River cruising is a popular way to get the ease and convenience of a cruise while enjoying a more intimate experience.
Viking River Cruises is one of the most recognized names in the industry, and we had the chance to take their eight-day Romantic Danube cruise in the wintertime. The cruise stops vary from year to year and season to season, but each version has stops in Germany, Austria, and Hungary.
During our trip, we wanted to indulge in one of our favorite travel hobbies: visiting different European Christmas markets. Not only did we immerse ourselves in many memorable Christmas markets, but we also explored some charming, beautiful, and historically important towns.
Viking River Cruises’ Romantic Danube offers so many different ways to optimize your time. Our experience was absolutely magical, and we wanted to share some suggestions for how to make the most of every stop on this unforgettable itinerary.
We were guests of Viking River Cruises on their Romantic Danube itinerary. All opinions expressed are our own and are based on our experiences.
The Romantic Danube itinerary varies, sometimes beginning in Hungary and other times in Germany. The stops may vary slightly as well. But wherever your specific journey takes you along this beautiful river route, you’ll find a lot to explore.
Our itinerary began in the German city of Nuremberg. Steeped in World War II history, it witnessed the rise and fall of the Third Reich. History buffs can visit the Nazi Party Rally Grounds, the Nazi Documentation Center, and other historical sites.
But as the second-largest city in Bavaria (after Munich), Nuremberg also has lots more to offer. The Old Town features beautiful half-timbered houses along with the medieval Imperial Castle. Art lovers can visit the home of German Renaissance artist Albrecht Durer and explore the Germanisches Nationalmuseum and numerous art galleries around town.
The food is incredible in Nuremberg, so we recommend having at least one meal or hearty snack ashore. Don’t miss the city’s skinny German sausages served three to a roll or on a plate with sauerkraut or potato salad. Paired with a frosty local beer, it’s a perfect meal.
Stop by the open-air Hauptmarket in the city center for a colorful look at local produce, flowers, handmade gifts, and delicious food specialties. If you happen to be there during the holiday season, you’ll see the transformation of the Old Town into a winter wonderland where over 180 vendors make up the Christkindlesmarkt. Stalls display art, local products, handcrafted goods, and treats of the season. Glittering lights and fresh greenery add to the festive atmosphere.
A well-preserved medieval city on the northern portion of the Danube River, Regensburg boasts some of the most interesting historic buildings in Bavaria.
The Altes Rathaus is a bright yellow building dating to the 1200s. The Thurn und Taxis Palace is the impressive residence of an aristocratic family that had amassed a fortune from postal operations in the early 1800s. During the holiday season, a Christmas market springs up on the castle grounds. The Porta Praetoria comprises the ruins of a gateway made of rough stone blocks dating to the 13th century. Neupfarrplatz, a Roman fortress built during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, was later home to one of the first Jewish communities in Germany. The ornate German Gothic Saint Peter’s Cathedral is worth seeing, too. Walk across the Old Stone Bridge, a pedestrian walkway over the Danube, and then turn to see the colorful clock tower.
A UNESCO World Heritage site, Regensburg also has great food. The Historische Wurstkuchl, or Historic Sausage Kitchen, is 1,000 years old and the oldest sausage kitchen in Europe, maybe even in the world. If you have time, sit a while at the Weltenburger am Dom, a restaurant and brewery right next to the cathedral. Try the amazing schnitzel with a beer from Weltenburg Abbey, the oldest monastery brewery in the world.
Right on the Germany-Austria border, Passau is a picturesque city. It’s known as the City of Three Rivers, since it’s where the Danube, Ilz, and Inn Rivers come together. Something you won’t find in many other places is a wasserstand, a chart depicting high water marks from floods in the city center. It’s drawn on a wall of the old town hall as a reminder that while being at the confluence of three rivers may be beautiful, it is not without risks.
Art is important to Passau, with the city’s modern art museum and unique glass museum containing more than 30,000 European pieces of art glass. Check out the fun Artists’ Alley, where cobblestones painted in bright colors line the streets and darling boutiques hold plenty of unique souvenirs.
Passau is home to one of the largest pipe organs in the world, with almost 18,000 pipes. It resides in the gorgeous baroque Saint Stephen’s Cathedral. If the timing is right, you could catch a concert for an unforgettable experience.
Modern pleasures in Passau include the Klostergarten, a contemporary park that is home to farmers markets and gardens. It lights up at night with dramatic lighting, water features, and choreographed fountain displays, perfect for enjoying on an evening stroll.
As the Romantic Danube cruise moves into Austria, you’ll spot the Melk Abbey standing grandly atop a hill overlooking the Danube. More than just an abbey, it’s a complex comprising seven courtyards, a beautiful church, and a library with over 90,000 volumes and rare manuscripts.
Melk is located in the Wachau Valley, where small towns and monasteries flourished during the Renaissance. The scenery is stunning. Several castles -- including Schloss Schallaburg, Schloss Artstetten, and Schloss Schonbuhel -- beg to be explored, and the ruins of other castles dot the landscape.
If you’re interested in local food and beverages like we are, the Wachau Valley is renowned for its apricots and wine. In addition to great wines made from grapes such as riesling and gruner veltliner, apricot wine, apricot dumplings, apricot cake, and some unique items made with saffron are also local specialties.
Krems is the town at the other end of the valley and is sometimes part of the Romantic Danube itinerary.
Vienna is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. There are so many things to see, do, and eat that you will not want to waste a moment of your time there.
We have to put the Viennese culinary culture at the top of our list. Famous desserts like sacher torte and apple strudel, gorgeous coffeehouses, incredible farmers markets, delicious street food, and a wide range of restaurants provide great opportunities to sample local delights. Most people don’t know that Vienna is also home to its own wine regions, making the local wine a great option to try.
Music is another highlight of Viennese culture. The City of Music has many venues from which to choose. The Musikverein, Vienna State Opera, Wiener Konzerthaus, and Schonbrunn Palace offer concerts featuring everything from the classical music of Mozart and Strauss to jazz, pop, and rock, while cafes, bars, and nightclubs offer food, drinks, and music in a more intimate setting.
Of course, Vienna also offers gorgeous Christmas markets in stunning venues like the City Hall, Belvedere Palace, Maria Theresien Square, and Schonbrunn Palace, among others.
Budapest is actually three different cities: Buda and Obuda on the west side of the Danube and River and Pest on the east side. That only adds to the intrigue of this unique destination.
The quieter Buda side has hills and a funicular, which you can ride to the top for a great view of the Pest side. The City Park is a great place to stroll, with botanical gardens, a municipal zoo, the Budapest circus, and a museum of agriculture. There’s also a huge timer containing sand that takes a year to go from the top to the bottom. It’s started all over again every New Year.
The Great Market Hall features three floors of local produce, prepared delicacies, crafts, and souvenirs. If you like to shop, be sure to stroll along Vaci and Kiraly Streets, pedestrian roads full of touristy joints as well as fun local shops and cafes.
Budapest has several spas and thermal baths in which you can relax while also getting your history fix; many of these structures have been around since Ottoman times.
Budapest also boasts several phenomenal holiday markets, including the Advent Feast at the Basilica, considered among the best Christmas markets in Europe.
The folks at Viking River Cruises know that the spectacular Hungarian Parliament Building is a vision at night. They generally provide an opportunity to see it while you’re on the water and make a picture-perfect memory to last a lifetime.
What To Know Before You Go
Viking River Cruises offers several excursions as well as a variety of add-ons. Be sure to take time before your departure to explore what interests you and book anything extra well in advance, because space is often limited. While the ship is comfy, the service delightful, and the onboard activities lots of fun, be sure to get out and explore at every stop. There is so much awaiting you on your Romantic Danube journey.