The storied waters of the Rhine River offer visitors the best of Europe. From cathedrals to castles to authentic cuisine, you can find it all along its shores. A Viking river cruise is the best way to explore this legendary landscape, letting travelers see the terrain from the river that has driven its history. The trip provides an easy jumping-off point to scenic vineyards, bustling cities and ancient lore.
Cruises typically sail most of the length of the river, linking Amsterdam in the north with Basel, Switzerland, near the Rhine's source in the Alps. These trips usually last about a week, visiting bigger cities like Cologne, Germany, and Strasbourg, France, along with smaller wine towns, and offering a chance to admire and tour the castles lining its shores. Other itineraries leave the Rhine at Koblenz, Germany, cutting east across Europe on the Main and Danube rivers to sail as far as Bucharest, Romania. These trips can last more than two weeks.
One of the biggest challenges to planning your Rhine River cruise can be organizing your days, offering a blend of shore excursions, active pursuits, and even some downtime, simply sitting at a cafe and watching the world go by. How can we help? Here, in our Ultimate Rhine River guide, we showcase ports of call, offering our tips on best sightseeing options along with a dollop of fabulous discoveries we've made along the way.
Overview: One of Switzerland's richest city lures visitors with art museums and cutting-edge architecture. For travelers, Basel is a turn-around port for Rhine River cruises and easily reached by train from Zurich airport.
Don't miss: Those arriving at the ship early can take a free walking tour from Viking, offering a quick introduction to the city. The Kunstmuseum, Switzerland's largest and best gallery, is chockablock with Picassos, Renoirs, Van Gogh and many more. Multiday pretrip tours from Viking, include visits to Lucerne, Switzerland, and the Alps; or Lake Como, Italy, arriving in Basel in time for sailing.
Independent meanderings: Basel is where the earliest bibles were printed, as were playing cards, so whether salvation or sin, the city found a way to prosper. Visitors to its surprisingly engaging Paper Mill Museum get a hands-on introduction to printing, writing and bookbinding, letting guests make paper, letterpress a print, even design marbled endpapers for book binding. One room filled with working manual typewriters encourages visitors to hunt and peck a note, much more satisfying than laser printing at the office. For a fun snack, visit the market hall, a 1920s wholesale trading area that has been reborn as an international food hall.
Active pursuits: The Rhine isn't just for cruising. Throughout the summer, residents jump into the river and float downstream. A dip is encouraged, with changing stations on shore. The practice has even led to the invention of the Wickelfisch, a fish-shaped bag that will keep clothes dry as you head downstream. You'll find them for sale around town, and they make a great souvenir.
Hidden gems: Show your worldly side by stepping from Switzerland to Germany to France and back again. The three countries come together at the Border Triangle at Dreilandereck, a strategically placed monument on the Rhine peninsula.
Insider tips: Need to hydrate? Basel's outdoor fountains spout clear, clean drinking water, so feel free to fill up your water bottle.
Overview: A quiet German town, Breisach is best used as a jumping-off point for nearby Colmar, France, a postcard-pretty medieval gem, with a lovely old town of half-timber buildings that feels out of a storybook.
Don't miss: In Colmar, the Isenheim Altarpiece at Colmar's Unterlinden Museum is called the Sistine Chapel of German art. One look and you'll understand why. This 500-year-old artwork once comforted and awed illiterate pilgrims, and even centuries later, its bright colors and vivid biblical scenes feel cinematic in scope. If you're a history buff, consider Viking's moving excursion exploring the region's Second World War history. The tour focuses on Audie Murphy, an American who single-handedly fought off a German army company for an hour, earned the Medal of Honor and later became a Hollywood star. You'll see even the most macho men tearing up as passionate tour guides recall his bravery.
Independent meanderings: Tiny Breisach can keep visitors busy for a few hours. Crew members regularly slip down the block to have ice cream at the Eis Pavillon Incontro, while the Hotel Rheinblick across the street has a pleasant outdoor cafe. A few doors down, you can sample local wines with tastings at Vinotek, a store that shares space with the city's tourism bureau: four glasses for 5 euros (about $5). And, a 10-minute uphill walk brings you the Romanesque St. Stephen's Catholic church, which houses a huge mural of the Last Judgment and offers a commanding view of the Rhine. On Sundays, it has mass in English at 10:30 a.m.
Active pursuits: Hop on an e-bike for a 25-mile Black Forest tour offered by Viking that includes lunch and wine tasting. And, no need to worry about hills -- the motor-assisted cycles make it a cinch to climb steep slopes.
Insider tips: Try a slice of Black Forest cake. The local confection layered with chocolate, cream and berries, and soaked in schnapps, certainly sounds decadent. But, because the cream doesn't contain sugar, the average piece clocks in at below 300 calories. Watch a demonstration and indulge in a coffee and a slice for 5 euros (about $5) on Viking's free Black Forest tour, which visits an historic hotel and tourism village that once served as a Black Forest way station.
Overview: An often-overlooked gem, this cosmopolitan French city is one of the largest port on the Upper Rhine and the center of the Alsace region. You'll enjoy wandering its streets and tasting its unique wines and foods, which highlight the best of Germany and France.
Don't miss: Sure, Europe has plenty of churches, but Strasbourg Cathedral is one of Christianity's greatest hits. The soaring 1,000-year-old house of worship is one of the tallest in the world. Its recently cleaned stained glass glows in medieval Technicolor, and its astronomical clock features the angel of death, a crowing rooster and a sophisticated calendar. But also leave time to wander its cobblestone streets and stop at its pleasant sidewalk cafes. Others can head into Germany to tour a Mercedes-Benz factory, available on only some cruises, or to the French countryside to taste Alsatian wines.
Independent meanderings: This is a foodie capital with plenty of delights to sample from the French–German region. Viking's Taste the Best of Alsace tour hits all the scrumptious highlights, but if you're on your own, try one of the 200 cheeses on offer at La Cloche a Fromage. Then head to Oenosphere wine store, with hundreds of local choices. Viking will gladly let you BYOB so you can have it with dinner back onboard the ship. Before leaving town, try a local sweet, like kougelhopf, an almond-based cake that's light as air, or nibble on gingerbread from Mireille Oster, known across the country for her generations-old family recipe.
Active pursuits: Ready for a workout? Climb the cathedral's 332 steps for a sweeping view of the Rhine Valley and the medieval city. It's worth the effort. You can also rent an electric boat to float through the canals ringing the old city.
Insider tips: Head to a cafe for tarte flambee, a French take on pizza. Au Bon Vivant, just a block from the cathedral is a solid choice. The flaky crust, topped with creme fraiche, is baked to a super crisp flatbread. The traditional version has ham, but you can add cheese or other toppings. Wash it down with a cold, crisp glass of Alsatian Riesling.
Overview: Germany's largest university town charms visitors with baroque architecture and a towering castle. Located east of the Rhine, cruise passengers take a half-hour bus ride to reach the city. Tours generally last a half-day, although schedules vary. During a visit, ships often continue sailing up (or down) the river. Passengers are transported by bus to rejoin their vessel.
Don't miss: The Heidelberg Castle. Complete with a love story, the world's largest wine barrel and dramatic stone carvings, this place is famous for a reason. The tour resumes in the old city, where guides note highlights in the medieval center before letting visitors continue exploring the market square area on their own.
Independent meanderings: Make sure to wander over to the Student Prison, a quirky historic site preserving the lockup for mischievous scholars at University of Heidelberg. Later, you can toast them at Vetter, a brewery restaurant just a few feet from the market square, where you'll want to order a Pilsner and bratwurst. For something lighter, try Sahara, a Middle Eastern cafe with vegetarian offerings. If you think December's the most wonderful time of the year, you have to wander the Kathe Wohlfahrt shop, where it's Christmas every day. Stock up on handmade nutcrackers, ornaments, music boxes and many more.
Active pursuits: The Philosopher's Walk lets you add intellect to your workout. The famous zigzagging path, which winds its way up a mountain, was favored by students and professors deep in thought. For a visitor, it offers an excuse to cross the historic Neckar River, get out of the city and stretch your legs. At the top, you'll arrive out of breath but with a memorable view.
Insider tips: Try a Heidelberg Student kiss, but don't get the wrong idea! This local candy, a chocolate-wrapped nougat and wafer disc, offers a sweet treat to fuel your wanderings.
Overview: This small river town has been a center of winemaking since the Romans arrived nearly two millennia ago. During the day, its vineyards welcome visitors, and in the evening the seemingly quiet town comes to life as German bands and dancers entertain restaurant guests.
Don't miss: Dinner tours offer a chance to taste regional wines and soak in the atmosphere at the Eberbach Monastery, or to join a festive meal on the Drosselgasse, the town's cobblestoned, pedestrian-only entertainment district.
Independent meanderings: A 10-minute cable car ride to a hilltop monument to the German Confederation, passing over terraced vineyards offers an unforgettable Rhine Valley view. Once you reach the top, a small outdoor cafe makes an ideal spot to sip a German beer and take in the valley view. This is a great night to skip dinner on the ship and try out the local nightlife, either on a Viking-sponsored tour or on your own. Ratsstube offers a full range of staples like schnitzel, steaks and even salads, washed down with beer or local wine. Or, if you're feeling fancy, the nearby Stadt Frankfurt has more upscale preparations, with surprising menu options like venison and wild boar. For an aperitif, try the local brandy Asbach, now sold around the world.
Hidden gem: For 50 years, Siegfried's Mechanical Music Cabinet has surprised and delighted guests with Europe's largest collection of mechanized instruments. This museum features 350 tuneful contraptions including automated violins and an orchestra that plays itself. There's even a musical chair that comes to life when you sit on it.
Active pursuits: Hikers love the Rhine Valley, and while you won't have time for overnight excursions, you can plan a nice outing. The easiest trip is to head up the mountain for a vineyard hike that will get your heart rate up. Riverfront signs outline other options, including a circle route that takes you across the Rhine on a ferry at just under 4 miles.
Insider tips: Sip your way through the region at Vinothek Rheinweinwelt Ruedesheim, which has scores of local wines on self-serve, coin-operated taps. Taste and compare local Rieslings, chardonnays, pinots and more, all for a euro apiece (about $1).
Overview: The 60 kilometers between Rudesheim and Koblenz is a highlight of the cruise. Just find a top deck perch, and let the staff point out the castles that literally line the waterway. Bring a camera and binoculars and follow your progress on a ship-supplied map. Koblenz, located at the confluence of the Rhine and Moselle rivers, has a commanding fortress reached by gondola.
Don't miss: From Koblenz, head over to Marksburg castle on a free excursion. This 900-year-old complex was never destroyed so its original architecture is intact. Optional tours visit the Ehrenbreitstein Fortress, an impenetrable hilltop fortification lording over the city, or head out of town to visit a winery in the celebrated Moselle River valley.
Independent meanderings: Even if you skip the ship excursion, you can still take a gondola across the Rhine to the Ehrenbreitstein Fortress, and if you go after 6 p.m., there's no need to buy a separate fortress ticket for the river-viewing platforms. Have an authentic German meal at Weinhaus Hubertus complete with Moselle wines by the glass, or relax at the Konigsbacher riverside beer garden within 100 yards of the ship.
Active pursuits: Rent a bike and cycle to Stolzenfels Castle. The easy 3-mile riverside ride offers scenery and an escape from city and tourist traffic, letting visitors experience the Rhine in relative solitude. Let ship staff know a day before and they can help you rent a bike. Another great outing: Outside of Koblenz in the village of Winningen is Berggolfplatz. It's a vertical golf course where you hit golf balls up a mountain. When they roll down and land into a collecting funnel, you score points. It's fabulous fun.
Hidden gems: The interactive Romanticum Koblenz museum does a remarkable job explaining why the Rhine plays such a large role in German history and culture. Exhibits highlight the artists, poets and painters, who were seduced by the area, and the tourists who have followed since the early 19th century.
Insider tips: While the German Corner at the confluence of the Rhine and Moselle rivers has been important for millennia, it nods to the present with a display of sections of the Berlin Wall. Detailed plaques explain what the wall represented and what its fall meant to Germany and the world.
Overview: This energetic, tolerant city follows its own rules and delights visitors with its soaring cathedral, shopping and beer halls. Almost completely destroyed in the Second World War, it was lovingly rebuilt to preserve its medieval features.
Don't miss: The Gothic cathedral (koelner-dom.de) deserves its fame and feels quite different from Strasbourg's church. Highlights include a golden shrine that the faithful believe hold the bones of the Magi, the three wise men who brought presents of gold, frankincense and myrrh to honor Jesus' birth. Next to the building, stop by the Roman-Germanic Museum. Although closed for renovations, you can still see its highlight through the front window: a detailed Roman-era mosaic which was once part of a dining hall for the elite. Optional Viking tours let you climb the steps to its rooftop viewing area, or head out of town to Bruhl's Augustusburg and Falkenlust palaces, which are UNESCO World Heritage sites, recognized for their elaborate baroque architecture.
Independent meanderings: The EL-DE Haus, once the Nazi Gestapo's headquarters. Its basement preserves the cells where resistance leaders were housed, tortured and executed. For an inspiring side of the story, head over to the Roonstrasse Synagogue, destroyed by the Nazis but rebuilt after the war, with beautiful modern stained glass. (Email ahead to email@example.com to arrange a visit, and bring your passport as ID.) For a taste of modern Cologne, cafes line the old town and cathedral area. Head a few blocks away for Bei d'r Tant, a corner bar serving German tavern specialties.
Active pursuits: Viking's bicycle tour offers a fun pedal around a city that has adopted the two-wheeler big time. And, for a StairmMaster session you'll feel the next day, climb the 533-step cathedral tower.
Hidden gems: The city's Chocolate Museum, which is partnered with Lindt, takes visitors through every step of the process to make one of the world's favorite sweets. For many, the favorite stop is the gift shop, which features an amazing range of chocolates from small-batch companies all over the world.
Insider tips: It would simply be wrong to visit Cologne without tasting its famed Kolsch beer. The city has more than a dozen brewhouses, each producing their own version of the easy-drinking low-alcohol beer. Viking's Beer Culture tour introduces you to four spots and offers plenty of beer-drinking lore. If you're on your own, here's the drill: Take a seat, lay out a coaster and the drinks will come. When it's time to stop, simply put a coaster atop your glass.
Overview: This small river town's home to the world's largest collection of wind-driven, water-pumping windmills and has been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Don't miss: Viking's free included walking tour introduces visitors to the machines that have prevented flooding for centuries. An optional excursion lets you admire the scene from an antique barge floating through the canals.
Independent meanderings: Although this is a small town, you can find restaurants and cafes within a 10-minute walk. Head to Cafe de Klok, order its beer brewed onsite and a plate of Dutch cheeses. (Although it's not on the menu, the kitchen will gladly pull one together.)
Active pursuits: Viking's bike tour offers an easy pedal by the windmills, allowing time to explore the interior of the machines, and then along the country's famed cycling paths.
Hidden gems: Windmills aren't just glorified pump houses but they are also homes. Two mill museums, Nederwaard and Blokweer, are open to visitors. Step past the clogs at the entryway and into one of the preserved mills to see what it's like to live inside a giant machine.
Insider tips/fun fact: Except for the museums, the windmills are modern and up-to-date and popular places to live. Residents, called millers, must keep the machinery operational, and while they can't park their cars outside their home, they have all the modern trappings, including Wi-Fi.
Overview: One of Europe's top cities, Amsterdam offers famous art, lively nightlife and moving historic sites, all seamlessly laced together by picturesque canals. This turnaround port is either the start or end of many river cruises. It's worth adding extra days to explore.
Don't miss: Viking offers pre- or post-cruise excursions, including hotel and an introductory walking tour, plus access to a concierge who can help you make plans. Otherwise, you'll be free to dive into the city and pursue your interests. The Anne Frank House is unforgettable, but incredibly popular, requiring visitors to reserve tickets months ahead of time, which you should do. But, if you don't have tickets, don't despair. Go to the website at 9 a.m. local time, and you may be able to snag a ticket for the same day. One of the world's finest galleries, the recently updated Rijksmuseum takes visitors deep into the world of the Dutch Masters, but covers so much more. To avoid being overwhelmed, take advantage of the free Wi-Fi-based audio tours, covering the collection's highlights. And, even though you're taking a cruise, you shouldn't miss a canal tour from one of the sightseeing boats, which run regularly from docks near the train station.
Independent meanderings: Instead of just seeing art in Amsterdam, why not check out where it was made. The Rembrandt House Museum offers an intimate look into the life of one of the world's most famous artists, letting you see the easels and rooms where he painted and trained his apprentices. Even if you have no interest in indulging, consider stepping inside one of the city's coffeehouses, where cannabis and hashish are openly sold and consumed. As for dinner, try Indonesian. The Asian cuisine's popularity reflects Holland's former status as a colonizer of what was then called the East Indies. Restaurant Blauw is one of the city's favorites.
Active pursuits: After a weeklong cruise (or an overnight flight), you'll welcome a chance to stretch out in an English language yoga class. There seems to be a studio on every block, but you can experience a particularly scenic downward dog at the hip Volkshotel. Classes, sometimes held on the rooftop, are offered Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturdays.
Hidden gems: If you're visiting on a weekday, head to the Aalsmeer Flower Auction, the world's largest wholesale flower market in one of the world's largest buildings. It's mesmerizing to walk the long observation deck and watch shuttles with thousands of flowers and plants zipping around the warehouse floor like a floral ballet.
Insider tips: Grab a ferry and head across the IJ River to the hip Amsterdam Noord (North) neighborhood. This former warehouse district has found new life with cafes, galleries, cinemas and restaurants.
Travel writer Larry Bleiberg is an eight-time Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Award winner, and was honored for editing the best newspaper travel section in North America. He writes a column for USA Today, and has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, BBC, Better Homes & Gardens, Delta Sky and many others.