A riverboat cruises on the Danube in Budapest as building-encrusted hills rise before it.
Budapest is just one of the breathtakingly beautiful cities you'll visit on a cruise down the Danube.
Photo Credit: Getty Images

Take in Varied Cities and Sights on These European River Cruises

See the Continent from the Shore With European River Cruises

Rivers have captured the human imagination from time immemorial. The sweet pull of slowly sliding waters or breathtaking vistas carved by raging streams have found a place in all sorts of literature. Just consider ancient Hebraic poetry, which states, “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High.” European river cruises may be the best place to start if you have yet to experience a river cruise.

A few hundred years later, Chinese poet Wang Zhihuan would write, “The sun beyond the mountains glows; The Yellow River seawards flows.” And the bluegrass band Nickel Creek would popularize Robert Burns’ 18th-century piece “Sweet Afton,” which praises a Scottish stream. “Flow gently, sweet Afton! amang thy green braes, Flow gently, I’ll sing thee a song in thy praise,” Burns exclaimed.

It’s easy to see why poets break out into verse while beholding such waters. It’s also easy to understand why modern-day vacationers have begun to book river cruises en masse. First, there’s the water itself, rolling currents that push well-appointed cruisers steadily toward the next destination.

Then there are the destinations themselves, all of those ancient cities and quaint towns that have sprung up around waterways. No wonder river cruises in Europe are drawing visitors from all over the world.

But which European river cruises are worth your time? Which routes offer the most engaging sights across demographics? Well, we have just the guide for you.

Floating Down the “Bringer of Luck”: The Danube (Germany to Romania)

No discussion about Europe river cruises would be complete without mentioning the Danube. As Europe’s second largest river, it has a rich and storied history. There’s a reason why the ancient Indo-Europeans called it the Bringer of Luck. At nearly 2,000 miles long, it makes contact with Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Moldova and Ukraine. Numerous cities sprung up upon its banks, ancient cities full of history. Budapest and Bratislava. Beograd and Wien. Vienna and Krems. Belgrade and Passau.

Then there’s the geography of the river itself. As you can imagine, the Danube changes quite a bit over its multi-country length. Near its origin, the river starts out rocky and narrow. Yet by the time it reaches its middle section, it swells incredibly, growing up to a mile in width. On your cruise, you can see mountains and wine country, castles and hamlets, unspoiled nature and world-class metropolises. And that’s just the start of what a Danube cruise has to offer.

Just as attractions abound along the river, so do day trips to various sites. See Dracula’s castle in Bucharest. Travel to Nuremberg for a World War II tour. Visit St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna. Stroll through Bucharest’s Castle District, which happens to be a UNESCO Site. Peer at the preserved glory of Regensburg, a city that takes you back to medieval Germany. Partake in Oberammergau’s passion play, a tradition that stretches back for approximately four centuries.

You won’t struggle finding things to do on a Danube cruise. The real challenge lies in deciding what to take in. Not every cruise company covers the entirety of the Danube, even though about nine-tenths of it is navigable by river cruisers. For those that do, the trip takes almost a whole month.

The most common legs of the voyage are from Budapest to Germany and Bucharest to Budapest. And though you may not think it, Danube river cruises can prove quite active with the numerous stops and outings. Make sure to bring comfy walking shoes!

An aerial view of the Po River showing green fields and streets on the banks beside the placid waterThe Po twines through some of Italy's most beautiful scenery.Photo Credit: Getty Images

A Romantic Cruise in the Land of Love: The Po River (Northern Italy to the Adriatic Sea)

The Po River doesn’t have quite the same name recognition as the Danube. Still, this river in Northern Italy twines through some of the nation’s most beautiful scenery. It divides the regions of Lombardy from Emilia-Romagna and Veneto. The first is known for its wine and agriculture, while the others are home to balsamic vinegar and stunningly varied scenery, respectively. You get the idea: there isn’t much about these areas that isn’t beautiful.

Naturally, some tour companies offer different options than others. Given that most cruises range from five to 10 days in length, you can imagine that itineraries vary. One constant is that virtually all outfits focus part of their tour on Venice, which lies just north of where the Po empties into the Adriatic Sea. It’s a small trip to enjoy sights such as the Piazza San Marco, the Bridge of Sighs, Doge’s Palace and St. Mark’s Basilica.

However, even the tours that only dip their toes into the Po allow you to see some of Italy’s quaintest locales. However, expect to make plenty of day trips via bus or car. Traveling upriver to the west brings you near Bologna, a gastrophile’s paradise. Sample astonishing cuisine and walk through open-air food markets.

You’ll also end up within striking distance of Verona, the setting for “Romeo and Juliet,” Shakespeare’s most famous play. Padua boasts the second-oldest university in Italy and contains numerous medieval-era structures. It’s well worth donning your sneakers for an extended walk through this very, very old city and a great way for couples to celebrate their love in a historic way.

Architecture tends to steal the show in Italy, and river cruises are no exception. But the Po Delta Nature Reserve deserves your attention, particularly when traveling by river boat. Located at the delta formed by six branches of the Po as it empties into the Adriatic, the reserve boasts several thousand species of bird, some of which draw scientists from all over the world. In fact, the United Nations states that it’s Italy’s only delta.

When booking your Po River cruise, make sure to carefully examine the itinerary your cruise company has assembled. Some outfits advertise their outings as Po River tours when they really spend most of their time around Venice and its various lagoons.

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The sunrises over Avignon Bridge and the Pope's Palace in Pont Saint-Benezet, Provence, France, as seen from a river-water view.The Avignon Bridge and the Pope's Palace in Pont Saint-Benezet in France.Photo Credit: Getty Images

A Wine and Food Lover’s Paradise: The Rhone (The Alps to the Mediterranean)

Sun-dappled and downright gorgeous, the South of France is a true European paradise. Fields of lavender and endless vineyards. Verdant fields and ancient churches. And, of course, the water. Both the Rhone itself and the Mediterranean into which it empties have drawn travelers for generation after generation. Only river passengers get to enjoy a bevy of delightful day trips along the way.

One of the great advantages of a river cruise in Europe down the Rhone is the variety of options available. Just about every kind of traveler can find something to their liking. Trips can range from three days to three weeks.

Why? Well, some shunt folks down a relatively small section of the 500-mile length of the Rhone. These trips might find you starting in Lyon and cruise to Arles where you’ll learn about horse breeding before touring the papal palace in Avignon. Similar itineraries might feature foot tours of Les Baux-de-Provence (a historical commune), jeep tours of the Camargue (a wetland area near Nimes), or an exploration of the Gorges de l’Ardèche (which some have dubbed the European Grand Canyon).

And those are just the shorter trips. Lengthier excursions might take you from Lyon over to the Saone River where you’ll enjoy private wine and chocolate tastings in Chalon-sur-Saone. Explore castles in Burgundy and tour vineyards. Discover the secrets of the Benedictine Abbey of Cluny, bike in Vienne, and view the medieval settlement at the heart of Uzès, a settlement that has existed in one form of another since the 11th century. Some outfits will even shunt you over to Monte Carlo by the trip’s end so you can enjoy a bit of the high life.

Indeed, the experiences you can find on a Rhone river cruise are every bit as varied as the South of France itself. Tour companies offer outings crafted for families, foodies, adventure lovers and couples.

Big Ben and Westminster Abbey at sunset as seen from the Thames, the light of the dying day casting the river in blue and gray.Enjoy famous sights of Big Ben and Westminster Abbey from the Thames.Photo Credit: Getty Images

Afternoon Adventures or Countryside Exploration: The Thames (Oxford to the North Sea)

It’s hard to think of England without thinking of the Thames. Ancient and celebrated, it bisects London, that cities of cities, bearing cargo cruisers and tourists alike down its storied course. In fact, if you search for Thames river cruises online, you’re likely to find countless companies offering London day trips for European river cruises. Think of Chicago’s famous architectural tours, and you’ll have the gist of it.

These short trips last anywhere from 30 minutes to two-and-a-half hours. Some offer meals. Some allow you to hop on and off, treating your vessel of choice like some kind of glorified taxi. Some boast live music or guides offering quirky bits of history, such as ghost tours. Some even provide jaunts in re-creations of historical ships, all soaring masts and billowing sails. In the end, though, you’ll always end up enjoying famous London sights such as London Bridge, Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament, Shakespeare’s Globe and Big Ben.

While such tours are all well and good in and of themselves, many river travelers want a more expansive experience, one that takes in more than a single city, no matter how grand. Fortunately, the 200-mile length of the Thames can offer just that. Traveling all the way to Oxford, these placid journeys take place on far smaller boats than other typical river tours. In fact, most will accommodate only six to eight people. The truly adventurous can rent canalboats and steer up the Thames on their own, directing their own tours. It’s the perfect option for lovers or families who prefer to take their own time.

What will you see on European river cruises? Stroll through Goring-on-Thames to get a feel for the countryside that inspired Kenneth Grahame’s “The Wind in the Willows.” Tour Hampton Court Palace near East Molesey, learning about how Henry VIII’s tumultuous private life became a very public crisis. For a lighter time, enjoying blocky creations with the kids at the LEGOLAND Windsor Resort. Fans of “Downton Abbey” should stop in Hampshire to see Highclere Castle, a Victorian-era structure that served as the setting for the famous show. Then there’s Oxford itself, that famed seat of learning that boasts Oxford Castle, the Bodleian Library and nearly 40 beautiful colleges.

A view of the Douro riverside and Dom Luiz bridge in Porto, Portugal, as the sun sets brilliantly sets off the whitewashed buildings along the shore.A view of the Douro riverside and Dom Luiz bridge in Porto, Portugal.Photo Credit: Getty Images

Touring Ideal Iberian Wine Country: The Douro (Vega Terrón to the Atlantic Ocean)

A lesser-known waterway for European river cruises — but making for a no less breathtaking cruise — the Douro River twines from Sierra de Urbión, a mountainous region in Northern Spain, all the way to Portugal and the Atlantic Ocean. You won’t get to traverse its entire area, though. Despite being the third longest river on the Iberian peninsula, it was unnavigable for hundreds of years to all but the most specialized ships.

Tumultuous and often fast, the river primarily served the wine trade as boats that drew minimal water transported casks to port. Today tourists can enjoy the Douro thanks to a series of locks that stabilize the water. Still, though, they can only traverse a portion of its 500-mile length. But what a stunning portion it is.

Most Douro cruises start at Porto and travel west, ending up in Vega Terrón, a Spanish port town. Then they double back, becoming round-trip affairs. A handful offer one-way trips, but the sights they see are often the same. And what amazing sights they are. The Douro River Valley itself became a UNESCO World Heritage Site nearly two decades ago. Wine fans will recognize the name, especially if they’re a fan of port, the sweet, fortified drink with a complex finish and an alcoholic punch.

Many Douro river cruises will visit a vineyard or winery during this section of the trip. It’s worth a stop for the historical significance alone. Experts consider the area the world’s oldest, formally delineated wine-producing region. Plus, it’s (to put it mildly) pretty to look at. The Douro earned the name River of Gold because the setting sun seems to lathe the surroundings in brilliant light.

Down the river, Régua houses the Museu do Douro, a museum providing slightly more technical exhibits explaining the area’s wine-making prowess. Guimarães wows with wonderful medieval architecture, including the Collegiate Church of Nossa Senhora da Oliveira and the Praça de Santiago. Try to find a guide who can take you on a bike tour of the area.

Architectural addicts will gasp at the Sanctuary of Nossa Senhora dos Remédios. It rises above the town like a benevolent overseer, its 686 friezed stairs leading up to the church itself where ornate art celebrates the Virgin Mary.

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Seagulls speed by a riverboat in GermanyThe Elbe links two of Europe's oldest nations: Germany and the Czech Republic.Photo Credit: Getty Images

Finding Old Europe: The Elbe (Prague to Berlin)

One of Europe’s largest rivers links two of its oldest nations: Germany and the Czech Republic. This makes for one of the greatest European river cruises destinations. The Elbe runs nearly 700 miles in length, and many tour companies don’t confine themselves simply to that river. A number will detour into the Vltava River, which just happens to be the Czech Republic’s longest river. As with other tours mentioned in this overview, exact routes and itineraries can vary from outfit to outfit. However, there are a number of sites you should expect to see on a river cruise down the Elbe, starting with Prague.

The City of a Hundred Spires (the nickname that 19th-century mathematician Bernard Bolzano gave to Prague) is one of the European wonders that has managed to maintain hundreds of years of history despite the tumult of the modern world. From the river, you’ll see Old Town, a 12th-century remainder of ancient Prague with buildings rising in Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque architectures. A statue in the Old Town Square pays respects to the proto-Protestant theologian Jan Huss whose theological insights eventually prompted a war.

A short trip from Prague’s central hub will net another far darker historical snapshot.The Theresienstadt Concentration Camp lies a few miles from the city — it served as a Nazi concentration camp during World War II. A sobering reminder of the lessons one must learn from the past, it saw the extermination of tens of thousands of people and the forcible detention and relocation of hundreds of thousands more.

History marks more than just Prague. Elbe river tours tend to stop in Lutherstadt Wittenberg, a once little town that shows the power of religion to shape the affairs of men. Hundreds of years ago, it saw a lowly monk named Martin Luther nail his 95 theses to the Wittenberg Castle church door. Even cruisers without much interest in religion ought to schedule a day trip to see the area that beget the Protestant Reformation proper and reshaped the face of continental Europe.

Other stops on your European river cruises emphasize far lighter things. Sip stunningly good Czech beer in Litomerice. Learn about porcelain in Meissen, a city whose top-tier clay caused it to become the first European porcelain producer to rival the output of China. The 500-or-so late-Gothic and Renaissance edifices standing in Torgau will make architecture lovers drool. Ditto for Potsdam, the former Prussian royal seat that somehow survived World War II with nary a scratch. And to wrap up your Elbe river cruise, you’ll likely land in Berlin, a city whose richness of culture deserves an article all to itself.

By now, you get the idea: seeing Europe from the ancient waterways that cut across it is one of the best ways to understand Western civilization itself and to appreciate its astounding natural beauty.

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