I love Christmas, everything from the festive holiday spirit to the food and decorations. I especially love experiencing the holiday season in Europe, a travel tradition that’s my most anticipated trip of the year. I’ve spent the Christmas holidays in several different regions of Europe, from Milan to Amsterdam, and I’ve done it in a variety of ways. I’ve rented condos for the week, trekked around different countries on trains but most recently I’ve experienced European Christmas markets onboard Viking River cruises. Although I was hesitant before taking my first river cruise, I am now a convert and it honestly is one of my favorite ways to travel. Today though I wanted to share a few reasons why I think river cruises are the ideal way not just to see Europe, but to experience the full width and breadth of those great Christmas markets.
1. Great time of year to visit
For several years, my partner and I have made it a traditional of ours to visit different regions of Europe during the Christmas holiday season. I personally love seeing towns and cities transform for the holiday and in the process I get to see aspects to the city I would never see during other times of the year. It’s when locals all descend on the historic (and touristy) areas to enjoy great food, drinks, music and maybe get some shopping done. Weather is hit and miss to be honest. I’ve seen Decembers in Europe that were frigidly cold, wet and grey but also sunny and unseasonably warm. Visiting Europe around Christmas though isn’t about the weather; it’s about the destination and enjoying the cultural sides to some fun destinations.
2. Multiple cities
I’ve sailed on two different Viking River Cruise Christmas market itineraries, along the Danube and Rhine Rivers. I chose those itineraries specifically due to the great cities through which the longships sail. On the river cruises I’ve been to Budapest, Vienna, Passau, Nuremberg, Amsterdam, Basel, Cologne, Strasbourg and many others. The river cruise offers a level of travel access and convenience that would be very difficult to replicate through any other mode of transportation. More than just visit these cities though, I was deeply impressed by how thoroughly Viking helps bring the destinations to life through special onboard cultural activities and of course those famous (and incredibly in-depth) complimentary tours they offer at every stop. If you want to see how several different cities and towns celebrate the Christmas season, a Christmas market cruise really is the best option.
3. Amazing food
For me, the highlight of any great Christmas market is the food and seeing how much it changes from one region to the next. River cruises provide a wonderful glimpse into these culinary classics, visiting new destinations every day and being immediately able to compare and contrast. What amazes me every year though are the differences in food offerings not just country to country, but even between towns fairly close to each other. The foods found at these markets are traditional comfort foods and usually reveal what people enjoy the most in the local regions. Great food isn’t relegated just to the markets though, onboard I was uniquely impressed by the diversity and quality of the food offered by Viking. They do a great job of mirroring the destinations visited, so that meals reflect the classics of the cities toured earlier in the day. They also offer unique experiences all designed to introduce passengers to the rich traditions of the countries through which the ships pass. Whether it’s learning how to make an apple strudel, or drinking some of Rudesheim’s famous coffee spiked with brandy, they’re all fun ways designed to bring passengers closer to the local communities.
4. Cruise conveniences
In years past, my partner and I have traveled to Europe during the holidays, established one city as a home base and from there we took day trips to nearby towns and cities. We always had a good time, but I would never call those trips relaxing. It usually meant catching an early morning train, being on the go for at least 10-12 hours before getting back to our rented apartment in the evening. After a few days it takes a toll and while we loved seeing new places, it would have been nice to be able to relax for a few hours, take a nap or just read a book. That was the difference between those trips and our river cruises, we had the opportunity to relax when we wanted to because our hotel was always with us.
5. Meet great people
Before taking my first river cruise, a perk that I hadn’t considered was the social aspect. While there are plenty of stops and diversions, the fact is that you’re sailing on a ship with 189 other people and there are plenty of occasions to chat with most of them. Viking doesn’t have reserved seating for meals, so it was always interesting to sit with new folks and learn more about them. I’m old school and I’m always worried how people, particularly older people, will treat us for being gay. You know what though? Not once in similar situations around the world have we been treated poorly and we definitely weren’t on board the ship either. Over the course of a few cruises, we have met many great people, learned about their varied and interesting lives and even made some new friends. The social aspect was something I came to really enjoy, and it is fun to experience parts of Europe with other people and to hear their impressions of cities visited. Like I said, I hadn’t thought about this social aspect beforehand, but it added a different and fun element to the trip and as it turns out, it was an important part of the experience.
6. Viking River Cruise service
The leader in European river cruises, it’s during the Christmas season when I believe the company really shines. But it’s not necessarily due to the destinations or the food, but thanks to their onboard service and the staff who work so hard to make these journeys memorable for everyone sailing. 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.
7. Flexibility & 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.
8. Just a lot of 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.
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, 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, especially when it’s time to explore the beautiful European Christmas markets.