Christmas along the Danube

Janna Graber

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It’s dark as we walk toward Vörösmarty Square, but I see thousands of twinkling lights in the distance. Budapest’s historic square is home to Hungary’s largest Christmas market, and walking into it is a magical experience.

The smell of roasted chestnuts wafts through the air as my husband, Benjamin, and I walk along rows of tidy wooden stalls filled with food, crafts, and holiday décor. Cradling a cup of hot cocoa in my mittened hands, I watch a group of musicians play traditional Hungarian folk music.

All the products at the Vörösmarty Square Christmas Market are guaranteed to be traditionally handmade. Browsing the merchant stalls, I see exquisite leather, woodworking, pottery, textile and fabric art, ceramics, and jewelry.

Budapest is known for its pastries, so we stop by nearby Szamos Gourmet House for a piece of szatmári plum cake. Szamos specializes in marzipan and has an entire counter dedicated to marzipan figurines. We buy a selection to take home as gifts, and then slowly walk back to our river cruise ship docked along the Danube.

Budapest is a beautiful city, especially at night, as many of the city’s stately historic buildings, which overlook the Danube, are lit up for all to see, and viewing it from the river makes it even more memorable.

Cruising the Danube

Festive holiday lights adorn the deck of the AmaMagna. Courtesy of AmaWaterways

One of the best ways to visit Christmas markets along the Danube River is by river cruise. River cruising is a relaxing and worry-free way to travel. You simply check in, unpack once, and then arrive at a new destination each day. Your meals, most drinks, and shore excursions are all included.

AmaWaterways, Viking, and Uniworld all offer holiday river cruise itineraries, with stops in iconic destinations. Each provides luxurious accommodations, excellent cuisine, and insightful excursions. Cruising during the holidays is even more fun as the ships are donned in holiday finery and there’s a festive spirit on board.

My first love

Our next stop is Vienna, and I’m thrilled when we arrive, since it was here, in the Austrian capital, where I first fell in love with Christmas markets—and Vienna herself. The city had seemed so foreign when I arrived as a 19-year-old exchange student. Vienna’s refined ways and unique culture was so different from my Colorado hometown. Over time, I came to appreciate Vienna’s love of music, her fascinating history, and love for good coffee and wine. One of my favorite experiences was walking into the Christmas market at City Hall for the first time. Surrounded by glistening lights, the scent of hot mulled wine, and the sounds of Christmas music, I was enchanted.

Visiting Christmas markets with friends and family is a treasured tradition in Austria. As my Austrian friends led me through the market, buying me sweet Vannillekipferl (vanilla crescent cookies) to sample and heart-shaped gingerbread to take home, I gained a new appreciation for this beloved tradition.

As we browsed the stalls, I purchased handmade Christmas ornaments—tiny nativity scenes set in walnuts, angels and hearts made from straw, small wreathes lined with cloves, and painted glass baubles. I still have those Christmas ornaments and have added many more over the years. Putting them on the tree is a treasured tradition.

Vienna has more than 20 Christmas markets, each one worth visiting. My favorites are the one in front of City Hall and the one at Schönbrunn Palace, once home to the Hapsburgs. Today, the 1,441-room Rococo palace and its beautiful gardens are a treasured destination for Austrians and visitors, and makes for a special visit.

Charming and cheerful

Intricate nativity scenes set in walnut shells are just some of the beautiful ornaments you can buy at a Christmas market. © Janna Graber

From Vienna, we cruise to Austria’s Wachau Valley, which stretches for 24 miles along the Danube. In the summer, the valley is filled with apricot orchards and terraced hills covered in vineyards. Winegrowing in the Wachau Valley has a 2,000-year-long tradition, and winemaking families go back generations. One of my favorite places to visit is Domäne Wachau. This wine collective produces award-winning wine with grapes produced by hundreds of small wine growers.

The small, medieval town of Dürnstein is another popular destination, and the definition of charming, consisting of one narrow main street dotted with shops selling chocolate, apricots jams, and artwork. During the holidays, it is dressed in twinkling lights, pine boughs, and holiday decorations.

Melk Abbey, situated on a cliff above the town of Melk, has been managed by Benedictine monks since its foundation in 1089. The abbey has caught fire several times, and suffered serious devastation during the 1683 Turkish invasion. The structure was rebuilt in the 18th-century Baroque style.

We visit Gottweig Abbey. Called the Austrian Montecassino, Gottweig is a baroque Benedictine monastery near Krems that overlooks the southern entry to the Wachau Valley. During the holidays, there’s a small Christmas market. Father Pius, a cheerful person with excellent English skills, gives us a tour of the beautiful baroque structure.

Bavarian delicacies

A baker at Wicklein Lebkuchen in Nuremberg shares the secret to baking gingerbread. © Janna Graber

Located at the confluence of three rivers, Passau, Germany is our next stop. The heart of this 2,000-year-old city, with Gothic and Baroque architecture, is St. Stephen’s Cathedral—home to the largest pipe organ in Europe with 17,000 pipes. During the Christmas season, the cathedral holds holiday concerts at noon on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

While we don’t make the concert, we do get to visit the Passau Christmas market near the cathedral. A band plays traditional folk music with instruments like the zither and dulcimer accentuating our stroll.

We’re eager to try the local specialty of Sengzelten with fresh fruit dipped in chocolate. This Bavarian delicacy of a thin cracker-like crust sprinkled with your choice of toppings, like smoked meat, cheese, and onions, sour cream and chives, then baked in a wood-burning oven lives up to its reputation. We don’t leave hungry.

Land of fairy tales

Regensburg, Germany, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its many medieval buildings, We visit the Romantic Christmas Market, another favorite, at the Thurn and Taxis Palace, and it seems like we’ve stepped straight into a fairy tale. Twinkling white and purple lights add a magical glow to the rows of stalls in the palace courtyard. Groups of friends gather around firepits, drinking glühwein, and eating gingerbread and sausages, while children run through the stalls with delight.

Here, Ben tries a Feuerzangenbowle—rum poured over a sugar cube set above a glass of mulled wine, then the sugar cube is set on fire. This hot drink is quite an experience. As the fire burns, the sugar drips slowly into the glass, creating a sweet drink that packs a powerful punch.

We dine on traditional Christmas market foods—crepes filled with Nutella, roasted candied almonds, and würst (sausages) served with bread and sweet mustard. I’m so captivated by the Christmas market I don’t even notice the cold.

Heart of wine country

The author and her husband enjoy a hot glühwein at a Christmas market in Germany. © Janna Graber

Nuremberg, our final stop along the Danube, was once an important stop on the historic spice route, where merchants transported spices, such as ginger and cinnamon, from afar. Perhaps that’s why Nuremberg gingerbread became a treasured delicacy in the region. This sweet confection uses an unusual mix of spices and nuts to create cookies sold around the world.

Wicklein Lebkuchen (gingerbread), a bakery in the heart of Nuremberg, has been around since 1615. Ben and I stop in to enjoy a large gingerbread cookie with a cappuccino. Wicklein Lebkuchen offers a class where you can learn about this famous cookie, while baking and decorating your own gingerbread. However, the workshops are not available during the busy Christmas season.

Later, we shop for another Nuremberg treasure, a bottle of Silvaner—a fruity wine that’s an extremely popular local favorite. Nuremberg is in the heart of Franconia, a region famous for its wine. Franconia isn’t a geographical region, but rather a cultural identity that dates back to when Germany was many tribes. Today, Franconia still has its own unique dialect and customs. Wine here is bottled in the Bocksbeutel, a short, round bottle that is uniquely Franconian. We purchase a bottle to stow in our luggage for our trip home.

By now, it’s getting dark and the perfect time to head into the famous Nuremberg Christmas market, the largest in Germany. Situated on the Hauptmarkt in Old Town, it has a bustling, medieval atmosphere. A young woman always plays the part of the Christmas Angel, which opens Nuremburg’s Christkindlesmarkt on the Friday before the first Sunday of Advent. We buy some delicious Nuremberg bratwurst, and then sit down to enjoy our meal. A little girl dances by me, bundled in her pink coat and mittens, with a cookie in her hand and a look of joy in her eyes. I understand her delight. I feel the same way, too.


Favorite Christmas market memories

Kristin Karst (third from the left), co-founder of AmaWaterways, enjoys a Christmas market with friends. Courtesy of AmaWaterways

Christmas markets are a treasured tradition in Europe. We asked Kristin Karst, co-founder and executive vice president of AmaWaterways, about some of her favorite memories.

Q. What is one of your favorite Christmas market destinations on the Danube?

Karst: I grew up in Dresden, Germany, which is home to one of the oldest Christmas markets in Europe. It is celebrating its 587th year this year. Growing up with that kind of tradition, I love all the excitement, twinkling lights, and delicious aromas that you discover at each Christmas market. It’s hard to pick a favorite, but I love Vienna’s Schönbrunn and Belvedere Palace markets.

Q. What makes these two markets so special? 

Karst: The surroundings for both these markets are truly breathtaking. The illuminated backdrops of the Palaces create such a dazzling festive atmosphere.

Q. What kinds of experiences does AmaWaterways offer in this destination?

Karst: Some guests love to spend their days and evenings wandering around these magical market squares sampling the delicious food and mulled wine, enjoying the local entertainment, and, of course, shopping for one-of-a-kind Christmas gifts and souvenirs. Other guests choose to enjoy our invigorating hiking and biking tour options during the day and save their visits to the Christmas markets until the late afternoon or early evening. Another special aspect about our Christmas Market Cruises is the beautiful decorations we have on all our ships—inside and outside. We go all-out to surround our guests with a joyous festive atmosphere.

Q. What are some of your personal favorite things about the Christmas markets in this destination?

Karst: I must confess, I have quite a collection of Christmas mugs, as never miss an opportunity to enjoy a mug of hot mulled wine while browsing for unusual Christmas tree decorations. My husband Rudi, AmaWaterways co-founder and president, is originally from Vienna, Austria, so having these unique decorations on our tree is another small way of us sharing our Christmas traditions.

Be inspired

Watch a video of some of Janna’s favorite European Christmas markets.


AAA Connection

Contact your local AAA Travel Advisor to book your own European Christmas market experience by visiting, calling 866-235-7070, or visiting your local AAA store.

Janna Graber is a Colorado native and longtime contributor to EnCompass. She has covered travel in more than 40 countries and is the editor of three travel anthologies, including A Pink Suitcase: 22 Tales of Women’s Travel.