Many travelers are hesitant about booking an expensive trip to see the European Christmas markets because of the weather. I am going to answer one of the most pressing questions that travelers have. Is it going to be cold? The answer is quite simple: Absolutely!
Another big question: Is everything going to be open? The answer is no, but it doesn’t really matter. On my Avalon Waterways Christmas Markets cruise we got to see some of the most beautiful cities in the world in a time of celebration. Most of the tourist sites are open and are less crowded during this time of year. There are Christmas markets in almost every city, and there is plenty of glühwein around to keep everybody warm. Put on your winter coats and bundle up as I describe my once-in-a-lifetime trip to the European Christmas Markets with Avalon Waterways.
Our adventure started in Vienna, which was once the center of the powerful Habsburg Empire. This modern European city is rich in beauty and architecture. As we boarded our ship in the afternoon, we were welcomed by our excellent cruise director, Robert, and his courteous European staff. Once we received our keys from the front desk we were off to get settled into our cabins for the cruising portion of our journey. The rooms are first class and kept extremely neat and tidy. My wife was delighted to discover the spa-quality bathroom products, and I was impressed with the high-quality linens on the beds. The cabin was spacious and very comfortable.
We were able to quickly settle in and feel comfortable. Our first meal was dinner that night on the ship. We were impressed with the menu selections, and the wine selections were excellent. Wine, beer and soda are included with every dinner on the ship, which is a great value. After dinner our first night we enjoyed some piano entertainment in the bar area before heading to bed.
The next morning in Vienna we learned just how much this city had to offer. We toured the majestic Ring Boulevard, where we saw the giant Ferris wheel, the lavish Hofburg Palace, the impressive Vienna Opera House, and went inside the Gothic St. Stephens Cathedral. We had free time to enjoy Vienna. We visited two Christmas markets full of sparkling ornaments and food. We ordered a giant pretzel and sampled our first taste of glühwein. Glühwein is a warm red wine combined with spices. Long ago, wine often spoiled. By adding honey and spices it became drinkable once again. Glühwein today is served all over Europe during the winter time to warm people up.
We spent some time shopping in the Kärntnerstrasse and even had time to try some tasty apple strudel. Vienna is famous for apple strudel, and my advice is to eat as much as you can while you are visiting. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are included while you cruise with Avalon, so you are always full. But I always found a way to pack in a little more of the local cuisine while we were touring. That evening we enjoyed a classical music concert and a champagne toast in one of Vienna’s famous concert halls. When we returned to our ship, we were surprised to find that the chef had cooked up some warm goulash for us to enjoy before we went to bed.
Departing Vienna by Sea
We cruised away from Vienna that evening, and one of the most interesting parts of our journey was passing through our first lock on the Danube. We were all impressed at how the captain of the ship navigated the locks with precision. The locks are truly an engineering accomplishment. After the lock we drifted off to sleep.
When we woke up in the morning, we were in the charming village of Dürnstein, which is known for the magnificent Baroque Stiftskirche with its blue façade. As you walk into Dürnstein you pass a small terraced vineyard. Then you walk up stone streets into the village, which is full of shops. These shops are as cute as can be, and I was surprised to discover they all accepted credit cards. We purchased some charming Christmas souvenirs and learned from our local guide about the medieval castle that overlooked the city. This castle is where King Richard I Lionheart of England was held captive by Duke Leopold V of Austria after their dispute during the Third Crusade.
After Dürnstein, it was time for lunch and our ship started cruising the Wachau region, which is the most beautiful part of the Danube and famous for its white wines. The views from the ship were breathtaking as we journeyed to Melk to visit the glorious Benedictine abbey, which dominates the town from its commanding hill site and is one of Europe’s largest monasteries. Inside the abbey is even more impressive than the outside. We learned about the history of the abbey as we toured with our local guide. The library was my favorite room with its Old World charm and spiral staircase. The cathedral of the abbey is amazing. Everything is covered with gold and you really feel the power of the Catholic tradition once you are inside.
That evening we went into Melk to visit its small local Christmas market. Everybody in the town had closed their shops. They were all drinking glühwein and sharing stories. It looked like a terrific community, and it made me smile to see the locals celebrating Christmas time together without all the bright lights and marketing we see in America. We slowly walked back to our ship, and when we arrived we were treated to a wine tasting by a local family-owned vineyard.The wines were top-notch, and we learned the history of Austrian white wine making from the owner of the vineyard.
The next morning we opted to take the full-day optional excursion to Salzburg, one of my favorite places in Europe. We took in the sights of The Sound of Music movie and had a wonderful time shopping in the Getreidegasse, where we saw Mozart’s birth house.
However, one of the most impactful parts of this excursion was when we left Salzburg and stopped in Oberndorf and visited the Silent Night Chapel. This chapel is where the beloved Christmas carol “Silent Night” was heard for the first time, on Christmas Eve 1818. Oberndorf was full of life and the local children were singing for the entire town while we were there. After Oberndorf we stopped at a church in Tyrol where “Silent Night” was actually written as a poem by Joseph Mohr and later Franz Xavier Gruber composed a melody to go with it. We were treated to a performance of “Silent Night” in this church with local singers. They sang the carol first in German and then in English. It was a moving moment to see this song about our Savior performed in this setting. I don’t think I have ever felt the Christmas spirit more than I did after this performance. On the coach ride back to the ship my family was full of Christmas cheer. I was thinking that this trip was already exceeding my expectations.
Regensburg was our stop on the next day, which happened to be Christmas Day. It started snowing while we were there, which made our visit to Germany’s best preserved medieval city very magical. We toured the streets with our local guide as we learned about the many architectural highlights of Regensburg, which include the Old Town Hall and the Porta Pretoria – gates to an ancient Roman fort built in 179 AD. The Christmas market is located on the historic market square. The market was closed on Christmas Day, which wasn’t a disappointment at all. I was happy to see that there was still a place in the world where most people didn’t work on Christmas. We had free time to wander the almost completely empty streets of Regensburg. When I travel, I am primarily on a vegetarian diet. However, Germany is famous for its sausages, and Regensburg is home to the country’s oldest restaurant—Historische Wurstküche (the Old Sausage Kitchen), dating back to the 12th century. If I lived in Regensburg, I think I might change my diet to only eat these sausages. The atmosphere of the restaurant was awesome and the simplicity of the sausage menu was outdone by the flavor of the sausages. Regensburg was the perfect place to spend Christmas Day on the Danube.
Final Stop – Nuremberg
Although Nuremberg suffered extensive damage during WWII, much of it was restored to its original style. As we entered the city we passed the stadium that I recognized from Hitler’s famous 1927 propaganda speech during the Nazi rise to power. This was an eerie site to see, but it made me remember how lucky the world is that the Allies prevailed in WWII. It was also nice to think what a great trip I was having in Germany now.
Germany is now one of our most important allies. I feel such great gratitude to all of the Americans that fought and won WWII for the rest of the world. We marveled at this historic city as our local guide showed us Gothic churches and elegant patrician houses. Nuremberg hosts Germany’s most famous Christmas market, which dates back to 1628; the Old Town is illuminated with festive lights and decorations. This market was amazing and we wandered around as they were packing up some of the market because it was the day after Christmas. The city’s traditions include famous Lebkuchen (gingerbread), toy making and metal working. Nuremberg was a great place to end the cruising portion of our trip.
The next morning we departed from Nuremberg. We took a luxury motorcoach across the Czech border in the Bohemian Forest and headed for Prague, the “Golden City.” This cruise included a three-night stay in a centrally located Prague hotel. Prague is a 1,000-year-old city preserved in time. It straddles the Vltava River with domes, cupolas, spires and pinnacles highlighting its skyline. We saw its best-known treasures such as the Old Town’s Astronomical Clock, once the envy of all of Europe. We toured Hradcany Castle and its grounds. This medieval castle is everything you’ve heard about from fairy tales. It even had torture chambers. We toured St. Vitus Cathedral and the Charles Bridge. We browsed the shops for hand-cut crystal and bought some nice pieces to take home.
We also strolled through the Christmas markets, which were still open even though it was after Christmas. The Christmas markets in Prague are rows of brightly decorated wooden huts selling Christmas tree ornaments, wooden toys and Czech handicrafts. The best part was the beautifully decorated tree in the Old Town, an impressive sight. Once again I experienced firsthand how Christmas is the most important family holiday of the year in most Eastern European countries, and I learned that the Czechs begin their preparations and celebrations on December 4 with the Feast of St. Barbara. Prague was the perfect ending to this voyage.
My family and I truly enjoyed this metropolitan city. That is story of my fantastic Christmastime cruise with Avalon Waterways and the Globus family of brands. Avalon Waterways has several different Christmastime itineraries for travelers to enjoy. Globus also hosts a variety of Christmas market tours in Europe each year. If you have ever thought that this might be something you would like to see, but still had some questions, I hope this article answered some of those questions for you. This was one of the best family vacations I have ever had. It was the perfect balance of faith, fun, history and tradition. I hope you get the opportunity to experience the European Christmas markets for yourself. By
Written by Michael Lundquist, National Group Sales Manager Globus family of brands