It’s strange to think back to a few years ago and to realize just how much my thoughts on river cruising have evolved over time. Like many, I had a very outdated impression of what the actual river cruise experience was like, but also like so many other people the commercials I saw before weekly installments of Downton Abbey on PBS made me curious. Then, as luck would have it, two years ago I had the opportunity to join a short 3-day preview cruise on one of Viking’s ships and right then and there I was sold. The travel experience wasn’t like anything I had imagined and was such a perfect fit, even for an active and independent traveler like myself, that I have since been on several more river cruises all around Europe. For the last two years I’ve done something a little different. I merged my enjoyment of river cruising with my annual travel tradition of visiting the Christmas markets of Europe into one experience, creating what has quickly become one of my most anticipated trips of the year.
In December 2015, my partner and I continued this tradition by taking a Rhine River cruise with Viking, starting in Amsterdam and ending in Basel. Since it was December, the overall theme and focus revolved all around the many great markets in the towns and cities we visited, but just like the Danube River cruise I took a year before, it was about so much more than just mulled wine and Christmas pastries. Perhaps even more than my Danube cruise experience, sailing along the Rhine was a fun and educational trip, an adventure into the heart of Europe seeing new places and of course eating a lot of fantastic seasonal favorites.
I want to share what the experience was like for me personally, but even if you don’t sail on a Christmas Rhine River cruise, most of the activities and experiences will be the same throughout the year.
Quick Caveat About Christmas Market River Cruises
The Rhine River cruise I took with Viking is a so-called Christmas market cruise because of the time of the year. Any European river cruise in December becomes a de facto Christmas market cruise because nearly every town and city has a market of some kind. But the overall itinerary and ports of call are the same, whether it’s May or December. The cruise though isn’t too focused on the markets; in fact the complimentary tours were much more about the destinations themselves, allowing travelers the opportunity to discover the markets on their own after the tours. The Rhine River cruise I took started in Amsterdam and included stops in: Kinderdijk (Netherlands), Cologne, Koblenz, Heidelberg, Breisach (all in Germany), Strasbourg (France) and ending in Basel (Switzerland).
The look and feel of many of these cities changes a bit during the holiday season, which is what brings me back year after year. Nearly every town has a Christmas market, from the half dozen found around Cologne to the smaller version in Rüdesheim, Germany. The cities are festive and decorated with trees and lights and there’s a great general feeling of 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 Rhine River cruise does not change from season to season, but what you see, do and experience in summer versus winter will be somewhat 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. (Another caveat: In December 2015, the weather was abnormally warm and sunny, but this is not at all the norm.)
The Destinations and Markets
At the heart of any great trip is of course the places we visit, and sailing on a Rhine River cruise took me to many cities and towns completely new to me – always an exciting event. In comparing my Danube River cruise experience to the one along the Rhine, the one difference is how much more active I think the Rhine experience was. While the length of the trip was about the same, along the Rhine we had more opportunities to spend time in smaller towns and cities than we did along the Danube. That’s not a good or bad thing, just different. Here’s a brief look at the destinations and Christmas markets visited on the Viking Rhine River cruise.
Like so many other passengers, we arrived a couple of days before the start of our cruise to adjust to the time difference and to spend some time exploring areas of the Netherlands we hadn’t seen before. Since Amsterdam was the embarkation city, the program there was a little different from other stops along the cruise. A walking tour was offered though to anyone who wanted to join, and the late night departure meant that many folks spent some time out on the town before returning back to their staterooms. The first full day of sailing though brought us to one of the most iconic spots in the Netherlands, Kinderdijk and the famous windmills that comprise a UNESCO World Heritage site. Here you can walk along the paths separating these massive and important structures, learning why Holland is so very well known for them.
The majority of the cruise takes place in Germany, and the many stops along the mighty Rhine provide a great glimpse into the country from Cologne down through the Black Forest. I was surprised at how many cities included weren’t mentioned in the master itinerary, but which were little surprises along the way. Many of our days involved visiting at least a couple of different towns, learning more about them and of course eating our way through the Christmas Markets. The largest city on the route, Cologne, is home to one of Europe’s most famous cathedrals but in December it’s also home to many Christmas markets strewn around town. From the main one in front of the mighty cathedral, to smaller ones along the waterfront, the food and quality of gifts for sale were amongst the best I saw on the cruise. There are too many towns to mention here, but each offered something a little bit different and I enjoyed every stop thanks to the diversity of experiences. From the large castle of Marksburg to the university town of Heidelburg and the excellent transportation museum in Speyer, the days were active but also a lot of fun.
Just like the Danube cruise though, a major activity was the sailing experience itself. Powering through the UNESCO protected Upper Middle Rhine River region, every bend brought new towns, castles and vineyards, each seemingly more picturesque than the one before. The weather was also unusually comfortable, which meant nearly everyone on board found a spot on the sun deck to enjoy a warm beverage and just admire the amazing scenery pass by. This is one of the reasons why I love river cruising so much, for their ability to bring you so close to beautiful spots that you would simply never see otherwise.
The biggest surprise for me was how much I loved visiting the Alsace region of France. One of the most contested areas of Europe, this sliver of land has passed hands between France and Germany probably more times than anyone can count. The result is the very unique Alsatian culture, which is a mix of German and French customs and traditions. Walking through the large city of Strasbourg and the smaller, medieval town of Colmar, the colorful half-timbered buildings reminded me instantly of Germany, but the language and even the food was pure French. It’s a gentle mix of the best of both cultures, the resulting Alsatian language, food and history fiercely protected by locals. The two towns were also the most visually beautiful of the ones visited on the cruise. There’s nothing better than strolling through them on a sunny day when the towns are full of locals out Christmas shopping or just enjoying the holiday season. Colmar was an optional excursion, but well worth the extra fees for the length of time spent there and the high quality of the walking tour around town.
Rooms, Service & Food
While the destinations are definitely the focus of any quality river cruise experience, the ships are naturally an important part of the travel equation as well. By this time, I’m pretty familiar with the Viking cruise ship layout and the fact that nearly all of their longships are identical to each other, makes getting onboard, unpacked and relaxed fast and easy. The rooms themselves are like the rest of the ship: well designed, comfortable and everything just makes sense. From the heated floors in the bathroom, to the seating area near the bed, the staterooms are meant to make the most out of the space while maximizing comfort as well.
Where Viking shines though in my opinion is in the onboard service and the staff that works so hard to make these journeys memorable for everyone sailing with them. River cruise ships aren’t large, the maximum number of guests is around 190 or so, and the staff all have to fill many different roles, in addition to their primary responsibilities. One thing I’ve noticed on every Viking cruise though is just how far the staff is willing to go in order to make sure their guests have the best possible vacation. I also spent a lot of time chatting with other guests onboard, and nearly everyone had the same, overly positive experience as I did, which frankly says a lot about the company itself. It’s one thing to design a nice itinerary, but it’s another to instill a certain kind of professional love amongst staff members.
My favorite attribute of Viking is how relaxed the environment is. There are no pretensions, instead everything from the lounges to the dinner service is meant to be enjoyable without being stuffy. People are relaxed and by the end of the first day, nearly everyone has fallen into a certain rhythm. Whether it’s reading a book on a quiet sofa, or staying up late to dance and sing along with the musicians, Viking accommodates all interests without impacting anyone else’s overall enjoyment. The food is also one of the stars of the voyage, and again just like the tours, there are options for everyone. If you want to do your own thing and enjoy a quick and quiet meal you can, but almost everyone comes together in the main dining room to meet new people and sample new menus every night.
Convenience And Independence
A big part of the Viking Rhine River cruise experience for me was spending time on the ship itself. Unlike previous excursions during the holidays, taking trains to visit new cities and being on the go all day long, a river cruise gives me a floating home base from which to explore new regions of Europe. I love the convenience that river cruises provide, while also preserving my own fiercely independent nature. Instead of spending half of my time in train stations, river cruise ships provide 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. Viking also provides free (and always optional) 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.
Options And Extras
Both onboard and off, there are many extras that come up throughout any Viking river cruise, and that was definitely the case on my Rhine River cruise. Whether it was trimming the ship’s Christmas tree and enjoying egg nog, or learning how to make those delicious cookies the pastry chef provided every day, there were many extra activities and perks throughout the course of the cruise. You won’t usually find these options listed anywhere before you start your cruise experience, instead they’re meant to be nice little bonuses – surprises that turn a pleasant vacation into something special and memorable.
There are also options available off the ship as well. In addition to the robust and complimentary daily tours offered, the Rhine River cruise also included a few optional excursions that came with a slight fee, but which added a lot to the overall experience. From a pub crawl in Cologne, Germany to exploring the colorful medieval town of Colmar in France, guests don’t miss out by not taking these tours, but the experiences are nice additions that perfectly round out the cruise. I only availed myself of one of the optional tours, a trip to Colmar, but that single afternoon spent in this gorgeous Alsatian town was a highlight of my trip, and I can’t imagine not having visited.
I am a big fan of Viking, as you can probably tell not just from this post but the many others I have written. Sometimes we click not just only with the places we visit, but sometimes also with the companies that make those experiences happen in the first place. While I’ve sailed with other river cruise lines, Viking is one of my favorites because it just feels right. For me, everything meshes perfectly and instead of feeling out of place or awkward, it’s like a homecoming whenever I board a new ship. I’m not alone in that feeling either. I talked with many guests onboard my Rhine River cruise ship, most of who have also sailed with Viking in the past. For them as well, everything from the onboard experiences to the new cities visited come together in a perfect combination and makes the travel experience something special. I can’t guarantee that same feeling for everyone, but I’ve seen it happen so many times that I know it’s not just my own personal feelings, but the feelings of thousands of others who have all made Viking their river cruise line of choice.