Explore the Christmas Markets with this easy river and rail adventure.
By Marilyn Heimburger
Photos by Don Heimburger
As the weather turns colder and stores begin playing Christmas music to heighten anxiety about getting everything done before Christmas, I yearn to spend the Advent season once again in Germany’s beautiful Christkindlmarkts.
Not long ago, a friend also expressed her longing to visit the famous Christkindlmarkts in Germany and Austria during Advent, but didn’t know where to begin. Which ones should she see? How do you find accommodations in each town, and arrange transportation from market to market? The planning seemed too daunting, and she just never got started.
European Traveler discovered the perfect plan to make that dream come true: last Advent we took a nine-day Christmas market tour by river and rail that was easy and convenient. We experienced more than a dozen Christmas markets along the Danube River in Germany and Austria, with guided tours in towns along the way.
The river portion of our “Advent along the Danube” trip was on the Viking Aegir, a 1-½-year-old Viking River Cruise ship which sailed from Budapest to Nuremberg. One of the best perks of a river cruise is that you unpack only once for the week. Meals are provided for you, and the ship delivers you from market to market, with local tour guides waiting when you dock, and activities onboard while you leisurely cruise from market to market. What could be easier?
Although the cruise began in Budapest the day before, we chose to fly to Vienna and board the ship there. We moved into our spacious stateroom, complete with private bathroom with shower, drawers and closet for clothing, queen-sized bed, mini-fridge, TV and sliding glass doors on the balcony, offering a non-stop view along the Danube as Austria and Germany glided by.
VIENNA’S MAGIC OF ADVENT
Since the boat dock is some distance from the city center, Viking provides bus transportation to and from Vienna’s largest Christmas market, which glitters in the shadow of Vienna’s City Hall. Named “Wiener Adventzauber,” or “Vienna’s Magic of Advent,” it features hundreds of vendors in wooden huts offering local pastry, sausage and hot drink specialties, gifts, decorations, candles and accessories. There are pony rides, story reading on the Celestial Stage, appearances by the Viennese Christkind, and even arts and crafts and baking stations inside the Rathaus so children can make their own gifts and Christmas goodies.
Within walking distance of the Rathaus market are several other Christmas markets, smaller but with their own local focus and definitely worth a visit. Markets in other parts of Vienna are on Maria-Theresien-Platz, in the Old AKH, on Freyung, the Am Hof Advent Market, at Belvedere Palace, on Karlslatz, on Spittelberg, at Stephansplatz, on Riesenradplatz, and at the Schönbrunn Palace. To see all of them would take an extra day or two! We saved some of our market visits for after the cruise, when we returned to Vienna by rail for our flight back home.
Vienna has several smaller Christmas markets each with their own style and specialties, and each worth a visit.
The local food experiences aren’t limited to the Christmas markets. Upon our chilly return to the ship, we were met with Lebkuchen and hot mulled wine, and Vienna’s famous Sachertorte for dessert after the onboard dinner.
900-YEAR-OLD MELK ABBEY
The small Christmas market at Melk, Austria, our next port of call, is only open on weekends, and unfortunately not during our visit. But we enjoyed a guided tour of the beautiful 900-year-old baroque Melk Abbey, and bought the famous local apricot liqueur.
A “Taste of Austria” luncheon aboard the Viking Aegir featured plenty of sausage and a Lederhosen-clad accordion player.
Leisurely travel on the Danube with its many locks means plenty of time for relaxing. To add to our Advent experience during that time, local culture is brought onboard: “A Taste of Austria” lunch included music by a Lederhosen-clad accordion player. A strudel-making demonstration showed that a tea towel was the trick to rolling the paper-thin dough around the apple/raisin/rum filling. As we neared the Bavarian town of Passau, a traditional Black Forest cake was the featured dessert after dinner.
(left to right) The Simon family bakers demonstrate the art of making gingerbread in Passau.; A beautiful Advent wreath is easy to make, as demonstrated in Passau.
ADVENT TRADITIONS IN PASSAU
Our stop in Passau began a complete day of Advent tradition, all within easy walking distance from the boat dock. We learned the history and art of making Advent wreaths and the famous Simon family gingerbread, and were treated to a midday Advent organ concert at Passau’s St. Stephen’s Cathedral on the world’s largest cathedral organ. The main Passau Christmas market boasts a Bavarian flair with crafts and regional specialties, sausages, Glühwein and gingerbread.
Back on board our Viking ship we enjoyed tea time with plum cake, apple cake and other regional dessert specialties.
The next day’s stop in Regensburg included a town tour with visits to the Hutkönig, a world famous hatmaker; a cuckoo clock-making demonstration; and the oldest sausage kitchen in Germany, which has been serving sausages for 900 years, since catering to the workers who built the adjacent Stone Bridge.
(left to right) A cuckoo clock-making demonstration was a tour option in Regensburg.; Regensburg’s famous Hutkönig had very special hats to offer.
ROMANTIC MARKET AT THE PALACE OF THURN AND TAXIS
Regensburg’s main Christmas market spreads out near the cathedral, but another Regensburg highlight is the Romantic Christmas Market set in the courtyard and surrounding park of the Palace of Thurn and Taxis. Here the pathways are lit by torches, lanterns and lighted ropes wrapped around wooden fences, and there are hay bales for seating and open fires for warming stations. The bough-covered wooden stalls offer unique products obviously chosen for their quality and beauty. Although there is a fee of 6 -7 Euros to enter this private market, it was one of our favorites, and well worth the price.
After a full day in Regensburg, the local Advent experience continued on board as we were greeted with hot Glühwein and heart- and star-shaped Lebkuchen.
NUREMBERG’S CENTURIES-OLD CHRISTKINDLMARKT
Our ship’s last stop was at Nuremberg, which boasts a 400-year-old Christmas market tradition. Once again, Viking provided bus transportation to and from the Christkindlmarkt on the Hauptmarkt square, since the boat dock is some distance away. Nearly 200 wooden stalls decorated with red- and white-striped awnings invite visitors from all over the world – more than two million each year – to sample the traditional gingerbread, sweets, sausages, potato pancakes and Glühwein, to buy their ornaments, candles, toys and prune men.
(left to right) The Children’s Christmas market in Nuremberg has rides and booths with hands-on activities for children, and appearances by Nuremberg’s Christkind.; Nuremberg’s unique Handwerkerhof is located at the distinctive Königtor within the historic city walls.
A few steps away is a children’s Christkindlmarkt with colorful rides, booths with hands-on activities, hot punch and Nuremberg’s beloved Christkind.
Don’t miss the nearby “Sister City” Christmas market featuring wares from Nuremberg’s sister cities around the world, and yet another Christmas market setting in Nuremberg’s distinctive Handwerkerhof, located at the Königstor within the historic city wall.
Though the river cruise part of our trip was over, and it was difficult to leave the cocoon of comfort we experienced on the ship, we had more markets to visit on our way back to Vienna.
INTER CITY EXPRESS SPEED AND COMFORT
With a first class Eurail pass in hand, we boarded the fast Inter City Express (ICE) train from Nuremberg to Vienna. The Eurail pass, which we had to purchase in the U.S., allowed us to hop on and off the train for more Christmas market visits enroute to Vienna. Sitting in a six-seat “quiet room” directly behind the engineer gave us a clear view of the tracks ahead, a rail buff’s dream. The track generally followed the Danube, busy with barge traffic, with snow-covered mountains in the distance and large balls of mistletoe visible in the bare trees along the route.
Through the panoramic windows we watched the snow-covered forests and villages speed by, looking like gingerbread creations sprinkled with powdered sugar. We saw firewood meticulously piled high in covered sheds in preparation for the long cold winter, and churchyard cemeteries somehow decked out with colorful plants: lavender, heather – where does all the winter floral color come from?
MORE CHRISTKINDLMARKTS AT LINZ
Soon we arrived at Linz, the location of our next Christmas market experience. We left our luggage in lockers at the train station and bought a ticket for the Linz City Express which took us through the town’s main shopping area to the Christkindlmarkt near the river on the Hauptplatz.
Nestled between the town’s centuries-old Baroque townhouses, this market featured wares by artists and artisans, with traditional hot drinks, Bratwürstlein and pastries. At the nearby Goldmann’s Bakery we sampled the town’s famous Linzer Torte. Lights above the stalls are designed to look like river waves, and a specially-designed light display above the river depicts angels blowing bubbles through a straw.
(left and bottom right) Vendors at the Schönbrunn Christmas Market offer painted pewter decorations and beautifully detailed figures for Nativity scenes.; Hot Glühwein in generous mugs, and stick-to-the-ribs comfort food hit the spot at the Schönbrunn Palace Christmas Market
Another short City Express ride delivered us to the Christmas market at the Folksgarten, which featured rides for children, stalls offering warm hats, scarves, decorations, and more hot drinks, pastries and comfort food.
Retrieving our luggage, we completed our train journey to Vienna, where one more very special Christmas Market beckoned.
SCHÖNBRUNN PALACE CHRISTMAS MARKET
Vienna’s famous Schönbrunn Palace hosts its own large and very beautiful Christmas market. Situated on the grounds in front of the UNESCO World Heritage site, this unique market still has plenty of room to wander through the juried product stalls. Six food stands are centrally located, as is a towering lighted tree and a magnificently carved nativity scene. The Schönbrunn Market celebrates its 21st year in 2014, and has grown in size and popularity each year. This market easily sets a new standard with its attention to detail in set-up and design.
For those wondering how to experience the Christmas markets in Germany and Austria in comfort and convenience, this trip by river and rail is the answer.
Websites to visit if you go:
German Christmas Markets
Linz Austria Christmas Markets
Passau Christmas Market
Regensburg Christmas Market
German National Tourism Board
Austrian Tourism Board