European River Cruising 101: How to choose a river
Europe is by far the world’s leading river cruise destination. Vital arteries of trade and transport for centuries, the continent’s waterways are as different as the cultures, scenery, and architecture along their banks. With such variety, no wonder that trying to choose a river that best suits your particular interests and tastes may be a challenge.
So, let’s try to make this simple(r)! Here are some of Europe's most popular river cruising destinations and what they have to offer.
Europe’s second-longest river (after the Volga), the Danube flows west-east across the continent from the Black Forest to the Black Sea. Over the centuries, it was an important waterway for many empires - the Romans, Byzantines, Habsburgs, and Ottomans. With spectacular cities like Passau, Linz, Vienna, and Budapest, and scenery ranging from wooded hills to vineyards, castles, and deep gorges, it offers something for everyone.
Most itineraries focus on one of the two main sections — the Upper Danube (between Regensburg and Budapest) or the Lower Danube (between Budapest and Bucharest), but longer cruises combining both are available.
Choose the River Danube if you…
Love art & architecture. Cultural hubs like Vienna, Salzburg, Budapest, and Prague (as an optional add-on) are rich in history, music, and architecture.
Are new to river cruising. With all these magnificent cities, no wonder the Upper Danube is one of the most popular first-timer’s routes.
Want to sample local wine & beer. Austrian / Hungarian wines or German / Czech beer (or all of the above), the choice is yours.
Seek to explore the Europe less-traveled. Serbia, Romania, and Bulgaria on the Lower Danube were until recently behind the Iron Curtain but are now easily accessible and with fascinating history and culture to discover.
Are a biking enthusiast. Did you know you can cycle along the Danube past vineyards, villages, and forests, including on the gorgeous stretch of Austria’s Vachau Valley between Melk and Durnstein?
Love Christmas markets. The holiday lights and aromas of sausages, cinnamon, gingerbreads, and mulled wine make a visit to the holiday markets in places like Vienna and Nuremberg truly unforgettable.
Good to know…
Most Danube River cruises start or end in Budapest or Vienna, but the ports on the other end of the cruise vary depending on the direction.
Some journeys include not only the Danube but also the Main and Rhine rivers, allowing you to sail all the way from Bucharest to Amsterdam if you wish.
Christmas cruises sail in November and December and tend to sell out fast, so book early!
After the Danube, the Rhine is Europe’s next most-popular river cruise destination. It has long been the continent’s most important and busiest commercial waterway, which has given rise to prosperous port towns along its banks. These, together with the splendid scenery of fairytale castles perched on towering cliffs, medieval villages, vineyards, and dense forests are among the reasons why every major line offers Rhine cruises.
Flowing from the Swiss Alps to the North Sea, most cruises sail between Amsterdam and Basel. Two of its tributaries - the Main (flowing into the Rhine from eastern Germany) and the Mosel (Moselle) (running through Luxembourg and northeast France), are major rivers and cruise destinations often combined with the Middle Rhine. Longer itineraries may connect the Rhine with the Danube via the Main-Danube canal.
The Rhine is your river if you love…
Castles. The UNESCO-protected Rhine valley has the highest concentration of them in Europe and you will see lots of ruined or restored castles from your ship, especially between Bonn and Mainz in Germany.
Cities with plenty of culture. Basel, Strasbourg, Cologne, and Amsterdam offer plenty of history and a good taste of modern European city life.
Scenic cycling. Plenty of bicycling paths and dedicated bike roads to enjoy along the Rhine and Mosel rivers.
Local beer and wine. There are 26 different kinds of beer to sample in Cologne alone, (including the famous Kolsch) and you will be cruising through some of Germany’s premier wine regions (hello, Riesling!).
Good to know…
The Rhine too is a prime location to explore traditional Christmas markets in ports like Basel (Switzerland), Strasbourg (France), Cologne (Germany), and Amsterdam (Netherlands).
While parts of the river are extremely scenic, some sections are rather industrial with charmless cargo ports or power plants. It is also quite busy with commercial traffic, so expect to see freight vessels of all shapes and sizes along the way.
From the end of March through early May, many lines offer ‘Tulip cruises’ on the Rhine and a network of smallish rivers, inland seas, and canals in the Netherlands and Belgium, collectively known as the Dutch Waterways.
The slow-moving Seine flows from the Burgundy region west through Paris, Rouen, and Normandy before emptying into the English Channel near Le Havre. A Seine river cruise is almost always a roundtrip to Rouen, Caudebec-en-Caux or Honfleur which begins and ends in Paris.
The Seine is great option if you…
Just can’t get enough of Paris. Ships often (but not always) dock within walking distance of the iconic Eiffel Tower and usually overnight there, giving plenty of time to explore. For a more unhurried experience, plan to arrive a couple of days prior to embarkation.
Are history (both medieval and WW2) buffs. With its beautifully-restored Old Quarter, Rouen is also where Joan of Arc lived and died at the stake. Most Seine River itineraries include a day-trip to the Normandy D-Day landing beaches and memorial sites.
Enjoy French food & wine. Freshly baked breads, croissants, pastries, as well as the fantastic local wine and cheeses make the idea of a riverside picnic impossible to resist.
Good to know…
The charming Honfleur - a fishing village often painted by French impressionists, is the place to sample fresh oysters paired with local white.
Many Parisians tend to leave town for vacations in August, so it's worth considering an August cruise on the Seine to explore Paris at a gentler pace, without the usual crowds and crazy traffic.
A Christmas cruise when both Paris and Rouen are in their festive best is always a good idea.
2019 is expected to be especially busy on the Seine as visitors to Normandy mark the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings, so better book early.
Near the port city of Bordeaux – the center of one of the world’s best-known wine regions, the Dordogne and Garonne rivers meet to form the Gironde estuary in southwest France. A wine enthusiast would feel here like a kid in a M&M’s store – too many wines to sample and too little time.
Most river cruises in the area are roundtrips from Bordeaux running from March to December, with September and October (harvest season) being particularly in-demand. Itineraries typically include an overnight in the UNESCO-protected Bordeaux – a charming historic town with well-preserved architecture and a center of wine commerce, and visits to local towns, chateaux, and some of the famous wine estates (generally only open by appointment).
Take a Bordeaux river cruise if you …
Love wine and want to learn more about it, or simply to taste as much as you can.
Enjoy visiting small riverside towns and villages and the scenery of miles and miles of rolling hills covered with vineyards and dotted with extravagant chateaux.
Are a foodie. There’s seafood, truffles, and macaroons (to name a few) to pair with all the wine.
Want to add a few days in Paris before or after your cruise. You can do so and take the high-speed train between Paris and Bordeaux.
Good to know…
The Garonne, Dordogne, and Gironde are all constantly influenced by the Atlantic tides which can cause changes to the itinerary, like spending more time in one port and skipping another (or visiting it by bus).
If you like long hours of scenic daytime cruising, keep in mind that the distances between ports are rather short.
Some lines offer a day-trip from Bordeaux to Arcachon - a coastal resort on the Atlantic coast which is one of France's leading oyster-growing areas and also hosts Europe’s largest sand dune.
The Rhone river flows from the Swiss Alps through southern France and south into the Mediterranean. The Saone is its main tributary and the two converge at Lyon, so most cruise itineraries include both rivers.
Rhone River cruises typically sail between Lyon and Avignon or Arles. The Papal Palace in Avignon was once the seat of Catholicism; Arles is the city that inspired Van Gogh; and Lyon is often referred to as France’s food capital.
Choose this river cruise region if you are into…
Food and wine. Cruises sail through Provence and Burgundy – two of France’s top gastronomic and wine-making regions, so expect ample opportunities to visit world-class wineries, sample a vast array of wines, and enjoy exquisite French cuisine.
Ancient Roman sites. The iconic Pont du Gard aqueduct across the Gardon River, the temple of Augustus and Livia in Vienne, and the Arles Amphitheater are among the best-preserved remains of ancient Roman architecture in France.
Cycling. Bike along he Rhone and Saone rivers through the wine-producing region of Beaujolais and across from the city of Avignon.
UNESCO World Heritage Sites, such as the Papal Palace in Avignon and the iconic Pont du Gard aqueduct.
Good to know…
The quintessential image of Provence, the purple rows of lavender and golden sunflower fields are best experienced in the summer.
Leave room in your luggage for souvenirs - jars of Dijon mustard, bottles of fine wine and cognac, lavender-scented soaps, and ‘herbes de Provence’ – the traditional local mixture of dried herbs.
Some cruise lines offer an optional tour to experience truffle hunting – a process which, contrary to popular belief, does not include pigs, but dogs trained to sniff out the precious underground fungus.
The ancient Romans mined gold ore in the region and used the river to ship it to the coast, hence its name, meaning ‘golden’. Starting in Spain (where it is mostly not-navigable), it winds through Portugal’s rugged and dramatic green landscapes until it reaches the Atlantic at Porto – the country’s second-largest city and home to famous fortified wine.
Douro River cruises are usually a round-trip from Porto to Vega de Terron just across the border with Spain. Cruises can be combined with stays in Lisbon or Salamanca. River ships on the Douro are smaller in order to fit through the locks built for flood control.
Pick a Douro river cruise if you enjoy…
Pastoral countryside. You will be sailing by sleepy villages, churches, castles, almond and olive groves, and terraced vineyards.
UNESCO sites. The Alto Douro wine region and Porto’s historic center both have protected World Heritage status.
Tasting superb wines. You will have plenty of opportunities to visit local port houses and learn about the history and many varieties of the famous fortified wine, but also to taste other Portuguese wines like Vinho Verde and Muscatel.
Portuguese cuisine. Fresh fish, seafood, meats, and seasonal produce bursting with flavor are used to concoct amazing local dishes influenced by the faraway lands that were once part of the Portuguese maritime empire.
Good to know…
Because no nighttime navigation is allowed on the Douro, you will enjoy plenty of daytime cruising and not miss out on any of the passing scenery.
Due to the region’s southern location, Douro cruises typically run from late March and into November with premier times being in spring, May - June, and September – October (harvest season).
Vega de Terron is a convenient jumping-off point for trips to Salamanca (2 hours’ drive) and on to the capital Madrid (another 2 hours by car or train).
Russia's Volga is the longest river in Europe and conveniently connects the metropolises of Moscow and St. Petersburg while also offering a glimpse into traditional and rural Russian life on the journey in-between. Russian river cruises actually navigate not only the Volga, but a series of interconnected waterways and lakes including some of Europe's largest (Lake Ladoga and Lake Onega).
Most crises here use Moscow and St. Petersburg as embarkation / disembarkation ports, but longer itineraries also sail further south along the Volga to / from Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad) with its monuments dedicated to WW2 and the historic Battle of Stalingrad.
Pick a Volga river cruise to…
Explore Moscow & St. Petersburg. With iconic sights like Red Square, St. Basil’s Cathedral, the Kremlin complex, the vast Hermitage Museum, and the Catherine and Peterhof palaces, we suggest spending at least 3 days in St. Petersburg and 2 days in Moscow to cover just the highlights.
Experience the Russian countryside. Most visitors to Russia focus on the two main cities and take a high-speed train in-between, thus overlooking ‘the real Russia’. Cruising between Moscow and St. Petersburg offers a hassle-free way to tour quaint historic towns, onion-domed churches, wooden architecture, and fresco-bedecked monasteries you would otherwise miss.
Gain deeper understanding of Russian history, culture, and the arts. No matter the current political tensions, Russia is a fascinating country and a study in contrasts with its mixture of modern and traditional, urban and rural, progressive and backward, excessive and simple. Whether you are into imperial architecture, military history, performing arts, literature, or vodka, there is something for everyone.
Good to know…
You will need a Russian visa, so plan on applying at least 2 months prior.
In St. Petersburg and Moscow, most cruise lines have their passengers stay onboard the ships, which can be quite far from the city center.
Many cruises visit Kizhi Island, known for its unique collection of wooden architecture, including a 22-dome church which was constructed without the use of a single nail.
Europe has more navigable waterways than any other continent and the diversity of cultures along them makes choosing a river a daunting task. Do not despair; every river has its own personality and charm and once you take your first cruise, you will be going back for more, so go ahead and take the plunge! We are here to help every step of the way!