The magically festive Christmas markets along the Danube could even make a Christmas fanatic out of Scrooge. And a river cruise, as your moving hotel, is the perfect way to explore these Christmas markets. We combined our visit to Prague with a Uniworld Christmas Markets river cruise from Vienna to Nuremberg. Here are some of the highlights along with some tips to help you make the most out of your trip.
Favorite Vienna Christmas Markets
Ideally, you need to spend at least three days in Vienna. Our three non-stop days (before our cruise included visits to Hofburg Palace, Sisi Museum, Spanish Riding School and Schönbrunn Palace. We did walking tour of Vienna, rode the Ringstrasse tram and went to an opera at the Vienna Opera House. We went on a great food tour and then did our own Sacher Torte taste test comparison. There is so much to see and do that simply showing up to get on a river cruise without having additional time just doesn’t do this beautifully elegant city justice.
Schönbrunn Palace was the spectacular summer residence of the Habsburgs. We took an audio tour of the Royal Apartments, explored the grounds and walked up to the gloriette for sweeping views of the palace and the city beyond. Schönbrunn is one of the must-see stops in Vienna. It also happens to play host to a very elegant Christmas market. Although it is somewhat smaller than other Christmas markets in Vienna, the Schönbrunn market is more refined. We sipped Glühwein (warm, fragrant, mulled wine) as we meandered through the aisles looking at the decorations and gifts for sale.
As part of our river cruise, we spent an additional day in Vienna. We went on a guided excursion to the Christkindlmarkt at Rathausplatz. The largest in Vienna, this sprawling Christmas Market in front of the city hall was colorful and lively. Our guide led us on a tasting tour of the market. While Rathausplatz had many more vendor stalls, many were selling the same items. Overall, Schönbrunn had higher-end products that were more unique.
Passau’s Old Town sits at the confluence of three rivers: Danube, Inn and Ilz. Passau is a relatively small city. Our boat docked right in the middle of Old Town. We walked off and right into the city’s Italian Baroque-style magical townscape. We strolled through Passau’s winding lanes taking in its historic buildings and large squares. The Old Town was festively decorated for Christmas, especially Cathedral Square in front of St. Stephan’s Cathedral.
Cathedral Square is the home to Passau’s Christmas Market. There are about 70 stalls selling Christmas decorations and gifts. Many of the crafts were made by local artisans including the sheep’s milk soap I bought. We were intoxicated by the various aromas, especially the roasted chestnuts. And, of course, there were ample opportunities to sample Christmas specialities like Lebkuchen (gingerbread) and Glühwein.
Passau’s Christmas Market was far more approachable than the larger Christmas Markets of Vienna. As a matter of fact, it was absolutely homey.
Linz is Austria’s third largest city with a population of about 200,000 people. During our trip I discovered that Linz is the capital of Upper Austria and it’s cultural center. But, then again, I knew little about Linz other than it was the home of the Linzer torte.
While there are several Christmas Markets in Linz, the most popular is Christkindlmarkt am Hauptplatz, located in the central square. Started by three painters, the market focuses on more artisanal items such as pottery, glassware, and handmade jewelry.
Regensburg is a small Bavarian city on the Danube with charming alleys that open onto town squares. While Regensburg has several Christmas markets, the one on Neupfarrplatz, in the center of town, is the happening place to be. Easy to find, Neupfarrplatz is an exceptional place to find dozens of varieties of Glühwein. In addition to the traditional, other flavors include apple, orange, cherry, and elderberry (Holunder). Some versions even come spiked with a shot of rum or amaretto. Needless to say, walking around with warm Glühwein is a great remedy for cold fingers. And, for your shopping pleasure, there are plenty of stands for gifts. I bought a beautiful homemade candle made from honey.
Tip: Regensburg is the place to look for authentic German Cuckoo clocks. But beware, you won’t find the authentic Cuckoo clocks at the Christmas market. For authentic cuckoo clocks and more go to Drubba Clocks and Gifts at Weiße-Hahnen-Gasse 193047 Regensburg. It’s like going to a museum and worth the stop even if you don’t want to buy anything.
Located in the the Hauptmarkt, Nuremberg’s main square is Germany’s oldest and most traditional Christmas Market. With 180 stalls stretching the length of the medieval square to the door of Frauenkirche, Nuremberg’s iconic 14th-century church, this market is huge. And, most of the products are made in the region. Even the stalls are local—made from regional spruce. One unique item was the zwetschgenmannle (prune people.) There were over 350 different fruit-and-nut prune man figures.
As with all of the Christmas markets we visited, there were a variety of food stands. But, you have to try the Nuremberg sausages. Basically, these are 3 breakfast size sausage links in a roll. I know, doesn’t sound that interesting. But this is one of those cases where it’s all about the execution. They were delicious! And, at 3 euro a sandwich, they’re an absolute bargain.
Top Tips for Visiting Christmas Markets
Explore each market. You don’t have to pick a favorite!
I would strongly encourage you to visit as many Christmas markets as you can. I understand that you may see many of the same items at each of the markets. This is especially true of the markets in bigger cities. But that said, each market we visited had its own interesting style.
Choose the right time to visit
If you want to stay away from the crowds at the well-known markets try and get there in the morning when the businesses open. As a whole, the Christmas markets were busier in the late afternoon and evening. That said, you absolutely need to see the twinkling lights and experience the festive vibe the evening Christmas market visit brings.
Many of the vendors only take cash (especially the local artisans.) Some will accept credit cards but usually only Master Card or Visa.
Traditional food at the Christmas Markets
Going to a Christmas market is like going on a food tour. Be sure to try: maroni (simmered chestnuts), kaisekrainer (sausage with cheddar in the center), soup in a bread bowl, pretzels, kaiserschmarrn (rum raisin pancake), waffeln (waffles), lebkuchen (gingerbread), gebrannte mandeln (toasted almonds), bratkartoffel (pan-fried potatoes), heisse bauernkrapfen (farmer’s doughnuts), and krapfen (filled doughnuts). Sample as many different types of wurst as you can. My favorite was the feuerwurst (spicy sausage) that we had in Regensburg.
Drink Glühwein at the Christmas Markets
Glühwein is wine mulled with different spices. Each vendor had his or her own “recipe.” There were multiple different fruits as the base for the wine. Therefore, every mug of Glühwein we tried was unique but all were delectable. Try as many as you can. You won’t be disappointed.
Mugs Make Great Souvenirs
Glühwein, Punsch and alternate heavenly beverages at the Christmas Markets come in charming mugs. After you are done with your drink, you can return the mug and get back your deposit. Alternatively, you can keep the mug as a souvenir and lose your deposit (usually 2-4 euro.) Each market has a uniquely designed mug. Since these mugs change every year they are an instant collector’s item. This makes for a great keepsake or gift and is super easy to transport home.
The Christmas Markets are primarily outside, and it can be very cold in December. Remember to wear lots of layers, hat, scarf and gloves. Remember, there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad gear. Don’t let being underdressed ruin your experience.
I already have our Rhine Christmas Market River Cruise planned for next year. Care to join us?