A European river cruise in December?

The cruise program director on the Viking Vili quipped, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.” Temperatures hovered in the 30s and 40s on our December cruise down the Danube, but it was still warmer than back home in suburban Chicago. In Vienna, I lucked out with a 54-degree day and ditched my puffy coat.

December can be a cheaper time to travel. Air and cruise fares dip below those in peak summer season and major sightseeing spots draw fewer people. But the biggest incentive to don winter coats and hats is the Christmas markets in ports along the way. Almost every European city has at least one filling municipal and cathedral squares in the weeks leading up to December 25. Exploring these colorful open-air markets is like walking through a miniature Christmas village collectors place on mantels and sideboards across America

Cafe Simon Passau

Christmas market cruises can fill up quickly. Only one cabin remained unoccupied on my Viking River Cruises ship. Fellow passengers seemed younger than on other river cruises I’ve taken, the average age skewing down by about a decade.

An infectious holiday cheer brought smiles to passengers and crew on board. One afternoon crew members donned Santa hats and reindeer headbands to lead passengers in a sing-along that ended with a conga line winding through the lounge. An advent choir boarded the ship after dinner in Bratislava for an a cappella performance. In Austria, costumed singers and musicians presented songs from “The Sound of Music” and ended the evening with Christmas carols—“Silent Night” in three languages.

Passengers participated in trimming Christmas trees, personalizing globe ornaments with markers. The pastry chef patiently taught us the art of gingerbread house-making.

Meals on board weren’t overly holiday themed, but the Austrian and German dishes served seemed Christmassy enough to me. The kitchen crew made an extra effort to warm us up with a holiday glow. After a shore excursion one chilly afternoon the chef set up in the ship’s reception area to welcome returning passengers with cheese fondue spread on slices of fresh bread plus cups of hot chocolate with an optional splash of rum or amaretto.

St Stephan Budapest

Another reason to cruise in December: shopping. Have holiday gifts to buy for family and friends back home? Bring an extra suitcase. Cities along the Danube offer shopping districts with brand-name stores as well as cute boutiques. And, of course, the Christmas markets present a bounty of items, some handmade. After visiting two or three markets, the next few might seem just the same, but be on the lookout for one-of-a-kind finds and local food specialties.

About those markets: Almost all vendors take cash only, so keep an ATM card handy to withdraw local currency and stow both in an inside pocket to guard against pickpockets.

Unlike major attractions that draw mostly tourists, Christmas markets bring out residents, especially after work and on weekends. If you’re game, you might interact over a glass of gluhwein.

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