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Cruise Critic's Ultimate Seine River Cruise Guide
View of the Seine River on a foggy day (Photo: Viking River Cruises)

Cruise Critic's Ultimate Seine River Cruise Guide

Cruise Critic's Ultimate Seine River Cruise Guide
View of the Seine River on a foggy day (Photo: Viking River Cruises)
Carolyn Spencer Brown
Contributor
By Carolyn Spencer Brown
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Sponsored by Viking River Cruises

On a Seine River cruise, it's understandable that Paris, where voyages begin and end, seems like the marquee attraction when you're booking your trip. And no question, it's a fascinating place where we heartily recommend you extend your vacation to spend additional days there if you can. The big surprise during our Seine cruise this summer was how special the stops were along the way. We spent most of our time in Normandy ports, and between the gorgeous countryside, ancient cities and amazing cuisine (both onboard and off), we made many delightful discoveries.

Ultimately, for fans of French culture, cuisine and history (not to mention the U.S. and Canadian theater in Normandy during World War II), a Seine River sailing was the perfect taster cruise.

The typical Seine cruise offers an overnight in Paris before heading toward Normandy and the English Channel. The itinerary is wonderfully choreographed to balance power touring with small-and-enchanting stops that invite relaxation.

Ultimately, for fans of French culture, cuisine and history (not to mention the U.S. and Canadian theater in Normandy during World War II), a Seine River sailing was the perfect taster cruise.
The typical Seine cruise offers an overnight in Paris before heading toward Normandy and the English Channel. The itinerary is wonderfully choreographed to balance power touring with small-and-enchanting stops that invite relaxation.
Paris
Paris' most iconic monument. (Photo by Galina Schott, courtesy of Viking River Cruises)
Whether a first-time visitor or a Paris regular, here's what's fantastic about a river cruise that starts and ends on the Seine River in Paris: The itinerary builds in solid time in the city. What's challenging? There's so much to see! The plus is that because your riverboat is based in or around the city, you can conveniently stretch your cruise with a couple of days for land touring at either beginning or end (and if you want to stick with your cruise line, check out pre- and post-cruise offerings for seamless transitions).
Don't Miss: The number of legendary sites that everyone says you must visit in Paris will exhaust even the most determined traveler. Still, at the top of the list has to be the Louvre, France's national museum, whose palatial foundation dates back to the 12th century. With 650,000 square feet of exhibition space, it is known for a lot more than da Vinci's "Mona Lisa." Another key must-visit is the Musee d'Orsay, a massive museum specializing in French art (with a concentration in impressionism, which is a theme throughout our voyage) and whose building is as beautiful as any artwork. Make a pilgrimage to the Notre Dame Cathedral; while you can't go inside (or get too terribly close) because of the recent fire, its inspiring beauty is still on display (the best viewing spot is just outside the Shakespeare & Company bookshop in the 5th arrondisement).
Be sure to take a stroll through Luxembourg Gardens and head over to Montmartre to catch a show at the Moulin Rouge.
Independent Meanderings: Speaking of Montmartre, you can take a ship-organized tour to visit the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris (also known as Sacre-Coeur). Appreciate its Gothic architecture -- and its supreme views from the highest-in-Paris vantage points. Then wander around the picturesque village, where wannabe artists paint street scenes and find the city's only in-town vineyard. It's an easy place to visit independently, too, but we had a great guide who made the experience special for us. Just be prepared to climb 270 steps up (and another 300 or so if you go to the cathedral's tower at the tippy-top).
Other Paris options: Splash out on a five- or seven-course degustation menu at Jules Verne restaurant, atop the Eiffel Tower. It's got a new chef and a great view. Shoppers should head to Galeries Lafayette Haussmann, a fifth-generation department store; the opulent building is known as much for its gorgeous glass dome as its merchandise. Here, head up to the rooftop terrace for a grand Paris view and, inside, line up to experience Glasswalk, a 30-foot-long walkway that hangs some 52 feet. in midair and overlooks the store.
Active Pursuits: Walk! Paris is one of the world's most walkable cities and its neighborhoods, called arrondissements, all have different vibes and appeals.
Insider Tips: Paris has Uber and it's a great alternative to taxis (though the city's metro system is really easy to figure out and helps avoid clogged roadways). Be wary of pickpockets -- they're everywhere -- and this summer's scheme involved those working in pairs. One holds a clipboard and asks for information while his or her partner filches wallets and other belongings.
Vernon and Giverny
Essentially, Vernon's appeal is its proximity to Giverny, where impressionist painter Claude Monet created his beautiful gardens. The small, quite ancient city is actually delightful. It's known for its half-timbered buildings, the oldest of which dates back to the 12th century. Giverny is not to be missed; while Monet's garden is the primary attraction, the picturesque village also has restaurants, art galleries and shops.
Don't Miss: Giverny! Monet's expansive, colorful garden is the focal point of a visit here. The artist spent 43 years creating and maintaining the garden, which is divided into two parts. Clos Normand is home to flowers and plants from all over the world and the Japanese-inspired water garden is across the road. There's also a massive Monet-themed gift shop.
In Vernon, visit the Musee du Vernon to see two of Monet's works (interestingly none of his works are shown in Giverny): "Nymphaea," 1908 (painted in his garden) and "Effet de soleil couchant a Pourville" (the cliffs of Pourville at sunset); stay to enjoy the Norman ambience in this historic building. Another plus: The tourist office is located on the ground level.
Independent Meanderings: In Vernon, cross the bridge over the Seine to check out what's left of the Old Mill as it precariously sits above the storied river. For lunch, try the Bistro des Fleurs with its country bistro feel and fresh-from-the-market menu. Fans of old-fashioned vinyl records should check out Barney's Grooves.
In Giverny, carve out some extra time to visit the Musee des Impressionnismes. Grab a bite or a beverage at the colorful Hotel Baudy, which, in the 19th century served as a watering hole for American impressionist painters who made pilgrimages from Paris to Giverny to meet Monet. Don't miss the charming painters' studio out back and gardens that invite you to linger.
Active Pursuits: Most passengers headed out to Giverny on one of Viking's included tours will be transported via motor coach; we opted to cycle there via an extra-fee excursion. The ride, through pastoral farmland and quaint village streets, took about 30 minutes mostly on the flat Andre Toufler pathway, converted from an old train line.
Insider Tips: Monet is buried at Giverny's Eglise Sainte-Radegonde de Giverny, the church he attended. Honor him with a visit to his flower-festooned grave but also wander into the church itself; it's serene, cool and beautiful.
Rouen
Rouen's Joan d'Arc Square (photo via Shutterstock)
The largest city in Normandy and its capital, Rouen dates back to the 12th century with a heritage that spotlights the disparate trio of Joan of Arc, Claude Monet and Julia Child. It, like Vernon, has a plethora of half-timbered buildings. Joan of Arc, canonized as a saint of the Catholic Church, is a national hero who, as a young girl with a belief in the divine guidance of God, led the French army to success during a Hundred Years' War battle at Orleans. The British eventually captured her as a heretic and burned her at the stake in Rouen's Place du Vieux-Marche. Monet's connection with Rouen lies primarily with his fascination with the facade of the Gothic-Norman Cathedrale Notre-Dame; he painted a series of oils. And for Julia Child, in Rouen she had, as she wrote in "My Life in France," "the most exciting meal of her life" -- which also inspired her passion for French cuisine.
Don't Miss: A walking tour of Rouen's medieval quarter takes in the city's most iconic sites, such as Notre Dame Cathedral (buried inside is Richard the Lionheart), and the Gros Horloge astronomical clock. A statue in the Place du Vieux-Marche marks the spot where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake -- the Eglise Ste-Jeanne-d' Arc, built in the 1970s, presents an odd contrast to the square's otherwise historic ambience. Normandy is famed for its foodstuffs, particularly cheese and apples; an extra-fee tour features a visit to a Norman farm with plenty of opportunities for tasting, including Calvados (an apple liqueur), Norman cheese and apple tarts. And, from Rouen, our ship also offered a half-day visit to enchanting Honfleur.
Independent Meanderings: The Rouen Museum of Fine Art showcases European artists, such as Fragonard, Monet, Pissarro, Duchamp and Caravaggio, from the 15th century to contemporary times. La Couronne, the restaurant immortalized by Julia Child (and featured in "Julie & Julia," although the scene was not filmed there), is a great lunch or dinner stop for classic Normandy cuisine. Located in a 14th-century half-timbered building, the ambience reflects its history, and the food superb. (Order Julia's menu, including a half-dozen Brittany oysters and Dover sole, and if you splurge on the cheese tray, you won't regret it). Advance booking (you can reserve online) is recommended, and our ship's Child fans went for lunch and/or dinner (I was tempted to do both!).
Active Pursuits: Cycling on towpaths lining the Seine.
Insider Tips: The farthest any ocean ship can get up the Seine is Rouen; it's fun to see both riverboats and ocean-going vessels in port.
Honfleur
Honfleur (Photo:Johannes Valkama/Shutterstock)
Honfleur, at the mouth of the Seine River, is so picturesque it has been memorialized by impressionist artists like Georges Seurat, Claude Monet and Eugene Boudin. And the good news is that today, while quite touristic, it's still a darling place to visit. Its appeal is not just its medieval ambience and its half-timbered Norman-style buildings, pretty harbor and cobbled streets. It's also the light, as it reflects the sky and sea, which has inspired so many artists from the impressionists to hobbyists.
And while Honfleur has some historic attractions, it's also a perfect port for simply strolling through the lanes, sipping coffee at a sidewalk cafe or doing a bit of shopping.
Don't Miss: On a walking tour, visit St. Catherine's Church. It was built entirely out of wood in the 15th century. The Eugene Boudin Museum honors the impressionist painter who was a native of Honfleur.
Independent Meanderings: Shop for authentic French wares at Saint James de la Mer. For a sublime lunchtime splash-out, dine at a Seine-facing table at Les Impressionistes in the La Ferme Saint Simeon Hotel. (Try the apple-glazed foie gras and "fishing boat" sole if they're on the menu). The less ambitious can create their own picnics by picking up delicious Norman cheeses and meats at any local food shop.
Active Pursuits: Stroll around the old harborfront and make sure to explore backstreets, too.
Insider Tips: Honfleur's only downside: Very few riverboats can actually dock here. In our case, we were based in Rouen and there was an hourlong bus transfer to Honfleur. And like Rouen, this is a port of call for both ocean and river travelers (via day trip).
Normandy's D-Day Beaches
Normandy is securely implanted in our minds for the role that Allied troops played in D-Day, which changed the course of World War II, particularly for Americans, Canadians and Brits. The invasion of German-occupied France is chronicled in numerous places, from landing beaches to museums to cemeteries. And this port of call, more than almost any other on a Seine River itinerary, is a reason that many fellow passengers booked the cruise in the first place.
Beyond its prominent place in World War II, the region was settled by Vikings in the 10th century and played a central role in the War of 1066, when the British attempted to seize France. What's a delightful surprise about Normandy is its beautiful rural countryside. And its beaches, too, which line the English Channel. Plenty of people were here to swim and sunbathe -- even if rusted out World War II pontoons still dot the beaches.
Don't Miss: The ship-hosted free guided tours of Normandy. It's a full day from your ship's perch in Rouen and the drive is about two hours.
There are two tours. The first is geared to Americans and visits Juno and Gold beaches, where troops landed. On to Arromanches, where the big attraction is the D-Day Museum. There's also a stop at Omaha Beach. Lunch is provided at a nearby restaurant before travelers move on to easily the most powerful moment of the day: A visit to the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in Colleville-sur-Mer, where 9,400 American troops are buried. Viking hosts a moving ceremony there, and passengers who have served in the military are gathered and honored. There's free time to wander through the meticulously measured gravesites.
The tour that's organized for British and Canadians is also an 11-hour day but visits different locations. It starts with a drive to Bayeux to see the historic tapestry depicting the Battle of Hastings (it will be exhibited in the U.K. from 2022). In Normandy, the stop at Juno Beach, where Canadians landed, includes a visit to the Juno Beach Centre, a museum and memorial to the war. Other stops include the Beny-sur-Mer Canadian cemetery, British-focused Pegasus Museum and the British cemetery in the village of Ranville, the first village troops liberated.
Independent Meanderings: This is a case where the ship's tours really are incredibly well-organized with exceptional guides so we recommend you take the excursions. There's a little bit of free time, particularly on the American tour in Arromanches, where you can stroll through the pleasant seaside town and buy Normandy souvenirs, such as Pommeau (apple cider), Breton striped blue shirts and Calvados (the region's famous apple brandy). If you're feeling peckish (lunch is provided about an hour later), try the outside terrace at La Marine, overlooking Arromanches' artificial harbor. On Omaha Beach, Les Braves is a moving sculpture honoring the dead.
Active Pursuits: As incongruous as it may seem, you can pack a beach towel and a swimsuit and fling yourself into the sea for a swim in Arromanches and Omaha Beach.
Insider Tips: No one tells you how beautiful the countryside is in Normandy so that portion of the long drive to the D-Day beaches is very pleasant. Viking uses its own motor coaches and they're spacious, equipped with a bathroom and have charging outlets at each pair of seats so you can keep your mobile device/camera topped up; bring your own charging cords.
Les Andelys
Les Andelys on a Seine River Cruise from Chateau Gaillard (photo by Peter Falk, courtesy of Viking River Cruises)
Anchored by Chateau Gaillard, a mountain-top medieval ruin built in 1196 for Richard the Lionhearted, Les Andelys consists of a fishing village and a larger town, separated by a marsh (and an approximately 30-minute walk). Ships dock in the smaller, Le Petit Andely. It's a charming port with the now-familiar half-timbered houses and, better yet, after busy days in Rouen and Normandy, it's light on power touring. It's the perfect place for a low-key day, with lots of boutiques, antique stores and local bistros.
Don't Miss: Walk up the mountain to the ruins of Chateau Gaillard for the incomparable views of the Seine Valley and its white cliffs. A guided walk is an included tour. Another option is to head to La Roche-Guyon, another picturesque Seine Valley town.
Independent Meanderings: Stroll along the riverside towpath and through the village. And Chateau Gaillard, for more ambitious hikers, is also easily navigated (though perhaps a tough climb) individually.
Active Pursuits: We had a blast on Viking's "Paddle Down the Eure River" kayak excursion. We loaded our kayaks on the pleasant and scenic Eure, about a half-hour's drive from the La Terrasse Cafe, and meandered with the current around many bends. The scenic tree-lined banks, occasionally offered a gorgeous half-timbered mansion and bird species, like kingfisher, white wagtail and barn swallow. Mostly, we just loved the gentle paddling rhythm and the feeling of being on the water. Wear your bathing suit under your clothes -- there's time for a swim at the end. Afterward, we returned to the La Terrasse Cafe for a beer. Beyond the gentle exercise, it was also a fun bonding experience with fellow passengers.
Insider Tips: The range of interesting shops in Le Petit Andely was surprising and if you've got to pick one, head for Blandin Cadeaux. It's on the main street and has fun French gifts.
Mantes-la-Jolie
At Versailles, on a Seine River cruise (Photo by Linda Guerra, courtesy of Viking River Cruises)
As a tourist destination, Mantes la Jolie, located about 30 miles west of Paris, is the home of the medieval Collegiate Church of Our Lady of Mantes. It's worth a look, but boats really dock here for proximity to Versailles and Napoleon's Chateau de Malmaison. As such, it's another big power-touring day, and after most travelers debarked for tours, our riverboat pushed off at noon to return to Le Pecq, our suburban Paris homeport.
Don't Miss: Spend the day at the Chateau de Versailles, one of the top tourist draws in and around Paris. This UNESCO World Heritage Site began as a humble hunting lodge before becoming the home of kings (the most famous being King Louis XIV, who embarked on an opulent expansion scheme). On the tour, you visit the state apartments and the striking Hall of Mirrors, a 240-foot-long glass- and chandelier-filled corridor that pays tribute to France's political, economic and artistic might. The recently revitalized Queen's Apartments, where you learn about life at the palace, is full of stories. And no visit to Versailles is complete without a turn in its lavish gardens. Don't miss the numerous waterworks, such as The Four Seasons Fountain and the Mirror Pool.
Been there and done that? Take a tour of Napoleon Bonaparte's last home in France before his exile. His wife Josephine actually owned the manor, and she kept it after the couple divorced. Chateau Malmaison is less a palace and more a home than Versailles.
Independent Meanderings: If you prefer to spend more time in Paris, Viking arranged for a shuttle that departs Mantes la Jolie after breakfast and returns to the ship's final stop in Le Pecq later that afternoon.
Active Pursuits: Cycle your way around the Chateau de Versailles; it rents them onsite.
Insider Tips: Various tour options to visit Versailles run from 5 to 6.5 hours. Pace yourself; Viking's Paris by Night motor coach tour takes place after dinner on this last night of the cruise. If you've already been to Versailles and want a lazy afternoon before arriving at Le Pecq, stay onboard watching passing scenery that gradually becomes less rural and more suburban as we got closer to our final port of call.

Carolyn Spencer Brown, Cruise Critic’s Chief Content Strategist, is an award-winning editor and writer who’s been covering the cruise industry for morre than 20 years. She’s began trawling Europe’s rivers while on assignment for The Washington Post and counts a dozen voyages along the Danube alone (and only two on the Seine; she's looking to increase her frequency on France's most iconic waterway). A Seine cruise's big appeal? The vast range of places to visit there, from imperial cities to villages so beautifully preserved they could be a film set.
Want to learn more about a European River cruise?
We traveled on Europe's most popular rivers -- the Danube, Rhine, Rhone and Seine -- and share our stories about our discoveries, both in-port and on-shore, with plenty of tips and insights to help you plan your own voyage. Please join us.
On the Danube River: Two Longtime Pals Make Discoveries About Europe and Friendship
On the Rhine River: Our Culinary, Castle and Cathedral Discoveries Are Just the Beginning
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On the Seine River: Paris Is Just One of Many Standouts on This Solo Cruise
And don't miss our exclusive new series: Cruise Critic's Ultimate River Cruise Guides. The guides give expert advice on what to do in ports of call when cruising Europe's rivers, from insight on the marquee attractions that are typically featured on included tours to off-the-track discoveries to make on your own.
Check out: Cruise Critic's Ultimate Danube River Cruise Guide
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Check out: Cruise Critic's Ultimate Seine River Cruise Guide

Updated December 15, 2019

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