The Best Way to Visit Europe Christmas Markets: Cruise vs. Land

Some posts on this site contain affiliate links, meaning if you book or buy something through one of these links, I may earn a small commission. Read the full disclosure policy here.

Christmas markets in Europe have been a magical tradition for centuries – the first markets began in the German-speaking parts of Europe way back in the Middle Ages. And, in recent years, you’ve probably seen the twinkling lights and steaming mugs of mulled wine of European Christmas markets invading your social media feeds starting each November.

If all the hype has made you think that maybe you’d like to plan your own Christmas market trip, I’m first here to validate your feelings – the Christmas markets in Europe ARE indeed incredible, and I would highly recommend a trip!

Christmas market in Trier, Germany
Amanda at Munich Christmas market in the snow
Snowy market mug selfie in Munich
Christmas market stall in Ludwigsburg
Market stall in Ludwigsburg

But if you’ve done any cursory research into planning such a trip, then maybe you realized how overwhelming it can be. Not only are there literally thousands of Christmas markets across dozens of countries in Europe each year, but there are also multiple ways to visit them all!

You can book a Christmas market river cruise, plan a train trip, or take a Christmas market road trip. Each option is appealing for different reasons – so how do you choose??

Well luckily for you, I’ve actually done both a Christmas market river cruise AND a self-planned Christmas market road trip, and have also visited some markets by train (and have generally traveled around Europe a lot by train). So I’m uniquely positioned to compare and contrast all your options to hopefully help you decide which one might be the best fit for you.

(There’s honestly not a WRONG way to visit Christmas markets, whether you just visit one major city with lots of markets, or plan a 14-day road trip at breakneck speed to see as many places as you possibly can. But you definitely want to do whatever matches your personal travel style best.)

Amanda and Tamara enjoying Christmas market drinks
Enjoying market drinks in Germany with a friend
St Nicholas Christmas boat parade in Colmar
St Nicholas boat parade in Colmar

What makes Christmas markets so special?

So, why do people lose their minds over European Christmas markets? Are they really that good?

The Christkindlmarkt (Christ child market) or Weihnachtsmarkt (Christmas Eve market) is a tradition that is hundreds of years old; there were special winter markets mentioned in Europe way back in the 1300s!

The markets celebrate the Christmas season during Advent, beginning four weeks before Christmas, and usually lasting up until Christmas Eve. They’re known today for festive stands selling regional treats and crafts, and for exuding all sorts of Christmas-y cheer.

Ravenna Gorge Christmas market
Ravenna Gorge Christmas market

If you hate Christmas, crowds, or being out after dark, then Christmas markets might not be for you. But, for most people, they’re really fun and magical! I’ve now been to dozens of Christmas markets across Germany, France, and Switzerland. And even after so many visits, I still find them just as charming as ever.

But let’s talk about the different ways to plan a Christmas market trip.

Christmas markets by river cruise

Viking river cruise ship on the Rhine
Viking river cruise ship on the Rhine

My first trip to see Christmas markets in Europe was via a cruise on the Rhine River with Viking River Cruises one December. Most river cruise lines in Europe offer Christmas market cruises, which are similar to their regular itineraries with the exception that they take place during the Christmas market season and usually allow passengers some extra time to explore the markets.

On my cruise, we visited 8 different cities of varying sizes with festive holiday markets. Some of the smaller cities just had one market, while the larger cities all had several – which meant that we had the chance to visit more than a dozen different Christmas markets in just one week.

I fell in love with Christmas markets on that trip, and starting singing the praises of the Christmas market river cruise to anyone who would listen.

Christmas market stalls beneath Cologne Cathedral
I visited Cologne on that trip – and it’s still one of my favorite Christmas market cities!

Pros of a Christmas market river cruise

So why did I love and recommend that Christmas market cruise so much?

1. No itinerary planning required

The nice thing about a river cruise is that you basically book everything all at once in one package. There’s no itinerary planning involved at all beyond choosing which cruise you want to go on. You don’t have to research a route, book hotels, plan out meals, or get tickets for museums or attractions in advance. You just book your cruise and some flights, and show up!

For anyone overwhelmed by all the Christmas market options out there (or just overwhelmed by travel planning in general), this removes the most stressful parts.

And once your cruise starts, you don’t have to worry about any logistics on the ground, either, as that’s all taken care of for you by the talented crew on your cruise.

2. Visit lots of market towns in one trip

River cruise lines that offer Christmas market itineraries sail routes that will have you visiting many different places with markets. So you’ll be guaranteed lots of options to visit Christmas markets, both in bigger cities and smaller towns.

If you like variety in your travels, this is a good option! There were some days on my cruise where we visited one town in the morning and a second one in the afternoon.

Street in Speyer, Germany decorated at Christmas
I loved our quick stop in Speyer, Germany

3. Almost everything is included

The nice thing about a river cruise is that almost everything in included. From your room to all your meals to at least one guided excursion in each port, it’s all included in the price you pay for your cruise. You also get beer and wine with meals, and free wifi on many cruises.

Some cruise lines even give you the option to include things like crew tips and travel insurance when you book, meaning you really only have to worry about your shopping budget once you’re onboard your ship.

4. You only have to unpack once

This might actually be the top selling point for many people. But going on any sort of cruise basically means staying in a floating hotel that travels with you. So even though you might be changing towns frequently (maybe even twice per day!), you only have to unpack once.

Being able to settle into a room and not stress about packing everything up every 1-2 nights feels so luxurious.

Amanda in a robe in a river cruise ship room
Less time spent packing means more time for #robelife (taken on an Avalon river cruise)

5. Ships aren’t huge

And for anyone turned off by the idea of big ocean cruises with thousands of passengers on a ship with you, rest assured that river cruises aren’t that. The average river cruise ship in Europe holds fewer than 200 passengers (160-190 is pretty standard), lacks things like casinos and theaters, and generally has very relaxed vibes.

RELATED: Christmas Markets with Viking River Cruises: What’s It Really Like?

Cons of a Christmas market river cruise

And now on to the things about a Christmas market cruise that you might not love.

1. Lack of flexibility

With any packaged, pre-planned trip, you’re giving up some flexibility. Yes, on a river cruise you still get to choose from various different excursions each day (or choose to just explore a city on your own), but you can’t change your overall itinerary.

You can’t stop in an extra town you see on the map on a whim, avoid a rainy morning, or decide to spend longer in an area you really like when your itinerary is strictly set like it is on a cruise.

2. You don’t have a say in WHEN you make port calls

Going along with the lack of flexibility in a trip like this, you also can’t choose what time of day you visit cities on a river cruise. For example, some places are best visited early in the morning, and some smaller markets are prettiest at night once all the stalls shine with twinkle lights and paper stars.

Strasbourg Christmas tree at night
Strasbourg’s Christmas tree looks best at night

But unless it’s a larger city where you’re staying all day, you may not have a choice when you visit certain places. (Though in my experience you’ll have several opportunities to visit Christmas markets in the evenings/after dark, so don’t worry too much about this one.)

3. You may not dock *in* town

There are specific areas where river cruise ships can dock in each city and town, but they usually aren’t right in the city center except in the smallest towns. This means if you want to go out and do some exploring on your own, you might need to walk a ways, figure out public transport, or even call a taxi.

4. Smaller towns can be crowded

Lastly, perhaps the biggest downside of seeing Christmas markets on a cruise is that most of the river cruise companies operate very similar itineraries and schedules on the major rivers of Europe. You won’t necessarily notice lots of other cruise ship passengers in bigger cities like Cologne or Vienna – but you definitely WILL notice them in smaller towns when several cruise ships dock at the same time.

For example, the small town of Rüdesheim am Rhein is a popular stop for Rhine River cruises, and it has a very charming Christmas market spread throughout its small city center. When you have hundreds of people from several ships packed into this small area all at the same time, however, it can feel very crowded to the point of it being unpleasant.

Riquewihr, France packed with Christmas tourists
The town of Riquewihr in France is also PACKED with Christmas market tourists this time of year

NOTE: I’m not planning to cover organized bus tours to see Christmas markets, as they more or less have many of the same pros and cons as river cruises, with the exception that you’ll likely change hotels several times along the way. If you’re debating between a river cruise and a bus tour, I personally would go the cruise route!

Christmas market train trip

Let’s talk about one of the land options you have for visiting Christmas markets through Europe next. First up is a self-guided trip to markets via train. You have a lot of choice here, as all the major cities throughout Europe – and even most of the smaller towns – are well-connected by train.

I LOVE train travel around Europe. It’s much more environmentally-friendly than flying or driving (or cruising, for that matter), and is generally comfortable and fairly affordable.

Plus, there’s something extra romantic about visiting Christmas markets by train, isn’t there?

Frankfurt main train station
Frankfurt train station
Train in Germany
Onboard a DB train in Germany

Pros of a Christmas market trip by train

1. More control over your itinerary

You have much more control over your itinerary when you’re fully planning it yourself. When you plan a trip by train, you can decide which cities you visit and how long you stay in each, along with choosing your hotels and other activities (though, honestly, during market season you’ll likely be spending most of your free time exploring Christmas markets and eating all the festive food!).

2. You can visit the markets you want, when you want

Want to visit popular towns early in the morning before the tour groups arrive? No problem. Only want to explore Christmas markets once they get extra atmospheric after dark? You can do that! You generally have much more flexibility in your itinerary when you plan it like this.

Frankfurt main Christmas market
Only want to visit markets during Blue Hour as the lights are coming on? You can!

3. Train travel in Europe is fun and efficient

For a Christmas market trip, chances are you will likely be focusing on Germany, perhaps dipping into other nearby countries, too. The train system in Germany is very efficient and straightforward, and most cities and towns have train stations to make traveling this way easy.

Both high speed and regional trains are comfortable and clean, and train stations are fairly easy to navigate (don’t worry if you only speak English; signs are often in two languages and generally easy to follow).

I love traveling by train, as you can sit back and just enjoy the countryside passing by out the window.

Cons of a Christmas market trip by train

And now on to the potential downsides of a Christmas market trip by train.

1. You need to book everything in advance

When you’re traveling this way – and especially around the busy holiday season – you definitely need to plan every aspect of your trip in advance. This means booking trains (and sometimes seat assignments, too), hotels, and even some restaurants in advance.

The more popular the Christmas markets become, the more important it is to make your plans as far in advance as possible. Hotels in the most popular cities do definitely book up weeks or sometimes even months in advance during the holiday season.

Colmar, France at Christmas
Want to stay in Colmar? You definitely need to book well in advance.

2. You need to plan around train schedules/connections

When you’re planning a trip by train, your schedule will be beholden a bit to train schedules and connections. This won’t be difficult at all if you mostly plan to visit larger cities (for example, trains between Frankfurt, Stuttgart, and Munich are plentiful and frequent), but could take a bit of creative planning if you want to visit a lot of smaller towns.

You’ll need to pay attention not only to general train schedules, but also journey lengths and connection times, and make sure you’re allowing yourself enough time in each place to warrant a journey. This isn’t overly difficult, but you don’t have much flexibility if there are infrequent trains to where you want to go.

3. Train delays/cancellations can and do happen

Even though national train services like Deutsche Bahn in Germany are usually fairly reliable, that doesn’t mean that you’ll never run into train delays or cancellations. Take it from me that they can and do happen!

Weather can cause train issues (last Christmas I got stuck in Munich after a freak blizzard dumped 17 inches of snow on the city in less than 24 hours and completely shut it down), and train strikes are also becoming more and more common these days across Europe (on that same trip last year, a train strike shut down all DB trains for a day across Germany, forcing a friend and I to change our plans at the last minute).

Snowy sidewalk in Munich, Germany
17 inches of snow in 24 hours shut down the city of Munich

Sometimes you’ll get advanced warnings about things like strikes, but some delays and cancellations can come out of nowhere. Be sure to have a good travel insurance policy for your trip, and be mentally prepared to deal with last-minute transit changes. (Though I’d say normally this isn’t that common; December 2023 was an outlier!)

4. You’ll have to deal with your own luggage

This one may not be something you’d think of right away, but traveling by train will mean not only maneuvering your luggage on the trains themselves, but also schlepping it around train stations and the cities you’re visiting.

Pack light when you can – if you have a bag small/light enough to lift over your head into the luggage rack above your seat, your life will be a lot easier on travel days.

Christmas market road trip

Lastly, let’s talk about renting a car and visiting Christmas markets on your own. This option gives you the most freedom, though I know driving in foreign countries does not appeal to everyone.

I did a 2-week Christmas market road trip in 2023 with my friend Tamara, visiting dozens of Christmas markets throughout southwestern Germany and France, and I loved it so much!

Amanda and Tamara with potato tornados in Freiburg
Tamara and I in Freiburg
Driving into the Black Forest in Germany
Driving into the Black Forest in Germany

Pros of a Christmas market road trip

1. You have total control over your itinerary

There are no limitations on your itinerary when you rent a car and drive yourself around to different Christmas markets. You don’t have to rely on a set cruise itinerary or any train schedules, and can truly build your ideal itinerary and go exactly where you want to go.

Don’t like castles and old churches? Skip them. Want to detour to visit some wineries? Go for it! Decide to avoid the big cities altogether and only seek out smaller towns? No problem. With your own car, you can easily do all of those things.

Need to rent a car in Europe? It’s usually pretty affordable, even around Christmas. I use Auto Europe for car rentals in this part of the world. Do note that driving in Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and several other countries in Europe requires US drivers to obtain an International Driving Permit (IDP), which is an official translation of your US driver’s license. You can get an IDP quickly and easily from any American Automobile Association (AAA) office. (You don’t need one for Germany or France.)

2. You can visit the markets you want, when you want

Much like with a train trip, a Christmas market road trip allows you to visit towns and Christmas markets whenever you want. You can sightsee during the day and gorge on market food at night, or spend an entire day market-hopping in bigger cities. You won’t have any time constraints if you don’t want them.

Christmas market in Ludwigsburg, Germany
Market in Ludwigsburg, Germany

3. More flexibility to change plans

You still need to plan your trip in advance, but having a car definitely lends itself to a bit of spontaneity. You can change up parts of your itinerary (to an extent) to follow better weather, for example, or maybe decide to stop in a small town you find yourself driving through. Or you can leave a Christmas market or entire town early if you’re just not enjoying it.

On my own road trip, for example, we added extra stops in a couple smaller towns in the Alsace region of France because we had the time and our own car to get us there. One of them, Obernai, ended up being delightful and having my absolute favorite mulled wine of the whole trip. Conversely, we left another town (Riquewihr) quickly because of how overcrowded it felt.

Amanda with mulled wine in Obernai, France
Absolutely loved the market in Obernai!

4. It can actually be more affordable

This may not be the case every time (and it obviously depends on what sort of hotels you’re staying in), but a road trip can actually be the most affordable of the options listed here. When car rentals can cost less than $500 for two weeks, it’s sometimes even more affordable than taking trains everywhere.

Cons of a Christmas market road trip

1. The amount of choice can be overwhelming!

When your options are wide open, I realize it can be super overwhelming to plan a trip like this on your own! There are SO many options when it comes to fantastic Christmas markets in Europe – but luckily that means you can’t really go wrong.

My advice would be to focus on one region or smaller country, choose a couple larger cities to base yourself around, or perhaps plan a trip around one specific special market.

For example, on my own Christmas market trip, my friend Tamara wanted to visit markets in France like Strasbourg and Colmar, and I had my heart set on going to the Ravenna Gorge market near Freiburg and the medieval market in Esslingen – so we planned our trip to focus on southwestern Germany and a tiny bit of France.

Esslingen Medieval Market
Esslingen Medieval Market

2. You need to book everything in advance

Just like with a train trip, you will need to plan your entire road trip itinerary in advance. While your exact day-to-day activities can be a little less regimented, you’ll need to book things like your rental car and hotels well in advance of your trip.

3. Parking can be tricky in some cities

The biggest challenge to a Christmas market road trip is finding a place to park your rental car. This is another thing you will want to research and possibly plan in advance.

Some historic city centers in Europe are car-free, so you may need to get a special permit to drive through them to your hotel (we had to do this in Strasbourg, though our hotel helped with it). You might also need to pre-book parking spots where you’re staying, or at least do a bit of research on where you can park overnight.

Most of the time we had no issues, but a few days we ended up a bit frazzled over parking situations. My biggest tip is to try to book hotels that have their own private parking for guests whenever you can (it’s not a given in Europe; you actually have to search for hotels that offer parking!).

Pedestrian street in Colmar, France
So many pedestrian-only streets in European cities

What about a combined train + car trip?

You can absolutely do a bit of a mix of road trip and train trip. On my own road trip, we mostly drove everywhere, but we did take the train to Colmar from Strasbourg instead of driving, and we also visited both Ludwigsburg and Esslingen by train from Stuttgart.

If you base yourself in bigger cities for a couple nights at a time, it’s sometimes easier to take trains to nearby towns. In smaller towns, you can usually walk to the Christmas markets from the central train station.

Stuttgart decorated Christmas market stall
Stuttgart has big Christmas markets, AND is a great base for exploring smaller towns.

The best way to visit Christmas markets

So which way is the *best* way to experience Christmas markets in Europe? Is it via river cruise, train trip, or road trip?

Well, honestly, that’s not something I can tell you! I’ve visited Christmas markets all 3 ways, and have loved them all! I like how easy traveling on a Christmas market river cruise is, but equally like the freedom of train travel or a road trip.

I think the “best” way is probably going to be different for everyone, depending on your travel style and how comfortable you are traveling independently around Europe. Don’t want to drive or figure out train schedules? Then go the river cruise route! Don’t want to travel in a tour group and give up flexibility? Then plan a Christmas market road trip!

Whatever you choose, I promise it will be amazing.

How do you think YOU would like to explore Christmas markets around Europe?

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.