There are numerous styles of river cruising along the Rhine: Avalon Waterways stands out for its special active-minded itineraries, with options for hiking, biking, jogging, and kayaking excursions.

Whether you’ve got tots in tow or are a 20-something looking for river-bound revelry—or perhaps have a penchant for photography or crave delicious food or wine—there’s a Rhine River cruise that’s tailor-made for you.

One of the world’s great rivers, the Rhine marks a storied stretch of winding waterway that spans 765 miles and six nations—Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Austria, Germany, France, and the Netherlands—from the Swiss Alps on to the North Sea. Riverboat itineraries here most commonly glide through four of these European countries in one whirlwind week, on regular runs between Basel, Switzerland, and Amsterdam, incorporating stops in France and Germany along the way.

It’s a romantic route marked by the region’s legendary castles and half-timbered houses, hillside vineyards, and fairy-tale Black Forest landscapes—along with a pass through the dramatic Rhine Gorge, a UNESCO World Heritage site. It all makes for a transporting, kaleidoscopic riverscape, passing scenes to soak up from your primo private-balcony or top-deck perch. And apart from all that surface beauty, cruising the Rhine affords an immersive contextual understanding about how this ancient highway and trade route—pivotal since ancient Roman times through to today—has contributed to the history, culture, and economic development of greater Europe.

You’ll get seamless door-to-door delivery to the attractions of bigger cities like Basel, Strasbourg, Cologne, and Amsterdam, as well as access to less-visited but entirely worthy places like Koblenz and Rüdesheim in Germany, where old castles, churches, museums, and wineries await.

Accordingly, sailing here is incredibly popular. Every major river cruise company parades its presence along the Rhine, its wending riverboats providing a pampered and restorative home base, with lodging, meals, and guided excursions all bundled in; it’s a most comfortable way to go from port to port. Here, we’ve laid out eight of the best Rhine River cruises for every type of traveler, whether it’s food, family adventure, photography—or something else—that floats your (river)boat.

Best Rhine River Cruises for Active Types

With their leisurely pace and typically more mature clientele, riverboats have a reputation for delivering a sedate style of travel. But a couple of river cruise lines are breaking that mold with more active-minded adventures.

In 2018, Avalon Waterways launched an “Active & Discovery on the Rhine” itinerary, which incorporates an array of customizable excursion options that emphasize being active (along with classic and “discovery” outings—the latter focus on hands-on, interactive tours, often with cultural or culinary slants). Choose from guided tours like kayaking the canals of Amsterdam, hiking through the Netherlands’s De Hoge Veluwe National Park, jogging while sightseeing in Cologne, or biking through Dusseldorf. Or set out on your own thanks to loaner bikes and Nordic walking sticks on hand. The seven-night sailings, between Amsterdam and Mainz, Germany, set sail on the 166-passenger Avalon Panorama (in 2019) or Avalon Expression (in 2020), with stops in the Netherlands (Arnhem and Nijmegen) and Germany (Dusseldorf, Cologne, Koblenz, and Rüdesheim) en route. (Select sailing dates through October 2019, and from May through September 2020; rates from $3,499/person.)

French river cruise line CroisiEurope, meanwhile, with more modest accommodations, offers unique options for both biking- and hiking-themed voyages along the Rhine. Its eight-night “Biking Along the Rhine” sailing, aboard the 106-guest MS Douce France, runs between Amsterdam and Basel, factoring in stops in Germany (Dusseldorf, Cologne, Koblenz, Mainz, and Breisach) and France (Strasbourg). Daily biking excursions include a bike tour past the sights of Strasbourg (including the European Parliament) or a cycling excursion along the Alsatian Wine Route (with a featured tasting, of course).

Or try a five-night “Hiking Along Three Borders” voyage aboard the 158-passenger MS Boheme, sailing round-trip from Strasbourg (with stops at Basel; Breisach, Germany; and Rhinau, France). Hiking excursions run along the borders of three countries (Switzerland, Germany, France), with treks planned across the Vosges Mountains as well as through the once-volcanic wine lands of the Kaiserstuhl hills in southwest Germany.

Although both annual May 2019 and May 2020 biking and hiking cruises on CroisiEurope are nearly sold out (rates from $3,240/person for the biking sailing; from $1,670 for the hiking), groups of eight or more can add on a similarly themed hiking or cycling excursion package to any standard Rhine itinerary. Contact CroisiEurope directly to arrange a private group supplement; a sample weeklong cycling program starts at $999/person, while hiking program add-ons range from $100 to $300 per person.

Sharpen your photography skills on a Rhine River voyage guided by a National Geographic photographer.

article continues below ad

Best Rhine River Cruises for Photographers

In 2018, Scenic Cruises teamed up with National Geographic Expeditions to present a special series of Nat Geo–backed river voyages in Europe. Each sailing, hallmarked by swank Scenic signatures like personal butler service and open bar, is accompanied by a rotating roster of National Geographic experts and photographers. The expert is on hand to lead onboard presentations, informal discussions, and guided excursions, while the photographer is assigned to share tips on snapping optimal shots, including technique and artistry.

In port, expect a shutterbug fantasyland, with culture, history, and nature encounters aplenty, where the photographer-accompanied outings tackle the region’s legendary castles, Gothic churches, and Rhine Gorge scenery (the latter, from the ship’s sundeck). The two spring Nat Geo sailings on the Rhine have already set sail for 2019, but space is still available on upcoming 2020 voyages, including weeklong voyages between Basel and Amsterdam in July (on the 159-passenger Scenic Pearl) or during Christmas Market season in December (on the 169-guest Scenic Crystal). Rates from $3,895/person.

Best Rhine River Cruises for Wine Lovers

AmaWaterways offers a dedicated portfolio of “Wine Cruises,” combining all of the upscale line’s standard excursions and onboard offerings with wine immersion, both in port and on board. Extras—like wine-and-food pairings, winery tours, and tastings galore—are all factored into the fare, as is the tutelage of a North American wine expert (a winemaker and/or winery owner) who accompanies each sailing to lead onboard talks, conduct tastings, and provide insight into regional Rhine wines on hosted wine-centric excursions.

The seven-night “Captivating Rhine Wine Cruise” sails between Amsterdam and Basel, with stops in Germany (Cologne, Rüdesheim, Ludwigshafen, and Breisach) and France (Strasbourg). Itineraries cover wineries, vineyards, and cellars: Hike through the vineyards of the winemaking town of Rüdesheim; visit the “Great Vat,” an 18th-century, 49,000-gallon wine barrel in Heidelberg; or taste the famous white wines of Alsace in Riquewihr. Some varieties to sample: Riesling is known as the “queen of the grapes” along the Middle Rhine, where it flourishes in perfect growing conditions, while red wine drinkers will love Germany’s full-bodied and velvety spätburgunder (known as pinot noir in France). Choose between some half-dozen AmaWaterways riverboats (with passenger capacities for 144 to 162 guests) on special wine sailings in 2019 and 2020. Select sailing dates in July, August, and November of 2019, and March, April, July, October, and November of 2020; rates from $2,799/person.

Best Rhine River Cruises for Foodies

Crystal Cruises—known for its opulent oceangoing cruises—joined ranks on the rivers of Europe in 2016, emerging as a particular hit among cruisers looking for an elevated epicurean element on their voyage. Four of the line’s 106-guest, all-suite riverboats—the Crystal Bach, Crystal Mahler, Crystal Debussy, and Crystal Ravel—offer plenty of refinement on the Rhine. Plush touches like personal butlers and an indoor swimming pool abound, but the ships really stand out in the kitchen, where cuisine strives for Michelin quality via regionally inspired menus powered by locally sourced ingredients, where possible.

Meals—served in the formal Waterside main dining room or more casual Bistro—might feature classic dishes like broiled fresh lobster and beef tenderloin, or Rhine-influenced specialties like a traditional German sauerbraten or veal goulash served with spätzle. Plates are paired with plenty of options for wines, including regional varietals (the onboard sommelier can fill you in on pours), while an open bar format is inclusive of fine wines, champagnes, local craft beers, and spirits. There’s 24-hour room service, too, and for a supplement, The Vintage Room features an intimate eight-course wine-and-food pairing dining experience that features courses like beef tenderloin and broiled lemon sole. But the foodie focus doesn’t stop on the ship: Excursions along the Rhine might include an Alsatian cooking lesson in the home of a local in Strasbourg or a winetasting event in Rüdesheim. Nine Rhine itinerary options run from seven to 16 nights in duration, between March and December; rates from $2,999/person; crystalcruises.com.

U River Cruises—an offshoot of Uniworld—debuted in 2017 as the first river line catering to millennials.

Best Rhine River Cruises for Millennials

Upscale Uniworld branched out with a new river cruise brand—U River Cruises—in 2017, as the first river line to target a millennial market. U realizes this goal by offering more active excursions, wellness programming onboard, and healthy dining, while retaining the Uniworld sensibility in terms of polished staffing and service. Its seven-night “Rolling on the Rhine” itinerary between Amsterdam and Frankfurt (with stops in Haarlem in Holland and Dusseldorf, Cologne, Koblenz, and Rüdesheim in Germany) features excursions that are led by a duo of “U host” guides, plus more immersive overnight stops, including three days to explore Amsterdam and an overnight in Frankfurt.

article continues below ad

Outings include a foodie tour through Amsterdam’s hip Jordaan district; a tour and winetasting at Game of Thrones filming location Eberbach Monastery, outside of Rüdesheim; and “blokarting” on the beach in Haarlem, on sail-equipped karts that can reach speeds of up 60 miles per hour. Onboard the 120-passenger sister ships The A (sailing the itinerary in 2019) and The B (taking over in 2020), find a spa; rooftop lounges helmed by mixologists; and activities like silent discos overseen by guest DJs. Note that while the line caters to millennials, any adult (ages 18 and older) is welcome to set sail. Sailing dates from April through October; rates from $1,999/person.

Best Rhine River Cruises for Families

River cruise lines have long catered to the over-50 crowd, but the industry has been shaking things up of late with the emergence of several family-friendly river itineraries. Leading the charge is the three-year-old partnership between Disney (via its Adventures by Disney arm) and AmaWaterways; their seven-night Rhine River itineraries unfold aboard two ships, the 156-guest AmaKristina and the 2019-launched AmaMora. (Note: In 2020, all sailings are aboard the AmaMora.) Both riverboats include rare connecting staterooms and suites, designed with families in mind, and fun onboard activities like cooking classes, karaoke nights, and swimming in the heated pool.

Sailing between Amsterdam and Basel, the ship stops in France (at Strasbourg) and Germany (at Mannheim, Rüdesheim, and Cologne) en route. Excursion highlights—all led by up to eight Disney-trained “Adventure Guides”—include a “Black Forest adventure” outing, where you can choose between an alpine toboggan run or a zipline ride and hike to Germany’s highest waterfalls at Triberg Waterfalls; a visit to a chocolate museum in Cologne; horseback riding in Riquewihr (the French village that inspired Beauty and the Beast); a stop at an indoor winter park in Neuss, Germany (for a sledding or tubing adventure, no matter the season); and the Rhine requisite and fun-for-all-ages Heidelberg Castle tour and Amsterdam canal cruise. Note that itineraries are suggested for kids ages eight and up, and a minimum age of four years old applies. Select sailing dates from May through August; rates from $4,839 for travelers 12 and over, from $4,349 for under 12.

Best Rhine River Cruises for History Buffs

Viking, which bills itself as “the thinking person’s cruise,” is a major player on the Rhine, where it operates more than 30 riverboats—nearly identical sister ships with a capacity for 190 guests—that make runs on seven unique sailing itineraries (increasing to 10 options in 2020). Of particular interest to history buffs is its 2017-launched “Paris to the Swiss Alps” cruise tour, a four-nation trip that bookends a seven-night sailing on the Moselle (a Rhine tributary) and Rhine with a two-night, hotel-based stay in both Paris and Zurich. After taking a coach from Paris, guests visit Luxembourg en route to Trier, Germany, the embarkation point for a voyage that stops in Bernkastel, Cochem, Koblenz, Mainz, and Speyer in Germany, as well as Strasbourg, France. The cruise ends in Basel before continuing on by ground transfer to Zurich.

The itinerary is loaded with history-rich excursions. Among the highlights: Visit the American Cemetery where more than 5,000 World War II soldiers are reposed in Luxembourg; tour the relics of the Roman baths, amphitheater, and city gates at Trier; contemplate the history of the printing press at the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz; stroll through the palace and gardens of Versailles; or get acquainted with Germany’s historic university city at Heidelberg. Sailing dates from March through December; rates from $3,399/person.

>> Next: When You Need to Escape Reality, Take a Rhine River Cruise