5 European UNESCO Sites You Should See by River Cruise

Explore medieval, Romanesque, Gothic, baroque, and neoclassical architecture—and only unpack once.

View of a medieval castle and a river cruise ship on the Rhine.

River cruising offers one of the best ways for travelers to visit UNESCO sites.

Photo by leoks/Shutterstock

Stonehenge. The Acropolis of Athens. Pompeii. Europe has so many protected UNESCO World Heritage sites—more than 400 by last count—one could practically stumble upon history on a morning walk to get coffee. (In Rome, another UNESCO site, you almost always do.) These landmarks, per UNESCO, are “so exceptional as to transcend national boundaries and to be of common importance for present and future generations of all humanity.” Phew.

One of the best ways to experience multiple UNESCO sites on one trip? By river cruise. With more than 150 rivers crisscrossing the continent, Europe’s waterways are like highways themselves, and aboard a few AFAR river-cruise favorites—AmaWaterways, Uniworld, and Viking—guests can experience a wealth of history in luxury and only unpack once.

Here are five of the most exciting UNESCO sites passengers can see from a river cruise.

An aerial view of Buda Castle Royal Palace with the Szechenyi Chain Bridge

Budapest is perhaps best known for its unique bathing culture and eclectic mix of historic architectural styles.

Photo by ZGPhotography/Shutterstock

Budapest, including the Banks of the Danube, the Buda Castle Quarter, and Andrássy Avenue

Location: Budapest, Hungary
Best cruise line to see it on: Uniworld’s Enchanting Danube

Often called the “Queen of the Danube,” Budapest is arguably one of the most interesting European capitals on the continent thanks to its eclectic mix of medieval, Romanesque, Gothic, baroque, and neoclassical architecture and thriving bath culture. In 1987, the banks of the Danube, the Buda Castle Quarter (home to the baroque-style Buda Castle, which houses the Hungarian National Gallery and Budapest History Museum), and Andrássy Avenue, famous for the mansions and townhouses that line it, were all designated UNESCO World Heritage sites.

For a deep dive into Budapest’s historic past, architecture, and vibrant future, consider booking a trip on Uniworld’s eight-day Enchanting Danube itinerary, which takes cruisers from Budapest to Passau. Included with the price of a cruise are two excursion options: a tour that explores the architectural marvels of Andrassy Avenue and the Hungarian Parliament or a stroll through Budapest with stops that highlight the city’s great eats, including the First Strudel House of Pest and the Great Market Hall, known for its wide selection of sausages, cheeses, and salami.

Available for an additional fee are two “Masterpiece Tours”: One option takes guests on a guided walk through Budapest’s historic Jewish Quarter (think Kosher Hungarian restaurants, ancient bars, and the second-largest synagogue in the world) while the other visits the Budapest Retro Museum, dedicated to remembering Hungarian life between 1960 and 1990. Cruises take place from April through October with fares starting at $3,400.

Half-timbered homes along the river in Petite France

Petite France, located on the western end of the Grand-Île, is known for its cobblestone roads and half-timbered homes.

Photo by Aeypix/Shutterstock

Grande-Île de Strasbourg

Location: Strasbourg, France
Best cruise line to see it on: Viking River Cruises’ Lyon, Provence, and the Rhineland

Strasbourg is one of four European Union Institutional Seats (where EU government agencies and buildings are located) and the capital city of Alsace, a region that straddles eastern France and western Germany. In Strasbourg, visitors will find an eclectic mix of German and French architecture as well as Alsatian delicacies such as tarte flambée (a pizza-like creation), a wide variety of cheese, and pork sausages galore. The historic center of Strasbourg is centered around the city’s “Grand-Île” or “large island,” surrounded by the Ill River. In 1988, it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site for its distinct Alsatian and Rhineland-style buildings and picturesque canals. On the Grand-Île, travelers can find the city’s Petite France neighborhood, where millers, tanners, and fishermen lived during the Middle Ages, as well as dazzling, centuries-old places of worship, including the Gothic Strasbourg Cathédrale de Notre Dame (the world’s fourth-tallest church), St. Étienne, St. Pierre-le-Vieux, St. Thomas, and St. Pierre-le-Jeune.

On Viking River Cruises’ Lyon, Provence, and the Rhineland itinerary, visitors will get ample time to explore Strasbourg. The 15-day journey includes five different shore excursions, ranging from a stroll around the city with a local guide to Alsatian winetastings (the region is known for its sweet and bright rieslings). Sailings typically start in March and end in early October. Tickets start at $4,900 per person.

Old Town Square in Prague viewed from overhead

Keep your eyes peeled for the red roofs of Old Town Prague.

Photo by Vlas Telino studio/Shutterstock

The Historic Center of Prague

Location: Prague, Czech Republic
Best cruise line to see it on: Viking River Cruises’ Elegant Elbe River

Prague has long boasted a reputation as one of Europe’s most attractive cities, thanks to its setting on the Vltava river and its collection of medieval buildings that have largely been saved from both warfare and demolition. There are three areas within the Historic Center of Prague: Old Town, Lesser Town, and New Town. The buildings in Old Town date back to between the 11th to the 18th century and range from ancient town halls to cathedrals. In 1992, Prague’s historic center became a UNESCO World Heritage site.

On Viking River Cruises’ Elegant Elbe River itinerary, travelers will be able to get up close and personal with Prague for three full days. Cruisers can choose among such activities as exploring the city’s Jewish Quarter, sampling Czech cuisine with a folk-themed dinner, exploring Lobkowicz Palace (one of the few privately owned buildings in the Prague Castle complex; it also houses the Lobkowicz Palace Museum), or taking a night tour of medieval Prague. Cruises run from March until November (with a break in August) and begin at $3,300 per person.

The town of Bacharach located on the Middle Rhine

The Rhine Valley is known for its abundance of vineyards, many of which produce rieslings.

Photo by saiko3p/Shutterstock

Loreley Valley

Location: The Middle Rhine Valley, Germany
Best cruise line to see it on: AmaWaterways Captivating Rhine River Cruise

The Loreley Valley is the stuff of Romantic legend—like the literary movement, though you’re welcome to give your significant other a smooch here if you feel inspired by the dramatic, hilly landscape. In the Middle Rhine Valley (perhaps the most scenic section of the Rhine) between the German cities of Bingen and Bonn, the Loreley Valley has inspired countless operas, songs, and poems, and was famously painted by J.M.W. Turner in the late 18th century. The Loreley Valley gets its name from the Loreley Rock, which protrudes from the river at a bend said to be haunted by a young maiden who, after being spurned by her lover, died by suicide there. After her death, Loreley’s spirit continued to haunt the rock. Local sailors and fishermen—who, distracted by Loreley’s beauty—neglected to spot the area’s treacherous rocks and strong rapids, leading to their deaths. But natural beauty and gorgeous ghosts aren’t the only allure of this part of the Rhine—the valley is lined with over 40 medieval castles; many can be spotted from cruise ships.

One of the best cruises to see the Loreley Valley on is AmaWaterways’ Captivating Rhine Cruise, which runs from Amsterdam to Basel. (The Enchanting Rhine Cruise offers the same itinerary but runs in the opposite direction; both are offered year round.) On the schedule are multiple stops in Middle Rhine towns including historic Ludwigshafen, Heidelberg—once a favorite vacation spot of German royals—and the fairy-tale-like town of Rüdesheim, famous for its sprawling riesling grape vineyard. Travelers will have a variety of off-shore activities to choose from, including a bike tour through Heidelberg and a hike through the winding grape trellises of Rüdesheim. Cruises sail from February to November and start at $2,400 per person.

View of the Eiffel Tower from the Seine

Amwaterways’s new Soulful Epicurean Experience offers a different way to experience Paris.

Photo by frantic00/Shutterstock

Paris, the Banks of the Seine

Location: Paris, France
Best cruise line to see it on: AmaWaterways’ Soulful Epicurean Experience

Roughly 900 acres of Paris was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1991, protecting some of the city’s most iconic landmarks, including the Louvre Museum, the Eiffel Tower, Champs-Elysées, and Place de la Concorde. Perhaps one of the most exciting new French river cruise itineraries to pop up in recent years is AmaWaterways’ Soulful Epicurean Experience. This seven-night excursion, which begins in Arles and ends in Paris, examines France through the lens of the Black artists, writers, and entertainers who made their mark on the country. In Paris, guests can look forward to an excursion that focuses on the life of world-renowned dancer and World War II spy Josephine Baker, plus a Black history tour of Paris that highlights the story of jazz in the city and Little Africa. The 11-day sailing will begin on June 13. Staterooms start at $4,500 per person.

Mae Hamilton is a former associate editor at Afar. She covers all things related to arts, culture, and the beautiful things that make travel so special.
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