Why not celebrate Christmas in style and head off to some of Europe’s best festive cities on board a cruise brimming with seasonal joy.
Most cruise liners offer special Christmas cruises where the ship is decked out with glittering decorations to help get you into the Christmas mood. Christmas lunch is laid on – no cooking or washing up this year – and there are even presents for all the passengers to enjoy, along with mulled wine, carol concerts, Christmas shows and entertainment to add to the festive fun.
If you’re continuing the celebrations into the New Year, you can usually expect a full Gala dinner and New Year’s Eve party for a real extravaganza. Some ships even lay on fireworks displays at sea.
Stopping of at a few European cities is really the icing on the Christmas cake. The streets come alive with Christmas markets and town centres glitter with festive lights and decorations.
But where to go? The list is infinite and of course depends on which destinations your cruise stops at along the way. Here are a few suggestions, complete with their Christmas markets, which should put you in the festive mood:
Germany seems to be the place for Christmas markets. There are so many cities to cruise into as well:
Cologne (Köln in German)
Cologne is the biggest city on the Rhine and arguably the most interesting. Expect the light, cheerful vibe that’s so typical of Rhineland. This, along with a multitude of brew houses and traditional Rhineland cuisine, will help you soak up authentic Cologne atmosphere. This is a city where tradition is mixed with contemporary. You will find a host of chic shops, sophisticated restaurants, swanky bars and dance clubs, plus a brilliant contemporary art scene.
Cologne hosts four Christmas markets dotted around the city. The most popular is ‘Am Dom’ set on the square in front of the towering twin spires of the city’s cathedral – the most visited monument in Germany. The festive decorations plus a fascinating array of crafts, traditional food and drink should get you in the Christmas spirit.
Frankfurt is Germany’s economic powerhouse and the city is steeped in history with plenty of curious culture and stunning architecture to be discovered too.
The central business district is a shiny symbol of Frankfurt’s financial power, creating the effect of a mini Manhattan and earning it the nickname of ‘Mainhattan’. Hop on a cruise down the River Main for an interesting perspective of Frankfurt’s historical progression. The river cuts the city into two so you’ll get stunning views of the skyscrapers alongside the more traditional buildings of Frankfurt’s Museum Embankment.
Frankfurt’s Christmas market is full of old-world charm with its huge Christmas tree and around 200 stalls lit by thousands of fairy lights – the perfect place for a leisurely stroll whilst seeking out unique gifts, along with warming nibbles and mulled wine. You will find the market within the scenic surroundings of the Römerberg and St Paul’s Square.
Hamburg is the second largest metropolis in Germany. Aesthetically, it’s akin to northern European capitals like Copenhagen and Amsterdam – Hamburg actually has more bridges on its mighty River Elbe than Amsterdam or even Venice! It’s also Germany’s greenest city: two thirds of its area is dedicated to parklands or lakes.
Hamburg draws in visitors with its buzzing nightlife and live music scenes. Walk about and you’ll also find up-market waterside neighbourhoods along with colourful markets and several handsome period buildings.
The city’s Christmas Market takes place by the Town Hall and has around 100 festive stalls. Try the specialty here: roasted apples and browse at the hand-made crafts, including woodwork from Tyrol, pottery, and locally made silver. And don’t miss the famous ‘printen’ cookies which are home baked by the Aachen bakers.
Vilshofen an der Donau
Southern Bavaria’s “Little Town of Three Rivers”, sits where the Rivers Vils and Wolfach join the Danube. Vilshofen goes back some 1,200 years, evidence of which can be found throughout town. Your tour is likely to include Stadtplatz with its symbolic Baroque tower and historic parish church, the Church of St. John. Walk through Vilhofen’s lovingly restored alleys in the old town and experience the fascinating contrast of tradition and modernity as you go.
During Advent, the city shimmers with its unique floating Christmas market which takes place partially aboard a ship. The focal point is the world’s biggest wooden nativity scene: an incredible 20-metre long masterpiece spreading out along the ship while stalls light up the picturesque riverbank. Wander around the stalls and browse as you savour the tastes and aromas of toasted almonds and mulled wine from the market’s heated tents.
Bavaria’s second-largest city is as you might expect, an energetic place where nightlife and coffee culture is thriving. As one of Bavaria’s biggest attractions, Nruremburg is popular with tourists, particularly during its spectacular Christmas market.
History resounds as Nuremberg was the undeclared capital of the Holy Roman Empire as well as the preferred residence of most German kings.
The famous Christmas market on the Main Square under the Church of our Lady dates back to the 1600s and today welcomes over 2 million visitors each year. Enjoy a tipple of traditional mulled wine accompanied by some Bavarian bratwurst (German sausage) or festive cakes and pastries as you go around the colourful stalls which sell beautiful handicrafts and carved wooden toys.
Lille is not-so-far from home yet it makes a pleasant change from the British streets. This friendly city is a glittering cultural and commercial centre boasting a picturesque old town and three renowned art museums. Expect stylish shopping (nearby Roubaix hosts ENSAIT, France’s top fashion university), excellent dining and a lively, student-driven night scene.
Place Rihour is transformed into a winter wonderland from late November to the end of December. One of Europe´s busiest Christmas markets, it offers the full gamut of festive gingerbread, hand-made nativity figurines and leather goods as well as several interesting goodies for your Christmas stockings. Santa Claus makes an appearance on the last Saturday before Christmas by dramatically “falling” from the belfry – a sight you simply cannot miss! If you’re a fan of the big wheel, you will get stunning views over the city from your cart, 50 metres up.
Belgium’s capital offers so much: museums, architecture, monuments, cosmopolitan shopping and a relaxed café culture, particularly on its UNESCO-listed Grand Place. For foodies, Brussels is also the place to be. As the inventor of pralines, the waffle and the French fry, you won’t be stuck for delicious culinary treats. Then there’s the cobbled streets laden with chocolatiers and interspersed with bars selling wheat beer – what more could you need for a merry Christmas time in Belgium?
The sparkling Christmas market, which runs along a two kilometre stretch, hosts in excess of 240 wooden stalls. You will find a full range of festive delights, including ornate Christmas cakes, decorations, Santa Claus wall-hangings and some of the most delicious hand-decorated Belgian chocolates you could ever have the pleasure to savour. Other attractions include the stunning sound and light show, an ice rink, live music, marching bands and a big wheel.
Often dubbed “Venice of the North” thanks to its pretty canals connected by elegant bridges and cobbled lanes. Bruges is a fairy tale destination at any time of year, but at Christmas, its old-world charms become that more magical. Most notable for its abundance of medieval architecture, chocolatiers and fresh mussels, this city boasts romance and pleasures at every turn.
The Christmas market, just like most of the city, is set upon cobbled streets surrounded by beautiful historic buildings. Head for Simon Stevin Plein or Market Square which surrounds an open-air ice rink. Indulge in some of the stalls’ warming gluhwein and sweet snacks before setting off to browse the rest of this festive market.
Valkenburg aan de Geul
Valkenburg aan de Geul is a little town in the Netherlands nestled within the picturesque Geul valley. It is one of the most popular tourist locations in Netherlands, thanks to an abundance of historical attractions. Yet you will find it also has a pleasantly quiet and relaxed atmosphere. Main sights are the popular Valkenburg Castle, the only castle in the Netherlands to be built on top of a hill, and the caves and catacombs, both dating back to Roman times. There are also several museums to visit, along with amusement parks and historical buildings lining the streets.
The Christmas market makes for a unique and memorable market experience: an underground Christmas market takes place within the caves while you shop beneath the striking Valkenburg Castle in the intimate setting of Velvet Cave. Outside the cave, the area hosts a colourful parade on Wednesday and Saturday evenings over the Christmas period.