Over the last few years I’ve made it a new tradition to visit different parts of Europe around the Christmas holidays. I love seeing how various cities and regions celebrate the season and it makes Christmas that much more special for me personally. Last year for the first time I took a river cruise to visit the markets with Viking River Cruises. That trip along the Danube was so special that I decided to do it again this year, but on the Rhine instead. As that trip draws to a close I’m thrilled to say that while different, the experience of seeing the great Christmas markets of Europe with Viking River Cruises was again a very special one, as I hope these photos and personal highlights show.
I expected a lot from Cologne’s Christmas markets, and they certainly delivered. One of the most popular tourist towns in Germany no matter what time of year, at Christmas droves of people descend on the city to visit the many markets found around town. The most noticeable market is centrally located right in front of the massive Cathedral or Dom for which Cologne is most famous. But there are many more throughout town, from the Medieval themed market with staff dressed in period costume, to the market found along the Rhine. No matter which one you visit, be sure to eat plenty of treats like the fried potato pancakes or the delicious meats grilled right in front of hungry guests.
The Viking Hlin arrived into this German town in the evening, so I only experienced it after dark but that’s actually the best time to visit any Christmas market. Just a week away from Christmas Day, the market was packed with locals and visitors alike all out to enjoy the lights and decorations, drink some Gluwein, eat some amazing food and buy something special to put under the tree. I really enjoyed this market and loved how it was integrated throughout the entire old town.
One of Germany’s great university towns, the Christmas markets here are well integrated into the main shopping district and are so festive you can even see them from the castle ruins that loom high over the city. In addition to the normal fare, it was also here where I found the best pastries on the trip. One stand had freshly baked donuts that were regional favorites, but which reminded me of a very sweet (and delicious) version of the American cruller. The same shop also carried smaller fried dough puffs, doused with powdered sugar and served up in a small cone. The week before Christmas, Heidelberg was one of the busiest markets I visited, but also one of the most fun.
A smaller town than Heidelberg, Speyer also connects its most famous part of town with the Christmas market. The cathedral is an important landmark in Speyer and right in front of it is where you’ll find the start of this festive market. Even though we hadn’t gone very far down river, the foods here started to look more Alsatian, with different meats and cheeses offered and a personal favorite, spätzle. Soft egg noodles, this version was fried and then at the last minute Emmenthaler cheese was added for the best version of mac and cheese I’ve ever tried.
This large city in the heart of Alsace was a great introduction not only to this fascinating region, but to the French Christmas market traditions as well. The Alsace region has a troubled history, ping-ponging between French and German possession over the years, you’ll find a strong influence from both cultures all around town. This unique background necessarily affects the food and in the markets pretzels are the clear local favorites. There’s not just one Christmas market in Strasbourg though, there are many strewn all around, which makes an exploration of the downtown area fun and filled with yuletide surprises almost anywhere you go.
When I visited Freiburg last spring, I never expected to be back so soon but I’m glad to have seen this Black Forest city during the Christmas season. A gorgeous place to explore at any time of year, the Freiburgers definitely embrace the Christmas spirit and decorations can be found everywhere. While there is a permanent market set up in front of the large cathedral, that’s not where you’ll find the Christmas markets. No, for those you’ll have to cross main street and begin exploring the smaller side streets and squares to find the home of Freiburg’s Christmas cheer.
I was excited to visit the French town of Colmar – all of the pictures I have seen over the years promised a beautifully well-preserved medieval community, which is exactly what I found. Spared the ravages of many wars, the old half-timbered homes and shops still line the streets in an array of bright colors, just as they have for centuries. Colmar also loves Christmas in a way I’ve never seen. Like Strasbourg, there are several markets all around town, but honestly it felt like the entire city was one giant Christmas market. If you don’t lapse into the Christmas spirit after visiting what surely is one of Europe’s most beautiful cities, then maybe seasonal cheer just isn’t for you.
There’s nothing better than visiting the different towns and regions of Europe during the holiday season. Each Christmas market is unique, each one different from its neighbors but together they tell the story of their collective history in a way that’s hard to discover in any other way. From my own personal experience, one of the best ways to visit these special festivals is definitely by river cruise, and I’m happy to say that the Viking River Cruise Christmas market cruises have become an important holiday tradition for me.