Laid-back and leisurely, yet heavy on adventure and destination immersion, the river cruising industry is booming (both at home and abroad) for good reason. Sure, there’s the unpack-once-and-go appeal of the floating hotel format that’s common to all cruise vacations. But river cruising stands out from its oceangoing counterpart for its small ships (averaging capacity for around 150 guests), rates that bundle in value-add extras like guided excursions and libations with meals, and itineraries that are positively port intensive.
Europe is at the vanguard of this greater global river cruise phenomenon, where winding waterways—from the Danube to the Douro, and the Rhine to the Rhône—invite voyaging inland to the continent’s heartland, areas that are inaccessible to ocean-bound ships. Here you’ll find storybook-setting riverbanks lined with medieval castles and sloping vineyards, historic cities and agreeable villages. And on any given weeklong sailing, it’s not unusual to drift through three or more European countries en route, affording the perfect sampler itinerary for any eager explorer of Europe. These are seven of the very best European river cruises to take.
Europe’s second-longest river at 1,770 miles (after Russia’s Volga), the storied Danube River—immortalized as “the Blue Danube” in composer Johann Strauss II’s famous waltz—rises from western Germany’s Black Forest mountains, emptying out to the Black Sea at Romania. En route, it traverses 10 countries: Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova, and Ukraine—with access to major European capitals (including Vienna, Budapest, Bratislava, and Belgrade) along its banks. With plenty of appealing Old-World riverfront attractions (castles, fortresses, churches, abbeys, and vineyards galore), paired with a front-row seat to some beautiful blockbuster cities (like Budapest and Vienna), it’s little wonder that it’s one of the world’s most popular river cruise regions.
Itineraries typically break down into the more popular Upper Danube runs, between Bavaria and Budapest (with featured stops in Germany, Austria, Slovakia, and Hungary), or the lesser-explored Lower Danube, which typically connects Budapest to Bucharest on a river route through Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Romania.
Set Sail: Sail the Danube on AmaWaterways’s May 2019-launched, 196-guest AmaMagna, which has been making waves for its design; at 72 feet across, it measures twice the width of standard European riverboats. Guests get spacious digs to spread out in (nearly half of the staterooms are balcony-trimmed suites, starting at a roomy 355 square feet), access to four restaurants and lounges, plus riverboat rarities like a water sports platform, heated pool, cinema, and a sizeable wellness studio (host to fitness classes and spa treatment rooms). Seven-night Danube itineraries run between Budapest and Vilshofen, Germany (with stops in Bratislava; Passau, Germany; and several ports in Austria—including Vienna—en route); or sign on for a festive Christmas markets sailing around the winter holidays. Rates from $2,549/person; amawaterways.com
The legendary, 765-mile-long Rhine—which flows from the Swiss Alps toward the North Sea at The Netherlands—has served as an important continental transport route for centuries, teeming with historical, cultural, and economic significance for Europe. Regional riverboat itineraries are extremely popular, bringing guests to celebrated cities like Basel, Switzerland, and Strasbourg, France, and placing an emphasis on Germany with calls in locales like Koblenz, Mannheim, Rüdesheim, and Cologne.
Here, riverbanks are loaded with diversions, including a distinct riverscape flanked by fairy-tale castles, along with a setting steeped in history and myths (such as that of the Lorelei siren, who supposedly lures sailors and fishermen to their deaths). The most popular itineraries run between Basel and Amsterdam, with several stops in France and Germany en route.
Set Sail: Upscale Crystal Cruises branched out from ocean sailing to include a river cruise arm in 2016. Since then, it’s emerged as an industry tour de force, most especially on the Rhine River, where it now operates Crystal Bach, Crystal Mahler, Crystal Debussy, and Crystal Ravel, four intimate, 106-passenger, new-build ships that have launched over the past two years. On the only all-suite, all-balcony riverboats in Europe, expect plush onboard touches like in-room iPads, personal butlers, and an indoor pool, along with loaner e-bikes and kayaks for enhanced port exploration. Itineraries range from 7 to 16 nights in duration; try the weeklong “Splendors of the Rhine” sailing, with runs between Amsterdam and Basel and stops in Strasbourg and throughout Germany (at Cologne, Koblenz, Rüdesheim, Speyer, and Breisach). Rates from $3,799/person; crystalcruises.com
The vast Volga is Europe’s longest river (running for some 2,200 miles from central Russia to the Caspian Sea) and sailing it—along with several adjoining waterways (including a network of lakes, like Lake Ladoga)—makes for a fascinating voyage of discovery through Russia. Itineraries run between the nation’s two great cities—St. Petersburg and Moscow—and cruising here pairs time spent exploring both culturally and historically rich metropolises on either end (multi-night calls are typically incorporated at each). Plus, journeys factor in plenty of stops in rural villages and smaller “Golden Ring” cities (including Uglich and Yaroslavl—two featured stops on this designated tourist route, which connects historic locales northeast of Moscow) that span the 400-plus miles between the two mega-cities. And while most days are spent exploring onion-domed Orthodox churches, icon-filled monasteries, and myriad other historic sights, keep in mind that you may have longer sailing stretches between more distant ports (pack some Tolstoy to fill in the gaps with on-deck reading).
Set Sail: Viking has been sailing Russia’s waterways since the company’s debut more than 20 years ago, and today it expertly executes Volga voyages via a fleet of five 196- to 204-passenger riverboats. Its popular 12-night “Waterways of the Tsars” itinerary features three-night stays in both Moscow and St. Petersburg, calls in the Golden Ring cities of Uglich and Yaroslavl, and stops in the village of Kuzino (gateway to the Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery) and at the open-air museums at Kizhi and Mandrogy. Expect unique excursions like a private tour of the art-filled vaults of the Hermitage and a hosted home visit for tea and vodka with a local Russian family in Uglich. Rates from $5,499/person; vikingrivercruises.com
Rising from north-central Spain and making its way for over 550 miles across northern Spain and Portugal, before emptying into the Atlantic, the Douro is a rising star in the river cruising world. Nearly every major river cruise line has introduced itineraries here in recent years. Most voyages come bookended by the lively cities of Porto, Portugal, and Salamanca, Spain (the latter is typically accessed by the Spanish border village of Vega de Terrón)—or simply sail round-trip out of Porto—with calls at quieter ports and old hilltop towns along the way (like Peso de Régua, at the heart of port wine country).
Here, however, it’s less about any blockbuster sights than the pastoral landscapes, pocked by plenty of quintas (Portuguese for wineries) and verdant vineyards—many of which fall within the UNESCO-recognized Douro River Valley. It’s a natural fit for oenophiles, who will have ample opportunity to tipple the local bounty en route, including, naturally, aromatic port aplenty.
Set Sail: Tauck will launch its presence on the river in 2020 with an all-new riverboat—the 84-passenger m/s Andorinha—that was purpose-built for the Douro, with a reduced passenger capacity that affords roomier proportions compared to most competitor ships on the waterway. The ship will run a trio of Douro River itineraries, including one designed just for families and another featuring land-based extensions in Lisbon and Madrid. Or try its seven-night “Villages and Vintages” itinerary, which cruises round-trip from Porto with stops in Portugal at Régua, Pocinho, Pinhão, and Guimarães. Excursion highlights include an onshore wine-pairing dinner at a Douro Valley wine estate and a guided bike ride through vinho verde wine country. Rates from $4,190/person; tauck.com
This 505-mile stretch between the Swiss Alps and southern France lets out in the Mediterranean Sea (near Marseille), affording a lovely ride along the way, marked by Alpine scenery filled in with gorges and valleys. Take in the sights of France’s Provence region, too, with its wine country, groves of olives and citrus, and fragrant fields of lavender (landscapes that inspired Vincent van Gogh and other artists). It’s a downright delicious option for epicures, with itineraries that are anchored in Lyon, considered France’s gastronomical epicenter. Those with a taste for antiquity will appreciate a journey here, too, thanks to regional Roman landmarks like the Pont du Gard aqueduct or Arles amphitheater.
Most of the France-exclusive itineraries here run for a week between Lyon and Arles or Avignon. Some continue north on the Saône River, the chief tributary of the Rhône (the two merge in Lyon), and into the heart of Burgundy; it’s a gateway to stops like Burgundy’s wine capital at Beaune.
Set Sail: In May, Avalon Waterways rolled out new “Active & Discovery” itineraries on the Rhône, on southern France runs between Arles and Lyon, featuring stops in Tournon, Viviers, and Avignon. A departure from the one-size-fits-all excursion packages offered by many of its competitors, on these sailings guests can select from nearly three dozen customizable tour offerings, like a painting class in Arles, a wine-blending workshop in Avignon, or a mountain bike ride in Beaujolais. The seven-night itineraries unfold aboard the 166-passenger Avalon Poetry II, one of the line’s signature “Suite Ships,” featuring staterooms that transform into veritable open-air balconies via their wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling windows. Rates from $3,099/person; avalonwaterways.com
The storied Seine—revered as one of the world’s most romantic rivers, thanks to its deep ties to Paris—extends beyond the City of Lights for fascinating river voyages into northern France. The 485-mile-long waterway flows northwest from France’s Burgundy area near Dijon, through Paris, and into the Normandy region, before emptying into the English Channel (at Le Havre).
Paris is the point of embarkation (and also disembarkation) for most round-trip sailings here, affording time to enjoy a small taste of the city (where at least one overnight stay is commonplace). Typical itinerary highlights include Monet’s gardens at Giverny; the Normandy D-Day beaches (with 75th-anniversary D-Day landing commemorations underway in 2019); medieval Rouen, with its Gothic cathedral; and the picturesque fishing village of Honfleur.
Set Sail: River cruising has traditionally attracted more mature travelers, although Disney stirred things up with its special brand of family-friendly magic when it launched a partnership with AmaWaterways in 2016 (via its river cruise–inclusive Adventures by Disney arm). Sail aboard the 144-guest AmaLyra on the brand’s new-for-2019, seven-night Seine River voyage to Normandy, sailing round-trip from Paris and including a two-night, land-based extension in the city. (Note that departures in 2020 are cruise only.) Calls include Vernon/Giverny, Le Havre, Rouen, Les Andelys, and Conflans, where family-focused excursions include active tours like hiking the cliffs of Étretat or immersive local experiences, such as a Monet-inspired painting workshop in Giverny or a Normandy apple orchard visit (complete with a calvados tasting for the grown-ups). Rates from $5,169/person (discounted kids’ rates from $4,999/person); adventuresbydisney.com
Another river cruise alternative within France is set within the Bordeaux region in the southwest of the country, where sailings are offered on the Dordogne and Garonne rivers and Gironde estuary (which leads toward the Atlantic Ocean). An increasing number of river cruise options here are anchored out of the UNESCO-protected city of Bordeaux, where ships overnight so that guests can discover its historic structures, outstanding dining, and lively riverfront. From there, itineraries emphasize the surrounding rural areas and most especially, the fine wines that are synonymous with the region. Common ports of call include Blaye, Cadillac, Libourne, and Pauillac, and itineraries come jam packed with visits to vineyards and wine châteaus in celebrated regional wine destinations like Médoc, Sauternes, and Saint-Émilion.
Set Sail: Upscale Uniworld launched the line’s 124-passenger, French-themed S.S. Bon Voyage (fresh from a $14 million renovation) in April, which runs seven-night “Brilliant Bordeaux” itineraries on the Garonne, Dordogne, and Gironde waterways. Sailing round-trip from the city of Bordeaux, the itinerary calls on Blaye, Bourg sur Gironde, Cussac-Fort-Médoc, Pauillac, Cadillac, and Libourne en route. Diverse excursion highlights include a private wine tasting at the Château Latour (on the Médoc peninsula), a yoga session at the 17th-century Blaye citadel, and a sunrise hike at Dune du Pyla, Europe’s tallest sand dune. Back on board the ship, unwind at the deck-top infinity pool or while enjoying a food-and-wine pairing dinner at the intimate La Cave des Vins venue. Rates from $2,499/person; uniworld.com