Just as our preferences in life and even our personalities change over time, the same holds true for what we prefer in the travel experience. Like so many other people, before taking my first river cruise I had certain misconceptions about them. After day 1 on my first river cruise though, I realized that everything I thought was wrong and over the past few years and several cruise experiences, they’ve become a favorite way for me to travel. It’s not a style I choose for every trip, but I think they’re fun to do every once in a while. The real revelation though came when my partner and I decided to turn our annual traditional of visiting European Christmas Markets on its head by taking a cruise instead of train to see different regions around the continent. The convenience and ease of travel is so great that we’ve never gone back, and now a Viking River Christmas Market cruise has become a travel tradition that we look forward to every year. Each itinerary is different though and each river has different regions and cities to experience and explore. In 2015 we took Viking’s Rhine River Getaway, from Amsterdam to Basel. Naturally, the trip was fantastic but what always impresses me the most about these journeys is the wide variety of experiences along the way. These cruises run year-round and the Christmas markets are just a nice highlight during November and December. That means in addition to the yuletide cheer, there’s a lot to see and do along the way that has nothing to do with Christmas. The Rhine in particular has a lot to offer, but of the many fun and engaging experiences these are the ones I enjoyed the most.
Kinderdijk – The Netherlands
An admittedly touristy place, it’s also a beautiful one and for non-Dutch people such as myself, is everything we think the Netherlands should look like. When we think of Holland most of us think of wooden shoes, cheese and windmills. Traditional windmills are increasingly hard to find in the Netherlands, which is why Kinderdijk is such a popular tourist attraction. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the 19 windmills built here are the largest concentration of old windmills still existing in the Netherlands today and the best place to learn more about this popular Dutch symbol. Tours are led by local docents, volunteers who take on the duty out of love for these precious ties to the past. Walking around with our docent, it was interesting to learn of the importance of these windmills in the history of the Netherlands. They drained the swampy lands of the Low Country, making it possible not just to use the land, but to avoid seasonal flooding that defined the country for so long. Understanding and taking control of the water is what led to the incredible success of the Netherlands throughout the centuries, transforming it from a swampy country to one of incredible wealth and power. None of that would have happened without these still-beautiful windmills.
Cologne Cathedral – Germany
As someone who has spent a lot of time traveling around Europe, I have visited many, many, many churches and cathedrals. While they’re all great and I enjoy the experience at the time, they do mostly blur into one another. There are only so many triptychs and apses you can see after all. But the Cologne Cathedral was different and I know that this is one iconic religious building that will stand out in my memory. Begun in 1248, but not finished until 1880, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is considered by many to be the best representation of the strength of European Christianity on the continent, and definitely the best example of a perfectly conceived and constructed religious structure. That’s all very impressive, but what took my breath away was when I walked in, the dark Gothic interior beautifully lit by the massive stained glass windows lining the sides. Removed and protected during the wars that have plagued Europe over the centuries, the windows all range in age from ancient to modern. It’s a great representation of a living church, instead of a cold stone structure I so many times find. It’s the most popular tourist site in Germany and, as I discovered, with very good reason.
Colmar – France
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. Visiting Colmar was an optional activity offered by Viking, and instantly I knew I had made the right choice by going. Walking through the vibrant Medieval downtown, 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. Without a doubt, Colmar was one of the most visually stunning cities we visited on the cruise, especially on a sunny day. There’s nothing better than strolling along Colmar’s cobbled streets on a beautiful afternoon when the town is bustling with people, all out Christmas shopping or just enjoying the holiday season.
Technik Museum Speyer – Germany
My partner is a transportation aficionado, so whenever we’re in a city with a transportation museum, we almost invariably pay a visit. Luckily I’m just as interested in the history of transportation, from trains to planes, and was thrilled when I discovered what is the best transpiration museum I’ve ever visited, tucked away in the small town of Speyer. Incorporating areas both inside and out, this massive complex would take an entire day to see fully and includes more than 2,000 exhibits. The star for me was the outside exhibition featuring a variety of aircraft from the early commercial planes to much more recent technological marvels. More than just looking at them though, the Speyer Transportation Museum is unique in that guests can feel and touch many of the exhibits. Lufthansa donated a Boeing 747-200, which visitors can explore inside and out, even walking out on the wing. I enjoyed seeing all of Speyer, but for me the unsung hero really is this expertly curated museum.
Amsterdam Food Tour – The Netherlands
Since my first experience with the tour company Eating Europe was such a success in London, when I found myself in another city where they host tours I knew immediately that I had to join. I wasn’t disappointed either and that morning and early afternoon I spent wandering around the canals of Amsterdam made me finally learn to appreciate the city, food coming to the rescue once again. From classic Dutch apple pie and poffertjes to more recent additions on the Dutch food scene from far-flung colonies, the tour was a true immersion into what Amsterdam as a city values in its food. Of everything I tried that morning, without a doubt my favorite bite came not at a café or restaurant, but at a butcher’s. Butcher Louman in the Jordaan neighborhood has been the go-to source for great meats since 1890, but they’re especially well known for their sausages and cured meats. My favorites were the ossenworst (raw, smoked beef sausage) and the grillworst (grilled sausages), which are both amongst the best in the city. We arrived into the Netherlands a couple of days before the start of our Viking cruise, so this tour isn’t offered by Viking but I strongly recommend the company that runs it.
Heidelberg Castle Ruins – Germany
Of Heidelberg, Mark Twain once wrote, “A ruin must be rightly situated to be effective. This one could not have been better placed.” Just as these famous castle ruins were important in Twain’s day, they’re still at the heart of the tourist experience in Heidelberg today and with good reason. Perched high on top of a mountain overlooking the city itself, the castle is a massive complex that was at the center of regional politics and intrigue. Expanded over the centuries and at one time a royal residence, Heidelberg Castle was destroyed in the 17th century and has been in ruin ever since. It’s a curious example of a ruined building being so popular, but its size and amazing views of the valley below ensure that this is a must-visit site for anyone passing through the bustling university town.
The Cruise Itself
Sure, river cruises allow for intimate access to many of Europe’s most famous cities, but I think that the unsung hero of any river cruise is the cruise experience itself. Floating along Europe’s rivers allows for a rare look at the countryside and even urban settings that ordinarily wouldn’t be possible. Certain stretches of river are particularly amazing, and whenever they pop up the Viking staff lead a river tour as the boat floats by. Castles and ruins, wineries and small hamlets, some of the sights I’ve seen from onboard the ships have been more impressive than anything I’ve found wandering around cities on my own. Add to that the food, convenience and convivial fun of the cruise and it really is a fantastic way to travel.