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Sunrise over Melk, Austria (Credit: Viking)

12 Best Things to See and Do on a Danube River Cruise

Sunrise over Melk, Austria (Credit: Viking)
Kerry Spencer

Last updated
Jan 31, 2024

Read time
9 min read

Sponsored by Viking

Following in the footsteps of the world's greatest ever composers, visiting bucolic vineyards and exploring Renaissance castles are among the best things to do on a Danube River cruise. This extraordinary waterway is Europe's second-largest river, winding 1,775-miles southeast from Germany's Black Forest to the Black Sea, with a river cruise presenting the best way to explore it.

Danube River cruises include dramatic scenery and historic ports of call, including Regensburg, Germany; Vienna, Austria, and Budapest, Hungary, encompassing some of Europe's most iconic capital cities and magical towns. From wandering UNESCO World Heritage old towns to dancing the waltz in Vienna, here are some of the best things to see and do on a Danube River cruise with Viking.

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1. Don Your Dancing Shoes in Vienna

St. Michael's Square, Vienna

Made popular in the late 18th century, the waltz swept across Europe from Vienna, reaching palatial ballrooms from Linz to London. Learning the Viennese waltz at one of the prestigious dance schools during a shore excursion during your Viking river voyage is an enriching experience as not only will you learn all the steps, but you will also be taught the etiquette of this elegant ballroom dance, too.

2. Drink in Austria's UNESCO-listed Wachau Valley

Vineyards in the Wachau Valley (Photo: Viking)

What's not to love about the Wachau Valley? Made up of a tapestry of verdant forests, terraced vineyards and Renaissance castles, Austria's wine country is unfathomably beautiful. Situated between Melk and Krems, this swathe of the Danube runs for around 18 miles and witnessing it is one of the best things to do on a river cruise. You could soak in the views as you sail the river, capturing landmarks on camera, including the 12th-century Aggstein Castle, perched on a hilltop, with the sprawling Hinterhaus ruins on the opposite side.

Step ashore to imbibe on the region's fine grapes and learn about what makes the Wachau's wines so special. A short drive from Melk, visitors can take a vineyard tour and sample delicious Gruner Veltliner, Riesling and Fruhroter vintages.

Viking offers a Heurigen Dinner shore excursion where you can sample all the best wines and foods this region has to offer.

3. Tour the Remarkable Göttweig Abbey Near Krems

Gorgeous Gottweig Abbey near Krems (Photo: Viking River Cruises)

The pastel-hued Göttweig Abbey is nestled in an emerald-green forest with superb views of the Wachau Valley from its hillside location near Krems. Visit the place where monks work and worship on an exclusive Privileged Access Viking shore excursion. Savour a glass of sparkling apricot wine -- on of the region's delicious delicacies -- before enjoying a private viewing of the abbey.  

Highlights include the abbey museum and the Imperial Staircase. This glowing retreat has an extraordinary ceiling fresco by Paul Troger from 1739 above the monumental imperial staircase -- it's one of the largest staircases of its kind in the world.

4. Go Glam to Attend the Vienna State Opera

Staatsoper, Vienna (Photo: Viking)

Vienna Staatsoper, or State Opera, is home to the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and Vienna State Ballet, with a jam-packed program of 350 annual performances. Listen to the magical sounds of Mozart, Beethoven, Strauss and Vivaldi played out by some of the world's top conductors and performers. You could also join a behind-the-scenes 40-minute guided tour to learn about the history and architecture of this 19th-century Renaissance-style building, including the Tea Salon, Marble Hall and the richly decorated auditorium.

Viking offers a Privileged Access shore excursion to the Alma Deutscher Mozart & Strauss performance, which takes place at the exquisite Wiener Konzerthaus.

Learn More About First Time River Cruising

5. Tour the Hungarian Parliament Building in Budapest

A Viking Longship sails past the parliament building in Budapest Hungary (Image: Viking)

The seat of the National Assembly of Hungary in Kossuth Square, on the Pest side of the city, the show-stopping Hungarian Parliament Building glistens on the banks of the Danube. The building opened as the House of the Country in 1902, designed in a fanciful neo-Gothic style by Hungarian architect Imre Steindl, whose design bears a strong resemblance to London's Palace of Westminster.

The symmetrical building includes piercing spires and a central dome, with two parliament halls on either side. One can be explored during a guided tour, while the other is in use by the Hungarian National Assembly. Wander the courtyards, marvel some of the 242 sculptures and statues of Hungarian rulers and famous national figures and gaze at vivid frescoes. There are glass mosaics and stained-glass windows by Miksa Roth and the showpiece 16-sided domed central hall to see. If you're on a river cruise, one of the best views of the building is from the water.

6. Visit the Birthplace of Mozart in Salzburg

Mozart's Birthplace, Salzburg (Photo: Viking)

Salzburg is one of Europe's truly magical cities and is easily reached from Passau on a Danube River cruise. Home of "The Sound of Music," the hills are also alive with the classical sounds of Mozart, one of history's greatest composers, who was born in Salzburg. Dedicate time to exploring Salzburg's UNESCO-listed Italianate Old Town, before visiting Hagenauer House at Getreidegasse 9, where the composter was born on January 27, 1756.

The building is painted in Canary yellow, with "Mozart's Geburtshaus" (Mozart's birthplace) emblazoned in gold on the front facade. Inside is a museum showcasing the elegant eight-room apartment that Mozart's family lived in until 1780.

After, enjoy lunch at one of Europe's oldest restaurants, Peter Stiftskulinarium, within the historic St. Peter's Abbey as part of a day-long tour of Salzburg with Viking. Founded in the 7th century, the abbey is home to St. Peter's cemetery and catacombs. You may recognize the abbey as one of the filming locations used in "The Sound of Music."

7. Cross the Szechenyi Bridge in Budapest

Budapest, Hungary (Credit: Viking)

The beautiful Szechenyi Bridge straddles the Danube, linking the two sides of the Hungarian capital, Buda and Pest. This chain suspension bridge is most spectacular at night, when lit up against a dark sky. Opened in 1849, the bridge became the first to be built across the Danube in Hungary. Follow the pedestrian path to walk across the bridge or take one of the city's yellow taxis, with landmarks such as Buda Castle, home to the Hungarian National Gallery on one side, and Szechenyi Square on the other.

On an included Panoramic tour of Budapest with Viking, you can take in fantastic views of Szechenyi Bridge from Buda Hill, in Buda's sublime Castle District.

8. Witness Durnstein Castle Ruins in Durnstein

A Viking Longship on the Danube River near Durnstein Abbey (Credit: Viking)

One of the mightiest castles peering over the Danube is Durnstein Castle, around a 15-minute drive from Krems. This infamous medieval fortress is where Richard the Lionheart was incarcerated by Austria's Leopold V in the 12th century. Legend has it that on his return from the Crusades, King Richard refused to share his spoils with Leopold and tore up the Austrian flag, leading to his imprisonment.

Today, the castle's remnants still dominate the skyline above the sleepy town of Durnstein, affording breathtaking views of the Wachau Valley's rolling hills. The walk from the town center takes roughly 20 minutes, with the two connected by a stone wall. There's also a model of the castle ruins on display at Durnstein Abbey.

9. Take a World War II History Lesson in Nuremberg

Old Town, Nuremberg (Photo: Viking)

The second-largest city in Bavaria, after Munich, Nuremburg is perfectly situated near the Rhine–Main–Danube Canal, which means it's actually a great stop on multiple Viking river cruise itineraries. Crammed with Gothic churches, timber-clad houses and charming squares, plus three miles of medieval city walls, dotted with original watchtowers. Nuremburg is the site of Nazi party rallies and the location of the World War II war crimes trials at the Palace of Justice.

River cruisers can visit the vast Documentation Centre Nazi Party Rally Grounds, designed to once accommodate 50,000 people attending National Socialists rallies between 1933 and 1938. Looming over the city, the fairytale-like Nuremburg Castle is the location of the city's Art Bunker. This underground shelter was built to protect the city's art treasures during the war's air raids. Visitors can learn about the city's efforts to protect art from the air raids and how Nuremburg was turned to ruin -- and rebuilt -- through photography, film and sound records inside the bedrock bunker.

Another poignant stop in the city is Courtroom 600 at the Palace of Justice. It was the location of the Nuremberg Trials -- the most famous war trials in history -- from November 20, 1945, to October 1, 1946. Learn about the trials, which took place before the International Military Tribunal, and the longer follow-up trials, which took place from 1946-49, and their lasting impact on international criminal law.

10. Relax at Budapest's Thermal Baths

Thermal Baths in Budapest (Photo: Viking)

For a relaxing spell in the city, pack your bathing suit and head to Budapest's leafy City Park, home of the Szechenyi Thermal Baths, one of the biggest natural hot spring baths in Europe (It’s worth noting that bath houses may vary based on sailing, but this is one of the most iconic thermal baths). On a guided visit with Viking, learn about how patrons have been bathing here since 1913, before enjoying the warm medicinal waters. Surrounded by dashing amber-hued buildings, the Outdoor Thermal Pool is the warmest spot, heated to 96-100°F (36-38°C). There's also the balmy Leisure Pool, the Indoor Medicinal Pool, plus plunge pools. Saunas, steam rooms and spa treatments, such as couples' massages, are also available. Take home a memento from your time here by picking out a handmade soap made from water from the Gellert Baths, also in Budapest, containing nourishing avocado oil.

11. Delve into Regensburg's UNESCO-listed Old Town

Romantischer Weihnachtsmsarkt (Christmas Market) in Regensburg (Photo/Jeannine Williamson)

This quaint Bavarian city is a visual feast and a history lover's dream, with half-timbered medieval, Romanesque and Gothic architecture. A highlight is the 900-year-old Stone Bridge, with its striking 16 arches crossing the Danube to the old town. Here, the spiky 13th-century Regensburg Cathedral, with its twin spires poking above terracotta rooftops, is home to the oldest boys' choir in the world, the Regensburger Domspatzen.

Once you've roamed the winding cobblestone streets, take a seat at the Historic Sausage Kitchen of Regensburg. Yes, it serves excellent bratwurst layered with obligatory sauerkraut and mustard, but it also happens to be the oldest continuously open public restaurant in the world. It was built at the same time as the Stone Bridge, originally as construction office to feed workers.

Consider Viking’s Christmas on the Danube voyage to experience the city's magical cinnamon-scented Christmas markets. Sip on glühwein, pick up handmade crafts and listen to Christmas carols as you soak up the festive atmosphere.

12. Stroll the Three River City on the German-Austrian Border

A Viking Longship in Passau Germany (Image: Viking)

Lying on the Austrian border at the confluence of three rivers -- the Danube, Inn and Ilz -- Passau is nicknamed "Three River City". Wander the old town and you'll see soft-hued medieval buildings lining the waterways. This photogenic German city also has Roman ruins, fortified towers, a pilgrimage church and adjoining monastery.

Take a pew at the sublime St. Stephan's Cathedral, adorned with frescoes by Swiss-Italian Baroque painter Carpoforo Tencalla and home to Europe's largest organ, with a staggering 17,974 pipes. Enjoy magnificent views of Passau from Veste Oberhaus, a 13th-century fortress on a hill above the city, and browse Hollgasse, a narrow-cobbled walkway that's also known as Artists Alley for its many art galleries.

Publish date January 27, 2024
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