European Christmas Cruise with Viking

And just like that, 2023 comes to an end. Every year I look back and wish I blogged more and had a better record of all my activities and travels for the year. Hopefully I'll be better about blogging in 2024! To close out 2023, I wanted to share our European Christmas cruise trip which was my most anticipated trip of the year. I got the inspiration last year when I was watching European Christmas markets videos on YouTube, dreaming about drinking mulled wine and celebrating Christmas in Europe. Fast forward a year later, and we made it happen!  

My family and I have gone to our fair number of cruises over the years, and have taken ocean cruises all over the world. We had heard about Viking, which is well known for the river cruises, for many years and always wanted to try out a river cruise. I booked the Viking Christmas Markets on the Danube cruise, which took us from Budapest, Hungary to Regensburg (Munich), Germany. It is marketed as a Christmas markets tour, however it's more of a convenient way to see multiple cities in one trip without ever needing to pack/unpack or change your accomodations. My sister and I flew into Budapest from LAX and met up with our parents at the Budapest airport. Our transfer from the airport to the ship was seamlessly arranged by Viking. We boarded our ship, the Viking Atla, and were treated to this stunning view from our stateroom! 

Morning view from our stateroom, docked along the banks of the Danube

On Viking, there is one free shore excursion included in your trip fare at every port, and so we all boarded coach buses the next morning that took us on driving tour of Budapest. We saw the stunning Fisherman's Bastion which had tremendous views of the river, our ship, and the Parliament building. 

We toured the Mattias Church, which is the church perched at the height of the Fisherman's bastion, famous for their Moorish architecture. Definitely the most unique church we visited on our trip and a departure from the traditional medieval gothic churches we saw later on. 

I even stumbled upon this pictureque Instagram famous spot that I had no idea about until I saw an influencer setting up her shot here! Since it was early in the morning there weren't too many other people around and so I pounced :) 

After the morning tour, we were bused back to the ship. 
Afternoons where we sailed from one port to the other were filled with hanging out, knitting (for my sister), afternoon teas and cocktail hours. 

We sailed along Hungary and Slovakia the first afternoon. 
The next morning, we woke up in Vienna. The port was located about 30 minutes from the city center, so Viking again provided buses and a driving/walking tour for us to see the city center. Say what you want about cruises, but it was honestly so nice to not think about making plans or strategizing how to see the sights, as Viking arranged all of the transportation and the itinerary for us!  
St. Stephen's Cathedral

After lunch, we hit up our first major Christmas market in Vienna (we had caught the tail end of the Budapest Christmas market the previous night but it was already winding down). The first market was just outside the Natural history museum, and home to our favorite gluwein mugs. 

Best food was the wiener, followed by a langos, a piece of fried bread with cream and cheese on top. 

We stayed in Vienna for two days, and the second day was a free day with no planned excursions. We ended up stretching our legs and taking the metro into town for an Austrian coffee and sachertorte at Cafe Landmann. 

We had lunch at Reinthaler's Beisl, a traditional Austrian restaurant in downtown Vienna to get a break from cruise food. For traditional Austrian food (goulash, weinerschnitzel, spaetzl, sausages), it was pretty good!

Then we took an Uber to Schonbrunn palace, which was the summer residence of Queen Maria Theresa of Austria, also known as the "Mother in Law" of Europe as she had like 10 kids and married them off to all of the kings and queens of Europe. My family visited Austria in 2014 during the summer, when we were driving from Munich to Venice for yet another cruise. We had fun recreating some photos we took at Schonbrunn palace 10 years ago! 

Unfortunately, after this day, the weather took a turn for the worse and our second half of the trip was plagued by dreary, windy, rainy weather. The next day, we made a quick stop in a small town called Krems to visit a medieval monastery, however then set sail around noon to sail through the famed Wachau Valley. What would have been a beautiful boat ride in the summer time with castles and viewpoints was instead cold and windy, and we could only see the sights huddled inside in the warmth. 
In between all of our excursions, we spent a lot of time on the ship, eating and drinking, especially during days where we had to set sail early. 

 Of course, part of the reason to go on a cruise is to sample the food, and this is the only part I think Viking has room for improvement. Whenever I go on a cruise or go to an all inclusive resort, the food gets old real fast, and this cruise was no exception. Breakfast was the same every day with eggs, omelets, baked beans/bacon, and a selection of yogurt, oatmeal, granola, bread and pastries. The coffee left much to be desired. Lunch and dinner were all in the restaurant (no buffet option), where you generally order a 3 course meal including soup/salad, an entree, and dessert. The appetizers were pretty lacking to me and the soups were all too salty. The entree highlights were the salmon, pork tenderloin, short rib, and the Austrian/german food like schnitzel and spaetzl. I would not recommend their steaks or burgers. 

Our second to last stop was the quaint village of Passau in Germany. It is known as being at the confluence of three rivers, and as such has been flooded multiple times, as recently as 2013! Passau would have been my favorite town as it was a very small, compact city with old world charm and the coziest Christmas market, if it weren't for the downpour! We weren't able to get umbrellas this day, and right at the conclusion of the walking tour where we sampled free gluwein from the market it started pouring, which basically ruined the moment. 

Passau Christmas market wins for most authentic vibe 

Our second to last night, the crew of our ship prepared us a German feast complete with beer, sausages, and all traditional German food! It was a super fun/festive atmosphere that was reminiscent of Oktoberfest. The chef's platter (not pictured) with the wiener, potatoes, spaetzl, borscht, was definitely my favorite meal of the cruise. 
German appetizers

We then received news that due to the heavy rains, the water of the Danube was too high, and so it was unsafe to sail to our last port of call the following day. Viking came up with an emergency plan (their plan Z lol) to sail back to Austria and dock at a small town away from the flooding, and then bus us 2 hours to Regensburg. About half the passengers cancelled their excursion to Regensburg, but we still wanted to make the trek. 
Regensburg is known for having the best preserved medieval center in Europe as it was not bombed during WWII, but unfortunately since we had a two hour delay, our tour was cut short and we didn't get to see a lot of Regensburg. We did a quick walking tour but we didn't even really get to see the Christmas markets! We were at least able to snag umbrellas this day, as so many people cancelled. 
Our most tragic moment but not adequately planning for lunch, and eating cold sandwiches at a small roadside cafe before having to rush back to the buses to take us 2 hours back to the ship. 
The last night, the chef prepared delicious beef short rib for us. 
The "kids" in their natural state

Before we knew it, it was time to say goodbye. We had so much fun and felt so taken care of by the Viking staff. By the end of the cruise, we had learned many of their names, faces, and stories. The cruise felt especially special because it was also the crew's last trip of the year before they took a 3 month holiday to be back with their families. So we we ended the cruise, they were ending their 9 month stint on the ship and also traveling home for the holidays. The next morning, we had to wake up at 4:30 AM to prepare for a noon flight back home. Once again, this was due to the unsafe water level and the fact that we were docked about 2 hours away from our original port. But props to Viking for making the most of a difficult situation and still making sure every passenger was looked after. All in all, a successful family vacation. Watch my sister's YouTube video for more details! 


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