There’s a charm during the holiday season in Europe unlike any other place I’ve experienced. A magical ambience fills the region with people smiling and laughing, enjoying glühwein together and each other’s company in historic squares and small streets in old villages. I was lucky enough to board a Viking Christmas River Cruise that sailed along the Danube River, stopping at different size cities with dazzling Christmas markets.
The route, called the Romantic Danube, included stops in the following places:
- Budapest, Hungary
- Vienna, Austria
- Krems, Austria
- Passau, Germany
- Regensburg, Germany
- Nuremberg, Germany
I met my friend Julie Deily, of The Little Kitchen, in Budapest to board the Viking Atla river cruise ship. She graciously invited me on the cruise even knowing I’d have to leave early. (I had to fly back to the United States after our stop in Passau, Germany for a prior obligation. But the four stops I was able to experience were well worth the trip.)
Below is the route map from the Christmas Viking River Cruise, from the Viking website:
A Winter River Cruise in the Spirit of Christmas
Cruising in Europe in the winter may sound like an oxymoron. But Viking proved cruising isn’t just for laying out on the top deck with tropical destinations on the itinerary. There’s one thing you get in December in Europe that you can’t get any other time in any other place: the European holiday markets. And they are EPIC!
The itinerary for the Romantic Danube is available throughout most of the year but during the last week of November throughout December is when you’ll be able to experience the markets.
Our River Cruise Viking Ship: Atla
The Viking Atla was our vessel for our Christmas River Cruise. Don’t forget that the sun sets significantly earlier during December in Europe than during summer months, like July and August. About three to four hours earlier.
So by the time we got back to the ship the first day, after dropping our luggage off in the morning and touring around the city and returning for dinner, it was already dark. The next day was really the first day I was able to see the ship in sunlight and view its beauty.
But isn’t it romantic to see the lights inside and string lights twinkling atop the ship reflecting in the river? It was especially nice to see limited yet tasteful holiday decorations – like wreaths with red bows and green garland – adorning the inside of the ship.
Its clean Scandinavian design was appreciated from our stateroom to its grand staircase, and shared areas. The top of the staircase looked onto a warm, cozy common area. They had some boardgames stashed there for guests to use that were great to play in the evenings. And there were more games at the top of the ship with a little golf putting green and shuffleboard.
Christmas Cruise Start: Budapest, Hungary
The cruise begins in Budapest. You’re able to fly into the city, of course, but I extended the trip beforehand in Munich and Stuttgart, Germany. (Since I had to leave the cruise early I wanted to make the most of my time in Europe.) I flew into Budapest from Munich.
I spent the two nights before I was able to board the Viking Atla at an Air BnB on the river (coincidentally, not far from where the ship was docked) and touring Budapest.
It was great to see the city’s sites and incredible markets. They were all around and were really easy for us to walk to from the ship. My favorites were always the beautifully illuminated concession stands. I loved the lights, the ornament decorations and holiday color.
The Budapest markets sold things like marzipan sweets, strudel cakes (from cherry to peach, apple and strawberry), to smoked salmon slow cooked for hours and Hungarian goulash in bread bowls. There were also plenty of wooden toys and craft keepsakes to purchase.
We were able to visit several sites in Budapest. We visited the famous Parliament building on the “Pest” side of the river the day the cruise started, on our own. And toured the area around the famous Buda Castle on the “Buda” side of the river. The most stunning view of Parliament was at night as the ship sailed past it on the Danube.
Before we left Hungary and sailed for Vienna we were able to go to the Great Market Hall. It’s also known as Central Market Hall, and is a huge food market in Budapest built in the 1890’s. (We love a good food market.)
We were lucky enough to try a local favorite Hungarian Langos. It’s fried dough that they cover with toppings of your choosing, most traditionally sour cream and cheese, which is exactly how I had it. (I still crave it! And I haven’t had it since because I haven’t found it anywhere in the United States.)
I had some leftover local currency (Hungarian Forints) I wanted to spend before we left the country. So I bought some Hungarian Paprika, a spice they’re known for. I used it a ton after the trip, constantly making my favorite Hungarian mushroom soup recipe, which I specifically discovered to use the paprika. (The word, “paprika” is Hungarian.)
Next Stop on the Danube: Vienna, Austria
Vienna was a city I’d been looking to visiting for many years. Yet, I admit, we only saw a limited amount of it because it was so frigidly cold we could barely stand being outside! We hopped between indoor and outdoor spaces hoping the wind would subside (which it eventually did) so we could enjoy the outdoor Christmas markets but stay warm in our cores.
Luckily there were great options to explore indoors too. We were outside, then went inside, then outside, then back inside, repeat, repeat…
After being outdoors for a bit to walk around Schönbrunn Palace and a nearby park, we switched to see the inside of Vienna’s St. Stephen’s Cathedral. We warmed up afterwards at a beautiful coffee shop, called Konditorei Demel, with some hot cappuccinos and cookies.
One of my favorite stops of the entire trip was visiting a candy shop that had me in awe of its bite-size creations. It’s worth a stop at Zuckerl Werkstatt.; they still create their beautiful hard candies by hand. I felt like I was in a room at Willy Wonka’s home!
It was really neat to see a candy maker expertly work a pile of yellow tinted hot sugar over and over again, and watch it turn to solid white in front of our eyes. We learned the air helps change its color. I even bought a souvenir for Dan when I was there. It was one of my first gifts for him, as it was early on in our relationship. (Later on I’d learn that sweets aren’t really his thing!)
We were okay after warming up inside for a little while so we nestled around new friends we met on the cruise and explored the Christmas markets of Vienna most near the city center, with mugs of hot glühwein. By this time the holiday lights were starting to turn on as daytime turned to dusk.
It’s entertaining to see the different mug designs each European Christmas market has. They’re all different. You pay a small fee for the mug, which is returned to you if you return the mug to the vendors. Or, you can collect the mugs as souvenirs.
Viking had scheduled a cooking class for us, making traditional Viennese crepes and a berry reduction to go with it. So we headed that way for another afternoon snack. By that time we were happy to warm up inside again.
Afterwards, I was pleased to venture to visit another holiday market in front of their city hall, or Rathaus.
I just love “maroni” on a winter day in Europe. Maroni is simply chestnuts, for us westerners…roasting on an open fire, as the song goes. You can buy a limited quantity for just a few euros, which is really all you need.
Warm alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages flow at the markets and the sounds of holiday choirs and music fill the air. There are food vendors selling bratwurst (a personal favorite) and pretzels, craftsmen selling wooden nativity scenes and ornaments, and tables casually scattered about the streets and sidewalks between kiosks to converse with friends, relax and people watch.
Vienna has so many different pockets of Christmas markets. But the two I visited were a delightful look into the culture there during the holidays and a reason to go back one day to explore more of the markets and the city.
I enjoyed a performance specifically for guests of the Viking cruise that evening, showcasing Mozart and Strauss. The Vienna Residence Orchestra was there, live, and the singers were of the highest caliber.
Sailing on the Danube River
One of the great things about sailing on the Danube between Hungary and Germany is you get to see fairy tale scenes like the image below, of a random castle on the side of the river.
We saw a lot of industrial scenery aboard our Emerald River Cruise in The Netherlands, which was great in its own way. But the views along the Danube are, indeed, very romantic.
When we sailed the stretch of the Danube River between Melk and Krems, Austria, we learned we were experiencing a UNESCO World Heritage Site, called Wachau. This valley is noted for its medieval landscape along the river, which has historical importance in the area in terms of agriculture, architecture and its settlements.
Romantic Danube River Stop at Krems, Austria
Krems, Austria is a charming European area filled with rolling hills of vineyards. We learned that, at the time we cruised, it was the area where the grapes for some wines served onboard Viking River Cruises are grown.
The most famous attraction here was Benediktinerstift Göttweig. It’s an abbey run by a few dozen monks situated on top of the hill. Needless to say the view from there is spectacular, especially at night. The abbey fresco, staircase and library bookcases are not to miss.
We were there just before sunset so we were able to see it with some natural sun and then with sparkling lights in the town below as we exited after dark.
Charming Holiday Markets in Passau, Germany on Our Christmas River Cruise
When we woke up in Germany we had just docked in Passau. The view was one of a misty morning, with the city’s colorful buildings lining the Danube. It was all perfectly reflected on the water.
This was one of my favorite scenes of the trip.
I immediately left the ship to begin exploring the small, quaint European town. (I couldn’t have known at the time that a couple years later I would photograph a groom from Passau, in his New York wedding. He was shocked I had previously been to his Bavarian town, all thanks to a Viking River Cruise.)
Just steps from where the ship docks is the city center, watched over by St. Stephen’s Cathedral. The baroque building towers above the town square, where the Christmas markets are. Inside the cathedral is an ornate and beautiful interior filled with frescoes and interesting designs.
After I exited St. Stephen’s, I walked around the town a bit. Passau is a city where three rivers converge (which is why it’s also known as the “City of Three Rivers”) so it was fun to wander around to see various waterfront vantage points.
By the time I was back in the town center, the market vendors were opening for business. I opted for an early bratwurst sandwich for lunch before I sadly had to leave the cruise for a flight back home.
The ship continued on to Regensburg, Germany and ended in Nuremberg.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg in the appeal of cruising with Viking during November and December. You know how you may stay away from some more fattening, comfort foods if it’s summer in favor of that bikini you packed that you want to show off? That won’t happen here! You can eat all the yummy, delicious foods you want because you’re in sweaters and a heavy winter jacket anyway. Plus you get all the warmth and love the holiday season brings. And that is something you cannot get on a sailing outside of a Christmas time river cruise.
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