A river cruise, at first glance, seems like a wonderfully tranquil way to see some of the most historic towns and cities in Europe. Appearances though can be deceiving. Unlike coastal cruises, voyages along Europe’s waterways rarely offer much time “at sea”. While in each port, there are busy sightseeing schedules included at all stops, which range from major cities like Amsterdam and Vienna to delightful, small towns and villages like Austria’s Durnstein and Germany’s Breisach.
The biggest challenge about planning a European river cruise is identifying which itinerary most intrigues. We’re here to help you narrow down your choice. But, before we get started, here are some things you should know, followed by a few tips:
Most river cruises are a week long. (More exotic trips can occasionally stretch from 10 days to two weeks.) They almost always start from fantastic cities; most trips include an overnight onboard, but if not, do try to plan a pre- or post-cruise stay.
In almost all cases, daily shore excursions are included in the fares you pay. They’ll run along the lines of pretty basic introductory tours to the cities and towns you visit. Some companies, like Uniworld, also offer fee-extra tour options that are a bit more unusual.
The season typically runs from April to October. Be aware that heavy rain and spring flooding can make the rivers swell and the locks become impassable. (Many are under bridges, so if the water is too high, boats can’t fit underneath.) Likewise, if there’s a drought, low water can be a problem. If boats can’t move, you’ll be taken to the sights by motor coach.
Rhine River cruises combine history and culture. You’ll sail through spectacular scenery, dotted with Sleeping Beauty-esque fairytale castles and discover some of the oldest and most historic cities in Germany.
The Rhine flows from Switzerland to Amsterdam in Holland, passing towns and cities in France and Germany that harbour centuries of history and culture. The Moselle flows into the Rhine from northeast France and Luxembourg. The Main River flows into the Rhine from eastern Germany; cruise along this, and you’ll end up in the Main Danube Canal, which connects to the Danube. The most popular Rhine cruise is a one-week sailing from Amsterdam to Basel in Switzerland, or vice-versa.
A Danube cruise is a lesson in history about the days when Vienna ruled an empire and, more recently, when an Iron Curtain divided Europe. Now the curtain has gone, and you can explore cities that were all but closed to the west for more than 40 years.
The Danube flows from the Black Forest in Germany to the Black Sea in Romania, passing through or between Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Serbia, Croatia, Bulgaria and Romania on the way. Most itineraries are one week and start and end in Passau in Germany, on the Austrian border.
If you like wine, this is the river cruise for you, as it sails through Provence and Burgundy, two of France’s top wine-making regions. You’ll cruise past acres of vineyards and have ample opportunities to taste the local grapes.
The Rhone rises in Switzerland and flows into France, emptying into the Mediterranean near Arles. The Saone rises in France. They converge at Lyon, where the Saone becomes the Rhone. The main itinerary is a seven-night cruise from Lyon to Arles or nearby Avignon, or the reverse. (Some cruises also depart from Chalon-sur-Saone, just north of Lyon.)
If you like scenery, you’ll love cruising the Douro River, which twists and turns through steep, vine-clad slopes and rocky outcrops as it makes its way from Porto, the second-largest city in Portugal, to the Spanish border. An added attraction is port, the fortified wine that took its name from the city. The drink is a local celebrity, so there will be plenty of tastings en route.
The Douro rises in north central Spain and flows southwest and into northern Portugal, emptying into the Atlantic at Porto.
This is a cruise for anyone who loves discovering the past. You’ll have a bit of time in Berlin and Prague at the start and end of the cruise and discover the birthplace of the Reformation along the way.
The Elbe rises in the Czech Republic, flows into Germany and empties into the North Sea at Cuxhaven, near Hamburg. There is only one cruise option — seven nights, sailing either from Magdeburg in Germany to Melnik in the Czech Republic, or vice-versa.
This is a favorite with gardeners because it visits Monet’s garden in Giverny. It is also a top choice for Francophiles and all those who want to see the Second World War landing beaches.
The Seine rises in France, flows north through Paris into Normandy and empties into the English Channel at Le Havre. River cruises sail from Paris to Rouen or Caudebac and back.