Cruising Down the Danube with Viking River Cruises: A Visual Itinerary

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View of Budapest from Viking Vili
Christmas in Europe is simply magical. Trust me on this one! Every December, for the past four years, my husband and I visited countless Christmas markets around the old continent. Each time was different – one year we traveled by train, another we traveled with friends. But this year was by far our favorite, as we went cruising down the Danube in the festively decked in holiday spirit Viking Vili.
But let’s rewind a bit. Almost every time we told people we were going on a river cruise in the middle of December, they looked at us like we were crazy. ‘But… isn’t that something you do in… summer?’ they would ask with a puzzled expression. Umm… I see what’s going on. Most people still hold the preconceived notion that a cruise is about lazy afternoons spent on the sundeck wearing bikinis and sipping cocktails. But there’s so much more to cruising than that!
Between me and you, what can be more charming than a Danube cruise, adorning the onboard Christmas tree together with your fellow travelers, joining gingerbread house decorating workshops, listening to traditional Christmas carols in the lounge, and making new friends over a glass of steaming Gluhwein?
The truth is until you try a cruise for yourself, it’s hard to know what you are getting into. When we booked the ‘Castles and Legends’ itinerary with Viking River Cruises we were as green to cruising as anyone can be. But we knew we wanted to visit more European Christmas Markets and were tired of packing and unpacking our luggage every other day as we moved from one location to the next. Boy, was this a Godsent!
But let’s recap our Viking River Cruises itinerary. I will cover more cruising tips and debunk more misconceptions in future articles.
The Castles and Legends is a 12-day itinerary that starts with a 4-day pre-cruise visit to Munich and Salzburg, followed by a 7-day cruise from Passau to Budapest.

Day 1 – Munich

 

At the Munich Christmas market
We arrived at Munich airport where we were greeted by one of Viking’s representatives. We enjoyed a quick transfer to our Sheraton hotel in Munich where we met Lukas, the tour director for the land section of our trip. After a short briefing, we had the afternoon free, time which we used to browse through Munich’s Christmas markets and enjoy some fragrant Gluhwein (how cute is that mug?).

Day 2 – Neuschwanstein Castle & Linderhof Palace

Linderhof Palace

 

In the true spirit of our itinerary’s name, we kicked off our trip with a visit to two of the most spectacular buildings in Germany, both built by the same Kind Ludwig II, the Fairy Tale King of Bavaria.
We toured Neuschwanstein Castle, a fortress with extravagant chambers designed to resemble a theatrical setting. While built as an homage to Richard Wagner, later on, it served as an inspiration for Walt Disney’s Cinderella Castle.
In the afternoon we visited Linderhof Palace which, despite its relatively small size, features some of the most lavishly decorated interiors I’ve ever seen. I personally fell head over heels in love with it. Let me put it this way. It’s the house I’ve always wanted but only if I wouldn’t have to clean all those gilded bronze ornaments myself! Seriously, that’s the only deal breaker!

 

Day 3 – Munich

Munich Hofbrauhaus

Our day started with a tour of the BMW exhibition center where I got to feel posh behind the wheel of a convertible. I would have preferred it to come in yellow, but they explained to me those were on demand only, and I felt a bit disappointed – yeah, that’s how much I know about cars!

Next, we made a stop at Hofbrauhaus, the famous state-owned brewery founded all the way back in 1589, where regulars can have their own beer mugs locked. It’s Germany, what do you know! The even funnier thing is that the lockers are in such high demand, you’d have to wait for years before you get your turn, as they are usually rented for life. Never give up on something that you can’t go a day without thinking about, right?
At 11AM sharp our tour guide brought us to Marienplatz, the city’s main square, to admire Munich’s glorified Cuckoo Clock, the Glockenspiel, putting up a show for us by re-enacting historical events from the 16th century.We walked around the Christmas market at the foot of the Town Hall a bit longer, enjoying the vibrant energy of the place and stuffing our face with German delicacies before we hopped back on the Viking bus on the way to Salzburg.

 

Day 4 – Salzburg

I grew wings in Salzburg!
Salzburg surprised us first of all though its festive mood. So beautifully decked for the holidays and so charming in its own right, Salzburg turned out to be the perfect place to enjoy the Christmas markets and do most of the Christmas shopping. Relatively small and easy to explore by foot, this city conquered our hearts, as we woke up to the sight of graceful domes and spires, the beautiful clifftop fortress and the mountains beyond.
In the morning we were busy dancing around the Mirabell Gardens and walking in the footsteps of Maria and the von Trapp children. Then our tour guide took us to see Mozart’s birthplace. The afternoon was ours to enjoy, but the sound of music stayed with us. To be honest, I still surprise myself humming ‘Do, Re, Mi’ or ‘Edelweiss’ every now and then.

 

Day 5 – The Sound of Music tour

‘The Sound of Music’ gazebo

 

In the morning, we got on board our motor coach direction Passau. However, on the way, we made quite a few stops to visit some of the most renowned sites where ‘The Sound of Music’ was filmed. We stopped by the famous gazebo where Liesl and Rolf sang ‘I am sixteen going on seventeen’ and spent a couple of hours by Lake Mondsee, admiring the stunning views and visiting the church where Maria and Captain von Trapp were married.But the tour was particularly interesting because it set apart film from reality. Like, did you know the real Maria and Captain von Trapp had been married for several years before they had to flee the country? Or that they didn’t have to cross over the mountains to escape the Nazis, but instead just crossed the road to the nearby train station to take a train to Italy one day before the borders closed?

In the afternoon we arrived in Passau where we got on board Viking Vili. We were welcomed by the friendliest of crews and they reassured us right from the very beginning that our satisfaction and safety was of paramount importance to them. They also joked they won’t let us disembark unless we gained at least 3kg (6.6lbs) by the end of the week. It turned out it wasn’t a joke after all – we met the requirements to get off the ship just in time.

 

Day 6 – Passau

 

The gorgeous St Stephan’s Cathedra in Passau
As we woke up in our cozy veranda stateroom, little did we know we were about to join one of the most entertaining walking tours of Passau.
Right after breakfast, we met Alex, a young guy with a certain amount of Scottish blood running through his veins and an incredible talent for words – happy to see my theory that Scottish people are natural born storytellers confirmed once more! Suffice to say that he was so delightfully funny and knowledgeable that he somehow managed to make us forget about the freezing cold weather that morning.
We sampled gingerbread and sipped Gluhwein at the famous Konditorei Simon, and our taste buds were tempted by more than one of the cakes on display.
Eventually, we ended our morning walking tour with an amazing organ concert at St. Stephan’s Cathedral, the largest pipe organ in Europe and an egg punch at the nearby Christmas market.
The afternoon was spent on board Viking Vili, sailing down the Danube towards Linz. However, there was never a dull moment, as lunch was followed by Christmas cookie demonstrations, live music, and drinks. In a common effort, we all got busy decking the Christmas tree, and then we deepened our knowledge of Christmas traditions in Europe with our wonderful program director, Mieke.

Day 7 – Cesky Krumlov

Cesky Krumlov
On this day we had two shore excursions to choose from – Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic or a walking tour of Linz. We opted for the former and we certainly weren’t disappointed.
Cesky Krumlov is a small UNESCO town built around a 13-century castle above the Vltava River. Its colorful buildings and astonishing views make for one of the most picturesque places in Europe. Of course, we found a cute little Christmas market right in the main square with plenty of stalls selling local delicacies as well as the famous chimney cakes (technically not Czech at all, since they are specific to the Hungarian-speaking regions in Romania, but incredibly popular all around the Check Republic).
The evening was spent aboard, enjoying a good dinner followed by an interactive quiz night and relaxing live music. By now, we certainly started to see all the advantages of a river cruise and get comfortable in this new way of travel.

Day 8 – Melk Abbey & Wachau Valley wine tasting

 

Views from the Melk Abbey
And so it was time to eat, pray, and love some wine.
The first shore excursion of the day was to the spectacular 900-years old Melk Abbey. Perched on a dramatic outcrop overlooking the Danube, this fortified abbey is a perfect example of Baroque architecture. Among the highlights are the monastic library, one of the most beautiful in the world, and the lavishly decorated church. Seriously, I didn’t even know where to look first! But then, when we got to the terrace overlooking the village at the foot of the hill, I was mesmerized again by the amazing views all around it.
Back on the ship, we spent a relaxing afternoon sailing through the beautiful Wachau Valley, one of the most scenic stretches of the Danube and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We passed castle ruins and monasteries, quiet villages and rolling hills covered in vineyards.
As we moored near Durnstein with plenty of time to spare before dinner, we opted for a visit to a local winery instead of heading into town. This region has been producing fine Austrian wines since medieval times so it felt like the logical choice.
Our guide, Trincka, was simply hilarious and together with the owner of Morwald winery, they made quite a team. We visited the facility and we laughed until our bellies hurt. Then we drank some wine! We also tasted some schnapps, which I personally found delicious. The Morwald family has owned the winery for four generations and they have a lucrative contract with Viking Cruises, which meant we got to taste some more of their wines onboard.
We ended the day with a scrumptious dinner that featured many Austrian delicacies, followed by dancing and singing together with Dari, the onboard musician.

Day 9 – Vienna

Schonbrunn Palace
We sailed the whole night and woke up to the beautiful city of Vienna and the first snowflakes of the season. There were several shore excursions to choose from that day, including a walking tour and a motor coach tour of the city. A Christmas market shuttle was put at our disposal. A tour of the Schonbrunn Palace was also an option.
But we chose the Vienna Highlights tour for several reasons. It was a whole day trip. It included both a bus tour and a walking tour as well as a guided visit to the magnificent Schonbrunn Palace, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It involved a traditional lunch in one of the restaurants inside Hofburg palace, where the Imperial Apartments and the Sisi Museum are. But above all, it included a Viennese Waltz lesson. Was I a disaster walking on two left feet? I was! Am I proud that I took my first dance lesson ever in Vienna? Absolutely! It’s the number one thing that pops into my mind every time I think about our Viking cruise.
After an early dinner on the boat, we hopped back on one of Viking’s buses (yes, every shore excursion was taken in a Viking bus) and off we went to enjoy a Mozart and Strauss concert in a Viennese palace. Not only was the location special, but the concert was really good and entertaining too.
Upon our return to the ship, steaming bowls of goulash soup were waiting for us in the Aquavit Terrace. We weren’t really hungry, but we certainly were curious, so we sat down and relaxed enjoying the second dinner. Somehow we managed to put on 3kg in 1 week, you know!

Day 10 – Bratislava

Bratislava Castle
Bratislava welcomed us all dressed up in white. It was beautiful but cold and we were glad we had previously signed up for the home-hosted visit rather than the walking or the bus tour of the city center.
The home-hosted visit was an intimate one, as we were merely six guests, our guide, and the driver snuggled up in a minivan. We visited a family of artists in a village outside Bratislava, which was quite interesting. Since this was our second visit to the Slovak capital, it was just perfect.
In the afternoon we set sail towards Budapest and as we went through the last lock of our cruise, we took a tour of the wheelhouse and had a chat with the captain. Then it was time to get our creative juices flowing and decorate some gingerbread houses.
By the time we were served Hungarian tea with all kinds of delish Hungarian pastries, it was mid-afternoon. We lingered in the lounge enjoying the company of newly made friends, then did a champagne toast together with the captain, and eventually moved down to the restaurant to enjoy the farewell dinner. The evening ended with a music quiz and we won a bottle of champagne. Yay!

Day 11 – Budapest

Dohany Street Synagogue

 

By the time we woke up we had been docked in Budapest for a good few hours. We first joined a bus tour of the city, followed by a visit inside the Matthias Church and around the Fisherman’s Bastion. From there we enjoyed stunning views of Budapest, including the much-celebrated Parliament building across the Danube.
In the afternoon, there were four shore excursions to choose from – soaking up in one of Budapest’s thermal baths, a culinary tour of the city, a visit to the Grand Market or a tour of the Jewish Quarter.We chose the latest so we got to marvel at the amazing Dohány Street Synagogue, the largest in Europe and the second largest in the world. We were impressed to tears by ‘The Tree of Life’, a sculpture resembling a weeping willow whose leaves have etched on them the names of many Hungarian Jews who died during the Holocaust. We ended on a sweet note, however, with a cup of tea and mouth-watering cake in a kosher coffee shop.

During the chef’s dinner, it was finally time to say so long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, goodbye to our fellow travelers. Many of them would have flights to catch early in the morning. But we couldn’t call it a night before one last visit to the lounge to listen to a local quartet that just came onboard. They filled the room with glee while singing Chrismas carols with a wrist, which put a smile on everyone’s faces.

 

Day 12 – Farewell

I’m not got at goodbyes. I never know what to say and I never like to say it. Therefore leaving our ship and the crew behind was difficult. We came to care for this people because they took such great care of us. They really put heart and soul into our wellbeing. They always had a smile for us and were incredibly helpful. And by now, they felt like family. Thank you ALL!

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Cruising Down the Danube with Viking River Cruises: A Visual Itinerary

 



Disclaimer: We were guests of Viking River Cruises, but all options are our own.

13 Responses

  1. JenW
    | Reply

    I'd love to go on a Viking cruise someday. Europe is so pretty!

  2. Anne
    | Reply

    I need to go on a cruise like this! Thanks for the inspo!

  3. Simone
    | Reply

    This cruise seems like the perfect Christmas gift!

  4. Perri
    | Reply

    I so, soooo want to do this!

    • Laura
      | Reply

      You should. River cruising has so many advantages over more conventional ways of traveling. Not having to pack and unpack every single day was such a huge bonus!

  5. Heather
    | Reply

    Oh wow, I've heard so many good things about these Viking cruises. I have add this to my bucket list!

    • Laura
      | Reply

      Our Viking cruise was so well organised and everyone was sooo nice! It's impossible not to fall in love with cruising.

  6. Shannon
    | Reply

    Never though of doing this before but now I want to go cruising in Europe!

    • Laura
      | Reply

      Oh, you must! It's an incredible experience! And I can 100% recommend Viking.

  7. Sofie
    | Reply

    Love your photos!

    • Laura
      | Reply

      Thank you, Sofie! Every destination was so carefully chosen.

  8. Johanna
    | Reply

    Wow, this sounds so lovely! Going on a cruise on the Danube is on my bucket list.

    • Laura
      | Reply

      It's amazing and you should totally do it! I never thought I'd love cruising so much.

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