For several years, my partner and I have had a travel tradition that has come to mean a lot to us. Every December, usually a week or two before Christmas, we have traveled to different places in Europe in order to visit Christmas markets, see new sights and enjoy destinations when they’re not as touristy. Last year we did something a little different and joined a Viking Christmas Market Danube River Cruise sailing from Budapest to Nuremberg. The experience was one of the best trips we’ve ever taken, so much so that we plan on doing a Viking Rhine Christmas market cruise in December 2015. Before embarking on that voyage though, I wanted to share what sailing on the Danube with Viking is really like from onboard experiences to what you’ll discover as you sail on what Viking accurately calls the Romantic Danube.
How Are Christmas Market Cruises Different?
Whether you sail in May or in December, the stops along the Viking River Romantic Danube itinerary will be the same. Starting off in Budapest, the ship then travels through a variety of towns and cities including stops at: Budapest, Vienna, Melk (Austria), Passau (Germany), Regensburg (Germany) and Nuremberg. Along the way guests sail through some of the most beautiful areas of Europe from the Wachau Valley in Austria to the Main–Danube Canal in Germany. This route does not change, but what does change are the destinations themselves.
From experience I know that almost every city, town and hamlet in Europe has a Christmas market of some sort, be it the mega-market in Nuremberg, or the smaller versions everywhere else. The cities are festooned with decorations, Christmas trees and lights and there’s a general sense of pre-holiday excitement in the air. Around the holidays these destinations change, ever so slightly. Sure, tourists still visit but not nearly as many and instead you’ll find local residents out and about, buying presents or having fun at the markets alongside those curious visitors. It’s as if a veneer is lifted and we as interlopers get to see the real face of a destination, nearly impossible to find during the summer tourist rush. It’s a fun time to visit Europe, and it’s that enjoyment which has me returning every holiday season. Viking takes advantage of these markets and traditions, slightly changing excursions and some activities to accentuate the markets and the unique Christmas events in every stop. So, no, the Danube cruise does not change from season to season, but what you see, do and experience in May versus December will be very different. The one thing you should be aware of though is the weather. From personal experience, this is not the ideal time to visit Europe if you want fun in the sun. It will be cold, a little grey and potentially rainy at times. I don’t mind that, but your weather expectations should be realistic when you visit during the holiday season.
The Destinations and Markets
At the heart of any great trip are of course the places we visit, and sailing on the Romantic Danube river cruise took me to many cities and towns completely new to me – always an exciting event. Here’s a brief look at the destinations and Christmas markets visited on the Viking Danube river cruise.
Like most large cities, Budapest has several Christmas markets but the centrally located one in Vörösmarty Square is the largest and most well known. In comparison with other markets, I was most surprised to see such a wide variety of savory food options. Stalls offered everything from traditional goulash to sausages and even strange concoctions involving rooster parts. When it comes to dessert though there’s only one real option – the so-called chimney cake. Originally from Transylvania, the kürtöskalács – Hungarian specialty yeast cakes – are cooked on a spit over red hot coals and then doused in icing to give it a unique but delicious taste. Served up in still steaming towers of cakey brilliance, there’s nothing better on a cold December night.
The Viennese embrace the Christmas season in a way few other cities manage. There are dozens of Christmas markets all over the city, and the major shopping districts are lit up at night in a dazzling array of special displays and lights. The major market in Vienna though is located at the massive Rathaus. This year the trees surrounding the market were festooned with hundreds of lighted displays, a real life advent calendar all leading to the market itself. One of the busiest in Europe, this market had a nice mix of food and gifts, with lots of delicious pastries made only around the Christmas holidays. While the gifts were ok, the food was the clear winner at this market and my personal favorites were the freshly made desserts, everything from fudges and brownies to special apple doughnuts.
Bavaria is well known for its traditional markets and the small one in Passau was a great first introduction. While not as big as some others around Germany, it was rated as one of the best in the country and a quick walk around showed me why. Live music, games, traditional crafts and gifts and of course food made it a lot of fun to explore. I’m talking a lot about food, but that’s because food is an integral part of any good Christmas market. In Passau I found two items that quickly became personal favorites – ½ meter sausage sandwiches and a special Christmas star dessert. A local told me that the larger than average sausages were the only ones made locally, so I made sure to concentrate on that for lunch. Walking around though I also noticed a special Christmas star pastry that had a nice, light dough and a sprinkling of sugar that made it twinkle in the sunlight.
A larger city than Passau, Regensburg is known as a beautiful town no matter what time of year it is. I was lucky when I visited and had a beautiful sunny day – a rare treat in December. There are a few smaller markets in this university town, but the main Christmas celebration occurs around the 500-year-old Neupfarr Church. I guess I have a sweet tooth, because the first thing I noticed was a surprising lack of desserts. It’s funny how different each market can be from one town to the next, and while Passau offered my favorite sweet bite of the trip, there wasn’t a pastry to be found in Regensburg. But the city’s famous sausages, served three to a bun, more than made up for the lack of desserts. With a little locally made sweet mustard added to the sausages the resulting sandwich is one of the best I’ve ever enjoyed. There were definitely more gifts and crafts available at this market, reflecting the younger demographic of the city and its quirky, artistic edge.
Home to what is arguably the most famous Christmas market in the world, it’s also one of the busiest with more than 2 million people visiting every year. What makes this market so special is the keen attention to detail. Officials forbid any modern items to be sold – all crafts and even foods must be traditional. Thanks to those rules, the Nuremberg Christmas Market is the prototypical Christmas market against which all others are judged. Although it was packed with people when I visited, I still had plenty of opportunities to enjoy the famous Nuremberg sausage sandwiches along with a glass of glühwein to wash it down. One of the most popular desserts and gifts is the city’s Lebkuchen or gingerbread, available in all shapes and sizes. While not as intimate as some other Christmas markets, a visit to the massive one in Nuremberg should be on everyone’s travel bucket list.
Convenience and independence – Arguably the best river cruise line operating in Europe, a big part of the Viking Christmas Danube river cruise experience for me was spending time on the ship itself. I had been on shorter itineraries before, but this was the first time I spent more than a week onboard and I was pleasantly surprised by how much I fell in love with the experience. This time our hub was the ship and every day we awoke to a new city and new experiences. Instead of long marches through cities, we had the luxury of touring at our leisure, returning to the ship when we felt like it and even taking a few afternoon naps. Gone were the days of 6am trains and exhaustion and in its place was a fun and extremely convenient way of visiting several cities in Europe in a reasonable time frame.
I’m an independent traveler and not once did I feel rushed or worried that I didn’t have enough time in a certain place. On more than one occasion Viking even offered extended hours in cities providing complimentary buses for guests so that they could meet up with the ship as it sailed down the Danube. Viking also provides free walking tours in each new city, which I loved since they gave a good introduction not only to the history of the city but offered a great orientation so that I could explore more efficiently after the tour. Sailing through Europe instead of battling with crowds in train stations and having a floating home base that was always near by wasn’t just convenient, it was relaxing and transformed the trip into something truly special.
Relaxing & Fun – I’m a Type-A personality, as my partner will attest to. When I plan a vacation I plan an active trip and while I’ve gotten better, our vacations can be exhausting. Sailing with Viking though I wasn’t in control of the schedule, they were, and they thankfully are better at combining active travel with moments of relaxation than I am. Due to the schedule of the river, there were some mornings or afternoons when we sailed instead of docking, which meant forced relaxation time. By the middle of the trip I had fallen into a rhythm and actually found myself relaxing on vacation. The sailing was peaceful and fun and I was actually calm and happy for once on a vacation instead of harried and stressed. It was great to not worry about the logistics, which in turn gave me the opportunity to sit back, read a few books, sip some coffee and just enjoy the moment.
From the great food, engaging tours and meeting a lot of new people, my experience sailing on the Viking Romantic Danube river cruise to visit some of the best Christmas markets in Europe was as positive as it could have possibly been. More than nice words, the fact that we have decided to once again sail with Viking over the holiday season I think proves just how much this Danube river cruise meant to us. This time we’ll be on a different river, the Rhine, with different destinations and experiences but there is one thing of which I am certain. I have no doubt that once again our Viking Christmas market river cruise experience will be one of the highlights of our travel year and I can’t wait to get started.