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By river cruise, you can visit the best Christmas markets in Europe.

A river cruise is one of the most incredible ways to experience European Christmas markets if you want to celebrate the festive holiday season abroad. This holiday season, I set out on an eight-day river cruise on the Viking longship Sigyn called Christmas on the Rhine. It started in Basel, Switzerland, and ended in Amsterdam, Netherlands.

The route took in the best of Europe’s Christmas villages, each with handcrafted holiday décor and treasures from local artisans. Passengers could explore the markets during the day and the twinkly streetscapes at night. We listened to holiday music concerts, ate regional fare from food vendors, and sampled mulled wine and craft beers.

Market high points

Breisach, Mannheim, Rüdesheim, Koblenz, and Düsseldorf were among the ports visited along the way. We also went to Dordrecht, Holland, and Strasbourg, France. Strasbourg, Cologne, and Rüdesheim were three of my favourite stops.

The gorgeous canals, brightly coloured houses, charming cobblestone streets, and friendly residents at every turn in Strasbourg stay with you long after you leave this idyllic French city. Cologne exceeds expectations for beer enthusiasts and history buffs. Handcrafted collectibles, ornaments, woollen goods, and other items are available at open-air Christmas markets. Several food vendors share culinary masterpieces, adding to the fun.

We took an evening stroll through Rüdesheim’s cobblestone streets, which were beautifully decorated with festive lights and traditional garb. We discovered new food stands, crafters, and shops to explore around every corner.

“Christmas markets are absolutely magical this time of year; it’s like walking inside a snow globe,” says Colleen McDaniel, Cruise Critic’s editor-in-chief. “I have a hard time thinking of anywhere else you’d experience the level of Christmas spirit you do at Christmas markets. The sights, sounds, and smells are all fascinating.”

What to look forward to on a river cruise

If you’ve cruised on an ocean liner, McDaniel says a river cruise will provide a more intimate onboard experience.

“River ships have far fewer guests, a higher crew-to-guest ratio, and none of the larger bells and whistles,” she says. McDaniel says there will be plenty of space on board for passengers to enjoy the views, as well as a plethora of enrichment opportunities that will immerse them in the places they visit.

River ships, due to their small size, can dock right in the heart of some of Europe’s most charming and unique towns. If you want to delve deeper into a location’s history, Viking and other river cruise companies frequently offer guided excursions, some of which are included and some of which are optional.

“It’s an incredibly pleasant way to travel, even more so than if you followed the same itinerary by land,” McDaniel says. “There will be no trains to catch, no airports to navigate, and only one room to call home for the duration of your trip.”

There are numerous river cruise lines to choose from when planning a Christmas market cruise vacation.

“These holiday sailings tend to sell out quickly, up to a year in advance,” McDaniel warns, “so plan accordingly.”

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