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Choose Your European River: Our Guide to Europe's Best River Cruises

Sue Bryant

Oct 31, 2019

Read time
31 min read

Sponsored by Cruise Critic’s Cruise Content Studio

Many of Europe's most fabled cities -- Paris, Amsterdam, Budapest and Vienna, for starters -- have grown up along the Continent's waterways and there's no easier or more comfortable way to explore them, and the stretches of forest, gorges, water meadows and vineyards in between, than by ship.

River cruising has its similarities with ocean voyages: great food, service and value for money being just three of them. There are differences, too. Ships are much smaller, carrying no more than around 160, and are therefore more intimate. And, most important, you'll always have a view, whether you're lazing on deck gazing up at the medieval castles along the Middle Rhine or docked in the heart of Budapest, with all the bridges over the Danube lit up at night.

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Are you considering a first or a next river cruise? The most important question to address is this one: Which river? Are you a city break type, who would appreciate the heavy-hitting attractions of Vienna's baroque architecture and coffee houses, or Budapest's turreted Fisherman's Bastion along the Danube? Or are you a wine-lover, in which case, the waterways around Bordeaux, or the Rhone would appeal. If it's fairytale castles and vertiginous vineyards, you'll love the Romantic Rhine, while a visit to some of the towns along the Moselle and the Main is like stepping back into the Middle Ages. Or if you like the idea of wild, forested mountains and exploring grand old wine estates, choose Portugal's Douro.

Whichever river you choose, know this: UNESCO World Heritage Sites can be found along every tributary.

Here's more good news: Most river cruise lines offer free tours in ports (along with some more specialized explorations that are available for an extra fee). And for those who want to explore in an active fashion, there are numerous choices of cycling and hiking tours in many riverside ports.

Read on to find the perfect river to suit your cruising personality.

The Rhine

Why go? The Rhine probably represents, along with the Danube, the most classic river voyage and it's a popular first choice for those who are new to river cruising. Why? Because you'll see craggy castles along the Romantic, or Middle Rhine (as the section between Koblenz and Rudesheim is called), riverside wine-growing villages with half-timbered houses and some of Europe's loveliest cities along the way, among them Strasbourg, Heidelberg and Amsterdam. Access is easy, too; gateway airports include Basel or Zurich, Cologne and Amsterdam.

Highlights: Cologne's dizzyingly huge cathedral, breathtaking in its dimensions, the beauty of the stained glass windows and the fact that the supposed bones of the Three Kings are housed here. Strasbourg's cobbled center, with another vast cathedral, is a superb example of medieval architecture (and the shopping is pretty impressive, too). A visit to Strasbourg offers other choices of touring; we loved visiting the medieval wine town of Riquewihr. It's thought to have inspired Disney's "Beauty and the Beast." If you go inside one castle, I'd say 13th-century Marksburg is the most authentic. The Rhine Gorge won't disappoint, its banks lined with castles, vineyards and chocolate-boxy wine-growing villages which are, admittedly, touristy, but pretty nonetheless. Then there's Amsterdam, well deserving of a two-night pre- or post-cruise stay to do the canals, museums and Anne Frank House.

Top tips: A seven-night cruise from Amsterdam to Basel speeds you along the Rhine, sometimes packing two ports into a day, so you could be in Heidelberg in the morning and the wine village of Rudesheim in the afternoon. Nobody tells you about the Technik Museum in Speyer but it's extraordinary, a vast space showcasing everything from vintage aircraft to a Space Shuttle. Things to try along the way: Kolsch beer in Cologne; a Rudesheimer coffee, with a slug of brandy and a pile of whipped cream; a wine tasting in Rudesheim's many shops and taverns; or flammkuchen in Strasbourg, a kind of thin-crust pizza with cream, bacon and cheese.

Tours we love: Wine tasting is the thing to do in Rudesheim, all the more fun on a tour that actually walks you through the vineyards, with wonderful views down to the river, before sampling wine in three different spots. One of my favorite tours in Amsterdam is the Jordaan walking tour, simply because it takes you along some of the prettiest canals and flower-filled back streets -- and there's a tasty slice of Dutch apple pie at the end. Other don't misses include a philospher's path hike in Heidelberg or a bike ride along the Rhine to Schloss Johannisberg.

Souvenirs: Asbach brandy from Rudesheim; cheese from Amsterdam; eiswein (a coveted and expensive dessert wine); a cuckoo clock (expect to pay upward of 200 euros for a good one).

One cool thing: Just to say you've done it, while you're in Basel, take a tram and a ferry to the Dreilandereck, or Three Countries Corner, a slender steel monument on the riverbank marking the point where Switzerland, France and Germany meet. Cue a lot of selfies and running around the monument to say you've visited three countries in one minute.

Essentials: There are endless combinations of cruises featuring the Rhine so read the itinerary carefully. Most include the Romantic Rhine (between Koblenz and Rudesheim) but not all -- the Basel to Nuremberg route, for example. Cruises are seven, 12, 13 and 14 nights. Seven nights will get you between Amsterdam and Basel, while a longer cruise will include the Moselle Valley or take you through the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal to join the Danube. Gateway airports are Amsterdam, Basel, Munich and Cologne. Add-ons are many; Prague, Zurich, Paris or extra time in Amsterdam, for example. Currency is the euro and Swiss franc.

France's Seine

Why go? The star attraction of a cruise on the Seine is glorious Paris itself; the river flows right through the city center and your voyage will start and end here. If you haven't been before, you should definitely add on a few days. Beyond the delights of the French capital, cruising on the Seine is an easy way to string together a series of top attractions, from Monet's garden at Giverny to the WWII landing beaches, interspersed with the bucolic scenery of Normandy, weeping willows draped over the river bank, brown-and-white cows grazing in apple orchards and thatched cottages.

Highlights: Paris, of course; you'll be docked in the city center for the first and last nights of your cruise so be sure to take an evening stroll along the Seine. The Normandy landing beaches are a poignant and important day out for many. Rouen is packed with history; it's where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake and, more cheerfully, where Monet painted from a loft opposite the massive cathedral. The colorful little harbor of Honfleur is as picture-perfect as a port can be; and, of course, Monet's house and garden at Giverny for that famous vision of the bridge over the lily pond.

Top tips: Pack the watercolors and take time out in Giverny and Rouen to paint. Prepare for a long and emotionally draining day at the Normandy Landings beaches. Don't try to do Paris in a day; stay on and lose yourself in the city, and allow at least half a day for a trip to the opulent Palace of Versailles.

Tours we love: The Normandy landing beaches are essential for most; you can choose between a visit to the American sector or the British and Canadian sectors and cemeteries. Both tours include Arromanches, where you can still see the remains of the floating harbor. Monet's house and garden at Giverny is a must, for the scenes immortalized in the impressionist's paintings and the beauty of the gardens themselves.

Souvenirs: Bottles of Calvados apple liqueur (it is wonderful flambéed on pancakes back home). The ubiquitous macarons, in a pretty box. Lingerie from Paris (try Aubade), or beautiful stationery from L'Ecritoire. Nobody will thank you for a miniature Eiffel Tower.

One cool thing: Don't just go up the Eiffel Tower; book a behind-the-scenes tour and a guide will take you down to the engine rooms to see the massive machines that crank the lifts up the 1,063-foot structure. Even if you're not a geek, it's a fascinating insight.

Essentials: Cruises are seven days, round trip from Paris, so it's easy to add on two days or more as an extension. You'll fly into Paris and spend two nights in a city center hotel before heading to your ship. If you want to see Monet's house and garden, time your visit; it's only open from late March to November 1. Currency is the euro.

The Danube, Part 1: Nuremberg to Budapest

Why go? The Danube is one long river: 1,780 miles from its source in Germany to its delta on the Black Sea. So it makes sense that there are numerous varieties of Danube cruises. You can sail the Rhine and the Danube together, for example, from Amsterdam through to Budapest, or just focus on the section that takes you across Bavaria into Austria and on through Slovakia's Bratislava to Hungary, finishing in Budapest. Or you can sail east from Budapest, a route that's recently become popular among cruisers who have "done" the other parts (see LINK for more on this Danube route). This section, though, from Nuremberg or Vilshofen in Bavaria to Budapest, is the "classic" Danube; the stretch that takes in the forested Wachau Valley with its picturesque riverside towns, as well as three capital cities: Vienna, Bratislava and Budapest.

Highlights: Sailing from Vilshofen or Nuremberg, you'll cruise through the lush Wachau Valley, famed for its Riesling and gruner veltliner wines as well as two iconic sights: Durnstein, for its blue pepperpot church tower and ruined hilltop castle, and the ornate Melk Abbey, perched on a rocky outcrop overlooking the river. Linz is the jumping-off point for Salzburg ("Sound of Music" fans, take note) and then there are the star attractions, the three capital cities. You'll want to visit Vienna for baroque palaces, coffee culture, world-class art museums and the ever-present legacy of Johann Strauss and his Blue Danube waltz. Understated Bratislava is an intriguing day of exploring the chunky castle, pastel-colored old town and beer gardens. Glamorous Budapest, once behind the Iron Curtain, is a swaggering finale (or start, depending on which direction you sail in). The majestic Royal Palace gazes down on the river from Castle Hill and the bridges over the Danube are strung with twinkling lights after dark resulting in unforgettable vistas.

Top tips: Don't miss the coffee house experience in Vienna -- try the elegant, art deco Cafe Demel, Cafe Central and Cafe Schwarzenberg and don't skip the cream or the cake (known in Vienna as sachertorte). Wander the alleys of Spittelberg, Vienna's hipster 7th district, vibrant with its up-and-coming fashion designers and pubs in cobbled alleys. Buy a traditional dirndl in Trachtenoutlet -- the look is making a real revival. In Budapest, spend a day in the Gellert Baths; it's the famous spa with the colonnaded swimming pool. Intrigued by caving? Budapest has some 200 caves on the Buda side alone. In Regensburg, make time to sit at one of its many outdoor cafes and watch the world go by.

Tours we love: A day trip to Salzburg (as a self-confessed "Sound of Music" fan, I have to recommend this), not just for the movie locations but because the whole city is exquisite, from its imposing clifftop fortress to Mozart's birthplace. You'll travel through Austria's Salzkammergut district, too, which is especially scenic, all dense forest and alpine lakes. On cruises that spend longer on the German stretch of the Danube, I'd suggest a walking tour around medieval Regensburg, which in fact dates back even earlier than the Middle Ages; its Porta Praetoria is the gate to an ancient Roman fort. Use your free time afterward to try the local beer, pretzels and sausages -- good, uncomplicated fare.

Souvenirs: A tracht, or dirndl costume; Mozartkugeln (dark chocolate balls filled with marzipan); boxed Sacher torte (a glossy chocolate cake); paprika from Hungary; hand-painted wooden boxes and porcelain from Budapest. Also, scented candles and wooden nutcracker men from the Christmas markets and on the grounds of it having been invented in Austria, a snowglobe.

One cool thing: Between Nuremberg and Regensburg, you'll cruise upward through a string of locks, over the top of the continental divide (which is marked by a concrete plinth) and down the other side through more locks. This is the engineering marvel of the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal, which makes it possible for ships to sail all the way from Amsterdam on the North Sea to the Danube delta on the Black Sea.

Essentials: There are many permutations of a Danube cruise. Seven-nighters sail between Vilshofen and Budapest and Nuremberg and Budapest. Longer voyages take you in 14 nights from Amsterdam to Budapest or from Nuremberg all the way to Romania, close to the Danube delta. Don't forget Christmas; the Christmas markets in Vienna, Bratislava and Budapest are romantic and atmospheric. Gateway airports are Munich for Nuremberg or Vilshofen; Budapest; or Bucharest if you opt for the Romania voyage. There are all kinds of add-on possibilities but I'd recommend either three nights in Prague or two in Munich. From Munich, you can visit Neuschwanstein Castle, the inspiration for Cinderella's castle in Disney's Magic Kingdom. Currency is the euro and in Hungary, the forint.

The Danube, Part 2: Budapest to the Black Sea

Why go? The lesser-known eastern stretch of the Danube, from Budapest to the marshy delta on the Black Sea, is something different; for a start, much of the area was behind the Iron Curtain until 1991 and then further off limits during the Balkans conflict that lasted till 2001. As well, you touch history in six different countries. There are still glimpses today of what life was like under Communist rule in the bleak architecture beyond the city centers but more striking is the new dynamism and energy of cities like Novi Sad and Belgrade. There's some stunning scenery, too; 83 miles of the craggy Iron Gates gorge and in rural Bulgaria and Romania, bucolic countryside where the way of life has barely changed for centuries.

Highlights: Castle Hill and the Fisherman's Bastion in Budapest, and the unsung Hungarian city of Pecs, a hub for art and creativity. Some of the fortresses along the river are mind-blowing. The impenetrable 18th-century Petrovaradin citadel at Novi Sad sits over 10 miles of mysterious catacombs, for example, while in Bulgaria, the Roman-built Belogradchik Fortress snakes around a dramatic outcrop of sandstone rocks.

Top tips: Do some homework before you leave. An understanding of the Balkans conflict of the 1990s goes a long way as you try to piece together the complex politics between Serbia, Croatia and the other fragments of former Yugoslavia. Try the local food: peppery goulash in Hungary; cheese pies and apple strudel in Romania; cevapi, flatbreads stuffed with meat and cottage cheese in Serbia. Don't miss Belogradchik Fortress, cut into an outcrop of strangely shaped jutting rocks. Don't expect everybody to speak English.

Tours we love: Because local life in the far reaches of Eastern Europe is somewhat removed from what we're used to, I love the tours that give you a glimpse of local traditions. In Vidin, you can visit a local home to see how banitsa, a special cheese-filled pastry, is made. The monolithic churches of Ivanovo, also in Bulgaria, are pretty extraordinary, too; they're hewn out of the rock and contain amazing 14th-century frescoes.

Souvenirs: Marzipan or paprika from Budapest; hand-painted Easter eggs and chunky wooden beads in Romania; replica religious icons; embroidered blouses; a kilim (woven rug) from Serbia.

One cool thing: Add on two days in Bucharest and two nights in the town of Brasov, deep in Transylvania, and you can see the 13th-century Bran Castle, the eerie mountain prison of Vlad the Impaler, or Vlad Draculea, who inspired Bram Stoker's novel, "Dracula." You can also visit Sighisoara, his birthplace.

Essentials: You'll fly to either Vienna, Budapest or Bucharest. On the eastbound route, you'll fly out of Bucharest so it makes sense to stay a couple of nights and see the extravagant Palace of the Parliament (second in size in the world to the Pentagon), commissioned by Romania's megalomaniac leader, Ceausescu. Extensions in Romania also include a night in Brasov, where the main attraction is the mysterious Bran Castle. Adding on a few days in Vienna or Budapest is easy. You could even sail the whole of the Danube, from Nuremberg to Giurgiu in Romania, in 14 nights, adding on three nights in Prague beforehand, and two nights in both Brasov and Bucharest after the cruise. Currency is a challenge: forints in Hungary; dinar in Serbia; lev in Bulgaria; leu in Romania; and kuna in Croatia.

The Dutch Waterways

**Why go? **A springtime cruise along the waterways of the Netherlands and Belgium is the perfect way to see one of the world's most famous flower cultivation areas in glorious bloom. This is the main reason most people visit -- but the dazzling floral displays of the legendary Keukenhof gardens are only one attraction, as you'll also explore medieval Bruges, Antwerp and Amsterdam, where cruises start and finish. Sailing distances are short and the countryside flat so this is more a voyage for maximum time in port than day after day of scenic cruising.

Highlights: Amsterdam is an entire city break in itself for the canals, the art museums and the Anne Frank House, so adding on two nights is certainly worthwhile in addition to the day you'll spend here. Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp are all lovely in their own way: Bruges for its beauty and romance, Ghent for its medieval buildings and Antwerp for its elegant main square, quirky shops and diamond trade. Then there's Gouda for the cheese, Keukenhof gardens, the classic view of windmills around Kinderdijk and pottery at Delft. A lot of highlights, in other words.

Top tips: The best time for the flowers in Keukenhof depends on what kind of winter the Netherlands has had; if it's been cold, the gardens won't be in full bloom if you visit in March. In Amsterdam, grab on Ama's complimentary bikes and you'll blend right in with the locals. If you want to go inside the Anne Frank House, book online beforehand. And don't forget to sample Belgium's culinary wares: beer, moules et frites (mussels with fries) and cream-filled pralines.

Tours we love: As most tours on Dutch waterways itineraries involve cycling or eating, two of my favorite things, selecting the best is a challenge, but a workshop with a master chocolatier in Ghent is a winner, and you should really do something with flowers, so certainly choose a visit to a tulip grower in Hoorn and on no account skip Keukenhof; it's one of those places that's so much more dazzling in reality than in the pictures you've seen.

Souvenirs: Packs of flavored cheese, tulip bulbs, pralines from Bruges, chocolate and vanilla "snowballs" from Ghent; diamonds from Antwerp and Stroopwafel from either Gouda or Amsterdam.

One cool thing: The Netherlands has strong historical links with Indonesia, which is why you'll see so many restaurants advertising "rijsttafel" in Amsterdam. An evening in one of these restaurants is an event; you'll sample dozens of little sharing plates featuring anything from chicken satay to beef rendang and lots of rice and noodle dishes, none of them too spicy.

Essentials: Gateway city is Amsterdam so spend a couple of extra days here to do the museums and galleries before you set sail. Everybody speaks English and the currency is the euro.

Portugal's Douro

Why go? Portugal's Douro winds its way east from the historic city of Porto through a narrow valley lined with vineyards that snake dramatically around the contours of steep hills. And did you know that the entire Duoro River Valley is a UNESCO World Heritage site? As you get deeper into the countryside, toward the Spanish border, the vineyards give way to wild scrub, ancient olive groves and craggy gorges; this really is one of Europe's greatest untamed wildernesses. Best of all, the time along the river is sandwiched between two wonderfully atmospheric cities: Porto, at the beginning, and Salamanca in Spain, a day trip from the river's furthest navigable point.

Highlights: Porto itself is a wonderfully atmospheric mishmash of architectural styles, from baroque to contemporary. Skinny, brightly colored houses cling to the banks of the Douro on the north side, and gaze across the river at the opulent port lodges of Vila Nova de Gaia on the south bank. I love to lose myself in the cobbled alleys, or watch boats buzzing up and down from a waterfront cafe, over a plate of freshly grilled sardines. At the other end of the Duoro, the wonderfully cosmopolitan Salamanca, across the border in Spain, is another highlight; built entirely from golden sandstone, it's steeped in history. Spain's oldest university town, dating back to the 13th century, anchors the city. Among other highlights along the river, you'll enjoy port tastings on lavishly beautiful country estates, and hiking and cycling along the Douro Valley.

Top tips: If you've opted for a cruise-only deal, book at least one night in Porto before you cruise; you need to feel the vibe of this bustling river port, with its shabby-chic buildings and lively riverfront restaurants. Another hint: Summer can be searingly hot, so pick a ship with a rooftop plunge pool. Opt for a balcony cabin if you can afford it; this is one cruise where the scenery never disappoints and relative to cruises on other rivers, you get to enjoy several longish spells relaxing onboard. When you're deep in the Douro Valley, take a stroll on deck after dark. There are no big towns here and zero air pollution, so the night skies are incredible.

Tours we love: The fortified mountaintop village of Castelo Rodrigo is a fascinating insight into life as it would have been here centuries ago -- and the views down over the river valley are stupendous, so don't miss this half-day tour. Salamanca is a must; it's a long day but as well as the 13th-century university, you'll see the vast cathedral; the elegant Plaza Mayor square, lined with cafes and buzzing with life in summer; and the covered market, where stallholders are happy to let you try local hams and cheeses.

Souvenirs: Port, of course, but if you don't care for the sweet stuff, check out the pink port; with ice and tonic, it's a refreshing summer drink. The punchy Douro reds are gaining a reputation, too. Also, local olive oil products and as a fun gift, chocolate sardines in an "authentic" tin.

One cool thing: Check out the Livraria Lello in Porto; it's a magnificent old bookshop, with curving staircases, wood-paneled walls and a stained glass skylight. If it looks familiar, it could be that you've seen a version of it on the big screen; the bookshop is said to have inspired the then unknown J. K. Rowling who was a regular here when she was writing the Harry Potter series.

Essentials: You'll fly in and out of Lisbon, with a connection to Porto, or into Lisbon and out of Madrid. Extensions to seven-night Douro cruises generally include three nights in Lisbon but you can add on three nights in Madrid before sailing from Vega de Terron to Porto (or after sailing Port to Vega de Terron). Currency is the euro.

France's Bordeaux

**Why go? **On this voyage, which occurs on the Dordogne and Garonne rivers and the Gironde estuary, the magnet is the rolling vineyards surrounding dozing chateaux; lazy afternoons on deck under vast skies; the salty air of the Atlantic as the Gironde broadens out toward the ocean; tasting cheese in local markets; and Bordeaux itself, one of France's most elegant cities. This isn't a regular river cruise, as such; you'll actually sail on three waterways -- the Dordogne, the Garonne and the Gironde estuary -- and distances are relatively short, giving you all the more time to explore picturesque towns, taste the wines and join cycling tours, pedaling through mile upon mile of vineyards.

Highlights: Bordeaux is a serene, beautiful city spread out along the banks of the Garonne, with graceful old buildings; the famous Miroir d'eau (water mirror), the world's largest reflecting pool; and the futuristic La Cite du Vin, which is more of an "experience" than just a museum. Wine really is the central feature of this cruise; you'll visit some of the world's most legendary vineyards around the villages of Saint-Emilion and Pauillac.

Top tips: Choose your season. In spring, you'll see great swathes of wildflowers and purple wisteria draped over every house, while the vines are green and ripe by summer and September brings the grape harvest. Blaye is the best port for cycling -- a marked trail takes you through the vineyards for miles. You can join a cycling tour into the gorgeous medieval town of Saint-Emilion, too; it's easy to see why the whole town has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In Bordeaux, allow time for shopping; there's a great vintage scene here. If you're longing to know what the fuss is all about when it comes to the region's best-known and highest-priced wines, and you can't afford a bottle of Chateau Petrus or the like, check out Max Bordeaux. Located in the heart of the city, it offers tastes, via enomatic machines, of the region's top wines at slightly more affordable prices.

Tours We Love: From Cadillac, you can tour the Sauternes wine-growing region and a tasting here is a revelation; the rich, golden wines are like honey. In Blaye, take a walking tour of the 17th-century citadel. The military history is fascinating and, from the top of the fortifications, there are sweeping views across the Gironde estuary. A few people still live inside the complex and there are some cool, arty souvenir shops in a row of tiny hobbit houses. We love Chateau de Montaigne, a gorgeous 14th century castle that was the family residence of philosopher Michel de Montaigne.

Souvenirs: A bottle of sweet Sauternes. Wine salt seasoning; posh fridge magnets shaped like tiny bottles of Chateau Petrus; jars of truffles; and, if you have space in your luggage, wooden wine crates embossed with famous names like Pomerol. Ask nicely in a wine store and they may even give you one.

One cool thing: If conditions are right, you could see the phenomenon of the mascaret, or tidal bore, when you're docked at Libourne. A series of gentle waves travels against the flow of the river as far as 120 miles inland, so you'll see the unusual phenomenon of crowds of surfers and stand-up paddle-boarders traveling upstream. It's quite a sight.

Essentials: Cruises last seven nights and begin and end in Bordeaux. You'll fly into Paris so adding on a few days in the capital is easy -- and you can also extend your cruise with a couple of days in the Loire Valley, visiting some of those legendary chateaux. When you're traveling to or from Paris, consider taking the train; a new, super-fast service from the center of Paris to Bordeaux has recently launched, making the journey in two hours, four minutes. It's quicker and more comfortable than flying. Another option: Spend two nights each on a pre-cruise visit to Spain's Bilbao and San Sebastian. Currency is the euro.

Germany's Main

Why go? The Main is somewhat eclipsed by the more popular Rhine and Danube but forms a link between the two on cruises that sail all the way from Nuremberg or Basel to Amsterdam. Some of Germany's most spectacular medieval cities lie along its marshy banks and are the principal reasons to come here: Miltenberg is straight out of a Grimm's Fairy Tale, while Bamberg's wonky half-timbered town hall perches on an island.

Highlights: The perfectly preserved old town of Bamberg; Wurzburg, famous for its grand Residenz palace and gardens; Kitzingen, parts of which date to the 13th century; and medieval Wertheim and Miltenberg, both easy to wander around on foot. Rothenburg is said to have inspired Walt Disney's Pinocchio.

Top tips: Take time out to walk or cycle; there's some lush riverside scenery along the Main as it winds through water meadows. Miltenberg, with its crooked houses, is a real highlight; don't miss the walking tour here.

Tours we love: Bamberg is a gem of an old town, with crooked half-timbered buildings and ancient cobbled squares. Join a walking tour but duck into a pub at the end to sample the local specialty, smoked beer. Many (me included) consider this an acquired taste, but when in Bamburg… Miltenberg is another medieval town and a good guide will give you all the lurid detail of day-to-day life in the Middle Ages.

Souvenirs: Rauchbier's smoked beer from Bamberg; apple wine from near Frankfurt, or its derivatives -- apple wine jelly or even soap; delicate porcelain pieces from Hochst.

One cool thing: Frankfurt, the principal city on the Main, is, of course, home to the Frankfurter, which in its true form is a long, thin, lightly smoked pork sausage, served with bread, mustard and potato salad. Germans take their sausages seriously so only sausages produced in the greater Frankfurt region may be called "Frankfurter Wurstchen."

Essentials: The route from Nuremberg to Luxembourg is slightly unusual in that it takes in the Main and the Moselle. Alternatively, skip the Rhine Gorge (if you've already done it) and cruise between Basel and Nuremberg; that way, you get to see Strasbourg and the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal as well as a decent stretch of the Main. Gateway airports are Basel, Munich or Frankfurt and extending your stay is easy in Prague or Zurich. Cruises that end in Luxembourg, combining the Main and the Moselle, can also include an extension in Paris. If you're traveling independently, bear in mind that German trains are generally fast and efficient and an easy way to get around. Currency is the euro.

France's Rhone

Why go? The Rhone flows through some of the loveliest areas of Southern France. In a week, a voyage packs in visits to Lyon, an elegant city famed for its culinary culture; Avignon, the setting of the iconic Popes' Palace; and Arles, the scenery around which inspired Vincent van Gogh. You'll see all manner of scenery, from the lush vineyards of Beaujolais, north of Lyon, to regimented rows of purple lavender and dazzling swathes of sunflowers further south. The Rhone valley itself is beautiful; while it's industrial in stretches, the region of Ardèche is wild and untamed, and is criss-crossed by deep gorges, and Arles, a former outpost of the Roman Empire, lies on the edge of the Rhone delta and is home to the marshy Camargue National Park, famed for the bulls and white horses that are reared here.

Highlights: Lyon, for its magnificent Renaissance architecture and outlandish food scene and, nearby, the pretty wine-growing village of the Beaujolais region. A steam train ride through the hilly Ardèche is a lot of fun as the train snakes around steep hillsides, while Avignon's magnificent Palais des Papes will blow you away with its sheer scale and opulence. Then there are the Roman antiquities: the spectacular amphitheater in Arles and, my favorite, the dramatic Pont du Gard.

Top tips: Lavender season is between June and early August. If you like cycling, there are flat trails with beautiful views along the Rhone, passing sleepy villages and water meadows. Take the steam train from Tournon; the forested limestone cliffs and gorges are magnificent and at the top, where the train turns around, locals sell the most delicious peaches and plums from little stalls. Use your free afternoon in Lyon to wander the alleyways and traboules (hidden Renaissance passageways) of Vieux Lyon and try the local specialties: quenelles, which are creamy fish dumplings, or for the adventurous, andouillettes, seasoned tripe and onion sausages. Another great option in Lyon: Visit Les Halles, its legendary food market. If you're not in a position to buy foodstuffs to cook with, the market has darling wine bars and cafes that encourage lingering.

Tours we love: The Pont du Gard, without a doubt; this graceful aqueduct is an astonishing feat of engineering, given that it's 2,000 years old. Be sure to take a stroll along the Gardon river, across which it's built, to view the structure from every angle. Also, the hilltop village of Grignan if you're after that classic Provencal scenery of lavender fields. Needless to say, there's plenty of opportunity here to buy lavender products and the tour also includes a visit to a truffle farm.

Souvenirs: Savon de Marseille, deliciously scented soaps made in Marseille; boxed macarons in pastel colors; anything made from lavender; packs of herbes de Provence for keen cooks. If you want to buy wine as a gift, most connoisseurs are pretty thrilled to receive a punchy red from Chateauneuf-du-Pape (we also love the food-worthy rose's that come from Tavel, a wine-growing region near Avignon). Chocolate, olive oil and truffles are other options.

One cool thing: You're docked close to the center of almost all the towns at which you stop on the Rhone; certainly Tournon, Viviers, Avignon and Lyon, so it's easy to take a short stroll on your own. In Tournon and Viviers, you could even challenge the locals to a game of boules in their main squares.

Essentials: Seven-day cruises operate between Lyon and Arles and you'll fly into Lyon, or take the fast TGV train from Paris, and out of Marseilles or Nice. Southbound is arguably the best direction; the itinerary builds up so the biggest attractions, Avignon and Arles, come at the end. Pre- and post-cruise stays in Paris and Barcelona are typical add-ons. Currency is the euro.

Germany's Moselle

Why go? The Moselle is one of Europe's most beautiful rivers and also one of the biggest surprises. It's not all that well known, and itineraries are more typically part of other routes, like the Rhine, but wow oh wow. It's amazing. What do you see? Your ship will pass a patchwork of vineyards clinging to impossibly sheer-sided hills, interspersed with dense forest, while exquisite little towns sit along the banks, overlooked by towering castles. You won't cruise the Moselle on its own; it's usually part of a voyage that tacks on the Rhine.

Highlights: Every port along the Moselle is essentially a highlight, as each one is set against such a beautiful backdrop. Koblenz, founded by the Romans at the confluence of the Moselle and the Rhine and today a rather elegant town with a pretty Altstadt (old town); Cochem, for wine and because of its Disney-esque Reichsburg Castle; Bernkastel, at the heart of the wine-growing area; Trier, Germany's oldest city, with impressive Roman antiquities (it's the birthplace of Karl Marx, too); and Luxembourg, in the heart of the Ardennes mountains, its medieval old town perched high on a cliff.

Top tips: In Koblenz, take the cable car across the river to Ehrenbreitstein Fortress and look down on the confluence of the Moselle and the Rhine; you should get a great view of your ship from above. Don't miss Reichsburg Castle in Cochem, all dramatic turrets and ramparts, and a terrace bar where you can sit with a cold beer and views over the Moselle.

Tours we love: In Trier, the insider’s guide to the magnificent Porta Nigra gate is fascinating; the oldest parts of the gate have stood here since AD 170 and its story will take you through Roman times to the Middle Ages and beyond. I rate the walk up to Reichsburg Castle in Cochem, too, simply because the castle is so pretty, rebuilt in the 19th century as a Gothic revival fantasy, all pointed turrets and spindly spires. Afterwards, the tour takes you on a ramble through the cobbled streets of this pretty riverside wine town. The Moselle bike path is incredibly scenic; you can ride on a tour or independently, using AmaWaterways' cycles.

Souvenirs: There's a fair amount of tat to sift through but you can't go wrong with reislings from Cochem or Bernkastel (a serious shop will let you have a tasting first). Fun items from Trier include Karl Marx cookie cutters, while Luxembourg is famed for its chocolate, sparkling wine (cremant) and high-end jewelry and watches. While you're there, check out the tasteful Luxembourg House concept store for tasteful gifts and objets d'art.

One cool thing: Cochem isn’t just known for its wine — the town enjoys the unusual distinction of having the world’s oldest mustard mill, now a museum, although still churning out the mustard, which you’ll see in shops all over town. Flavors include garlic, cayenne, curry and, of course, the local Riesling wine

Essentials: Typical routes that take in the Moselle include seven-night cruises between Luxembourg and Basel, or Luxembourg and Nuremberg, or a 10-nighter from Basel to Amsterdam with a side trip along the Moselle as far as Trier. Gateway airports include Basel, Zurich, Luxembourg, or Amsterdam or Munich -- and typical add-ons include Prague, Zurich and Lucerne, Amsterdam or Paris. Currency is the euro.

What do you want to know about river cruises in Europe? Check out these other stories...

Sue Bryant is an award-winning journalist and a big fan of expedition cruising. As well as working for Cruise Critic, she is Cruise Editor of The Sunday Times in London and also contributes to publications worldwide, among them Sunday Times Travel Magazine, Porthole, World of Cruising and Cruise Passenger (Australia).

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Updated October 31, 2019
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