I just returned from the most magical European adventure and I am very eager to share my experience and photos with you. The past week was spent eating my way through Christmas markets, shopping for unique gifts/ornaments, visiting UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and roaming around gorgeous, historic cities.
My boyfriend and I cruised with AmaWaterways on the Danube River. This trip was called the “Iconic Christmas Markets River Cruise.” We began our trip in Hungary, then cruised our way through Austria and Germany. I have been looking forward to this type of cruise, given the intimate nature. Our ship had a maximum occupancy of 156 guests, and 78 staterooms. The ship was only 38 feet wide. I will review our experience with Ama following our trip details below. I won’t leave you hanging though… it was a fantastic experience. I will also go into detail with what to expect on a river cruise.
We arrived in Budapest, Hungary on December 13th. The day was ours, and we set out to explore the city. We stayed at the beautiful Prestige Hotel Budapest. We had an extremely long travel day (about 14 hours)! Following our check in, we headed directly to the Gellért Baths and Spa to unwind. What a TREAT! Budapest is known for being a spa city. Natural thermal springs provide millions of liters of warm, thermal spring water with healing properties (minerals, warmth, etc.). There are so many baths to choose from. The Gellért was absolutely breathtaking. We were able to use many of their amenities. They had lockers, changing rooms, many bathrooms. We went into three different thermal baths within the Gellért, as well as the sauna. One of the baths was outdoors, and it was very dreamy. The steam coming off of the water was so picturesque. Our sore muscles felt fantastic as the stress just melted away; we were completely rejuvenated.
Following the baths, we set out to find a restaurant to grab dinner. We unexpectedly stumbled upon our first Christmas market. Rather than sitting for a meal, we opted to eat our way through the market. Sausage over potato pancakes, Chimney Cake, and chocolate covered fruit. There was also a 3D light show displayed on St. Stephen’s Basilica.
I want to elaborate on this Chimney Cake for a second. This is one of the best desserts I’ve ever had. It’s a spiralized pastry cooked over hot coals, and rolled in a variety of toppings, with the most popular being cinnamon sugar. The outer shell caramelizes, the inside soft, but not doughy. It’s a very thin dough and is best enjoyed warm. It literally smelled like a marshmallow being roasted over an open fire. You will find Chimney Cake in both Austria and Germany, but they are just not the same as what you will find in Budapest. They aren’t cooked over the coals. If you are going to try this, get it in Budapest.
Prior to embarkation, we grabbed an authentic lunch of beef goulash and paprika chicken. A true Hungarian delight!
Upon check-in onto the AmaViola, we were welcomed by the enthusiastic crew. Our room was modest, but perfect for the two of us. We barely spent time in the room, but when we did, we enjoyed our french balcony. The first day of the cruise was very relaxed. We had dinner aboard, and set out on an Illuminations Cruise in the evening. The ship took a lap around so that we could see the city lights of Budapest. It was a stunning sight.
The next day consisted of a city tour of both Buda and Pest, a visit to Matthias Church, and ending with a Christmas Market in the City Centre. It snowed all day, a total winter wonderland.
Austria was a dream. We visited Vienna, Melk and Salzburg.
Every city included a walking tour, except Melk. We learned about the Baroque architecture and visited St. Peter’s Catholic Church. Later in the day we went to Austria’s largest Christmas Market (City Hall/Rathaus) in Vienna, as well as the Karlsplatz and Schönbrunn Christmas Markets. The Schönbrunn Market was outside of the Schönbrunn Palace, which was a Baroque, summer residence of the Hapsburg Emperors with 1,441 rooms! The most notable person to live in this palace was Maria Theresa, a female ruler in Austria. We went back to the Rathaus market to see the lights in the evening.
I would be remiss if I didn’t convey the impact this trip has had on me with regard to my Jewish Heritage and the Holocaust. This is something that our tour guides did not discuss (disappointing), except for one fantastic guide, (Alan). During our walking tour in Vienna, Alan took us to a gorgeous building, only to later find out that this is where Hitler stood on the balcony above, announcing his Third Reich. You can watch the short video here (go to 58 seconds). This was a profound moment. We were also taken to a Jewish Memorial in front of a Jewish museum. I thank Alan for sharing this piece of history, as this is something we must never forget.
I enjoyed my first of many Glüweins in Vienna. It is a mulled wine with hints of orange, clove and cinnamon. Each market has a unique mug. You must put a deposit down on the mug if you intend on returning it, or you can forgo your deposit (a few euros) to keep the mug. I was able to schlep home three different mugs. We were also able to enjoy many market treats, such as Belgian waffle with Nutella, sausage, cheesy spätzle, and sweet pretzels.
Melk was a gorgeous little town. We toured the Melk Abbey, located in the Wachau Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s a massive European Baroque style monastery. Benedictine Monks have been inhabiting and working in the Abbey for hundreds of years. It was founded in the 11th century. There was a magnificent church and library with thousands of leather bound volumes and medieval manuscripts. We walked through several rooms with stunning gold relics and artwork. The ceilings were hand painted, I couldn’t stop looking up. The Abbey currently has 900 students who pay 90 euros a month to attend the school. From the Abbey, we were free to roam Melk.
The following day we arrived in Passau, Germany and opted to go on the Salzburg excursion. We drove two hours back to Austria. This was my favorite city in Austria. The Sound of Music was filmed in the rolling hills of Salzburg. This city is also Mozart’s birthplace. They place great emphasis on Mozart in this city, selling Mozart chocolates and figurines (which of course I had to buy both). There is even a golden statue honoring the famous composer.
We visited the Mirabell Gardens, and crossed the love lock bridge. Couples place locks on the bridge, write their names on the locks, and toss the keys over the bridge into the water. This is supposed to symbolize eternal love. Kevin and I opted to leave the walking tour, and explore on our own. We found a great Christmas Market in the center of town. We went to the Hohensalzburg Fortress. The purpose of the fortress was to protect the principality/archbishops from hostile attacks. We took the funicular up the side of the hill to the fortress (you can walk, but this was way cooler). The views from the fortress were spectacular. We could see the entire city and snow covered mountains. It was the best way to end our tour of Austria.
We sailed overnight to Regensburg. Our walking tour led us through the Old Town, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Old Stone Bridge is considered a showpiece of medieval construction. Right next to the bridge, you will find the OLDEST restaurant in all of Germany, the Wurstkuchl, or “Sausage Kitchen.” This establishment dates back to the year 1135, and they serve 6,000 sausages a day. I can confidently say it is the best sandwich I have ever eaten in my life. It was so simple, yet balanced with tons of flavor. It came with three small sausages (think the size of a breakfast link), on a pumpernickel roll with sauerkraut and sweet mustard. We had 3 sandwiches each….
During our walking tour, I was looking up to admire the architecture. I noticed there was a tablet with Hebrew writing on the wall. During the 16th century, it was the goal to expel the Jews from Regensburg due to longstanding Christian hostility. Hundreds of Jewish headstones were pulled from the ground and used as building materials to construct the town.
We went to three Christmas Markets in Regensburg. We stumbled upon two of them, and the third one was scheduled. The market in our itinerary was called the Thurn and Taxis Christmas Market. This was a beautiful market, situated on a property owned by the descendants of Prince Alexander Ferdinand.
Kevin and I ended up finding a cuckoo clock store (Drubba), and buying our own authentic cuckoo clocks, handcrafted in the Black Forest. An authentic German household fixture.
I have two additional fun facts for you with regard to Regensburg. Oskar Schindler lived in the city. He saved 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust. You may have seen the Steven Spielberg movie, Schindler’s List. Second, there is a hat store in the city called Hutkönig. The owner’s handcrafted hats have been worn by many aristocrats and celebrities. Notably, he made the hat for Johnny Depp, who played “The Mad Hatter,” in the movie, Alice in Wonderland.
Following Regensburg, we sailed to our final destination in Germany, Nuremberg. We ended the trip on a high note, visiting the Nuremberg Christkindlesmarkt, one of Germany’s largest Christmas Markets. There are over 100 red and white topped booths. You are sure to find some great gifts at this market. There are also some amazing chocolate stores in the town. We had a Franconian donut, or Knieküchle. Essentially a hollow piece of fried dough filled with Nutella, and dusted with powdered sugar. Absolutely delicious. Following our donut, we went back to the ship to pack up our suitcases for our journey back home. I did not take many pictures here as it was raining.
I was blown away by our experience with AmaWaterways. They nailed it!
If you’ve never been on a river cruise, I highly recommend it. It’s a unique travel experience, and doesn’t compare to large ocean cruise ships. River cruises take you deeper into various countries. Emphasis is placed on visits to charming villages easily accessed by the river. You will be immersed in the local culture. You can also check multiple countries off your bucket list in one shot. You really get to know the people you are traveling with. We made friends from Hong Kong, Singapore, and all over the USA. The ship was gorgeous. It was clean and spacious for only holding 156 travelers. Though the entertainment was limited, it was top notch. Local vocalists came on board to showcase their talent.
The cruising experience is catered to your preferences and needs. There are so many excursions… you will never be bored. The excursions are tailored to meet different interests and physical activity levels. You can opt for a bike tour, or a walking tour (active, regular or slow paced). If you prefer not to leave the ship, there are other activities and amenities to take advantage of, such as gingerbread/tree decorating and enrichment lectures. Massage and hair salon services are available. There was also a heated pool and a walking track on the top deck, as well as a small gym. There is a gift shop as well.
Finally, the FOOD!! It was abundant and delicious. It topped any resort/hotel I have EVER been to. Truly a 5 star experience, fresh, from scratch and made to order. The pastry chef baked fresh bread every single day. The ice cream churned daily. I left so satisfied after every meal. Food allergies and special dietary needs are accommodated. Breakfast was buffet style with fresh eggs, meats, cheeses, fruits, juices, etc. You could also order off of a small menu for made-to-order items. Lunch was also buffet style, and the chef featured a different ethnic cuisine every day. Dinner was sit down each night, with an open seating policy. The menu had many options. From rack of lamb, to filet, to fresh fish, to homemade pastas, soups, salads… the options were endless. Dessert was equally as delicious. Make reservations at the Chef’s Table (one visit permitted during the cruise). You’ll have the opportunity to watch the chef prepare a multi-course meal right in front of you. I would sail with Ama again in a heartbeat, just for the food!!
Alcohol (beer/wine) was included with lunch and dinner. Daily Sip and Sails (happy hour) occurred prior to dinner free of charge, with access to top shelf liquor. Drinks were available for purchase at all other times, and they were modestly priced.
Our trip was specifically catered to Christmas, and was filled with holiday spirit. We went to so many markets. Although this was a Christmas Market Cruise, we still had the opportunity to walk around each city. There was minimal free time unless you left the walking tour to explore on your own. We felt that we didn’t get to see a lot, given that we were spending a lot of time in the markets. This is not a complaint, and was to be expected. Just keep this in mind if you intend on going on a themed cruise like this. Pick your destinations carefully and read the itineraries prior to booking. If you aren’t interested in what I did, there are so many other options that Ama offers. Europe, Asia, Africa, Wine Cruises, and many other Christmas itineraries.
River cruises generally cater to mature adults. Keep in mind, you have limited time in each port, so plan your excursions accordingly. I would absolutely consider sailing with AmaWaterways again. Thank you to Gilber Travel for doing such a fantastic job planning our trip.
I would love to hear about your cruising experiences in the comments. Have you ever gone on a river cruise? What was your itinerary?
See below for more photos!
So long, farewell auf wiedersehen goodbye!