We just got back from a river cruise on the Danube, visiting towns along the way in Hungary, Slovakia, Austria, the Czech Republic, and Germany. It’s mid-December now, when Christmas Markets in that part of the world are in full swing, and visiting each one was a big focus of the trip.
I’d be lying if I said I had specifically right or wrong expectations about what this trip would be like going in. I knew the basics of river cruising but it was our first time experiencing it first hand. I had no idea what it would be like to set foot in these big cities and tiny towns in Central Europe or what the Christmas Markets themselves would actually be like beyond the picturesque still shots that you can find online. There’s refreshingly little social media coverage of this specific trip—and refreshingly few influencer-types walking the streets of these towns while they talk into cameras.
All that to say, rather than being right or wrong about my expectations for the trip, I walked in with a rare sort of blank slate and just took it all in.
I’ll delve into many of the details more in future articles, but first I want to take some time to give you a high-level overview of the whole experience.
National Geographic partnered with the incredible team at AmaWaterways to put together this bucket list experience. We set sail for 7 nights, from December 9-16, 2023, on the AmaViola—a 158 passenger ship and part of AmaWaterways’ European river fleet, with a focus on immersive, destination-focused sailings.
NatGeo Expert Talks On Board the AmaViola
National Geographic provided a regional expert and a photographer to shed light on the history of the places that we were visiting and our attempts to capture them in still images, while the crew of the AmaViola took us from Budapest to Munich. (Well, almost – more on that later.)
Central Europe is known for its incredible Christkindlmarkt—or Christmas markets—that transform city squares and palaces into winter wonderlands full of lights, local food, mulled wine, and hand crafted goods. Many of these oldest traditions call the banks of the Danube home, so sailing the river during the holiday season makes for a journey that can feel straight out of a fairy tale.
We made the week-long voyage aboard the AmaViola, a 2016 ship in AmaWaterways’ European river fleet. The ship hosts up to just 158 passengers with cabins that are mostly for two people, though it’s somewhat unique amongst the small riverboats in having a handful of cabins that will accommodate up to 3 people, which makes it a good option for families wanting to sail, though kids are still a bit of a rarity. (I think there was just one young girl on our sailing. That said, she seemed to be having a pretty great time with her extended family.)
Toasting Our Sail Away in the Main Lounge
The cabins are on three levels, with everything being very walkable. You board the ship on the middle level, with reception right there when you board, cabins to the left, and a small shop and the main lounge—the gathering space where most activities occur—to your right. The main lounge has a bar, a keyboardist who’s often entertaining the group, and ample chairs, tables, and cozy couches to gather throughout the trip.
Directly below the main lounge on the level below, you’ll find the main dining room. That level also hosts a small gym and spa/salon space, along with more cabins.
The third level has the remainder of the cabins (including the largest ones), a couple of help desks, and the Chef’s Table restaurant. While we weren’t bothered by any of the sounds of the ship, I did occasionally hear people on that deck complain about noises from the top deck and when going through the Danube’s many locks, so if you want one of the really fancy cabins, perhaps bring your earplugs along, too.
The open top deck also has ample gathering space, and even a small pool, but those didn’t get much use on our chilly voyage. I imagine they’d be very cool gathering spaces on a warmer sailing, since there was always so much to see on either side of the ship as we sailed down the Danube.
View of Budapest’s Hungarian Parliament Building as we Sailed Away
Saturday, December 9th—Day 1: Boarding in Budapest, Hungary—the ship stayed put there overnight, serving as our floating hotel as we explored the city that day into Sunday.
Sunday, December 10th—Day 2: Still in Budapest, we had a guided tour of the city and some free time to explore before heading back to the AmaViola to set sail.
Monday, December 11th—Day 3: We arrived in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, where we spent the early part of the day. Passengers had a choice between a “Coronation City” Walking Tour and Christmas Market or a Bratislava Castle Hike. We did the guided tour and then spent time exploring the Christmas Market before boarding to set sail for Vienna in the afternoon.
Tuesday, December 12th—Day 4: Vienna, Austria. We had several tour options to explore the city and its Christmas markets morning, noon, and night. In the morning, we could choose between an “Imperial Vienna” City Tour and Christmas Markets and Vienna by bike. We chose the tour—even if I was a biker, this was not biking weather! In the afternoon, some passengers took a tour to the Schönbrunn Christmas Market. Then, in the evening, some passengers opted for a music concert in Vienna while we explored the city and its Rathaus Christmas Market. After we reboarded for the evening, the ship sailed on further into Austria’s Wachau Valley.
Wednesday, December 13th—Day 5: Perhaps my favorite day of the trip, exploring Wachau Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We spent the morning in Dürnstein, a tiny town straight out of a fairy tale, where tour options included a walking tour and wine tasting, a walking tour and apricot and sweet tasting, or a bike ride from Weissenkirchen to Dürnstein. Then we boarded the ship and sailed on to Melk Abbey, an ancient site redesigned in the 1700s into a Baroque masterpiece and one of the most famous and visited cultural sites in all of Austria.
Thursday, December 14th—Day 6: Arrival in Linz, Austria, where you could spend the day or from which you could venture to (a) Salzburg, birthplace of Mozart and home to The Sound of Music or (b) Český Krumlov in the Czech Republic, another UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Painted Cobblestone Streets of Passau, Germany
Friday, December 15th—Day 7: We were supposed to arrive in Passau, Germany this morning, where we would spend the day, but the Danube water levels were very high, making it impossible for the AmaViola to fit under the bridges leading into the city. Instead, our incredible crew managed to get us to the town of Engelhartszell, where they’d arranged ground transportation for us to Passau. It ended up being a somewhat shorter time in Passau with all of this, and I’d love to return someday to explore it more, but we were so grateful that the crew made it possible for us to get there at all.
Saturday, December 16th–Day 8: The initial plan was to arrive in Munich, where we would disembark, but again water levels called for some adjustments. Our amazing crew got us as close as they could and then arranged for ground transportation for us to Munich, where some departed right away and others opted to spend some time before heading back home. We spent one evening exploring and I’m so glad that we did.
Sampling the Goods at a Christmas Market in Budapest
The highlight of the cruise were the Christmas Markets, or Christkindlmarkts, so it’s worth taking a moment to explore their history in this part of the world.
Christmas markets date back to the Late Middle Ages in German-speaking/Bavarian parts of Europe. Early on they served a very practical purpose, allowing residents to stock up on goods for the long, cold winter months. But over time they evolved into festive gatherings, celebrating the Advent season with food, drink, and seasonal crafts.
Steaming Vats of Glühwein (Hot Mulled Wine) in Bratislava
Today, the markets transform city squares into winter wonderlands full of light, merriment, and the smell of hot mulled wine in the air. Vendors in typically wooden stalls sell handcrafted goods and local food and drink, with each individual market having a charm all its own the reflects the unique culture and traditions of the city or town where it sits. They’ve become important social hubs for residents to gather and enjoy some traditional food and drink. And, not surprisingly, they’ve come to do wonders for local economies, especially in recent times with tourists from around the world visiting and joining in the fun.
Where even to start? On most cruises, we’d be talking about the food on the ship—and that’s worth mentioning, too. We ate very well aboard the AmaViola. Lite meals and snacks are served throughout the day in the main lounge, from a breakfast spread to a 10:30 p.m. bedtime snack. Between meals were tea times, sip and sails, and pre-supper tapas options.
Dinner at the Chef’s Table on the AmaViola
The main dining room serves three meals a day with plenty of good options, including vegetarian options with each course. And the chef’s table experience, which takes place in a separate dining room in the back of the 3rd level of the ship, is extraordinary.
But all of that was just extra. Eating on the ship felt like ordering a main course at Palo after spending an hour at its old buffet. Because the real focus where food was concerned was in the cities and towns that we visited and their Christmas markets.
Marienplatz Christmas Market in Munich, Germany
We ate goulash in Hungary and sausages in Austria. We drank tea in a village in the Czech Republic that was nothing but shaved ginger, cloves, a cinnamon stick, and honey in boiling water and, on that cold grey winter day in Český Krumlov, it was the best thing I’ve ever tasted.
Dill Soup and Ginger Tea in Český Krumlov, Czech Republic
We drank wine and ate fresh rolls in the fairy tale town of Dürnstein and ate steaming garlic potato soup out of bread bowls at a locul pub in Bratislava.
Chimney Cakes at a Market Stand in Vienna, Austria
But the real culinary adventure started in the markets. From one market to the next we tasted each region’s versions of countless culinary traditions. We drank steaming mugs of glühwein (mulled wine from the region) punsch on cold days. We ate langos—traditonal flat cakes of fried dough smeared with sour cream and garlic and then covered in cheese, sausages on crusty rolls covered in spicy mustard, and chimney cakes—spirals of bread toasted over fires to be crisp on the outside and soft on the inside. (Locals bemoaned the sin of filling them with ice cream and icing over the steaming insides.) We peeled roasted chestnuts as we walked, fished cookies out of bags of gingerbread, and compared a dozen takes on warm apple strudel. Foods I’d never look twice at in Florida’s heat were exactly what I was craving walking around Budapest, where I could see my own breath in the cold air while we listened to Christmas music.
Painted Gingerbread at Buda Christmas Market
Our Little Cabin on the AmaViola (BB Class)
The cabin is never a key part of the trip for me—more just a place to sleep and shower, but it bears mentioning that the cabins on the AmaViola were as small as you’d expect on a ship but pretty well laid out. We were in a category BB twin balcony stateroom. It was about 210 square feet with a bed and nightstands, ample closet space and an under-bed rolling drawer, and small bathroom with a single sink and standing shower. The outer wall of the cabins was part traditional balcony with two chairs, and part French balcony, an enclosed part of the room that opens to the outside.
Open French Balcony on the AmaViola
Cabin location wasn’t particularly important since everything is close and the ship doesn’t rock at all. For those who feel the need for additional space, as I mentioned above there are some rooms that will accommodate 3 people instead of 2 and even some full suite-style rooms. Though as I mentioned above when I described the ship, these are on the third level and seemed a bit more prone to noise from above if the ship was moving through a lock (or someone was out for a run on the deck above).
Dancers Aboard the AmaViola in Budapest
One of the coolest things about the trip was how the team at Ama weaved the traditions of the towns that we were visiting into our activities in the ship. Each evening, we had entertainment in the main lounge after dinner; and more often than not it was a sample of what went on locally wherever we were docked. On the first night, we gathered in the main lounge to drink glühwein and decorate Christmas trees. We saw dancers in Bratislava—a young man and older man danced with their partners and we were all delighted after to hear that they were father and son. An incredibly talented local singer performed for us in Vienna and, when our ship couldn’t make it to Oktoberfest in Vilshofen on the last night, they brought Oktoberfest to us.
Oktoberfest Aboard the AmaViola
Viennese Singer Aboard the AmaViola
A wonderful musician named Gabor played piano what seemed like all day in the main lounge, and a few nights things devolved into dance parties with modern music where everyone looked like they were having a good time.
AmaWaterways had partnered with National Geographic for the sailing, so we had the opportunity to learn so much about the areas that we were visiting.
National Geographic expert Mark Baker would speak in the lounge about the histories of the locations, giving talks on the Danube in general, Vienna, the area’s architecture, and the fall of Communism, while their photography expert, Krista Russow, gave lectures on how to improve your travel photography, camera phone tips and tricks, and what it’s like to be on assignment with National Geographic.
Our guides also taught us so much. In each area, locals would take up around in smaller groups to teach us about the area. On our 90ish minute drive to Český Krumlov in the Czech Republic, our guide told us first hand stories of her time as a child under the Communist regime, her involvement in the rebellion, and what’s happened since. She was fascinating.
The Other Passengers
Part of the charm of river cruising is the small size of the ships and correspondingly small number of passengers aboard. With such a small group and one central gathering place for most activities on the ship, you can’t help but leave with a new group of friends.
That said, we were a bit spoiled on this trip because we were with a large group of great friends from my friend Lou Mongello’s WDW Radio community. Traveling like this with 75 of your closest friends was pretty incredible, but I wouldn’t hesitate to do this with just a spouse or a few friends, or even alone, since the ship’s passengers can’t help but get to know one another along the way. In fact, it might be an ideal trip for a solo traveler for exactly that reason.
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I’ll be returning to this topic over the next weeks since there are so many more things I’d love to cover for you, but I hope this was a good overview of the experience as a whole. I know everything about this part of the world and way of travel was new to me and having something like this going in would have been helpful!!
Let me know if there are any specific questions that I can answer as I delve into these topics more. I’d love to do everything I can to help you experience our trip vicariously and decide it’s something that you’d like to do too. (Not to mention help you to navigate preparing if you’re already booked!)
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If you enjoyed the images throughout this post, you can find many of them on my photography site, Thousand Circles, where you can bring them home on canvas or as collectible metal prints.