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Best Europe River Cruises

1. Castles on the Rhine

Lorelei Rock and Katz Castle

The 60 Kilometres (38 miles) of the Middle Rhine river between Koblenz and Rudesheim are overlooked by no less than 17 castles, many still occupied.

At Koblenz the River Moselle joins the Rhine, overlooked by the massive Ehrenbreitstein Castle. Travelling south upriver three castles mark the riverside village of Boppard. Nearby Maus Castle and Katz Castle face each other in a cat and mouse display.

Next is the famous Lorelei rock, where a narrowing river and strong currents made navigation dangerous in the days of sail, before reaching Pfalz Castle in its stunning mid-river location. Six more castles overlook the river before it reaches the wine village of Rudesheim.

The Middle Rhine is usually part of a seven-night Rhine river cruise. It is also included on two-week Amsterdam to Budapest routes and the one-week Luxembourg to Nuremberg voyage. See River Rhine Cruises.

2. River Danube and the Wachau Valley


The western section of the River Danube flows from Germany into Austria and Vienna, and through the dramatic hillsides of the Wachau Valley from ancient Melk Abbey on to Durnstein village.

Going east from its junction with the Main-Danube Canal, the River Danube is crossed by the 12th century stone bridge at Regensburg. The town has 1300 listed buildings, and next to the river the oldest sausage kitchen in Germany!

Further on, some river cruises start at attractive Vishofen, others from Passau where the rivers Inn and Ilz join the Danube. The Wachau Valley starts at Melk, whose massive stone abbey overlooks the Danube, and nearby Schonbuhel Castle.

Rolling hills with steep vineyards frame the Danube in the Wachau, but the scenic gem is Durnstein. The blue and white baroque church of the Convent is a riverside icon. The village has attractive winding lanes of old houses, and above is the ruined castle where King Richard the Lionheart was imprisoned in 1192.

This section of the Danube is traversed by two-week Amsterdam to Budapest routes, and shorter cruises starting in Nuremberg, Passau or Vilshofen eastwards to Vienna and onwards to Budapest. See River Danube Cruises.

3. River Douro and Porto

The River Douro

The River Douro in Portugal flows past hillsides covered in vines grown to produce port wine. The upper section becomes very narrow and scenic as it winds between rocky cliffs.

Portugal’s ‘River of Gold’ (D’Oro) meets the sea at Porto, notable as the base of port shippers for hundreds of years, and where ‘rabelos’ – small sailing boats – brought the casks of port downriver from the vineyards. This ancient town has terraces of houses overlooking the river, and a famous iron bridge over the river built by Gustav Eiffel of tower fame.

Upriver from Porto the river rises rapidly, with a number of extremely deep locks carrying boats uphill. Riverside towns such as Regua and Pinhao are a base for excursions. Further upriver the Douro narrows and bends through rocky channels to the Spanish border at Barca d’Alva and Vega de Teron.

All cruises on the Douro cover the length of the river, starting from and returning to Porto. Various excursions are offered, including historic Salamanca in Spain, and extensions to Portuguese capital Lisbon. See Douro River Cruises.

4. Bordeaux, Dordogne and Wine Country

The Dordogne

Bordeaux is a World Heritage Site with English connections back to 1152 when Eleanor of Aquitaine married Henry II. The growth of the claret wine trade strengthened the links.

Nowadays Bordeaux is noted for its impressive 18th century buildings and its long riverside promenade along the banks of the River Gironde. Inland there are castles and fortifications built by Henry II and some 10,000 wine producing chateaux near the Gironde and its feeder rivers, the Garonne and Dordogne. These include some of the top chateaux wines of France.

River cruises in the area centre on Bordeaux, with some short voyages to the mouth of the Gironde and upriver on the Garonne and Dordogne. Highlights are Pauillac for the Medoc, chateaux visits and tastings, an excursion to St Emilion and its famous catacombs, and Bordeaux itself.

Voyages in the Bordeaux area are up to a week’s duration, with a main mooring close to the centre of the town and its extensive pedestrian areas. Possible extensions include the Arcachon Basin south of Bordeaux and the amazing Dune of Pyla. See Bordeaux River Cruises.

5. Paris and the River Seine

View of Paris from the River Seine

River cruise ships moor close to the centre of Paris on the River Seine. This gives superb opportunities to visit the attractions of Paris through guided excursions, the Paris Metro, or perhaps on foot.

Paris is one of the world’s most visited cities, with sights such as Notre Dame, the Louvre, Champs Elysee, Eiffel Tower, Montmartre and Sacre Cour. Other options include the left bank area of St Germaine des Pres, and the Musee d’Orsay with its Impressionist paintings.

River Seine cruises from Paris may include an excursion to the stunning Chateau de Versailles, and visits to Monet’s house and his frequently painted garden at Giverny. The Seine continues through Normandy to Rouen, where Joan of Arc was executed in 1431, and on to the Channel coast at the scenic port of Honfleur.

Most river cruises on the Seine cover the whole river from Paris to the Normandy coast, some in both directions, others just one-way. Various excursions are available. See Seine River Cruises.

6. The Main-Danube Canal

Bridge in Bamberg

Only completed in 1992, the Main-Danube Canal links the River Main with the River Danube. It reaches a height of 1330 feet near Nuremberg, the highest commercial waterway in Europe.

Crossing over 100 miles through Bavaria the Main Danube Canal provides a through route from the North Sea to the Black Sea. Its 16 locks, many exceptionally deep, take the canal up and over the Continental Divide.

At the western end of the Canal, Bamberg’s Old City is a World Heritage Site reflecting its historic prosperity. Perched on a bridge, the Old City Hall has a spectacular exterior. Above the town, the cathedral dates back to 1237, and opposite is the grand bishop’s New Residence. The town is also noted for its many breweries, and particularly its dark Rauchbier (smoked beer).

Medieval Nuremberg was long identified with German culture, and was appropriated by the Nazis as a venue for rallies, later becoming the site of the War Trials. Its ancient walls with their many watchtowers and gateways still remain.

Cruise the Main-Danube Canal on one-week voyages between Amsterdam or Luxembourg and Nuremberg, or between Nuremberg and Budapest, or the two-week Amsterdam to Budapest voyage. See Rhine to Danube River Cruises.

7. Venice and the River Po

River Cruise Ship in Venice

Although big ocean ships are being banned from the waters of Venice, river cruise ships are able to sail in the Venice lagoon and to its islands including Murano and Burano.

River ships in the Venice lagoon are able to moor close to the centre of Venice, not far from St Mark’s Square, the Doge’s Palace, and the Bridge of Sighs. They act like a city centre hotel, but at reasonable prices and with the benefit of all meals, possibly drinks as well, saving a fortune on Venice prices.

Venice river voyages do not travel far – maybe within the lagoon to the islands of Burano and Murano, and possibly onto the River Po south of Venice. Italian regulations do not allow river ships to sail with passengers onto the Adriatic Sea so itineraries involving the River Po make extensive use of coach transport, particularly for excursions to nearby highlights such as Padua, Ferrera, and Verona.

There are varying length river cruises in Venice, from 4 nights to a week. The former will be based in Venice, longer journeys will access the River Po and visit major attractions in the area. See Venice River Cruises.

8. Berlin, Dresden, Prague and the River Elbe

A view of Dresden

Upriver from Magdeburg near German capital Berlin, the Elbe heads towards the Czech border to reach Dresden and the fantastic rock formations of ‘Saxon Switzerland’.

Dresden was a noted cultural centre of Germany, with fine buildings overlooking the Elbe. The ruined Frauenkirche became a symbol of the extensive damage from the heavy bombing raids of WWII, but now following reunification Dresden’s historic Frauenkirche and the Neumarkt area nearby have been restored to former glories. River ships can moor close to the centre on the Elbe waterfront.

Close to Dresden are the Elbe Sandstone mountains known as Saxon Switzerland. These have been eroded into amazing shapes, and attract many climbers and visitors. The Czech border is nearby, and most Elbe cruises will continue into the Czech republic with a final coach transfer to Czech capital, Prague. This lively city is one of the most attractive in Europe, with a castle, nearby cathedral, many bridges and a range of activities for all.

River cruises on the Elbe generally travel from Magdeburg near German capital Berlin to near Prague in week. Many will offer extension pre- and post-cruise in both Berlin and Prague. See Elbe River Cruises.

9. Avignon, Arles and the River Rhone

River Cruise Ship in Avignon

The River Rhone flows through the wine areas of Burgundy, joins towns and cities with an ancient heritage going back to Roman times, and continues through Provence to walled towns in superb scenery

Avignon is well known in song for its famous ‘pont’ extending to the centre of the river. Avignon is home to one of the most visited attractions in France, the Palais des Papes (Palace of the Popes), home to seven popes in the Middle Ages, the square around it and the ancient city ramparts. These are UNESCO World Heritage sites. Arles has one of the best preserved Roman ampitheatres, and is associated with the paintings of Van Gogh who lived there for 2 years.

A Rhone journey may start in the Lyon area, visit Beaune, the centre of the Burgundy wine trade and home to the famous medieval tiled roofed Hospice de Dieu, and continue south towards the Mediterranean coast. It may be possible to explore the Camargue region famous for its bulls and white horses.

Most river cruises on the Rhone are one week in length, with possible extensions. It may be possible to combine a week on the Rhone with a week on the Rhine or Seine for a fascinating two week cruise. See Rhone River Cruises.

10. River Main through Germany

A view of Wurzburg

The narrow and winding River Main is a complete contrast to the wide Rhine it leaves at Mainz, and has a lock almost every 10 km of its 380km (240 miles) length.

Soon after Mainz the River Main passes Germany’s financial centre of Frankfurt with its Manhattan skyscraper skyline. It then flows past ancient riverside villages of half-timbered houses steeped in history. Aschaffenburg is overlooked by the impressive 1600’s Johanissburg Castle, Miltenberg’s old market square is a highlight, and attractive Wertheim was rebuilt after the 1618-1648 war.

The scenic gem of the Main is Wurzburg, noted for the Bishops Residenz of the prince-bishops built from 1720, easily reached from the river past pretty historic buildings. Riverside ship moorings face the imposing Marienberg Fortress with vineyards on the hillside below, and the Kappele, a lovely small chapel nearby.

Just before Bamberg the Main-Danube Canal leaves the Main for Nuremberg and the River Danube to Budapest. Cruise the Main on one-week voyages between Amsterdam or Luxembourg and Nuremberg, and longer routes to Budapest. See Rhine to Danube River Cruises.