You don't need a fairy godmother to see places that look like they belong in a storybook. A European river cruise offers the opportunity to visit some of the world's most fabled villages, where whimsical buildings, otherworldly scenery and castles abound.
Wish upon a star to visit these eight fairytale towns on a river cruise.
Candy-colored houses, flower-lined canals and a plethora of intimate shops, cafes and bakeries make Colmar one of the most fairytale-like towns in Europe. A melting pot of French and German influences, the Alsatian village is not only a feast for the eyes but also the taste buds -- Muenster cheese and Gewurztraminer wine, anyone? Day trips to Colmar are offered on a number of river cruise lines' Rhine River itineraries.
Perched in the hills of the southern Czech Republic, Cesky Krumlov casts love spells on visitors with its artsy castle and gardens, riverside bars and cafes, and timeless charm. Climb the castle's bell tower for sprawling views of the town, or stick to the streets for a closer look at its well-preserved Renaissance, Gothic and Baroque architecture, which dates back as early as the 13th century. Look for shore excursions to Cesky Krumlov from Passau, Germany, and Linz, Austria, on Danube River cruises.
Beginning or ending your river cruise in Amsterdam? Consider extending your stay with a trip to Bruges (day trips are often offered on ocean cruises, too). The medieval city, which is less than a three-hour trek from the Netherlands capital, earns its "Venice of the North" nickname from canals that intertwine with old stone buildings, whitewashed cottages and bustling squares (most notably, the Markt). The best way to explore Bruges is to get lost in its cobblestone streets -- just make sure you eventually make your way to a pub and chocolate shop.
Wandering through Sintra's Old Town, mystical forest and Quinta da Regaleira palace -- where hidden passages comingle with grottoes -- can make anyone feel like a fairytale princess or prince. The hilltop village once inhabited by the Portuguese Royal Family is a must-visit for anyone on a Duoro River cruise. Although the river runs north through Porto, pre- and post-cruise stays in Lisbon (roughly 30 minutes from Sintra) are commonly offered by the lines; some even include guided tours.
You're in luck if your Rhone River cruise offers a shore excursion to Fontaine-de-Vaucluse. Tucked away in the South of France, this medieval hamlet spellbinds visitors with an emerald green stream, old water wheel and charming, tree-lined streets dotted with pastel-colored shops and cafes. Active types also will love the town's blissfully unspoiled surroundings, which make for excellent kayaking, canoeing and hiking. Don't see Fointaine-de-Vaucluse on your itinerary? No worries. The town is still easily accessible on your own; it's only 45 minutes from Avignon, a popular starting/ending point for Rhone River cruises.
There's no better way to relish Giethoorn's storybook scenery than from its tranquil canals. Less than two hours from Amsterdam, the Dutch village epitomizes the simple life -- cars are off limits, and "whisper boats" are the primary means of transportation. Hop on a ride and mosey past thatched-roof cottages and alfresco cafes, where you can dock for a quick lunch, or stick to walking or biking along the waterside footpaths.
Lucerne offers a little bit of everything people love about Switzerland -- breathtaking scenery, chocolatiers and sumptuous cheese. Nestled on a crystal clear lake in the mountains, the "Gateway to Central Switzerland" woos visitors with its ancient buildings and bridges, colorful Old Town and castle that looks like something out of a Disney movie. Even better, it's less than 90 minutes from Basel, a popular starting/ending point for Rhine River itineraries -- making it a fabulous pre- or post-cruise retreat; many offer it as an excursion.
Germany is home to some of Europe's most storied castles, so it's no surprise one of its towns makes the cut. Cochem, a popular stop on Moselle River itineraries, garners its charm from a romantic castle overlooking the town, half-timbered buildings and surrounding vineyards -- which produce crisp dry Rieslings (be sure to stop by one of Cochem's many wine shops for a taste). For the best view of town and the Moselle Valley, take the Sesselbahn chair lift to Pinnerkreuz Mountain.