Saturday, June 15, 2024

The 10 best places to go on a river cruise in Europe

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Cruising down a quiet, traffic-free river, surrounded by scenic riverfront views is an ideal way to see Europe. You can sip your wine while watching picture-perfect scenery breeze past – taking in castles, medieval villages and fields of flowers. 

By necessity, European riverboats are small and passenger numbers are often fewer than 200, making these cruises a far more social and intimate experience. There’s also plenty to do and see onshore, and with more frequent stops you can enjoy more onshore activities. Cruise lines are now also offering more immersive learning experiences such as cooking classes and home visits, or activities like bicycle trips and long hikes.

The hardest part is choosing where to go — which is why we’ve rounded up the 10 best places to go on a European river cruise. 

Admire beautiful Burg Katz castle on a Northern Rhine cruise © Matteo Colombo / Getty Images

1. Northern Rhine (Germany)

From gorgeous river meanders and noble German cities

The northern section of the Rhine features dramatic landscapes and a host of interesting towns. Cologne (Köln), Germany’s fourth-largest city, offers numerous attractions starting with its famous cathedral, while Koblenz, at the confluence of the Rhine and Moselle Rivers, is a park- and flower-filled delight. Heading south, the Rhine meanders between hillside castles and steep fields of wine-producing grapes. Idyllic villages appear around each bend, their half-timbered houses and Gothic steeples seemingly plucked from a fairy tale. Scarcely damaged during WWII, handsome Speyer is crowned by a magnificent Romanesque cathedral. 

2. Southern Rhine (France, Germany & Switzerland)

Explore intriguing towns in this border land

The Southern Rhine forms the border between Germany and France before becoming Switzerland’s northern frontier. Strasbourg is the perfect overture to all that is idiosyncratic about Alsace – walking a fine tightrope between France and Germany, between a medieval past and a progressive future. Further south, the Black Forest spills into Alsace in the German town of Breisach. Unsurprisingly, given its geographical and cultural proximity to France, the locals here have a passion for a good bottle of wine. Basel, at the juncture of the French, German and Swiss borders, is perhaps where Switzerland’s Franco-Germanic roots are most evident.

3. Rhône (France)

Indulge in gourmet experiences cruising the south of France

Commanding a strategic spot at the confluence of the Rhône and Saône Rivers, grand old Lyon is France’s gastronomic capital. Downstream, the Rhône forges past Vienne’s Roman ruins and the centuries-old Côtes du Rhône vineyards, opening to sunny vistas of fruit orchards, lavender fields and the distant Alps as it continues south. During the 14th century, the Provençal town of Avignon was the center of the Roman Catholic world. Its impressive legacy of ecclesiastical architecture most notably includes the soaring, World Heritage-listed Palais des Papes.

Sunset's golden light signs on the Italianite city of Passau and the Danube river.
Get onshore to explore cities along this route like baroque Passau  © Julian Love / Lonely Planet

4. Western Danube (Austria & Germany)

Romantic landscapes in the heart of Europe

The baroque streetscapes and imperial palaces set the stage for Vienna’s artistic and musical masterpieces alongside its coffee-house culture and vibrant epicurean and design scenes. Moving into Germany, the Danube gently winds its way to the Italianate city of Passau. Top billing in eastern Bavaria goes to Regensburg, a former capital and one of Germany’s prettiest and liveliest cities. Nuremberg (Nürnberg), Bavaria’s second-largest city and the unofficial capital of Franconia, is an energetic place with a history that ranges from undeclared capital of the Holy Roman Empire to the trials that judged Nazi war crimes.

5. Eastern Danube (Hungary & Serbia)

Travel a cross-section of Europe’s less-touristed east

The two great cities of this stretch of the Danube are the capitals of Hungary and Serbia respectively. Budapest has something for everyone – from dramatic history and flamboyant architecture to healing thermal waters. Outspoken, adventurous, proud and audacious: Belgrade (“White City”) has a gritty exuberance and eclectic architecture making it one of Europe’s most happening cities today. While it hurtles towards a brighter future, its past unfolds before your eyes: socialist blocks are squeezed between art nouveau masterpieces and remnants of the Habsburg legacy contrast with Ottoman relics.

Lush green vineyards line the banks of the Duoro.
The vineyards along the Duoro are best viewed from the water © Agnieszka Skalska / Shutterstock

6. Douro (Portugal)

See spectacular terraced vineyards, the home of port wine

The Douro region, home to port wine, is simply one of the most glorious spots on earth. The Douro Valley showcases steep terraced vineyards carved into mountains, granite bluffs, whitewashed quintas (estates) and 18th-century wine cellars that draw visitors from around the world. Humble-yet-opulent Porto entices with its higgledy-piggledy medieval center, divine food and wine, and charismatic locals. Its charms are as subtle as the nuances of an aged tawny port, best savored slowly.

7. Elbe (Czech Republic & Germany)

A little-cruised but picturesque stretch of Central Europe

Covering the Czech Republic and a thick slice of eastern Germany, Elbe cruises are under-the-radar options. Prague, not on the Elbe but usually included on river cruises, contends with cities like Budapest and Paris in terms of beauty. Its maze of cobbled lanes and hidden courtyards is perfect for the aimless wanderer. The classic view of Dresden from the Elbe’s northern bank takes in spires, towers and domes belonging to palaces, churches and stately buildings: hard to believe that the city was all but wiped off the map by Allied bombings in 1945. While the city of Wittenberg is first and foremost about Martin Luther, the monk who triggered the German Reformation in 1517.

The pedestrian Pont des Arts crosses the River Seine, linking the Palais du Louvre (shown) and the Institut de France
Start your journey along the storied river Seine in Paris © Adrienne Pitts / Lonely Planet

8. Seine (France)

Cruise out of Paris through northern France

Paris has a timeless familiarity, with instantly recognizable architectural icons, memorable cuisine and chic boutiques. Dining is a quintessential part of the Parisian experience, and its art repository is one of the best, showcasing priceless treasures in palatial museums. Don’t miss Rouen is one of Normandy’s most engaging and historically rich destinations, with its soaring Gothic cathedral, beautifully restored medieval quarter, excellent museums and vibrant cultural life. At the mouth of the Seine, Le Havre is a love letter to modernism, evoking France’s postwar energy and optimism.

9. Main (Germany)

A seductive German river connecting to the Rhine and Danube

Rising in Franconia and joining the Rhine near Mainz, the Main (pronounced “mine”) is the longest German-only river. From Bamberg to its confluence, it travels some 400km through locks and picturesque scenery, dotted with historic towns. Frankfurt’s skyscrapers are quite a contrast to the picturesque towns that follow, though it too has a rather traditional and charming old town. Scenic Würzburg is renowned for its art, architecture and delicate wines. A disarmingly beautiful architectural masterpiece, Bamberg’s entire Altstadt is a UNESCO World Heritage site. 

A river flows through lush farmland in Germany.
Stop along the Moselle to visit places like Metternich Castle © Westend61 / Getty Images

10. Moselle (Germany)

An intimate stretch of the wine-producing German region

Having traversed France and Luxembourg, the Moselle heads through Germany to meet its destiny with the Rhine at Koblenz. It’s a very pretty stretch of river flanked by vineyards, and makes for great leisurely cruising and exploration. With an astounding nine UNESCO World Heritage sites, gorgeous Trier shelters Germany’s finest ensemble of Roman monuments, and is enlivened by a characterful medieval center and large student population. Bernkastel-Kues are lovely twin settlements in the heart of wine country, while Cochem’s castle and pretty buildings make it a visual highlight of the Moselle.

How do I choose a route for a European river cruise?

The two major rivers for European cruises are the Rhine and the Danube. Together, they were once the northern boundary of the Roman Empire. Rhine cruises often run from Amsterdam to Basel, following the course of the river through Germany. Danube cruises start in southern Germany, wend their way through Bratislava, Slovakia; Linz and Vienna, Austria; and Belgrade, Serbia; then skirt the Bulgarian and Romanian border to reach the Black Sea.

While many first-time European river cruisers stick to these two rivers, there are many other options available. In Western Europe, you can cruise through the French countryside on the Rhône and Seine, or check out the vineyards of Portugal on the Douro. 

Even on the same river, distinct routes can be offered. One company might zip up the Rhine, allowing you to see the highlights in a few days; another might take longer, exploring smaller places along the way and offering more time for onshore experiences. You’ll need to decide whether you’d like to get a look at more destinations, or more of a feel for fewer places.

When is the best time to go on a European river cruise?

Cruises on European rivers tend to begin in the spring, around March, and go through to October. Some cruises, operating in areas where Christmas markets are a feature, run right through December but inclement weather or river flooding could put a dampener on plans. Winter cruises tend to focus on places where Christmas experiences are on offer. Shorter daylight hours mean you’ll see less scenery, but the charm of the festive season has its own appeal. 

Choosing your season is very much a matter of personal preference, and there are pros and cons for each season. Summer cruises offer the most spectacular scenery, the longest daylight hours and the best weather, but the towns you visit will be far busier and you won’t be alone in port; in some smaller places, you may have to scramble across the decks of other boats to reach the shore.

Spring and autumn mean less time around the pool on the top deck, but quieter times ashore. Expect rains in spring, but also blooming flowers. Autumn is a great time to cruise the Douro, with grapes being picked and clement temperatures.

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