9 best river cruises in Europe

River cruising in Europe is a delightful and leisurely way to travel. It offers a unique experience of exploring calm inland waters, gliding past castles, vineyards, and ever-changing scenery. With daily escorted walking tours and other excursions provided by the river line, you have the opportunity to visit key UNESCO World Heritage Sites and other city and village attractions. Alternatively, you can choose to explore on your own, as your ship often docks right in town. Lazy afternoons on the ship allow you to sit back in a lounge chair and watch the world go by, observing kids swimming from the riverbanks, farmers tending to their crops, and river birds flapping their wings, as you make your way to the next destination.

When it comes to choosing which European river to explore, the options are broader than you might expect. The main rivers in Europe are the Danube and the Rhine, along with their tributaries. These rivers are the most popular choices for river cruises, offering one-week segments or longer itineraries that combine different areas and sometimes even combine rivers. However, even a week-long cruise on a river in France or on the Douro in Portugal can be incredibly rewarding and relaxing.

One of the best river cruises in Europe is the Upper Danube. This seven-night sailing takes you through Germany, Austria, Slovakia, and Hungary, offering a journey through centuries of history. You’ll visit cultural hubs like Vienna, with its opera and art museums, and Budapest, with its magnificent architecture. The Wachau Valley in Austria, known for its wine-growing region, is also a highlight of this route. The option to bike in this region is a bonus, as some river lines, like AmaWaterways, carry bikes on board for passengers to use. Side trips to Salzburg, Austria, and Bratislava, Slovakia, are also available.

For a deeper dive into Eastern Europe’s past and present, the Lower Danube route between Budapest and Bucharest, Romania, is a fascinating choice. This seven-night river cruise takes you through Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Romania. The most beautiful stretch of the river is a 62-mile passage through a gorge between the Balkan and Carpathian Mountains. You’ll also have the opportunity to visit Bulgaria’s Belogradchik Rocks and Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria’s stunning medieval capital.

The Rhine is another top choice for river cruising in Europe, offering natural beauty and fairytale landscapes. A typical one-week route takes you from Amsterdam in the Netherlands to Basel, Switzerland. Along the way, you’ll pass by vineyards, forests, mountains, historic cities, and medieval villages. The Upper Middle Rhine Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a highlight of this route, with its castles and Lorelei Rock. Strasbourg in France, with its famous Gothic cathedral, is often a favorite stop on Rhine itineraries, along with Heidelberg, Germany, and its imposing castle.

The Seine River cruise offers a unique perspective on World War II, with a visit to the beaches in Normandy and the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. Other treasures along the Seine include Giverny, the home and gardens of Claude Monet, and historic Rouen, where Joan of Arc was martyred. Bordeaux river cruises are a different experience, as you explore the Dordogne and Garonne Rivers and the Gironde Estuary in Southwest France. Bordeaux itself is a city rich in culture and wine, offering opportunities to visit vineyards, chateaus, and admire the grape harvest.

For wine lovers, Rhone and Saone River cruises in France are a must. These cruises typically sail between Lyon and Arles or Avignon, offering visits to famous winemaking regions like Provence and Burgundy. Along the way, you’ll also have the chance to explore Roman aqueducts, amphitheaters, and the massive Palais des Papes in Avignon. The lavender fields and other scenes that inspired painters like Cezanne and Van Gogh are also part of this itinerary.

A lazy and dreamy river cruise experience can be found on the Douro River in Portugal. Starting from Porto, you’ll sail through the Douro River Valley, a UNESCO-recognized destination, before reaching the Spanish border. This route offers the opportunity to visit the university town of Salamanca in northern Spain and learn about port production along the “River of Gold.”

Although challenging due to fluctuating water levels and narrow passages, the Elbe River in Germany is a rare and unique river cruising experience. Viking River Cruises is one of the few lines that visit this region, offering a chance to explore historic cities and towns along the Elbe.

In conclusion, river cruising in Europe is a wonderful way to travel, allowing you to relax and enjoy the slow pace of exploration. Whether you choose to cruise the Danube, Rhine, Seine, Bordeaux, Rhone and Saone, Douro, or Elbe, each river offers its own unique charm and attractions. From castles and vineyards to UNESCO World Heritage Sites and historic cities, there is something for everyone on a European river cruise.

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