There's no place like home for the holidays—unless you're on vacation. Gift yourself a magical Christmas markets river cruise.
Far from the commercialism of big-box stores, countries from Switzerland to Hungary celebrate the holidays with foot-friendly seasonal markets that illuminate town squares. What could be more charming than ancient streets aglow with Christmas trees, the lilt of holiday music and wooden huts spilling over with handmade gifts? This holiday season, Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection offers four European cruises that will help you rediscover the meaning of Christmas.
Germany: The Main River
A Bounty of Handmade Gifts
Oh, Tannenbaum! Germany loves Christmas and even lays claim to originating the Christmas tree. Cruising the Main River on a magical Christmas market sailing is a treat for the senses, as well as an ideal way to collect handmade treasures and unique gifts with nary a whiff of mass-produced plastic. For Germans, nothing conjures up the holidays more than decorative Christmas pyramids. These multi-tiered wooden carousels garnished with tiny nativity figures spin by the heat of candles. You’ll also find an abundance of brightly painted wooden nutcrackers carved in the shapes of soldiers and kings. Intricate hand-blown glass baubles in trees and windows reflect the soft glow of candles and fairy lights. Each port of call reveals new delights. Nuremberg has fabricated toys, from medieval dolls to 19th-century train sets, for centuries. In the Unesco World Heritage city of Bamberg, vendors display festive arts and crafts in wooden stalls set up in cobbled squares and along narrow streets winding around churches and museums. Rothenberg’s medieval walled city exudes an aura of enchantment. Its Christmas Museum displays antique ornaments and Santa figures year-round. In Würzburg, an ancient gothic cathedral presides over booths where local vendors purvey folk handicrafts, heart-shaped cookies and marzipan in animal shapes. And at Frankfurt’s 600-year-old Christmas market, you can buy miniature wooden houses with timbered facades like those surrounding Römerplatz, where a 90-foot-high tree towers over the city’s Christmas market.
Hungary, Slovakia, Austria, and Germany: The Danube
Hit the Holiday High Notes
Float along the Danube through Hungary, Slovakia, Austria and Germany to the cadence of classical music and the strains of holiday carols. Revel in a classical concert of Mozart and Strauss compositions in Vienna. Visit Mozart’s birthplace amid the Baroque splendor of Salzburg, which was also the home of the von Trapp family, featured in The Sound of Music. In Bratislava, raise a glass of sweet, earthy Slovak mead (made of fermented honey and water) and meander through the Old Town, admiring the famous ornate wooden nativity scene in Hviezdoslavovo Square. Music lovers will rejoice during an organ recital at the magnificent Benedictine Göttweig Abbey high on a hill above the Danube Valley. At every port, in grand European style, the band truly does play on.
Switzerland, France, and Germany: The Rhine
Eat, Drink, and Celebrate
Cruising the Rhine through Switzerland, France and Germany dishes up tasty seasonal specialities. Basel’s claim to gourmet fame is Basler Leckerli, a crunchy cookie flecked with almonds and candied citrus peel and flavored with cinnamon, cloves and other spices. Strasbourg markets serve up hearty Baeckeoffe stew, a delicious combo of marinated beef, pork and lamb. Wash it down with Gewürztraminer, the aromatic local white wine. In atmospheric Heidelberg, try bratwurst and Glühwein, hot mulled wine, an ideal winter warmer. In Rüdesheim, the Christmas market goes global with food ranging from Mongolian barbecue to Scandinavian smoked fish. But don’t let that stop you from sampling Rüdesheim coffee, flavored with whipped cream and a shot of Asbach Uralt brandy.
Germany and Austria: Main and Danube Rivers
Part of the romance of Christmas markets is the atmosphere that reigns in the town squares and cobbled streets of Europe. In Germany and Austria, you’ll experience the origins of many holiday traditions—from St. Nikolaus to candy canes—when you sail the Main and the Danube, stopping at holiday markets along the way. The medieval surroundings of Nuremberg provide the fairy-tale stage set for a Christmas market that dates back centuries. The intricate detail of crèches (nativity scenes) in Linz includes clay figures like the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker who gaze at the infant Jesus. At every port of call, handmade decorations, the soft glow of beeswax candles and the tinkle of a wooden music box help perpetuate the storybook ambiance. By tracing Christmas back to its origins, the celebration takes on added significance. A Uniworld holiday river cruise lets you reconnect with the simplicity and charm of Christmas as Europeans celebrate it and allows you to leave the holiday blitz far behind.
Please contact your AAA Travel Counselor or go to AAA.com/offices  to find one near you.
Photography courtesy of ReneS/Wikipedia
This article was first published in July 2012 in Traveler. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.