A guide to Christmas in Belgium

Saintly Sinterklaas, scrumptious smoutebollen & some of the best Christmas markets in Europe

bruge xmas
© Ricardo Samaniego - licence

Belgium is a particularly magical place to spend the festive season, with many unique traditions to learn about, plenty of delicious food and drink specialities to sample, and some amazing Christmas shopping to be done. During the month of December, lavish decorations are put up in the centre of Belgium’s towns and cities, helping to create a fairy tale atmosphere, especially in the older and more historic locations such as Brussels, Bruges, and Antwerp.

One of the main reasons that people travel to Belgium over the festive season is to visit one of the many Christmas markets that spring up in the town squares and parks of many cities. They range in size and attractions, but they all have one thing in common: their marvellous Christmas crafts and cuisine. People flock from all over the world to revel in the many delights of these markets, making them one of the main annual draws to the country.

If you are thinking of visiting Belgium, one of the best times to do so is over the Christmas period. It might be one of the busiest periods, but the hustle and bustle of people in the cobbled streets is part of what makes this time of year so magical. To help you plan your trip and to get to grips with Belgium at Christmastime, we’ve put together a guide to Belgian Christmas that will equip you with everything you need to know to enjoy your trip.

Christmas traditions in Belgium

733px-Belgium_provinces_regions_striped
 © Stevenfruitsmaask - licence

A map of Belgium’s three main language regions: the yellow represents Dutch, the red is French, and the blue is German speaking. The orange represents bilingual areas.

In Belgium, there are three official national languages, with Flemish-Dutch and French spoken by the majority of people and a tiny minority speaking German near the country’s eastern border. Each of these languages has its own unique Christmas traditions that are celebrated and followed by its speakers. 

What do Belgians call Santa Claus?

Sinterklaas-Capelle-DSC_0355
© Wouter Engler - licence

Sinterklaas riding his horse, Slecht Weer Vandaag

One thing that Flemish and French speakers have in common when it comes to Christmas is the folkloric figure who is behind their traditions. Known as Sinterklaas or St. Niklaas in Flemish, and Saint Nicholas in French, he is based on the religious figure in Christianity of Nikolaos of Myra, and fulfils the traditional role of Christmas gift-giver.

In the Christian religion, Nikolaos was a man who lived during Roman times and performed many miracles during his lifetime. Later, because of his deeds, he was venerated as a saint of the church, becoming widely known as Saint Nicholas. Due to his celebrated generous nature and habit of secret gift-giving, he has become the basis for many western Christmas traditions, including those of the Flemish and French speakers of Belgium.

Sinterklaas or Saint Nicholas is portrayed as an elderly man who has flowing white hair and a full beard. He dresses like a bishop, with a red cape or chasuble draped over a white robe. He is often pictured wearing a red mitre, a ruby ring, and carrying a golden ceremonial staff. He rides a white horse, known as Slecht Weer Vandaag (Bad Weather Today) in Flemish.

Who is Zwarte Piet?

Zwarte PietSaint Nicholas is said to be accompanied by his loyal companion Zwarte Piet, who is traditionally portrayed as a man wearing black make-up and period costume to resemble a Moor from Spain — a historical name given to Muslim people of Northern Africa and the Iberian Peninsula. He travels with Saint Nicholas as they make their annual journey from Spain to the Low Countries, including Belgium and the Netherlands. Originally seen as a more villainous companion, he has grown more into a figure who amuses children with tricks and sweets.

Today, Piet is considered to be a controversial figure due to the dated nature of his dress and role as assistant, which is often labelled as racist. While many consider the character as harmless tradition, he is often the subject of protest by people angered by the connotations of his costume and backstory.

The idea that Saint Nicholas and Zwarte Piet arrive from Spain is theorised to originate from the mandarin oranges that are handed out during their arrival ceremony, which takes place on the 11th November. The arrival ceremony is televised in Belgium, and involves Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet arriving by steamboat and parading through the streets, handing out gifts.

Who are Père Noël and Père Fouettard?

pere fouttardSpeakers of French and Walloon in Belgium may also (or alternatively) celebrate the coming of Père Noël, a figure who shares many traits with Sinterklaas. He is accompanied by his associate, Père Fouettard, who fulfils a similar role to Zwarte Piet, though with a much more sinister backstory. 

The most popular tale of Père Noël and Père Fouettard’s meeting goes that Fouettard was once an innkeeper who captured and killed three rich children when robbing them. Père Noël discovered this crime, resurrected the children, and forced Fouettard to repent and become his partner. 

Père Fouettard is most often depicted as Père Noël’s direct opposite, wearing dark robes instead of red, and appearing dishevelled instead of well-dressed. He is armed with a stick or a whip to carry out punishments for misbehaving children, earning him his name which translates as ‘Father Whipper’. Père Fouettard is well known for distributing bundles of twigs and lumps of coal to bad children too.

© Frank Guy - licence

 

Saint Nicholas’s Eve and Day

saint nic toys
© Jean-Pol Grandmont - licence

Between the 4th and the 6th December, Belgium celebrates its gift-giving tradition. The 6th is the traditional Christian saint’s day for Nicholas, while the 5th is known as Saint Nicholas’s Eve and is also the day that the main presents are delivered. It is said that Sinterklaas visits homes on the evening of 4th December to check on children’s behaviour, leaving them a small festive gift if they have been good.

Before going to bed on the 4th December, children leave their shoes near the fireplace or central radiator and a small gift for Sinterklaas nearby or in the shoe, often a cookie or a drawing. A carrot for his horse is sometimes included, as well as something for Zwarte Piet. Popular gifts left for children include mandarin oranges, traditional baked treats like pepernoten or speculaas, and chocolate letters matching the child’s initials.

Older tales of the duo have them carrying a sack with them containing both treats for well-behaved children and a birch rod to spank those that have misbehaved. Some stories tell of Zwarte Piet putting particularly bothersome children in the sack and taking them away to Spain. These stories were probably told to suit the needs of parents who wanted to keep their children in line over the festive period.

In Belgium, children receive their main presents on either Saint Nicholas’s Eve or Saint Nicholas’s Day, though most families tend to wait until the morning of the 6th December before they open their presents. The evening before, it is common for a sack or bag of gifts to be left outside of the door, where a neighbour will knock and pretend to be either Sinterklaas or Zwarte Piet leaving the presents for the children. For many families, St. Nicholas’s Day is also considered a religious occasion, so they may attend church services or enjoy a family meal together in celebration.

Christmas Eve and Day in Belgium

christmas-tree-with-fireplace

Although people in Belgium celebrate their gift-giving earlier in December, they still mark Christmas Eve and Day on the 24th and 25th December as a religious and family occasion. Belgians enjoy a traditional meal and gathering, as well as decorating their homes and a tree in the spirit of the season. Although it is not usually seen as an occasion for giving gifts to children, adults sometimes prefer to exchange gifts on Christmas Eve rather than on Saint Nicholas’s Day, which is viewed as more of a holiday for children. It isn’t uncommon for children who have outgrown the 6th December to prefer to receive their gifts on Christmas Eve too.

During the run-up to Christmas, many people will flock to the Christmas markets that open up in the centre of towns and cities to buy decorations, food, and drink. They are the perfect place to pick up gifts and supplies before the big day, as many of the stalls specialise only in festive products. Even if the children have received the majority of their presents earlier in the month, it isn’t uncommon for parents to give them a smaller present that might be Christmas-themed to mark Christmas Eve.

On Christmas Eve, most families will have a gathering around at their own or a relative’s home. The family meal of the period is eaten on Christmas Eve, with most people preparing a relative feast with multiple courses — you can find out much more about Belgian festive food later in this guide. After the meal, many families will open their presents to one another, which are stored beneath the branches of the Christmas tree. For any people that are marking the religious occasion, midnight masses are popularly attended at many local churches.

Christmas Day in Belgium is much the same as in many western countries, with a large breakfast before visiting many friends and relatives. The day is spent enjoying the company of family, and it is commonplace to relax watching the festive television schedule, where Christmas films and themed shows are shown. 

New Year’s Eve and Day in Belgium

Fireworks

New Year’s Eve in Belgium is the best excuse people have all year to let their hair down and party the night away. Many families enjoy a meal together in the evening before heading somewhere to greet the year to come. Young people will either go out to a party venue or attend a house gathering where the drinking and dancing will commence.

Belgium takes its New Year celebrations seriously, with many cities hosting outdoor parties and concerts in their parks and town squares — usually followed by a whole truckload of fireworks. It’s traditional at midnight to exchange greetings with friends with an absolute minimum of three kisses to the cheek.

Like Christmas Day, New Year’s Day is a time for family, so most people find themselves relaxing and sharing even more food and drink with their loved ones. If a Belgian has celebrated a little bit too much the night before, the peace and quiet that accompanies New Year’s Day is perfect. In the Flanders and Wallonia regions, children are encouraged to write and read a poem celebrating the day to their grandparents or godparents, who in turn reward them with some extra Christmas money.

Three Kings’ Day in Belgium

3 kings day

On the 6th January, Belgium’s festive season ends with a day called Three King’s Day, which is a Christian feast day that commemorates the visiting of the three wise men to Jesus. Children dress up as the kings and go from house to house singing the song We Three Kingsand in return receive small amounts of money or sweet treats. Bakeries make special cakes called king cake, also known as koningentaart in Dutch and galette des rois in French, which is a frangipane cake topped with a paper crown. A small trinket is baked inside the cake, and tradition has it that whoever finds it is the king or queen for the day.

Belgian Christmas food and drink

belgians

It is often said that Belgian cuisine is served in the quantity of German food, but with the quality of the French, so there is much to look forward to when eating and drinking in the country. The festive period is a particularly good time to visit, as the country is awash with delicious delicacies which celebrate its excellent reputation for fine dining. There are a number of specialities that you can only find at Christmas, so a festive visit is a must if you want to try them.

To help you out, we’ve listed some of the best Belgian food and drink that you should look out for on your trip. The list contains some things that are only really available over the festive period and also some trademark dishes that are so good that you should be trying them at any time of the year.

Boudin

Boudin
© Guillaume Richer - licence

Although boudin is not exclusively Belgian, as a nation they do it pretty well. It is a type of sausage that is usually made with pork, but can also be made with veal or chicken. Belgian boudin comes in two main varieties: blanc (white) and noir (black). The noir type has blood as an ingredient, which gives it a dark red, almost black colouring, while the blanc has no blood in it and sometimes has milk included, giving it a paler colour. The noir sausage is quite similar to the British dish of black pudding.

While this description might not sound immediately appealing, sausages made by someone with great talent can transcend their iffy ingredients and become a taste sensation. The best boudin for the first-time trier is one that is homemade and has been produced using fresh ingredients. You can find skilled charcuterie stalls at most markets, and they are quite popular at the Christmas markets that set up shop during December.

Belgian Chocolate

Belgian Chocolate
© Frank Wouters - licence

There is a very good chance that you will have heard the words ‘Belgian’ and ‘chocolate’ together before, and for good reason too. Along with Switzerland, Belgium is one of the most respected chocolate producers in Europe, which is a result of the care, skill, and premium ingredients that go into making it.

The Belgians are very proud of their chocolate industry, shown in the regulations that have been in place since 1894. These prevent any lowering of the high standard of chocolate production and try to define what makes their chocolate so special, such as the high-quality ingredients and expert craftsmanship. Today, there is a voluntary Belgian chocolate code which stipulates that anything labelled ‘Belgian chocolate’ must be made within Belgium.

There are quite a few firms who like to produce their chocolates by hand, which takes a lot of effort and is also the reason that smaller independent chocolatiers are so popular. If you are visiting a Christmas market, you won’t be able to miss the abundant confectionary stalls, where artisan chocolatiers sell their products. Even if you are buying gifts for someone else, there is sometimes the unmissable opportunity to try the chocolate for yourself before you buy. 

Cougnou

Cougnou
© Zinneke - licence

Cougnou is a speciality found across many of the southern Low Countries, but the renowned bakeries in Belgium really serve up a treat when it comes to this type of bread. It is also known as the ‘the bread of Jesus’ due to the resemblance the shape of the loaf has to a swaddled baby and its popularity during the Christmas period. Many Belgians also bake this type of bread at home with their own tried-and-tested family recipe that has been passed down through the generations.

Cougnou is a sweet yeast bread that originated from the Hainaut province of Belgium, and is usually made with eggs, flour, warm milk, soft butter, raisins, fruit pieces, granulated sugar, salt, cinnamon, and dry yeast. It is a popular treat for children over the Christmas period, and is traditionally enjoyed with a nice mug of hot chocolate.

You can try cougnou at almost any bakery or market in Belgium over the festive period, and you may be able to choose from a few varieties, such as chocolate-filled and raisin types. 

Glühwein

Glühwein

Roughly translated as ‘glow wine’, glühwein is a type of mulled wine popular during the Christmas season. Although glühwein is mainly associated with German-speaking countries, it has become a widely consumed festive drink across Europe, particularly at Christmas markets where it is probably the most popular beverage served. A visit to a Belgian Christmas market is no different, and you can indulge in a glass of wine that has become one of the true tastes of the season.

Traditionally, glühwein is made with red wine which has been flavoured with various mulling spices, such as cinnamon sticks, cloves, star anise, citrus, sugar, and sometimes vanilla pods. The warm and tasty drink is a great antidote to the cold temperatures that can grip the country in December.

Jenever

Jenever
© Paul Hermans - licence

Jenever is the national spirit of Belgium, and is closely related to gin, which evolved from it. The spirit is regulated by the European Union so that it can only be distilled in Belgium, the Netherlands, and areas of Germany and France to preserve its pure heritage.

There are two different types of jenever: oude (old) and jonge (young), which are not age dependent, but come from two different distilling techniques. The spirit is juniper-flavoured but each type has a different flavour. Jonge has a taste closer to the neutrality of vodka, while oude jenever has an aromatic taste with malty tones, sometimes akin to whisky.

You can taste the national drink of Belgium at one of its many Christmas markets, which are held in almost every city. Stalls will often be willing to give you a small taste of the spirit before you go ahead and purchase a bottle, so be sure to take advantage and have a taste of Belgium’s favourite tipple.

Pâté

Pâté
© David Monniaux - licence

There is a good chance that you have already come across pâté before. If you haven’t, it is a mix of cooked ground meat and fat minced into a spreadable paste that goes really well with fresh bread or as a side on a meal. It is a very popular food in many western nations, so what sets Belgian pâté apart?

Well, two of the world’s most famous spreads come from the country: Ardennes and Brussels, and no other country can really match up to the originals. Both pâtés are made with pretty much the same ingredients in pork liver and fat, but Ardennes is processed to give it a coarser texture, while Brussels has a much smoother spread.

In Belgium, pâté is most commonly served in two ways. Pâté en croute is when the pâté is baked into a crust as a loaf or a pie, while pâté en terrine is when it is baked in a terrine or moulded shape. At Christmas, this Belgian favourite is very popular as a course in family dinners. You can also purchase artisan pâtés from stalls at Christmas markets to enjoy at home.

Smoutebollen

Smoutebollen
© Teunie - licence

These fried dumplings are a delicacy in Belgium and the Netherlands, where they are known as oliebollen. At their most basic, they are from balls of dough that have been deep-fried and covered in powdered sugar. Because they are served piping hot, they are very popular in the winter, where they can be the perfect antidote to the freezing weather. The batter is traditionally made with eggs, flour, baking powder, sugar, butter, and blonde pils-type beer, which gives it a unique flavour.

Smoutebollen are a big favourite of visitors to Belgium’s Christmas markets, where a combination of their warming sensation and heavenly taste attracts shoppers by the bus-load. Market stalls selling these little dough balls often experiment with fillings, which can range from chocolate to apple to speculaas (explained below). These filled smoutebollen are very popular, though many people still prefer the classic unfilled version.

Speculaas

Speculaas
© Zerohund - licence

A tradition that goes back hundreds of years, baking speculaas (or speculoos in French) for Saint Nicholas’s Day in Belgium is a tradition that many families partake in. These ornate biscuits are thin, crunchy, and have a texture similar to shortbread, though sometimes they are slightly spiced. Each biscuit is usually stamped with a decorative pattern, often depicting a scene from a story involving Saint Nicholas.

Speculaas are usually baked around 6th December and tend to be a festive treat for the children in Belgian families, although adults have been known to eat their fair share too. They are a popular fixture at Christmas markets, where you can pick up biscuits ranging from the bite-size to the humungous. 

Trappist Beer

Trappist Beer
© Philip Rowlands - licence

 

Belgium is world famous for its beer, which it has been brewing since early medieval times. Probably the most well-known types of beer in the country are those that are brewed by Trappist monks in their monasteries.

Belgium is so proud of its Trappist beers that it has made it a protected term, so any beers wanting to use the label ‘Trappist beer’ must be brewed in a monastery by monks and the profits from its sale must go towards the monastery or its social programmes.

Chimay is one of the most famed Trappist breweries, and its Chimay Blue is considered to be its ‘classic’ ale and one of the world’s finest. It is a dark beer with a light head and a slightly bitter taste, and well worth a try. Another beer to look out for is Rochefort 10, which has a secret recipe and can be aged for up to five years.

If you plan on sampling some of these Trappist beers, take care, as some of them can be quite strong. You may want to pace yourself when drinking them, which is also the best way to truly appreciate their rich and unique flavours.

Waffles

Waffles
© Ralph Daily - licence

Although they are one of the USA’s favourite breakfast foods, waffles are originally from Belgium, so where better to taste the real deal? Known as Belgian waffles around the world, unsurprisingly the Belgian people don’t feel the need to refer to them by this name. Generally, waffles are flattened batter or dough, which is cooked between two plates to give it the signature grid pattern.

There are several kind of waffles in the country, including the light, crisp, and large pocketed Brussels waffle, and the denser, chewier, and sweeter Liège waffle. In total, there are over 12 regional varieties, so there is plenty of excuse for trying different styles. You can buy all kinds of Belgian waffles at the Christmas markets that are set up all over the country — a very sweet way to start your day or even for lunch.

What’s the weather like in Belgium at Christmas?

snow bruges canal
© Fdecomite - licence

The climate in Belgium is temperate, quite similar to southern England, with four distinct seasons. December has an average temperature of around 5°C, with average highs of 6°C and lows of 3°C. If you stay into January, the temperature can drop even further to an average of 3°C. The country’s temperate climate also means that it is subject to year-round rainfall — with an amount of 65–70mm usually falling in December. 

Will it snow in Belgium at Christmas?

While there is a chance it might snow at Christmas in Belgium, like the UK, the chances of a white Christmas are fairly low. The Belgian capital Brussels classifies a white Christmas as there being a layer of snow at least 3cm thick at Uccle climatological park at 8am on the 25th December. The last time there was an official white Christmas in the city was in 2010, when 16cm fell, the largest amount since 1964.

Although the odds of a white Christmas are not great, that isn’t to say you won’t experience snow when you visit earlier or later in December or January. Brussels has a 9% probability that snow will be reported at least once on the 1st December, rising to a peak of 14% probability on the 30th. The chances of snow actually lying on the ground is lower, with a high 9% chance on the 31st December.

What clothes should I pack for a trip to Belgium at Christmas?

Because of the strong chance of rain, it is wise to bring a waterproof jacket with some extra layers just in case the temperature drops a few degrees. Likewise, you can also reduce the amount of layers you are wearing if the weather is a bit warmer over the period. If the forecast looks like it will be extra cold, you should definitely pack a scarf and some gloves to make sure you won’t catch the chills. It is always best to wear walking shoes or boots when visiting in the winter months, as there are quite a few cobbled streets that can become slippery if they ice over. Not only that, but the extra level of comfort makes them the ideal choice for browsing Christmas markets or sightseeing, when you’ll be on your feet for extended periods of time.

Belgian Christmas markets

From late November to early January is Christmas market season in Belgium, where almost every city in the country adds beautiful decorations, appealing attractions, and intriguing stalls to their historic town squares and parks. The season is one of the busiest for the country’s tourism industry, with many people visiting for the sole purpose of taking in one or more of the fantastic Christmas markets available.

While this means that there will be crowds of people when you visit, this is all part of the atmosphere of visiting a festive market. The large numbers of revellers add to the feeling of togetherness and enjoyment — nobody would want to visit a quiet and empty Christmas market after all!

To help you decide which Christmas markets you want to visit in Belgium, we’ve put together a few suggestions below, with key information for each market, including: when and where it is held, what its best attractions are, whether there are any goods that the market is famous for, and some typical prices for shopping and services.

Antwerp Christmas market

antwerp xmas
© Raju Jasai - licence

When: 10th December 2016 until 8th January 2017. The opening ceremony, which includes a spectacular sound and light show, takes place on the 10th December and can attract over 100,000 people. There is a New Year’s Eve firework display over the scenic river Scheldt on the 31st December, and closing New Year’s drinks on the 8th January.

The market is open for business from 12.00 to 21.00 from Monday to Thursday, from 12.00 to 23.00 on Friday, from 11.00 to 23.00 on Saturday, and 11.00 to 21.00 on Sunday.

Where: The centre of Antwerp — the Grote Markt, Suikerrui, Handschoenmarket, and the Groenplaats are all transformed into a fantastic maze of shopping stalls, food and beverage stands, and various Christmas attractions.

Language: Flemish Dutch

Attractions: There are over 90 stalls offering a wide selection of excellent seasonal goods, including crafts, decorations, and delicacies. A Ferris wheel that stands over 90m tall provides the perfect vantage point for a romantic view over the city. There is a 1,200m² ice skating rink with a separate children’s rink that overlooks the river. More fun can also be had on the miniature golf course and tubing run that are open as well.

Specialities: Antwerp market has a great range of traditional Belgian specialities available from its many stalls. You can try some traditional Belgian jenever or beer, or partake in a cup of glühwein, while munching on some sweet treats like smoutebollen or beignets. There are plenty of handmade gifts available to take home for your loved ones.

Typical prices:  Single cakes and snacks can cost between €0.75 to €2. Look for multi-buy deals if there is more than one of you or you want to save some for later.

Expect to pay anywhere from €3.50 to €6 for a 500ml draught beer; 330ml bottles are available from around €3 to €5. A soft drink can cost between €1 to €2.50 depending on the size purchased, while a coffee can cost between €2 to €3.50 and a cappuccino €2.50 to €4, depending on where you go. Jenever will typically cost around €2.50 per shot, but can be more expensive if you go for a pricier spirit.

For more information about Antwerp, visit the city’s tourism website.

Bruges Christmas market

Bruges_Christmas_market_2013

When: 18th November 2016 until 1st January 2017. There is also a celebration of the Mid-Winter Festival on the 11th December, which is in its 15th year in 2016. The day is a chance to see traditional Belgian crafts being produced for sale, with events taking place at the Lace and Adornesmuseum and the Folklore Museum.

The market has business hours of 10.30 to 22.00 Monday to Thursday and on Sunday. Extended opening hours are available on Friday and Saturday, from 10.30 to 23.00.

Where: In the centre of Bruges, the Grote Markt and Simon Stevinplein provide the venue for wooden chalets and other stalls selling their Christmas wares.

Language: Flemish Dutch, with many English speakers.

Attractions: The Bruges market is relatively intimate, with around 30 or so stalls open for business, but the fantastically picturesque setting of the city makes it a must visit for anyone. There is a beautifully lit ice rink that is open in the Grote Markt, where you can skate beneath the iconic shadow of the city’s famed bell tower.

Also well worth visiting during the market dates is the Snow and Ice Sculpture Festival, also known as Ice Magic, where you can view marvellous sculpted art in this year’s theme of ‘The Land of the Hobbits’, inspired by the work of famed fantasy writer J.R.R. Tolkien. The festival takes place at Stationsplein, near Bruges’s main railway station, and runs from late November to early January.

Specialities: One of the very first things you will be tempted by is the delicious braadworst sausages and the fragrant glühwein that is often drank to wash it down. There are also stalls that specialise in serving a humungous range of jenever, so if you feel like quaffing a few, make sure you have a late start the next morning. There is a hearty option for those who are looking for something more substantial, with tartiflette savoyarde served that is worthy of its Alpine origins.

Typical prices:  The ice skating rink in the Grote Markt costs €6 for entry and skate hire. Food and drink from the market varies in price, with typical amounts being between €4 and €7 for hot dishes, and between €3 and €5 for alcoholic beverages. If you want to dine in one of the restaurants on the city’s central square, be prepared to pay more for your meal —the magical view of the lights and the architecture come at a premium.

Brussels Christmas market

Brussels Christmas market
© Miguel Discart - licence

When: 25th November 2016 until 1st January 2017. The market is open for business 12.00 to 21.00 from Monday to Thursday, and 12.00 to 22.00 on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.

Where: The market is located in the heart of Brussels, where the majority of the stalls can be found at the Grand Place and Place Sainte-Catherine, though a few are located on the Bourse and Marché aux Poissons.

Language: Both French and Flemish Dutch. The capital is bilingual and also has a high amount of English speakers. Road signs are in both French and Dutch.

Attractions: The Christmas market in Brussels, officially known as the ‘Winter Wonders’, is one of the largest in Belgium, boasting around 250 stalls that sell a variety of trinkets, arts and crafts, beers, wine, and delicious treats. Each year, a guest country or city is selected to be represented with goods and cuisine from the region. In 2015, it was Tunisia who visited, while the guest for 2016 is yet to be announced.

The wooden chalets in the Grand Place sell their festive goods under the shadow of the Brussels Christmas tree, which usually stands at around 20m in height. The tree is traditionally selected from the Ardennes forest and transported to the city centre. The nearby Town Hall is the subject of a magical light show, with a rainbow of different colours bathing the historic building in a stunning glow.

The city is also host to two other major attractions: a 55m Ferris wheel and a 60m ice rink are both located at Marché aux Poissons. You can take a ride on the Ferris wheel to get unbelievable views of the cityscape and the Christmas market, while the ice rink offers the perfect escape if you are looking to take a break from shopping. There is also a carousel for the kids, so they can experience some good old-fashioned fairground fun.

Specialities: Brussels Christmas market is renowned for its fine array of food and drink. Many visitors soon become big fans of the Belgian waffles and gingerbread, which are sweet and extremely tasty. For those looking for something more substantial, the fresh seafood paella, while not traditionally Belgian, is said to be one of the culinary highlights for a lot of people.

On the crafts front, there are quite a few stalls that sell hand-knitted hats and scarves, which are perfect if you have left yours at home or just want to bring back a practical gift for a loved one. They are available in a variety of colours and patterns, from Christmassy reds and greens to brighter shades that really catch the eye.

Typical prices:  As Brussels is the capital city, expect goods and services to cost a little extra. A moderately priced meal in the evening can come to between €20 and €40 for two people, while a three-course meal for two in a mid-range restaurant can cost around €60.

From the market, hot food can cost around €5 to €8. Alcoholic beverages typically cost a little more than other Belgian cities — expect to pay €4 or more for a 500ml beer or a glass of wine. If you feel like drinking a little less, try sampling the jenever from the market, which costs roughly €2.50 a measure.

You can find out more details about Winter Wonders on the city’s tourism website.

Ghent Christmas market

Ghent Christmas market
© Tom Chance - licence

When: 18th November 2016 until 3rd January 2017. The market is open from 13.00 to 21.00 from Monday to Friday, and 11.00 to 21.00 on Saturday and Sunday.

Where: The market stretches out across the city centre, including Sint-Baafsplein, Klein Turkije and the Korenmarkt.

Language: Flemish Dutch

Attractions: Against the backdrop of twinkling lights, the Ghent Christmas market has real international flavour, as well as a healthy dose of traditional Belgian. There are over 50 chalets, each selling festive goods including decorations, candles, cards, and other gifts. The great mixture of food and drink stalls serve up a real culinary treat, and a walk through them will greet you with many delicious smells as the food is prepared.

Under the architecturally striking city pavilion, an ice skating rink is installed during the winter, where you can enjoy skating with locals and other visitors alike. A Ferris wheel also comes to town for a residency in front of St. Bavo’s cathedral, which you can ride to enjoy the very best view of the city and its lights by night.

There are also regular musical performances by local artists, covering styles as diverse as jazz, folk, and rock. For a real festive atmosphere, there are also performances by choirs and brass bands, who perform traditional Christmas carols and songs.

Specialities: If there is one thing Ghent market is famous for, it’s the diverse street food that is on offer. You can browse the stalls to your stomach’s content, trying Italian sausages, hams, and cheeses, before munching on some classic Belgian smoutebollen. You can also sample the many homemade condiments on offer, like the Belgian mustard or the organic honey.

Typical prices: Ghent is a fairly affordable city, especially compared to the nearby capital, Brussels. Lunch for one in a decent restaurant can cost between €12 and €20, while a three-course meal for two in a nice eatery will set you back around €50.

If you want to stop for a drink somewhere, a draught 500ml Belgian beer or a glass of wine will cost approximately €3 to €4, and a 330ml bottle will cost between €2.50 and €3. At the market, you can buy cakes and snacks for €0.75 to €2 each, but it is worth buying in bulk as you can often save money with a deal — great if you want to enjoy some later.

Winterland Hasselt

Winterland Hasselt
© Paul Hermans - licence

When: 19th November to 8th January 2017. Winterland Hasselt is open each day of the week from 10.00 until 22.00, with reduced hours of 10.00 to 18.00 on Christmas Eve and 13.00 to 22.00 on Christmas Day. The New Year’s Eve party at the market is on until 2.00.

Where: Kolonel Dusartplein in Hasselt, a large square just north of the city centre.

Language: Flemish Dutch

Attractions: TheWinterland Hasselt is much more than a Christmas market; it is a whole festival that celebrates the season that has earned Hasselt the moniker ‘the most atmospheric Christmas town in Belgium’. The market itself is home to 80 stalls, selling artisan crafts from all over the world, including Hungary, Germany, the Czech Republic, Peru, Russia, France, the Netherlands, and many made in Belgium. The market also has regular craft demonstrations where you can witness skills like candle-making and wood carving in action, and even have a go yourself.

The festive wonders don’t stop at the market, with many sights to be discovered. One of the most popular is the House of Santa Claus, which is a replica of the Lapland Home of Santa Claus in Rovaniemi, Finland. This log cabin is a great place to visit for adults and children alike, with guided tours and a chance to visit Santa himself.

Winterland Hasselt is also host to the largest mobile skating rink in Belgium at 1,000m², where you can skate around the giant Christmas tree that resides on the island in the middle of the ice. The thrills continue as you explore the rest of the festival, with a number of rides, such as an antique carousel, a Christmas funhouse and a ghost mansion, adding a healthy dose of fun for serious shoppers.

As well as the refreshments on offer from the market, you can indulge yourself in either the Grand Café or the nearby Aspen Lounge, which is decorated in the style of a traditional Aspen après ski lodge. The lounge offers upmarket food and drink, such as oysters and champagne, as well as a large collection of gins and jenever.

Typical prices: If you want to eat in the festive surroundings of the festival itself, there are a number of options, including sampling some smaller Belgian treats from the Christmas market, or you can sit down to a meal in Guus’ Thing, a pop-up restaurant. For a three-course meal, expect to pay between €30 and €45.

A draught beer in Hasselt will cost between €2.50 and €4, depending on where you stop for a drink. A glass of wine will be around the same price. If you want to try the jenever on offer in and around the market, it is worth asking for a sample, which is usually free. This way you can decide whether you really like it before splashing out on a bottle.

Visit Hasselt Winterland’s official website for more information.

Belgian Christmas phrases

market stall
© Andrew Stawarz - licence

Belgium is a country with three main languages, and which one you will hear will depend on whereabouts you are visiting, with Flemish Dutch spoken in the north, French in the south, and a tiny bit of German near the border in the east. Belgians are very friendly, but they will warm to you even quicker if you are able to share a few words of their language with them.

It should be noted that if you are planning on speaking some Flemish Dutch or French, it can often be considered rude to begin a conversation in the wrong language in the wrong area. So take care not to address someone from Flanders in French and someone from Wallonia in Flemish, or you may get a bemused look.

Nevertheless, using a few phrases in the right area can earn you a lot of respect from the locals. Take a look at some of the useful phrases we have listed for you below to brush up.

Greetings

English Phrase

Flemish Dutch

French

Hi

Hoi

Salut

Good day

Goeiedag

Bonjour

Good evening

Goeden avond

Bonsoir

Goodbye

Tot Ziens

Au revoir

 

Christmas Phrases

Christmas Day

Kerstdag

Le jour de Noël

Christmas Eve

Kerstavond

La veille de Noël

New Year’s Day

Nieuwjaarsdag

Le Jour de l’An

New Year’s Eve

Oudejaarsavond

La Saint-Sylvestre

Christmas present

Kerstcadeau

Un cadeau de Noël

Christmas tree

Kerstboom

L’arbre de Noël

Season’s greetings!

Groeten van het seizoen!

Meilleurs vœux!

Merry Christmas!

Vrolijk Kerstfeest!

Joyeux Noël!

Happy New Year!

Gelukkig Nieuwjaar!

Bonne Année!

White Christmas

Witte kerst

Noël sous la neige

 

Etiquette

Thank You

Dank u wel

Merci

Please

Alstublieft

S'il vous plait

Excuse me

Excuseer mij

Excusez-moi

Yes/No

Ja/Nee

Oui/Non

Sorry! (for a mistake)

Sorry!

Pardon!

Where is the toilet, please?

Waar is het toilet, alstublieft?

Où sont les toilettes s’il vous plait?

 

Shopping

What time do you close?

Hoe laat gaat u open?

A quelle heure fermez-vous?

At what time do you open?

Hoe laat gaat u dicht?

A quelle heure ouvrez-vous?

How much is it?

Hoeveel kost dat?

C’est combien?

Do you take credit cards?

Kan ik met een kredietkaart betalen?

Prenez-vous des cartes de crédit?

Do you have this in my size?

Heeft u dit in mijn maat?

Avez-vous ceci dans ma taille?

 

Emergencies

I don’t speak Flemish/French

Ik spreek geen Vlaams

Je ne parle pas Français

Do you speak English

Spreek jij engels

Parlez-vous anglais

I’m lost

Ik ben verloren.

Je suis perdu

I don’t understand

Ik versta het niet

Je ne comprends pas

I'm looking for a pharmacy

Waar is het apotheker?

Je cherche une pharmacie

I feel sick

Ik voel me ziek!

Je me sens malade

I need a doctor

Ik heb een dokter nodig

J’ai besoin d’un docteur

Where is the hospital?

Waar is het ziekenhuis?

Où est l'hôpital?

Where is the police station?

Waar is het politiebureau?

Où est le commissariat de police?

Call an ambulance

Bel een ambulance

Appelle une ambulance

 

Numbers

One

Één

Un

Two

Twee

Der

Three

Drie

Trois

Four

Vier

Quatre

Five

Vijf

Cinq

Six

Zes

Six

Seven

Zeven

Sept

Eight

Acht

Huit

Nine

Negen

Neuf

Ten

Tien

Dix

 

Visiting Belgium at Christmas

bruges-1288281_640

With its location in northwest Europe, Belgium has been shaped by the numerous waterways that flow through the country. Many of these rivers and canals are interlinked, making them the perfect way to explore the towns, cities, and countryside — especially at Christmas, where you can access the festive heart of these places from the convenience of the water.

Here at The River Cruise Line, we specialise in festive cruises to some of Belgium’s best Christmas markets, where you can indulge yourself in the magical atmosphere, delicious cuisine, and intricate crafts of some of the country’s most beguiling historic towns and cities. We’ve handpicked each of the locations that we cruise to for the fantastic experiences that they offer our passengers.

To find out more about our range of Christmas market cruises through this wonderful country, head over to our Belgium cruises page.

Christmas in Austria

Festive traditions, national delicacies & spectacular markets

Christmas market in Vienna - © Mstyslav
© MstyslavLicence

Austria is a stunning and captivating place to spend time during the festive season. From the end of November to the beginning of January, the country is transformed into a Christmas wonderland that plays host to a range of exciting events, traditional parades and some of the best Christmas markets in Europe, which means there’s more to see and do than at any other time of year. 

The country has its own fun and fascinating festive traditions to experience, as well as an array of unusual and wonderful delicacies for you to sample. Additionally, Austria’s cities and towns are extravagantly decorated and covered in fairy lights in the lead-up to Christmas each year, maximising the country’s beauty and making it a particularly popular hotspot during the festive season.

One of the biggest attractions for those visiting Austria is the country’s collection of Christmas markets. These can be found in Austria’s biggest cities, such as Linz and the capital Vienna. They offer you the chance to shop for delicious treats, treasurable souvenirs and gifts for your loved ones back home. Plus, many of them allow you to partake in Christmas craft sessions, where you can produce unique keepsakes of your own.

If you’re thinking about visiting Austria at all, then the Christmas period is a great time to do so. To help you plan the best trip possible, we’ve put together a guide to Austrian Christmas traditions and attractions that we recommend you enjoy while you’re there. 

Christmas traditions in Austria


© traveljunctionLicence

From advent wreaths to Christkind, here are some of the most prevalent Christmas traditions that you might encounter if you visit during the festive period.

St Nicholas

What is St Nicholas’ Day?

St Nicholas is a Christian saint who is particularly popular among European children thanks to his reputation as a bringer of gifts.

On the night of 5th December (or 6th December in some regions), Austrian children put their shoes in front of their fireplace or front door. A man dressed as St Nicholas, who resembles a bishop and carries a staff, then goes from house to house placing small gifts in the children’s shoes, which they’ll wake up to find the next morning. 

More recently, St Nicholas has been accompanied by Krampus, a ragged-looking devil-like creature who mildly scares the children and supposedly punishes any who have been naughty.

© Gaby KooimanLicence

 

 

Krampus Who is Krampus?

In Austro-Bavarian Alpine folklore, Krampus is described as half-goat, half-demon. During the Christmas season, the horned, anthropomorphic creature supposedly punishes children who have misbehaved. This is in contrast to St Nicholas, who rewards the well-behaved with gifts. 

In traditional parades, and during events such as the Krampuslauf, young men participate by dressing up as the terrifying creature.

Also, toned-down versions of Krampus can often be seen strolling around some of Austria’s most popular Christmas markets, entertaining and unsettling tourists who have come to experience Austria’s festive traditions. Although based on the original idea, these tourist-friendly interpretations tend to be more humorous than fearsome.

Across Europe, Krampus is known by several different names, including Knecht Ruprecht, Certa, Schmutzli, Pelznickel and Klaubauf.

© Matthias KabelLicence

ChristkindWho is the Christkind?

Santa Claus doesn’t tend to visit Austria at Christmas time. Instead, boys’ and girls’ presents are delivered on Christmas Eve by a little winged angel with blonde curly hair called the Christkind. She’s the traditional Christmas gift-bringer in Austria, and — much like with Santa Claus — children are told that she won’t bring them any presents if they aren’t on their best behaviour. Sometimes, parents will secretly ring a bell to announce the departure of the Christkind, which is then a signal that their children can run to the tree and find their presents.

Some kids even believe that the Christkind is responsible for decorating their family’s Christmas tree.

 

 

 

Advent wreaths

Advent wreaths

As soon as the closest Sunday to 30th November comes around, there’s an advent wreath in almost every Austrian home. Originally, there were 24 candles on each wreath, but there are now only four — one for each Sunday in the lead-up to Christmas. Many Austrians also have an advent calendar, which is much more common in western countries, to help build anticipation between 1st December and Christmas Eve. 

Christmas Eve in Austria

Christmas Eve in Austria

In Austria, Christmas starts properly at around 4pm on 24th December. In fact, for most Austrian families, Christmas Eve is even more special than Christmas Day.

On Christmas Eve, families make an event of decorating and lighting up their Christmas trees. They plaster them with gold and silver ornaments, before placing a star made out of straw on the very top. Everyone then gets together to sing carols around their Christmas trees, with their song of choice often being Silent Night, which was written in Austria in 1818. 

Christmas Eve is often the night that Austrian families get together to exchange Christmas presents and enjoy their main festive meal. Gebackener karpfen (fried carp) is often served as a main course and desserts may be chocolate and apricot cake called Sachertorte, or Austrian Christmas cookies called weihnachtsbaeckerei.

Christmas Day in Austria

Nativity - © Jess Weese
© Jeff WeeseLicence

Austrians spend Christmas Day in a similar way to those from most western countries. They wake up to open their presents and spend time with their loved ones. 

It’s a public holiday, so the majority of people visit relatives that aren’t part of their immediate families and have a special Christmas dinner, which usually comprises goose, ham served with glühwein (a delicious blend of red win and spices), rumpunsch (a spiced rum punch), and chocolate mousse.

New Year’s Eve and Day in Austria

New Year's concert - © Welleschik
© WelleschikLicence

When it comes to celebrating New Year’s Eve in style, Austria’s capital Vienna does an amazing job, as the last few days of each year are filled with a programme of brilliant concerts and entertainment. The Vienna Symphony performs Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on both New Year’s Eve and Day without fail, while the Vienna Philharmonic plays a selection of waltzes, polkas and operetta tunes.

Don’t fret if you can’t make it to the New Year’s concert, though — it’s shown live on TV in 90 different countries and is projected onto giant video walls in City Hall Square, as well as the square in front of the Vienna State Opera. Other music events can also be enjoyed at the Musikverein, Konzerthaus, Theater an der Wien and the Kammeroper.

The most impressive event of the night is the New Year’s Eve ball at the Hofburg Palace. Women in jaw-dropping ball gowns and men dressed to impress flood the ballroom each year to toast the turn of the year in the most magnificent way possible.

Additionally, throughout Austria, there are fantastic firework displays, parades and evening fanfares. Most cities stage their own smaller events and, wherever you go, you’re sure to see people dancing in the streets to the famous Blue Danube waltz.

On New Year’s Day, children leave their homes to sing carols at their neighbours’ doors. The first day of the year also marks the start of carnival season, known as Fasching, which lasts until Lent. During this period, countless balls, parades and parties are arranged all over Austria.

Christmas food and drink in Austria

Linzertorte © Leo Jindrak
© Leo JindrakLicence

All year round, Austrians make fantastic food that is influenced by the former Austro-Hungarian empire, as well as trends and traditions from the likes of Italy, Hungary, Bohemia, Germany and the Balkans. Many much-loved dishes have risen out of this fusion. Here’s a guide to some of Austria’s best festive food and drinks that you can try when you visit.

Sachertorte

Sachertorte
© IllustratedjcLicense

When Prince Wenzel von Metternich needed a special dessert for his guests in 1832, his personal chef had unfortunately fallen ill. Therefore, the responsibility was left to his 16-year-old apprentice Franz Sacher, who made one of Austria’s most iconic desserts — the Sachertorte.

The original Sachertorte recipe consisted of a dense chocolate cake with two layers of apricot jam. The entire cake was then coated in a dark chocolate icing and served with unsweetened whipped cream. Today there are some variations — for example, some contain only one layer of apricot jam. There are even some versions that include different kinds of jam and marzipan. Sachertorte is usually served as dessert on Christmas Eve.

Linzertorte

Linzertorte
© Hungry DudesLicence

The Linzertorte is often said to be the oldest cake in the world and dates back to at least 1653, but nobody’s sure who invented it. The dessert is named after the Austrian city of Linz, which is understandably proud of the delicious creation. 

The Linzertorte is a tart-like creation with a layer of raspberry preserve and crisscrossed strips of shortcrust on top. However, this is no ordinary shortcrust: it’s infused with almonds. The torte is conventionally a two-layer affair, as there tends to be a layer of almond cream under the raspberry preserve. However, it’s not unusual to find three- or four-layered versions on sale in Austrian bakeries.

Marillenknödel

Marillenknödel

Marillenknödel is a common Austrian pastry that’s particularly popular in Vienna. Marillen is the term for apricots in Austria and marillenknödel is found predominantly in areas where the fruit is grown. 

Small dumplings are formed from dough, and apricots or mirabelle plums are placed inside. These dumplings are boiled in slightly salted water and then covered in crispy fried breadcrumbs and powdered sugar. The dough used tends to be made from potato, although there are variations in which it is made from ice cream.

GermknödelGermknödel

Germknödel is a very popular Viennese dessert. It’s a rather large, hemispherical yeast dough dumpling that’s filled with spicy plum jam and served with melted butter, poppy seeds and a sprinkle of sugar on top. It can be served as either a main course or dessert.

The dumpling is steamed and then served hot, occasionally accompanied by a scoop of vanilla ice cream, although this way is less traditional. 

© TakeawayLicence

 

 

 

 

 

Kaiserschmarrn

Kaiserschmarrn
© KobakoLicence

Kaiserschmarrn, or Emperor’s Mess, got its name from the Austrian emperor Franz Joseph I, who was a huge fan of the popular dessert.

It’s a light, caramelised pancake that’s made from a sweet batter consisting of flour, eggs, sugar, salt and milk. This mixture is then cooked in butter to form the pancake. Other ingredients such as nuts, cherries, plums, caramelised raisins, small pieces of apple and slivered almonds can be added, too.

While the pancake is being fried, it’s pulled apart using two forks. Then, once it’s cooked, it’s sprinkled with powdered sugar and served hot with a fruit sauce or compote. It’s usually eaten as a dessert, but is also served as a main course in tourist areas, as it’s quite a filling dish.

Salzburger Nockerl

Salzburger Nockerl
© Tourismus SalzburgLicence

Salzburger nockerl has become an icon of Austrian cuisine. The golden dumplings are supposed to represent the hillsides that surround Salzburg’s city centre, while the dusting of powdered sugar signifies the snow-covered peaks. 

The sweet dumplings are made of flour, egg yolk, sugar and vanilla, which are mixed into a thin dough. Egg whites are whisked until stiff and folded carefully with the dough. This concoction is then formed into dumplings and baked on a low heat. 

Salzburger nockerl is always freshly prepared. Traditionally, it’s served warm with powdered sugar and, sometimes, raspberry sauce. Like many sweet Austrian dishes, it’s quite filling, so can be eaten as a main course.

Apfelstrudel

Apfelstrudel
© TakeawayLicence

Apfelstrudel, or apple strudel, is considered to be Austria’s national dish. Traditionally, it has a filling of grated apples, breadcrumbs, sugar, cinnamon and raisins. When it’s being made, its base should be rolled so thin that it’s possible to read through it — this is what gives strudel its characteristic crispiness when baked. 

Apfelstrudel can be served on its own, but tastes wonderful with whipped cream, vanilla ice cream, custard or vanilla sauce. It also tends to come accompanied by tea, coffee or even champagne — especially in Viennese cafés. 

 

What’s the weather like in Austria at Christmas?

Austria weather - public domain

December might be one of the coldest months in Austria, but it’s a gorgeous time of year to visit. Gloves, hats, scarves and thick coats are essential, but there are plenty of ways to escape the cold and blustery weather, such as visiting world-class museums, concert halls and palaces that contribute to the city’s undeniable beauty.

The average temperature of Austria in December is -1°C, with average highs of 2°C and lows of -3°C. December also has the shortest days in terms of daylight, with the 21st being the shortest of the year. Additionally, it has the most days with precipitation. So, wrap up and take an umbrella to ensure you’re well prepared.

Will it snow in Austria at Christmas?

It has snowed in Vienna every year since 1953, and the depth of the snow can range from 2cm to over 2m. Therefore, you’re quite likely to see snow if you visit over the Christmas period. However, there’s no guarantee that there’ll be a blanket of snow on the ground on Christmas Day itself — over the last 20 years, there are only seven examples of there being a blanket of snow on the 24th or 25th December.

Austria’s Christmas markets

From mid-November to the end of the year, Austria is transformed into a hub of romantic and magical Christmas markets. City centres are draped in fairy lights, stalls selling traditional foods and souvenirs pop up in every available space, and tourists flock to experience some of the best Christmas market experiences that Europe has to offer. 

Here’s an idea of what you’re likely to find at two of Austria’s most popular Christmas markets. 

Vienna Christmas Market

Vienna Christmas Market
© Manfred WernerLicence

When: 12th November–24th December 2016. The market is open daily 10am–10pm, but closes at 7pm on Christmas Eve.

Where: It is positioned in the heart of Austria’s capital, directly in front of Vienna’s City Hall. This is an absolutely stunning location that helps to maximise the market’s magical atmosphere.

Attractions: The Vienna Christmas Market is one of the largest in the country, so it’s no surprise that it offers a huge array of stalls and attractions.

Besides buying souvenirs and sweet treats for you and your loved ones, there’s a whole host of other exciting activities you can partake in. Spend a magical hour on the market’s romantic ice rink, or create your very own gingerbread design in the People’s Hall. The ground floor of the City Hall will be dedicated to children’s activities and there’s even a beautiful carousel that you can ride — your entire family will love Vienna's Christmas market.

Specialities: You can pick up a range of Viennese delicacies from Vienna’s Christmas market stalls.There’s glühwein, sausages, knitted puppets and wooden puppets. Also, it’s impossible to not get into the spirit when you have a paper cone of hot chestnuts in one hand and a dangerously sticky toffee apple in the other.

Typical prices: Expect to pay €3.50–€4 for a glühwein or weihnachtspunsch. These drinks come in decorative cups, which you can keep as souvenirs for a few extra euros. Outside of the market, in the city’s bars and eateries, you can expect to pay €50 for a three-course meal for two at a mid-range restaurant, €3 for a cappuccino, €2.33 for a soft drink and €3.50 for a pint of domestic beer.

For more general information about Vienna, visit the city’s tourism website.

Linz Christmas Market on the Main Square

Linz Christmas Market
© C_PichlerLicence

When: 19th November–24th December 2016. The market is open daily 10am–8pm. Food is served until 9pm.

Where: It’s located in the city’s central square and has existed since the end of the 1970s, when the area was turned into a pedestrian zone.

Attractions: The beautifully decorated stalls of the Main Square Christmas market in Linz are nestled among baroque town houses that are centuries old, making it a spectacle in itself. There’s a huge number of stalls selling a wide range of souvenirs and specialities. Plus, it’s located right by the shopping mile of Linz, making it a great market to visit if you’re a fan of shopping holidays.

Specialities: Again, there are various stalls selling glühwein, plates of bratwurst, and other savoury snacks such as largos (garlic-buttered pastries). You also can’t leave the city of Linz without trying its most famous dessert, the Linzertorte.

Typical prices: In Linz, you can expect to pay€3 for a cappuccino, €4 for a pint of beer, and €3 for a soft drink. A three-course meal for two at a mid-range restaurant will set you back €55 and a meal at an inexpensive restaurant costs around €12.

For more general information about the city of Linz, visit its tourism website.

 

Useful Austrian phrases

Hallstatt - public domain

For the most part, Austrian natives speak German and, although people are likely to speak English in the tourist spots, it’s worth learning a few phrases of their language that you might be able to use while you’re there. Austrians are incredibly friendly people to begin with, but they’ll warm to you even quicker if you’ve gone to the trouble of learning and using some the words from their vocabulary. 

Here are some German phrases you might benefit from knowing. 

Greetings

English

German

Hi

Hallo

Good day

Guten tag

Good evening

Guten abend

Goodbye

Auf wiedersehen

 

Christmas phrases

Christmas Day

Weihnachtstag

Christmas Eve

Heiligabend

New Year’s Day

Neujahr

New Year’s Eve

Silvester

Christmas present

Weihnachtsgeschenk

Christmas tree

Weihnachtsbaum

Season’s greetings!

Die grüße der Jahreszeit!

Merry Christmas!

Fröhliche Weihnachten!

Happy New Year!

Frohes neues jahr!

White Christmas

Weisse Weihnachten

 

Etiquette

Thank you

Danke

Please

Bitte

Excuse me

Entschuldigen sie

Yes/No

Ja/Nein

I’m sorry (for a mistake)

Es tut mir leid

Where is the toilet, please?

Wo ist die toilette, bitte?

 

Shopping

What time do you close?

Um wie viel uhr machen sie zu?

At what time do you open?

Wann öffnen sie?

How much is it?

Wie viel kostet das?

Do you take credit cards?

Akzeptieren sie kreditkarten?

Are these available in my size?

Sind diese in meine größe verfügbar?

 

Emergencies

I don’t speak German

Ich spreche kein Deutsch

Do you speak English?

Sprichst du Englisch?

I’m lost

Ich bin verloren

I don’t understand

Ich verstehe nicht

I’m looking for a pharmacy

Ich suche nach einer Apotheke

I feel sick

Mir ist schlecht

I need a doctor

Ich brauche einen Arzt

Where is the hospital?

Wo ist das Krankenhaus?

Where is the police station?

Wo ist die Polizei Station?

Call an ambulance

Rufen Sie einen Krankenwagen

 

Numbers

One

Eins

Two

Zwei

Three

Drei

Four

Vier

Five

Fünf

Six

Sechs

Seven

Sieben

Eight

Acht

Nine

Neun

Ten

Zehn

 

Visiting Austria at Christmas

Linz River Danube - © Mwinog2777
© Mwinog2777Licence 

Some of Austria’s best Christmas market cities are located along the Danube river, so the best way to access them is by boat. That’s why, here at The River Cruise Line, we offer two festive cruises that have been designed to offer you the best Austrian Christmas experience possible. If you want to focus on seeing Austria’s best Christmas markets, our Vienna and Linz Christmas Markets cruise will suit you best, while our Christmas Cruise on the Danube will allow you to explore Vienna and Budapest, Hungary — a city that’s just as vibrant. 

Christmas in the Netherlands

Celebrating Sinterklaas, sampling speculaas & savouring some of Europe’s best Christmas markets

amsterdam-canal-lights
© PEP photo - Licence

If you’re planning a festive getaway for the end of year, then the Netherlands has plenty of Christmas spirit to share. While it's not a country traditionally associated with Christmas, the Netherlands is full of charm and festive cheer over December. So if you’re looking to experience some of northern Europe’s best Christmas markets and festive treats— not to mention some of its most intriguing festive customs —then a trip to this country is for you. 

To help you get to grips with Dutch Christmas customs, learn about Sint-Nicolaas and Zwarte Piet, and plan your Christmas getaway to one of the continent’s most delightful countries, we’ve put together this guide to Christmas in the Netherlands. 

When is Christmas celebrated in the Netherlands?

In the Netherlands, Christmas is celebrated on 25th December. Just as in the UK, the Dutch traditionally spend the day eating good food surrounded by their family. However, this is where most of the similarities end. 

In the Netherlands, Christmas is split over two days: Kerstdag — the 25th — and Tweede Kerstdag (the Second Day of Christmas) — the 26th. It is customary for a Dutch family to spend the first day with one side of their family and the second with the other. 

Another major difference is that the Dutch don’t exchange gifts on Christmas Day. Instead, they do so earlier in December on Sinterklaas Dag — Saint Nicholas’s Day. 

What is Sinterklaas Dag?

sinterklaas-dag-shoes

The Dutch festive season, which is known as Sinterklaas, begins on Advent Sunday — the fourth Sunday before Christmas. Families in the Netherlands celebrate this Christian tradition, which anticipates the coming of Christ, with an advent wreath. This wreath features four red or yellow candles, one of which is lit on each of advent’s four Sundays. 

Sinterklaas Dag, which falls on 6th December, is the day when Dutch families exchange gifts with one another, although children from the northern Netherlands get to open their gifts on Sinterklaasavond, the 5th. 

In the north of the country, families will usually ask a neighbour to knock on their door and leave a sack full of gifts for them to find. The children are told this was left by Sint-Nicolaas's helper, Zwarte Piet. Once the presents have arrived, the family will take it in turns to open their gifts from Sint-Nicolaas. 

The Dutch call their Sinterklaas presents ‘surprises’, and they are often creatively wrapped in order to conceal their contents. For example, a gift may be wrapped in a series of progressively smaller boxes or hidden in a location that can only be found by following a series of clues. It is also customary for Sinterklaas surprises to be accompanied by a short, humorous poem poking fun at the receiver, often by teasing them for a well-known bad habit. 

In the southern Netherlands, children have to wait until the morning of Sinterklaas Dag to receive their gifts. On the night of Sinterklaas Eve, they fill their shoes with carrots and sugar cubes for Sint-Nicolaas's trusty stead, Amerigo, alongside a bottle of beer for Zwarte Piet and a cup of coffee for Sint-Nicolaas. When they wake up, the shoes are overflowing with gifts left by Sint-Nicolaas, and nowadays larger presents are wrapped up and left beside the shoes.

The tradition of leaving your shoes out for Sint-Nicolaas comes from the most famous story about the saint. It is believed Nicolaas came from an affluent part of the population, and that he received a substantial inheritance from his parents when they died. 

One day, Nicolaas heard about a shoemaker who could not afford the dowry to have his three daughters married. Taking pity on them, he snuck to the family’s house under the cover of darkness and threw a purse full of gold coins through their open window. It is said that the purse landed in one of the oldest daughter’s shoes — that's why Dutch children leave their shoes out on the eve of St Nicholas’s Day and Sint-Nicolaas fills them with gifts.   

Who is Sint-Nicolaas?

sinterklaas
© Michell Zappa - Licence

Sint-Nicolaas is a mythical figure based on the patron saint of children, Saint Nicholas. He is also referred to as Sinterklaas, De Sint (The Saint), De Goede Sint (The Good Saint), and De Goedheiligman (The Good Holy Man). 

Sint-Nicolaas is thought to be the largest influence on the modern Santa Claus, with the latter coming to prominence in the Americas shortly after the first Dutch immigrants arrived. 

While similar in many ways to Santa Claus, Sint-Nicolaas differs in some major ways. In appearance, he is explicitly religious; his outfit is made up of a red papal gown over a white bishop’s alb, and is completed with a red mitre emblazoned with a gold crucifix. He shares the same long, curly, white beard as Santa Claus, and as a result looks like a cross between Santa Claus and the Pope to the uninitiated. 

The story goes that, for 11 months of the year, Sint-Nicolaas lives in the Spanish capital of Madrid. He arrives from Spain on a steam boat on the first Saturday after 11th November and then travels throughout Holland on a white horse called Amerigo with his servant, Zwarte Piet. 

Each year, Sint-Nicolaas arrives in Holland at a different coastal town; he disembarks his steamboat and parades the streets on his white horse while hundreds of Zwarte Pieten throw confectionary into crowds of children. The event is broadcast on national television and celebrated across the country. 

Who is Zwarte Piet?

zwarte-piet
© Facemepls - Licence

In the Netherlands, Sint-Nicolaas has a companion called Zwarte Piet, or Black Peter in English. This now-controversial figure was introduced to the Dutch St Nicholas Day tradition in the mid-19th century, when he was said to be Sint-Nicolaas's Moorish servant from Spain. Today, his black skin is explained as being a permanent layer of soot that is the result of Piet’s trips down chimneys when delivering presents. 

Sint-Nicolaas is accompanied by several Zwarte Pieten upon his arrival to the Netherlands, and those portraying the character typically put on face paint, red lipstick, hoop earrings, and a wig of curly black hair alongside renaissance attire. Sint-Nicolaas plays an elderly, statesmanlike character in the celebrations, and Zwarte Piet entertains children through mischievous behaviour and distributing traditional sweets such as pepernoten and kruidnoten among the crowds. It is also Piet’s duty to deliver the presents to children who have been good on Sinterklaas Dag. 

Do the Dutch have Santa Claus?

Rather confusingly, some Dutch families have also started celebrated Christmas Day (25th December) and telling their children that Santa Claus brings them presents on this day. However, many Dutch people fiercely oppose this Americanised holiday, and if children do receive gifts on Christmas Day, they're told that they come from their parents. The majority of Dutch families celebrate Sinterklaas and give a much smaller amount of presents on Christmas Day, which is more focussed around visits to extended family. 

Many Dutch people are resistant to the idea of an Americanised Christmas creeping into their culture, and children are often admonished for using the English name for Santa Claus rather than the Dutch, Kerstman. 

Dutch Christmas traditions

christmas-tree

In the build-up to Christmas, Dutch families decorate their homes with Christmas trees, fairy lights, and festive ornaments. Traditionally, these decorations don’t make an appearance until after Sinterklaas Dag, and on the whole, Dutch decorations tend to be quite tasteful, with garish displays frowned upon. 

Dutch Christmas trees are traditionally topped with a star, draped in white fairy lights, and decorated with baubles and kerstkransjes — little biscuits tied to branches with colourful ribbon.

In the days leading up to Christmas, Dutch workers traditionally receive a Christmas hamper from their employer known as a kerstpakket. This usually contains wines and fine food, and it is customary for it to contain at least one tin of chicken ragout. 

In east Holland, Christmas is heralded every day from the first Sunday of Advent to Christmas Eve with the Mid-Winter Hoornblazen (Mid-Winter Horn Blowing). This curious custom is performed each day at dawn in this rural part of the country, where farmers stand over their well and blow a soft, low melody from a large horn carved from the trunk of an elder tree to announce the coming of Christ. The well amplifies the sound and carries it for miles, and when the sound dies out, the next farmer picks it up, so it is carried across the whole of the east of the country.  

Between Sint-Nicolaas’s arrival in the Netherlands and Sinterklaas Dag, Dutch children leave their shoes beside a window or door each night alongside a carrot and a saucer of water for Amerigo. If Sint-Nicolaas passes by and they have been good, he may leave some sweets in their shoes for them to find in the morning.  

New Year’s Eve and Day in the Netherlands

Fireworks

Like most countries around the world, the Dutch mark New Year's Eve (Oud en Nieuw) with a night of partying and celebration. The usually reserved Dutch go all-out with fireworks, which are available to buy from the 29th to the 31st December. 

Oud en Nieuw is also celebrated with huge bonfires in the Netherlands, which are traditionally made up of dead Christmas trees. Each year, the nation turns its attention to two rival Amsterdam teams, Scheveningen and Duindorp, who compete to make the biggest New Year’s Eve bonfire in the Netherlands on Scheveningen’s North Beach. The event, which features two colossal bonfires, draws attention from not only the rest of the Netherlands, but also tourists who flock to the event from around the world. 

In coastal cities across the Netherlands, a New Year’s Day dip into the freezing North Sea is also traditional for those brave enough to endure the temperatures. The New Year’s Day lottery is also a big national event, with approximately 17 million Dutch people buying a ticket each year in the hope of winning the €30 million prize. 

The Dutch festive calendar

To help you plan your festive trip to the Netherlands, here’s a breakdown of all of the key dates. Public holidays are marked with an asterisk, and you may find that attractions and shops are closed on these days:

The first Saturday after November 11th: Arrival of Sint-Nicolaas from Spain

The fourth Sunday before Christmas: Advent, which is celebrated by lighting the first candle on the advent wreath and, in the east, the beginning of the Mid-Winter Hoornblazen

5th December: Sinterklaasavond (open presents in the north)

6th December: Sinterklaas Dag (open presents in the south)

7th December: Traditional day to put Christmas decorations up

24th December: Kerstavond (Christmas Eve)

25th December*: Kerstdag (Christmas Day)

26th December*: Tweede Kerstdag (The Second Day of Christmas)

31st December: Oud en Nieuw (New Year's Eve)

1st January: New Year’s Day — Nieuwjaarsdag (New Year’s Day)

6th January: Traditional day to take Christmas decorations down

Dutch Christmas food and drink

Christmas is one of the best times to visit the Netherlands if for no other reason than the food. More so than perhaps any other country, Holland takes its festive treats very seriously, and while you’re there you’ll be able to satisfy your sweet tooth with a range of delicious biscuits and sweets. 

To help you choose, here’s our pick of the best Dutch food and drink over the festive period. Make your way to a traditional Dutch bakery or a stall in one of the country’s excellent Christmas markets to sample these tasty treats at their best.

Kruidnoten and pepernoten

Kruidnoten
© Martijn van ExelLicence

Kruidnoten, which roughly translates as 'spiced nuts', are little round biscuits that date back to the middle ages, when sailors began importing exotic spices back to Europe from the far east. One of these spices was white pepper, which was said to be a strong aphrodisiac and therefore used in fertility biscuits. These treats were thrown at newlyweds on their wedding day as we now throw rice. 

Kruidnoten were also thrown as part of a traditional pagan sowing feast that was celebrated at the start of December, where they were meant to promote a good harvest and ward off bad spirits. Over time, this festival was replaced by the Saint Nicholas Feast, which eventually became the Sinterklaas celebrated today. The tradition of throwing kruidnoten remained, however, and Zwarte Piet does so to all of the children when he and Sint-Nicolaas disembark from their steamboat. 

Kruidnoten are brittle, crunchy biscuits that are not dissimilar in taste or texture to our own ginger nuts, although they are around half the size. They are heavily spiced with aniseed, cinnamon, white pepper, and ginger. To many Dutch people, they define the taste of the Sinterklaas period. 

You can find kruidnoten — as well as their chocolate-coated cousins, chocolade-kruidnoten — in any supermarket or corner shop in Holland from as early as November. However, for an authentic experience of this popular Sinterklaas treat, get yours fresh from a bakery — or make sure to get to the front of the crowd when Sint-Nicolaas and Zwarte Piet parade through the streets during Sint-Nicolaas’s arrival. 

While pepernoten, which translates as 'pepper nuts', may be similar to kruidnoten in name, they shouldn’t be confused — although they often are, even by the Dutch. In recent years, kruidnoten have even been known to be mistakenly named pepernoten on their packaging, confusing matters further. So how can you be sure you really are getting a pepernoot?

In contrast to kruidnoten, these treats have a chewy texture and a subtle liquorice flavour. They are cube-shaped and are known for being difficult to eat due to the fact they harden over time. However, pick yours up fresh from a Dutch bakery and you’ll find a chewy treat with a surprisingly deep flavour. 

Taai-taai

taai-taai
© Turku Gingerbread - Licence

This curious Sinterklaas biscuit is similar to gingerbread, and is often baked in the shape of a person, commonly Sint-Nicolaas. However, where it differs is in texture — taai means tough, and these biscuits live up to their name. The chewy texture is accompanied by an aromatic and incredibly festive flavour, which is the result of a delicious mix of cinnamon, aniseed, nutmeg, and cloves. 

Alongside his role as the protector of children, Sint-Nicolaas gained a status as a matchmaker after gifting the shoemaker’s daughter the money to cover his three daughters’ dowries. Because of this, it is traditional for Dutch men to present a woman they are interested in marrying with a taai-taai biscuit decorated with symbols referring to the man’s trade in the build-up to Sinterklaas. These biscuits are known as vrijer (which translates as 'lovers'), and if the man returns the next day and the biscuit has been eaten, it means the girl has accepted his proposal — if not, he’ll be best off moving on!

Taai-taai are a traditional gift during Sinterklaas, and they are often intricately decorated with symbolic imagery. Churches are gifted to religious people, hogs to grandfathers, and cats to grandmothers. If you’re not lucky enough to receive a wedding proposal during your visit to the Netherlands, then you can pick up a taai-taai from any Dutch bakery. These are traditionally enjoyed with a hot drink. 

Speculaas

speculaas
© Torsten Maue - Licence

In recent years, speculaas has made the transition from a purely festive delicacy to something that is enjoyed all year round — although may Dutch natives refuse to eat them outside of Sint-Nicolaas’s stay in the Netherlands. They are sometimes known as 'windmill biscuits', as they are often baked in the shape of a windmill outside of the festive period. 

Speculaas are thin, crunchy, caramelised biscuits stamped with a festive image. Their flavour is typical of a Dutch Sinterklaas biscuit, and comes from a combination of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cardamom, and white pepper. However, speculaas are distinctive in the fact that they are cooked until they are deliciously caramelised, giving them an incredibly sweet flavour and brittle texture. 

Recently, several varieties of peanut butter–like spread made from crushed speculaas have become popular in the Netherlands. This comes from the Low Countries tradition of taking a speculaas and butter sandwich to work during the Sinterklaas period — by lunch, this filling would develop into a spread-like consistency. This inspired the invention of the spread, which is enjoyed across the country. It comes in smooth and crunchy consistencies, and has a caramelised flavour similar to gingerbread. Pick up a jar from a Dutch supermarket for a taste of this curious take on a Sinterklaas classic. 

Kerstkransjes

kerstkransjes
© WiesLicence

These biscuits are always baked with a hole in the centre so they can be tied to the branch of a Christmas tree with a colourful ribbon. It’s a Dutch tradition to bake them in time for the 6th December, when Sint-Nicolaas has left and the Christmas decorations go up. 

Unlike most other Dutch festive biscuits, kerstkransjes are quite plain, with just a subtle lemon taste. They are traditionally decorated with almonds or glace cherries, and you’ll find them adorning the tree in most Dutch households.  

Kerststol

Kerststol

Kerststol is a dense fruit loaf filled with marzipan and coated in a thick layer of powdered sugar. Traditionally enjoyed at brunch on Christmas Day, the sweet, rich bread is also served to houseguests alongside a cup of coffee or tea, and you can pick up a loaf in any Dutch bakery. 

If you happen to visit the Netherlands over Easter, you’ll see kerststol by another name — paasstol. 

Bishopswijn

Bishopswijn

Bishopswijn, which translates as ‘bishops wine’, is the Dutch equivalent of mulled wine. This hot, spiced wine is the perfect drink for a cold winter’s day, and makes the perfect accompaniment to a trip around one of the Netherlands' Christmas markets. 

The distinctive flavour of bishopswijn comes from a combination of rich red wine sweetened with sugar and flavoured with cinnamon, cloves, and oranges and then heated up. It’s perfect for getting warmed up after a bracing winter’s walk. 

Letterbanket

Letterbanket
© Heather VescentLicence

Letterbanket (aka banketstaven or simply banket) is a marzipan-filled pastry which is baked in the shape of the first letter of the family’s surname. This tradition comes from the ritual of baking a message to be the centrepiece of the Christmas banquet, and now survives as being a single letter. 

Banketstaaf are made from flaky puff pastry and are always dusted with powdered sugar. They can be enjoyed hot or cold, and you’ll find them in bakeries and cafés across the Netherlands during the festive period. 

Alongside the banketstaaf, well-behaved Dutch children can expect to receive at least one chocolate letter in their shoes before Sinterklaas is over. These letters come in the shape of the initial of the child’s first name, and they’re often filled with marzipan. Around 30,000 are sold in the Netherlands each year, and their manufacturers take them very seriously — each letter is a different thickness to ensure they are all an identical weight to ensure no Ilse or Ima ends up jealous of her brother's Maikel or Marten. Pick up a chocolate letter to take back to your loved ones at home for the perfect keepsake from your trip. 

Gourmetten

Gourmetten
© Cristiano BettaLicence

Unlike here in the UK, there is no traditional menu for Christmas dinner. The only staple is the gourmetten pans — individual hot plates on which each diner grills their own food from a selection of meats, vegetables, and pancake batter. 

This tradition was popularised in the 1970s by Dutch celebrity chefs Ton Boer and Huub Oudshoorn, who were contracted by the Dutch meat industry to tour the country singing the praises of gourmetten in an attempt to boost flagging meat sales. The campaign was successful in establishing gourmetten as a Dutch Christmas tradition, with the majority of households gathering around the table to cook their own dinner. 

Oliebollen and appelbeignets

Oliebollen
© Gebruiker TeunieLicence

On Oud en Nieuw, houses across the Netherlands are filled with the sweet and rich scent of frying oliebollen. This traditional Dutch treat is hundreds of years old, and is said to be the precursor to the doughnut after early Dutch settlers took the recipe with them to the New World. Unlike its progeny, oliebollen — which literally translates as 'oil ball' — it is specifically enjoyed when bringing in the New Year. 

Oliebollen can be filled with currants and bits of chopped apple, but it is usually simply coated in powdered sugar and cinnamon. Its close cousin is appelflappen, another New Year’s treat which resembles a cross between an apple pie and a doughnut. No Dutch New Year is complete without at least one of these treats, so make sure to indulge if you’re in the Netherlands on 31st December.

What’s the weather like in the Netherlands at Christmas?

Netherlands weather

The weather in the Netherlands is similar to what we have here in the UK, with relatively moderate temperatures all year round. Visit over the festive period and you’ll experience the kind of weather you’d expect in southern England — a lot of grey days and rain, with the possibility of sunshine and, the closer it gets to January, snow. Expect an average temperature of 4°C in December, dropping lower the closer you get to January, the country’s coldest month. 

Much like the UK, the Netherlands only sees sunlight from around 8.30am to 4.30pm in midwinter. A visit in December will therefore give you plenty of time to enjoy the gorgeous Christmas lights that adorn the city centres and set the perfect backdrop to a mug of bishopswijn and a selection of speculaas in a local café. 

Much like the weather here in the UK, if you were to sum the Dutch weather up in one word, it would be 'unpredictable'. Winter can see a month-long period when frost never leaves the ground, while on the other hand, temperatures can reach as high as 15°C. However, on the whole, the Dutch winter is cloudy and damp, and you should plan your activities with this in mind. 

Will it snow in the Netherlands at Christmas?

Amsterdam in the snow
© Laurl VäinLicence

White Christmases are few and far between in the Netherlands, with the capital, Amsterdam, last experiencing snow on Christmas Day in 2010. It’s therefore unlikely you’ll see snow on a visit here during the festive period. Frosts, on the other hand, are extremely common, so it’s wise to bring some good-quality boots with a firm grip along for the trip.

What clothes should I pack on a trip to the Netherlands at Christmas?

Amsterdam cyclist in the snow
© Ineke HuizingLicence

Given that one of the country’s most recognisable landmarks is its windmills, it should come as no surprise to learn that the Netherlands is an especially windy country. This makes for some particularly biting winter weather, so you should make sure to wrap up warm on a trip there over the festive period. 

Given that the Dutch weather is so unpredictable, it can be wise to pack for a wide range of conditions on a trip there in December. While it would be foolish not to bring a coat, you may never need to wear it — however, if the weather takes an unexpected turn for the worse, you’ll definitely be glad you did. 

If you were looking to start your trip in November to experience Sint-Nicolaas’s arrival first-hand, make sure to pack a raincoat, as this is the Netherlands' wettest month with an average rainfall of 90mm. Furthermore, if you fancied extending your trip into January, pack a hat and gloves alongside your coat, as average temperatures drop to a chilly 3°C.

The Netherlands' Christmas markets

Christmas market
© FrancoisLicence

Like many other northern-European countries, the Netherlands is famed for its excellent Christmas markets, which take over city centres up and down the country from late November to early January. At this time of year, almost every town and city in the Netherlands adorns its main streets and squares with strings of white lights and luscious green Christmas trees glistening with ornaments. 

If you want to experience the very best of what the Netherlands has to offer over the festive period, here’s our pick of the country’s premier Christmas markets. We’ve included key information about each, such as: when and where the market is held, the attractions that make it worth a visit, and the typical prices you can expect to pay for food and drink while you’re there. 

So read on to find the perfect Dutch Christmas market for you. 

Keukenhof Christmas Market

Keukenhof Christmas market

When: 4th–6th December and 11th–13th December

 Fri: 6pm–10pm
 Sat: 11am–10pm
 Sun: 11am–6pm

Where: The market is located in the beautiful Keukenhof Castle, a turreted 17th-century mansion attached to the world-famous Keukenhof gardens. 

Attractions: In spring, millions of visitors descend on Keukenhof gardens to witness the spectacular bloom of the carpets of tulips. During December, tourists visiting the picturesque estate will experience one of the Netherlands’ best Christmas markets. 

On a visit, you’ll be able to enjoy so much more than a hundred or so the stalls and chalets selling traditional Dutch gifts, food, and drink, as the castle also hosts an ice rink, a circus, and a storyteller. If you’d rather take things easy, then pick up a hot chocolate and a traditional Dutch festive treat from one of the stalls and enjoy the beauty of the grounds, which are adorned with decorations and glimmering lights each year. 

Typical prices: During a visit to Keukenhof, you can expect the bill to come to between €12–18 a head for a meal in an inexpensive restaurant and €25–40 in somewhere a bit higher-end. A half-litre of beer or a medium glass of wine will cost between €2.50 and €5, depending on where you’re buying, while a regular cappuccino will set you back around €2.  

Amsterdam Christmas Markets

Amsterdam Christmas market
© Tanya HartLicence

When: Amsterdam has several Christmas markets over the festive period which run throughout the month of December.  

Where: You’ll find permanent Christmas markets at the Museumplein (which is also the location of the city’s largest ice rink), Damrak, and Rembrandtplein, the latter of which specialises in traditional Dutch food and drink. 

Attractions: There are few better times to visit the beautiful Dutch capital of Amsterdam than during December, not least because the city is illuminated by the stunning sculptures of the Amsterdam Light Festival. This will be the fifth year running that the city will come to life with vibrant and imaginative light-based sculptures from 1st December to 22nd January. 

This year, Amsterdam will also be home to the Ijsbeelden Festival, which visits a different city each year. During the festival, which runs from 10th December 2016 to 5th February 2017, the city will be filled with 550,000kg of ice and snow which has been transformed into intricate sculptures by master craftsmen and women. The theme of this year’s festival is music, and you can expect to see lifesize carvings of musical icons from Beethoven to Bowie throughout the city centre.  

Alongside Amsterdam’s permanent markets, there are also a number of temporary installations. On 18th and 19th December, you can enjoy drinks and live music alongside a Christmas market at Roest, a bar located in the east of the city. On 13th December, there will be a dedicated Christmas market in the Amstelpark, and on the 20th there’s another at Frankendael park — these feature delicious food from local producers and plenty of potential gifts. 

Typical prices: A three-course meal for two at a nice restaurant in Amsterdam will set you back approximately €60, while half a litre of draught beer will cost between €4 and €8 — avoid the pubs on the main streets for significantly cheaper prices. 

Deventer Christmas Market

Christmas baubles

When: 19th and 20th December 2016.

Where: The Deventer Christmas Market takes over the whole of the city centre. The only entrance is through the Keizerstraat, where you’ll be joining 150,000 other visitors making their way into the popular festival. 

Attractions: The Deventer Christmas Market really is one of a kind. While here, you’ll not only find more than 200 stalls lining the cobbled streets and filling the magnificent gothic church hall, but also over 900 characters straight from the pages of Charles Dickens’ famous novels. Stepping into the Deventer Dickens festival is truly like taking a trip back in time. Scrooge, Marley, and Mr Pickwick walk the streets against the picturesque backdrop of this historic city alongside wealthy ladies and gentlemen in top hats and tails, carol singers, and street urchins. 

On the Sunday evening, the festival closes in the city centre with a performance of Christmas songs from a selection of local choirs, carol groups, and orchestras.  

Typical prices: The Deventer Dickens festival is free to enter, and while most restaurants and bars raise their prices at the arrival of 150,000 tourists at their doorstep, you can still find plenty of reasonably-priced places to grab a drink, snack, or meal down the city’s side streets. Stay clear of the main squares and you can expect a meal for two at a good-quality restaurant to come to approximately €50. Half a litre of draught beer will usually come to €4–7, as will a glass of wine, and a cappuccino will cost €2–3.  

Maastricht Christmas Market

Maastricht Christmas market

When: 2nd December 2016 to 1st January 2017. 

Where: During December, the whole of Maastricht is transformed into a winter wonderland, but head to Vrijthof Square to get to the centre of the festivities. 

Attractions: Maastricht takes Christmas very seriously, and this quaint Dutch city is well worth a visit over December if you’re looking for a festive fix. On a visit here, you’ll find cosy cobbled streets bathed in the warm glow of the Christmas lighting installation which connects the city’s squares. This display culminates in Onze Lieve Vrouweplein square, where you’ll find over 200 LED mistletoes illuminating the trees.  

You won’t be able to miss Vrijthof Square while you’re here, which not only features over 75 stalls and chalets, but an 800m2 ice rink and a giant illuminated Ferris wheel, all overlooked by a gothic basilica. 

Typical prices: Maastricht is a popular tourist destination during the festive period, and as such you should budget for quite inflated prices. While you can spend as little as €10 a head in some of the city’s cheaper restaurants at this time of year, you should expect that to be closer to €30–40 in somewhere more high-end. Half a litre of beer will come to around €4 away from the tourist attractions and can rise to €8 on the main streets, and a glass of wine will cost around the same. 

Valkenburg Christmas Market

Valkenburg christmas market
© C M FrieseLicence

When: November 13th 2016 to January 3rd 2017. 

 Mon–Thu: 10am–8pm
 Fri–Sat: 10am–9pm (11am–6pm on 23rd Dec)
 Sun: 10am–8pm

Where: The spectacular setting for the Valkenburg Christmas Market is a series of caves that run underneath Cauberg hill. The main market is found in the Municipal Cave, which is the largest and oldest underground Christmas market in Europe. 

Attractions: This year, the doors will open for the 31st time on the truly unique Christmas market at Valkenburg. Over the festive period, the caves that lie underneath the quaint town are adorned with decorations and transformed into a winter wonderland. 

In the Municipal Cave, the larger of the two, you’ll find stalls selling traditional Dutch gifts among the Christmas trees and decorations. The Velvet Cave is a cosier affair, and here you’ll be able to enjoy the breathtaking murals, sculptures, and 18th-century chapel alongside even more excellent stalls. 

During the festive period, the Valkenburg caves also feature impressive lifesize sculptures of nativity scenes made from sand. This will top off one of Europe’s most unique Christmas markets. 

Typical Prices: Entry to the Valkenburg Christmas Market is free for children under 5, €5 for children aged 6–12, and €7 for everyone else. 

Outside of the market, you can dine out in Valkenburg city centre for anywhere between €15–40 a head, depending on your budget and taste. A half-litre of draught beer will come to €3–5, while a regular cappuccino will set you back €2–3. 

Dutch Christmas phrases

Snow globe

In preparation for any trip, it’s a good idea to learn a few basic phrases in the local language. This could not only prove invaluable if you ever find yourself in an emergency while abroad, but it is also good manners to address the locals in their native tongue to the best of your ability. This will earn you a lot of respect from the Dutch natives you interact with, and you may very well put a smile on their face when you wish them a Vrolijk Kerstfeest!

Take a look at the key phrases we’ve listed below for all of the basics you need for a trip to the Netherlands during Christmas.

Dutch Greetings

English phrase

Dutch

Hello/hi

Hallo/hoi

Good morning

Goedemorgen

Good evening

Goedenavond

Goodbye

Vaarwel

 

Dutch Christmas phrases

Christmas Day

Kerstdag

Christmas Eve

Kerstavond

New Year’s Day

Nieuwjaarsdag

New Year’s Eve

Oudejaarsavond

St Nicholas’s Day

Sinterklaas Dag

Christmas present

Kerstcadeau

Christmas tree

Kerstboom

Season’s greetings!

Groeten van het seizoen!

Merry Christmas!

Vrolijk Kerstfeest!

Happy New Year!

Gelukkig Nieuwjaar!

White Christmas

Witte kerst

 

Dutch etiquette

Thank you/thanks

Dank je/bedankt

Please

Alstublieft

Excuse me

Excuseer mij

Yes/No

Ja/Nee

Sorry

Sorry

Where is the toilet, please?

Waarbjj si de toilet, alstublieft?

 

Shopping

What time do you close?

Hoe laat sluit je?

At what time do you open?

Hoe laat u opent

How much is it?

Hoeveel is het?

Do you take credit cards?

Accepteert u creditcards?

Do you have this in my size?

Heeft u dit in mijn maat?

 

Emergencies

I don’t speak Dutch

Ik spreek geen Nederlands

Do you speak English?

Spreekt u Engels?

Help!

Hulp!

I’m lost

Ik ben verdwaald

I don’t understand

Ik begrijp het niet

I'm looking for a pharmacy

Ik ben op zoek naar een apotheek

I feel sick

Ik voel me ziek

I need a doctor

Ik heb een dokter nodig

Where is the hospital?

Waar is het ziekenhuis?

Where is the police station?

Waar is het politiekantoor?

Call an ambulance

Bel een ambulance

 

Numbers

One

Een

Two

Twee

Three

Drie

Four

Vier

Five

Vijf

Six

Zes

Seven

Zeven

Eight

Acht

Nine

Negen

Ten

Tien

Visiting the Netherlands at Christmas

Amsterdam at Christmas 2
© Floris LooijesteijnLicence

With the wealth of fantastic Christmas markets filling its quaint and picturesque towns and cities, the Netherlands is the perfect destination for those looking for a festive getaway this winter. The country is linked by its famous canal systems, making a river cruise the perfect way to explore everything this enigmatic country has to offer, from the countryside to the heart of its cities.  

Here at The River Cruise Line, we offer a range of festive cruises to some of the Netherlands' most popular Christmas markets. Along the way, you’ll get the chance to experience the Netherlands' festive cheer, delicious food and drink, and rich history during this most wonderful time of the year. 

So, if you want to do something special with your Christmas this year, take a look at our Dutch Christmas market cruises. Book a place on our Christmas Markets Extravaganza cruise and Antwerp to Brussels Christmas cruise to see the very best of what both the Netherlands and Belgium have to offer over the festive period, including Valkenburg’s breathtaking cave markets. 

Our Belgium Christmas Markets cruise ends in the Dutch capital of Amsterdam, where you’ll be able to extend your trip by exploring the best of the Dutch Christmas markets as well. Our New Year’s Belgian Cruise also begins and ends in Rotterdam, giving you the chance to arrive in the Netherlands early and soak up the festive atmosphere before heading south to spend New Year’s in Belgium.  

If you’re still not sure where you’d prefer to go to get into the Christmas spirit, then make sure to check out our guides to Christmas in Germany, Austria, and Belgium for more inspiration. 

 

Christmas in Germany

Magical markets, glowing glühwein & wonderful Weihnachtsmann

Christmas in Germany (c) Rene Schwietzke
© Rene SchwietzkeLicence

Magical markets, festive foods and seasonal sights make Germany one of the best places to prepare for Christmas. Visit in late November or December to get into the Christmas spirit, experience the country's holiday culture, and buy unique gifts for your loved ones.

If you're interested in visiting Germany during the holiday season or already have a festive trip planned, make sure to read our travel guide for must-know information about: 

 German Christmas traditions
 Christmas food and drink in Germany
 What's the weather like in Germany at Christmas?
 Christmas markets in Germany


German Christmas traditions

Germany's Christian heritage has cultivated a number of Christmas traditions, many of which have spread across the world. It is said that Christmas trees, Christmas markets, gingerbread houses, advent calendars and much more originated in Germany. Plus, the classic Christmas song O Christmas Tree (O Tannenbaum) has German roots.

When do Germans celebrate Christmas?

German advent calendar - public domain

There are lots of important dates in the German Christmas calendar, which are oriented around spending time with loved ones and celebrating religious and cultural traditions. You can read more about them below.

According to the German constitution, "Sundays and the public holidays remain protected as days of rest from work and of spiritual elevation" — this means most locals get to spend the important holidays at home. Tourists will find that stores and attractions are closed or have limited opening hours on these dates.

 

2016

2017

2018

Advent

Advent Sunday/Green Sunday

Grüner Sonntag

27th November

3rd December

2nd December

St Barbara's Day

Barbaratag

4th December

Nicholas Eve

Nikolausabend

5th December

St Nicholas Day

Nikolaustag

6th December

Second Sunday in Advent/Copper Sunday

Kupferner Sonntag

4th December

10th December

9th December

Third Sunday in Advent/Silver Sunday

Silberner Sonntag

11th December

17th December

16th December

Fourth Sunday in Advent/Golden Sunday

Goldener Sonntag

18th December

24th December

23rd December

Christmas Eve/Holy Evening

Heiligabend

24th December

 

First Christmas Day

Erster Weihnachtstag

25th December

 

Second Christmas Day

Zweiter Weihnachtsfeiertag

26th December

 

New Year's Eve

Silvester

31st December

 

New Year's Day

Neujahrstag

1st January

 

Epiphany/Three Kings' Day

Heilige Drei Könige

6th January

 

Advent in Germany: Lighting candles and singing songs

Adventskranz - advent wreath - (c)Dirk Vorderstraße
© Dirk VorderstraßeLicence

Germany observes advent (adventszeit), a western Christian season that anticipates the coming of Christ. Advent Sunday marks the beginning of advent and the liturgical year, and lies on the Sunday closest to 30th November. The season ends on Christmas Eve.

Traditionally, families will mark the beginning of advent by lighting the first candle on their advent wreath (adventskranz) and singing festive songs together (like the one below). Advent Sunday is known locally as Grüner Sonntag, which translates to Green Sunday, in reference to the evergreen leaves of the wreath.

An additional candle is lit on each Sunday in advent to symbolise the passing of the season. These second, third and fourth Sundays are respectively known as Kupferner Sonntag (Copper Sunday) lberner Sonntag (Silver Sunday) and Goldener Sonntag (Golden Sunday) in reference to metallic wreath decorations.

Advent, Advent, ein Lichtlein brennt,

Erst eins, dann zwei, dann drei, dann vier 

Dann steht das Christkind vor der Tür.

Advent, Advent, a light is burning,

First one, then two, then three, then four,

Then the Christ child is on the doorstep.

 

German children's adventskalender tend to count down from 1st December rather than the first Sunday in advent. Just like British advent calendars, each of the 24 days bears a chocolate treat, small toy or Christmassy image.

Barbara's Day and Barbarazweig: The cherry branch tradition

Barbarazweig - (c) Karl Gruber
© Karl GruberLicence

In Catholic regions of Germany, St Barbara's Day (4th December) is commemorated with a custom known as Barbarazweig. A cherry branch is placed in a vase of water, the idea being that it will blossom on Christmas Day and bring good luck for the following year. It is said that tending to a cherry branch kept St Barbara's spirits up while she was imprisoned.  

St Nicholas Day: Putting your boot out for Nikolaus

St Nicholas Eve and Day in Germany - public domain

On the night of 5th December, Nikolaus (St Nicholas) goes from house to house leaving small treats for good children. Youngsters put a polished Nikolaus-Stiefel (Nicholas boot) out when they go to bed, hoping to find it stuffed with gifts and treats the next morning, on Nikolaustag (St Nicholas Day). 

Nikolaus is a bishop with a long, white beard who is usually depicted wearing a red mitre, red cloak and white alb. He also carries a golden staff, and rides a white horse. Though he looks similar to Santa Claus, it is Christkind or Weihnachtsmann who bring German children gifts on Christmas Eve.

In Bavarian folklore, Nikolaus is accompanied by a threatening character called Knecht Ruprecht (Servant Rupert), who leaves bundles of twigs in the boots of misbehaved children. He is usually depicted with a brown robe and dark beard. 

Christmas Eve in Germany: Putting up the tree & exchanging gifts

Christkind - public domain

Christmas Day and Boxing Day in Germany: A time for eating and relaxing

Germans refer to 25th and 26th December as der erste und zweite Weihnachtstag: the first and second Christmas Day. Both are public holidays across states, so that everyone can spend time at home with their families. 

The gift exchange occurs on Christmas Eve, so the first and second Christmas Day are reserved for eating and relaxing with family. The traditional Christmas dinner in Germany consists of goose, red cabbage, apple and sausage stuffing, and serviettenknödel (potato dumpling). 

New Year's Eve and Day in Germany: Pouring lead and lighting fireworks

New Year's Eve is known as Silvester in Germany, as it is also Saint Sylvester's feast day. When the clock strikes midnight, church bells ring, bottles of sekt (German sparkling wine) are uncorked, and loved ones wish each other a Prosit Neujahr! 

Fireworks are a hugely popular way to celebrate. As stores cannot sell them outside 27th –31st December, and it's illegal to light them on any dates except New Year's Eve and Day, Germans really make the most of their opportunity to light up the skies.

 Bleigiessen (c) Micha L Rieser
© Micha L. RieserLicence

A more unusual custom is lead pouring or molybdomancy (Bleigießen), whereby a small piece of lead is melted in a spoon held over a candle, then poured into cold water. The resulting shape of the hardened lead is said to determine your fortune for the coming year.

Germans will also exchange good luck charms (glücksbringer) like four-leaf clovers and horseshoes. It's also lucky to touch a chimney sweep toy — a vestige from the days when chimney sweeps kept ovens functioning, and so kept food on tables — and eat a lucky marzipan pig (glücksschwein). Other popular Silvester foods include carp, herring, and lentil soup.

Strangely, families will also gather to watch English-language TV comedy Dinner for One on the last day of the year. A line from the sketch show, "Same procedure as every year", is a commonly heard catchphrase in Germany. Another popular televised event is the Chancellor's New Year speech (Neujahrsansprache).

One thing you cannot do on New Year's Eve is hang out your washing, as it's thought the Germanic god Wotan (aka Odin) will get tangled on the clothesline and curse you with bad luck.

New Year's Day (Neujahrstag) is a public holiday in Germany, and a time to relax with your loved ones. Germans may even set themselves resolutions (Neujahrsvorsätzen) for the year ahead.

Epiphany: When the German Christmas season comes to an end

Sternsinger in Dessau-Roßlau
© Thomas GufflerLicence

Heilige Drei Könige (Epiphany or Three Kings' Day) celebrates the arrival of the Three Wise Men in Bethlehem, and marks the end of the 12 days of Christmas. It is a public holiday in the German federal states of Baden-Württemberg, Bavaria and Saxony-Anhalt.

It is traditional for groups of children known as sternsinger to go singing door-to-door. They will also 'chalk the door' as a way of blessing the house, by writing 20*C+M+B+17, where the numbers represent the year. CMB stands for Christus mansionem benedicat (God protect this house).


Christmas food and drink in Germany

Hot drinks and spiced treats are hugely popular during advent in Germany, helping lift everyone's spirits in the cold, dark season. Most cafés and Christmas markets will serve these festive favourites, so make sure you don't miss out when visiting.

Glühwein

Gluhwein at German Christmas market - George Nell
© George NellLicence

Mulled wine — a hot beverage usually made from red wine, cinnamon, cloves, sugar and orange — is a festive favourite across much of Europe. Named glühwein in Germany, this warm and spicy drink is the perfect antidote to a winter's day. It might even come with a shot of brandy mixed in (mit schuss).

At most German Christmas markets, glühwein is served in a festive ceramic mug for which you will pay a few euros' deposit. This can be kept as a souvenir or returned for your deposit back.

Feuerzangenbowle

Feuerzangenbowle - public domain

Feuerzangenbowle is a theatrical drink, whereby a rum-soaked sugar cone (zuckerhut) is set alight and suspended over a bowl of glühwein. The drink is kept warm by a small burner (rechaud), much like a fondue, then ladled into mugs once the sugar has melted.

At Nuremberg Christmas Market, you can drink this delicious concoction from the largest punch bowl in the world, with a capacity of 9,000 litres. 

Weihnachtsstollen

Weihnachtsstollen

Fruit cake is a festive staple across the western world, and in Germany it is known as stollen, Weihnachtsstollen or Christstollen. Made to symbolise the baby Jesus wrapped in blankets, it is a Christmas favourite across Germany — Dresden even hosts a Stollenfest each year, on the Saturday before Kupferner Sonntag (the second Sunday in advent).

Lebkuchen

Lebkuchen, a kind of gingerbread flavoured with honey, is one of the most popular treats at German Christmas markets. It's available in lots of different varieties — whether plain, iced or filled with almonds, it's a must-have when visiting Germany at Christmastime. Pfefferkuchenhaus, gingerbread houses, are popular festive decorations.

Plätzchen, German Christmas biscuits - public domain

Weihnachtsplätzchen is a term covering a wide variety of biscuits enjoyed during advent. However, the point is not in the eating, but in the baking. Families and friends come together to make recipes featuring cinnamon, vanilla and almonds; use cookie cutters in the shapes of hearts, stars and snowmen; and decorate their biscuits with icing, chocolate and nuts.  

Bethmännchen

Bethmännchen

Bethmännchen is a marzipan-flavoured pastry, which is particularly popular at Frankfurt's Christmas market. Named after the famous banker Simon Moritz von Bethmann for whom they were created, it's said that Bethmännchen were originally studded with four almonds to represent his four sons, but one was removed following one son's death.

Marzipan

Marzipanschwein
© Alice WiegandLicence

Eaten alone or used as decorations, marzipan treats, moulded from a sugar and almond mixture, are extremely popular in Germany during Christmastime. The bar-shaped marzipanbrot and spherical marzipankartoffeln are commonplace, but you can find all kinds of shapes — marzipanschwein (marzipan pigs) are thought to bring good luck on New Year's Eve.

What's the weather like in Germany at Christmas?

German alps

Germany has a temperate seasonal climate, which means relatively mild winters. Temperatures tend to hover around 0°C near Christmas, although you can expect a few extra degrees in western areas like Cologne and Frankfurt. There's around a 50:50 chance of rain on any given day in December.

You might get a dusting of snow at a German Christmas market, but the likelihood of a blanketing is slim. However, mountainous areas like Bavaria offer a very good chance of a white Christmas — especially once you're above 1,500 metres.

Christmas Markets in Germany

Christmas fair in Germany - public domain

German Christmas markets (Weihnachtsmarkt) have been exported to countries including the UK, but there's nothing quite like the real thing. Usually open from the week before advent until 23rd December, markets pop up in squares across Germany, spreading festive cheer (gemütlichkeit) far and wide.  

Christmas markets are of course the perfect place to sample festive foods and drinks, which will warm your cockles on a cold winter's day. You won't be able to resist picking up unique handcrafted gifts, either. But they're worth visiting for the atmosphere alone — glittering lights, incredible decorations and smiling faces draw thousands of tourists to Weihnachtsmarkt every year.

Read on for details about some of Germany's best Christmas markets, as well as the other festive attractions you can find nearby.

Rüdesheim Christmas Market

Lebkucken at Christmas market - public domain

At Rüdesheim's Weihnachtsmarkt der Nationen Christmas market, 12 countries are represented across 120 stalls. This gives you the opportunity to enjoy festive delicacies and regional crafts from around the world, all without stepping out of this chocolate-box town. 

However, make sure to try the local speciality: Rüdesheimer kaffee (Rüdesheim coffee). Much like feuerzangenbowle, serving this drink is akin to a theatrical performance. A unique handle-less porcelain cup arrives at the table with cubes of sugar inside. Asbach Uralt cognac is poured on top then set alight, with black coffee and a dollop of whipped cream (complete with chocolate shavings) added afterwards — as this video from Mateusz Mandziara shows.

Open 24th November–23rd December 2016

 Sun–Thu: 11am–8pm 
 Fri–Sat: 11am–9pm 

Strasbourg Christmas Market

Christkindelsmarik Strasbourg - public domain

Strasbourg is located on the French-German border, and has long exchanged hands between the two countries. Although currently classified as French, Strasbourg's history is steeped in German culture, and this is evident in its Christmas market.

Christkindelsmärik is considered to be the oldest Christmas market in Europe, having been founded in the 16th century. You'll find over 300 stalls across the city centre, concentrated in front of the spectacular cathedral. Don't miss the incredible 30-metre tree at Place Kléber.

Open 25th November–31st December 2016

Düsseldorf Christmas Market

Christmas baubles - public domain

There are six major Christmas markets across Düsseldorf's city centre:

 Christmas market on Marketplatz 
 Christmas market on Flinger Straße
 Engelchenmarkt (Little Angel Market) on Heinrich-Heine-Platz 
 Sternchenmarkt (Little Star Market) at Stadtbrückchen
 Christmas market at the Kö-Bogen (Jan-Wellem-Platz)
 Christmas market on Schadowstraße

As well as beautifully decorated huts offering arts and crafts, food and drink, and an incredible festive atmosphere, you can enjoy plenty of other Christmassy attractions. There's a free ice skating rink on Gustaf-Gründgens-Platz, mesmerising lights along the Königsallee and shopping boulevards, and old-fashioned merry-go-rounds that have entertained children for generations. 

Open 17th November–23rd December 2016, closed 20th November

 Sun–Thu: 11am–8pm
 Fri–Sat: 11am–9pm

Cologne Christmas Market

Cologne Christmas market - (c) Superbass
© SuperbassCC-BY-SA-3.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)

The Christmas market in Cologne (Köln) is spread across six main areas.

The Weihnachtsmarkt am Dom (Cathedral Christmas Market) is located in front of the impressive Cologne Cathedral. There are over 150 huts featuring bakers, jewellers and toymakers, centred around the spectacularly lit 25-metre Nordmann fir tree. 

Open 21st November–23rd December

• Sun–Wed: 11am–9pm
• Thu–Fri: 11am–10pm
• Sat: 10am–10pm

Angels Christmas market Cologne - (c) Marco Verch
© Marco VerchLicence

You might see angels sprinkling glitter as you walk through Markt der Engel (Angel's Market), which can be found on the Neumarkt. Strings of star-shaped lights hung from trees make this a particularly beautiful area, and you can pick up all the festive goodies you'd expect. 

Open 21st November–23rd December

• Sun–Thu: 11am–9pm
 Fri–Sat: 11am–10pm

 Nautical Christmas - public domain

The Hafen Weihnachtsmarkt (Harbour Christmas Market), located next to the Chocolate Museum, has a nautical theme — you'll even find stalls inside a brightly lit ship. Over 70 white tipis tempt you with fresh seafood, high-quality gifts and much more. Don't miss the sea shanties and pirate performances. 

Open 18th November–23rd December, closed 20th November

• Sun–Thu: 11am–9pm
Fri–Sat: 11am–10pm

 Heimat der Heinzel Koeln Altermarkt - (c) Superbass
© SuperbassCC-BY-SA-3.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)

The fairytale-esque Heimat der Heinzel, home of the Heinzelmännchen house gnomes, lies in front of Cologne's town hall on Alter Markt. It's particularly good for children, boasting a grotto, puppet shows, and a carousel. Enjoy ice skating or a game of eisstockschiessen (curling) on Heumarkt's rink. 

Open 21st November–23rd December

 11am–10pm daily

German xmas market decorations - public domain

The Stadtgarten park is taken over by festivities come December, and is the perfect place to find unusual handicrafts, food and drink — look no further for something a bit different. There's also an events programme with storytelling and theatrical performances.  

Open 21st November–23rd December

 Mon–Fri: 4pm–9.30pm
 Sat–Sun: 12pm–9.30pm

 Nikolausdorf Rudolfplatz Cologne - (c) Andreas Nöthen
© Andreas NöthenLicence

When visiting Nikolausdorf (St Nick's Village) on the Rudolfplatz, you'll be transported to a fairytale world. Home to what may be the most beautifully decorated stalls in Germany, this family-oriented destination can't be missed. Make sure to visit St Nicholas's house and the Village Chapel. 

Open 21st November–23rd December

Koblenz Christmas Market

Christmas market decorations - public domain

There will be over 130 traditional Christmas market stalls at Koblenz this year, spread across Münzplatz, Plan, Rathausplatz, Liebfrauenkirche, Jesuitenplatz, and Zentralplatz. All these squares are just a stone's throw away from the famous Schängelbrunnen (spitting boy) fountain, which lies in the heart of the old town.

You can pick up everything from freshly baked stollen to handcrafted decorations. At the weekends, carol singers gather on the squares to add to the festive atmosphere. As Koblenz is located in the Rhineland-Palatinate wine growing region, you can expect the glühwein to be especially good.

You'll also find an ice rink on Zentralplatz, by the Großer Weihnachtsbaum (big Christmas tree). There's the opportunity to enjoy an enchanting carriage ride and visit Nikolaus, too. Don't miss the advent calendar on the historic town hall's roof.

Open 18th November–22nd December 2016

• Mon–Thu: 10am–8pm
 Fri–Sat: 10am–9pm
 Sun: 11am–8pm

Visiting Germany at Christmas

Many of Germany's most Christmassy destinations are located along its rivers, from where you can see snow-capped mountains and beautifully lit towns during late November and December. Going on a German river cruise during advent is a fantastic way to enjoy markets and festivities at multiple destinations — without the hassle.

If you'd like to get into the festive spirit, our German Christmas Markets cruise is perfect. We'll also be visiting magical destinations like Strasbourg in the lead-up to 25th December, so don't miss out.

To celebrate Christmas Day somewhere new, look no further than our 7-day and 8-day Christmas cruises on the Rhine. If you fancy experiencing a German Christmas but can't imagine being away from home on the big day, then hop aboard our Turkey & Tinsel cruise, where you can enjoy a traditional German Christmas Day dinner and much more a month early.

We are also offering a New Year Rhine cruise, where you can join in the party, view spectacular firework shows, and maybe get your very own glücksbringer — what better way to end the year?

Gute Reise und Fröhliche Weihnachten! 

Bon Voyage and Merry Christmas!

 

Cruise the Danube to Vienna and Budapest


Mr Bridge booking number 01483 489961

Join Bernard Magee to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Mr Bridge on these exclusive river cruises.

By coach: 5-14 October 2017; by air: 6-13 October 2017
10 days from £1099

or

By coach: 12-21 October 2017; by air: 13-20 October 2017
10 days from £1099

Discover the delights of the Danube as you enjoy seminars and daily bridge* with Bernard Magee or Sandy Bell, on one of the most scenic journeys through the heart of Europe. From the pretty city of Passau on the Austrian border to the Hungarian capital of Budapest, we cruise in comfort and style aboard the ms Serenity, passing through the beautiful scenery of the Wachau valley and dipping into the history and culture of amazing cities along the way. With a full day in the musical city of Vienna and Budapest as well as a visit to the Slovakian capital of Bratislava, this is a wonderful opportunity to sail the waters that are beautifully immortalised by the composer Strauss, in the classical waltz The Blue Danube

Day 1: UK – Germany (Coach)
Travel by coach to Dover from your chosen departure point and take the ferry to Calais, where we continue to the overnight hotel.

Day 2: Germany – Passau (Air)
After breakfast we travel by coach and board our ship in Passau, known as ‘the three rivers city’ due to its unique location where the Danube, Inn and Ilz rivers meet. Those travelling by air join today. Safety briefing and welcome meeting from the ship and and the bridge team as we set sail and cruise towards Melk.

Day 3: Melk – Vienna
This morning we arrive in the small town of Melk which lies in the beautiful Wachau valley. Here you can join an optional excursion to visit the most famous monastic house in Austria, the Benedictine Abbey, situated above Melk in the Wachau valley. Return to the ship late morning and enjoy afternoon bridge as we sail to Vienna for an overnight stop. This evening there will be a pre-dinner drinks reception in the Lido Bar followed by dinner as we arrive in Vienna.

Day 4: Vienna
We spend a whole day in Vienna experiencing the delights of this beautiful city. In the morning you can join an optional city tour to experience its grand palaces, baroque castles, magnifi cent squares and striking monuments and after lunch on board we have an optional afternoon excursion to Schönbrunn Palace, or alternatively you may wish to join an afternoon bridge session. Enjoy evening bridge on board as we cast o and cruise towards Budapest.

Day 5: Budapest
After breakfast there will be a seminar in the Lounge Bar before we sail into Budapest with commentary on the city as we arrive. Then spend time in one of the world’s most beautiful cities and explore both sides of Hungary’s capital – traditional ‘Buda’ and cosmopolitan ‘Pest’. Start with an optional tour to become acquainted with the city known as the “pearl of the Danube” and in the evening you can choose to either play more bridge or experience Budapest by night on another optional excursion, enjoying a city tour, glass of wine and a folklore show in a local tavern.

Day 6: Budapest
Enjoy free time in Budapest or opt to take our excursion taking you through the sweeping plains of Hungary to Lajosmizse. Here we visit a traditional stud farm and enjoy a tour of the grounds in a horse-drawn carriage, before watching a live Puszta horse show. We then sail to Bratislava with a seminar and set hands in the afternoon followed by after-dinner bridge in the evening.

Day 7: Bratislava
Early morning arrival into Bratislava. After breakfast, join our optional walking tour to take in the sights of the Slovakian capital, dominated by its castle and unique suspension bridge, to experience its rich culture. Later in the day we set sail towards Dürnstein and there will be afternoon and evening bridge sessions.

Day 8: Durnstein
Dürnstein is crowned by the ruins of the castle that once imprisoned Richard the Lionheart. Take time to walk in the town and explore it's pretty courtyards and buildings, before stopping at one of the Wachau valley’s wine cellars for some wine tasting. We then set sail for Passau with a bridge seminar to enjoy on the way and pre-dinner bridge in the Lounge bar. Preceding tonight’s 30th Anniversary Gala Dinner there will be a drinks party and prize-giving.

Day 9: Passau – Germany (Coach) / UK (Air)
Those travelling by coach disembark after breakfast and travel by coach to the overnight hotel. Those travelling by air also disembark this morning for their return flights to the UK.

Day 10: Germany – UK (Coach)
After breakfast you will continue by coach to Calais, taking the ferry to Dover for the return journey to your chosen pick-up/drop-off points.

*Bridge programme may be subject to change.

To book or for more information contact Mr Bridge on 01483 489961

Click here to see prices and travel options for the 5 & 6 October departure

Click here to see prices and travel options for the 12 & 13 October departure

MS Serenity

MS Serenity

This stylish 4-star vessel allows passengers to explore the great waterways of Europe in style while being under the care of a friendly and attentive crew.

Cruise the Danube to Vienna & Budapest Excursions

Enhance your holiday experience with a range of optional excursions that allow you to discover the history of our ports of call,

Cruise the Danube to Vienna & Budapest Excursions

Enhance your holiday experience with a range of optional and included excursions that allow you to discover the history of our ports of call, experience the tradition of local regions and explore further afield. They’re the perfect complement to your cruise itinerary, but they are subject to availability so we recommend you book early!


Melk Abbey                                                                                                                                                             

£21
Discover one of the world’s most famous monastic sites – Melk Abbey. Our guided tour shows
y
ou highlights such as the magnificent Marble Hall, Emperor’s Gallery and Abbey Church. There
is also free time to explore the grounds and the gardens.




Vienna city tour
£21
This is the perfect introduction to Vienna, the city of music. Our tour focuses on the historic centre
and its rich architecture.

 



Schönbrunn Palace
£20
This is a wonderful opportunity to see inside the luxurious interiors of Schönbrunn Palace and explore some of
the 
1,441 luxurious rooms. Highlights include the Great Gallery, the Chinese Cabinets and Emperor Franz
Joseph’s private suite.




Budapest city tour
£21
Accompanied by a local guide, we discover the architectural gem of Budapest. Our coach city tour takes in
some of the most beautiful areas, including Heroes Square, which is home to the iconic statue
complex of the Millennium Memorial.



Budapest by night
£23
See this beautiful city light up against the night sky. Experience a piece of Hungarian culture at a folklore show 
and enjoy gypsy music and dancing with a glass of schnapps before taking a tour to admire the night-time views.





Puszta horse show
£32
We travel through the sweeping plains of Hungary to Lajosmizse, where we visit a traditional stud farm. We take a
tour of the grounds in a horse-drawn carriage, before watching a spectacular live show performed
in an open air arena.




Bratislava city tour
£19
Explore the charming squares, courtyards and narrow lanes of Bratislava with the help of our guide. Our 2 ½
hour walking tour features interior visits to the city’s largest church, St Martin’s Cathedral, and Primate’s Palace.



 

Excursion Package Price
£119
SAVE £38 PER PERSON
Don't miss a thing by booking our special excursion package which includes all the listed excursions for this cruise.
Not only can you take part in all the exciting trips we have organised, you can enjoy all this at a reduced cost!

Drinks packages aboard ms Serenity

Drinks packages aboard ms Serenity

An optional drinks package* is now available for our cruises

• 7 or 8 night cruise.............£99 per person

*Includes house wines, house beers and soft drinks served in the restaurant at lunchtime and evenings whilst on board the ms Serenity only.

Cruise the Danube to Vienna & Budapest

Join Bernard Magee to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Mr Bridge on this exclusive river cruise.

By coach: 5-14 October 2017; by air: 6-13 October 2017
10 days from £1099

Discover the delights of the Danube as you enjoy seminars and daily bridge* with Bernard Magee on one of the most scenic journeys through the heart of Europe. From the pretty city of Passau on the Austrian border to the Hungarian capital of Budapest, we cruise in comfort and style aboard the ms Serenity, passing through the beautiful scenery of the Wachau valley and dipping into the history and culture of amazing cities along the way. With a full day in the musical city of Vienna and Budapest as well as a visit to the Slovakian capital of Bratislava, this is a wonderful opportunity to sail the waters that are beautifully immortalised by the composer Strauss, in the classical waltz The Blue Danube

Day 1: UK – Germany (Coach)
Travel by coach to Dover from your chosen departure point and take the ferry to Calais, where we continue to the overnight hotel.

Day 2: Germany – Passau (Air)
After breakfast we travel by coach and board our ship in Passau, known as ‘the three rivers city’ due to its unique location where the Danube, Inn and Ilz rivers meet. Those travelling by air join today. Safety briefi ng and welcome meeting from the ship and Mr Bridge as we set sail and cruise towards Melk.

Day 3: Melk – Vienna
This morning we arrive in the small town of Melk which lies in the beautiful Wachau valley. Here you can join an optional excursion to visit the most famous monastic house in Austria, the Benedictine Abbey, situated above Melk in the Wachau valley. Return to the ship late morning and enjoy afternoon bridge as we sail to Vienna for an overnight stop. This evening there will be a Mr Bridge pre-dinner drinks reception in the Lido Bar followed by dinner as we arrive in Vienna.

Day 4: Vienna
We spend a whole day in Vienna experiencing the delights of this beautiful city. In the morning you can join an optional city tour to experience its grand palaces, baroque castles, magnifi cent squares and striking monuments and after lunch on board we have an optional afternoon excursion to Schönbrunn Palace, or alternatively you may wish to join an afternoon bridge session. Enjoy evening bridge on board as we cast o and cruise towards Budapest.

Day 5: Budapest
After breakfast there will be a seminar with Bernard Magee in the Lounge Bar before we sail into Budapest with commentary on the city as we arrive. Then spend time in one of the world’s most beautiful cities and explore both sides of Hungary’s capital – traditional ‘Buda’ and cosmopolitan ‘Pest’. Start with an optional tour to become acquainted with the city known as the “pearl of the Danube” and in the evening you can choose to either play more bridge or experience Budapest by night on another optional excursion, enjoying a city tour, glass of wine and a folklore show in a local tavern.

Day 6: Budapest
Enjoy free time in Budapest or opt to take our excursion taking you through the sweeping plains of Hungary to Lajosmizse. Here we visit a traditional stud farm and enjoy a tour of the grounds in a horse-drawn carriage, before watching a live Puszta horse show. We then sail to Bratislava with a seminar and set hands in the afternoon followed by after-dinner bridge in the evening.

Day 7: Bratislava
Early morning arrival into Bratislava. After breakfast, join our optional walking tour to take in the sights of the Slovakian capital, dominated by its castle and unique suspension bridge, to experience its rich culture. Later in the day we set sail towards Dürnstein and there will be afternoon and evening bridge sessions.

Day 8: Durnstein
Dürnstein is crowned by the ruins of the castle that once imprisoned Richard the Lionheart. Join our optional walking tour to admire the pretty courtyards and buildings, before stopping at one of the Wachau valley’s wine cellars for some wine tasting. We then set sail for Passau with a bridge seminar to enjoy on the way and pre-dinner bridge in the Lounge bar. Preceding tonight’s 30th Anniversary Gala Dinner there will be a drinks party and prize-giving.

Day 9: Passau – Germany (Coach) / UK (Air)
Those travelling by coach disembark after breakfast and travel by coach to the overnight hotel. Those travelling by air also disembark this morning for their return flights to the UK.

Day 10: Germany – UK (Coach)
After breakfast you will continue by coach to Calais, taking the ferry to Dover for the return journey to your chosen pick-up/drop-off points.

*Bridge programme may be subject to change.

To book or for more information contact Mr Bridge on 01483 489961

MS Serenity

MS Serenity

This stylish 4-star vessel allows passengers to explore the great waterways of Europe in style while being under the care of a friendly and attentive crew.

Cruise the Danube to Vienna & Budapest Excursions

Enhance your holiday experience with a range of optional excursions that allow you to discover the history of our ports of call,

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Top 10 cities to see in the Netherlands

Amsterdam

Top 10 cities to see in the Netherlands

Famous for the web of canals which connect its four corners, the Netherlands is the perfect place to enjoy a river cruise. While here, you’ll be able to experience first-hand the country’s spectacular countryside, which is curiously flat and dotted with iconic Dutch windmills.

Alongside Britain, the Netherlands established itself as one of the world’s superpowers due to the supremacy of its naval fleet, which facilitated trade with the East Indies and allowed the country to prosper. Its former wealth now shines through in its magnificent architecture, and here you’ll find some of the most breath-taking cities the world has to offer. Over the centuries, the Netherlands has also been home to some of Europe’s most influential and revered artists, and the country’s museums and galleries are some of the world’s best. Here are our picks of the top cities to visit on a trip to the Netherlands.


Amsterdam

Renowned for its beautiful 17th-century architecture, as well as the canals which run through its cobbled streets, the picturesque Dutch capital of Amsterdam is one of Europe’s most popular short-break destinations.

Though it’s hard to imagine today, Amsterdam is built on swampland which was artificially drained during the Dutch Golden Age at end of the 16th century. This was done to expand the city, which was prospering as an international hub of trade at the time. One of the wealthiest cities in the world during the 17th century, Amsterdam became a centre of humanist culture, and this mindset lives on to this day in the inhabitants’ laidback nature and liberal politics.

A visit to this beautiful city will reveal some of Europe’s most stunning architecture, a thriving nightlife, and some of the finest art the world has to offer. The three biggest attractions in the city are the Rijksmuseum, which is home to the finest collection of Dutch art in the world by masters such as Rembrandt and Vermeer; the Anne Frank Huis, which has been preserved in the state which it was found after the war, complete with posters of movie stars and the Frank children’s height measurements on the wall; and the Van Gogh Museum, a must-see for anyone with an interest in the arts, as it not only features several of the artist’s most famous paintings, but also a collection of his private sketchbooks and diaries.

Soak up the history, culture, and stunning architecture of Amsterdam on our Amsterdam, Brussels, Antwerp and Ghent, Spring Gardens in Holland and Belgium, and The Delights of Amsterdam and the Dutch Bulbfields cruises.


Rotterdam

Rotterdam is the second-largest city in the Netherlands. Due to its position on the North Sea at the mouth of the Nieuwe Maas and its colossal port, which is the largest in Europe, it is known as the ‘Gateway to Europe’.

Rotterdam was all but destroyed during WWII, when it suffered severe bombing at the hands of the Luftwaffe as part of the Nazi invasion of the Netherlands in May 1940. Since the war, the city has been rebuilt with the future in mind rather than the past, and visiting Rotterdam today is almost like stepping into an open-air museum of modern and post-modern architecture. The city was voted 2015 European City of the Year by the Academy of Urbanism, and is a must-see for anyone with an interest in architecture, featuring buildings designed by renowned architects such as Rem Koolhaas, Piet Blom, Ben van Berkel. The city is famous for its skyscrapers, which are an uncommon sight in the incredibly flat and windy Netherlands.

While here, make sure to check out the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, one of Europe’s finest galleries with a permanent collection which spans several centuries of Dutch and European art. Another must-see for art fans is the Witte de With, which is known worldwide as a launch pad for up-and-coming talent in the world of contemporary art.

See Rotterdam on our New Year cruise to Bruges, Brussels, Ghent, and Antwerp, Christmas cruise to Bruges, Brussels, Ghent, and Antwerp, Amsterdam, Brussels, Antwerp, and Ghent cruise, and Captain’s Choice cruise.


Dordecht

Dordrecht is one of the oldest cities in the Netherlands. At the end of the middle ages, it was one of the country’s most important trade cities, and its beautiful centre stands as testament to its history as a wealthy trade route.

Today, Dordrecht is a quaint city well worth an overnight stay. Its main attractions include the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwe-Kerk ('Our Dear Lady Church'), which was built between 1285 and 1470 and features a 65m high tower containing 67 bells. Make sure to also check out the Voorstraat, the longest shopping street in the Netherlands at 1,200m; and the Kyck over den Dyck, the last surviving windmill in Dordrecht which was built in 1612 to produce the malt used by the city’s brewers.

From Dordrecht, it’s just a short trip to Kinderdijk, which has been named a World Heritage Site by Unesco. The site features 19 fully functioning windmills which were constructed in 1740 to drain the swampland for urban expansion. A trip here will allow you to experience a piece of Dutch history first-hand.

See Dordrecht on our Captain’s Choice, Amsterdam, bulbfields, and waterways of Holland, and Amsterdam and bulbfields spectacular cruises, and enjoy an optional excursion to Kinderdjik on our Spring Gardens in Holland and Belgium and Amsterdam, Brussels, Antwerp, and Ghent cruises.


Delft

Delft, with its idyllic medieval centre, is a hugely popular day-trip destination for tourists and Dutch natives alike. A trip here will reveal the canal-lined, cobbled streets and the elegant architecture of the Dutch Golden Age on a much more intimate scale than you’ll find in the Netherland’s larger cities. Unspoiled by modern developments, taking a trip to Delft is like stepping back in time.

Delft has two big claims to fame, firstly as the birthplace and permanent residence of one of Europe’s greatest ever artists, Johannes Vermeer. The much-loved artist is honoured today with the Vermeer Centrum Delft, a museum dedicated to his life and works which features a replica of his studio.

The city is also known for Delftware, the distinctive blue-and-white pottery which was duplicated from Chinese porcelain in the 17th century. The Dutch replicas made a design which only affordable to the upper classes available to all, taking Europe by storm. During Delftware’s heyday, there were 32 earthenware factories located in the city — Koninklijke Porceleyne Fles is the only one that remains. It’s now open to the public, and a visit will reveal how the famous pottery was made.

Enjoy a trip to Delft on our Amsterdam, Brussels, Antwerp, and Ghent, Christmas markets extravaganza, and Captain’s Choice cruises.


Volendam

Volendam, which was originally constructed as the harbour for nearby Edam, is known as ‘the pearl of the Zuiderzee’. When a new harbour was built closer to the city of Edam, Volendam ceased to be used as a point of trade and became the sleepy fishing village which it remains to this day.

The quaint fishing town is untouched by modern developments, and some of the inhabitants can still be seen wearing klederdracht, the traditional garb of the region, alongside wooden clogs. In the early 20th century, the village became a popular resort for artists, such as Picasso and Renoir, due to it seemingly being untouched by time.

If you visit Volendam as part of our Dutch towns and the Spring Gardens of Keukenhof cruise, you’ll be able to join our optional excursion to the magnificent Keukenhof gardens, known as ‘the garden of Europe’, where you’ll find over seven million bulbs creating a spectacular carpet of colour. These gardens aren’t to be missed if you’re in the Netherlands during spring, and they attract over a million visitors a year.


Arnhem

Arnhem is most famous as the location of one of the most pivotal battles of the Second World War. In September 1944, the British 1st Airborne Division and the Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade attempted to secure the bridge and all but guarantee the allied advance in to Germany. However, the Nazi defence prevailed, capturing the allied forces and delaying the invasion until the following spring. The bridge was renamed the John Frost bridge in honour of the commander of the British unit, and is now a must-see for WWII history buffs. Those interested should also check out the Oosterbeek War Cemetery, which contains the graves of most of those killed during the Battle of Arnhem. The excellent Arnhem War Musuem is also well worth a visit.

Other attractions in Arnhem include the enormous Netherlands Open-Air Museum, which gives visitors a glimpse into the Netherland’s past with fully functioning recreations such as a windmill, a brewery and a printer alongside traditional shops and volunteers in traditional clothing. All of the exhibitions are interactive, making this the perfect place to visit with kids.

In the centre of Arnhem, you’ll find Park Sonsbeek, where you can step away from the hustle and bustle of the cafés and shops into the idyllic greenery that features rolling hills, streams, and waterfalls. There’s plenty of space to set up a picnic blanket and enjoy the sun, as well as several hiking trails to explore if you were looking for something more active.

Enjoy a trip to Arnhem on our Dutch towns and the Spring Gardens of Keukenhof, Best of the Rhine and Moselle, and Captain’s Choice cruises.


Kampen

Kampen has one of the best-preserved old town centres in the whole of the Netherlands. It includes the remains of the ancient city wall, several churches, and the three bridges over the IJssel which connect Kampen with neighbouring IJsselmuiden and Kampereiland. On the outskirts of the city is d'Olde Zwarver (the Old Vagabond), a windmill dating from 1842.

Outside of the old town, the city is filled with colourful murals from the Art Nouveau period. These are in fact advertisements for now-defunct local businesses, and whenever they are discovered underneath old plaster, they are restored to their former glory by the resident artists.

See Kampen and its beautiful old town on our Amsterdam and Bulbfields Spectacular, Delights of Amsterdam and the Dutch Bulbfields, and Dutch Towns and the Spring Gardens of Keukenhof cruises. While there, you can enjoy an optional excursion to Het Loo Palace, the former residence of William III and Mary II of England. A trip here will reveal how the former royal family lived, with its ornate rooms and perfectly manicured gardens. Enjoy the spectacularly decorated rooms of the sprawling palace and, if the weather permits, a leisurely stroll around the magnificent royal gardens.


Nijmegen
 

Nijmegen is the oldest city in the Netherlands, having been founded in 5AD as a Roman settlement. Nijmegen is now a university town known for its left-wing politics and its handsome Old Town.

Despite its rich history, Nijmegen has a relatively compact footprint. This is due to the fact that strict town planning regulations were enforced until the late 19th century, when the original town walls were dismantled and, for the first time in 400 years, the city could expand. The expansion was held to strict planning regulations, and the vast suburban belt which surrounds the town includes parks, broad streets, and plenty of space for people to live. This is a stark contrast to the compact and densely populated old town.

Much of the old town was destroyed in WWII, first by allied forces while winning the town back from Nazi control, and then over five months after its liberation by German forces. As a result, the majority of the Old Town has been reconstructed using as many of the original materials as possible. A stroll around its cobbled streets is a perfect way to spend an afternoon, and its chic bars and restaurants provide ample entertainment into the evening.

Visit Nijmegen on our Captain’s Choice and Amsterdam, Bulbfields and Waterways of Holland cruises.


Heusden

The enigmatic city of Heusden is a gem of the southern Netherlands. The town’s medieval fortifications give it a unique star-shaped footprint, and a stroll along these walls is the perfect way to see the picturesque buildings which it was built to protect.

The town itself is almost like an open-air museum, with over 130 listed buildings, including several churches. Make sure to check out the Haven, a small harbour dating from medieval times complete with a Dutch drawbridge and windmill as a backdrop. Discover the history of the town, complete with all of its most significant archaeological findings, at the excellent Museum het Gouverneurshuis.

From Heusden, it’s just a short journey to nearby Den Bosch, the largest walled city in the Netherlands. The locals rarely use the town’s formal name, ’s-Hertogenbosch, which translates to ‘Duke's Forest’. The city saw its heyday in the 16th century, when it was the second-largest city in the Netherlands and the birthplace and home of one of the greatest painters of the northern Renaissance, Hieronymus Bosch. Much of the city’s heritage remains intact, as it survived WWII relatively unscathed, making it a beautiful place to visit today.

Enjoy a trip to Heusden as part of our Captain’s Choice cruise, on which you can also enjoy an optional excursion to Den Bosch.


Enkhuizen

In the 17th century, Enkhuizen was one of the wealthiest cities in the Netherlands and rivalled Amsterdam as the country’s foremost port. The power and influence it held then is obvious on any walk around the town, where you’ll see beautiful mansions and churches and intricate architecture alongside the imposing city walls and canal system. Most impressive of all is the vast harbour, which was once a centre of European trade.

While here, make sure to enjoy a trip to the excellent Zuiderzee Museum, which showcases life as it used to be in the city’s 17th-century prime. It comprises both an indoor museum, which includes exhibitions of photography, traditional costume, and the largest collection of wooden ships in the Netherlands. The outdoor museum, which is open from March to October, features authentic buildings from the city’s prime including a church, a mill, a cheese warehouse, traditional shops and housing from the surrounding fishing villages. All of the volunteers dress in the traditional attire of the region and give informative and entertaining demonstrations.

See Enkhuizen in its full beauty on our Dutch towns and the Spring Gardens of Keukenhof cruise.


To see the best the Netherlands has to offer and soak up its rich history and beautiful scenery, join us on one of our Netherlands cruises. If you’d like more information about our European river cruises, contact a member of staff today.


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Great Waterways & Grand Voyages

River Douro

Great Waterways & Grand Voyages

Since the beginning of time, rivers have been the lifeline of civilisation. Their meandering course tells a story at every turn, flowing from country to country where little settlements have grown into some of the world’s greatest cities, while other areas remain completely untouched. And it’s this variety that make them a key feature in today’s popular holiday choice – river cruising. The appeal of a river cruise is found in the simplicity that it offers. There’s no need to worry about hotel bookings, meals or getting from one place to another. Once you arrive at your ship, you can just unpack, relax and let the sights come to you. Basically, every second counts towards your holiday, whether we’re moored along the river or cruising to our next port of call. The only problem will be choosing which river to explore, so we take a look at five of our favourite destinations to help you.

The Danube

The Danube is the second longest river in Europe, covering over 2,000 miles and linking 10 countries on its incredible journey from the Black Forest in Germany to the Black Sea in Romania. Over the centuries it has been a long-standing frontier of the Roman empire, a crucial shipping route, a vital fishing ground, an important cultural landmark – it’s even one of central Europe’s main sources of fresh water, supplying millions of people with drinking water, and it’s a haven for wildlife. More recently, it has become a valued tourist destination and one where you can discover four national capitals which are among the most culturally significant cities in Europe: Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest and Belgrade. The natural scenery is equally impressive, from the rolling hills of Austria’s Wachau valley and the cliffs of the Iron Gate Gorge to the rich waters of the Danube delta in Romania. Quite simply, the Danube offers the ultimate river cruise experience.

2017 CRUISES
Cruise the Danube to Vienna & Budapest aboard ms Serenity – 8 days by air from £1149 | 10 days by coach from £1099
Up the Rhine & Down the Danube aboard ms Serenity – 15 days by air from £1999 | 16 days by rail from £2199
The Danube to the Black Sea aboard ms Serenity – 15 days by air from £1999 | 17 days by rail from £2199

The Rhine

With more castles along its length than any other in the world, as well as celebrated vineyards, magnificent cities and beautifully preserved medieval towns, the Rhine has everything you could want for a relaxing river cruise. It starts out as a small stream high in the Swiss Alps, before increasing in pace and volume as it flows through Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Austria, Germany and the Netherlands on its way to the North Sea. For this reason it has served as a vital waterway for Europe and has been at the centre of countless historical and political events, along with a host of myths and legends that will spark even the tamest of imaginations. It has also inspired a catalogue of artists and authors to create some of their greatest pieces, and continues to be one of the most popular river cruising destinations. Whether you have an interest in history, geography or scenery, or you just want an unforgettable holiday, the Rhine will deliver.

2017 CRUISES
Rhine Discovery aboard mps Lady Anne – 5 days by coach from £469
Cruise the Rhine to Switzerland aboard mps Lady Anne – 10 days by coach from £979
Rhine in Flames aboard mps Lady Anne – 8 days by coach from £819

The Baltic Sea

The Baltic Sea lies between central and northern Europe and is bounded by the Scandinavian peninsula, mainland Europe and the Danish islands. At around 1,000 miles long with an average width of 120 miles, it is a large body of water, but it is relatively isolated from the ocean. This makes for smooth waters that are perfect for cruising on. The communities in this area date back further than the Viking times, when the waterways were the only way to navigate the region – many are in agreement that it is still the best way to explore this captivating part of the world. Cruising along the Baltic Sea offers visitors a rich history to explore, unspoiled nature to enjoy, and beautiful beaches on which to relax. It takes you to places you may not usually have access to as a tourist. It is also the perfect gateway to explore mainland Europe with the delights of Germany and Poland within easy reach.

2016 & 2017 CRUISES
Baltic Isles, Berlin & Poland aboard ms Princess – 9 days by air from £1399 | 10 days by rail from £1549

The Douro

The Douro is one of the major rivers of the Iberian peninsula and forms the natural border between Spain and Portugal, flowing through both countries before emptying into the Atlantic Ocean. It was originally a fast-flowing river with many tributaries branching off into deep canyons, but in the second half of the last century its power has been harnessed by a series of dams which have rendered it tranquil and lake like. Still, only around a quarter of the river is navigable and many cruise companies do not include the Douro in their programme. This makes it all the more appealing as it hasn’t been bombarded by tourism, and the quaint little towns and villages that line the riverbanks remain much as they were hundreds of years ago. Even the cities offer a fascinating insight into the tradition and culture of the Douro valley, much of which is woven around the cultivation of its distinguished port wine.

2016 & 2017 CRUISES
River Douro Cruise 
aboard ms Douro Queen (2016) – 8 days by air from £1099
aboard ms Douro Spirit (2017) – 8 days by air from £1299

Dutch Waterways

The Dutch waterways are the densest network of inland waterways in Europe, with many fed by the Rhine as it crosses the border from Germany into the Netherlands. The numerous rivers and canals skirt across the flatlands of the country, reaching into Belgium before emptying into the North Sea via a maze of tributaries, channels and the IJsselmeer. Spring is without doubt the best month to cruise in the Netherlands, allowing you to take full advantage of the swathes of bright tulips which cover this gentle landscape. Then there’s the vibrant city of Amsterdam, which is a top destination for any Dutch cruise and the perfect complement to the ancient villages built on the water, where tradition is still very much a way of life. A Dutch cruise will leave a lasting impression.

2017 CRUISES
Dutch Towns & the Spring Gardens of Keukenhof aboard mps Lady Anne – 7 days by coach from £579
Captain’s Choice aboard mps Lady Anne – 8 days by coach from £749


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