A week visiting Christmas markets on a Rhine River cruise is truly magical. The lights are twinkly, shopping is terrific, and spirits are bright, of course. However, one thing you may not expect is the incredible food.
While dining options were amazing and plentiful onboard the lovely Viking Sigyn, we also ate our way through the individual markets along the river, sampling the best cuisine and sweets that France, Germany, and the Netherlands had to offer during the festive holiday season. Vacation calories don’t count, right?
Here are 11 amazing foods not to miss during a Rhine River Christmas Markets cruise (plus four bonus suggestions) and if you’re looking for great gifting options, we have you covered there, too.
1. Shortbread And Macaroons
Colmar And Strasbourg
There’s a lovely bakery called Maison Alsacienne de Biscuiterie with several locations in the Alsace region. From giant, gorgeous meringues to delicious gingerbread, the store is filled with wonderful choices to enjoy as you stroll through the Christmas markets. We tried the star gingerbread cookies, as well as a variety of shortbread cookies. Don’t skip the macaroons either. Needless to say, you can’t go wrong with any choices here.
We happened upon a stall in tiny Riquewihr that sold Christmas fruitcakes and knew we had to take a small loaf back to the boat. Berawecka is a traditional Alsatian treat. No green Maraschino cherries in these; they are dense, heavy cakes laden with dried fruits, figs, dates, and hazelnuts, held together with the tiniest amount of dough. We chose a Poire Williams rendition, where the fruits are macerated in pear brandy for 24 hours. The berawecka are sold by weight. While not inexpensive, they are certainly high quality and a when-in-Alsace sort of delicacy.
Per the baker’s suggestion, we paired it with a lovely cheese for a memorable after-dinner course.
This sweet bread is only served during the holidays in Alsace and is a special St. Nicholas Day treat. We tasted it during our Flavors of Alsace tour, which was an optional excursion during our Viking cruise. It was the perfect way to start the day with a cup of coffee or tea. Pains Westermann, located on a quaint street, serves them plain, or with raisins or chocolate.
Can you say you’ve been on a Christmas market cruise without consuming a more than adequate amount of gingerbread (and taking home plenty to share)? The options are endless, but be sure to visit Mireille Oster while in Strasbourg. They’re known for their special seven-spice combination and it’s an entertaining exercise to guess each ingredient. The store serves its specialty all year long, so no worries if you happen to visit another time of year and want to try.
Another treat during our Flavors of Alsace tour was a make-your-own flammenkuchen at Le Gruber, a historic café in the heart of Strasbourg. The flammenkuchen, which we saw several times during our trip, is a type of Alsatian crepe/pizza that’s often served as an appetizer. Comprised of a thin crust and a creme fraiche sauce baked in a scorching brick oven, we piled on toppings including ham, mushrooms, onions, and several kinds of cheese. A dessert version featured the same sauce, with apples, sugar, and a brandy flambé. Both versions were decadent and delicious.
6. Steak Sandwich With Onions (Steak Mit Zwiebeln)
We happened upon this German specialty while searching for schnitzel. We mistakenly ordered it and were initially disappointed when our sandwich didn’t contain breaded veal or chicken. Oops.
But it was the best “oops” ever.
Instead, we got slow-cooked steak served with caramelized onions on a small, crusty bun. This was likely the best culinary surprise of our tour through the Christmas markets. It was a German version of the Phillie cheesesteak, hold the cheese whiz. Tender, delicious, and snarfed down in three bites!
7. German Cruller (Spritzkuchen)
When you think you’re full, but stumble upon spritzkuchen, dig deep and make room. While this is a donut you see in the states, the light, airy, deliciousness was on another level. Simply perfect. Spritzkuchen, which translates to splash cake, was next to a variety of other amazing choices, which may leave you with this one question: Do they have a box large enough to take a baker’s dozen to go?
8. Potato Pancakes With Mushrooms And Cream
Oh, dear. What do we even say about this German specialty? Maybe we start with the fact that a couple of our boys back home “hate” mushrooms, which means we rarely get to cook them for ourselves. So when we saw giant button mushrooms, sprinkled with minced garlic, being sauteed in a giant pan over an open fire, it stopped us in our tracks. These champignons were served with our choice of garlic cream or hollandaise (we went with garlic cream) and slathered over a crisp potato pancake.
Was it ridiculous? Yes.
Do we regret it? Never.
The giant wheels of nougat will make you wish you could relive your childhood. Imagine growing up visiting Christmas markets during the holidays, wandering through the stalls just waiting for your parents to find the one that serves the sweet treat, so huge they need a double-handled knife to slice it. As you take the occasional nibble, the sounds of a brass band fill the air. The award-winning nougat from France gives you a wonderful idea of the treats you’ll find at the Christmas markets in France.
Growing up in a German community, we were very familiar with all the wursts. However, seeing sausage stacked 4 wursts high and 50 across on a grill that mechanically raised and lowered was a first. When in Cologne, you must try a Kolsch and a brat. We tried both the red and white and you can’t go wrong with either. You can have it with ketchup, but spicy mustard is traditional and not that spicy.
Following our rule established earlier, there’s always room for donuts. Especially donuts made with yogurt batter.
Muzen — relatively small fried bits of deliciousness — reminded us of beignets, but a bit denser, with more chew. They were available throughout Cologne’s stalls and had a bit of vanilla-sugar flavor to them. Sprinkled with plain sugar or cinnamon sugar, they were a perfect accompaniment to our gluhwein.
Christmas markets along the Rhine can be cold. So, the markets along the Rhine came up with the perfect solution to make sure you keep your hands warm and spirits merry and bright. It’s called gluhwein and it’s delicious! Made from local wine mulled with citrus and spices, each Christmas market has its own version. We were told to keep a lookout for stands advertising partnerships with specific wineries and didn’t go wrong.
Keep in mind that the price for a pour might seem steep. That’s because you are paying a deposit on a darling mug that’s original to each town you visit. You can refill it for a nominal fee, and either return your mug to get the deposit back, or keep it as a sweet souvenir.
Pro Tip: We especially loved the rose variety of gluhwein. Look or ask for it during your Christmas market visits. You won’t be disappointed.
Bonus: Königsbacher Pils
While touring Koblenz, our guide pointed out the oldest brewery in town, and we knew we’d have to go back. As soon as our tour concluded, we high-tailed it back to Koblenzer Brauerei, where we first bellied up to the bar, then got a high-top. We immediately ordered the house beer and got a lovely pils. It was a blast to kick back and sip suds from a spot that’s been brewing since 1689. It was a terrific and authentic German brew-pub experience and we were so happy to have stopped in.
The Netherlands isn’t the place for Christmas markets, but the charming community of Gouda (pronounced ghow-da with your best deep throat-clearing gh) is a must-stop and an optional excursion on our Viking cruise. We found Gouds Kaashuis, a family-owned shop right on the town square. As you taste your way through the store devouring the creamy, delicious cheese, you’ll see a picture on the wall of the family and the wife running the store answering any questions and packaging all the cheeses you want to take home. A truly wonderful experience.
When you have the opportunity to make siroopwafels in Gouda, do it. This was part of our optional excursion in Gouda and everyone who took part loved it. We visited Van Vilet Bakery and each of us made our own giant siroopwafels. It’s the only family-owned bakery still making them in Gouda and there is definitely an art to it. These were some of our boys’ (and neighbors’) favorite treats from the trip.