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Discovering the Danube River and Finding Serenity Along the Way

Carolyn Spencer Brown

Oct 31, 2019

Read time
22 min read

Sponsored by Cruise Critic’s Cruise Content Studio

The Danube River, and the cities, towns and villages that lie alongside it, is crisscrossed by a massive patchwork of transportation infrastructure that serves planes, trains and automobiles. And yet, there's no better way to experience the ebb and flow of this dynamic, historic region than to center your travels along the region's most ancient transportation channel, a Danube River cruise.

What's special about a Danube cruise? It's rich with all kinds of history, much of which is ancient – representing Gothic, medieval, baroque and other fascinating periods of time. Much of the landscape is hilly or mountainous and frames beautiful views of darling villages and towns. And, the stops along the way balance destinations you've certainly heard of, including Vienna, where we begin, and Nuremberg, where the cruise ends. In between are some delightful surprises, like the village of Durnstein, where Austria's winegrowing industry is centered, arty Linz, sleepy Passau and super-charming Regensburg.

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What's intriguing about an itinerary that takes seven days from start to finish is that the region is actually pretty compact. You can travel by car from Vienna to Nuremberg in just five hours. And yet: Who wants to hurry on vacation? Instead, on our Danube seven-night trip we'll visit castles, cathedrals and cafes in cities, towns and tiny villages such as Linz, Durnstein, Melk, Passau and Regensburg. There also will be farther flung outings to Austria's Salzburg or the Czech Republic's Cesky Krumlov.

One other lure this cruise has for us and for anyone who wants to tweak their own lifestyle, just a bit, is the opportunity to eat healthier, exercise more and find some balance in body and soul. Aboard AmaSonata, the cruise line is testing its new Fitness Program, which aims to offer onboard activities, like yoga and meditation, alongside active, recreational excursion in port, like hiking and cycling.

The good news? The Fitness Program is absolutely optional for everyone. Which leaves plenty of room for the indulgences we all crave on holiday.

Please join us on this seven-night trip up the Danube (the line offers an identical itinerary in the other direction, boarding in Nuremberg and ending in Vienna, as well) as we share our trip with you.

Days 1 and 2: What's Great About Vienna Is...

We love that the imperial city lives quite firmly with one foot in the past, particularly its baroque era history, when architecture, music and royal palaces, castles and gardens made Vienna Europe's cosmopolitan capital. It still possesses that ambience, particularly within the historic city center, where no building is allowed to vertically compete with the legendary St. Stephen's Cathedral. And yet, Vienna also has quite a solid foothold in the present. It's a thriving university town, and also a hub for contemporary art and culture.

We get two nights and two days, including our arrival day, to explore the city. I heartily suggest that you stretch your vacation by a day or two for more time in Vienna.

If you're new to river cruising, this will surprise and delight you: Checking in to your ship takes about 20 seconds. One of just 164 passengers, you show your ID, are led to your cabin (where your luggage somehow managed to make it even before you did) and are shown around. Then it's off to explore or nap or snack. Craving some fresh air and recreation, we hopped on one of AmaWaterways' bicycles, and rode along the pierside and the river before heading back onboard to learn how our cruise would unfold.

Historic Vienna is so compact it's an easy place to explore on your own. But, get your bearings first on the ship's introductory tour of Vienna. By bus and on foot you'll get a feel for which plaza cafe is best for Sacher torte or strudel (we loved Cafe Demel, which also had delicious Wiener schnitzel, another Viennese culinary hallmark). On your own, take some time to visit the Belvedere Palace Museum, and definitely make time to wander through its gorgeous gardens. And, of course, a pilgrimage to St. Stephen's Cathedral is a must. It was destroyed during World War II and then painstakingly rebuilt.

Our options this afternoon include a free shuttle to the city center for the independently inclined, and a tour out to Schonbrunn Palace, the Hapsburg's summer "cottage" in the country (the city has grown so much that it's actually wrapped around an urban neighborhood!).

Or, you can hop on our first bike tour: A ride along the waterfront to Klosterneuburg Abbey. The appeal for me, at least at first, was more about getting out in the fresh air on a beautiful summer afternoon, feeling your heart pumping and letting stress drip off your shoulders as we pedaled. And yet what a surprise! The abbey, located some 7 miles upriver from AmaSonata, is perched on a hilltop overlooking the Danube and the city. It's got gorgeous gardens, lavender that's so lush that even the bees looked bewildered at its largess and, get this: The abbey makes wine. You can enjoy a glass either indoors, in a darling cafe, or on a sprawling piazza with incomparable country views.

On a busy day when you want to cram as much Vienna into your experiences as possible, there's still more awaiting us. AmaWaterways offers a tour to a Strauss and Mozart concert this evening and also continues the free shuttles into town for those who want a last twilight stroll through the old city before our ship sets course for our day in the Wachau Valley.

Tips and Highlights

  1. We found that taxi cabs in Austria and Germany typically didn't take credit cards. Fortify yourself with euros from an airport ATM.

  2. And, speaking of taxis, in Vienna, particularly, drivers don't seem to understand where the ships are docked. In our cruise documents, our docking berth was listed in German, which helped get us there quickly. And yet another effort, via Uber, to get a cab to go downtown proved fruitless. The driver simply couldn't find us (mystifying). Use the ship's shuttle if you can.

  3. On the first of our two days in Vienna, a lot of us came in from early morning long-haul flights. You can drop your luggage off at the ship and head on out again to explore. Or, better yet, try to come in a day or two early. It helps adjust for time zones and you get more time to explore in this enchanting city.

Day 3: Why Austria's Wachau Valley Is One of the World's Most Beautiful Places

On an itinerary that's chock-full of medieval villages, ancient churches and abbeys, and storied museums, you may want to give history a miss on your call to Durnstein. It's not that there isn't any. Durnstein was home to Richard the Lionheart, England's King Richard the 1st, when he was kidnapped back in the 12th century, and held here for ransom. The tattered ruins of the castle he inhabited sit high above the village. The beautifully restored village, home to some 875 souls, also dates back to the Middle Ages, and is like something from a film set (though its shops pretty much all focus on tourist tat).

What impresses most is its setting. Nestled into craggy hillsides, this part of the Wachau is lushly forested with trees and grapevines on both sides of the river. Wine is the biggest siren call; Durnstein is the Napa Valley of Austria, producing varietals such as gruner veltliner and Riesling. Steeply terraced vineyards rise above the village. On tour, you can amble along the golden-hued streets of the village, followed by a wine tasting. The active-minded among us opted for a ladder-steep hike to the ruins to check out King Richard's old digs. Or, you could grab a bike and set off along narrow, paved paths that run through the vineyards, offering so many vistas.

It's a pastoral, peaceful place that calms your soul.

The toughest challenge of the day is deciding what to do with the rest of it. After a morning call here, we set sail for Melk, about 20 miles upriver. Onboard, everyone congregates on the sun deck sipping cold beverages, swimming in the ship's pool and listening to the cruise manager's tales of the history of the Wachau. This beautiful afternoon's sail is one big factor in what makes river cruising so very special.

Or, and this is the conundrum we're facing, you can hop onto one of AmaWaterways' bicycles and race the ship to the next port. The 20-mile trip takes about three hours going upriver whether you're on a bike or on a ship. At times, cyclists and ship seemed to sail along together, going at about the same speed, a comfortable 7 knots.

Which would you choose?

And the day's not over yet. We wind up at the town of Melk. It's home to Melk Abbey, a palatial still-active-monastery. The abbey dates to the 18th century and will give you today's art, history and culture fix of the day. Built out on a craggy cliff, the abbey is massive -- dominated by a 208-foot steeple that towers over the Danube. There's a lot to see, including the abbey's own museum, its church and an exquisite library that's worth the trek alone. And, did you know that in any abbey the library is considered second in importance to only the church?

Tips and Highlights

  1. AmaWaterways' bike setup is superb; crew members haul the cycles off the ship every day and, if there's not a tour, you're free to don a helmet and take a ride on your own. Durnstein's the perfect place; you can easily bicycle along the river via a mostly flat towpath or, even better, head into the area's vineyards, which all have paved lanes running through them.

  2. Often on cruises I look for opportunities to dine off the ship to learn about local cuisine. Because AmaWaterways' ownership hails from German and Austrian roots, among others, the culinary experience onboard really reflected the regions we traveled through and I didn't feel the need to dine off the ship.

  3. In addition to growing grapes for Riesling and gruner veltliner, the other fun agricultural crop of the area is the apricot. A great souvenir to take home is something locally made, whether jam or liquor.

Day 4: Linz, Salzburg and Cesky Krumlov

There's a lot to like about Linz. This Austrian city of 200,000 is best known, at least lately, for its art scene; it was Europe's designated Capital of Culture in 2009. More recently, UNESCO awarded Linz the City of Media Arts designation. It, too, has the requisite castles and baroque churches. And Linz is steeped in ancient history, some savory, some less so. Such disparate creations as Mozart's Linz symphony and the linzer torte originated here. On the other hand, during World War II, Adolf Hitler was such a fan of the Austrian city that he planned to designate it an industrial and culture hub for the "thousand-year Reich."

But here's the thing about Linz: Its relative proximity to the major bucket list destinations of Salzburg, to which every fan of the "Sound of Music" must make a pilgrimage, and the medieval fantasy-land of the Czech Republic's Chesky Krumlov, makes it hard to compete.

On our sailing, the variety of choices -- for passengers who wanted to cram as much into the day as possible -- was impressive. There was a full-day trip to Salzburg, a morning cycling and/or walking tour around Linz, and afternoon ventures to either Salzburg or the Czech Republic's Chesky Krumlov. Oh, and I forgot about the scenic excursion to the Austrian Lake District.


Cesky Krumlov, dubbed by many as a "mini-Prague" because of its resemblance to that great Czech city, won out, in our case.

If you're going to Cesky Krumlov, the ship's cruise manager told us, "I'll give you two pieces of advice. One, drink beer. Two, climb the tower." Done. And done. But I'm getting ahead of myself. The drive, about 90 minutes, was an essentially lovely part of the journey. We crossed over the mountains east of Linz and into the Czech Republic amid pastoral rolling farmland, sculptural granite formations and jagged mountains. There were resort towns centered around man-made lakes, with revelers on our summer visit in full throng.

And there was lots of talk about beer. Did you know that the secret to the Czech Republic's global reputation for beer is the granite in the water that softens it? And there's this: Czechs drink some 147 liters of beer per year, the highest per capita consumption in the world for 23 consecutive years.

Among the many things I loved about our visit to Cesky Krumlov, which is more Disney-like than Disney itself, is that our guide provided us with a good foundation -- and let those of us who were so inclined to go off and wander. Its perfectly preserved Gothic-, Renaissance- and baroque-era buildings, cobbled streets that wind and curve (wear comfortable shoes) and the vast expanse of Instagram-worthy red rooftops are among its enticements. The 13th-century castle is pretty atmospheric, too, and you can tour aspects of it for an additional fee.

Castle tours are popular for history buffs. Otherwise, the rest of us wandered around and checked out the Egon Schiele Art Centrum. Schiele, an Expressionist painter in the manner of Gustav Klimt, is perhaps Cesky Krumlov's most famous artist; though he hailed from Vienna, his mother was Czech. We wandered past touristy tchotchke shops and debated whether to get in long, long lines to buy a fresh-off-the-spit sugary trdelnik pastry.

The highlight, though, was the chance to see the medieval city from above. If you're feeling active, don't miss a chance to climb the castle's bell tower. The challenge of climbing 164 steps, some of which are less steps than ladder rungs, seems a bit daunting at first, and just about everyone emerging at the climb from the top is puffing madly, but boy, the vista is the reward.

See that river way down below? It's the Vltava, and one big draw for tourists who come to visit Cesky Krumlov is that it wraps itself around the walled city like a belt -- and it's the best lazy river ride ever! Hire a boat and just bounce around the walls of the ancient city.

And one other note: If you venture off to Salzburg instead of the Czech Republic on this busy touring day, you'll learn two things according to what fellow travelers told me over dinner back onboard. Much of any shore trip to the city-that-the-Sound-of-Music-made-famous will focus on places, like the church that was the location for the wedding of the captain and Maria in nearby Mondsee. Local tour guides in Salzburg will offer movie-themed tours. But, there's more to Salzburg than "The Sound of Music." Particular pleasures include Residenz Square, the Mirabell Gardens, and Salzburg Cathedral, whose musical legacy includes the fact that Mozart was a choir organist there.

Tips and Highlights

  1. Our cruise, which took place in mid-summer, attracted a surprising number of families, particularly multigenerational. The kids (and grandkids) loved making use of the bikes, playing board games in the library, hanging in the sun deck's pool and, mostly, touring madly. What a great family bonding experience.

  2. We met a number of travelers who swore they weren't "cruise people" until they boarded a river ship. If you worry about seasickness, well, don't. The river is so calm, it's like the ship's a hoverboard gliding above the surface.

  3. Onboard, the ambience was festive and social. AmaWaterways is mostly inclusive -- serving beer, wine and sodas at no charge during lunch and dinner, though you do otherwise pay for beverages. We loved its Sip & Sail program, in which cocktails, wine and beer are complimentary during each evening's "cocktail" hour. It was a great incentive to toast fellow passengers -- and share tales from your day.

Day 5: In Passau, Great Reasons to Chill Out

When we reach Passau, a pleasant city that borders the rivers of the Danube, Inn and Ilz, we've arrived in Germany -- and at the midpoint of our cruise. Aside from St. Stephen's Cathedral, with its massive 17,774 pipes, this hilly town provides a break from strenuous sightseeing. The tours offered here, beyond the city excursion, focus on hiking up to Castle Hill, some 1,200 feet above the Danube, for great views, or pedaling along the Danube through the Donauleiten Nature Reserve.

A summer thundershower ultimately sends us back onboard, and I feel newly appreciative that AmaSonata feels so spacious. There are nooks and crannies you can get lost in. One of my favorite hideaways is the ship's cozy library, with deep couches and a pair of fireplaces with faux flickering flames. Another great getaway spot is on the ship's sun deck, forward of the bridge, with its wicker banquettes and deep cushions. So far, and even during scenic cruising (which on the Danube is just about every time we're sailing) passengers don't seem to find their way here. And we love the ship's small pool. It's 3-feet deep and on a hot day is the perfect spot for a soak.

Read reviews from travelers in our AmaWaterways cruise reviews.

One of the aspects of AmaWaterways' cruise program that attracted my attention in the first place was its Fitness Program, and I've appreciated how its elements have been woven through the experience from our first day, such as early morning yoga and Pilates, wellness walks, jogging treks and cycling tours. Led by Tiago, from Portugal, classes were offered morning, afternoon and night, to fit in with excursion schedules. And, while not a big fan of PowerPoint lectures -- we get enough of those in our work lives -- I found that Tiago's presentation, which centered on seven dimensions of wellness, helped enhance my focus. These included pursuits ranging from social to intellectual and from spiritual to environmental.

My favorite reveals, the insights I'll take home with me from this cruise? Get outside and walk barefoot to reconnect with the earth. Sometimes being spiritually-active simply means remembering to breathe. Shake up your daily routine -- even if it's simply choosing to walk down a different street now and then. Obvious on the surface, Tiago emphasizes this: "Moving encourages wellness." And that's what so many of us tend to forget when absorbed in busy lives. Just get out there and move. Sure, it's a heck of a lot more fun to do that alongside the Danube, but I'll remember the advice once our holiday is over.

One concept that to me seems fairly obvious when you talk about holistic wellness but wasn't mentioned, was the power of a good night's sleep. Once past jet lag, the comfortable beds, plenty of fun fitness activities and the no-rush-no-hurry onboard ambience lulled me into five of the best nights' slumber in recent memory.

Tips and Highlights

  1. Passau has a fairly bustling commercial district but the best discovery on this quiet day was the gentler parks that align its riverfronts. Plenty of benches to sit on and watch the world go by, lots of places to picnic and/or swim.

  2. Crave more dining options than a main dining restaurant? You're in luck; AmaWaterways was a pioneer in creating an extra, alternative restaurant onboard its European river ships. It's called the Chef's Table and offers multicourse, wine-paired extravaganzas. There's no extra charge and all passengers are guaranteed a seat once per cruise but do book your night when you get onboard.

  1. The locks! One of the most fascinating parts about a Danube River cruise is watching as the ships go through the locks that raise it to a higher (or lower) level. There are 15 locks alone on the stretch between Vienna and Regensburg.

Day 6: Our Itinerary's Biggest Surprise; Delightful Regensburg

Overheard: "Look at the view we have, with the onions!"

One notable feature of not just churches but also hotels and other structures we've seen along the Danube is an onion dome set atop roofs and steeples. Most of us probably associate them with mosques and orthodox churches, and they are not, in this case, affiliated with either. Delving into the meaning of this region's baroque architecture, we learn that the domes don't really signify much of anything.

They do transform the atmosphere into something unique.

Regensburg, with 150,000 residents, is, like so many other spots we've visited on our Danube cruise, possessed of enough history to warrant a UNESCO designation. Certainly, any admirer of art, culture and history should pay homage to its 12th-century Stone Bridge, its 13th-century Gothic cathedral and its medieval city center. What inspired me? It's a thriving, bustling city that almost feels Italian in its joyful hubbub. Major employers are BMW's factory and the University of Regensburg, and the city's meant to serve them, with upmarket boutiques, sidewalk cafes, and decadent patisseries, not simply for tourists. That means it's a living place that just happens to look like it came out of a movie set.

Its Thurn und Taxis Palace is the largest still inhabited in Europe and adds a little bit more fairy dust to a day in Regensburg. (Hint: Sections of the palace are open for tours and, during winter's Christmas Markets season, its grounds hold an amazing regionally inspired craft market.)

For all there is to see and do here, favorite activities were less energetic than our walking tour. Regensburg has lovely biergartens. And it's fun to sit at an outside table at the Prinzess Conditori, a bakery-cafe, sipping cappuccino and watching as, just across the cobbled street, brides and grooms emerged, pair by pair, in all their shimmering, shining happiness after having just been married at City Hall (Rathous). The heart-shaped tissue paper confetti thrown at the couples by their friends and families still splashed across the cobbled street, long after they'd moved on.

Tips and Highlights

  1. AmaWaterways is a great option for those interested in culinary expeditions and there's one in almost every port. I loved that that the food-influenced tour today in Regensburg, "Bavarian specialties" (beer, pretzels and sausages) only attracted four passengers -- but the tour went on even so, and all had a ball.

  2. If you're in the mood to shop, Regensburg has a number of one-of-a-kind boutiques with truly original, handmade merchandise. Leather goods were particularly tempting. And, it's one of the best cities in Europe for Christmas markets shopping.

  3. Back onboard, AmaSonata is one of the few river ships on the Danube to have a pool and, get this, it has a swim-up bar to boot! It was a lovely spot to gather after tours ashore.

Day 7: Nuremberg's World War 2 History and Debarkation

If, until now, most of our historical touring had focused on seriously ancient periods such as medieval, Renaissance and baroque, today's outings focused on more recent history; the history of World War 2 here in Germany. Reverberations occurred here in Nuremberg that were felt by the world.

Mind you, it's not that Nuremberg isn't charming. The second largest city in Bavaria, it was badly bombed during World War 2, but has been skillfully rebuilt to emphasize its medieval roots. The Imperial Castle, part of the Holy Roman Empire, offers breathtaking views. Albrecht Durer, the famous Renaissance artist, is from Nuremberg and you can tour his house. There's a fantastic museum of toys that's worth a visit and, of course, the city is the home of bratwurst and gingerbread, so there are opportunities galore to taste.

Still, most of us signed up for the World War 2 shore excursion, and it was powerful and, yes, sobering. The tour includes a visit to the Nuremberg Trial Courthouse, where the trials were held in the 1940. There, you can see the famous courtroom (though be forewarned, it's still in use for trials today, so access may be limited). We also experienced the Nazi Party Rally Grounds, which, beginning in 1933 was a cornerstone of Hitler's efforts to rouse enthusiasm; he built structures, over a sprawling 11 kilometers, that were meant to host huge populist cheerleading sessions. And, for me and many other fellow passengers onboard our cruise, the most powerful of all our stops on this World War 2 tour was part of this -- but separate. The Documentation Center is the museum of Nuremberg's effort to tell the story of what really transpired. It connects all the dots between the rallies, propaganda, media and personal stories in a way that's evocative and transports you back to that era. While you can use audio guides to pump in your own language, what for me made the starkest impression was listening to old recordings of rallies and other occurrences in German, just as it happened.

Tonight, onboard, it feels like seven nights just flew by. Dinner, as we're docked outside of Nuremberg on the Main-Danube Canal, is the culinary team's swan song, and it's a magnificent meal. So too, is the company. On a ship of 164 passengers, you eventually get to meet most everybody, and you get to know the crew and the staff, and it does feel like you're being wrenched from one of the most heartwarming family experiences you'll ever have, beyond your own family, of course.

The trip offered snapshots of history that I'd love to revisit, both somber and celebratory. It offered respite from the chaos of our daily life and work, and a chance to come home with more energy, as a result of focusing a bit on wellness and another bit on indulgence (the ship's ice cream and desserts were seriously good). As well, the chance to absorb a new culture was powerful. By cruise's end, the life and culture along the Danube has found its way into my heart.

People say the great thing about cruising is you can explore new regions as if sampling destinations as tapas. After our trip, I say the best thing about river cruises is when you connect with a particular region, you can come back again, and again, and continue to delve ever deeper into an itinerary that enchants.

Tips and Highlights

  1. The post-cruise tour on our Vienna to Nuremberg leg adds an additional three days in Prague. If you cruise in the opposite direction, you'll do the pre-cruise Prague add-on.

  2. Here's something interesting: On our route, upriver and against the current, it took us longer to get to where we wanted to go, which was a fantastic benefit on our scenic sailing of the Wachau Valley. For us, the sail, at a moderate 7 knots, took about three hours. On the reverse itinerary, it takes a lot less time to get downriver, maybe 1.5 hours at that same stretch. The benefit of the reverse is that you get more actual time in port. It all balances out….

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

Carolyn Spencer Brown, Cruise Critic’s Chief Content Strategist, is an award-winning editor and writer who’s been covering the cruise industry for 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. Its big appeal? The vast range of places to visit there, from imperial cities to villages so beautifully preserved they could be a film set.

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Updated October 31, 2019
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