Imagine spending the holidays immersed in festive traditions, surrounded by a sense of wonder, and inspired by sights, sounds and tastes that harken back to simpler times. That’s the magic of Christmas markets in Europe, or as they’re known in Germany, Christkindlesmarkt. While summertime in the Pacific Northwest may not bring images of sugarplums and holiday lights to mind, it is peak time for holiday vacation planning. It’s Christmas in July.
A visit to a European Christmas market is considered an essential part of the holidays in many parts of the continent, including Poland, Austria, Switzerland, France, the Czech Republic and, of course, Germany. A hallmark of the festive season, the markets encapsulate the essence of the holidays: beautiful music, twinkling lights, irresistible sweets, traditional foods and handcrafted gifts. The tempting aroma of roasted chestnuts and mulled wine fills the air as locals and visitors come together to enjoy authentic holiday activities.
Without a doubt, the holidays are a wonderful time to visit Europe. And there’s no better way to experience the Christmas markets in all their splendor than on a tour, especially a river cruise that visits multiple cities.
Lisa Anciaux, AAA Washington’s director of travel products, is a travel expert and a cruising guru, one of six travel industry leaders worldwide to be named Godmother of a Viking River Cruises longship, the Viking Rolf. Here, Anciaux provides inspiration for holiday vacation planning and how to experience the magic of the season in Europe.
Delight in authentic traditions
What will you experience at a Christmas market? In a word, tradition. Christmas markets are beloved for their authenticity. You can savor traditional foods and experience timeless music, carol concerts, light displays, family activities and a wonderfully warm welcome.
From Nuremberg’s festive Christkindlesmarkt (the largest and oldest Christmas market in Germany) to Regensburg’s Christmas market at Thurn and Taxis Castle (considered one of Bavaria’s most beautiful and romantic), each market offers a different experience.
Tempt your tastebuds
While some holiday foods need no introduction, Christmas markets offer the chance to partake in a few lesser-known delicacies. Here’s a sampling of the freshly made delights that will tempt your tastebuds:
- Stollen, or Christstollen, is a sweet bread filled with dried fruits, nuts and spices and covered in icing sugar. It’s a quintessential holiday treat across Germany, served by the slice, often dripping with honey and jam.
- Potato pancakes, or kartoffelpuffer, are a staple dish at Christmas markets. Made with shredded potatoes, these pancakes are similar to latkes. They’re sometimes flavored with onions and garlic. No matter the preparation, potato pancakes make for a hearty snack.
- Mulled wine, or glühwein, with its citrus and spice aroma, is often served in specially decorated cups (which you can return after use or purchase as a souvenir).
- Gingerbread, or lebkuchen, is a familiar treat. However, you may find that European varieties are less sweet than the American version.
- Eggnog, or eierpunsch (which translates directly as “egg punch”), is made with egg yolks, sugar, spices, white wine or a special liqueur, and vanilla—topped with fresh whipped cream. Served warm, it’s a delightful warm-up on a chilly evening.
- Käsespatzle, or spätzle, is a classic pasta dish with egg noodles and cheese. It’s often topped with caramelized onions.
Be in awe of architecture
Perhaps it’s the glow of holiday lights or the soft winter sky, but many architecture enthusiasts believe the holiday season is the season to appreciate the wonders of historic buildings. From neoclassical cathedrals to opulent palaces, you will be spoiled for choice when it comes to beautiful landmarks. Walk along the cobblestone streets and soak in the majesty of buildings that have stood the test of time.
Cruise Europe’s waterways
Traveling by river cruise along Europe’s waterways is arguably one of the best ways to easily experience several Christmas markets. River cruise ships are typically smaller and more intimate. Each day offers a new city or town. These historic places are yours to explore join a guided walking tour, enjoy a bike ride or plan a solo day strolling along pathways leading to beautiful landmarks and hidden cafés. Either way, the sights and sounds of the Christmas market will take center stage in your adventures.
‘Tis the season to plan ahead
European Christmas markets usually begin about four weeks before Christmas day and coincide with Advent. Most markets conclude on Christmas Eve. It’s a fun-filled time for all ages, with schools closing for up to three weeks in some cities. Because the festive season is when many local residents also travel, you’ll find that cruises, hotels and tours fill up early. So, it’s wise to plan your trip well ahead.
Itineraries sparking with festive flair
With hundreds of markets across more than a dozen countries, choosing which itinerary suits you best may be a challenge. AAA Washington provides these expert recommendations:
Christmas Markets on the Rhine: Cherish the season’s glory in grand European style as you cruise along the Rhine to visit France, Germany, Netherlands and Switzerland with AmaWaterways. Warm up with a mug of steamy glühwein at the Cologne Christmas Market, meander through Heidelberg’s majestic Christmas Market, and marvel at the world’s largest Advent calendar in Gengenbach—a winter wonderland awaits.
Holiday Magic: Danube Family River Cruise: Experience Austria, Hungary, Slovakia and Germany on this family-friendly cruise for all ages. There’s plenty to discover along the Danube, including a special evening at a private palace in Vienna with dinner, a performance and waltzing lesson.
Concierge Godmother Cruise: Viking Christmas on the Seine River Cruise: Immerse yourself in French culture, culinary traditions and festive delights on a journey through France along the Seine, visiting Paris and cruising through Normandy. Sail through snow-covered landscapes, admire fairytale villages, visit picture-perfect markets and immerse yourself in the charm of the French countryside. This is a unique Viking River Cruise experience for 2024, infused with holiday spirit and luxurious onboard experiences. (Anciaux will be aboard as Godmother of the beautiful Viking Kari longship.)
Iconic Christmas Markets: Experience timeless wonders in Austria, Europe, Germany and Hungary on this seven-day river cruise with AmaWaterways. Ignite your passion for Gothic and Italian Baroque architecture, bike along the Danube, and satisfy your craving for Bavarian specialties like sausage and pretzels—you’ll be delighted by this delightful itinerary during your holiday vacation planning.
If celebrating the holidays in Europe strikes the right note with you, Anciaux and the AAA Travel team can offer expert insights for choosing the perfect itinerary for holiday vacation planning. Before you know it, you’ll be sipping glühwein and nibbling on lebkuchen surrounded by the magic of a Christmas market. For more information, visit wa.aaa.com.