Days 1-3 Amsterdam
Everyone has an image of Amsterdam. For some, it’s small boats gliding on the canals and locals two-wheeling on bikes to and from work and, as frequently, to meet friends for drinks. For others, it’s gabled buildings leaning, seemingly precariously, over cobbled streets and cozy taverns illuminated by candles. Still others imagine tulips in bloom and the colors, both muted and vibrant, of the paintings Vermeer, Van Gogh and Rembrandt. All images are true and even more beguiling when experienced in person. Sit a spell in a convivial cafe, explore world-class museums and feel the significance of a unique history—one of a city reclaimed from the sea, rising in prestige and influence as merchants built trade and wealth, and forever known for its attics and attitudes that offered refuge from war. Narrow streets and great manses tell the story not only in images but with the aroma of appeltaart, a taste of the avant garde in newly constructed buildings and a feeling of warmth from the amiable locals.
During the holidays, winter wonderland comes to life in the magical Rembrandtplein Christmas Market. An ever popular European holiday staple, Amsterdm also hosts its own Christmas Market events just like its neighbord. With an abundance of illuminated Christmas trees and life-sized holiday decoration, market stalls are peppered generously from where you can buy local Christmas edible delights and seasonal gifts. A Christmas holiday is the perfect time to indulge in gift shopping while enjoying local delicacies like candied fruits, fine chocolate and a glass or two of warm mulled wine!
Two of Amsterdam’s most renowned museums are the masterstrokes of your Crystal itinerary: the Rijksmuseum, displaying 8,000 objects of art and history, including Rembrandt’s The Night Watch and Vermeer’s The Milkmaid, and the Anne Frank House, the 17th-century canal house where Anne, her family and four others remained hidden and silent for more than two years. Today, Anne Frank’s original diary and other exhibits speak volumes about war and persecution.
Day 4 Cologne, Germany (overnight)
A scan of Cologne’s skyline offers a short-hand of a long essay of architecture, varying from the space-needle-type Rhine Tower to the avant-garde buildings along the river to the spectacular spires of the cathedral. One look at the magnificent church and you can’t help but draw a breath of amazement—the structure is enormous and intricately glorious, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Germany’s most visited landmark. Peel your eyes away from the famed Kölner Dom, as it is locally called, to discover other architectural notables, including remains of the Roman wall, a modern museum complex, the contemporary philharmonic hall, cozy beerhalls and the span of the Hohenzollern Bridge, reconstructed after the war.
During the holidays, the city of Cologne offers a stunning seven Christmas Markets in total, with the four bigger markets located at the Cologne Cathedral, on the Alter Markt, on the Neumarkt and on the Rudolfplatz. The Christmas Market at the Cologne Cathedral is the most impressive one as it is set with imposing Cathedral as its backdrop. Nestled in the Cathedral's canopy, boasting the largest Christmas tree in the Rhineland, you can find more that 150 festively designed stalls and kiosks where artisans are at work, creating their beautiful handmade wares as you stroll along a delightful maze of holiday gifts and trinkets while enjoying original “Christmas Mulled Wine” and savoring an abundant array of sweets and local delicacies on your holiday visit.
Day 5 Cologne, Germany - Cruising the Rhine River / Koblenz, Germany
Located where the Rhine and Moselle rivers and three low mountain ranges meet, Koblenz has a leg up in the scenery department. Add to that the city’s 2,000-year-old history, hilltop fortress and squares lined by classic Germanic architecture and you have a place ready made for photographs. You might start by aiming your lens at the Deutsches Eck, or German Corner, where the rivers merge around a corner of land marked by a monument to Emperor William I. Ambling along the river promenade and exploring the town’s narrow lanes, you might encounter medieval churches, flower-filled parks, sidewalk cafes and perhaps a weinstube, or wine tavern, an ideal venue for sipping dry Riesling and drinking in the atmosphere.
During the holidays, Koblenz's traditional Christmas market, with more than 120 stalls and kiosks, will be held conveniently close to the main shopping area in Old Town Koblenz. Considered one of the largest in the wine growing region, Koblenz Christmas Market offers traditional seasonal delights—freshly baked delicacies like stollen, German Christmas cakes and biscuits to handmade wares, Christmas decorations and seasonal gifts plus an array of local entertainment highlights to make your visit even more memorable.
Day 6 Koblenz, Germany Cruising the Rhine River - Rüdesheim, Germany
If Rüdesheim’s scenic location on the Rhine Gorge doesn’t sweep you off your feet, then the town’s medieval Old Town with its half-timbered buildings and narrow lanes, especially the Drosselgasse overflowing with charming shops and taverns, surely will. Still more that promises to enchant and delight is the region’s renowned Rieslings, produced here for centuries from vineyards dating to Roman times. A glass of white wine or the other local specialty, Asbach brandy, sipped amid historic surroundings can make the heart flutter, not necessarily from the effects of the spirits but from the simple beauty of one of Germany’s, if not the world’s, most romantic locales.
During the holidays, the Rüdesheim Christmas Market takes center stager. Try some deliciously made Rüdesheim Coffee, locally made with Asbach Uralt Brandy and whipped cream, exclusively offered during the season. With more that 100 kiosks and stalls offering local wares and seasonal gifts, there is much to see at this annual event—from local Rüdesheim coffee to global flavors like Finnish specialties and even Mongolian food fare.
Day 7 Speyer, Germany
Spared the destruction that befell much of Germany during World War II, Speyer is a preserved window on time, looking onto a history that reaches not only to the Roman age but farther back, to the time of settlement by the Celts. Cobbled streets wind through the centuries, passing half-timbered buildings, the remains of a medieval synagogue, fine museums and festive taverns, culminating at the town’s Romanesque cathedral, called Kaiserdom. Enormous both in scale and significance, the UNESCO-listed church dates to 1030 and houses the tombs of eight Holy Roman emperors and German kings. Look at it from any perspective—on the approach to its red sandstone walls, inside its vast interior spaces or within the context of time—and the basilica is a marvel, considered a hallmark of 11th- and 12th-century architecture.
Head to Heidelberg, home to Germany’s oldest university, to explore the charming baroque streets of Old Town and feel the intellectual energy of a city that inspired works of American author Mark Twain and British painter William Turner. In Speyer, take some physical energy to climb the 304 steps of the southwest tower of the magnificent cathedral, Kaiserdom, to admire astonishing views, or simply stand within its grandly vaulted nave to appreciate the sheer size of the largest Romanesque church in the world.
During the Holidays, Speyer and Heidelberg each hosts a spectacular Christmas Market at the heart of their respective Old Towns. From local delicacies to handmade Christmas ornaments, these annual festive markets play host to thousands of locals and international visitors who are drawn to the fairy-tale atmosphere of the bazaars as twinkling lights shine in abundance, seasonal fragrances abound, and magical good cheer is shared by all.
Day 8 Kehl, Germany
When you glimpse the steep-peaked, half-timbered buildings, the placid waters of narrow canals, flowers blooming on balconies and bridges, and old towers standing sentry over the scene, you know you have stepped into Strasbourg—either that, or the very pretty pages of a fairytale. Located just across the Rhine from Strasbourg, Kehl is your access point to the capital of the Alsace region, the seat of the European Parliament and, simply, one of the most photogenic old towns in existence. Strasbourg boasts a breathtakingly gorgeous Gothic cathedral (with the tallest cathedral tower in France), twisting alleyways, a sweet collection of the aforementioned half-timbered buildings and a charm that oozes from virtually every cozy corner of Grande Île, or “Large Island,” the first city center to be named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
During the holidays, neighboring Strasbourg, France hosts its annual Christkindelsmärik (Marché de l’Enfant Jésus) near Strasbourg Cathedral and is one of the oldest Christmas Markets in Europe having been established in 1570. With open-kiosks where locals are making and selling their wares, bakers are baking delicacies and warm wines, this winter market is delightfully enveloped in the wafting aroma of Christmas fragrances. Enjoy a classic European tradition with a visit to Christkindelsmärik.
Day 9 Breisach, Germany
Situated along the Rhine about halfway between the supremely scenic towns of Freiburg and Colmar, Breisach is the perfect place from which to launch explorations into the surrounding Black Forest. Yet there is much to keep travelers within the embrace of this lively city, including its Romanesque church with late-Gothic altar and cobbled streets lined by pastel-hued buildings. Just a few miles west of Breisach is the remarkable star-shaped fortress town of Neuf-Brisach, or New Breisach, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Investigate the fabled Black Forest and its colorful gems, including Colmar, picture-perfect with its fairytale old quarter graced by half-timbered buildings and interlaced with canals and filled with the the magic of its beautiful Christmas markets, a yearly holiday extravaganza, that you can take all the time in the world to explore; Baden-Baden, an elegant spa town frequented by royalty and celebrities; and Freiburg, a quaint university city at the foot of the pine-carpeted hills, known for the cheerful warmth of 2,000 hours of annual sunshine, not to mention hours passed enjoying regional wine at canal-side cafes.
Days 10 & 11 Basel, Switzerland
On the three-border intersection of Switzerland, Germany and France and unfolding in two sections from the banks of the Rhine, Basel has an international flair, a cultural vibrancy and is picturesque besides. A medieval town center invites exploration by foot, while an abundance of museums and galleries suggest an indoor stroll amid works of art and relics of history. The Museum of Fine Arts is home to the world’s oldest art collection accessible to the public. The city itself hosts Switzerland’s oldest university, dating to 1460. Antiquity may be Basel’s strong suit, as it is in much of Europe, but this corner of Switzerland also reveals a more modern countenance: Architects Herzog & de Meuron, best known for the design of the Tate Modern in London and the Bird’s Nest in Beijing, and Frank Gehry of Bilbao Guggenheim Museum fame have contributed their considerable talents to buildings here.
Explore the upper-western curve of Switzerland with visits to Interlaken, a resort town dotted with luxury hotels and surrounded by dazzling mountain scenery; Zurich, the country’s largest city with an ancient town center and beautiful lakeside locale; Lausanne, situated on the shores of Lake Geneva near the border of France and boasting over-the-edge vistas; Bern, Switzerland’s capital with a UNESCO-listed old town; Montreux, a popular musicians’ and writers’ retreat on the northeast shores of Lake Geneva; and Murten, a medieval village on the banks of the lake of the same name, featuring intact protective walls, a waterside promenade and an old town with a quintessentially Swiss clock tower.
During holidays leading up to Christmas Day, Basel's beauty shines even more as thousands of christmas lights twinkle at the city centers of Barfüsserplatz and Münsterplatz, where the annual Basel Christmas market plays host to thousands of visitors each year. Considered one of Switzerland's prettiest and largest Christmas bazaar, be inspired with unique gift ideas as you browse numerous kiosks and stalls selling local wares while culinary enthusiasts can peruse an abundant array of classic Swiss gustatory delights including grilled sausages, waffles, glühwein, genuine Basel Läckerli gingerbread, and delicious Swiss raclette plus much more.