What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the Christmas season? Is it the glittering, twinkling lights of a decked out tree? The jolly “ho ho ho” of Santa and other timeless traditions? Is it the sight of bright white snow – clean, cold, and freshly fallen and fleeting in its beauty? Maybe it is the smell of roasted chestnuts, homemade hot chocolate, or a steaming cup of fragrant mulled wine.
Maybe the season to you is the rush of excitement upon finding the perfect gift for someone, or cozying up by a fire, with a great cup of coffee and the company of loved ones. To me, the magic of the season is in all these wonderful things combined. What time of year has more traditions, more magic, more merriment and kindness?
I have always preferred to spend the holidays at home with family – there’s so much happening this time of year between the Holiday parties, festivals, shopping, and errands that need to get done that the thought of being away from home has always been a little daunting. Despite that, I’ve always had visions of the holiday season in Europe being one of enchantment and romance and have longed to experience it for myself. So when I was given the opportunity to embark on a European Christmas Markets River Cruise firsthand this past year I had to jump at the chance. And let me tell you – it was worth every frenzied hour I spent catching up for the holidays when I returned home!
My Christmas Markets extravaganza began in Basel, Switzerland the day before I embarked on my AmaWaterways Cruise down the Rhine River. Basel is a charming Swiss city that sits at the border of Switzerland, France, and Germany right on the banks of the Rhine. Basel is home to two large Christmas markets, an enchanting Christmas Store, a beautiful Town Hall, and treasures in the form of homemade chocolate, and some of the most engaging museums around – including a Toy Museum, a Paper Mill museum, and a fine arts Museum with masters such as Picasso, Van Gogh, Monet, Gauguin, Renoir, and Cezanne.
In Basel, a highlight was tasting 8 different types of chocolate combinations and handcrafting three of my very own chocolate bars at a local craft chocolate shop. The biggest thing I learned about chocolate during my class? That I don’t discriminate against chocolate.
It was also lovely to tour the incredible Grand Hotel Les Trois Rois, a five-star hotel with epic Christmas decorations and views across the Rhine that is one of the oldest hotels in Europe. Home to 3 Michelin Star Cheval Blanc, and lauded by numerous awards as the “Best Hotel in Europe”, Hotel Les Trois Rois is definitely a Grand Dame European hotel.
We spent the morning of embarkation diving into Basel history at two of it’s over 40 museums in town, both of which more than exceeded my expectations. The Paper Mill Museum was especially entertaining and memorable. It is full of interactive exhibits like creating your own piece of paper the traditional way, playing with old printing machines and techniques, trying your hand at calligraphy, and even wax sealing a letter to someone special back home.
The last thing I did in Basel before boarding the beautiful AmaStella ship was explore the Christmas Market at Barfüsserplatz in Old Town, which was full of delicious raclette, sweet treats, ornate woodworks and beautiful glass ornaments. And of course, Glühwein.
One of the most fun souvenirs I brought back with me from the various markets I explored was the different mugs that were available at each individual market when you ordered a Glühwein, Hot Chocolate, or Cider. Each mug had a unique shape, design, and color and will serve as wonderful memories as I sip on warm drinks year ‘round while back at home.
Fun fact: you don’t have to keep your mugs! If you order a glühwein, you will most likely be given one in a festive mug and pay around 8 euros for the pleasure. However, if you bring the mug back and return it to the shopkeeper, you’ll receive several euros back for your trouble. A win-win if you want the wine but not the bulk of carrying all those mugs home with you!
It was incredibly easy to get to the port in Basel from Old Town, where I was staying, and I boarded the AmaStella with ease and quickly got settled into my cabin, which I found to be plenty spacious and comfortable with a twin balcony. We were especially happy with the twin balcony because the weather was on our side during our week cruising in early December, and it was nice to pop outside on the balcony on the warmer days and evenings. The ship was elegantly decorated for the holidays with red, gold, and green adorning every eligible surface and sparkling lights creating that festive glow.
Your first night on board any AmaWaterways cruise will kick-off with a Welcome Cocktail reception, where you’ll meet the Captain and the crew and get familiar with other guests on board. We were lucky enough that our first night also included the opportunity to dine in the delicious and refined Chef’s Table restaurant, which sits at the back of the ship with floor to ceiling windows and is an intimate and elegant affair. The best part? It is included in your cruise fare! The meal is a plated 4-course dinner complete with wine pairings, and the setting cannot be beat. It was a perfect way to kick-off the start of our adventure.
The cruise from Basel to Amsterdam is called the Enchanting Rhine, and I very much enjoyed the flow as we began with smaller cities and markets before crescendoing with the gorgeous Rhine Gorge full of fairytale castles and vineyards as we approached beautiful, historic Cologne – which offered 7 stunning Christmas Markets – before finishing our journey in Amsterdam.
The beauty of traveling with AmaWaterways is that every day there are multiple excursion options available to you, fully included in your cruise fare, depending on your interests and preferences. If you are an active traveler with a love for the outdoors, there are options each day such as bike tours through cities or vineyards or hikes through ancient winelands or along breathtaking paths with scenic views. If you enjoy a thorough walking tour of a new destination, Ama offers one each day and you can choose which level is best suited for you – Active, Regular, or Gentle paced.
On the Christmas Markets cruise, many of the excursions leave ample time to explore the charming markets in each city along the route so you can make sure to taste, shop, and drink your way through each destination. There were also special interests excursions available if you are culinary connoisseur whether your taste buds enjoy wine, coffee, or a cold Kolsch beer.
From Basel, the cruise makes its way to a very special part of France known as Alsace. Alsace is a unique, historical region as for centuries it has flip-flopped between French and German control. You can view the influences from both countries as you explore the area and find a unique cuisine, iconic architecture of half-timbered homes, romantic villages, crisp Riesling wines, and a distinct language dialect.
On the Enchanting Rhine we had the opportunity to visit two Alsacien towns (now home to France), including the perfectly picturesque town of Riquewihr, which was the inspiration behind Disney’s animated classic Beauty & the Beast. Rows and rows of colorful buildings, festive decorations, and quaint shops and eateries line the streets of Riquewihr. The Christmas Market is small but the best thing I discovered was a small side market that was home to culinary delights where you could try samples of foie gras wrapped with filet mignon, cured meats, homemade bourbons, wine, and much more.
Riquewihr is small and easily overtaken by the tourists coming off the river boats and buses. Make sure to take some time to get off the main street and explore the hidden alleys and side streets, which will be sure to delight you with their charm without the aggravation of so many people.
Strasbourg is the capital of the Alsace region, and home to the European Parliament and an incredible sandstone Gothic Cathedral. It’s bursting with character, particularly in the Petite France historic quarter of the city, where the Grande Île river flows through. You’ll be spoilt for choice when it comes to restaurants to try and shops to browse, and the Christmas spirit is found around every corner.
Strasbourg is not only home to one of Europe’s oldest Christmas Market, but 6 markets total – all held in the Old Town. Give yourself ample time to explore the town and the markets, as there is definitely much more to be discovered than you will have time for on your cruise stop. We had a delicious lunch in town at Zuem Strissel, which was recommended to us by our cruise manager as an authentic place with local foods and just off of the Cathedral Square. Here we indulged in Flammekueche, a very typical Alsatian dish that looks a bit like pizza and is made of a very thin bread dough and typically covered in cheese (most likely munster), onions, and bacon, as well as the very best Onion Soup – possibly the very best soup – I have ever had. And let me tell you, I have had A LOT of soup! Another Alsatian specialty I had to try was the Choucroute, or Alsatian sauerkraut.
Being from Wisconsin there is a large German influence in my hometown but can you believe I had never actually had sauerkraut before? I had read about Choucroute before my trip and was determined to try it…and despite the mockery of my fellow tablemates when my dish arrived (I am sure you can see why from the pictures) I am so glad that I did! This plate was massive and could have fed our entire table, but it was also excellent – it was full of flavor and hearty for the winter weather. Discovering unique flavors and challenging my typical expectations on what will or won’t taste good is always my mission when traveling. Alsace is a fascinating region of France, and Strasbourg its crowning jewel – do not miss out on spending time in this fantastic city.
One of the unique experiences available to AmaWaterways cruises during the Christmas Markets cruise on the Rhine is an exclusive excursion to an adorable German town called Gengenbach, located on the western edge of the Black Forest. AmaWaterways is the only cruise line to visit this charming town, and you will be delighted by the authenticity you will find there. Gengenbach is home to the World’s Largest Advent Calendar, where every night the town performs a German-language themed skit and reveals a new “window” of the calendar for its Christmas countdown. Come to Gengenbach for an excursion that takes you off the well-trodden road and will leave you with a smile on your face, delicious food in your belly, and loads of holiday cheer. It was a highlight!
The following day you can choose from a variety of excursion options – I chose to visit the University town of Heidelberg with its imposing Castle that looms majestically above the Old Town, a symbol of German romanticism. The castle is situated high up above the town but don’t worry, a speedy funicular can whisk you to the top so you can save your feet for walking around the town’s Christmas Markets. The views from the Castle over the river and the red-roofs of town are beautiful, and the Castle has a lot of historic significance and interesting stories attached to it.
However, it may be most famous for housing the world’s largest barrel of wine! The Heidelberg Tun, as it is called, was built in 1751 and is seven meters tall and eight and a half meters wide! Let’s just say it is HUGE. It holds about 220,000 liters – or over 58,000 gallons – of wine! After taking plenty of pictures by the Vat, we made our way back down (by funicular) to the Old Town of the city where Christmas Markets and wonderful shopping were to be discovered.
Everyone always asks me what my favorite Christmas Market was but it is so hard to decide! Each market has its own flair and character, but I did find the Heidelberg markets to be especially charming and have some fantastic food and beverage options.
Our last few days in Germany took us to Rüdesheim am Rhein, known for its Riesling wines and Rüdesheimer coffee, and then finally, Cologne. Rüdesheim is a fabulous small town with the impossibly quaint Drosselgasse – a street full of half-timbered specialty shops, restaurants, and wine taverns where you can taste the famous Riesling wines or enjoy the spectacle of the deliciously strong Rüdesheimer coffee made with local Asbach Brandy, coffee, whip cream, and chocolate sprinkles.
Rüdesheim’s Christmas Markets line the small streets throughout town, as well as the riverfront. There’s also a Gondola in town that will take you up to the hill above the vineyards, which makes for some wonderful scenery on a clear day. A whimsical museum can be found in the center of town – Sigfried’s Mechanical Music Cabinet – where the history of automatic music instruments is on display from the 18th – 20th century.
As we made our way from Rüdesheim to Cologne, we passed through the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Rhine Gorge, home to folklore, fairytales, and 40 enchanting castles that grace the slopes of the river. Even in the middle of winter, sitting on the sundeck at the top of the ship, glass of wine in hand, watching the castles pass by while listening to the tales and mystery of them, made for an amazing way to pass the afternoon.
Upon reaching the city of Cologne, you can’t help but look on in awe at the Grand Gothic Cologne Cathedral. A masterpiece of construction, building was started in the 13th century but didn’t complete until the mid-1800s after halting in the 15th century. The exquisite detail on the church as you get up close to its magnificence will stun you, and at night when it is brilliantly lit up against the dark sky it is like a beacon as you make your way through the city.
Cologne was one of my favorite stops on the cruise – such a lively city, full of beautiful architecture, wonderful restaurants and beer halls, and plenty of German culture. A stop at a traditional Beer Hall is a must for a Kolsch style beer (originated in Cologne) and homemade potato pancakes and applesauce. To top it off, Cologne is home to 7 gorgeous Christmas Markets with amazing food, gifts, and local discoveries. It was so festive, even in the rain! My favorite market was the Heinzels Wintermärchen, or the fairytale Christmas Market!
Heinzelmännchen are festive house elves and there’s a lovely folk story to go along with them that you will learn about on a walking tour in the old town. There was so much to see in this market, which was especially good for children, as artisans were hard at work crafting their items, there were a plethora of food vendors to choose from (a difficult choice with all of the amazing smells!), and the trinkets and gifts were some of the best we’d seen. I purchased a very special Christmas present for myself that I know I will cherish and have for the rest of my life and I can’t wait to bring it out every Christmas and remember my special memories of Cologne.
Our Captain’s Farewell dinner was that evening on the ship as we made our way from Cologne to Amsterdam. It was a lovely last hurrah with the other passengers as we celebrated a remarkable vacation together. Upon arrival into Amsterdam, we were treated to a canal cruise through the iconic city and then spent one last night on board before disembarkation the following morning.
Through my week on board an AmaWaterways cruise ship, my river cruise preconceived notions were shattered and all my expectations surpassed – the ship, the cabin, the crew, the food, the company – and most importantly, the festive ports – made my Christmas holiday extra merry and bright. I so look forward to helping you experience the magic of a Christmas Markets River Cruise yourself! Contact me today to get the planning started!
Would you like to travel together to see some of Europe’s grandest Christmas Markets? I’ll be hosting a group on board an AmaWaterways Danube River cruise in 2020 and would LOVE for you to join me! Click here for details or to contact me to lock up your space! See you on the Danube!