The ultimate European river cruise guide

Cruise Advice
By

European river cruising has experienced an extraordinary surge in popularity over the last few years, with an ever more varied range of ships, holiday styles and cruise lines to choose from.

The amount of choice on offer can be overwhelming, especially if you're new to the world of river cruising. With this in mind, we've put together this guide to the many rivers and waterways of Europe, giving you an overview of what each river has to offer and which cruise lines we recommend...


The Rhine

In the old days, a Rhine cruise was the river cruise to take, and it's easy to understand why: craggy outcrops topped with fairytale castles, lush forests and terraced vineyards, pretty villages, atmospheric cobbled streets, ancient towns and more treasures at every turn. The history of the region is significant, and it has inspired composers, writers and poets alike. More or less every European river cruise operator offers a Rhine itinerary - and with reason, as there is so much to do.

Rhine Valley at Rudesheim, Germany

Check out all the options to find the itinerary that is best for you. Some take you all the way to Basel with the opportunity to extend your stay in the scenic Swiss Alps. Others start in quirky Amsterdam, the perfect city to explore on foot or by water. The picturesque Moselle river might be included - don't miss the opportunity to sample the wines, the quality will amaze you. Other key tributaries are the Neckar and the Main. Early in the year you might be looking out for the 'tulip time' cruises, and the opportunity to visit the lowlands of the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg, with great art, history and amazing food.

Cologne cathedral, Germany

Don't miss:

The amazing Gothic cathedral in Cologne

Our clients say:

"… the highlight of the itinerary, travelling through the Rhine Gorge, which is flanked by vineyards and castles and looks equally lovely in the sunshine or an atmospheric autumn mist.."

Our recommended cruise lines:

Crystal · Tauck · AmaWaterways · Uniworld · Scenic · Viking

Trip reports :


The Danube

My personal choice for your first river cruise, the upper stretch of the Danube offers everything: extraordinary cities, pretty villages, great music, art and architecture with so many choices of things to see and do. Remote abbeys, terraced vineyards and beautiful countryside contrast with signature ports of call packed with 'must see' treasures. Relive the magic - and the dark undertones - of The Sound of Music. Roam the lands of the Habsburgs, and feel the long arm of history stretch through the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. Choose an itinerary with an extended stay in Vienna if you can.

Alte Hofburg in Vienna, Austria

This stretch of the Danube brings history alive in a spectacular way, as you cruise from Nuremberg, with its World War II overtones, to pretty medieval Passau, and from the glorious pomp of Vienna to bustling Budapest. Less known is the onward stretch through Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania all the way to the Black Sea, sailing through the Iron Gates and visiting the proud cities of Belgrade and Bucharest, so for returning visitors, this is an itinerary to look out for.

Budapest Parliament at sunrise

Don't miss:

Vienna and Budapest are highlights - go for itineraries with overnight stays in these cities if you can.

Our clients say:

"The overnight stay in Vienna was excellent as we were able to explore the city during the day, and in the evening we had a wonderful private concert in the most beautiful palace..."

Did you know?

Now the Rhine/Main Canal joins the Rhine and Danube rivers, you can cruise all the way from the North Sea at Amsterdam to the Black Sea at Constanta - an amazing 28 day journey.

Our recommended cruise lines:

Crystal · Tauck · AmaWaterways · Uniworld · Scenic · Viking

Trip reports:


The Rhône

The Rhône (and its tributary the Saône) has to be one of the most appealing river cruises you can choose, with SO much to offer. Start in the gastronomic capital of France, Lyon, a great destination in itself. The city is easily reached by air or rail, and it's worth considering extending your trip for a real culinary treat.

View of Lyon from Notre Dame de Fourviere

Then sail northwards for the world renowned vineyards of the Beaune region, sampling the produce along the way, and southwards into Provence for a wealth of history including extraordinary Roman architecture at Arles, and the seat of the former Popes in medieval Avignon with its maze of cobbled streets - not to mention its famous bridge! See the landscapes that inspired impressionists Van Gogh and Cézanne, with huge fragrant fields of lavender, medieval villages and vineyards, abbeys and monasteries. Along the way enjoy the great food of the region - ideally paired with local wines!

Window in Arles, France

Don't miss:

The Roman ruins in Vienne

Our clients say:

"Whilst the days were filled with new areas to visit, the evenings were spent enjoying the daily cocktail before testing excellent local dishes in the main dining room."

Our recommended cruise lines:

Tauck · AmaWaterways · Uniworld · Scenic · Viking

Trip reports:


The Seine

Ah the Seine, flowing through romantic Paris, the 'City of Light'. Here you join your cruise, arriving by rail or a speedy flight. There is time to explore the French capital and its many treasures, before sailing into the Norman countryside, known for its rich cuisine based on the produce of the region: apples, cider, cream and cheese.

The Eiffel Tower, Paris

You can visit Monet's famous garden and the beautiful gothic city of Rouen with its fantastic cathedral as you sail towards the sea, and the prettiest seaside town ever, lovely Honfleur. Take an overland trip to the beaches of World War II, where the Normandy landings took place, and see the magnificent museum in Caen. Special visits to picturesque chateaux and abbeys along the way remind you of Normandy's rich history - and don't forget to sample the excellent local cider.

Boats in Honfleur harbour, France

Don't miss:

Sainte Catherine Church in Honfleur, with two parallel vaults in the shape of an upturned hull.

Our clients say:

"…right on our doorstep and yet we have never explored it before. The speedy Eurostar journey to Paris was a bonus and we loved the final evening right in the city. But our highlight was the beautiful scenic cruising.."

Our recommended cruise lines:

Tauck · AmaWaterways · Uniworld · Scenic · Viking

Trip reports:


The Garonne

Bordeaux has to be one of the most beautiful cities in France, and it's the perfect starting point for your cruise into the heart of wine country on the Garonne, Gironde and Dordogne rivers.

Place de la Bourse, Bordeaux

Aquitaine in south west France is known for its superb Appellation d'Origine Controllée Grand Cru wines, and here are names to conjure with: St Emilion, Pomerol, Médoc and more. Chateau visits and tastings will be a key feature of your stay, but that is not all the region has to offer: amazing scenery, pretty medieval towns and villages, fortified bastides and castle mansions are all at your fingertips.

Bordeaux wine festival

Don't miss:

A walking tour in Bordeaux itself is a must - broad streets, magnificent buildings, pretty parks and many beautiful churches - then sit at a pavement café with a good glass of Bordeaux to enjoy the atmosphere.

Our clients say:

"All that fantastic wine and amazing food - lucky they had the bikes on board so we were able to get a bit of exercise. We really liked the fact that mostly we stopped overnight in port..."

Our recommended cruise lines:

AmaWaterways · Uniworld · Scenic · Viking


The Douro

Portugal's Douro Valley, where grapes have been grown for 2,000 years, is the perfect base to visit picturesque quintas, explore natural treasures in the Douro International Natural Park, tour fortified villages and pilgrimage towns, and relax as you cruise through the verdant countryside. At the mouth of the river is the lovely blue and white tiled city of Porto, the capital of northern Portugal and home to port wine. It has a fascinating regenerated area on the river front, and is wonderful to explore with its hilly streets and lanes, enabling you to quickly get lost as you soak up the atmosphere.

Bridge over the Douro in Porto, Portugal

As soon as you set sail, you reach a region largely untouched by tourism, visiting unspoilt villages and places you have never heard of, in a beautiful scenic setting. Along the way your experience will be enhanced by wine and port tastings, and the opportunity to sample locally grown produce, delicious hams, and traditional specialities of the region. With any luck, you will also get to see some flamenco dancing. If you have time, ensure you start or finish your journey with a side trip to lovely Lisbon: stand by for some serious hill climbing though!

Douro river valley, Portugal

Did you know?

You can combine a Douro River cruise with a visit to three legendary Spanish cities: Salamanca, Madrid and Toledo.

Our clients say:

"I had always had Portugal on my list, but couldn't work out how to explore. This was the perfect solution, with a pre-cruise stay in Lisbon, and all the transfers taken care of."

Our recommended cruise lines:

AmaWaterways · Uniworld · Scenic · Viking


Italy

When it comes to Italy, your river cruise choices are more limited, but no less appealing for that. The canals and rivers in the area were once the ancient trade routes used by the Romans and the early Mediterranean settlers, enabling you to get a real insight into many cultures - including Roman, Etruscan, Istrian and Byzantine. The Renaissance of course is key to the region, and you will indulge in the arts, architecture and history of the region over many centuries.

Gondolas in Venice, Italy

Based in the magical city of Venice, the Venice Lagoon, Po river and Canal Bianco enable you to visit renaissance gems such as Verona, Padua, Bologna and Ferrara. While in Venice, visit the three outer-lying Venetian islands, Burano, Mazzorbo and Torcello. The beautiful canals and rivers of the region pass by picturesque lagoon islands with their colourful houses, and wild beach dunes and pine woods with an abundance of birdlife. Delicious seafood, local culinary specialities and fine wines are all a feature of cruises in this area.

Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy

Don't miss:

There are too many treasures to mention, but we particularly recommend the Giotto frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua.

Our clients say:

"Travelling serenely downstream that afternoon, taking photos as we cruised, we joined the River Po en route to a peaceful overnight mooring, close to the beautiful 17th century villa Ca'Zen,for a truly memorable evening, with dinner hosted by the elegant daughter of the owning family, whose riverside estate was once frequented by poet Lord Byron."

Did you know?

During the summer months from June to the end of August, the extraordinary arena at Verona is home to an unmissable Opera Festival - a visit can easily be combined with a Po river cruise.

Our recommended cruise lines:

Uniworld · European Waterways

Trip reports:


The Elbe

The Elbe is one of Europe's most unspoiled rivers - predominantly natural, it has been unaltered by human technology. As a result, if it is on your wishlist - and it certainly should be - you will have to hunt around to find the cruise you want. This is because the river is so shallow that few vessels are able to navigate it. Expect spectacular beauty, particularly as it meanders through Saxon Switzerland, with wetlands and woodlands which have been virtually untouched.

The Elbe river in Dresden, Germany

Amazing cities, risen from the rubble in war-torn East Germany, dot your route. You start your trip in edgy Berlin, one of the most exciting cities in the world, before joining your ship in rococo Potsdam and visiting Dresden, magnificently restored, Meissen with its fine porcelain, and Wittenberg, birthplace of the Protestant Reformation, amongst others. The journey finishes in magnificent Prague, where an extended stay to explore is a must.

Charles Bridge in Prague, Czech Republic

Did you know?

The Elbe supports several wine-producing areas - the Saxonian Wine Route, Melnik and Litomerice.

Our clients say:

"This is an area it would never have occurred to us to visit - we had never even heard of Saxon Switzerland, which was breathtakingly beautiful. Amazing itinerary in every way."

Our recommended cruise lines:

Viking


Russia

As you cruise between the breathtaking imperial cities of Moscow and St Petersburg you begin a journey on Russia's vast network of waterways - in this instance the Volga and Svir rivers, including the lakes of Onega and Ladoga. In Moscow, Russia's capital, visit Red Square, with the colourful onion domes of St. Basil's Cathedral, the tomb of Vladimir Lenin, the Kremlin, and the world-famous Metro system. In magical St. Petersburg cruise the canals, visit baroque palaces and explore extraordinary collections including the amazing Hermitage.

Red Square, Moscow

This cruise is an excellent way to understand the contrasts of this great land, as you travel from the artistic treasures and spectacular architecture of the big cities through idyllic forests and extensive farmland to the timeless towns along the Golden Ring, and the green-domed churches and ancient monasteries of Uglich and Yaroslavl. This is off-the-beaten-track Russia, where locals still engage in traditional crafts. At Kizhi Island you will visit the Transfiguration Church, a wooden structure built entirely without the use of nails.

Kizhi Island, Russia

Don't miss:

A minute of your time in St Petersburg, whose myriad treasures will amaze you.

Did you know?

An exciting and unusual alternative itinerary is on offer for those who want to venture further, with the opportunity to sail from Moscow to Volgograd (formerly known as Stalingrad).

Our recommended cruise lines:

Uniworld · Scenic · Viking


Ukraine

Visit Ukraine on the ancient trade route of the Dnieper river from the Golden Gates of Kiev to beautiful Odessa, jewel of the Black Sea. This unusual itinerary takes you way off the beaten track on a winding waterway, learning more about Ukraine's rich cultural treasures, onion-domed churches and colourful folk traditions. The rich cultural melting pot of this area includes Greek, Mongol, Tatar, Ottoman, Cossack, Jewish and Russian influences which will be apparent in so many aspects of your journey, from the food to the architecture, the language to the dance.

Monument to Catherine II in Odessa, Ukraine

Don't miss:

Walking through Odessa's broad streets with their nostalgic European boulevards

Did you know?

This is the land of the Cossacks, with their legendary traditional horsemanship.

Our recommended cruise lines:

Viking


Find out more about river cruising:

Edwina Lonsdale
Meet the author

Edwina Lonsdale is Managing Director and, together with husband Matthew, owner of Mundy Cruising.

More about Edwina

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