Napoleon once referred to the Danube River as the "Queen of Europe's Rivers," a fitting title for Europe's second-longest river. The Danube, which measures 1,775 miles long and up to nearly 1 mile wide, passes through 10 countries -- Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Germany, Hungary, Moldova, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia and Ukraine -- and four capitals. That alone has made the Danube a vital transportation route for more than 2,000 years.
The only major European river to flow west to east, the Danube River originates in Germany's Black Forest and makes its way through those 10 countries. It then divides into three main branches, called the Danube Delta, before reaching the Black Sea.
Today, ships can navigate 87 percent of the waterway's length, meaning Danube river cruises can sail from the North Sea to the Black Sea. The Main-Danube Canal, which got its major start in the 18th century, was completed in 2002 when the final piece was put in place for the 106mile, 16-lock waterway.
Although the Danube River has always been a major thoroughfare for commerce, its rich history and cultural significance attract visitors by the thousands every year. Prepare to be enchanted.
As you sail, you'll pass ruins of ancient castles, lush vineyards that produce some of the area's finest wines, sleepy river towns and bank-side recreational paths where you can wave hello to cyclists and horseback riders. When you dock, you'll embark on fascinating journeys through cities that sport both medieval and modern influences.
Although Austrian composer Johann Strauss II named one of his famous waltzes "Blue Danube," the Danube is as blue as the Black Sea is black. (In other words, it's not blue at all.) That fact might be disappointing but is overshadowed by the Danube's spectacular scenery.
Best Time for Danube River Cruises
You can cruise the Danube River year-round. However, May through September is prime cruising season on this popular waterway. June, July and August can be hot, and although May and September are usually cooler, there's often more rain in May and shorter days in September.
What about the winter months? Of course, they usually come with cooler temperatures, but as long as you don't mind bundling up, you'll probably find fewer crowds in port cities and cheaper fares. Christmas Market cruises give you a unique opportunity to experience the region's holiday festivities.
Danube River Cruise Lines
Nearly every river cruise line sails on the Danube. Cruise operators include AMA Waterways, APT, A-ROSA, Avalon Waterways, CroisiEurope, Emerald Waterways, Grand Circle, Riviera Travel, Scenic Tours, Tauck, Uniworld, Vantage and Viking.
Danube River Cruise Itineraries
Most Danube River cruises either end or start in Budapest, Hungary, but the port city on the other end of the cruise can vary, usually depending on the length of the cruise. Shorter cruises tend to favor Nuremberg and Passau, Germany, while longer cruises often include Amsterdam, the Netherlands.
Short Danube River cruises: If you're limited by time or budget, you can test the river cruise waters, so to speak, with shorter cruises. For instance, Avalon Waterways runs a three-night cruise from Budapest to Vienna, Austria.
Weeklong Danube River cruises: Seven-night cruises usually run from Nuremberg (after an overnight onboard) to Budapest. Port cities include Passau and Regensburg, Germany and Melk and Vienna, Austria.
Lower Danube River cruises: The Danube consists of three sections -- Upper, Middle and Lower -- and while many cruises focus on the first two sections, you can cruise the Lower section through Eastern European countries. These voyages usually start in Budapest, traveling through Croatia, Serbia and Bulgaria, before finishing at the Black Sea in Romania.
Longer Danube River cruises: If you want to spend more time on the Danube, you can find cruises that last anywhere from eight to 16 days, giving you a more extensive lineup of port calls. Some cruise lines even offer almost month-long journeys that encompass not only the Danube but also the Main and Rhine River, allowing you to sail all the way from Bucharest, Romania, to Amsterdam.
Christmas Market cruises: Europeans do Christmas markets better than anybody else, which may be why these cruises are so popular (prices are often lower during this time, too). Whether you're craving gingerbread cookies, handmade wood carvings or just a hot sausage, you'll get your fill of old-world Christmas and maybe create new traditions with your family. These Danube River cruises sail in November and December and book fast, so plan early.
Danube River Cruise Port Highlights
One of the best parts of taking a river cruise is the up-close access you have to port cities. You can opt to take a shore excursion through your ship or explore on your own (make sure you know what time you need to be back; port times can vary). Depending on your ship's schedule, you might even do a combination of both, especially if your ship stays overnight in a city.
Here are a few of the highlights of the common ports during a weeklong cruise on the Danube River:
Nuremberg. This centuries-old city is surrounded by a wall nearly three miles long. Although more than 90 percent of it was bombed in World War II, the city been reconstructed. Popular attractions include the Durer House, where artist Albrecht Durer lived from 1509 until his death in 1528; the Toy Museum; the Gothic Church of the Lady with its famous clock; and Market Square.
Regensburg. Because this city suffered almost no damage during World War II, it remains one of Germany's most-preserved cities -- one reason it's a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its most famous structure is the Old Stone Bridge, which was built between 1135 and 1146 and connects Stadtamhof, a district of Regensburg, to Regensburg's Old Town. Another highlight? The city's numerous towers that adorn houses built by wealthy families in the 13th and 14th centuries.
Passau. Called the "City of Three Rivers," Passau lies at the confluence of the Danube, Ilz and Inn rivers, which may explain why the city has been prone to flooding throughout the centuries. Flood heights are marked on the side of a former fish market. You can also find Europe's largest church organ -- with its 17,974 pipes and 233 stops -- in St. Stephen's Cathedral. Concerts are held noon daily May through October except Sundays and holidays. Another impressive structure is the Veste Oberhaus, a fortress built in 1219 that overlooks the city.
Melk. High atop the cliffs of Melk lies the baroque Melk Abbey. For more than 900 years, Benedictine monks have worshipped there, and today, it also functions as a monastery school for hundreds of students. A tour of the monastery is a must, and you'll see an impressive library with about 100,000 volumes of manuscripts and books, relics, works of art, and ceiling frescoes.
Vienna. It's nearly impossible to take in all that one of Europe's most romantic cities offers, especially considering that the Vienna is rich not only in music but also art and museums. A good starting point is the Ringstrasse, the pedestrian-friendly historic city center, which was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In 1857, the walls that once protected the city for centuries were ordered to be torn down. The city then created a loop just over three miles long, and it's along this grand boulevard, Ringstrasse or Ring Road, where numerous monumental buildings stand, including the Vienna State Opera, Parliament and Museum of Fine Arts. St. Stephen's Cathedral, a Gothic structure built in the 12th century, and the Hofburg Imperial Palace, center of the Habsburg empire, are other noteworthy attractions. Vienna is also known for its Boys Choir, Spanish Riding School with Lipizzaner stallions and some of Europe's most famous coffee houses.
Budapest. The Danube splits Hungary's capital in two sections, Buda and Pest (pronounced pesht), which used to be connected only by ferry. Throughout the years, several bridges were built; the Chain Bridge was the first. In 1873, the two sides unified to officially become Budapest. They're vastly different in appearance and geography, though. The hilly Buda side features historic buildings like the Castle Palace, Matthias Church and the Fisherman's Bastion. Meanwhile, Pest, which lies on the flat side, sports a more modern feel. Parliament, Central Market Hall, St. Stephen's Basilica and Andrassy Avenue are located on this side.
Danube River Cruise Tips
Pack comfortable shoes. Many of the cities have cobblestone streets and uneven surfaces, which can make walking more challenging. You might also have to climb steps or walk up small inclines.
Be ready to bike. Some cruise lines carry bikes on board that you can use in port cities. Many of the cities, after all, have biking-friendly routes that might allow you to see more of the area than you could cover only by walking.
Don't forget the motion. If you're prone to motion sickness, have medication handy. Although river cruising is generally calmer than ocean cruising, the slight shaking of the ship while going through the locks might bother a sensitive stomach.
Bring binoculars. You'll appreciate binoculars to help you zero in on the landscape, especially when you're doing scenic cruising through the Wachau Valley, Austria's wine country, between Melk and Vienna. If you forget, the ship might have extras.
Reconsider a balcony cabin. They usually cost a little more, and although a balcony is generally a nice addition, opening the door often invites bugs. Plus, rooms on river ships tend to be smaller than those on ocean-bound ships, and you'll probably be out of your room most of the time anyway. Advantageous viewing areas are only a short walk away.
--By Karen Asp, Cruise Critic contributor