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European River Cruising 101

Blog / European River Cruising 101
River Cruises 26 min read

If you are considering cruising one of Europe’s many rivers, you may be left wondering which river offers the best fit for the experiences you're seeking and the landscapes you’re looking for. Is the Rhine right for me? Will the Danube?

To help you sort through all your options, we’ve compiled a list of facts and highlights for Europe’s top rivers, and we’re confident you’ll find just what you’re looking for. Consider this your crash course in European river cruising. (We promise there won’t be a quiz.)

With so many places to see and ports to visit, the best way to see as much of Europe as possible is aboard a luxurious river cruise. River cruises allow you to explore ancient sites, experience magnificent cities and immerse yourself in the culture and cuisine of places that can't be reached on a traditional cruise ship.

Seine River, FranceVisit the world's most historic cities and hidden charms on a European river cruise.

Most major river cruise lines offer unique and unforgettable itineraries along these epic European waterways including voyages on Crystal, Viking, AmaWaterways, Uniworld, Tauck and many more of the world's top cruise lines! 

Read on to learn more about which European river is right for you or let our CruiseInsider experts help you choose a voyage and cruise line that best fits your unique sense of adventure or uncompromised style of travel. 

European Rivers 


Length: 766 miles

Source: Swiss Alps

Countries: Switzerland, Principality of Liechtenstein, Austria, Germany, France and the Netherlands

Popular ports: Amsterdam and Kinderdijk (the Netherlands), Cologne, Koblenz, and Mainz (Germany), Strasbourg (France), Basel (Switzerland), and Heidelberg (Germany)

A great choice for: Stunning vineyards, legendary castles on hilltops, medieval villages, world-class museums and Christmas Markets

Rhine River through Heidelberg, Germany
Heidelberg, Germany is one of the highlights along the Rhine River.

Medieval architecture, lush vineyards, cobblestone streets, majestic cathedrals and museums make the romantic Rhine an excellent choice for a quintessential European cruise. In addition to sampling some legendary wines and seeing the legendary tulips and windmills through the Netherlands, you’ll also have your pick of an assortment of museums with exhibits ranging from quirky to classic. A cruise on the Rhine will give you a well-rounded experience with European culture.

Things to do along the Rhine: 

  • Admire the Cologne Cathedral, the most visited attraction in Germany, or tour the chocolate museum to watch chocolate bars being crafted by hand.
  • See the massive windmills and vibrant tulips in the Netherlands and stroll through colorful acres of tulips at Keukenhof Gardens to get a sense of the Netherlands’ extraordinary connection to these blooms. 
  • Wander through the picture-perfect villages of Veere, Hoorn and Enkhuizen, and the enchanting outdoor Zuiderzee Museum.
  • Take in the dazzling skyline of Rotterdam as you cruise through the bustling harbor and drift along the canals of Bruges. 
  • Go wine tasting in Germany’s Rhine Valley, where award-winning wine has been produced for over 1,000 years.
  • The Rhine is dotted with castles as well, including Vaduz Castle, home of the Liechtenstein royal family since the 14th century.
  • Enjoy the enchantment of Lorelei Rock, the narrowest point on the Rhine, where legend has it that sailors get distracted by the siren’s song and crash their vessels.
  • In Strasbourg, visit the gothic cathedrals or Petite France, Strasbourg’s historic neighborhood filled with colorful timber-framed buildings and restaurants. 



Length: 1,780 miles

Source: Germany’s Black Forest 

Countries: Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Moldova and Ukraine

Popular ports: Nuremberg and Passau (Germany), Vienna (Austria), Bratislava (Slovakia), Bucharest (Romania), and Budapest (Hungary)

A great choice for: Families or multigenerational trips, history-, art- and music-lovers, dramatic natural scenery, Christmas Markets, medieval castles and touring some of the world's top cities

Castles dot the Danube river
Fairy-tale castles are just some of the stunning sites along the Danube. 

As one of Europe’s most vital means of transportation for 2,000 years, the Danube is the only major European river to flow from west to east. No matter who you are or who you’re bringing with you, Europe’s second-longest river has something for everyone.

The Danube runs through or along the border of ten countries as it flows into the Black Sea, with enough activity, architecture and diversity to please every member of your party. With a cruise on the Danube, you’ll have an exciting new opportunity waiting for you at every port.

Things to do along the Danube: 

  • Give your kids or grandkids the most memorable history lesson of their lives in Nuremberg with a tour into the Nazi uprising or inspire their musical side in Vienna, the City of Music.
  • Meet the Lipizzaner stallions and get a world-class view of the city from Vienna’s Ferris wheel, then talk about the highlights of your day at one of the many great cafes situated throughout this well-loved city.
  • In Budapest, bathe in the cherished thermal baths or sample traditional foods at the city’s largest indoor market. 
  • The village of Grein offers excellent photo opportunities, with its turreted houses lining the main square in the shadow of its idyllic castle perched high on a bluff.
  • Step out onto the monastic terrace of the magnificent Benedictine Abbey in Melk, situated in the rolling green hills of the Wachau Valley, to look out over the Danube and take in the mesmerizing view of the sweeping countryside.
  • The resort town of Varna sits on the shores of the Black Sea - walk through Roman baths and marvel at the Gold of Varna, an archaeological wonder.
  • South of Budapest, visit the quiet town of KaloscaHungary, founded in 1009 by St. Stephen in 1009. The Archbishop’s Palace and the Kalocsa Cathedral are must-see sights in this town that is most known for paprika and folklore art.


Length: 505 miles

Source: Swiss Alps

Countries: Switzerland and France

Popular ports: Lyon, Tournon, Viviers, Avignon, and Arles (France)

A great choice for: Relaxation, ancient history, wine tasting, lavender fields and breathtaking countrysides

Rhone River
The Rhône River flowing through France is undeniably gorgeous along every mile.

The only major river flowing directly to the Mediterranean Sea, the Rhône river is one of the most significant waterways in Europe and is thoroughly Alpine in character. When you travel the Rhône, you’ll be surrounded by the very best of France: Renaissance buildings and art, Roman ruins, breathtaking scenery, and of course, top-notch wine.

Things to do along the Rhône: 

  • Relax with a glass of Beaujolais while your ship glides past fields of vibrant lavender in Provençal.
  • Admire the impressive architecture in Lyon and picture yourself as a spectator during gladiator battles at the amphitheatre of Arles.
  • Also in Arles, take a walking tour of sites from Van Gogh's most famous paintings including the Langlois Bridge and the courtyard at L’Espace Van Gogh, formerly the hospital where he was committed after famously cutting off his left ear. 
  • Visit the Pont du Gard, the triple-tiered Roman aqueduct that has stood over the River Gardon since the first century AD.
  • Take in the breathtaking emerald-green Gorges of the Ardèche with an excursion by road from atop the cliffs, or choose to canoe and experience the winding curves and soaring walls from water level. 
  • Experience the indigenous horses of Camargue, used to herd the region’s signature black bulls by Gardians, the cowboys of the Camargue. 
  • See the vast Palais des Papes, a much-crenellated Gothic fortress built from the area’s local, buttery limestone while enjoying Avignon.

Insider Tip: Cruise the Rhône between mid-June and mid-July to see the lavender crop at its height, sometimes set off by a buttery expanse of sunflowers. If you miss the season, you’ll still be able to buy soap, cosmetics, honey and even sorbet infused with lavender oil year round. 


Length: 483 miles

Source: Source-Seine, a small town in northeastern France

Countries: France

Popular ports: Caudebec-en-Caux (with excursions to Normandy beaches), Rouen, Les Andelys, Giverny, Burgundy, Paris (France)

A great choice for: Palaces, architecture, famous sites, food and wine, WW2 history, French countryside and urban culture

Seine River cuts through Paris, France
The Seine River cuts through the heart of Paris, the "City of Lights."

The Seine flows right through the heart of Paris, dividing the city into left bank and right bank with over 30 bridges to connect the two halves of the city. A cruise along the Seine is perfect for true romantics to take in everything the City of Light has to offer, from the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame Cathedral, the Louvre, Tuileries Garden—even a leisurely bicycle ride along the banks of the river will put you in a Parisian state of mind.

Things to do along the Seine: 

  • Enjoy an intimate wine tasting or take a private vineyard tour in Burgundy, one of the world's most famous wine regions.  
  • Beyond the city, explore UNESCO World Heritage Sites like the Palace of Versailles, Chartres Cathedral, the medieval town of Provins, and Marie Antoinette’s chambers in the Palace of Fontainebleau.
  • Art enthusiasts will enjoy a visit to Monet’s customized house in Giverny.
  • Historians will appreciate a sobering visit to the stunning beaches of Normandy, the site of D-Day, the invasion of the Allied forces during World War II.
  • Visit the remains of the Chateau Gaillard in Les Andelys, built in the 12th century by King Richard to protect the Duchy of Normandy. 
  • Explore Giverny where the Impressionist artist, Monet, made his home and see the famed gardens, his inspiration for many of his great works of art: the water garden and the Japanese bridge.
  • Wander through Lyon, a World Heritage Site on a walking tour of the Old Town’s cobbled streets and see the Basilica of Notre Dame.

Insider Tip: Lyon is over 2,000 years old and was once a Roman colony. Lyon is known for its food and is the perfect place to try famous French cuisine. 


Length: 326 miles

Source: Franconia in central Germany

Countries: Germany (including Bavaria)

Popular ports: Mainz, Frankfurt, Miltenberg, Nuremberg, Heidelberg, Wertheim, Würzburg, Vienna, and Bamberg (Germany)

A great choice for: River cruise newbies, fairytale lovers, authentic German food & drink, lush forests, incredible palaces and quaint medieval towns  

Germany's Main River
Germany's Main River is one of the shortest, but most scenic rivers in Europe.

The Main may not be the birthplace of the fairytale, but the area has a strong tradition of tales and fables due in part to the brothers Grimm, who were born near the river in the late 1700s. Although the Main (pronounced mine) is one of the shorter rivers on cruise itineraries, it is a tributary of the Rhine and also connected to the Danube, so many Main River cruises include time on those rivers as well. Port cities along the twists and turns of the Main offer a great variety of cathedrals, museums, and houses with old-world charm.

Things to do along the Main: 

  • Take in the castles and rich green countryside of the "Romantic Road" starting in Würzburg looks like a storybook illustration.
  • As a financial hub of Europe, Frankfurt offers a cosmopolitan contrast to many of the other Main cities. Here you can visit over 30 museums and get a bird’s eye view of the city from observation deck of the Main Tower.
  • Visit magnificent sights including the Johannisburg Palace, which dates from 1605 and perches high above the town of Aschaffenburg, and the Residenz in Wurtzburg, designed in 1720 by court architect Balthasar Neumann. 
  • Don't miss the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz, home to the world's first printing press and its first product, the world-famous Gutenberg Bible. 
  • In Frankfurt, wander Romerberg, a 13th-century square which is home to Frankfurt's City Hall and some wonderful medieval houses.
  • Wertheim is a pretty medieval village famous for its 12th-century castle, a medieval "marketplatz" and its setting in the beautiful Oldenwald Nature Reserve.

Insider Tip: A must-see is Frankfurt's gorgeous Botanical Gardens, which span 50 acres, date from 1868 and contain more than 6,000 different botanical species from around the world.


Length: 557 miles

Source: Picos De Urbión in northern Spain

Countries: Spain and Portugal

Popular ports: Porto, Régua, Pinhão, and Barca d’Alva (Portugal), Vega de Terrón (Spain)

A great choice for: Port wine lovers, travelers looking to experience a hidden treasure, great food and wine, stunning landscapes, quaint people, charming villages

Portugal's Douro River winds through an epic landscape
Sun-kissed and lush, the Douro Valley offers stunning panoramas for hundreds of miles. 

While many European river cruises run through France or Germany, the Douro provides something different: the rich culture of Portugal and Spain. This river is considered up-and-coming in the cruise world, so chances are you’ll be able to secure bragging rights among your friends and family for sailing it first. Start your voyage in Porto, Portugal’s second-largest city known for port wine, then venture into the secluded rural landscapes of the Douro Valley where the almond trees and vineyards will be your ship’s only company.

Things to do along the Douro: 

  • Take a winery tour in Pinhao, a charming village surrounded by terraced hills growing some of the world’s finest port-producing grapes. 
  • Wander the old town of Porto, which is registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and Ribeira, home to the elaborate gold-laden Sao Francisco Church.
  • Possibly the most unique site you’ll be able to visit on a Douro cruise is Vila Nova de Foz Côa, home to Palaeolithic rock carvings that researchers discovered in the 1990s.
  • Walk the awe-inspiring ancient town of Lamego, resplendent with Baroque architecture, narrow streets and swooping arches. 
  • Explore the castle ruins and unique cave homes in San Esteban de Gormaz.
  • In the ancient Spanish city of Salamanca - nicknamed the "Golden City", visit the university, the cathedral, and the Casa de las Conchas, then take in a lively flamenco show.


Length: 338 miles

Source: Vosges mountain range in northeastern France

Countries: France, Germany and Luxembourg

Popular ports: Cochem, Bernkastel-Kues, and Trier (Germany)

A great choice for: Castle lovers, ancient history, white wine vineyards, romance, hiking, terraced vineyards, half-timbered houses and sprawling landscapes

Moselle River flowing through France
The Moselle has

Along the banks of the Moselle you’ll find vineyards and castles that date back to the Middle Ages. The romantic Moselle winds through an enchanting landscape of castles, picture-book villages and terraced slate hillsides that form one of the world’s richest wine regions. With a settled history that predates the Romans, it is yours to discover on a laid back and luxurious Moselle river cruise.

Things to do along the Moselle: 

  • Go to the Eltz Castle, built in the 12th century, and still owned and inhabited by descendants of the original residents, and one of the few castles in the area that was spared from wartime destruction.
  • Explore the beautiful Reichsburg Castle which has presided atop a hill in Cochem for 1,000 years. 
  • Sip some of the very best Riesling and German white wines on a private vineyard tour. 
  • Wander through Germany’s oldest town, Trier, whose origins are 16,000 years old.
  • See the influence of Roman settlers over 2,000 years ago, still visible through architecture such as the Roman Imperial Baths and Porta Nigra, a massive gate built in the second century.
  • Take a lazy stroll along the promenade of Beilstein with it's gorgeous views and sleepy fairytale-town vibe.
  • Enjoy historic architecture in Traben-Trarbach, a quaint little town quietly perched in the Middle Rhine valley dating back to 830. Its skyline is graced by the famed Grevenburg Castle that once hosted Prussian royalty and legendary poet Goethe.
  • Check out the views at Zeller Hamm, a spectacular loop in the River Moselle that can only be experienced from certain vantage points including Prinzenkopfturm and Marienburg. 

Insider Tip: Don't miss the beautiful city of Burg Eltz, a spectacular 850-year-old castle that is everything childhood fairytales are made of. At 230 feet high and almost hidden from plain sight in a thick forest, spend time exploring its armory, treasury, masks and medieval kitchen, furniture and artwork.


Length: 680 miles

Source: Krkonoše Mountains in the northern Czech Republic

Countries: Germany and Czech Republic

Popular ports: Wittenberg, Meissen, Berlin, Dresden (Germany), Litomerice and Melnik (Czech Republic)

A great choice for: Those who embrace spontaneity as much as culture, history buffs, leisure travelers, Christmas Markets, rolling vineyards, amazing cathedrals, bustling marketplaces, and historic villages 

Elbe River in Germany
The Elbe River reaches seldom seen places in Germany and the Czech Republic.

From Berlin’s ultra-modern, forward-thinking architecture to Dresden’s baroque wonders, risen from wartime ashes, the once divisive Elbe River is today a symbol of unity. Along this inspirational and scenic river, East Germany became free and much of the breathtaking beauty remains unaltered by man. Compared to other European rivers, there isn’t as much industry along the Elbe because the water is shallow and narrow, but if you're willing to "go with the flow" you'll enjoy a great variety of rustic adventure, culture and cuisine, and a combination of both history and modern marvels.

Things to do along the Elbe: 

  • In Wittenberg, take a walking tour to learn about Martin Luther and the Reformation and see the porcelain factory at Meissen.
  • Dresden, known as “Florence on the Elbe,” is home to many masterpieces by famous artists, as well as baroque castles, priceless jewels, and Volkswagen cars.
  • Visit the manicured gardens at Sanssouci Palace or the regal gates of Potsdam, dubbed the “Versailles of Germany.”
  • Enjoy the natural beauty of the Elbe Biosphere Reserve.
  • Look for "Checkpoint Charlie" and remnants of the Berlin Wall, which divided East Berlin and West Berlin from 1961 until the wall came down in 1989.
  • Take in the beauty of the verdant vineyards of Saxony and the beautiful Sandstone Mountains, known locally as the Saxon Alps.
  • Attend the Duckstein Festival - an annual beerfest that takes place during July and August in Hamburg and Berlin) or Hamburg's Reeperbahn Festival in September
  • During the winter holidays, Hamburg and Prague are not to be missed as they come alive with the magical Christmas Markets where many traditions began. 

Insider Tip: If you’re having trouble choosing just one river, you don’t have to! Many cruise lines have itineraries that include time on multiple rivers. It’s possible to sail all the way from Amsterdam to Budapest on the Rhine, the Main, and the Danube.

European river cruising is one of the most popular ways to see many places at once, with ancient cities, historic landmarks, charming towns, and spectacular scenery. 

Whether you choose the blue Danube, the romantic Rhine, or one of the many other magnificent rivers, a river journey through Europe on a luxurious river ship is sure to become your best vacation ever.

Our travel specialists are available to answer all your questions about European river cruising and help you find your ideal voyage. Speak to a river cruise expert at 1 (877) 734-6858 and let us help you create the ideal river cruise vacation.  

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