Everybody talks about them.. but are these cruises really as amazing as they say?
So you've always wanted to take a Christmas market cruise, but you're not sure exactly when to go, where, how it works, or if it's maybe way too much Christmas.
Never fear, your expert is here!
Since moving to Germany in 1999 I can honestly say I've been to hundreds of Christmas markets: big, little, traditional, artisan, commercial to traditional. They all have a few things in common, even while each retains its own charm and character, specific to its location and sponsor.
The most important common denominator is that EVERYONE IS WELCOME!
Whether you celebrate Christmas or not, the European Christmas markets are a holiday meeting place for people to gather together over a hot cup of cheer, celebrate friendships and relationships, enjoy time together and often times is an annual reunion. They are so much more than just places to go buy hand crafted Christmas ornaments! Depending on when you're there and where you get your Glühwein, you can have authentic and fun interactions with local people and learn a lot about the place you're visiting.
The key to every successful Christmas Market visit: WATERPROOF SHOES AND WARM SOCKS!
When to Go
Christmas markets are set to the Advent Season. Most start "the Wednesday before the First Advent Sunday" and run thru December 23rd; with a handful of the more commercial markets staying open thru New Years. The "long-haulers" as I call them, are usually in the highest traffic centers of a major city and tend to be the most commercial, yet their longer than normal schedules still allow visitors in late December a taste of the Christmas market atmosphere.
Plan your trip over Nikolaus (Dec 6th) to have the BEST choices of merchandise and to experience the vendors and locals in their most festive moods. This is when kids all over Europe put shoes and slippers by the door for goodies from their favourite saint and Christmas markets are in full swing. If you're in Salzburg or along the Wachau you may even run into Krampus: the REAL nightmare before Christmas!
If you come for the first or second week of Christmas markets, this also means you get home in time to enjoy all your purchases before your own holiday celebrations!
Big vs Little
The larger cities like Budapest, Vienna, Munich, Cologne, Strasbourg, etc. have multiple markets, spread out with different themes over various plazas and squares. Smaller markets are less commercialized and cater to the local population. They tend to be smaller, boasting more handmade gifts, decorated Christmas trees, and old-fashioned crafting geared to traditional tastes. The larger, city markets attract artists and master-crafters eager to sell their famous decorations like nutcrackers, Christmas incense smokers, lit window arches, paper stars, and hand-painted ornaments. Ama tends to bring you to the largest markets in each city and lets you use your private time to visit the smaller, specialized ones.
Finding the right market for your style just takes a little research before you travel. Google will list all the markets in a given town or city and you can use Google Maps to create a route.
Wherever you find yourself, a visit to a Christmas market is an experience you'll always remember. Even if you've been to as many as I have, each time is like new and every one has its own character and offers something special.
What's the Best Time?
Christmas markets break up the darkness, so of course from Dusk til ????
As someone who dislikes the short days of Winter when darkness falls as early as 4pm, I celebrate it during the Christmas Market time! All of the markets find their charm and beauty as the sun goes down. Lights begin to twinkle, decorations glow, and every market becomes magical so when you plan your free time in each city along the way, let yourself enjoy the museums and shops and beautiful exhibitions and visit the Christmas markets as the shadows grow and the lights dance.
This is an important topic for anyone a little daunted by the idea of a Christmas market cruise, actually. Since an AmaWaterways cruise during the Christmas market time includes all the normal tours and activities as any other time of the year, it would actually be fairly simple to avoid the Christmas markets almost entirely (but why would you???). Yet at least you can tell the Scrooge in your life that they can come and have a great time and not have to visit a Christmas market.
What do you do? Is it all Shopping?
For me a Christmas market is the combination of smells, tastes, sounds, sights and lastly, shopping. Sure there are all sorts of treasures to find and bring home, but there are certain treats that every Christmas market with the name has to provide: incredible Glühwein (hot mulled wine), a selection of roasted candied almonds and gingerbreads, Kartoffelpuffer (potato pancakes) and Feuersangenbowle (flaming Christmas punch).
One thing to be aware of when you get your drinks is the pfand/deposit system. It works like this: when you buy a drink in the Christmas Markets you pay a little extra for the cup (I collect them). When you return the cup you get the pfand/deposit you paid when you bought your drink, if not, you don’t get the money back but you get to take the cup as a souvenir with you. The price of the pfand vary from market to market, some charge you 2 Euros, others even 5 Euros.
TIP: You can give them your dirty cup and ask for a clean one if you plan to keep one
Watch for the crowds and if you see a line in front of a certain food stall, know that there is a good reason! GET IN THAT LINE! Chat with the others waiting with you, watch what everyone is ordering and then order exactly the same! You will never ever be sorry!
Cash is king on Christmas markets, even if credit cards start to make a bigger and bigger impact. Depending on the size of the market, you will often meet vendors who are cash only. Make sure you have local currency as well as your cards so you don't miss out on that "unique find"... and NEVER EVER pass up something that you think is cool with the idea that you might see it somewhere else. You almost NEVER will... at least not the same.
TAKE YOUR TIME
Try not to go in a hurry. The best thing to do is to take your time looking at the stalls, have one or more cups of mulled wine, enjoy the Christmas atmosphere with your loved ones or new friends, and of course, take a few pictures.
TRY IT ALL!
SOME LOCAL TREATS TO TRY:
Haunsberger mit Sauerkraut Brötchen / Salzburg
Gebrannte Mandel: caramelized almonds
Bratwurstsemmel: sausage and bread
Kartoffelbrot: bread with potato (because… Germany)
Flammkuchen: tarte flambée
Lebkuchen: ginger bread
Baumstrietzel: “chimney cake”
Currywurst mit Pommes: sausage with curry sauce and fries
Glühwein: mulled wine
Kinderpunsch: mulled wine without alcohol
Make the Effort
River cruise guests have a tendency to stick to the cruise line schedule and their tour groups. During this special time of year make the effort to stay in town as long as you can. Skip the tour grab more time, take a taxi back, plan a special meal.
Let yourself do something outside the box! As long as you are back at the ship for the 'all aboard' time, you can use your port time to create your own special moments.
SOME OF THE BIGGEST CHRISTMAS MARKETS IN GERMANY ARE…
Nürnberg: Nürnberger Christkindlesmarkt (old town)
Hamburg: Weihnachtsmarkt Jungfernstieg
Cologne: Weihnachtsmarkt in der Altstadt (old town)
Berlin: Weihnachts Zauber Gendarmenmarkt
Cottbus: Weihnachtsmarkt der Tausend Sterne
Heidelberg: Heidelberger Weihnachtsmarkt
Frankfurt: Frankfurter Weihnachtsmarkt (Römerberg und Paulsplatz)
Regensburg: Romantischer Weihnachstmarkt Schloss Thurn und Taxis