From April's tulips to December's Christmas markets, hundreds of riverboats and barges glide along Europe's historic rivers and canals, which span thousands of miles of Continental waterways, connecting North Sea to Black Sea. A Europe river cruise is one of the best ways we know to explore inland Europe, visiting cities, towns and villages that traditional big ships usually can't access.
But, riverboats have, at least until recently, been mired in a traditional rut. Too small to offer the plethora of big-ship options -- Las Vegas-style entertainment and gambling, vast sun decks and kids clubs -- riverboats serve more as floating hotels than as destinations in their own right. The boats are built long, sleek and low-slung, designed out of the necessity to squeeze under stout ancient and medieval bridges and through narrow canal locks. Typically the ships, carrying as few as 100 and as many as 200 passengers, each feature one restaurant (where all passengers dine at the same time), few onboard activities (save for daytime enrichment) and evening entertainment that's inspired by the cultures of the ports visited.
However, times are changing on Europe's rivers, as operators like Avalon, Uniworld, Tauck, Viking River, AmaWaterways, Scenic and others are investing in new boats that incorporate more of today's contemporary features. These new-builds feature amenities like spacious two-room suites, cabins with full balconies, Wi-Fi, alternative eateries, gyms, spas, swimming pools and museum-worthy art collections.
Beyond the hardware, what makes a river cruise so different from an ocean cruise is the intense emphasis on the places visited. Every day a new port is featured (no "river" days here), guided tours are included, and no one opts to spend a day enjoying the boat when they could be out exploring. With this focus, it's nice that river itineraries in Europe feature a diverse mix of sophisticated metropolises -- such as Vienna, Paris, Amsterdam and Budapest -- and picturesque villages like the Rhone's Provence, the Danube's Durnstein and the Rhine's Cochem.
Intrigued? Need more convincing? Here are eight essential reasons to take a European river cruise.
If you have a river cruise experience to share, we'd love to see your photos and read your stories in Cruise Critic's River and Canal Cruises forum.
1. Cruises Provide Great Value
River cruising offers great vacation value, with meals, entertainment (think Austrian string quartet, not Las Vegas-style revues), tours and, often, local wines with dinner included in the fares. Tauck River Cruising does an especially good job offering compelling shoreside activities, such as private concerts and chef-led excursions to food markets. And it offers a little bit extra: "The highlight of the cruise for many of us was the Tauck tradition of 'lagniappe,' a New Orleans term for a surprise treat," writes Cruise Critic's Carolyn Spencer Brown. "On our Swiss Jewel cruise, examples included a coffee klatch in a famous Bratislava cafe, a walking tour of Vienna's Naschmarkt led by the chef (with stops to sample wine, meats and cheeses) and a tasting of regional apricot liqueurs."
2. Shore Tours Are Included
"Invariably, the guides who shepherded our daily tours aboard Avalon Waterways' Avalon Creativity spoke virtually unaccented, nearly perfect English," writes Cruise Critic contributor Steve Faber in his review of the ship. Indeed, shore touring is central to the concept of river cruising -- and nearly always included in the cost of the cruise. Tours vary; some are traditional city and village walks, while others feature active or experiential options (meals in private homes, cycling tours, wine tastings). One big plus: They use technology that makes it easy for you to follow along. Avalon, AmaWaterways and Tauck, among others, issue passengers personal headsets, which plug into wireless receivers so that all can hear their guides, perfectly clearly, no matter the distance or venue.
3. Daytime Cruising Offers Scenic Vistas
Riverboats don't spend full days out on the rivers, but when passing through particularly beautiful stretches like the Danube's Wachau Valley and the Rhine's River Gorge, cruise lines feature daytime cruising and often fun, themed meals and entertainment. On a recent trip on Viking's Viking Prestige, crewmembers hauled out beer steins, period costumes and special decorations, transforming the sun deck as we cruised along Austria's Wachau.
4. You'll Never Get Bored
"If Tauck's Swiss Sapphire sails at a bit of a languorous pace," writes Cruise Critic's Melissa Paloti in her review of the ship, "the rest of the experience doesn't necessarily feel as laid-back. Between tour-packed days in port, there are lectures, shore tours, cocktail parties and, of course, meals. Even our sole sea day was hectic, kicked off by a 6 a.m. mimosa party as we sailed by castles on the Danube en route to the Iron Gate, a narrow gorge that forms the boundary between Serbia and Romania. I was kept so busy I honestly didn't even turn my TV on until the last day of the trip -- just to see if it worked." Another reason river cruising is not as sedate as you thought: The folks at Tauck have even rigged up a Nintendo Wii in the lounge for some competitive videogaming.
5. Riverboats Are Getting More Luxurious
"As we passed numerous riverboats operated by other lines, it was clear that the newer ships all were more beautiful, had more onboard options and featured more of the key amenities than ever before," writes Editor in Chief, Carolyn Spencer Brown. She adds, "I'd happily cruise on any of them. But there wasn't a ship I saw out there that compared with Uniworld's S.S. Antoinette." Uniworld is aiming to offer the most upscale onboard ambience on Europe's rivers. S.S. Antoinette features a sun deck with wrought iron chaises and ultra-plush pillows, the edgy and trendy Leopard Bar and a beautiful indoor pool and spa. As well, its variety of silk-walled mini-suites offers a haven from the usual beehive of activity. Still, on the ship design front, S.S. Antoinette has some nifty competition from other lines, such as Ama, Viking and Scenic.
6. River Companies Are Increasingly Eco-friendly
All of the major river lines are investing in new technology to improve operating efficiency, safety and environmental sensitivity, and Viking River plays a leading role. Among the biggest achievements of its 19-ship fleet are, on its newest vessels, "a state-of-the-art propulsion system that delivers a quieter, vibration-free, more environmentally friendly ride. Passengers probably won't notice what's going on below the waterline, but the hybrid, diesel/electric engines save an estimated 20 percent on fuel."
7. You Can Sightsee by Bicycle
Bicyclists are given great respect in Western Europe, with huge, tree-lined paths and smoothly paved lanes set aside just for them. Like many other riverboats, AmaWaterways' Amacello carries roughly 20 bikes that can be taken out (at no charge) in port if you're eager for a more active option than the typical city tour. Especially adventurous? You can ride along the riverside and meet the ship at the next port. The cruise director can help chart a route and warn you about making reckless choices, as Cruise Critic's Dan Askin did when he biked from Dusseldorf to Cologne. A car ferry, the aid of a toothless wanderer, countless wrong turns, sunburns and 40 miles later, he made it back to the ship -- barely. Note: Scenic Tours' Scenic Crystal offers electric-powered bicycles onboard.
8. Boutique Custom Cabins Are Spacious and Unique
As river lines like Avalon, Scenic, Uniworld and Viking River update ship designs, standard cabins have gotten more spacious, featuring hotel-style beds and marble bathrooms that, while compact, are still practical. Suites are also becoming more popular and prevalent onboard. Avalon has launched several all-suite ships, and Viking River's Longship design (there will be a dozen by 2014) includes two-room suites.