Christmas Markets River Cruise on AmaWaterways in Photos


I really had no interest in trying a Christmas Markets river cruise in Europe.  In my mind, every market would be overrun with aggressive shoppers, cheapskate lookers, sloppy drunks and of course, tourists.  But I had to go just to experience it and hopefully prove myself wrong.  And I did.

Mannheim Christmas Markets Lights

How I ended up on a Christmas Markets Rhine river cruise

An unexpected change of plans and suddenly I found myself on a back-to-back Christmas Markets river cruise with AmaWaterways.  I stayed aboard the AmaCerto for two weeks and only had to change my stateroom at the turnaround point in Basel.

AmaCerto Christmas and Hanukkah decorations
AmaCerto sparkled with Christmas and Hanukkah decorations in the main lounge.

This was probably the eighth time I’d cruise up and down the Rhine between Basel and Amsterdam. The more I traverse this historic stretch of river, the more I learn about each ancient and medieval city, town, castle and cathedral.  I’m never bored and it gives me oodles of not-to-be-missed things to see and do to share with others.

When are the Christmas Markets River Cruises?

Sounds like a simple question, right? But to be on the rivers at the right time for an optimal Christmas Markets experience takes a little knowledge and planning.

Christmas Markets in Europe, especially Germany, generally open the third weekend of November and run through mid-December. Not right up until Christmas. This European extravaganza reaches its seasonal crescendo by the second weekend of December.

Our itinerary, called the Enchanting Rhine, began in Amsterdam and ended 764-miles upriver in Basel, Switzerland. The headwaters of the Rhine is not far from Basel, in Lake Constance, sourced from the Alps.  Here’s our cruise itinerary:

• Amsterdam, Netherlands (overnight)
• Cologne, Germany
• Rüdesheim / Rhine Gorge Cruising
• Speyer / Heidelburg
• Kehl / Strasbourg, France
• Breisach, Germany
• Basel, Switzerland

Vendors from all around the continent flock to these extravagant events, whether in Germany, France or even England. Sellers haul their wares and set up elaborate little huts, many of which look like gingerbread cottages and mini log cabins.

You can find almost anything at the Christmas Markets.  From hand-tooled leather wallets and fluffy alpaca socks to steaming mugs of gluhwein (mulled wine), crispy potato pancakes and plates swamped with gooey melted cheese and dill pickles.  It’s sensory overload in every direction.  What you won’t find are cheesy, plastic ornaments.

Day One:  Embarkation Day in Amsterdam

River cruise dock in Amsterdam
On a windy, misty November day, guests arrived early to board our river ship, AmaCerto in Amsterdam.

It wasn’t exactly a day for hoofing it around Amsterdam. Late November and inclement weather is the norm.   Sunny days are a welcome surprise.  We would have both over the next two weeks.

Amsterdam Canal cruise and walking tour
Almost everyone opted to take the complimentary Amsterdam Canal cruise and city tour.

Sometime during the chilly night, the AmaCerto was quietly untied and began the slow cruise upstream. Yes, upstream.  After a morning of sailing past farmland and industrial areas, we entered Germany.

Our first stop heading south on the Rhine was Cologne, in the late afternoon.  Christmas markets here really kick into high gear after 5pm and last all day and night on weekends.

Day Two:  First Christmas Market – Cologne, Germany

Cologne Christmas Markets Heinzel
Luckily, AmaCerto docked in Cologne until nearly 11:00PM.  This gave us a chance to meander through the city with all the sparkles and glow.
Cologne fries and currywurst sauce.
Because it’s all about the food, right? Hot, crunchy French fries with a spoonful of Currywurst sauce.

Cologne has six Christmas Markets and the largest four are located near the Cologne Cathedral.  I managed to find all four major Christmas Markets with no more than 15 minutes walk between each one.

Cologne Christmas Markets Ice Skating Rink
Every year, Cologne sets up this ice skating rink right in the middle of the markets.
Cologne Christmas Markets at Chocolate Museum
One of the Big Four, this Christmas Market is set next to the famous Chocolate Museum.  Dangerous calories here.
Cologne Downtown Christmas Markets Lights
As night gradually descended on Cologne, the festive lights slowly began to take on their golden glow.

Day Three:  En route to Rüdesheim, Germany

Rhine Gorge
Past castles and ruins, towns and cathedrals along the Rhine River Gorge.

Our morning was spent cruising the most famous and photo-taking portion of the Rhine River, the Rhine River Gorge.  In a span of less than three hours, the AmaCerto slowly cruised past no less than 30 castles and castle ruins.

Second Christmas Markets in Rüdesheim

Rudesheim Christmas markets decorations
Decorations were up in Rudesheim. Now to wait for the party people when the sun sets.

AmaWaterways had a planned evening event in Rüdesheim, at Rüdesheimer Schloss restaurant for a private pouring of flaming Rüdesheimer coffee (coffee with liquor, set ablaze and then topped with whipped cream) and local oompah music sans tuba. Take a listen (above).

Rudesheim main street
Waiting as the lights began to glow along the main street.
Frying those oh so dee-licious potato pancakes.
Frying those oh so dee-licious potato pancakes.

Day Four:  Third Christmas Markets in Speyer, Germany

Speyer is one of my favorite medium-size port towns.  Depending upon where your river ships docks, you might be just a short 15 minute walk into town.  There’s a huge pedestrian shopping zone and at Christmas Markets time, it’s bustling with store shoppers plus those who come for the markets.

In Speyer, Germany on a Christmas Markets River Cruise
After-work people were just arriving at Speyer Christmas Markets.
Speyer Christmas Market downtown
And they continue to meander in, hungry and thirsty.
speyer-christmas-market-food-stand
The food stands are the first to get customers. Shopping can wait.
Speyer Christmas Market Food
I know. There’s always room for another potato pancake and gluhwein.

Day Five:  Strasbourg, France

Finally, the day many of us were most excited to see; Strasbourg, France.  River ships dock in Kehl, Germany, just across the river from Strasbourg.  The two countries are connected by the Bridge of Europe/Pont de l’Europe. It’s only a 15 minute bus ride depending upon traffic on the bridge and in Strasbourg.

Fourth Christmas Markets in Strasbourg

Almost all river cruises to Strasbourg plan an entire day there.  Guests can join a morning walking tour of Strasbourg and then either take the motor coach back to the ship for lunch or have lunch in the quaint and oldest section of Strasbourg, Petite France.

For those returned to the AmaCerto for lunch, a shuttle bus ran back and forth into Strasbourg from 2:30pm until 5:30pm. Since departure isn’t until 4:45am (that’s right, a.m.!), many guests chose to have a truly French evening dining experience ashore and took a taxi back to the AmaCerto.

Cathedral Notre Dame de Strasbourg
Cathedral Notre Dame de Strasbourg towers over the city center.

Strasbourg’s Christmas Markets, “Christkindelmärik”, is one of the oldest in France, began in 1570.  There are several Christmas Markets within Strasbourg but the main one is Place de la Cathédrale.

strasbourg christmas markets
From a distance it looks like icicles and snow dripping from stars…
strasbourg in petite France
Did you know…the stork is Strasbourg’s city symbol. Storks are everywhere!
Strasbourg Christmas Markets at Le Gruber
One of my favorite spots for a glass of wine and a tarte flambée (sort of an open-face grilled cheese with thin-sliced onions, set under a flame to crisp) at Le Gruber.

Day Six:  Fifth Christmas Markets in Breisach and/or Riquewihr

Breisach, Germany was the fifth and final port on this seven-day Enchanting Rhine cruise.  Guests could choose either an afternoon walking tour of Breisach and then to Freiburg by motor coach, a bicycle tour of Breisach or a 45-minute bus ride to Riquewihr, a small French town in the heart of Alsace.  Sort of like the town in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.

Breisach downtown.
Quiet, residential Breisach wasn’t really up to a full-out Christmas market scene.

Since I knew I’d be back in Breisach in three days to do a walk-around, a re-visit to the charming Alsatian town of Riquewihr was my destination. I was curious how the town would be dressed up for Christmas.

Riquewihr Christmas Market street
Dressed up it was, even for late November.  When we arrived around 2pm…the main street was fairly quiet. By 5pm, the crowds again swooped in.
Riquewihr christmas market
Every house, shop and alleyway were decorated.  It’s a wonderful town to wander and temporarily lose your bearings.
riquewihr-street
The quiet before the crowds arrive.  As I walked up, back and across every narrow street, I couldn’t resist a peek into every alleyway.

It’s always sad to say goodbye to new river cruise friends. On small river ships like these, it’s easy to get to know almost everyone.

AmaCerto docked in Breisach Germany
Back to Breisach at sunset
AmaCerto paté appetizer
Captain’s Farewell dinner began with paté alongside colorful Christmas-y crudités.

After the Captain’s Farewell Dinner, it was time to head to my stateroom.  With jacket on, I sat on the balcony and enjoyed the crisp breeze as the AmaCerto left Breisach for Basel, Switzerland.

AmaCerto in Basel.
Docked in Basel, waiting for the next group of passengers to arrive.

Day 7:  Basel, Switzerland

When we woke up the next morning, we were in Basel.  It was important for me to stay out of the way of the crew this morning.  Tons of provisions were waiting to be loaded, rooms had to be cleaned as the ship prepared for its next guests.  The perfect opportunity to check out, wait for it… the Christmas Market in Basel.

Basel Christmas Market
Only a 10 minute walk from the ship’s docking position and you’ll find Basel’s Christmas Market.
Swiss raclette cheese with potatoes.
More food! Swiss Raclette cheese with roasted potatoes, tiny onions and two little dill pickles. And another souvenir mug of Glüewein of course.  More amazing street food.

By tonight, I’d be settled into my new room, ready to re-explore the same Christmas Markets that we visited on our last cruise, except in reverse.

For more info on a Christmas Markets river cruise, head over to AmaWaterways.com.

Disclosure: I was a guest aboard AmaWaterways AmaCerto.  As always, all opinions and photos are my own. How could I fake this stuff?  It was a spectacular pair of cruises on an excellent, award-winning river cruise line. Seriously.  You need to put this on your close-in to-do list. And if you can budget the time and money, reserve a back-to-back river cruise.

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