Cruising with children: Christmas markets of the Rhine

Ever considered a river cruise for a family holiday? Here's why you should...

Zara Downs was hoping to see snow. And as eight-year-old Zara and dad Barry arrived in Europe, a cold weather cell had hit and snow was lying on the ground. “As we boarded aRosa Brava for the first time, Zara was greeted by a snowman,” Barry says.

Barry and Zara were joining aRosa in Cologne to cruise the Rhine visiting Christmas markets.

Barry says: “We navigate the Rhine for 792km returning to Cologne, transit two locks (twice) and watch the scenery change from industrial to agricultural, sharing the river with other river cruise vessels and cargo barges. 

“It is easy to forget that for centuries the rivers of Europe were the highways and the only means of delivering goods from the coastal seaports to inland Europe,” Barry says.

First stop is Mannheim, where Barry opts for an excursion to Heidelberg, with its hilltop castle and six specialist Christmas markets scattered on the squares off the main street of the old town. The cost is €29 each.

Barry explains: “Rather than promising a cruise of inclusions and upper luxury, aRosa’s offering is somewhat different and refreshing. There is no promise of hand-holding, butlers, luxury, unlimited or exclusive. Simply a great value inclusive upfront cost, with only shore excursions and spa treatments extra.

“The other unique aRosa difference is that children cruise free,” he says.

The next major stop is Strasbourg, which bills itself “European capital of Christmas”.

“There are signs for Christmas markets in every direction,” Barry says. 

“We decide to just amble along and admire the Christmas windows of Galeries Lafayette (department store). In no time at all we have stumbled across the first of the festive offerings, and even by midday the markets are abuzz with activity.”

And this footloose exploring is very much the aRosa style.

“Guests travelling on an aRosa cruise are not your typical river cruise clients. An aRosa guest is independent and likes the thought of using the free map and public transport tips provided on board to head ashore under their own steam. 

“If you want group touring and an itinerary planned down to the last minute, aRosa isn’t for you. But I like the soft adventure of public transport, wandering and people-watching from a local coffee shop, bar or mulled wine stall. Back on board, the afternoon and evening atmosphere in the ship’s bar and lounge is very much like an apres-ski bar, with tales of the day’s adventures shared,” Barry says.

And their next big adventure is in Mainz, after an overnight sail, arriving late morning and having almost seven hours to discover what some describe as the happiest place in Germany, where all are welcome and a laid-back lifestyle is embraced. “Golden Mainz (the old town) is one of Germany’s oldest cities, and is located literally at the end of our gangway,” Barry says. “Within less than five minutes we are amongst the cobblestones and ancient architecture dominated by the 10th century Cathedral of St Martin and St Stephan.

“We find the Christmas markets very easily, which by 11.30am on a Thursday morning are surprisingly busy with pensioners, university students, families and more. 

“One of the largest market features is a dedicated chalet housing every possible colour and style of Christmas tree decoration. But my favourite feature is the heated log pods that you can reserve by the hour to enjoy your food and mulled wine in comfort.”

And does river cruising appeal to children?

Barry says: “Absolutely. Whilst there is no kids’ club as such, we spent the cruising time playing board games and cards, learning some German words and planning our independent shore activity. The maps and tips given by the ship made it effortless and what child doesn’t love the thought of discovering a castle or palace along the way?

“The Christmas markets added another level of magic, as Europe in winter is like a fairytale, lights, tinsel and so many new foods to try. Zara gave it a big tick of approval. For me, it was nice to see the digital tablet not asked for once. We disconnected digitally and engaged with the destination fully. 

“Children under 15 years cruise free but it really is suited to children over six with a taste for adventure,” Barry says.

Fact File


Barry Downs is sales and marketing manager with Bicton Travel and travelled as a guest of aRosa.


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