One of the world's most popular river cruising destinations is the mighty Rhine, which gets its name from the Celtic word renos ("raging flood"). But Europe's longest and most important river begins as a trickle of melted snow from the Rheinwaldhorn Glacier high in the Swiss Alps. It first becomes the Rhine proper at Reichenau, whence it flows north to Lake Constance -- a major water supply for Germany -- and then heads through Schaffhausen to Basel, where Switzerland meets France and Germany.
En route, the Rhine lives up to its Celtic name near Schaffhausen, when it plunges 75 feet down in a spectacular torrent known as the Rheinfall. Its waters are much calmer at Basel, where the river first becomes navigable (and where many cruise ships embark). From there, it wends its way on a journey of almost 870 miles to merge with the North Sea at Rotterdam, passing through six countries (Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Austria, Germany, France and the Netherlands) as it goes.
There are many legends surrounding this great river, the most famous being the tale of Lorelei, a beautiful maiden who drowned for love and became a mermaid. It's said that her seductive song lures boatmen to their deaths and their vessels down to the riverbed. You'll find her statue on a narrow strip of land jutting into the river between St. Goar and St. Goarshausen, about 16 miles from Rudesheim. This is the narrowest, deepest part of the Rhine and, therefore, the most difficult stretch to navigate (which is probably the source of the legend).
A Rhine cruise is a heady experience indeed. Prepare to see ancient castles and lush vineyards, explore the winding streets of sleepy medieval villages, revel in the historic grandeur of lovely old cities like Strasbourg and Koblenz and enjoy the buzz of vibrant, modern ones like Cologne and Basel.
That said, do be aware that the river isn't bordered by fairytale castles from end to end. The "Rapunzel's castle" bit is actually around the Rhine Gorge, and while it is indeed spectacular, it's certainly not all this river is about.
The Rhine is a hardworking and very busy main artery through Europe. Its tributaries include the Moselle (which runs southwest past Luxembourg into France), the Neckar (flowing southeast at Manneheim to Heidelburg) and the Main (which runs southeast from Mainz through to Frankfurt). The Rhine is also linked to other great European rivers --including the Seine, Elbe, Rhone, and Saone -- via a network of canals like the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal, which starts east of Frankfurt and links the Rhine with the Danube.
The Rhine's very importance means that not all of its scenery is pretty; much of it is, but you'll also have to allow for the odd glimpse of a factory or power station, particularly around more industrialised places like Basel. Just don't go expecting Disneyland, and you'll have a ball.
*Read more about river cruising in our comprehensive section.
Who Goes There?
Who doesn't? An average month in the April to October summer season will see about 300 riverboat departures along the Rhine, and that's not counting the excursion boats operating short hops along the river for people staying locally.
Rhine cruise operators (using their own or chartered vessels ) include CroisiEurope, Viking River Cruises, Avalon Waterways, AmaWaterways, APT River Cruises, Emerald Waterways, Grand Circle Cruises, Vantage, Amadeus, Sea Cloud Cruises, A-ROSA, Uniworld, Lueftner Cruises, Titan, Fred. Olsen River Cruises, Tauck River Cruises, Cruise and Maritime Voyages, Riviera Travel and The River Cruise Line.
Choosing an Itinerary
There are almost as many itineraries along the Rhine as there are departures. Here are some of the most common types you'll see.
Short river cruises: Short and sweet, these sailings last three, four or five nights and are a great alternative to a city break, as your "hotel" travels with you and shows you a range of places instead of just one. A typical three-nighter will run roundtrip from Strasbourg to Koblenz, with an overnight at Rudesheim, while a five-night trip might run from medieval Andernach to Cologne via Rudesheim, Boppard (famed for its Roman walls), Koblenz and Bonn.
Christmas Market cruises: Short cruises are particularly popular in November and December, when thousands flock to the banks of the Rhine to enjoy the region's spectacular Christmas markets. If you love sugar and spice and all things nice -- and want a festive experience straight off a Dickensian Christmas card -- you should definitely go.
Make sure any Christmas markets cruise you choose spends time in Cologne. It's a great place to be at Christmastime, as it has seven markets to choose from, each with a different theme. A small floating market set on a riverboat and selling mainly Christmas tree trinkets might be the most convenient for river cruisers, but the prettiest is set around Cologne Cathedral, a 10 minute walk from the riverbank.
Rudesheim also has a fabulous Christmas market, set in its atmospheric medieval quarter and tavern-lined Drosselgasse, which features more than 120 stalls and attracts artisans from 12 European countries. At its heart is a large nativity scene with exquisitely painted lifesize statues. At every turn, you'll find something to delight the senses like handmade wooden birdhouses, doll-like nutcrackers, intricate clockwork toys, and fragrant stalls selling salt-studded giant pretzels, cinnamon-dusted stollen and heartwarming gluhwein.
*Read our 8 reasons to take a Christmas Market cruise slideshow.
Seven-night cruises: Seven-night / eight-day cruises typically run from Amsterdam (after an overnight onboard) to Basel via Cologne, Koblenz, the Rhine Gorge, Rudesheim, Mannheim and Strasbourg. These cruises have time to go beyond the Rhine to take in the sights along the Moselle and Main rivers. Boarding and disembarkation points vary, with some going, for example, from Luxembourg to Amsterdam via Trier, Bernkastel-Kues, Cochem, Koblenz (via the Moselle), Mainz, Rudesheim and Cologne.
Others start or end in Frankfurt or travel along the Rhine and Rhone rivers from Amsterdam to Avignon, visiting Holland, Germany and France en route.
Longer Rhine cruises: If you have a fortnight to spare, a 14-night river cruise could take you from Amsterdam to Budapest via Cologne, Rudesheim, Nuremberg, Passau and other German stops, before visiting Melk and Vienna in Austria and travelling along the Danube to Budapest in Hungary.
Longer options include 22-night North Sea to Black Sea sailings from Amsterdam to Giurgiu in Romania. These span the Main and Danube rivers, as well as the Rhine, and travel through Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Serbia and Bulgaria.
Best Time to Go
The Rhine can be hot and busy in the peak summer months, so although this is a good time for sun worshippers to peg out on the top decks of their riverboats, some travelers prefer to cruise in the more temperate spring and autumn. A particularly good time to go is Easter, when local markets feature brightly-painted real eggs, pretty wooden decorations and beautiful circlets of flowers to hang outside your door.
Another good time to plan a Rhine cruise is during one of the region's spectacular "Rhine in Flames" events in the summer and fall. Generally linked to local wine festivals or other celebrations, these take place at different locations along the Middle Rhine and involve spectacular fireworks displays and much jollification, music and dancing. After joining in the fun ashore, passengers take to the river for the best view of the late-night pyrotechnics.
For details of river cruises tying in with these events -- and for general Rhine cruise information -- useful websites to visit include www.gorivercruise.com and the German Tourist Board site www.germany.travel.
December is another prime time for visiting, as the Rhine Christmas markets are quite magical and simply not to be missed.
One of the joys of a Rhine cruise is the variety of shoreside experiences it offers. You can find yourself exploring the cobbled streets of a sleepy medieval village or taking in the sights of a vibrant city, enjoying a lazy afternoon wine tasting, strolling the banks of a tranquil canal or marvelling at a splendid Baroque palace or spectacularly spooky Gothic cathedral.
Here are just a few of the highlights ….
Amsterdam. The city of cyclists, lovely tree-lined canals, offbeat shops and cafes, and fabulous museums and art galleries, Amsterdam has so much to offer that most river cruises starting or ending there allow two days to explore the city. Its most famous sites include Anne Frank's House, the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh Museum and the Stedelijk Museum, but this great city has more than 50 museums in all and offers many more unusual options. These include the boat-shaped NEMO Science and Technology Museum (a popular choice with kids, as it's interactive and hands-on) and -- for those with more, ahem, esoteric tastes -- museums devoted to sex and erotica. (You'll find details of them all at www.amsterdam.info/museums.)
Basel. A good thing to do in Basel is eat. Since it's situated on Switzerland's borders with France and Germany, the city's many restaurants offer a vast range of European dishes. Don't miss the local delicacy, Basler Leckerli -- spiced cookies made with kirsch, nuts and candied fruit. Where to walk it all off? Head for the left bank of the Rhine, and you'll find top sights like the Cathedral, the MarktPlatz (surrounded by meandering alleys lined with unusual craft shops) and the Rathaus (Town Hall), all pretty close to one another. Don't miss a stroll around the lovely botanical gardens while you're at it.
Strasbourg. With its cobbled streets, timbered medieval houses and the gorgeous canal-laced Petite France at the heart of its Old Town, Strasbourg is one of the loveliest and most fascinating cities in France (and that's some contest). Its top attractions include the Cathedrale de Notre Dame, which dates from 1190 AD and, at 142 meters, is Europe's tallest medieval building. Look out also for the Rohan Palace, where Marie Antoinette once stayed.
Mainz. The enormous six-towered Cathedral of St. Martin, founded in 975 AD, is one of the world's finest examples of Romanesque architecture and an absolute must-see. Nearby, just off the Domplatze main square, you'll find the Gutenberg Museum, which charts the history of printing and contains the famous 15th-century Gutenberg Bible, along with a reproduction of Gutenberg's original printing-house.
Mainz also boasts a delightfully quaint medieval Old Town just south of the Cathedral, as well as fine Baroque churches, the 14th-century Gothic Church of St. Stephen (which features a beautiful stained glass window created by Marc Chagall) and the remains of a Roman aqueduct.
Cologne. Cologne's twin-towered Dom is one of Europe's largest churches, and its towers offer glorious views over the city's rooftops for those fit enough to climb them. You can recover over one of many local beers sold in the kellers of Cologne's picturesque Old Town, and then head off to the city's fabulous chocolate museum (www.chocolatemuseum-cologne.com) to taste another of the city's specialities. The good folk of Cologne also love to party and hold a spectacular Carnival, known locally as Fastelovend and Fasteleer, which starts at 11:11 a.m. on the 11th day of the 11th month, comprises more than 600 events and carries on all winter, through to Ash Wednesday.
Rudesheim. This charming little Rhineland wine town is gateway to the lovely Rhine Gorge, and it's the place to be around Christmas, when toffee apple-cheeked youngsters ride donkeys around its cobbled streets and its stall-lined squares -- twinkling with fairy lights and heady with the fragrance of pine leaves, cinnamon and gluhwein -- are simply magical. Don't forget to try a cockle-warming Rudesheimer coffee, a delicious concoction of whipped cream, sugar and local Asbach brandy. It should come served up in an enormous ceramic mug decorated with scenes from the Rhine (and trust me, it won't taste as good if it doesn't).
Rhine Cruising Tips
If you're in love with the idea of the fairytale castle-lined "Romantic Rhine" and don't want to see its more industrialized aspects, your best bet is choose a cruise that includes a sailing through the Rhine Gorge (between Cologne and Rudesheim) but then heads for the Danube and Vienna along the River Main and the Main / Danube Canal.
Do pack a comfortable pair of shoes for walking ashore and, if your mobility is limited, be aware that many river stops involve climbing at least a few steps.
Take earplugs if you're a light sleeper and don't want to be roused by early-morning rumblings as your boat sets off from its overnight stop and makes its way through locks. Be prepared also for frequent calls to clear the top deck as your boat goes under low bridges.
If taking a three- or four-night Christmas Markets cruise in November or December, bear in mind that the markets are less busy during the day and midweek than they are in the evenings and on weekends.
Take binoculars for a close-up view of life on the riverbanks and to get a really good look at the statue of Lorelei, which, though pretty, is quite small and hard to see in detail with the naked eye. Some boats will supply binoculars in each cabin; check before you go, and take your own along if necessary.
--By Maria Harding, Cruise Critic contributor