(BPT) - Visiting Europe in the weeks before Christmas adds a whole new character to the holiday season, one that's quite different from what is celebrated in the United States. Decorated to the hilt with greenery and lights, the towns and villages in Austria, Germany and France will delight visitors with traditional Christmas markets that each year overflow with unique holiday gifts, decadent Christmas goodies, and endearing holiday customs.
The best way to experience Europe's beloved Christmas markets is on a riverboat. Both the Rhine and Danube rivers are still navigable in mid-December, giving travelers the opportunity to explore these enchanting holiday markets when the pre-holiday excitement is at its very peak. Some of the top sights to see at this time of year include:
* Christmas markets - Nurnberg, Germany has what is arguably the most famous Christmas market, attracting 2 million people each holiday season. Stocked with authentic ornaments, crafts, candles and delicious goodies, this market is a must-see for a European holiday season vacation. Regensburg - just a bit further south on the Danube River - is well-known for its sausages, and Passau on the Austrian border is where you can see how delicious gingerbread is made, and buy some to take home with you. In France, Strasbourg has five themed markets filled with holiday goods to enjoy.
* Holiday music - The Regensburger Domspatzen Choir in Regensburg German fills the holiday with festive sound. Another jaunt up the river takes you to Passau on the border of Austria, where the largest pipe organ in Europe is featured in frequent holiday concerts at St. Stephan's Cathedral. And a musical trip to Europe isn't complete without a visit to Siegfried's Mechanisches Musikkabinett, a museum featuring many mechanically run musical instruments housed in a 16th-century castle.
* Experiencing Christmas traditions - The village of Riquewihr in France is steeped in tradition - other than electricity used to power the decorative holiday lights, not much else has changed. It's the perfect location to celebrate Christmas in a fairy-tale setting, just like it was celebrated years ago. In Baden-Baden, France, the living Nativity blends in with the Christmas market, and you probably will want to take a dip into the reputed healing waters of the natural hot springs that bubble up in the town. Heading further north along the Rhine River, you'll want to don some skates in Heidelberg and float across the ice to the holiday tunes.
Tauck, named the 'World's Best River Cruise Line' by Travel + Leisure magazine, features two river cruises celebrating Europe's Christmas markets, and both perfectly capture the holiday spirit. 'Christmas Markets Along the Danube' is an eight-day cruise from Nurnberg to Vienna, while 'Christmas Markets Along the Rhine' (also eight-days) sails from Basel, Switzerland to Koln, Germany. These memorable cruises are all-inclusive, with luxury riverboat accommodations, all shore excursions and sightseeing, meals and beverages, gratuities, on-tour transportation, special entertainment and more all included in the price. Visit Tauck.com to learn more about these tours and plan your European holiday getaway for your family.