On my fourth river cruise with Viking River Cruises, I thought I had a pretty good idea of what to expect. And as far as the ship and service onboard, I did. Last December I joined the Viking Cities of Light cruise, taking passengers from Paris to Prague highlighting some of the most beautiful towns and regions in between. It was also the holiday season, which meant I was fortunate enough to see many of the amazing Christmas markets for which not only Germany, but most countries in Europe are so very well known. The trip was just as interesting and fun as I had hoped, but since the Cities of Light cruise is a little different from some other Viking cruises offered, I thought I’d share more detail on what the cruise is like and what passengers can expect as they sail through some of the most amazing cities in Europe.
One aspect of this particular trip that appealed to me so much was that it included hotel stays both in Paris and Prague as part of the trip. Arriving into Paris, we were met by the Viking representative and shuttled quickly over to our hotel, which when I sailed was Le Méridien Etoile. Paris is one of my favorite cities, and to enjoy a couple of days wandering around before joining the Viking longship Odin was the perfect start to the journey. It allowed me to get used to the new time zone and general travel fatigue and to slowly ease into the cruise experience itself. But the hotel stays are very much part of the cruise, which means that Viking is always on hand to help any passenger with questions. With a dedicated desk in the hotels, staff members were there to do everything from issue room keys to help with dinner ideas. They also coordinated the complimentary tours of the city, a hallmark of the Viking experience that I was pleased to see extends to their land-based programs as well. In Paris, I went off on my own though, but that’s part of what makes Viking so great. Tours were available if I wanted to join them, but passengers can do as they please, and if independent exploration is what they want then it’s easy to accomplish. Le Méridien Etoile enjoys a nice location in Paris, walkable to the Arc de Triomphe and a block or so from the closest metro station. Overall, it was a great home base from which to revisit my favorite city.
The process was repeated at the end of the trip in Prague, again highlighting just how nice it is to have time on and off the boat included as part of the overall trip. Again Viking handled our stay at the Hilton Prague with aplomb and this time we did avail ourselves of the free tour. Not only was it the perfect reintroduction to a city I haven’t visited in a very long time, but it was an easy and free way to get around Prague. Finishing up in front of the Old Town Hall, I enjoyed several hours just wandering around the city, getting to know it all over again and enjoying the festive Christmas spirit of the city. With hotel stays included as part of the overall itinerary, these are slightly longer trips than the Viking Danube or Rhine journeys. But if you have the time, those extra few nights in hotels rooms do in fact add a lot to the overall experience. The opportunity to relax before the cruise, adapt to the new time zone and get organized before the cruise was ideal. At the end of the trip it was nice to have a little extra space to reorganize luggage for the trip back home, and of course exploring Prague is always a treat.
A quick peek at a map will reveal that no, you cannot in fact sail from Paris to Prague uninterrupted. That means Viking has to transport guests from Paris to the longship itself and again at the end of the cruise transport guests to Prague. Believe me, I’m not a “sit in a bus with 40-people for 5 hours” kind of guy either, but Viking handles this necessary transfer with ease. Getting up early, the trip time from Paris to our ship in Trier, Germany was in total four hours. Viking made this infinitely more manageable, and interesting, though by including an afternoon stop in Luxembourg. There we had plenty of free time to explore on our own as well as an organized walking tour through Luxembourg City and then onwards to the nearby American Cemetery and Memorial. It was a great experience and I doubt I would have otherwise visited this small but incredibly interesting country, now one of my favorites. They did the same as we transitioned from our final river stop in Bamberg to Prague. Without stopping, this would ordinarily take around four hours, depending on traffic which, again, is not ideal for active travelers. Luckily, Nuremberg is along the way and again Viking included a mid-morning stopover exploring the city, with a short tour and plenty of free time on our own. Viking didn’t have to include any stops between the two start and end points. At the end of the day, while not ideal, four hours in a bus won’t kill anyone. But by including both Luxembourg City and Nuremberg, Viking not only made the drives more manageable, but they added a lot of value to the overall trip as well.
Great Viking 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.
Amazing Ports of Call
As always though, what matters most on any trip are the destinations visited and along the Cities of Light itinerary I was impressed everyday with what we experienced. Although the journey starts in Paris and ends in Prague, the cruise portion itself is entirely in Germany, perfect around the Christmas holidays or any time of year really. Trier, Cochem, Koblenz, Heidelberg, Würzburg, Bamberg and so on, the opportunities to get out and explore new towns and cities was near constant, something I loved dearly. As usual with Viking, each stop included complimentary tours of the destinations if guests chose to take them, but regardless of whether or not guests join the tour there’s always plenty of free time to get out and do your own thing. Since the Christmas markets were in full swing, there were no limits to what we could see and do, but I imagine these destinations are fun to explore no matter what time of year passengers visit. One particular highlight was joining an optional excursion to a city I already knew I loved but had never seen in its full Christmas regalia, the fairy tale town of Rothenberg ob der Tauber.
Known as the best-preserved medieval town in Germany, the half-timbered buildings and the small, centuries old streets in Rothenberg seem perfectly made for the holiday season. After just a few minutes I knew that my hunch was right, and Rothenburg was one of my favorite stops on the Viking River cruise. There are several, small markets around town, with the main market held in the center square immediately in front of city hall. Even though it was freezing outside, I climbed to the top of town hall tower for what I already knew were incredible views. It was amazing to see how different the city looks in spring versus winter, no less beautiful, just different. Rothenburg is also home to one of the largest, and most famous, Christmas stores in Germany, so if shopping is your thing then you’re in luck. For my money though, spending some time walking around, eating at a few of the stalls and stopping to people watch is the best way to visit this always gorgeous town.
While I have sailed Viking before, this most recent trip was my first time doing so in a Veranda Suite and the experience was extraordinary. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve never been unhappy with the size, style or layout of any Viking cabin I’ve briefly called home, but it was especially nice to have the extra room that a suite provides. Walking into the cabin for the first time, I entered what would be my prime relaxation and workspace for the week – the living room. A spacious area it had everything I needed including sofa, TV, desk and a full veranda. Adjacent is the bedroom, which features another TV, hotel-style bed, a French balcony, closet space and drawers and of course the bathroom. There are dividers separating everything so you never have to worry about waking your significant other and naturally the suites enjoy the same amenities as other cabins namely premium amenities, daily water and fruit and plenty of storage space. Some extras that the suite provides though include a welcome bottle of champagne and some complimentary laundry services. I wouldn’t have thought that a slight improvement in living space would make a huge difference in my Viking experience, but it did. The ability to have a separate space to relax and to sleep is priceless and I know that I’m now a convert, forever choosing a Veranda Suite or better whenever I find myself on another Viking ship in the future.
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.