The writer was hosted.
On a late afternoon in December, I arrived at the elegant Corinthia Hotel in Budapest five minutes before my daughter, Christina, who had been traveling in Europe. We met in Budapest for a two-night pre-cruise extension on our seven-night Viking Danube Christmas Delights cruise. It was Christina’s first European river cruise (my third) and our first Christmas Markets Danube river cruise. It was also our first time sailing with Viking River Cruises. A Danube River cruise is always magical but especially during Christmas. The festive holiday markets transform historic towns into enchanting fairytale winter wonderlands with lights, live music, handicrafts, mulled wine and regional treats.
Everything about this cruise was perfect timing – Christmas time in Europe and Christina’s birthday that week while we were in Vienna. Our itinerary included Budapest, Hungary; Bratislava, Slovakia; Vienna, Krems and Linz in Austria (with an optional excursion to the Czech Republic); and Passau, Germany. For this voyage, we sailed on Viking Vilhjalm, one of the cruise line’s longships. There’s another Viking Christmas cruise itinerary that includes Regensburg, Germany.
From start to finish, Viking provided a smooth and delightful experience. We booked our airfare through Viking for better rates and purchased our shore excursions online. A few weeks before our departure date, Viking mailed us attractive luggage tags. We also had Viking’s En Route Travel Support phone number for any flight complications. That came in handy when my first flight in Los Angeles was delayed and I missed my connecting flight in Frankfurt. Fortunately, Viking was quick to find another flight to Budapest for that same day so I didn’t lose any time.
Read More: Are You Too Young for a Viking River Cruise?
About Viking Cruises
Viking Cruises was founded in 1997, and debuted in America in 2000, establishing a sales and marketing office in Los Angeles. The company has a fleet of more than 90 vessels, offering river, ocean cruises, and expedition voyages on all seven continents.
The Viking Vilhjalm longship joined the fleet in 2016. This Viking longship has 95 outside staterooms, seven veranda suites and two explorer suites. The elegant ship holds up to 190 guests.
The all-inclusive fares cover one complimentary shore excursion, free WiFi, beer, wine and soft drinks with onboard lunch and dinner, port taxes and fees, and ground transfers with the purchase of Viking Air.
Viking’s Christmas river cruises sell out quickly, so it’s a good idea to book several months in advance. If you love Christmas, then December is a great time to cruise. For our December Christmas markets cruise the ship was festively decorated throughout from the reception area and staircase to the Lounge, where programs and entertainment take place.
In addition to its festive Christmas cruises, Viking offers a wide range of river, ocean cruises and expedition voyages on all seven continents.
Viking River Cruise from Budapest
I was greeted at the Budapest airport by Viking representative Nikki and chauffeured by Viking driver Otto to the Corinthia Hotel, where Viking has a concierge counter. Viking rep Aniita was very helpful in providing maps and recommendations for restaurants and attractions for us to discover in Budapest. Christina and I had a lot of fun exploring the city on foot and by convenient public transit. We enjoyed arriving two days prior to the cruise and would do it again. Viking also offers post-cruise extensions to Prague and Salzburg on this Christmas cruise.
From the hotel, Viking provided private coach transportation to the Viking Vilhjalm, where a lunch buffet awaited on the Aquavit Terrace. I had a very tasty (and tender) beef stew with noodles while Christina enjoyed appetizers and a salad. While we ate lunch, our luggage was delivered to our stateroom – just in time for us to grab some stuff for our visit to St. Stephen’s Christmas Market.
Viking Cruise Ship Amenities
Meals are served in the main restaurant and also al fresco at the indoor/outdoor Aquavit Terrace, located at the bow. It’s a relaxing place to enjoy the Danube, a beautiful Europe river. Christina and I agreed the ship’s food was very good and actually exceeded our expectations. Viking provides complimentary beverages including alcoholic drinks with meals. But a Silver Spirits drink package ($25 per person, per day) offers premium wine, champagne, cocktails and aperitifs that we found worthwhile.
Service on the ship was outstanding. The crew was quick to remember our names and beverage preferences. As soon as we entered the Lounge, server Bogdan handed Christina a glass of champagne.
The cruise ship also has a library (with books and games), a business center, and sun deck. Surprisingly, there was no fitness center or spa facility on this ship. But daily shore excursions kept us active. After a full day of walking (and shopping!), it was nice to return to the ship and relax.
Although our Viking Veranda stateroom had a private balcony, we enjoyed watching the Danube River locks from the sundeck. The locks, which control the water levels, are fascinating. We went through about a dozen on this European river cruise.
Read More: Viking River Cruise – A Respite for Busy Parents
Evening entertainment takes place in the Lounge and features music by Viking’s onboard musician, Andras, as well as games, and regional performers. For example, while we were in Austria, the Salzburg Sound of Music Singers came onboard and performed classic pieces composed by Mozart, Stolz and Lehar.
Plus, I loved that Viking invited passengers to decorate an ornament to hang on the tree in the Lounge. At the end of our cruise, boxes were provided to bring our ornaments home. Throughout the week, holiday programs included sing-a-longs and a Christmas tree-trimming party.
Viking Shore Excursions
Shore excursions are available every day. For our Christmas cruise, Christmas markets were included in each city and Viking gave us drink vouchers for complimentary mulled wine (and souvenir mugs!). Additional excursions are available for a fee. Program Director George Siderov led evening port talks in the Lounge to describe the next day’s excursions. But throughout the day he could be found on the ship narrating passing scenery or answering questions.
For shore excursions, passengers are grouped by comfort level. So, leisurely walkers could join one group while others participated on a faster-paced walking tour. My goal for the week was to collect an ornament from each city or country. Each time I bought a new ornament, I added it to the display in our room. By the end of the week I had a festive Christmas lineup of colorful ornaments and figures that I arranged on our stateroom dresser.
On our first full day on the cruise, we joined a guided city tour of Budapest. I always like joining these excursions to learn about the history of each city. On our Panoramic Budapest tour, we rode on a coach that took us through Old Town and other historic districts. Our guide discussed Hungary’s history before and after WWII and pointed out famous bridges and neighborhoods. She explained that the hillside Buda is more wealthy but modern Pest has a popular nightlife.
Our first stop was Hero’s Square, home to the Millennium Monument, consisting of statues of Hungarian leaders. My favorite stop was the hilltop Castle District, which overlooks Budapest and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We toured the 13th-century Matthias Church (where several Hungarian kings were crowned), perused the small Christmas market and enjoyed spectacular city views from Fisherman’s Bastion’s neo-Romanesque terraces. There was plenty of time to shop for souvenirs in the many boutiques before returning to the ship for lunch.
In our free time in the afternoon, Christina and I walked the short distance from the dock to the Great Market Hall. Built in 1897, the three-story market hall has numerous vendors selling spices (lots of paprika), baked goods, chocolate, clothing and much more. We bought Christmas gifts for our family and friends, and a chimney cake to share in our stateroom. The traditional Hungarian chimney cake is a cylinder-shaped and hollowed sweet bread that you can eat plain or with sweet or savory filling.
That evening, as we sailed away from Budapest, we had lovely views of the Parliament Building, which glows at night. We capped off the evening singing Christmas carols in the Lounge.
From the dock, we walked to the charming pedestrian town with a giant Christmas tree in its center. The town was quite busy with two Christmas markets occupying the open spaces. Our walking tour included an organ concert and a visit to the 14th-century Michael’s Gate, the last of four city gates that once protected the city.
Christina and I strolled through the markets, which seemed to consist mostly of food items. We shared a lokse, a rolled up potato pancake with a choice of filling. We opted for delicious cheese.
We arrived in Vienna on December 16, Christina’s birthday (also Beethoven’s and Jane Austen’s). What a great place to celebrate a birthday! During the day we explored Vienna on a city tour with Viking. Vienna is a beautiful city with a rich music history celebrating the works of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Strauss. Our guide, Maria, said that of Austria’s 9 million residents about half live in Vienna.
On our tour we visited St. Stephen’s Cathedral and strolled along Graben, a pedestrian street that leads to the Hofburg (Imperial) Palace. Graben was beautifully decorated for the holidays with dozens of live Christmas trees, and lights strung high above across the buildings. The Hofburg Palace is at the heart of Viennese history. Once the winter residence for the Habsburg dynasty, and a host of kings and emperors, the palace is now the workplace and home for the president of Austria. It’s an elaborate complex with a square, rotunda, fountains, gardens and horse stables.
Vienna’s Christmas Markets
After the palace tour, we walked to the nearby Maria Theresa Square Christmas market, a festive place with many food, drink and gift options. We had sausages stuffed with cheese and mulled wine, and found some cute ornaments to add to our collection.
But our favorite market was Rathausplatz Christkindlmarkt by City Hall. So many market stalls filled with colorful ornaments, candles, knitted hats and other handicrafts. Ice skaters of all ages twirled around the large rink while kids took a spin on the nearby carousel. There was a lot going on but everyone seemed cheerful.
Birthday Dinner Onboard Viking
After dinner on the ship, the staff presented Christina with a mango mousse cake and sang Happy Birthday. The festivities were just beginning. We were booked on an excursion: a Heurigen Evening in the Grinzing District, about a half-hour drive from the ship.
Our guide, Wolfgang, led us into a cozy tavern, Heuriger Wolff, which opened its doors in 1609. Heuriger, a seasonal tavern only found in wine-growing regions, means “this year’s wine.”
Austrians like dry wines, explained Peter Wolff, a family member.
“This is not a typical wine tasting. That’s wine wasting,” he said.
We nibbled on meats, cheeses and fruits while sampling various local wines made without sugar and sulfates. Two musicians played Austrian songs on a violin and accordion.
Our next stop was Krems in the scenic Wachau Valley, home to terraced vineyards, apricot orchards, and the Gottweig Abbey, founded in 1083. Our tour guide, Theresa, who works in the parish, said 34 monks currently live and worship in the Benedictine monastery, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. While standing in the courtyard among the Baroque-style buildings, she explained the lengthy process required to become a monk, and their work inside the monastery and in the community. The tour moved inside where we admired the opulent Imperial Staircase and colorful frescoes. Our tour concluded with wine tasting and a glass of apricot juice.
Later that afternoon, we sailed through one of the most scenic areas in the Wachau Valley. Program Director George pointed out landmarks and charming Austrian towns like Durnstein and the medieval Durnstein rock castle.
Linz and Cesky Krumlov
While the ship was docked in Linz, situated between Salzburg and Vienna, I took an optional excursion to Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic. Christina stayed behind for the Linz tour. I had heard many good things about Cesky Krumlov and was curious to visit this bohemian town situated by the Vltava River about four hours south of Prague. Our Viking group rode in a private coach, making one stop along the way.
Once there, we walked to the hilltop Cesky Krumlov Castle, built in 1240. The castle is a large complex of 40 buildings and palaces around five courtyards. From the hilltop we had a panoramic view of the town and river.
In town, we strolled along the cobbled streets, with our guide recommending shops on our way to lunch at Mastal restaurant. The medieval tavern has stone walls and wood tables where meals are served family-style. Platters of meats, potatoes and bread were served along with beer. The meal was very tasty.
Afterwards, I explored the town on my own, backtracking to a jewelry store our guide recommended for garnets where I bought a pair of earrings for Christina. In the center of town, I perused the small Christmas market until it was time to return to the ship.
Back in Linz, I went directly to Old Town where I met up with Christina at the Christmas market. There was a good selection of food items and gifts.
Our last stop was Passau, known as the City of Three Rivers – Inn, Danube and Ilz Rivers. The waterfront city is one of my favorites along the Danube. Narrow cobblestone streets are lined with apartments, cafes, and fountains and lead to Old Town, home to patrician houses and St. Stephen’s Cathedral. Our guide said the baroque church houses the largest cathedral organ in the world. Behind the cathedral, in Residence Square, the 1903 Wittelsbach Fountain is decorated as an advent for the holidays.
The Christmas market here was one of the best, with certainly the most tasty mulled wine and a variety of food options. Rows of stalls were filled with candles, ornaments, brightly painted nutcrackers, handmade soaps and much more.
Midafternoon, Christina and I went on a fun excursion to a farm in the Bavarian countryside in Southern Germany. We met with Gabi Huber who shared stories of daily farm life with her husband, son and his family. On their farm, set amidst fields of wheat and barley, they raise cattle and make cheese products to sell. After walking through the separate pens for calves and cows, we walked back to the house. Gabi brought out a large platter of cheeses and apples for us to sample. They were fresh and delicious.
That evening, we joined the captain’s cocktail party for a farewell toast.
The next morning disembarkation was smooth. The crew loaded everyone’s luggage into Viking’s coach and soon we were headed to the Munich International Airport – packed bags bulging with Christmas gifts.