River cruises in Europe are one of those wonderfully slow and easy ways to travel. You’ll be in a small floating hotel and explore calm backwaters, floating past castles and vineyards and landscapes that change every hour.
Daily guided walking tours and other excursions along the river line take you to important UNESCO World Heritage sites and other city and village attractions you come to visit. Or you can choose to explore the city yourself, which is easy because your ship often docks directly in the city.
Lazy afternoons on the ship offer time to sit in an easy chair and watch the world go by – children swimming from the riverbanks, farmers tending their crops, river birds flapping their wings – as you head to your next destination floats.
Which European river should you explore? The choices are wider than you would expect.
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The most important rivers in Europe are the Danube and the Rhine and their tributaries. They are by far the most popular and can be done in week-long segments or in longer routes combining areas and sometimes rivers. Even if your cruise only lasts a week, don’t underestimate the appeal of seven days of relaxing on a river in France or on the dreamy Douro in Portugal.
Here are the best river cruises in Europe.
When it comes to river cruises in Europe, a perfect starting seven-night sailing trip is the Upper Danube, which takes you through centuries of history as you explore Germany, Austria, Slovakia and Hungary.
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Ships visit cultural centers such as Vienna, with its opera and art museums and elaborate royal palaces, and Budapest, Hungary, with its beautiful architecture and modern atmosphere. If your ship passes the Hungarian Parliament Building at night, you are in for a treat; beautifully lit, it is one of the most photographed sights on the river.
Along the route, between Melk and Krems in Austria, you will sail through the Wachau Valley, an important wine-growing area producing Rieslings and Gruner Veltliners, with drinking options. It’s also a great place for cycling, so it’s fun to ride with lines, like AmaWaterways, that have bikes on board for passengers to use.
You may also have the option of a trip to Salzburg, Austria, Mozart’s birthplace – and also where several scenes for the film “Sound of Music” were filmed. A surprise for many is the Old Town of Bratislava, Slovakia, which may not have been on your must-do list, but it charms with its beer culture and castles.
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For a deep dive into Eastern Europe’s past and present, the fascinating Lower Danube Route between Budapest and Bucharest, Romania, explores history from the Middle Ages and the Victorian era of Dracula to the rise of communism and the war in Bosnia.
The seven-night river cruise takes you through Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania. The most beautiful stretch of the river is a 100 kilometer passage through a gorge between the Balkans and the Carpathians. It is also one of the deepest parts of the river in the world.
Other sights you can reach on shore excursions by bus include Bulgaria’s Belogradchik Rocks, which are naturally carved towering red rock pinnacles that appear to take shapes like ‘Madonna and Child’, and Veliko Tarnovo, the beautiful medieval capital of Bulgaria.
When it comes to the top cruise rivers in Europe, the Rhine wins for natural beauty and fairytale landscapes. A river cruise between Amsterdam in the Netherlands and Basel, Switzerland – a typical weeklong route – takes you past vast vineyards, forests and mountains, historic towns and medieval half-timbered villages.
That’s before you even reach the Upper Middle Rhine Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This 40-mile stretch of river, between Rüdesheim and Koblenz, Germany, has castles galore—you could just imagine Rapunzel letting her hair down—and the Lorelei Rock, the legendary cliff said to distract sailors with the enchanting song of a girl.
The French city of Strasbourg, with its famous Gothic cathedral and robust Alsatian culinary scene, is often a favorite stop on Rhine routes, with other highlights including Heidelberg, Germany, and its imposing castle.
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Of course you can see the Eiffel Tower if you board a riverboat in Paris, but you can also do so if you stay in a hotel. The real attractions of a Seine cruise are sailing the river out of the city towards the English Channel and visiting the beaches in Normandy for a perspective on World War II.
Your visit there and to the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, as well as other memorials and monuments to the fallen, is a moving experience (one that, however, requires a two-hour bus ride from your ship). Avalon Waterways brings on board a World War II expert to provide insight into certain sailings.
There are other treasures along the Seine, not least Giverny, the home and gardens of impressionist artist Claude Monet. If you’re a fan of his art, much of the property may look familiar.
In historic Rouen, where Joan of Arc was tortured in the Middle Ages, pass by Rouen Cathedral (another Monet subject) before getting lost in cobbled streets lined with beautiful cafes.
River cruises in Bordeaux differ from other water routes because you explore two short waterways – the Dordogne and Garonne rivers – and the Gironde estuary in southwestern France.
On this route you’ll spend more time on land than floating down the river, with your ship moored for two nights in the city of Bordeaux, a mini-Paris of grand 18th-century buildings. Who cares when you’re at the epicenter of French culture, in one of the most celebrated wine regions in the world?
Bordeaux offers the opportunity to enjoy Medoc, Margaux, Saint-Emilion, Pomerol and Sauternes wines while expanding your wine education. You will visit vineyards and beautiful castles. Your cruise line may even host a dinner at a wine estate one evening. If you plan your cruise for September or October, you can admire the grape harvest.
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Rhône and Saône
Another must for wine lovers is exploring inland France, sipping Cotes du Rhone in famous wine regions like Hermitage and Chateauneuf-du-Pape in Provence and Beaune in Burgundy.
Cruises on the Rhône and Saône typically sail between Lyon and Arles or Avignon, and they are packed with non-wine attractions such as the Roman aqueduct Pont du Gard and the Roman amphitheater of Arles, as well as the enormous Palais des Papes (Papal Palace) in Avignon. You can also enjoy the lavender fields, haystacks and other scenes that inspired painters like Paul Cezanne and Vincent van Gogh.
For a lazy, dreamy, beautiful river cruise experience, nothing beats exploring Portugal’s wine regions on the Douro, one of the most important rivers on the Iberian Peninsula. The home base for these river cruises is Porto, Portugal, with its historic city center, spectacular bridges and port houses.
Week-long cruises follow the river for 130 miles (210 kilometers) past verdant hillside vineyards in the Douro River Valley, a UNESCO-recognized destination, before turning around at the Spanish border. River cruises usually include a visit to the university city of Salamanca in Northern Spain. Viticulture is mainly the lesson along the way, as you learn about port production on the ‘River of Gold’.
Fluctuating water levels and narrow passages make the Elbe a challenging river that runs 1,100 kilometers between the Czech Republic and Germany. Historically it was part of the border between East Germany and West Germany.
River cruises are a rare experience here. Viking River Cruises is one of the few lines that visits (another is the French line CroisiEurope), offering 10-day itineraries that combine hotel stays in the cities of Berlin and Prague with a stretch of river between Prague and Wittenburg, Germany.
The cruises take place on ships specially built for the Elbe route. They stop at places like resurgent Dresden, heavily bombed during World War II but expertly rebuilt; the Saxon Switzerland region of Germany with its striking sandstone rock formations; and the spa town of Bad Schandau.
The Po River in Northern Italy is tidal, making it a challenging waterway. However, it offers the opportunity to combine a visit to Venice with a river cruise. Uniworld Boutique River Cruises sails the Po in high style with its 126-passenger SS La Venizia, fully decked out with a sense of place, from Fortuny fabrics and Murano glass to the gilded accents.
The weeklong route won’t take you far, but it does include the walled city of Padua, the charming fishing village of Chioggia and the culinary mecca of Bologna.
For those looking for a longer experience, Uniworld cleverly combines a Po cruise with luxury train travel to places like Istanbul, Switzerland and beyond.
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