By Hank Schrader, USMA ’71, Europe Destination Specialist and Europe River Cruise Expert
Do you love flowers? Do you like wine and food? Do you want to see historic sites? Do you like luxury accommodations? Do you like traveling with a small group instead of a mega ocean liner? Would you like to be active? Do you like easy travel, with the details handled for you? Then, a Europe river cruise is the answer! This the first of a two part blog. Today, I will cover the Rhine and the Danube. Next week, I will cover French River Cruising and the Douro and some of the lesser known river routes of the Elbe and the Po.
The river cruise season in Europe is March to December (some extend into the first week of January). With the exception of Tulip Time cruises (they are only in the spring), you can enjoy any of these routes during the whole sailing season. If you can swing it, the best time to visit Europe and take a river cruise is either spring or fall (or both)–prices are better and there are less crowds.
We are often asked “What is the best Europe river cruise route?” My short answer is “I would sail on all of them!” While this is a great response, it really does not answer the question, since most folks want to know what the best river to sail as a first time cruiser on a river in Europe. So for new river cruisers, by far, the two most popular rivers are the Rhine (Amsterdam to Basel or reverse) and the Upper Danube Rivers. Before you just chose one of these routes, let’s explore together what the rivers of the Rhine and Danube offer.
So where are the typical 7 day river cruises on these rivers? Here goes–
Much of western European civilization developed around the Rhine River and its tributaries. The Rhine is the busiest commercial river in Europe, yet it is also famous for castles, and vineyards. The commercial boats, along with the local ferries and other boats all seem to work well with river cruise ships and do not detract from the iconic sites along the river, as the best stretches are often protected from commercial activity that could spoil the sights. The 820 mile Rhine actually passes through 6 countries, but many folks consider it a German River, since so much of its banks are on German soil. There are three main routes on the Rhine. They are the lower Rhine Tulip Time, the Amsterdam to Basel route and the middle Rhine and the Main route. The middle Rhine and especially the Rhine River Gorge, has the greatest concentration of scenic banks and castles in all Europe and can be seen on most Rhine River cruises except the Tulip Time route.
The first route is the Spring Tulip Time route on the lower Rhine and canals in the Netherlands and Belgium. We have visited the Netherlands in the springtime, when spectacular carpets of colorful tulips are in full bloom, on a Tulip Time River Cruise. Throw in lush green countryside adorned with picturesque windmills and add delicious cheeses and already the trip sounds awesome-but that is just the start. Also this route can include the Belgium towns of Ghent, Arnhem, Antwerp and our personal favorite Brugge. If you like flowers, cheese or want to visit two of the Benelux countries (Netherlands and Belgium), this is the route for you. Learn More About this Cruise
The second route is usually from Amsterdam, Netherlands to Basel, Switzerland on the Rhine, (or the reverse route), using both the lower Rhine and parts of the middle and upper Rhine (the upper Rhine section is defined as from past the town of Mainz, Germany when the river turns south to its source in Lake Constance, Switzerland). This cruise begins with legendary canals and the colorful surroundings of Amsterdam, past the majestic Cologne Cathedral and on to the Black Forest region of Germany. You will also see the castles along the Rhine River Gorge, a chance to see Heidelberg, and Strasbourg, in the Alsace region of France. It is a great route to visit 4 western European countries, see the Rhine River Gorge and learn about the German–France region of the Alsace. It is easy to see why this is one of the two most popular routes for first time European river cruisers. Learn More About this Cruise Route
The third route is usually from Trier, Germany to Nuremberg, Germany or the reverse route, using the Mosel (covers about 150 miles of the 340 miles of this span of the river), the Rhine and the Main tributary and part of the Main Canal from Bamberg to Nuremberg. On the Mosel, the German villages of Bernkastel, Zell and Cochem are the highlights—especially Reichsburg Castle at Cochem. At Koblenz, you will sail briefly on the Rhine and pass onto the Main River, a tributary of the Rhine. This is vineyard and castle country on the most beautiful stretch of the Rhine River dotted with picturesque castles—the Rhine River Gorge. The German towns of Wertheim, Wurzburg, Kitzingen and Bamberg, with their half-timbered buildings, palaces, impressive churches, and unique old town areas, make this a memorable trip. For those seeking a southern German adventure, castles and quaint German villages, this is the ideal route. Learn More About this Cruise
We have sailed all three routes and each is awesome—we would do any again!
Danube and Main-Danube Canal
The Danube is 1,170 miles, making it the second longest river in Europe after the Volga River in Russia. This is a river of legends, serves a borderline between countries, has four capital cities on or near its banks and romantic sights of medieval castles, baroque churches and abbeys and rococo palaces. There are 2 routes here. The upper portion is primarily in Austria and Hungry. The lower segment is in the Balkans.
The first route is from Nuremberg or Passau to Budapest, Hungary (or the reverse route), using the Main-Danube Canal (106 miles long with 16 locks) and the upper Danube. This area has rolling hillsides, lush vineyards, and medieval castles, as the cruise allows you to visit four different countries. You will get to visit 4 countries (Germany, Austria, Slovakia and Hungry), 2 or 3 capital cities (Vienna, Bratislava and Budapest), castles, abbeys, wine-sloped terraces and even quaint villages-it is a great voyage. Along with the capital cities, other high lights include sailing the Wachau Valley, perhaps a visit to Salzburg, Austria and the 900 year old Melk Abbey. This is the other most popular Europe river cruise route for first time river cruisers—we have done it 4 times and would sail it again—it is just the right mix of large cities, quaint villages, with castles and abbeys appearing suddenly among the vineyards or forests. Along with these sights, the night time cruise in Budapest with its lights is an experience of a lifetime! Here is a blog I wrote about this awesome route Gems of the Danube on the Scenic Opal
The second segment is from Budapest to near the Black Sea. This segment begins with the rolling hills and vine-clad slopes of the Pecs in Hungary; then moves to the boundary waters that separate Serbia and Croatia; then traverses the narrow gorges of the Iron Gates, a stunning passage that divides the Balkan and Carpathian Mountains and either ends in Bucharest, Romania or at the Black Sea (or the reverse route). You will see mighty fortresses, perhaps two or three capital cities (Budapest, Belgrade, and Bucharest), and usually visit 5 unique countries (Hungry, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania). This is an under explored, exotic region for many and deserves a visit. Learn More
The Iron Gates
We have sailed both routes (the upper route 4 times) and would highly recommend either.
Our Final Thoughts
While there are some variations, many lines cruise essentially cruise the same routes on the most popular European rivers. The river routes may be very short or may cover larger distances, depending upon the route you select. While I have covered only 7 day cruises, many of these routes can be combined for longer cruises of 14 or 21 days or more. River cruising is about the destinations, in my opinion, so the correct itinerary is critical to provide you the river cruise experience you desire for these special trips. We hope this quick summary will provide you a good overview of what is possible in Europe river cruising.
Every major cruise company also offers pre/post stays so along with the river cruise you can get some extended time in some of the best of Europe’s cities. We have been to almost all major cities in Europe and have developed our own guides for 49 top cities, so not only can we provide information on pre/post stays, we can also plan your stays to customize your trip.
With all this variety, does it make you want to go? It sure does for me—why not give us a call (Hank at 713-397-0188) or email me at email@example.com so we can help you plan a great European river cruise by matching you to the right river cruise for you. There is a lot to know and we are the experts who can answer your questions from which route, to which river cruise company and what to see on the pre/post stays. We will help you find the right river cruise in Europe to help you: Savor life . . . make memories . . . Visit Dream Destinations! Your journey begins here!