Christmas Markets River Cruises: All You Need to Know

We've sailed on Christmas Markets river cruises and are often asked about them. The holidays are such a wonderful time to be in Europe, which is arguably the Christmas capital of the world, given the December holiday celebrations.

But where do they take place, what months, and how much do they cost? What is a guest to expect when sailing on a Christmas Market cruise vs. a normal cruise?

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Misty night sky with a European building in the distance and holiday sign illuminated by Christmas lights in Vienna, Austria.

European Christmas Markets River Cruises: What to Expect

Time of Year

River cruises in Europe during late fall and early winter specifically sail so guests can experience the famous Christmas Markets. Otherwise, it's too cold for most people to roam around cities for walking tours and such without the appeal of the holiday spirit.

All over Europe, from the end of November or the beginning of December, depending on the destination, cities have the most incredible traditional Christmas markets comprised of little kiosks, kids' rides, live music, and general merriment.

Photo-Worthy Wooden Vendor Stalls or Kiosks

The Christmas market vendors are located in stalls or kiosks that are typically made of wood and decorated with Christmas lights, garlands, and assorted holiday icons. They're a true highlight and really give the markets their unique character.

Oftentimes times, they have even more ornamentation with holiday characters like elves and reindeer or Christmas trees topping the roof. The kiosks offer visitors gifts to purchase, like Christmas ornaments and nativity sets, candles, soaps, children's toys, decorations for your home, or presents like jewelry, hats and gloves, or home goods like customized wood cutting boards.

If there's an old town in any given city, 10 out of 10 times, there are Christmas Markets there. Often, there is demand for more locations and more vendors in a city, like in big cities, including Vienna, Budapest, Frankfurt, or Munich. If this is the case, there are typically additional vendors and stalls lined up along pedestrian streets near the old city center.

Hours of Operation for the Christmas Markets

The markets rarely open before 11:00 am. Typically, they are open until 9:00 or 10:00 pm.

Regarding what to expect during a typical river cruise day exploring a Christmas Markets town, we enjoyed having late mornings where we'd eat breakfast between 9:00 am and 9:45 am. Then we would casually read or do some work in the morning in our stateroom or somewhere on the ship. Afterward, we would have a light lunch, anticipating eating some snacks and drinks at the Christmas Markets in the afternoon, and then go to the markets in the early afternoon.

A walking tour of the town provided by your cruise line may dictate when you get off the ship to explore. But in terms of Christmas Market hours, since they don't open early in the morning anyway, this worked for us.

Sometimes we would return to the ship and then explore the markets again at night when they came alive with holiday lights and more people. The markets are definitely busier at night, no matter where you go.

Other times, we would time our afternoon and early evening, so we left the ship at an hour when we'd see the markets during daylight, and then the sun would set as we walked around. That way, we'd see daytime and nighttime lighting during one trip off the ship. If you leave the ship around 3:30 pm and you hang out on land for an hour and a half, it's dark by 5:00 pm!

Making multiple trips to town and coming back to the river cruise ship in between depends on how closely your ship is docked to the center of town and your mobility.

Christmas Markets End Before or Right Around Christmas

Many, many Christmas markets end the day before Christmas or two days before Christmas. This is true of Frankfurt, Mainz, and many other places.

If you're going on a river cruise during December because you want to experience the Christmas Markets, make sure that your cruise starts during the first two and a half weeks of December. Once you're into week three, markets start to close. Be sure you're not signed up for a cruise after December 24 unless you specifically want to spend New Year's Eve in Europe on a river cruise, and the Christmas markets aren't as important to you.

The Sun Sets Early During Winter in Europe

The sun sets before 5:00 pm, in the cities and countries you are likely visiting to experience the Christmas Market in Europe. This is a good thing to remember if you want to see the markets during the day versus at night.

Holiday Hours and Winter Season Affect Tourism Hours for Sightseeing

Going to a city like Koblenz in winter is different from going in summer. This is just one example we will use to illustrate that there's less to do in terms of sightseeing during winter in Europe than during late spring, summer, or fall.

During warmer seasons, the Kurfürstliches Schloss (Electoral Palace) on the Rhine River's western bank and the Koblenz-Ehrenbreitstein fortress on the eastern bank are open during the day. However, during December and January, they are not open as usual.

The Kurfürstliches Schloss is closed, and the cable car that goes to the top of the hill to the fortress operates from 4:00 pm to 10:00 pm. Once you're up there, you're only able to buy additional tickets to see a Christmas Lights display. Visitors are unable to tour the fortress otherwise. Another factor during winter is wind, which affects the cable car's operations.

Another example is wine tours in Rudesheim, which are popular during summer. During winter, the tours shut down.

Luckily we were able to see the exterior of the Kurfürstliches Schloss and practically had it to ourselves due to its lack of winter visitors. However, the point still stands: be aware that the main reason for the season is the Christmas Markets, and other sites are secondary.

Larger cities like Munich typically have museums and tours running as usual all year. Simply research the cities you're going to and what they will have or will not have open to plan your day aside from what the river cruise is providing.

Food to Try at Christmas Markets

Many times we were meandering through the market stalls we would say to each other, “This feels like a state fair with a ton of food options where you just eat and eat.” And there's a lot of truth to that!

There are certainly a lot of food options at every Christmas market you go to, no matter the city. Though the food was more regionally specific years ago, the markets have become more cross-cultural in terms of foods you can find in recent years.

For example, when we were at the Frankfurt Christmas Markets, which are one of the most visited and popular markets in the heart of Europe, we saw all kinds of food like Hungarian Langos, Mediterranean falafel sandwiches, German bratwurst and currywurst, and even Mexican tacos and nachos!

Vegan food is becoming more and more mainstream and we saw plenty of places to get a vegan bite to eat.

The most common food to expect to find, however, is different types of German sausages, French fries, crepes, cookies, and sweets for desserts like roasted chestnuts or candied almonds. We also saw spaetzle dishes, strudels, slow flame-cooked salmon in sandwiches (a personal favorite of mine and Dan's), and pretzels.

Drinks to Try at the German Christmas Markets

The number one drink to try is gluhwein, a warm mulled wine. Though you can certainly find other drinks at the markets, beer is less typically drunk at the markets. You can find different varieties of gluhwein, including white and rose. But our favorite is red, and when we've talked to other cruise passengers who have tried the other varieties, we all seem to agree red is the best.

Feuerzangenbowle is another popular drink, which takes gluhwein a step further. A rum-soaked sugar cube is served on the side of the drink and lit on fire for a true holiday spectacle in your hands.

Best Time to Book a Christmas Markets River Cruise

We recommend booking at least a year in advance if you want your choice of dates, stateroom, and itinerary. This is because these specialty cruises are in high demand and don't have many dates each year, so they fill up quickly.

Finding space on a holiday cruise closer to the date is possible, but as the date approaches, you simply have fewer options than if you book 12 months or more out.

Rivers You Can Sail to Experience the Christmas Markets

Though there are some outliers here and there, the main rivers you're looking at sailing for this type of cruise during the holiday season is the Danube River or the Rhine River. We have also been on parts of the Main River for a Christmas Market River cruise.

European Christmas market cruise FAQs

Are Christmas Market River Cruises Worth It?

Yes! They're the perfect way to see multiple Christmas Markets in a short amount of time during the most festive season in places like Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. We love cruises because you unpack your luggage in your stateroom once and don't need to move or pack again until the cruise is over.

This perk is never as enticing as it is during the cold winter months in Europe! You get to come back to the cozy river cruise ship each evening after a fun day exploring Christmas markets to the comfort of the same room and additional comforts of the ship. It's a beautiful thing!

It's also nice not to have to figure out how to get from market to market because the cruise line has figured everything out for you. All you need to do is be a guest on the ship and get off and on the ship in each port as you like.

Couple looking through a huge holiday wreath for Christmas Markets in Europe.

When Do Christmas Markets Cruises Start Each Year?

The cruises correspond to when some of Europe's most notable cities and towns start their annual Christmas markets. This is usually from mid to late November through December.

What is the Cost of a Christmas Market River Cruise?

Cost varies based on the cruise line and length of the river cruise. However, you can expect a Christmas Markets river cruise to start at around $2,500 per person and go up from there depending on the category of stateroom you choose for a 7-night and 8-day river cruise to see the Christmas markets.

We firmly believe that river cruises are the best value for the money because they include things like excursions/tours, beer and wine with lunch and dinner, and gratuities in most cases.

Which River Cruise Line Has the Best Christmas Market Stops?

Any river cruise line that stops in the following places is going to allow guests to experience some of the best Christmas Markets in Europe: Munich, Frankfurt, Cologne, Colmar, Vienna, Nuremberg, Budapest, Prague.

Truly they are so successful in Europe that most cities that have one no matter how big or small do a great job. Even small cities along the Danube River, like Passau where three rivers converge, have great holiday markets.

Such cruise lines include:

  • Emerald Cruises
  • Scenic Cruises
  • Viking River Cruises
  • AmaWaterways
  • Uniworld
  • Avalon Waterways

How Long is a Christmas Markets Cruise?

Cruisers typically embark on a seven-night cruise for this special itinerary. This is because the markets only run for so long during the most festive time of year. Another reason is that most people want to cruise within the first two weeks of December for a few days for market visits but they want to be home for the actual holiday.

Which Side of the Boat Should You Book for a Danube Christmas Market River Cruise?

It doesn't really matter what side of the boat you're on for a few reasons:

  • Oftentimes, several boats dock up against each other, which means your view outside your stateroom windows is actually of another boat.
  • If your boat is docked against the land, it's unlikely the Christmas market you're visiting is on the water. Rather, the holiday markets in European towns are usually in the old town city center. Though river cruises dock incredibly close to such areas, the main square of old towns is not on the water.
  • The ship changes directions depending on where you start and end the cruise. For example, the ship's port side may be on the south side of the river if you're going on a Danube River cruise from Germany to Austria, but the reverse journey means the port side is facing north.

What to Pack for a European River Cruise during Winter

Pack for cold weather is the short answer! You definitely want to bring things like a warm winter coat, gloves, a hat and a scarf.

Our second tip for a Christmas Markets cruise is to bring hand warmers. You can simply buy them online at Amazon and keep one or two in your day pack at all times during the cruise so if it's really cold, you can activate one to get warmer.

We've been to Europe during winter when it's really cold and around the same time other years, and it's been more moderately cold. It depends on the year; such is the weather!

For footwear, we recommend boots of some sort of well-insulated sneakers or shoes. Dan wears suede or leather shoes he is comfortable walking a few miles in and I usually wear a leather bootie of some sort; Sorel boots are my go-to. Their styles are fashionable, well made so they'll last for years, and comfortable.

Ready to book your Christmas Markets Cruise?

If you're ready to book and dive into this festive atmosphere, we recommend reaching out to our preferred travel agents.

Click the box below to be taken to an inquiry form and we'll get you in touch with them. They have helped our readers get organized and find the best cruise for them in the past and we adore them for their incredible service and work ethic!

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Use our preferred travel advisors, Bolds Travel, Because…

  • They take away the hassle of travel planning: time spent on the phone with the cruise line could be time you spend doing other things.
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