(4:50 p.m. EST) -- Christmas markets across Europe are in full swing and cruisers are taking advantage of the season onboard ships sailing the rivers of Germany, Austria, Hungary, France and even Portugal. Pre- and post-cruise stays in cities like Amsterdam, Prague, Budapest, Berlin, Munich, Paris, and London offer even more time in in the world's most fabulous markets. We're currently on the Danube -- shopping, eating, and drinking along the way. Here's what we've experienced so far this year.
The Weather is Pleasantly Cold
We have seen a few flurries and sprinkles of rain, but neither have been heavy. Sunshine has been intermittent. The important thing to know about the weather during Christmas market cruises is that you should prepare for the worst and hope for the best. The markets are outside, and so you'll need lots of layered clothing to ward off the winter chill -- plus hats, scarves, gloves, and warm footwear. Tip: Take along a supply of the little hand warmer packets you can purchase from sporting goods stores. One in each pocket of your coat helps keep fingers toasty as you shop your days away.
Security Has Been Tightened
Strengthened security measures are in place to keep marketgoers safe following last year's deadly attack on the Christmas market in Berlin. In Nuremberg, the largest Christmas market in Germany, armed police and vans blocking the street entrances of the market square provided confidence in the security. Further along the Danube, at the markets in Regensburg and Passau we also saw a mild police presence, allowing us to feel secure as we shopped.
The U.S. State Department traveler warnings advise visitors to any tourist areas in Europe to "maintain a high-level of vigilance," and encourages travelers to sign up for its Smart Traveler Enrollment Program.
The Markets are Crowded (but Not Unpleasant)
There is no visible sign that shoppers are staying away from the markets due to safety concerns, or any other reason. River cruisers have the distinct advantage of visiting some markets early in the day and mid-week in some cases when crowds are a bit lighter.
We found the markets in Regensburg and Passau delightfully uncrowded. The Thurn and Taxis market in Regensburg had primarily locals and German tourists shopping on Wednesday evening, while the main market in Passau was moderately busy mid-morning. Clientele consisted mostly of jovial cruise ship passengers from the many ships docked along the Danube. (There's an unwritten tradition that Germans go to the markets three times per season -- once with their families, once with their friends and once after work with their coworkers for gluhwein and cheer).
The Ships are Not Crowded (and Extremely Pleasant)
While the markets are packed with friendly shoppers, river cruise ships have a pleasantly uncrowded feel; generally Christmas market cruises sell out quickly but some vessels are sailing with less than full occupancy. We met a couple on board our ship that had booked a standard window stateroom but arrived to find that they had been upgraded to a balcony cabin--always a bonus when ships are not full.
Even if they're full, most river ships are designed to help passengers spread out a bit. During the Christmas market cruises, passengers tend to occupy the ship's indoor spaces instead of being out on deck, but even that doesn't feel crowded in most cases. Tours further divide passengers into smaller groups, contributing to the feeling of coziness.
Don't Forget to Shop Beyond the Markets
While the markets themselves are a fun way to shop for unique gifts and souvenirs, when time allows, don't ignore the shops on the outskirts of the markets and even in the streets a block or two away. There are often things you won't see in the markets themselves--like selections of local wines or perhaps art or other gifts. Another fun option is to find a shop selling paper goods for a unique wrap for the Christmas market gifts you bring home.