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Arriving in Passau for the first time, you could be forgiven for thinking you'd landed in Italy instead of Germany. The city has a very Italian atmosphere that's led to its nickname, Venice on the Danube. And indeed, Passau was part of the Roman Empire for more than 400 years. When most of the city was destroyed by fire in 1662, it was rebuilt in Italian Baroque style, reflected in the vast cathedral, churches, squares and former homes of wealthy merchants. Today, as you stroll through the pretty streets, you'll notice a plethora of pizza and pasta restaurants rubbing shoulders with eateries that serve up hearty German fare.
While Passau has an undeniably touristy feel, it's a very attractive destination boasting a legacy of wealth built on the salt trade and, during Renaissance times, the crafting of knives and sword blades. The city occupies a unique location on the confluence of the rivers Danube, Inn and Ilz in southeastern Germany, close to the Austrian border, and so it's also known as the City of Three Rivers. But the rivers haven't always been the city's friends: Passau has repeatedly been flooded by Alpine water swept along the Inn. High water marks on the side of the town hall bear witness to the flooding; the highest date back to 1501, 1595 and 1954, the latter marked at more than 10m (32 feet).
Packed on a thin strip of land, Passau is easy to get around -- a major plus for visitors -- thanks to its small size. Beyond the long riverside promenade walk, lined with lookalike souvenir shops and some decent eateries, lies the picture postcard old town, with traffic-free narrow streets made for meandering and many of the main sights. The sightseeing high spot, in more ways than one, is St. Stephen's cathedral, high up in the Old Town, home to the world's largest cathedral organ. Dominating the Danube side, opposite the dock, is the Veste Oberhaus fortress, which is now a multiple-choice castle containing a museum, youth hostel and restaurant.
Typically, riverboats dock in Passau after breakfast for a morning sightseeing tour, and passengers can opt to return for lunch back onboard or stay in town and have a meal independently in one of the many restaurants. River cruisers are then allowed free time to explore on their own before sailing in the late afternoon.
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Other Europe River Cruise Ports:
Antwerp • Arnhem • Berlin • Brugge • Brussels • Bucharest • Budapest • Cologne • Dresden • Ghent • Honfleur • Koblenz • Lyon • Passau • Prague • Rotterdam • Strasbourg
Feather-trimmed Bavarian hats and -- for the truly brave -- Lederhosen, traditional German breeches, featured largely in the souvenir shops lining the river cruise port and old town make good souvenirs, and CDs of organ recitals at St. Stephen's Cathedral provide lasting musical memories. The open-air markets held on Tuesdays and Fridays in front of the cathedral are great places for picking up crafts and local produce, and from November 29 to December 23, the square is the place to find one of Bavaria's largest Christmas markets, with stalls selling charming wooden toys, tree decorations and gifts.
German is the official language. English is widely spoken at shops, restaurants and tourist attractions.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Germany's currency is the euro. For current currency conversion figures, visit www.oanda.com or www.xe.com. The nearest ATM's are a five- to 10-minute walk from the point, in the pedestrian street Ludwigstrasse and at the corner of Heuwinkel and Rosstranke. All major credit cards are accepted in shops, restaurants and cafes.
Where You're Docked
River cruise vessels dock at the 14 moorings on Donau Lande, the main waterfront area that is within easy walking distance of the Old Town and main shopping streets.
There is a tourist information center and four public toilets on the dockside. For visitors who don't want to venture too far afield, there are plenty of shops and a wide choice of restaurants across the street, plus attractions that include the Glass Museum, with dazzling exhibits of European glass including Baroque, Rococo, Art Nouveau and Art Deco pieces; and the 17th-century St. Paul's Church.
On Foot: The old town, the main tourist hub, is directly opposite the waterfront and easily walkable.
By Bus: The City Bus service is cheap, and the Central Bus Station, on the western side of the Old Town, serves outlying districts. From March to November, a shuttle bus runs from the town hall to the Veste Oberhaus every half hour from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. The Passau Card, available at the tourist information center on the dock, provides free public transport and entry to museums within a 24-hour period.
By Taxi: There are taxi stands around the town, and you can call Taxizentrale Passau at 0851-5 73 73.
Watch Out For
Some steep, cobbled streets and flights of uneven steps lead down to the Inn River, a popular stop on many guided walking tours, so anyone with disabilities or walking difficulties should check first before setting out. For wheelchair users, the tourist office has produced a map of accessible streets.
You can pull out all the stops at St. Stephen's Cathedral at Residenzplatz 8 in the Old Town, where the world's biggest cathedral organ boasts 17,974 pipes and 233 stops. Rousing recitals take place on weekdays at noon and Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. (for a fee). Free entry to the lunchtime concert is included on many guided walking tours.
Hollgasse is Passau's best-known cobbled street. In the heart of the Old Town, the traffic-free lane is the place to find beautifully maintained medieval houses, art shops, galleries and jewellers, and to watch artists and craftspeople at work. There are also plenty of places to stop off and enjoy a restorative glass or two of Bavarian beer.
The imposing Veste Oberhaus fortress was built in 1219 by Passau's Prince-Bishops to keep a check on commerce on the three rivers. History buffs will enjoy the permanent exhibitions in the museum that chart Passau's timeline; it's also well worth the climb up the 130 steps to the viewing platform in the tower for panoramic views over the city. (Open daily from mid-March to mid-November from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekends.)
Discover the treasures of Passau's past, when it was capital of the largest diocese of the Holy Roman Empire at the Museum of the Treasure of the Cathedral. Housed in the New Bishop's Residence in Residenzplatz, a palace built in the early 18th century, the museum features ornate Rococo staircases and a fresco of the Gods of Olympia. (Open from May to October from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.)
Located in one of the Old Town's most beautiful houses on the bank of the Danube, the Museum of Modern Art showcases international works from the 20th and 21st centuries in a changing program of exhibitions. (Open daily, except Mondays, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.)
The Baroque town hall fronting the Danube dates back to the 14th century and is open to visitors free of charge. Visitors crane their necks to look at huge wall and ceiling paintings depicting scenes from the "Nibelungen," an epic German poem from the Middle Ages. (Open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. unless the town hall is being used for official business.)
Been There, Done That
When it's time to dig more deeply into Passau's past, visit the Roman Museum to see the foundations of the Roman fort Kastell Boiotro. The remains of the fort, with five defense towers and walls more than 3m (12 feet) thick, were unearthed in 1974 by workman excavating a 17th-century church. Pottery, lead figures and other artefacts from the area are housed in the museum at the edge of the site. (Lederergasse 43. Open from March to November, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.)
The art of brewing flourished in the Baroque period, and Passau has four breweries. Soak up the local heritage on a "Beer and Baroque" excursion through the old town, ending in a brewery with the all-important tasting accompanied by Bavarian snacks. The three-hour tours are bookable through the dockside tourist information office, and they're available Monday to Thursday.
Step back in time at the Bavarian Forest Museum Village, located 20km (12.5 miles) from Passau. More than 100 old buildings -- including farmhouses, a mill and chapel -- have been painstakingly reconstructed at the open-air museum that also has rare breeds of farm animals, including sheep, cattle and poultry, and displays of rural crafts. Half-day excursions are bookable in Passau.
While most people head straight to the cathedral, take a peek at the cream and pink Church of St. Paul, the city's oldest parish church. Northwest of the cathedral and located by the north gate of the Old Town in Rindermarkt, the church dates back to the 11th century and was rebuilt after the city fires.
Pilgrimage Church Mariahilf, across the bridge on the Inn side of town at Mariahilfberg 3, is reached by a "heavenly ladder," a covered staircase of 321 steps where pilgrims kneel and pray on each step. According to legend, anyone who scales the stairs this way while praying can expect their wishes to be granted. Skeptical? Well, Austrian Emperor Leopold I took three days to climb up on his knees and beg assistance in the fight against the Turks who were besieging Vienna, and it worked for him in 1683. While the interior of the church is quite plain and simple, there is a beautiful golden high alter dating back to the 18th century and ecclesiastical silver treasures in the old sacristy that is now a small museum.
Passau has plenty of international and regional restaurants to suit most tastes. The local Bavarian cuisine is noted for its rib-sticking qualities. Think of large, salty pretzels served as appetizers, sausages accompanied by sweet mustard and schweinsbraten (a national dish of pork, gravy and dumplings), followed by apple strudel -- and you begin to get the idea.
With the longest brewing tradition in the world, Bavaria is home to half of all German breweries. On average, Bavarians consume 150 litres (40 gallons) of beer a year, and Passau's bars and beer gardens provide a wonderful opportunity to soak up this great tradition.
With daily specials from 11 a.m., the Bayerischer Lowe, or Lion Tavern, is a 10-minute walk from the dock at Dr.-Hans-Kapfinger-Strasse 3. With a large, covered beer garden, it serves local specialities and is one of the rare breeds of German restaurants that pays a nodding acquaintance to vegetarian dishes. It's open all day, so cruise passengers can drop by at any time.
If you've got a head for heights, you can enjoy coffee, cakes and light bites at Cafe-Lounge Diwan, on top of the Passau business tower at the end of the pedestrian area at Nibelungenplatz 1. It serves up the best views in town. (Open daily from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday to Thursday, until midnight on Friday and Saturday, and 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday.)
Tuck into a pork fest at Hacklberger Braustiberl, a restaurant and beer garden specializing in Bavarian cuisine. An inexpensive, fixed-price lunch is served daily from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. The main menu includes sausages in all kinds of guises and a choice of schnitzels influenced by nearby Austria. Located in Brauhausplatz 7, it's a 20-minute stroll from the town center, or you can get there by public transport.
Staying in Touch
You don't need to go far to check e-mail or send photos to friends and family, as many cafes offer Wi-Fi. Cafe Alibi, Kapuzinerstrasse 36a, is open daily, and on Wednesdays women can use the computers free of charge. (It also has a large billiard room.) Browse through books, and surf the Internet at Cafe Unterhaus, Hollgasse 12, where a computer and free Wi-Fi for laptops is available by ordering a drink. The netc@fe at Nikolastrasse 2 sells phone cards and also offers Internet access and cheap international phone calls.
The morning walking tour (3 to 3.5 hours) offered by the majority of river cruise lines is the best way to get to grips with Passau. Typical tours take in the town hall, whiz through the tempting shopping streets (where you can return later to pick up souvenirs) and the cathedral, and follow with an organ recital during the concert season and lunch served back onboard the ship.
For More Information
On the web: Tourist Office Passau or German National Tourist Office
Cruise Critic Message Boards: River Cruise Ports - Europe
The Independent Traveler Message Boards: Germany
--by Jeannine Williamson, Cruise Critic Contributor