdijk
Traditional Dutch windmill at Kinderdijk
Cologne, Germany
Cologne, Germany
Sailing the Upper Middle Rhine
Sailing the Upper Middle Rhine

In each port there was usually an included bus/walking tour of the city with a local guide, and then some free time. There were optional extra tours, too, such as a beer hall crawl in Cologne, and a music-filled traditional dinner in Rudesheim.

You could sign up for some, all, or none of the tours – there was also always the option to explore entirely on your own, which was made easy by the fact that the ship was usually docked within walking distance of a city center.

Colmar, France
Optional trip to Colmar, France
Dinner in Rudesheim, Germany
Optional (and fun) dinner in Rudesheim

I was 100% dedicated to visiting as many Christmas markets as possible on this cruise and consequently was racking up 20,000+ steps each day on my Fitbit, but for some who have done Christmas market cruises in the past (many Viking cruisers come back again and again), they opted for more relaxing days.

Check out this video for more of the highlights:

Who goes on Viking River Cruises?

Speaking of those Viking cruisers, there's a common belief among people who have never been on a river cruise that they are mostly “for” an older crowd. And while there were lots of older couples and groups of friends on my Christmas market cruise, there was also a fairly sizable younger crowd, too. There were about a dozen 20-somethings traveling with a larger group from Pennsylvania, and we had a young couple honeymooning on the ship, too.

I really believe that river cruising is becoming the new “it” way to see Europe, and it's only a matter of time before everyone is doing it. Right now, I think river cruises make for fantastic multi-generational trips. (In fact, I took Elliot's mom with me on this one!)

Heidelberg, Germany
Sailing through Heidelberg

After two river cruises, I've also gleaned that river cruise passengers tend to be extremely well-traveled. Most of the people we chatted with at meal times regaled us with stories of trips to just about every corner of the world, making for some fascinating conversation.

What is the ship like?

Viking River Cruises is a Scandinavian company, and the design of its ships reflects this. Clean lines and neutral colors are the norm.

The ship I was on was the Viking Idi, which holds just under 200 passengers. The state rooms are built with function in mind, with either two twin beds or one queen, depending on how you're traveling. The bathrooms are small but incredibly space-efficient, and our room also had a veranda big enough for two chairs.

My favorite feature in each room, though? Two different types of wall outlets – one to fit European plugs and another for US devices!

State room on the Viking Idi
Our stateroom

On board the Viking Idi

Beyond the state rooms, the ship had a large and comfortable lounge with a bar, a small library, one main restaurant, and one terrace at the front of the ship where they served buffet-style meals.On the top deck was a sun deck with a walking track and a couple of small putting greens.

It also had two coffee stations at the entrance to the lounge, meaning you could bet on always having access to coffee, hot chocolate, and fresh cookies.

Lounge bar on the Viking Idi
The Viking Idi bar

What is there to do on the ship?

Here's the thing about a river cruise: since you sail right into cities, you're not actually meant to spend a ton of time on the ship. That's why you won't find a theater or casino or any of the things you'd find on a large ocean liner.

Elliot's mom and I took advantage of just about every minute of time we had off the ship, meaning we were usually only there for meal times and maybe a couple of hours in the evenings.

Viking Idi
For example, we barely used our balcony at all.

If you DO spend more time on the ship, though, there are a few things to do. Nearly every afternoon there was some sort of activity in the lounge (many times involving food and/or alcohol), and there was some form of entertainment just about every night. This entertainment ranged from local musicians coming aboard to perform to trivia nights.

On board the Viking Idi

Don't want to hang out in the lounge? The state room TVs came equipped with a selection of movies and TV shows that you could watch for free. We felt compelled to start re-watching Downton Abbey, and also watched a pretty cool documentary about Vikings before bed each night.

How often do you stop?

River cruising in Europe is great because so many cities are built right ON the large water ways. This means that getting to/from the main attractions is really easy in many ports.

On the Rhine Getaway itinerary, we stopped somewhere at least once a day. A couple of days we stopped somewhere in the morning, and then met up with the ship somewhere else in the afternoon. It's really quite incredible how they plan the itinerary and excursions so precisely.

Kinderdijk in the Netherlands
Kinderdijk
Heidelberg, Germany, from above
Heidelberg, Germany

In about half the ports you could walk off the ship and directly into the city you were visiting. In the other half, buses had to pick us up at the river and transport us into a city if it wasn't on the river, or if it was on a smaller tributary to the Rhine (i.e. places like Heidelberg and Strasbourg).

Christmas market in Speyer, Germany
In Speyer, you could walk right from the ship into town.
Strasbourg, France
But we had to get bussed to Strasbourg.

How much free time do you get?

How much free time you end up with in each port totally depends on what you decide to do. There's a free tour offered in just about every city, and on this itinerary they are often walking tours. I LOVE walking tours in cities I've never visited before, because they usually give you such a great overview of the city's main sites and history.

In this case, the guides would also point out all the Christmas markets that we could visit on our own.

Inside Cologne Cathedral
Our walking tour in Cologne included a visit to the magnificent Cologne Cathedral.
Cologne Christmas market
And then in our free time, we went to a bunch of Christmas markets.

Even if you do every walking tour, though, you still end up with free time. The amount of free time varies – for example, we had an entire free day in Cologne, and only about 4-5 hours in the evening in Speyer.

But, in most cases, I didn't feel rushed at all. Many of the places we visited for a couple of hours in the evenings (like Rudesheim and Speyer) were small enough that you could easily wander around the city center and grab a gluhwein in about an hour.

Love locks on the Hohenzollernbrücke railway bridge in Cologne
In Cologne, we also used free time to see the love locks on the Hohenzollernbrücke railway bridge.
Christmas market in Rudesheim, Germany
In Rudesheim, a couple hours was plenty of time to visit the markets at night.

In fact, in at least one case I felt like we had too MUCH time. Our day in Strasbourg necessitated a bus ride into the city since the ship can't sail there, and we were given three departure times to choose from later in the day. We assumed we would go for the latest departure back to the ship at 5 p.m., but found we had actually seen everything we wanted to (and were absolutely frozen) by about 2:30 p.m.

Strasbourg, France
Strasbourg, France
Foggy morning in Strasbourg, France
Foggy Strasbourg

And, of course, if you skip all the guided tours and just go off on your own, you end up with lots of free time.

What's included?

A big question people ask about river cruises is what you get for the money you pay. And the answer is: a whole lot. Just about everything onboard is included: your room, the service of the incredible staff and crew, all your meals, and even wifi.

There's usually one included tour in each port, too, and everything surrounding those tours (guides, transport, and a QuietVox system so you can listen to your guide through headphones) is included, as well.

The only things not included are alcohol and soft drinks outside of meal times, and any optional tours you might want to sign up for. It's also up to you to leave additional tips for the awesome staff and crew at the end of your cruise.

Little Venice in Colmar, France
Like this optional tour to Colmar.

What about before and after the cruise?

Viking makes it really easy to put together a stress-free vacation – they'll even book your flights for you if you want!

For most of their cruises, they also offer pre- and post-cruise add-ons that can extend your time in a destination. For the Rhine Getaway, you had a choice of a pre-cruise program in Amsterdam, and post-cruise time in either Basel or Lucerne, Switzerland.

RELATED: Giving Amsterdam a Second Chance

We didn't opt for any pre- or post-cruise tours, but did end up arriving in Amsterdam a day early and staying in Basel one extra night (hello, more Christmas markets!). We ended up booking Radisson Blu hotels in both Amsterdam and Basel, and found out upon getting to both that Viking also uses those hotels for their passengers – very good taste, Viking!

Basel Christmas market
Basel's huge main Christmas market.

If you opt to do your own thing before your cruise, you'll be in charge of getting yourself to the ship. Afterwards, though, you can have the concierge set up transport for you to get wherever you need to go in the disembarkation port. (If you book a pre- or post-tour through Viking, they obviously handle all the transport for you, too.)

What impressed you the most?

There are a lot of things I really like about river cruising, from the small ships to the freedom to sit wherever you want at dinner. But the thing that impressed me the most was definitely the Viking Idi's staff and crew and how seamlessly everything seemed to run.

Sailing the Upper Middle Rhine

Even though I'm sure plenty of stressful things happen behind the scenes, you would never know it. Everyone was always friendly and professional, and you felt like they really cared about your trip. It was the little details that stood out – the bottles of water they would pass out as you left the ship in the morning; the dining room staff remembering what I liked to drink at dinner, even when I was at a different table; and our program director personally pushing an older gentleman's wheelchair around port cities when his wife got too tired. THAT is amazing, above-and-beyond service.

And the logistics… how they managed to get 190 passengers off and on the ship each day (sometimes multiple times per day) without a hiccup was astounding.

Heidelberg, Germany

Should I go on a river cruise?

My answer is definitely YES. River cruising is becoming so popular – and with popularity comes more and more options catering to all sorts of interests. I loved the Rhine Getaway itinerary because there was a lot to see and explore – I did SO much walking! And going around the holidays made it even better.

Cute street in Freiberg, Germany

And if you're worried about price, definitely sign up to get Viking's special offers sent to you – they're always having great sales. In the past couple of months, I've seen free airfare, 2-for-1 deals, early booking discounts, and more. So if you've always thought river cruising was too expensive for you, have another look. The Rhine Getaway, for example, starts at around $2100 per person for Christmas 2016.

Essential info

READ NEXT: Exploring Russia with Viking River Cruises

What other questions do you have about Christmas market cruises, or about sailing with Viking?

 

Christmas market cruise with Viking River Cruises

 

*Note: Thanks to Viking River Cruises and Radisson Blu for hosting us on this trip. As always, all opinions (and way too many souvenir gluhwein mugs) are 100% my own.

"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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64 Comments on “Christmas Markets with Viking River Cruises: What’s It Really Like?

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  1. I’m going on the Christmas markets cruise down the Danube in December. My mom and I were wondering how easy it is to exchange currency? We have never traveled outside of the US before. Do we need to get Euros and Hungarian currency prior to leaving? My bank charges 17$ for each exchange transaction. Do most places take debit cards? Would a prepaid Visa be better? About how much spending money is average?

      Very good question! You have a few different options when it comes to exchanging money. The easiest thing to do is to bring a Visa or Mastercard (credit card) with you, and then also take a little bit of cash out of an ATM when you arrive. Credit cards and debit cards should work in Europe as long as you call your bank(s) to let them know you’ll be traveling (though note that American Express and Discover aren’t used in Europe). If using an ATM abroad doesn’t sound good, I would bring some US cash and exchange it when you arrive. Exchanging money at the airport will never get you the best rate, but it sounds like it might be better than doing it at home. You can get by with just getting Euros – many places in Hungary will accepts Euros as well as local currency. (If you START in Hungary, though, then you might want to get Euros at home.)

      And, to be completely honest, you shouldn’t need much cash! Everything is included with Viking, so you’ll only really need money for souvenirs unless you plan to eat meals on your own off the ship. On average, I maybe spent 10-20 Euro per day on things like mulled wine and snacks at Christmas markets.

    Just thought I’d mention if you do the Amsterdam to Basel river cruise leaving Amsterdam after Dec 22 there will be few Christmas markets still open after Dec 23. So if it’s the markets you are going for make sure you leave early enough.

      Yes, most markets end after Christmas!

    What a lot of beautiful sites to see. and during this time of year why wouldn’t you want to book a viking river cruise. I would have jumped at the opportunity as well. I am always looking for the best river boat cruise available. This is going on my 2018 bucket list for sure!

    Great review
    I have been on the Rhine Getaway and it really covers it. My wife and I did it spring time and the day on the boat seeing all the castles is something that wasn’t even on my radar as something to do. It was incredible and something I won’t forget.
    Taking a bunch of family on the Danube Waltz on Christmas and this was great information.

    Thanks

      Hope you have a great trip, Kirk! (Though I think it would be difficult not to with Viking!)

    Amanda, this is a great review! I have done this cruise earlier this year and am now picturing it all decked out for Christmas..

    I am heading out on the Christmas in Germany cruise on Thursday [yup, trading turkey dinner in for Christmas markets and fire cooked wurst] and was wondering what you might suggest for spending cash. Will be doing some light Christmas shopping, and souvenir buying, but am clueless about prices at the markets.

    Thanks!

      It totally depends on what you might like to buy – I mostly came home with mugs (which you get for 2-3 Euro when you buy a gluhwein or other hot drink) and ornaments, most of which cost less than 10 Euro each.

    Your insights about the cruise are great. We are leaving on same cruise on Nov 25. We are considering the optional wine tour in Alsace but aren’t sure if we will have enough time to visit the wonderful markets in Strasbourg which we heard were the best. And possibly the pub crawl in cologne and dinner in rudenshhein (although I read a comment or two that said it was a bit ‘hoaky’. Any thoughts?
    We definitely want to go to Colmar…is it worth going with Viking or can you do on your own? We have traveled quite extensively. Thanks in advance. We appreciate the info.

      We didn’t do the wine tour because I also wanted to be sure to have enough time in Strasbourg! As for the markets there, I didn’t think they were all that great, to be honest. (Then again, I was there 2 years ago when that part of France was on high alert after terrorist attacks. A few days before we arrived, they arrested one of the Paris bombers in Strasbourg, and there was a pretty strong military presence in the city – so that may have affected the markets that year!) I actually thought the Cologne markets were the best.

      I enjoyed the dinner in Rudesheim. It was a bit kitschy, but still quite fun. If you don’t do the dinner, be sure to go check out the markets in Rudesheim at night anyway!

      And as far as Colmar, definitely go! We went on the excursion Viking offered since it was the only way to visit during that cruise. I’m not sure if that’s changed at all (i.e. if you have the option to visit on your own), but it’s definitely worth going one way or another.

    Amanda what kind of clothes should we bring? Are people really dressed up in the evening? My husband and I are planning a Christmas market cruise.

    Hi Amanda, I noticed that Viking had a specific Christmas in Germany river cruise but it sounds like your trip had plenty of opportunity to visit Christmas Markets. Besides the location, do you know what is different with that trip compared to yours?

      It looks like it’s just a special itinerary that includes a lot of the major market cities in Germany, meaning more opportunity to visit Christmas markets. But I still loved the cruise I did – just about every city we visited had Christmas markets at that time of year anyway!

    Thank you Amanda for all the Wonderful info. We are leaving on Nov. 30th 2017, doing the Rhine River Christmas Cruise on long ship Eir. Your detailed info & pictures have us really excited and we can’t wait to experience all of it! Thanks again for taking the time to post, it is truly Appreciated!

      You are very welcome, and I hope you have a fabulous trip!

    Hi Amanda! My husband and I are contemplating a river cruise and it is much easier for him to get time off from work in December so the Christmas Markets may work out great. That being said, if you had to pick would you opt for a warmer season? I’m not much for cold weather and am a little hesitant.

      I really, really loved the Christmas market cruise I did! (But, then again, cold weather doesn’t bother me too much, and I love all things holiday-related!) It wasn’t all that cold the year I went (there was no snow, and it was usually in the 40s/50s F most days), but there always *could* be snow in that part of Europe in December. I liked the uniqueness of visiting Europe around Christmas, and would definitely do it again.

      My mom and I went on the Viking Mekong cruise that bookends from Saigon to Hanoi, with 8 Days on the river and 4 Days in Seim Reap where Ankor Wat temple complex is. Absolutely wonderful! And warm. Off ship they put you in Hotel Sofitel’s which are first class all the way.
      My parents have been on the Baltic cruise and just did the Danube cruise in August. They had lovely times on both.
      My neighbors just did the Rhine river and loved it.
      You’ll have a great time no matter what you pick.

    I’ve had the Christmas Markets on my radar for some time now, but as a full time teacher, I have to really plan my vacation time to jive with the tour dates of a river cruise. This is still a few years off, but I WILL go on one of these! They look so wonderful.

      SO worth it if you can make the dates work – it’s one of my favorite times to be in Europe!

    Amanda, the Christmas Markets in December will be my 2nd Viking Cruise. They are the best. Your information is very helpful, thank you. What I’m trying to find out is information about the optional tours. On my last cruise I think I overbooked myself so I’m trying to be more selective in my choices. Thanks in advance for any information you can provide.

      Hi Patricia! I think the optional tours really depend on each cruise itinerary. There was a free tour in every port, and then a couple optional ones. (On this itinerary, we did the free tours at every stop, and also signed up for optional tours like nighttime markets and a fun themed dinner in Rudesheim, and trips to Freiburg in Germany and Colmar in France.)

    We’ve been on two wonderful Viking Christmas Market river boat cruises and are looking for another one to take. We have made two Christmas trips on our own but neither came close to comparing to the Viking trips! We got to see more markets and learn more about the cities we were visiting. The ship’s crew always went out of their way to make us comfortable and to see that we were enjoying ourselves. Even though the temperatures were low, we would come “home” to hot drinks and cookies to tide us over to time.

      You really can’t beat that Viking service! I would definitely go on another Christmas market cruise.

    Did the shortened days bother you?? It seems from looking at the sunrise, sunset times, that there are only about 8 1/2 hours of daylight in December. We are booked on the Christmas Market Cruise down the Danube in December.

      Didn’t really bother me at all! Still plenty of daylight for exploring. Plus, some of the markets are even better when they’re all lit up at night!

    We went on a Viking Christmas market cruise too, but ours went from Budapest to Nuremberg…would have been nice to finally meet!

      Quite a few bloggers were Christmas market cruising this winter, but I think we all missed each other by a day or two! Hope you guys enjoyed your cruise as much as I did!

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