DAY 1 EMBARK IN BUDAPEST
Arrive in Budapest, where your five-star floating hotel is moored, glimmering in festive glory. The dedicated crew is there to welcome you on-board, ensuring you settle into your comfortable and extremely well-appointed cabin and familiarize yourself with the ship.
Your eyes will be wide with wonder as you take in the fabulous décor, with garlands adorning the staircases, lights as far as the eye can see and of course the majestic Christmas tree taking center stage. There’s always a sense of expectancy and excitement on the eve of a cruise, especially at Christmas time and, after an excellent dinner in the stylish restaurant, conversation is sure to revolve around the seasonal delights ahead.
DAY 2 ESZTERGOM
Overnight we have cruised upstream to Esztergom, one of Hungary’s oldest towns, a royal capital during medieval times and today the seat of the country’s archbishop. We have a guided tour of the famous neoclassical basilica, standing sentinel over the Danube on the border with Slovakia, and boasting one of the world’s largest altarpieces and a wealth of priceless religious artifacts. The castle is also worth exploring; it was the seat of government until the Ottomans invaded in the 16th century. Nestling below are myriad atmospheric churches resonating with the sounds of the choir, particularly enchanting at this special time of the year; this is the best of provincial Hungary and is little changed since Habsburg times.
There will also be time to browse the stalls at the Esztergom Christmas market, where Széchenyi Square has now been transformed into a winter spectacular, and for years has featured an ice rink and live music. Seek out those last-minute gifts from the rustic wooden stalls, enjoy the friendly festive atmosphere and perhaps indulge in a slice of traditional chimney cake. As you enjoy your first lunch on board we gently leave Esztergom in our wake, affording a fascinating opportunity to compare the different landscapes, towns, and villages of Hungary on one river bank and of Slovakia on the other. Wrap up in your winter best and take to the deck to enjoy the wonderful kaleidoscope of Christmas card scenery drifting by in the frosty air, then return to the warmth of the ship’s inviting lounge.
DAY 3 BRATISLAVA
After a delicious breakfast, this morning we explore Slovakia’s fast-emerging capital city, Bratislava, on a guided tour. Until recently swathed in the drab uniformity of Communism, the city has rekindled the splendor of its imperial past in its beautifully restored old town. Equally impressive is the imposing 17th-century castle commanding expansive views across the Danube. Christmas in Bratislava is an enchanting experience, with Hviezdoslav Square now dressed up for the special season, complete with a lit-up tram with cozy interior and joyous carols.
You’ll also have plenty of free time to explore the cobble-stoned streets of this captivating city – so what’s it to be? Why not head to the regal Primatial Palace? Built in the late 1700s in a classical style, the once home to the archbishop of Esztergom now holds a rare collection of tapestry works from the 17th-century. Take the opportunity to view the traditional Christmas cribs in some of the churches or maybe wander the maze of streets, admiring the Christmas decorations, until you reach the main square. For a seasonal treat try the medovníky, these delicious honey and ginger biscuits are traditionally eaten at Christmas time in Slovakia.
This afternoon we cruise into Lower Austria, a peaceful, bucolic region and home to some of the country’s best wines. Head to the convivial atmosphere of the ship’s well-stocked bar for your favorite aperitif before another excellent dinner is served.
DAY 4 MELK ON CHRISTMAS EVE
We awake on Christmas Eve amidst the enchanting surroundings of the Wachau Valley where the landscape is blanketed with vineyards and dotted with ornamental villages. After breakfast, you visit the remarkable Melk Abbey. Nothing quite prepares you for your first sight of this enormous honey-colored building, standing resplendent above the surrounding countryside and perhaps even more atmospheric at Christmas time.
Originally built as a castle, it was gifted to the Benedictine Order in the 11th-century and, although reconstructed in Baroque style, it has remained a monastic school and monastery ever since. The Abbey is renowned for its 214-yard-long Emperor’s Gallery lined with portraits, many fine rooms, and an ornate library. Later we re-join the ship for lunch and the final part of our cruise upstream through the pretty Nibelugengau, an inspiration to poets and also immortalized in the music of Wagner. This evening adjourn to the inviting bar and reflect on a fascinating day of discovery before another sumptuous dinner.
DAY 5 SALZBURG OR LINZ ON CHRISTMAS DAY
Reaching Linz, you will have the choice of two included Christmas Day excursions. You can stay in the city and take a guided walking tour, exploring the charming, decorated streets of the Baroque old town. At its heart you’ll see one of the finest squares in Austria, lined by grand pastel-colored facades with an impressive central Trinity Column of white marble, crowned by a gilded sunburst. There’s also the fortress-like castle, built high above the city by Emperor Friedrich III, now a museum housing a fine collection of nineteenth and twentieth-century artworks. Now embellished in seasonal splendor, take in the festive ambiance with the glow of lights and the magnificent Christmas tree in the Hauptplatz. Although the Christkindlmarkt won’t be open on Christmas Day, the peaceful atmosphere gives you a chance to appreciate the impressive architecture with a sense of calm.
Alternatively, join our included tour to Salzburg, surely the perfect city for a Christmas day visit. Dominating the skyline of Salzburg is one of Europe’s largest stone fortresses, the Hohensalzburg, while beneath its walls, church domes and spires rise from the delightful Altstadt. Then there’s the wonderful Hellbrunn Palace and the splendid formal gardens of the Mirabell Palace.
This morning discover some of the city’s main sights in the company of an expert local guide, then you’re free to explore as you wish. Everywhere there are sights associated with the city’s most famous resident, Mozart, who wrote his first opera when he was 11! Celebrate the day by the magnificent Christmas tree in Cathedral Square and perhaps reflect on the hauntingly beautiful lyrics of Silent Night. This carol was written by Joseph Mohr who was also born in Salzburg. Please note lunch is not included on this full-day excursion to Salzburg; however, the ship will offer a packed lunch.
This evening enjoy tonight’s superb Gala Christmas Day dinner, expertly served by your attentive crew before further celebrations with newly made friends in the convivial bar.
DAY 6 VIENNA
During the early hours, our ship has stealthily crept into port and you awake to find yourself in twinkling Vienna. There are few places that can so delightfully evoke the spirit of Christmas than here – where the elegant imperial facades, their decorations glittering in the glow from a thousand Christmas lights, the sound of classical carols floating on the crisp air and the irresistible smell of candyfloss and roasted chestnuts are truly reminiscent of Christmas from a bygone age. There has been a Christmas market here since the Middle Ages and today the markets held over the festive period sell a huge range of seasonal gifts and mouth-watering treats.
After breakfast you enjoy a guided tour seeing the main sights such as St Stephen’s Cathedral and the impressive Hofburg complex, former royal court, now home to a collection of museums, the Vienna Boys’ Choir and the world-famous Spanish Riding School. There will also be time to explore the Christmas markets, or if you prefer you can retreat to the refined, yet cozy elegance of a traditional Viennese café for an indulgent Sachertorte.
After lunch on board we visit the magnificent Schönbrunn Palace. Once the summer residence of the Hapsburgs, this former royal residence now houses a range of world-class museums and galleries. The palace also hosts a superb Christmas market, specializing in traditional handicrafts and nostalgic toys. After tonight’s excellent dinner on board, retire to the lounge for a nightcap and enjoy a classical Christmas recital – a fitting musical finale to our day as the ship glides away from this captivating city.
DAY 7 BUDAPEST
We have sailed overnight and on waking, draw back the curtains to see the early morning mist rising over this gentle pastoral landscape, draped in a blanket of glistening frost. After breakfast, seek out a good vantage spot in the lounge, sink into a comfy chair and watch this lovely slideshow of winter wonderland scenery effortlessly gliding by – what could be more relaxing! For the more energetic, perhaps a visit to the ship’s fitness center to work off some of those delicious meals or head up to the sun deck to enjoy the bracing river breeze as the Captain skilfully navigates our return course to the Hungarian capital. Our final lunch is served during which Budapest’s majestic skyline comes into view.
Budapest is always an atmospheric and fascinating city, but at this time of the year, the muted colors of its magnificent archaic spires and grand domes are especially captivating on the wintry skyline. The historic and palatial buildings, the superb Roman ruins and exquisite Art Nouveau architecture provide a truly impressive backdrop for the city’s acclaimed Christmas markets. This afternoon we enjoy a guided tour seeing the main sights such as the iconic Parliament Building and the ancient Castle District with its winding streets and panoramic views. There’s free time to explore under your own steam and wander the markets. Soak up the traditional atmosphere as classical music fills the air along with the delicious smells of spicy gingerbread and peppery goulash – and don’t forget the mulled wine to stave off the winter chill!
This evening dinner closes with a Hungarian Christmas folklore show, giving you time to bid farewell to your traveling companions and reflect on all the inspirational places, sights and sounds you have experienced on this very magical festive cruise.
DAY 8 DISEMBARK IN BUDAPEST
After breakfast this morning, the crew bids you farewell before you disembark the ship.