Viking’s Christmas river cruises offer the best of Europe’s medieval castles, cathedrals, and storybook towns, with festive Christmas markets in every port.

I was a guest of Viking River Cruises, but all thoughts and opinions are my own.

Viking Christmas River Cruises

NOTE: This is a long form, photo-intensive post intended for readers who want to cruise vicariously, as well as travelers seeking detailed information before booking a Viking Christmas river cruise of their own.

It is no secret that I love Viking river cruises.

Our Viking content on Backroad Planet includes some of our most popular posts, especially our 24 Viking River Cruise Insider Tips and Top 11 Viking River Cruise Ship Amenities posts.

As a Viking fan, I heard about their European Christmas river cruises long before I had the privilege of doing one. I learned that most of these holiday cruises follow the same routes and itineraries as Viking’s standard river cruises, the main difference being that sailings during the holiday season allow passengers to experience Christmas markets simultaneously.

Viking features Christmas river cruises on the following itineraries I have already experienced:

  • The 15-day Grand European Tour on the Rhine, Main, and Danube Rivers from Amsterdam to Budapest was the first cruise Jerry and I completed during a summer sailing. This route would be a perfect Christmas markets cruise.
  • The River of Gold cruise along Portugal’s Douro River was one of the most stunning and memorable autumn cruises ever. I can only imagine the added benefit of sailing during the Christmas markets season.
  • Although it was not a river cruise and not technically a Christmas markets itinerary, I did the Romantic Mediterranean ocean cruise during early December, and of course Christmas markets were in full swing in those port cities, as well.

Viking also currently offers Christmas river cruises on the following itineraries:

European Christmas Markets

Christmas markets are a European tradition dating back to the Middle Ages. These street markets held during the four weeks of the Advent season originated in Germany and have spread across the continent. Typically located in town squares, vendors set up stalls to sell not only seasonal decorations, but also handcrafts, regional foods, confections, mulled beverages, and everything under the sun!

Viking cruisers who enjoy the holiday season will revel in the sights, sounds, and smells of these festive celebrations in virtually every port. The only difficulty will be choosing how to budget time between Viking’s outstanding excursions and time spent in the markets.

But then, that’s a good problem, and hopefully my experiences and suggestions will help future cruisers decide what will work best for them.

The Rhine Getaway: A Christmas Markets Travelogue

A summer Rhine Getaway from Amsterdam to Basel was the first Viking river cruise Jerry and I booked. Unfortunately, on the first day of the cruise while touring the windmills at Kinderdijk, I started seeing black spots in my right eye, and a a grey veil began rising in my field of vision. The amazing Viking staff kicked into action and made arrangements for medical appointments the next day in Cologne. Long story short, I learned that the retina in my right eye had detached and torn, and it was best that I be evacuated back to the USA for surgery, essentially ending our Rhine Getaway.

You can hear the full story by listening to Backroad Planet on “This Week in Travel” Podcast #196.

I had no clue at the time that I would experience redemption a couple of years later on a solo Rhine Getaway, this time from Basel to Amsterdam with the added bonus of travel during the Christmas markets season.

Although each Viking cruise offers different experiences, I elected to present Viking Christmas river cruises as a travelogue of my personal itinerary and excursions on the Rhine Getaway, in order to present an authentic cruise experience.

Note: Itinerary destinations and excursions are the same on upriver and downriver cruises, but the arrival times in port and excursion times may vary.

Day 1: Basel, Switzerland

The city of Basel is situated in northern Switzerland on the border with Germany and France.

My connecting flight to Basel arrived late in the day, so I missed both of the pre-cruise guided walks through town. After checking-in aboard the Viking Eir, I connected with another travel writer and we set out for a self-guided walk through Basel in the waning daylight. Even though we only had a couple of hours to walk through town before dinner, we were still able to visit several key sites in town.

Leaving ship, we followed the course of the Rhine toward the Marktplatz, stopping to admire the 1905 Mittlere Brücke bridge rebuilt at the site of the original river crossing in 1226. The Rhine River in Basel is a popular swimming location, but since it was early December we decided to forego a refreshing dip.

Basel Town Hall (Rathaus)

The Basel Town Hall (Rathaus) is the most prominent structure on the Marktplatz. Construction began on the red sandstone building in 1504 and reached completion in 1904. I would love to have taken a tour of the historic building if I had arrived earlier.

Basel Minster Cathedral

The Basel Minster cathedral is another stunning red sandstone structure. Built between 1019 and 1500, this dual Romanesque-Gothic Catholic church became a Reformed Protestant church in 1529. Dutch theologian and philosopher Erasmus is buried here.

Basel Christmas Markets

As night fell, we detoured through the Basel Christmas markets. The sights and smells of fresh salmon smoked on an open fire, fresh raviolis, olives, and cheeses all served as the perfect appetizer for dinner onboard the Viking Eir. There would be time to sample Christmas market delicacies later in the week.

St. John’s Gate (Tower)

We returned to ship by way of St. John’s Gate, one of three remaining gates built as part of Basel’s medieval fortifications between 1356 and 1398.

Day 2 (AM): Breisach, Germany

The Viking Eir cruised through the night, and we awoke on Day 2 in the port city of Breisach. The Romanesque-Gothic St. Stephen’s Church is the dominating feature atop this basalt rock outcropping on the Rhine.

Black Forest Tour

The included morning excursion was a 4-hour tour through Germany’s Black Forest. The figure-8 route took us through rolling meadows and mountainous woods, the legendary setting of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales.

Hofgut Sternen

Hofgut Sternen is a historic inn and conference complex located in the Black Forest village of Breitnau. High-profile historic figures such as Marie Antoinette, Napoleon, Goethe, and Mendelssohn have all been guests here. Busloads of tourists descend on this remote destination to experience traditional glass, cuckoo clock, and Black Forest cake demonstrations.

The commercial aspect of Hofgut Sternen is fine, but what truly makes the visit worthwhile is its scenic and historical setting.

Black Forest Village

Notable buildings on the property include the 1148 St. Oswald’s Chapel, the reconstructed historic tollhouse, and the abandoned bathhouse.

Ravenna Viaduct

The Ravenna Viaduct, a stone arched bridge for the Höllental Railway, spans the Ravenna Gorge above the historic village.

In 1945, retreating German forces blew up the three middle pillars of the 1927 bridge, but reconstruction was completed in 1948. Alas, the local Christmas market beneath the viaduct was not open during our morning visit.

Ravenna Gorge Hiking Trail

The most active, yet relaxing part of our visit to Hofgut Sternen was the Ravenna Gorge hiking trail. This meandering path across bridges and around mountain walls leads to a lovely waterfall and gives an immersive view of the iconic fir trees that populate the Black Forest. I kept an eye out, but never spotted Hansel and Gretel nor Little Red Riding Hood.

Day 2 (PM): Colmar, France

In the afternoon I joined the 4-hour Medieval Village of Colmar tour.

Colmar is the birthplace of sculptor Auguste Bartholdi whose most famous work is the Statue of Liberty. A quarter-scale replica of this American icon welcomes visitors to Colmar from its commanding position in a traffic roundabout. A freedom protest was in progress at the site as our coach pulled into town. I thought it only appropriate.

With its half-timber frame houses, majestic churches, and winding cobbled streets, the medieval village of Colmar is a setting straight out of a child’s storybook.

Touring Colmar at Christmas with my friends Rachelle Lucas from The Travel Bite and her husband Pete Wallace made for a perfect afternoon adventure.

And glasses of vin chaud rouge, a warm mulled red wine popular in the Alsace region of France, made the experience even sweeter.

The Terre Neuve Haute Alsace organization was present during the Christmas Market with several of their lovable dogs. I assumed these furry friends were the Alsatian breed because of our location in the Alsace region. Imagine my chagrin while researching this post and learning that Alsatians are the French equivalent of German Shepherds, and these dogs were in fact, Newfoundlands.

There is nothing like gazing through the window of a boulangerie, a French bakery, aside from savoring a warm sample.

The Viking Eir was a welcome sight after a full day exploring Germany’s Black Forest and the French village of Colmar.

Day 3: Kehl, Germany/Strasbourg, France

We arrived at the port of Kehl, Germany, on the east bank of the Rhine the next morning. But directly across the Pont de l’Europe bridge on the west bank was our true destination, the UNESCO World Heritage Grande Île historic city center in Strasbourg, France.

Perhaps I should not be making comparisons, but to me Strasbourg was Colmar on steroids. The quaint canals, half-timbered houses, and medieval towers totally transported me back in time.

Strasbourg holds the title as the Christmas Capital of Europe and its Christmas market, Christkindelsmärik, is the oldest in Europe dating to 1570. One of the Christkindelsmärik traditions is erecting a 100 ft. tall Christmas tree in Place Kléber, the largest square in the city center.

The busiest Christmas market in Strasbourg was in the public squares surrounding the Our Lady of Strasbourg Cathedral.

The Strasbourg Cathedral is an eye-catching example of Gothic architecture due to its iconic single spire completed in 1439. This 426 ft. tower makes the cathedral the tallest medieval structure in Europe. It is believed the second spire was never built due to a variety of reasons, including lack of funding and unstable ground. No matter. The building’s asymmetrical appearance sets it apart from other European cathedrals, making it a symbol unique to Strasbourg.

The tolling of the cathedral bells added a lovely touch to our Strasbourg Christmas market experience.

Roasted chestnuts are more than just a holiday song lyric. Some people claim not to be fans, but I love the fragrance and flavor of this seasonal treat.

Sweets and treats populate storefront windows at local patisseries and boulangeries, and it is impossible to resist stopping at a streetside cafe for a coffee and croissant or a hot toddy to warm the soul.

We also sampled vin chaud blanc, the white version of the traditional warm mulled wine.

While enjoying Strasbourg Christmas markets, I recommend budgeting time to walk the streets beyond the UNESCO city center.

Before dinner, a small group of travel writers decided to take a walk on the Passerelle des Deux Rives (Bridge of the Two Banks) across the Rhine, stopping midway to take pictures on the river border between Germany and France.

We spotted the Weisstannenturm Tower in the distance and climbed to the top for an amazing 360° view of Strasbourg and Kehl.

Day 4: Heidelberg and Speyer, Germany

The Viking Eir arrived at the port of Mannheim during the early morning hours. After breakfast, we boarded coaches for an included 6-hour excursion to historic Heidelberg, Germany, located on the Neckar River, a tributary of the Rhine.

We began our tour at the ruins of Heidelberg Castle, a fortress abandoned more than 300 years ago by a line of Palatine princes.

The castle’s storied past began in 1214, and it met its demise after a second lightning strike damaged it beyond repair in 1764. Its position on the Königstuhl hillside provides sweeping views of old town Heidelberg, the Neckar River, and the countryside beyond.

The largest wine barrel in the world resides in a room beneath the castle. This ancient cask was made from 130 oak trees and at one time held 50,000 gallons of wine. Not to intentionally mislead anyone, but as I recall, the wine cask pictured above is actually not the largest one. There were too many people standing in front of that one to get a clear photo.

After the tour, we boarded the coach for a short drive down to the town of Heidelberg. The view of the castle from below provided an additional perspective of its dominating presence through the centuries.

Visiting Heidelberg’s Christmas markets on a Monday morning was a refreshing break from the packed markets on the weekend. Heidelberg is home to Germany’s oldest university, founded in 1386, a well-respected learning institution to this day.

We had a lot of fun exploring around the Old Bridge Gate, especially with the monkey sculpture. This modern work created in 1979 looked to me like a character out of The Lion King, but there are stories about Heidelberg’s bridge monkeys dating to the 15th century. Legend says that the mirror in the monkey’s hand serves as a reminder that no one person is better than the other. A fine lesson in equality, methinks!

The food fragrances wafting through the morning air caused my tastebuds to get the better of me and I succumbed to three German Christmas market delicacies: cheesy spätzle, a traditional egg noodle dish; reibekuchen, an oniony deep-fried potato pancake; and raclette, a wheel cheese of Swiss origin melted and scraped as a topping for potatoes or bread. I was in cheese and potato heaven!

Our coach carried us to rejoin the Viking Eir at the port of Gernsheim where it had sailed during our Heidelberg excursion. Some guests enjoyed an optional evening excursion to dine in nearby Rüdesheim.

Day 5: Castles of the Upper Middle Rhine

One of the main reasons Jerry and I booked our first Viking Rhine Getaway cruise was to see the castles of the Middle Rhine. Even though that trip came to an abrupt end, we were eventually able to experience this on our Grand European cruise a year later.

The Upper Middle Rhine Valley is also a UNESCO World Heritage site, as well it should be, with its cultural, historical, and scenic qualities. This 65 km stretch of the Rhine between Rudesheim and Koblenz is the perfect setting for an excursion that does not require leaving the ship. All you have to do is head up to the Sun Deck for a narrated tour.

The first time we cruised the Middle Rhine was in the bright sun of summer. This time it was on a freezing December morning. At times my fingers were so cold I thought they might break off, but that was a minor inconvenience to this majestic experience. I enjoyed sharing the tour with Teri Didjurgis of Blue Sky Traveler and Julie Cohn of A Cork, Fork, & Passport.

The misty morning gave the castles an otherworldly appearance, and I was grateful to have experienced the tour in two seasons.

More than 40 castles line both banks of the Upper Middle Rhine, most constructed between the 12th and 14th centuries. They belonged to noblemen and robber barons who exacted tolls on ships transporting goods along the river.

A geographic feature of the Upper Middle Rhine is the 433 ft. high Lorelei Rock located at a bend in the river near the town of St. Goar. This site, according to legend, is where a lovely maiden would lure sailors to their deaths with her song. You might want to bring along a pair of binoculars to view the statue of the mythological songstress near the bank.

All of the castles, whether restored or in ruins, lend their unique personalities and stories to the river valley. My favorites include Stolzenfels, Rheinfels, and Pfalzgrafenstein, a former toll station situated on a river island.

Do not miss the included excursion to Marksburg for an up-close-and-personal tour of a stunning hilltop castle that, although damaged by American artillery fire in 1945, was never destroyed. Marksburg also offers an incredible panoramic view of the Rhine often seen in Viking commercials.

Tip: If you plan to capture quality photos of the castles, a zoom lens is a must.

Day 5: Koblenz

The town of Koblenz is located at the confluence of the Moselle and Rhine Rivers. You will know you have arrived when you spot the massive Ehrenbreitstein Fortress on one bank, a statue of Emperor William I on horseback at the conflux point of the rivers, and dual strands of cable cars spanning the two banks.

As the Viking Eir did a 360° turn to position for docking, I spied my veranda neighbors Mike Faust from CLIA and his mom Joni Romito, both of whom became my treasured friends during our cruise.

Because I had toured Marksburg Castle when Jerry and I did the Grand European cruise, I joined Mary Quincy and Kael Rebick, two photographer friends and Instagram sensations, for a walk around Koblenz. We toured the Christmas markets and enjoyed an American guilty pleasure.

The winter day that had begun so cloudy and cold had cleared, and the historic town of Koblenz, dating to the year 8 BC, offered the perfect setting for photography during the golden hour at day’s end.

Day 5: A Taste of Germany

The evening of Day 5 was a special occasion with Viking’s famed A Taste of Germany dinner. We returned to the ship to see crew members decked out in traditional Bavarian dirndls and lederhosen, and we found our tables to the soundtrack of a live Oom-pa folk band.

We stuffed ourselves on a bountiful buffet of German delicacies such as pork knuckle, sausages, and sauerkraut. Passengers also had the opportunity to tour the ship kitchen. Wine, beer, and schnapps have flowed freely that night.

Before bedtime, in honor of Nikolaustag and Krampusnacht, we were instructed to leave our shoes in the hallways outside our cabin doors. If we were good, St. Nicholas would leave us presents, and if we were bad, the Krampus (Bad Santa) would leave us sticks.

Day 6 (AM) : Cologne Christmas Markets

This would be my third time visiting Cologne with Viking. The first time we visited, Jerry and I did the 2-hour included walking tour in the morning, but spent the afternoon making the rounds with eye doctor appointments. The following year, we split up to do our own thing. Jerry checked out the Chocolate Museum and the House of 4711 Eau de Cologne store, while I toured the Romano-Germanic Museum.

This time, I set off to explore Cologne’s Christmas markets with my travel bud Jennifer Weatherhead Herrington from Travel & Style Magazine, her husband Justin, and two of our wonderful Viking hosts.

We found Cologne’s main Christmas market similar to other markets we had visited, yet on a much grander scale. Many of the structures looked like permanent buildings rather than temporary vending booths.

All of the traditional Christmas market treats were there to tempt our tastebuds, including reibekuchen, nougat, and glühwein, the German version of warm, spiced wine served in a collectible mug.

The quality of holiday decor in the Cologne Christmas market elevated the experience to a new level.

I could not stop taking pictures, and had a blast experimenting with the portrait mode (bokeh/depth effect) on my iPhone 7 Plus.

Day 6 (PM) : Top of Cologne

It goes without saying that Cologne’s most iconic feature is its Gothic cathedral that dominates the skyline from a prominent location on the Rhine. Another UNESCO World Heritage site, construction on the Kölner Dom began in 1248 and was finally completed in 1880. The most renowned of its many treasures is the golden Shrine of the Three Kings, a reliquary said to contain the skeletal remains of the three wise men who brought gifts to honor the Christ Child.

I am not a fan of heights, but I jumped at the opportunity to do the optional Top of Cologne tour in the afternoon, and I am so glad I did. The experience made this my favorite Viking excursion ever!

We began the Top of Cologne tour by ascending to the first level in an elevator used by the restoration crew.

This level offered impressive up-close views of the building’s flying buttresses and the intricate web of maintenance scaffolding. Even though construction on the cathedral was completed in 1880, preservation of historic structures never ends.

A 104-step spiral staircase carried us up the next level to a narrow interior porch between the two towers.

This frame of reference gave an extended view through the nave all the way to the altar, as well as closeup views of stained glass windows.

A second exterior elevator took us up another level, giving us views of the Gothic cathedral’s intricate stonework from a whole new perspective.

The attic area above the cathedral’s vaulted ceiling revealed both the historic and modern framework that holds the building together. Check out the size of that wrench!

Our second outdoor walk took us through an exterior passageway around the apse, offering expansive views of the Christmas market below, the cathedral towers soaring above, and the Rhine River as far as the eye could see.

Photo Credit: Teri Didjurgis

It think it is safe to say I was in my glory . . . .

The upper interior levels of the cathedral house some of the church bellworks, a detailed model of the cathedral, and a wealth of artifacts not currently on display to the general public.

The final and perhaps most rewarding destination on our tour required one more climb up a spiral staircase. We emerged through a rooftop door onto an observation deck beneath the dome of the transept tower. This is not to be confused with the south tower that is open to the general public.

Words cannot describe the breathtaking views of Cologne at sunset from this rare vantage point. Is there any question why the Top of Cologne tour is my favorite Viking excursion?

Note: The Top of Cologne excursion is offered with limited availability. If it is an option on your cruise, jump on it!

Day 7: Kinderdijk

Kinderdijk, Netherlands, is the final port on the northbound Rhine Getaway route and the fifth UNESCO World Heritage site on the 8-day itinerary. The nineteen Dutch windmills built on this site between 1738 and 1740 make up the largest concentration of windmills in all of Holland.

When visiting for the first time, I recommend that you take the included 2-hour Kinderdijk Windmills excursion.

Day 7: Dutch Cheese Maker Tour

It was near the end of the windmills tour, the first time Jerry and I visited Kinderdijk, that I started seeing black spots in my right eye. It was the first indication that our initial Viking cruise might not reach completion. Our return to Kinderdijk one year later while on the Grand European cruise was redemptive to say the least. Now, on my third visit, I had good reason to smile.

This time, I opted for the optional 2.5-hour Dutch Cheese Maker excursion. Our small group walked down to the bank of the Lek River, boarded the Waterbus ferry, and transferred to a waiting coach. We then drove through the Dutch countryside to a family-owned farm near Ouderkerk.

We began our tour in the small dairy barn, where the cheese-making process begins.

The host farmer met us inside one of the production buildings for an introduction to the craft of making Gouda cheese, followed by a tasting and tour of the various stages of cheesemaking from culturing through aging.