With a reputation as one of the most scenic river cruises in Europe, a Rhine river cruise is the best way to visit Europe’s most enchanting Christmas Markets.
Viking Cruises Paris to the Swiss Alps river cruise itinerary is fabulous any time of year. An itinerary centred around the beauty and culture of the Rhine, incorporating some of Europe’s most beautiful and sophisticated cities and Switzerland’s unparalleled natural beauty.
While summer, spring and fall are the most popular time to take a European river cruise, winter is a fantastic time of year to cruise the Rhine.
We have always been big advocates of shoulder season and off-season travel. We consider, for many destinations, these are the best times to visit Europe. Cruises are no different.
Winter cruises offer unique opportunities – fewer tourist crowds than the summer, and alternative cultural experiences such as the varied Christmas celebrations and traditions.
Christmas Market Cruises
The Paris to the Swiss Alps itinerary does not change too much on a winter cruise, give or take some optional excursions. It does, however, allow the opportunity to visit some of the best Christmas markets in Europe. Each day a new town or city, each with its own unique Christmas market.
The itinerary also allows plenty of free time to browse the festive markets at leisure, shop for Christmas gifts and trinkets, and soak up the Christmas atmosphere. Of course, there is always plenty of Glühwein and hearty local fare to keep you warm.
When it comes to choosing the best Christmas market cruise, you can’t pass up Germany’s Rhine and France’s Alsace regions for some of the most authentic Christmas market experiences in Europe. After all, Christmas markets – “Weihnachtsmarkt” originated in Germany.
Are Christmas Cruises More expensive?
Traditionally, Christmas and New Year’s cruises can be more expensive, but this is not always the case with winter river cruises in Europe.
As summer, late spring, and early fall are the peak seasons for river cruising in Europe; it is possible to find some great deals in winter.
December heralds the last sailings for the year (there are no sailings January or February) and despite the appeal of access to so many of Europe’s best Christmas markets, you can find some great cruise deals on winter river cruises in Europe.
Paris to the Swiss Alps Cruise
Paris to the Swiss Alps is not the first river cruise we have done, nor our first Viking cruise. We have sailed the length of the Danube from Bucharest to Budapest on the Passage to Eastern Europe Cruise, and on the Danube Waltz Cruise, Budapest to Passau.
We have sailed the Volga on a Russian river cruise from St Petersburg to Moscow and explored the best of Scandinavia and northern Europe on the Viking Homelands ocean cruise.
Why Choose Paris to The Swiss Alps for a Winter Christmas Market Cruise?
The Paris to the Swiss Alps Cruise interested us for many reasons, especially in winter. It was our first time experiencing a winter river cruise – what better countries than France, Germany and Switzerland to enjoy the best aspects of winter in Europe?
It was also the perfect itinerary for exploring so many of the best Christmas markets in Europe.
Combined Cruise/Tour Itinerary
This particular cruise itinerary is more of a combined cruise/tour which we had not experienced before. The inclusion of 2 hotel nights at either side of the itinerary and some overland days appealed to us as an alternative to cruising for the entire itinerary.
As with every Viking river cruise, the shore excursions are carefully curated to give guests the most immersive experience in each destination. Guests can connect with each destination beyond the cultural highlights through private tours and local experiences.
The itinerary provides an included tour at every destination except Bernkastel and has an impressive selection of optional excursions to choose from at each stop. In many cases, we found the Included Tour option to be the best choice which is an indication of the quality of the shore excursions.
Best of all, especially on a Christmas cruise where you want to enjoy the markets, there is ample time at each destination to explore on your own even after taking an Included Tour. Ease of access to most of the destinations from the ship also makes independent exploration very easy for guests. There were many opportunities to walk into town centres on our own.
Shore Excursion Tips
We have included tips on the excursions for each destination where we think it may help you decide which tours to book for your cruise.
Paris to the Swiss Alps Cruise Itinerary
As with all Viking river cruises, the itinerary packs in some very impressive and memorable destinations into the 12-day cruise tour.
Covering four countries, visiting two of Europe’s most famous and sophisticated cities – Paris and Zurich, and discovering some of the most enchanting cities and towns along the Rhine.
This particular cruise is also a standout for the scenery along the way. Whether cruising down the Rhine or touring through the Swiss Alps, the landscape will leave you spellbound. The scenic sailing through the Middle Rhine was a highlight of the cruise.
While we started the cruise tour from Paris, you can also start the cruise from Zurich finishing in Paris depending on sailing dates.
The itinerary covers four countries over 12 days.
- Paris France
- Reims France
- Trier Germany
- Bernkastel Germany
- Cochem Germany
- Koblenz Germany (with scenic sailing through the Middle Rhine to Mainz)
- Mainz Germany
- Speyer Germany (with an optional tour to Heidelberg & Martin Luther Worms)
- Strasbourg France
- Basel Switzerland (with optional “highlight of the Alps” tour to Alpine villages including Interlaken)
- Zurich Switzerland
Paris to Swiss Alps River Cruise Map
Note the overland sections via motorcoach – Paris to Trier via Luxembourg to meet the ship and Basel to Zurich.
As Paris is the starting (or finishing) point of the cruise, it will depend on your travel arrangements as to how long you have in the magnificent City Of Light. Undoubtedly, as it is a two-night stay in Paris, you will have at least one full day, if not, one and a half – two days.
If it is your first time visiting Paris, you may wish to arrive (or leave) a few days either side as there is so much to see and enjoy in the French Capital. Viking does offer a pre and post-cruise option for this if you don’t wish to organise it yourself.
Our arrival in Paris coincided with the start of the worst strikes France has experienced in years with public transport shut down, and many attractions closed. However, in Paris, there is still so much to enjoy, and the city is very walkable, so it barely impacted our stay.
Despite the strikes, the scheduled cruise excursions still went ahead as Viking use private buses and tour companies. Only the Palace of Versailles tour was cancelled due to strike closure.
Christmas also brings a unique atmosphere to Paris. Seek out the Christmas markets dotted around the city, window shop under the festive lights, or cosy up in a Parisienne cafe with a hot bowl of Soupe à l’Oignon and a glass of French red for a typical Parisian experience.
Strikes or no strikes, winter is a surprisingly lovely time to be in Paris.
If it is your first time visiting Paris, we highly recommend taking the welcome walk if your travel arrangements allow as well as the included Panoramic Paris Highlights tour on the second morning.
These tours are a very handy way to quickly get your bearings in the city. You can also see many of the highlights in a short time from the comfort of a coach.
If you have never seen a cabaret show in Paris, the Paris Cabaret and Dinner is one of the most memorable evenings you will have in Paris – highly recommended.
Luxembourg /Reims France
Making up one part of the “tour” aspect of the cruise, Paris to Luxembourg and then onto Trier to meet the ship is by coach. It is a very long travel day considering the two stops are only short. Expect to leave Paris at around 7.30 am and arrive at the boat after 5.00 pm. On a clear day, however, the bus does pass through some very scenic countryside.
The itinerary shows a stop at Reims in France for lunch and to visit the Reims Cathedral. We’re not sure why, but our schedule did not include this stop. Perhaps to suit the season, or due to delays in leaving Paris because of the strikes.
Instead, we had a quick truck stop lunch and continued to Luxembourg City for a quick guided city tour and visit to the Luxembourg Notre Dame Cathedral. We felt seeing Luxembourg city, albeit briefly was possibly more enjoyable than visiting Reims.
Before departing Luxembourg to Trier, a stop at the Luxembourg American Cemetery allows guests time to pay homage to the thousands of Americans who lost their lives during the World War II Battle of the Bulge.
The oldest city in Germany, the centre of the Moselle Valley and the birthplace of Karl Marx, Trier was once an important Roman outpost rivalling Rome in influence and size.
In the historical centre, remnants of the mighty Roman city are everywhere such as the 20,000 seat Roman amphitheatre and the UNESCO listed Porta Nigra. Yet, the medieval town that seems to sprawl from the magnificent Trier Cathedral has a vibrant and modern feel.
Trier is also our first introduction to Germany’s traditional Christmas markets. As mentioned, Christmas markets originated in Germany, so what better introduction than in Germany’s oldest city.
We only had half a day in Trier, which was plenty of time. Transfer to and from the ship in Trier is via bus (the ship moves while you are in Trier) so you must join the tour to visit the city.
The Trier visit starts with an included guided walking tour in the morning, finishing in time for the opening of the Trier Christmas markets in the main square.
With around 2 hours of free time, you can explore the historical centre of Trier with ample time to retrace any of the highlights pointed out on the walking tour. Explore the Christmas markets, or enjoy a leisurely coffee in any one of Trier’s quaint coffee houses.
An afternoon cruise down the Moselle lands us late afternoon in the charming town of Bernkastel. Bernkastel is actually one half of a twin town with Kues across the river.
The two towns were united by a bridge in 1874 and unified in 1905. Bernkastel-Kues is known as the “Pearl of the Moselle” and a world-renown premier winemaking region.
There is only an Optional Excursion in Bernkastel, a short walking tour followed by a wine tasting. For those not wanting to take part in the Optional Tour, the boat docks in the centre, so you have easy access to the historic town centre.
We opted for the Optional Tour. A short walking tour through the charming medieval town. The narrow cobblestone streets, brightly coloured timber houses and of course, a Christmas market in the market square.
The highlight of this tour was the wine tasting: a fun and informative session sampling around five wines from the region. We have been to many wine tastings but found this one particularly engaging.
One of the Moselle’s prettiest villages, Cochem is characterised by the impossibly steep vineyards that surround it and the 1000-year-old Reichsburg Castle on the hill above the town.
With nearly a full day in Cochem (early morning to mid-afternoon), there is plenty of time to enjoy the included tour and explorer further on your own. The ship docks in the town centre, so it is possible to come and go as you please. There is a small Christmas market in the main square on the riverfront.
The Included Excursion includes a guided walking tour of the town, but the highlight is a private visit to the Reichsburg Castle, also known as Cochem Castle. Our first introduction to the famous fairytale castles of the Moselle and Rhine.
The tour of Reichsburg Castle offers invaluable insight into the history of the region and sets the scene for the castles you will see on the scenic cruising down the Middle Rhine. The views from the castle over the Moselle and the village of Cochem are worth the visit alone.
A morning in Koblenz starts from the “German Corner” the confluence of the Rhine and the Moselle. From here, for a short guided walking tour from the ship to the centre of Old Town.
The cities Roman, Napoleonic and Medieval influences are the basis for the Included Walking Tour.
The town’s charm, however, lies in the pretty riverside scenes and quaint historic centre where you will find the Christmas markets. The Koblenz Christmas markets are dotted around the historic centre in various squares so you can browse as you explore the centre.
Koblenz also marks the start of one of the most picturesque stretches of the Rhine.
Middle Rhine Scenic Sailing
Not just one of the most picturesque sections of the Rhine, the Middle Rhine is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Cruise through lush hills where the world’s steepest vineyards cascade down to the river’s edge. Where centuries-old methods are still used on the sheer slopes to cultivate and pick the grapes.
Keep an eye out for the Rhines most splendid castles, and the rock that gave way to the folklore of the siren who led sailors on the river to their demise – the Lorelei Rock.
The scenic sailing was so enjoyable, it felt like a destination or excursion in its own right. In the winter months, you can still enjoy this sailing from the top deck, providing the weather is fine.
While it was a cold afternoon, the crew provided blankets and steaming hot gluhwein to keep us warm.
To our minds, Mainz is one of the most interesting cities on this stretch of the Rhine.
In the heart of the Rhine’s wine region, Mainz is the birthplace of Gutenberg and home to the Gutenberg Museum, one of the upper Rhines most beautiful cathedrals dominates the main square and Marc Chagall’s world-famous stained glass windows at St Stephen’s Church are a must-see.
Mainz also has one of the best Christmas markets we had been to so far on the cruise. With a full day in Mainz (early morning to late evening) there is so much time for the excursions and to explore everything Mainz has to offer.
The Included Excursion will take you through the historical centre, the Mainz Cathedral and the Gutenberg Museum. The optional tour includes a walking tour of the old town and a visit to St Stephen’s church to see Chagall’s stained glass windows.
We opted for the Included Walking Tour as it includes visits to the Gutenberg Museum and cathedral. We found St Stephens Church on our own in the spare time we had.
St Stephens is an easy 10-minute walk from the cathedral and is well signposted so easy to find. Entry to the church is free, and if you wish, the church offers guided tours. Although, it is best to check in advance to be sure of availability.
A full day in Speyer, the ship docks an easy walking distance from the town centre. Speyer’s most prominent landmark is the massive UNESCO Romanesque Imperial Cathedral in which eight emperors are interred.
On the Included walking tour; you will visit the exterior of the Speyer Cathedral and learn about its history and architecture (you can visit the interior on your own after the tour).
Visit the Trinity Church, the oldest of the five Protestant churches in Speyer, and the Jewish Courtyard once home to one of the most important Jewish Synagogues and the most important medieval Jewish site in Germany. An interesting fact; Speyer is where the term Protestant originated.
While not large, Speyer is a charming town worth exploring. The Christmas market is easy to find near the cathedral, and in summer, you may discover artisan and farmers markets on the main thoroughfare.
If you decide to take the Optional Excursion to Heidelberg, you will not have the opportunity to explore Speyer.
Strasbourg is one of the most delightful cities we have visited, especially at Christmas. The Strasbourg stop has quite a lot of excursions on offer. Unless you had a specific interest in Mercedes Benz or were a wine buff, we found the included tour was a fabulous choice for the day, if not the best choice.
Docking in Kehl Germany we were a mere bridge crossing from Strasbourg France and a short scenic coach tour from Strasbourg Old Town for a guided walking tour.
The walking tour through the island Old Town gives you a good overview of the highlights of the city including Petit France, the old Tanner’s District, and Cathedral Square. It also includes a visit to the cathedral for a fascinating explanation of the astronomical clock.
If you choose, you can return to the ship for lunch with the option of a return shuttle to Strasbourg at 1.30. We believe opting to stay in town is a better option as it allows much more time to explore the incredibly beautiful city before returning at 4.30 pm.
Also, there are so many charming restaurants in Strasbourg where you can enjoy some delicious Alsatian cuisine.
Strasbourg, dubbed “The Capital of Christmas” has nine Christmas markets in the historic centre so there is a lot to do and see in Strasbourg at Christmas time.
Comparable to taking the Included Tour in the morning, then, strolling the markets at your own pace, I am not sure how much more value the “Taste the Best of Alsace: Christmas Markets” Optional Tour would be. Other than sampling some local foods around the markets.
Basel, the intersection of three countries is where we farewell the ship and embark on the last “tour” part of the trip.
In Basel, you have a choice of joining the Included walking tour around Basel Old Town followed by a coach transfer to Zurich to your hotel.
The Optional Tour from Basel, we felt, would be the stand out tour of the trip – Highlights of the Alps. A scenic drive through Switzerland’s alpine country to visit the villages of Brienz and Interlaken. The highlight: take the cogwheel train from Grindelwald to Kleine Scheidegg for lunch overlooking some of the world’s most stunning mountain vistas.
Unfortunately, such is the nature of alpine weather; our tour was somewhat hit and miss. Due to heavy storms, the cogwheel train was not running, so the highlight of the day had to be cancelled.
However, as the weather is so changeable, we still pressed on in the hope the train line might open. Sadly, it did not.
Regardless, we still enjoyed a beautiful day visiting Interlaken and Brienz. Travelling along the magnificent Brünig Pass skirting Lake Thun and Lake Brienz. We were treated to some superb views, and dramatic weather changes.
We would highly recommend the highlights of the Alps Optional Tour but do bear in mind; the weather will dictate how it plays out, especially in winter.
The last stop on the cruise tour, Switzerland’s largest city, Zurich. Again, depending on your travel arrangements and optional tour choices, you may only have one full day in Zurich.
Still, we felt the Included Tour is a fabulous overview of the city, leaving you more than half a day to explore further on your own. (In summer, you would have a lot more time with the extended daylight hours.)
The Included Tour incorporates a comprehensive walking tour of the Old Town with a cruise of Lake Zurich. Using the Lake Zurich ferry system, the 2hr cruise takes you around the entire route of Lake Zurich.
At the same time, your tour guide provides the commentary of each stop. Keep a lookout for the lakeside Zurich home of a certain famous American singer (Ahem, Tina Turner).
Ideally, on a clear day, the backdrop to the cruise is the magnificent Swiss Alps. Unfortunately, the storm of the previous day was keeping them enshrouded in cloud.
The tours finish before lunch, leaving plenty of time to explore the Zurich Christmas markets scattered around the city. Including one of the largest indoor Christmas markets in Europe at the Zurich train station.
We found it interesting to note the difference in Christmas markets compared with those of Germany and France. Switzerland’s Christmas markets, while undeniably Swiss (raclette or fondue anyone?), had a modern flair with a very multicultural offering in the stalls. It was quite refreshing.
Take the Time to Explore West Quarter in Zurich
We found the area around the hotel in the West Quarter well worth exploring as well. The former industrial area has been reclaimed and repurposed into Zurich’s most vibrant and happening inner-city neighbourhood. Expect to find a hotspot for food, culture, art, and design in West Quarter.
Paris to the Swiss Alps Cruise Facts
We have always said, a river cruise offers a sampling of destinations you may not have otherwise visited. Giving you a cultural overview of one, or maybe more regions in Europe. As well as the possibility for experiences you may not have found or organised for yourself.
The Paris to the Swiss Alps cruise immerses you in the Rhine region and gives you a taste of some of the world’s most spectacular cities and experiences. However, to do this cruise in winter offers a rare opportunity, to easily experience not just one, but a good sampling of Europe’s best Christmas markets.
An itinerary we would recommend any time of year for the experiences it offers, and world-class destinations visited. But for those seeking out Europe’s quintessential Christmas experience, this is the ideal Christmas Market river cruise.
We travelled from Paris – Zurich as guests of Viking Cruises on the Paris to the Swiss Alps Cruise.
The 12-day cruise includes 4 countries and 10 guided tours.
Prices start from $2,899 pp.
We recommend checking Viking Cruises official site for promotional deals such as Early Bird Specials or Two for One Air.
We want to thank Viking Cruises for hosting us on the Paris to the Swiss Alps Cruise. As always, all opinions are our own.