Luxurious hotel accommodations with ever-changing, riverfront scenery is one of the most popular ways to travel through the heartland of Europe. The Danube River and the Rhine River are two of the most popular European River Cruises for first-time river cruisers. While the passage is similar, the rivers offer different stops, vistas, and experiences making both fabulous options to get away from the work-a-day world.
If your perfect vacation includes beautiful architecture, fascinating history, unique shopping experiences, delicious culinary delights, and a staff that caters to your every whim, then river cruising is for you. Set sail on the Rhine or Danube rivers where you will be completely enamored with river cruising.
1. The Rivers
The Rhine River traverses from east-central Switzerland north and west to the Netherlands where it empties into the North Sea. A major European trade route, the Rhine is navigable for approximately 540 miles. Many of the Rhine River cruises sail between Amsterdam and Basel.
The Danube River runs from the Black Forest mountains to the Black Sea. Navigable by river ships due to the extensive system of channels and locks, the Danube River is very long, around 1,770 miles. The Danube River cruises generally sail on the upper Danube from Nuremberg to Budapest. You will, however, find a selection that sails the lower Danube from Budapest to Istanbul.
Both rivers wind in and out of neighboring countries, join with other bodies of water and are marked with a series of locks that allow ships safe and clear passage. The maximum size of the ship will be determined by the specifications of the locks along the journey.
If and when the water levels are extremely low, ships cannot pass through sections of the river. The cruise companies have contingency arrangements for inconvenienced guests during these rare instances. Overland transportation, hotel accommodations, and ship transfers can occur.
2. The Countries
The Rhine River runs past the Netherlands, Germany, France, and Switzerland. Most 7-night Rhine River cruises sail between Amsterdam and Basel.
The Danube River passes through 10 countries along its route: Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova, and Ukraine. Most 7-night cruises are focused on the upper Danube, traveling between Budapest and Nuremberg or Vilshofen. Cruises that are focused on the lower Danube travel between Budapest and Giurgiu or Istanbul. To traverse the full length of the Danube at a relaxing, vacation pace, the cruises tend to be 14 nights or more.
3. The Itineraries
Cruising along the Rhine, your itinerary is a nice mix of historic villages and large cities. At one end of your voyage, you will find Basel. Like most medieval ports, Basel has a beautiful Old Town next to a hip and modern urban city area. At the other end of your trip, you will most likely find Amsterdam, a vibrant city filled with youthful exuberance and constant bicycle traffic. In between, you can explore historic villages like Rudesheim, Strasburg, Riquewihr, and Freiburg. A visit to Cologne and its remarkable cathedral will round out the sailing past gorgeous city skylines.
If you choose the Upper Danube cruise, you will enjoy exploring a part of Europe that has only been accessible to the Western world for a few decades. Grand cities like Vienna, with deep musical roots, shine at night in its hip city center. Budapest’s sprawling government buildings are a study in architectural contrast, where staunch gray concrete meets glittering glass. The cathedrals in Bratislava, half-timbered homes in Rott, and the pretty town of Linz will capture your imagination. The history of Nuremberg is thought-provoking as you stroll the Nazi Party’s rally grounds and Zeppoline field.
4. The Scenery
Both rivers have gorgeous scenic riverbanks, sprawling vistas, and quaint villages to enjoy from your balcony or the ship’s sun deck. Short-day sails get passengers from point to point. The longer sailings take place at night so you don’t miss the exciting shore excursions.
The middle Rhine or the Rhine Gorge is a beautiful stretch of water; home to magnificent castles and breathtaking vistas. Your cruise ship will pass through this area during a sailing day to take full advantage of the gorgeous scenery. Medieval structures like the Maustrum (Mouse Tower), the castle of Kaub, and the Ehrenbreitstein are pretty photo opportunities. Dotted with vineyards, quaint villages, and crumbling castles, this section of the Rhine will tickle your memory of years to come.
The Wachau Valley stretch of the Danube River between Melk and Krems is graced by monasteries, castles, and ruins. Riverfront villages, small vineyards, and graceful farmlands are hemmed in by beautiful verdant slopes. It is the perfect sailing to enjoy a glass of bubbly from the sundeck while snapping tons of photos.
Both rivers offer scenic stretches of beautifully forested areas, vineyards, small villages highlighted by rows of half-timbered houses, and fields of grazing cattle. Many of the larger cities have cruise ship docks in the center of the historic section of town, giving passengers the opportunity to simply disembark and explore. Alternatively, enjoying the view from the sundeck or observation lounge is the most relaxing way to see the sights.
5. The Cruise Extensions
With both the Danube and Rhine River cruises, you can bookmark your getaway with extended stays at one or both ends of your sail. Spending additional time in the European cities that are in close proximity afford you more time to explore. You can book these on your own or through your cruise company. Planning your cruise vacation through a trusted travel agent will give you the peace of mind that everything is perfectly booked. If an issue arises, good cruise companies will rectify the situation immediately; but having a competent travel agent at the other end of your phone line is very comforting.
On Avalon Waterways Danube River cruises, you can add multi-day extensions in Budapest, Vienna, Prague, and Munich. The Rhine River cruise extensions include Frankfurt, Amsterdam, Brussels, Lucerne, and Paris among the choices.
On AmaWaterways Danube River cruises you can add extended stays in Budapest, Prague, Vienna, and Paris as options. The Rhine River cruise extensions include offerings like Zurich, Lucerne, Amsterdam, and Lake Como.
When you book a 1, 2, or 3-night extension in conjunction with your cruise, they typically are serviced by a cruise director at a beautiful, centrally located hotel. Many cruise lines offer additional excursion options available during your city stay.
6. The Locks
Along the river and canal systems, there are a series of locks connecting the waterways making them accessible to ships. According to Brittanica, the locks on the Danube are “each about 190 meters (625 feet) long, 12 meters (40 feet) wide, and up to 30 meters (100 feet) deep.” They are massive.
Your cruise will pass through many locks during nighttime sailings. When they do pass through one during the day, you should make a point of watching from the upper deck or observation lounge. It is a fascinating feat of engineering.
7. The Food
The dining options offered on river cruises are an integral part of the cruise experience. Since you are dining for breakfast, lunch, and dinner in the same restaurant for a week or more, you can expect a variety of perfectly crafted culinary options. In general, European river cruises offer a nice selection of local specialty dishes at lunch and dinner along with a few traditional options for the less adventurous diner. Additionally, local wine and beer are usually included in your cruise package.
As you travel along the Rhine River, you can expect to encounter gorgeous appetizers like veloute de safran (saffron cream soup) with profiteroles or porcini cream soup with thyme foam. For dinner, enjoy exciting main courses like carre d’agneau roti a la dijonnaise (mustard crusted lamb rack with tarragon sauce) or pan-fried salmon fillet with caviar sauce and rice macaire.
While floating down the Danube River, you will explore delicious local specialties, too. Appetizers like Macanka (a Slovakian mushroom consomme) with potato gnocchi or Tiroler Schinken (Tyrolean air-dried ham) with pickled veggies grace the dinner menu. Delicious entrée offerings could include Gebratene Entenbrust (roasted duck breast) with plum sauce or Bayerische Schwammerl (mushroom ragout) with German pretzel dumplings.
You will never go hungry on a cruise, and if you are not over-the-moon about the elevated local specialty offerings, there is always a standard Ceasar salad with grilled steak fillet or chicken breast available.
Rhine And Danube River Cruises
Many first-time European river passengers choose one of these two popular rivers. The differences between a Danube River cruise and a Rhine River cruise are subtle; however, both options offer passengers a unique experience. The Rhine River stops tend to offer a more traditional European historic itinerary, while a cruise down the Danube River offers a peek into eastern European history.
No matter which cruise you select, you will love this relaxing way to visit the great historical cities of the world.
Here’s more information you should know about river cruising: