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Day by Day Itinerary

Christmas trees aglow with white candles ... the wafting harmonies of Handel, Bach, and the strains of “Silent Night” ... sumptuous gingerbread cakes ... handmade wood carvings ... and the warm, happy spirit of the season is all around you. Experience a holiday cruise on the Danube river on this popular holiday getaway, and cruise through the most beloved ports of Austria and Germany. You’ll explore the region’s craft-filled Christmas markets exclusively in the company of like-minded American travelers, and view storybook medieval towns in all their holiday finery. Along with spending convivial moments with others who share the Christmas spirit, you will enjoy ALL meals onboard, including wine, beer, and soft drinks with dinner. Only Grand Circle brings you this unique and comprehensive holiday River Cruise package at such an unbeatable value!

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    Depart the U.S. today on your flight to Nuremberg, Germany.

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    Arrive in Nuremberg this morning, where a Grand Circle representative meets you at the airport and helps you transfer to the pier to embark your waiting river ship. Upon arrival, enjoy some free time to relax and familiarize yourself with your ship. A light lunch will be served onboard.

    Gather this evening for a ship briefing about your River Cruise Tour, and meet your Program Director and fellow travelers during dinner. Afterward, settle in for your first night onboard.

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    After breakfast, disembark for a tour of Nuremberg, one of the most important cities of the Franconia region.

    This medieval city surrounded by 13th-century walls is the second-largest city in Bavaria. Today the city's name evokes the notorious post-World War II war trials. But throughout its history, Nuremberg has been known for its wonderful creativity and handcrafts—its toys and fancy metalwork are particularly famous.

    Return to the ship for lunch. We then take you into town for a delightful visit to Nuremberg's famous Christkindlmarkt (Christmas market), where you have free time to browse on your own. This is Germany's most famous traditional Christmas market, and it is open throughout the holiday season. Here myriad colorful stalls offers handmade Christmas decorations, toys, ceramics, glasswork, and candles. Food stalls tempt you with Bratwurst, mulled wines, sweets, and pastries—including the famous Nuremberg gingerbread. Various programs regale visitors with chorale offerings, concerts, and a live Nativity scene.

    Or, join an optional excursion to the Documentation Center on the former Nazi Party Rally Grounds in Nuremberg. In 1998, the city of Nuremberg held an architectural competition for the center's design for which designers had to fit the proposed center in the Congress Hall, and deal with the site's intimidating architecture and ominous premise. Today's optional tour features the center built from the winning design and the surrounding grounds.

    Tonight, after a Welcome Drink and as you enjoy a Welcome Dinner onboard, the ship quietly slips anchor and heads out on the Main-Danube Canal. We cruise overnight on our way to our next port-of-call.

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    This morning, cruise the Main-Danube Canal, Europe's highest canal. We start the day with our crossing of the European watershed (at 1,332 feet, the highest point of the canal). This ridge of higher land divides the areas drained by the two different rivers, the Main and Danube. Here, rain north of the watershed flows to the North Sea, and rain to the south flows to the Black Sea.

    You will learn more when you join us for an onboard discussion outlining the amazing history of the great Main-Danube Canal. The technological workings of this canal are an engineering marvel. You are also invited to an exclusive Discovery Series German language lesson, where you can learn some German phrases commonly used during the Christmas season.

    You have lunch onboard just as we're arriving in Regensburg, a hidden treasure with elements dating back to medieval times. After your meal, go ashore for a walking tour. Since the city suffered no damage during World War II, it remains beautifully preserved.

    Your tour features the Old Town Hall and the famous Stone Bridge, Germany's oldest, which was constructed during the twelfth century. You also visit the Regensberg Christkindlmarkt (Christmas market) in Neupfarrplatz, which lights up in December with seasonal cheer. You have time here to explore on your own, strolling among the stalls and shopping for unique handmade Christmas gifts.

    After an early dinner on the ship, join us for an exclusive Discovery Series event as we walk to a local church to hear a choral concert featuring festive holiday music.

    You return to the ship, which remains docked in Regensburg overnight, later in the evening.

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    This morning, you'll experience two exclusive Discovery Series events. First, learn the intricacies of glassblowing, as a local artisan demonstrates this traditional craft.

    Just before lunch, your ship departs Regensburg and you spend the afternoon and early evening cruising toward Passau. If the weather obliges, you might go on deck and take in the scenes of life along the banks of this noble river, or spend some time with fellow travelers over coffee or cards.

    In late evening we arrive in Passau, where we dock overnight.

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    This morning, learn about local holiday lore during an exclusive Discovery Series discussion about German Christmas Traditions. Then disembark for a tour of the lovely medieval town of Passau.

    Situated at the confluence of the Danube, the Ilz, and the Inn rivers, Passau has been called the Dreiflussestadt (City on Three Rivers) because of its location. The city was significantly developed by the prince bishops of Passau, who made it their royal residence and capital of the largest Danube diocese.

    You'll enjoy a short walking tour of this elegant town that has served as a German cultural and intellectual hub for centuries. See the impressive Bishop's Residenz, the 13th-century Town Hall, and the town's magnificent 17th-century St. Stephen's Cathedral, which boasts the world's largest church organ, with 17,774 pipes and 231 resounding stops. The cathedral's original Gothic plan is still evident through the 17th-century reconstruction it received in the grand Baroque style. One of its most striking features is the gorgeous octagonal dome that hovers over the intersection of the nave, where the congregation sits, and the transept, which runs perpendicular to it.

    The colorful Christmas market is located in front of the cathedral. You have some free time to do some shopping or just browse the wide assortment of handcrafts and Christmas creations.

    Have lunch aboard ship, and then enjoy free time to discover more of the town on your own.

    The ship sets sail again in late afternoon. Relax over dinner as we cruise the river, en route to Linz, Austria.

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    Linz, one of the largest ports on the Danube and the second-most populous city in Austria, was first settled by Romans in the first century AD. It is now one of the cultural centers of Austria. You might want to walk the city's Hauptplatz, one of the loveliest squares in Europe, lined with Rococo and Baroque architecture. Or you could choose to visit the 17th-century Abbey of St. Florian, where Linz's native son, Anton Bruckner, was the organist and composed many of his famed masterpieces of church music. His burial site is at the abbey.

    You could consider a visit to Linz's historic Landhaus, a complex of structures currently used as government headquarters. These buildings served as the city's university in the 17th century, and it was here that the well-known mathematician and astronomer Johann Kepler formulated his theory of planetary motion. A short walk takes you to the Linzer Schloss (Linz Castle), where you can browse its Provincial Museum of Upper Austria, containing artwork from medieval to modern times. Linz is also a center for trade in antiques, so you might wish to stop in at a few of its shops to see what treasures you can find.

    Or, after breakfast, set off on an optional full-day excursion to Salzburg. This beautiful city—birthplace of Mozart—will seem familiar to most of us who are forever enchanted by The Sound of Music, and you'll visit the grounds where much of the film was shot.

    Your tour includes a visit to the Getreidegasse, the renowned center for Austrian shopping. Note the intricate architectural details of this lane of shops and galleries, nestled under their skillfully crafted wrought-iron signs and offering jewelry, antiques, leather goods, and regional foods. The vaulted passageways offer delightful pathways to artisans' workshops and arcaded courtyards.

    You'll get another taste of Alpine Christmas traditions as you visit the fabulous Salzburg Christmas market. Handmade seasonal crafts of all sorts are available, and the aromas of traditional holiday foods add magic to the colorful setting.

    Have lunch in this beautiful city and free time to explore on your own before boarding your ship again in the late afternoon in Linz.

    This evening, as we cruise the river again, celebrate your discoveries and new Christmas memories at the Captain's Farewell Dinner onboard. We arrive in Melk near midnight.

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    After breakfast, disembark in Melk for an excursion to the dramatic 900-year-old Baroque Melk Abbey.

    This magnificently ornate structure has a long and storied history. Strategically situated on a steep, cliffside perch, Melk Abbey's earliest incarnation was as a Roman border post. Later, it served as a tenth-century Babenberg fortress. It became a Benedictine monastery in 1089 and earned a distinguished reputation for medieval scholarship. Its library includes more than 70,000 books and 2,000 manuscripts, chiefly from the ninth through the 15th centuries. The Abbey also houses a remarkable cherub-filled library of thousands of books and manuscripts, and 365 windows—one for every day of the year. The interior of the Abbey's church is a kaleidoscope of red, orange, and gold—with a magnificent carved pulpit and shimmering ceiling frescoes. You'll also enjoy free time to explore Melk at leisure before returning to your ship.

    After setting sail again near lunchtime, enjoy hot chocolate and relax onboard as your ship cruises along one of the most beautiful parts of the Danube—the Wachau Valley. This UNESCO World Heritage Site consists of a landscape of sculpted hills and medieval towns built along the river.

    You arrive in Vienna before dinnertime. After dinner, you can accompany your Program Director for a peek into this elegant city.

    Vienna without music wouldn't be Vienna. So, subject to availability of tickets, you may want to join us this evening on an optional Musical Vienna outing for a performance in one of Vienna's famed concert halls. This optional excursion is an excellent opportunity to hear classical Viennese music in a setting where Johann Strauss himself performed.

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    • Meals included:

    After breakfast, disembark and transfer to the airport for your flight home.

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    Depart the U.S. today on your flight to Vienna.

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    Arrive at the airport this morning, where a Grand Circle representative meets you and helps you transfer to the pier to embark your river ship. Upon arrival, enjoy some free time to relax and settle in. A light lunch will be served onboard.

    Gather this evening for a ship briefing, and meet your Program Director and fellow travelers during dinner. Afterward, settle in for your first night onboard.

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    This morning, enjoy hot chocolate and relax onboard as your ship cruises along one of the most beautiful parts of the Danube—the Wachau Valley. This UNESCO World Heritage Site consists of a landscape of sculpted hills and medieval towns built along the river.

    Your Program Director will go over the details of your trip in this morning's briefing. Then, after lunch, disembark in Melk for an excursion to the dramatic 900-year-old Baroque Melk Abbey.

    This magnificently ornate structure has a long and storied history. Strategically situated on a steep, cliffside perch, Melk Abbey's earliest incarnation was as a Roman border post. Later, it served as a tenth-century Babenberg fortress. It became a Benedictine monastery in 1089 and earned a distinguished reputation for medieval scholarship. Its library includes more than 70,000 books and 2,000 manuscripts, chiefly from the ninth through the 15th centuries. The Abbey also houses a remarkable cherub-filled library of thousands of books and manuscripts, and 365 windows—one for every day of the year. The interior of the Abbey's church is a kaleidoscope of red, orange, and gold—with a magnificent carved pulpit and shimmering ceiling frescoes. You'll also enjoy free time to explore Melk at leisure before returning to your ship.

    Tonight, join your fellow travelers for a Captain's Welcome Drink and Dinner onboard.


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    This morning the ship calls at the port of Linz. You have the day free to explore this Old-World city.

    Linz, one of the largest ports on the Danube and the second-most populous city in Austria, was first settled by Romans in the first century AD. It is now one of the cultural centers of Austria. You might want to walk the city's Hauptplatz, one of the loveliest squares in Europe, lined with Rococo and Baroque architecture. Or you could choose to visit the 17th-century Abbey of St. Florian, where Linz's native son, Anton Bruckner, was the organist and composed many of his famed masterpieces of church music. His burial site is at the abbey.

    You could consider a visit to Linz's historic Landhaus, a complex of structures currently used as government headquarters. These buildings served as the city's university in the 17th century, and it was here that the well-known mathematician and astronomer Johann Kepler formulated his theory of planetary motion. A short walk takes you to the Linzer Schloss (Linz Castle), where you can browse its Provincial Museum of Upper Austria, containing artwork from medieval to modern times. Linz is also a center for trade in antiques, so you might wish to stop in at a few of its shops to see what treasures you can find.

    Or, after breakfast, set off on an optional full-day excursion to Salzburg. This beautiful city—birthplace of Mozart—will seem familiar to most of us who are forever enchanted by The Sound of Music, and you'll visit the grounds where much of the film was shot.

    Your tour includes a visit to the Getreidegasse, the renowned center for Austrian shopping. Note the intricate architectural details of this lane of shops and galleries, nestled under their skillfully crafted wrought-iron signs and offering jewelry, antiques, leather goods, and regional foods. The vaulted passageways offer delightful pathways to artisans' workshops and arcaded courtyards.

    You'll get another taste of Alpine Christmas traditions as you visit the fabulous Salzburg Christmas market. Handmade seasonal crafts of all sorts are available, and the aromas of traditional holiday foods add magic to the colorful setting.

    Have lunch in this beautiful city and free time to explore on your own before boarding your ship again in the late afternoon in Linz.

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    This morning, we set out on the river again. Along the way, you'll be invited to join an exclusive Discovery Series German language lesson, where you can learn some German phrases commonly used during the Christmas season. In mid-morning, you disembark for a tour of the lovely medieval town of Passau, our first stop in Germany.

    Situated at the confluence of the Danube, Ilz, and Inn rivers, Passau has been called the Dreiflussestadt (City on Three Rivers) because of its location. The city was significantly developed by the prince bishops of Passau, who made it their royal residence and capital of the largest Danube diocese.

    You'll enjoy a short walking tour of this elegant town that has served as a German cultural and intellectual hub for centuries. See the impressive Bishop's Residenz, the 13th-century Town Hall, and the town's magnificent 17th-century St. Stephen's Cathedral, which boasts the world's largest church organ, with 17,774 pipes and 231 resounding stops. The Cathedral's original Gothic plan is still evident through the 17th-century reconstruction it received in the grand Baroque style. One of its most striking features is the gorgeous octagonal dome that hovers over the intersection of the nave, where the congregation sits, and the transept, which runs perpendicular to it.

    The colorful Christmas market is located in front of the Cathedral. You have some free time to do some shopping or just browse the wide assortment of handcrafts and Christmas creations.

    Have lunch aboard ship, and then enjoy some free time to discover more of the town on your own.

    Relax over dinner onboard ship, and then settle in as we cruise overnight.

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    You arrive and dock around mid-morning in Regensburg, Germany's largest medieval city. Then, enjoy a walking tour of this hidden treasure.Since the city suffered no damage during World War II, it remains beautifully preserved.

    Your tour features the Old Town Hall and the famous Stone Bridge, Germany's oldest, which was constructed during the twelfth century. You also visit the Regensberg Christkindlmarkt (Christmas market) in Neupfarrplatz, which lights up in December with seasonal cheer. You have time here to explore on your own, strolling among the stalls and shopping for unique handmade Christmas gifts.

    You'll have lunch onboard ship and an afternoon at leisure.

    After an early dinner on the ship, join us for an exclusive Discovery Series event as we walk to a local church to hear a choral concert featuring festive holiday music. You return to the ship, which remains in Regensburg overnight, later in the evening.

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    Stay aboard this morning and learn the intricacies of glassblowing, as a local artisan demonstrates this traditional craft.

    After lunch onboard, you'll continue cruising along the Main-Danube Canal, Europe's highest canal. As we sail, we cross the European watershed (at 1,332 feet, the highest point of the canal). This ridge of higher land divides the areas drained by the two different rivers, the Main and Danube. Here, rain north of the watershed flows to the North Sea, and rain to the south flows to the Black Sea. You will learn more when you join us for an onboard discussion outlining the amazing history of the canal. Its technological workings are an engineering marvel.

    Later in the evening, as we cruise the river, celebrate your discoveries and new Christmas memories at the Captain's Farewell Dinner onboard. We cruise through the night on our way to Nuremberg.

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    Your ship docks at Nuremberg quite early this morning. After breakfast, you disembark for a tour of Nuremberg, one of the most important cities of the Franconia region.

    This medieval city surrounded by 13th-century walls is the second-largest city in Bavaria. Today the city's name evokes the notorious post-World War II war trials. But throughout its history, Nuremberg has been known for its wonderful creativity and handcrafts—its toys and fancy metalwork are particularly famous.

    Return to the ship for lunch. We then take you into town for a delightful visit to Nuremberg's famous Christkindlmarkt (Christmas market), where you have free time to browse on your own. This is Germany's most famous traditional Christmas market, and it is open throughout the holiday season. Here a myriad of colorful stalls offers handmade Christmas decorations, toys, ceramics, glasswork, and candles. Food stalls tempt you with Bratwurst, mulled wines, sweets, and pastries—including the famous Nuremberg gingerbread. Various programs regale visitors with chorale offerings, concerts, and a live Nativity scene.

    Or, join an optional excursion to the Documentation Center on the former Nazi Party Rally Grounds in Nuremberg. In 1998, the city of Nuremberg held an architectural competition for the center's design. Designers had to fit the proposed center in the Congress Hall and deal with the site's intimidating architecture and ominous premise. Today's optional tour features the center built from the winning design and the surrounding grounds.

    Tonight, linger over your final dinner aboard, and spend your evening as you wish. The ship remains in Nuremberg tonight.

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    After breakfast, disembark and transfer to the airport for your flight home.

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Questions and Answers

Want to know more about one of our vacations? Now, when you post a question, travelers who have been on that trip can provide you with an honest, unbiased answer based on their experience—providing you with a true insider’s perspective.

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Weather & Regional

Before you travel, we encourage you to learn about the region of the world you'll discover on this trip. From weather and currency information to details on population, geography, and local history, you'll find a comprehensive introduction to your destinations below.

Visit our “What to Know” page to find information about the level of activity to expect, vaccination information resources, and visa requirements specific to this vacation.

Currency Cheat Sheet: Submit

What to Know

For more detailed information about this trip, download our Travel Handbook below. This document covers a wide range of information on specific areas of your trip, from passport, visa, and medical requirements; to the currencies of the countries you’ll visit and the types of electrical outlets you’ll encounter. This handbook is written expressly for this itinerary. For your convenience, we've highlighted our travelers' most common areas of interest on this page.

Download the Travel Handbook

What to Expect

Travel considerations for you and your small group of no more than 47, on Christmas Markets Along the Danube.

Pacing

  • 8 days, with 7 nights aboard a private Grand Circle river ship
  • Return flights to U.S. often require departing from ship in early morning hours

Physical Requirements

  • Not accessible for travelers using wheelchairs or scooters
  • Travelers using walkers, crutches, or other mobility aids must travel with a companion who can assist them throughout the trip
  • You must be able to walk 1-3 miles unassisted and participate in 2-3 hours of physical activities each day, including stairs

Climate

  • Daytime temperatures range from 38-45°F during cruising season
  • Rain, ice, snow, and wind are possible during the holiday season

Terrain

  • Travel over diverse terrain and uneven walking surfaces, including steep and unpaved paths, hills, riverbanks, 25-50 stairs without handrails, and cobblestones, which can be slippery in wet or colder conditions

Transportation

  • Travel by 45-passenger coach and 140- to 164-passenger river ship

River Cruising

  • Throughout the Holiday River Cruise season, weather conditions and tides affect European river depths; water levels may require adjustments to your itinerary

Cuisine

  • Meals will be a mix of local specialties and familiar American standards
  • Meals onboard feature a variety of entrée options, including vegetarian

Program Directors

  • We reserve the right for our Program Directors to modify participation, or in some circumstances send travelers home if their limitations are impacting the group's experience

Travel Documents

Passport

Your passport should meet these requirements for this itinerary

  • It should be valid for at least 6 months after your scheduled return to the U.S.
  • It should have the recommended number of blank pages (refer to the handbook for details).
  • The blank pages must be labeled “Visas” at the top. Pages labeled “Amendments and Endorsements” are not acceptable.

Visas

U.S. citizens do not need a visa for this trip.

If you are not a U.S. citizen, do not travel with a U.S. passport, or will be traveling independently before/after this trip, then your entry requirements may be different. Please check with the appropriate embassy or a visa servicing company. To contact our recommended visa servicing company, PVS International, call toll-free at 1-800-556-9990.

Vaccinations Information

For a detailed and up-to-date list of vaccinations that are recommended for this trip, please visit the CDC’s “Traveler’s Health” website. You can also refer to the handbook for details.

Before Your Trip

Before you leave on your vacation, there are at least four health-related things you should do. Please check the handbook for specifics, but for now, here’s the short list:

Step 1: Check with the CDC for their recommendations for the countries you’ll be visiting.
Step 2: Have a medical checkup with your doctor.
Step 3: Pick up any necessary medications, both prescription and over-the-counter.
Step 4: Have a dental and/or eye checkup. (Recommended, but less important than steps 1-3.)

What to Bring

In an effort to help you bring less, we have included checklists within the handbook, which have been compiled from suggestions by Program Directors and former travelers. The lists are only jumping-off points—they offer recommendations based on experience, but not requirements. You might also want to refer to the climate charts in the handbook or online weather forecasts before you pack. Refer to the handbook for details.

Insider Tips

Accommodations

Main Trip

  • Private Grand Circle River Ship

    All of our Rhine, Main & Danube river ships made Condé Nast Traveler’s “Top 40 River Cruise Ships in the World” 2014 Readers’ Poll. Cruise Europe's rivers in comfort on your private river ship, which features all outside cabins, and spacious common areas. Complimentary wireless Internet is available in all cabins and common areas, but connectivity is limited in certain locations. Your cabin features a flat-screen TV, direct-dial telephone, individual heating and air-conditioning controls, twin beds that convert to sofas, and private bath with shower and hair dryer.

  • M/S River Adagio

    The M/S River Adagio was ranked #26 in Condé Nast Traveler’s “Top 40 River Cruise Ships in the World” 2014 Readers’ Poll.

    One of the largest ships in Grand Circle's own deluxe fleet, the M/S River Adagio was built specifically for cruising the widest part of the Danube and the deeper waters leading to the Black Sea. Enjoy personalized attention from the ship staff, and up to four experienced Grand Circle Program Directors. And with no more than 164 fellow Grand Circle travelers aboard with you, you'll find it easy to make friends and share your experiences.

  • M/S River Aria

    The M/S River Aria was ranked #35 in Condé Nast Traveler’s “Top 40 River Cruise Ships in the World” 2014 Readers’ Poll

    Launched in 2001, the M/S River Aria has a capacity of 164 passengers in 82 cabins, all with outside views. Ship amenities include an elevator, restaurant, bar and lounge, library, and Sun Deck. Your ship has an international crew of 38 and up to four English-speaking Program Directors.

SEE THE ENTIRE GRAND CIRCLE FLEET

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  • Holiday Inn Munich City Centre

    Munich, Germany

    Just steps from the subway and across from the Gasteig Cultural Center, your hotel is set in the perfect location for discovering Munich. Spend your nights in one of its 582 air-conditioned rooms, each featuring private bathrooms, flat screen TVs, and coffee and tea making facilities. Amenities include an indoor pool and on-site bar and lounge. 

  • ARCOTEL Kaiserwasser

    Vienna, Austria | Rating: Superior First Class

    Located across from the Vienna International Centre, and featuring convenient access to public transportation, the Superior First-Class ARCOTEL Kaiserwasser is just a ten-minute subway ride away from the center of Vienna and St. Stephen's Cathedral. Amenities include a fitness center, bar, and restaurant. Each of its 282 air-conditioned rooms features complimentary wireless Internet access, flat-screen TV, telephone, minibar, safe, and private bath with hair dryer.

Flight Information

Customize Your Trip

Whether you choose to take just a base trip or add an optional pre- and post-trip extension, you have many options when it comes to customizing your trip—and creating your own unique travel experience:

Purchase Flights with Grand Circle

  • Choose the departure city and airline that works best for you
  • Depart from one city and return to another
  • Upgrade your air itinerary based on your travel preferences
  • “Break away” before or after your trip to explore independently or re-energize
  • Combine two or more trips to make the most of your value—and avoid another long flight
  • Extend your discoveries with pre- or post-trip extensions

Make Your Own Arrangements

  • Make your own international flight arrangements directly with the airline
  • Purchase optional airport transfers to and from your hotel
  • Extend your Land Tour-only Travel Protection Plan coverage and protect the air arrangements you make on your own—including your frequent flyer miles

OR, leave your air routing up to us and your airfare (as well as airport transfers) will be included in your final trip cost.

Approximate travel times

History, Culture & More

Learn more about the history, art, culture, and more you’ll discover on this trip by reading the features below. These articles were collected from past newsletters, Harriet’s Corner, and special features created for Grand Circle by our team of writers.

Latecomers to the Party

Learn how the nutcracker, which was once a lowly utensil, became a symbol of Christmas.

Read More »

Christmas in July

Some of our favorite holiday dishes work just as well during the summer as they do come the holidays. Check some of them out here.

Read More »

Sugar & Spice

Try making this traditional gluhwein to celebrate the holidays or warm up on a cold day.

Read More »

History, Culture & More

Latecomers to the Party

How nutcrackers came to mean Christmas

by David Valdes Greenwood, for Grand Circle

When the snow flies in Boston, New York, London, and Moscow, it is not only the announcement of winter, but of The Nutcracker season. Little girls in their best dresses and boys with their hair neatly combed climb into velvet theatre seats alongside throngs of grown-ups, for many of whom a trip to see Tchaikovsky’s ballet has been a cherished holiday tradition for decades. But few know just how it is that a wooden tool that was once a lowly utensil became a symbol of Christmas. To explain, you have to travel back across the centuries and the miles to Germany, where nutcrackers as we think of them—like so many of our holiday traditions—got their start.

Cracking the nut

Before the ballet or the toy came the nut. Though nuts have been dietary staples around the globe for millennia, they’re not like fruits and vegetables that can just be picked up and eaten. Their shells have to be dealt with first, and some are impossible to crack open with your fingers or a bite. Archaeologists have found evidence dating back at least 8,000 years of rudimentary nutcrackers—though “nutsmashers” might be more accurate: Ancient nomads used pitted rocks to pummel the shells and get to the prize inside. The Romans made metal nutcrackers as early as the fourth century BC. Iron and brass nutcrackers, mostly resembling pliers, spread beyond Italy to 13th-century France, England, and Germany.

At that time, the Erzebirge (Ore Mountains) region of Germany, near the Czech border, was the epicenter of metalwork for the nation. The Erzebirge economy was almost entirely dependent on its store of gold, silver, tin, cobalt, and uranium deposits, so when many of these materials were mined out by the 15th century, the workforce had no choice but to adapt. Since the region was heavily forested, woodworking became the key trade, and the local craftsmen became skilled first in hand-carving, then in the use of lathes for more polished products. In fact, they became so good that the ruler of Saxony eventually decreed that only natives of the Erzebirge region could be officially licensed woodcarvers.

It was here in villages that nutcrackers began to take familiar shape. The vise-like crackers gave way to beautiful hinged utensils, followed by the now-common upright forms of people or animal figures, all carved in polished (but not painted) wood. The first mention of such models was in 1481, and soon after France and England mimicked the style. At this point, nutcrackers began to leave behind pure function for form, equally decorative and even playful, as some makers created whimsical versions just for children.

Holiday soldiers

It wasn’t until the early 1800s that standing soldiers (and other royalty) started to appear, with hinged jaws for cracking. These eye-catching figures didn’t become the dominant style until E.T. Amadeus Hoffman’s Christmas-party novel The Nutcracker and the King of Mice featured a soldier model in its pen-and-ink illustrations, increasing consumer demand.

In the 1870s, the “father of nutcrackers,” woodcarver Wilhelm Füchtner, cemented the transition of these objects from tool to toy. Reproducing thousands of his colorful soldiers on lathes, he was responsible for the first wide commercial release of a single nutcracker pattern. This required quite an assembly line, as each one required more than 100 steps involving dozens of individual pieces of wood as well as glass jewels, paint, fur, and leather cords. But the resulting soldiers became synonymous with the word "nutcracker" throughout Europe.

Hoffman’s tale and Füchtner’s toy together inspired the great Russian composer Tchaikovsky. His Nutcracker Suite first graced the stage in St. Petersburg in 1892, but did not immediately catch on elsewhere. It was more than 40 years before a full production occurred outside Russia (the first taking place in England) and another 20 before it came to the U.S. in the 1940s. But that, as it turns out, was a case of the right place at the right time.

An American tradition is born

The very first U.S. staging, San Francisco Ballet’s 1944 production, was so popular that the company has performed the show every year since, inspiring several other cities to mount their own productions. But it was the 1954 George Balanchine staging for the New York City Ballet that truly caught the fancy of American theatregoers. The moment was right: not only was this the era in which Balanchine was at his peak (having already staged The Firebird and Swan Lake in New York), it was a time when American audiences were embracing ballet in popular entertainment at large, as seen in Oklahoma and On the Town. Within a few years of the Balanchine staging, Nutcracker performances were a holiday staple coast to coast.

With the show itself so popular, the title object was increasingly in demand. But nutcrackers saw a boom in post-war America for another reason: they were popular with soldiers returning from their service in Europe. Some valued the nutcrackers for their legendary properties (which suggested the toys had a mythic ability to protect the owners from harm), while others simply remembered them from the Christkindlmarkts (Christmas markets) of Germany. For all these reasons, nutcrackers had joined evergreens and twinkling lights as symbols of Christmas in America by the end of the 1950s—making them a fairly young tradition, despite their 19th-century appearances.

Whether you prefer traditional nutcrackers still made by the carvers of Erzebirge, or fancy the life-size nutcrackers that have became popular in the past ten years, you’ll find something to celebrate in a holiday treasure which is both old and new: a 70-year-old classic 8,000 years in the making.

History, Culture & More

Christmas in July

Seasonal treats and holiday fare

by Andrew French, for Grand Circle

Even when it’s warm and summery, it’s never too early to be thinking about the magic of the holiday season: sparkling lights ... the scent of rich spices ... and especially the delectable holiday treats. In fact, some of our favorite holiday dishes work just as well during the summer as they do come the holidays. So when the dog days of summer hit you, you can easily transport yourself to another celebratory season.

While your air-conditioning is working overtime, try to imagine when the air turns cold and the snow begins to fall. As late November and December get closer, Germany’s towns take on a storybook quality, and the Christkindlmarkts, or Christmas markets, begin to appear. Lights glow in dazzling patterns, brightening the night and creating a festive mood. Holiday music plays, and patrons laugh together, pausing to take in the displays of handmade toys or to enjoy a delicious treat of the Christmas season.

Stands selling Glühwein, or “glow-wine,” are a Christkindlmarkt fixture. The recipe begins with red wine, but fruit wines, such as blueberry and cherry wines, are sometimes used instead. The wine is heated and mixed with spices such as cinnamon, cloves, and star anise. Citrus and sugar are added to the mixture, and sometimes it’s prepared mit Schuss (with a shot, usually of rum). The result is a sweet wine that’s perfect for warming up on a snowy evening—or maybe on a cool summer evening around a campfire?

An intriguing variation of Glühwein is the Feuerzangenbowle, or “fire-tongs punch.” The recipe is similar to Glühwein, but it’s prepared in a fondue-like bowl set over a small burner. A grate is placed on top, and a loaf of rum-soaked sugar is placed on it and set on fire. Rum is ladled over the sugar until it’s completely caramelized and been mixed into the wine. For some, the gathering of friends to make the Feuerzangenbowle is more important than the drink itself.

One thing that summertime and Christmas markets have in common is that they’re both perfect for grilled sausages. During the Christkindlmarkts, that means a visit to the bratwurst stand, where you’ll find these delicious sausages in baguette rolls, with ketchup and mustard as condiments. This dish has many variations, including the currywurst, in which the sausages are cut up and served on a plate with curry sauce. In Bamberg, Nuremberg, and Regensburg, the bratwursts are smaller and served with horseradish or sauerkraut. In the Black Forest, spicy Rotewurst, made from finely ground pork and bacon, is the tradition. There’s even a 1/2-meter bratwurst for people with a healthy appetite, or who just want a funny photo for back home.

Several cakes associated with the season, such as Lebkuchen (gingerbread), can be found served warm or boxed for gift-giving. Prepared with honey, nuts, and many spices (including ginger, of course), Lebkuchen can be plain, glazed, or coated with dark chocolate. Nuremberg is particularly famous for its flourless, fluffy Lebkuchen which is sometimes called Elisenlebkuchen after the daughter of its original baker. Stollen, the German Christmas cake, is a true holiday tradition. Filled with fruits and nuts and covered with powdered sugar, Stollen can sometimes have variations that include poppy seeds, marzipan, and even red wine. Travelers can purchase some at the Christkindlmarkts, and bring home the taste of a real German Christmas holiday.

History, Culture & More

Sugar & Spice

from Harriet’s Corner

Just as varietals of wine vary throughout countries and climates, the base spirit for gluhwein (spiced wine) varies depending upon what’s popular in vineyards along Europe’s most treasured rivers. In Germany, you may find white wines like Riesling the basis for this mulled concoction, whereas reds are definitely the focal point in Austria. No matter which version you try, it’s a wonderful way to warm up as on a cold day, especially if you’re strolling between booths on Christmas Markets Along the Rhine, Christmastime on the Seine, Christmas Markets Along the Danube, or our newest holiday trip, Christmas Markets Along the Elbe.

Gluhwein (spiced wine)

This recipe uses a crock pot, which not only makes it convenient, but is a nice nod to the sentiment of sharing something communal at the holiday season. If you don’t have a slow cooker, however, you can just make this in a large pot on the stove. Get ready—it will make your home smell wonderful!

Ingredients

1 bottle red wine (750 ml)
1 ½ cups orange juice
1-2 thick slices lemon (with rind)
2 cinnamon sticks
10-15 cloves
5 whole allspice
1 star anise
3 Tbsp dark brown sugar (or muscavado)

Preparation

Add all of the spices to the pot, or tie them in a bit of cheesecloth before adding them to the pot, with the liquids and lemon. Heat together over low heat or simmer, and keep on the same setting for 30 minutes up to several hours—the longer it’s heated, the more intense the flavors. Serve warm, and garnish with a cinnamon stick in each glass or mug, if you like!

Serves: 8

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