Sponsored by Viking
If you’re like me, enjoying a river cruise is as much about the scenery as it is the destination. After sailing on more than a dozen, I’ve learned to leave behind the stack of books I thought I would read. You just won’t have the time!
It’s true: with fewer fellow travelers, river cruises are more relaxed than an ocean cruise. It’s a go-at-your-own-place sort of vacation that proves to be something different each time, even when sailing the same itinerary.
What you do, see, taste and explore varies by the time of year with activities and amenities changing with the seasons, the weather and even the availability of certain food ingredients. No two cruises are the same, which is what makes them so popular with repeat guests.
If you've ever wondered whether there's enough to do on a river ship, the variety of options may just surprise you. Here's what you can expect.
Unlike ocean ships, river ships are smaller and place a greater emphasis on activities ashore, most of which are included. You won't find duty-free shops, theaters, multiple pools or cinemas on a river ship.
What you will find, however, is you will quickly get to know the layout of the ship and find your favorite spot. And with fewer than 200 passengers onboard an average river ship, you'll also find you'll get to know your fellow guests within a day or two.
Most guests dine on the ship, and as a result the culinary team is always looking for creative meals to suit every palate. Seasonal menus vary daily based on the destination, often using local ingredients and recipes to bring the area's cuisine to your plate. Some guests may even have ventured off with the chef earlier in the day to a local market to bring some of the very ingredients on the menu that day. That’s just the type of up-close-and-personal cultural immersion you’ll find on a river cruise.
And with so few guests on a river ship, you can expect the staff to remember special preferences to make you feel right at home. Don’t be surprised if a server surprises you with your favorite cocktail, type of coffee or a snack to enjoy while taking in the views from floor-to-ceilings windows in the lounge.
While ocean ships may have sea days for relaxation, you are often on the open sea without little to capture your attention. Scenic cruising on a river cruise is the opposite as there is always something interesting passing you by. When there are a lot of notable attractions, there is even commentary from the cruise director to provide history and context. From castles to house boats, and everything in between, your front-row seat provides ample entertainment. That’s not to mention the architectural prowess of river locks that always capture guests' attention.
Who doesn’t love a enjoying an al fresco cup of coffee in a space like Viking's Aquavit Terrace while the Parliament Building of Hungary sits behind you? Or watching the majestic castles that line the shores of the Danube as you practice your putting skills on a green? Even better, grab a local glass of wine and enjoy the sun as a patchwork of colorful Portuguese vineyards dazzles in the background as I did on a recent Viking cruise.
Each day, historic and cultural talks add context to where you are visiting. Some are so interesting, I find myself reorganizing my tour schedule or scouring the Internet for more information on a topic I knew little about before boarding the ship. Local experts often lead the talks, and after a day of exploring, musicians, dance groups and entertainers come aboard to provide an after-dinner finale in some ports that you’d pay mightily for if traveling alone on land.
What a river cruise provides in cultural immersion is a gold mine of information, stories, flavors and experiences that can be hard to find on your own.
And when you’re ready from a break, you can walk laps on the top deck, grab a book from the extensive library (Viking’s are hand curated by London bookshop Heywood Hill), play a board game in the lounge or catch a Hollywood movie or cable TV in your cabin.
The main deciding factor for people when choosing a cruise is where it goes. In every port, there is always a choice of free excursions that generally last a few hours and are rated by exertion level to cater to every type of traveler. Most are on foot, which gives guests the chance to get a little exercise, too.
Personal favorites have included exploring the inside of a windmill in the Dutch town of Kinderdijk putting me in the shoes (or shall we say, clogs) of daily life a century ago. Nearby tulip fields as a backdrop only added to the picturesque setting on that epic Viking sailing. On a culinary tour through Budapest, the mysteries of the various pastries and snacks I had seen in windows earlier that day were unlocked thanks to the sweet-toothed knowledge of a local guide.
Unfortunately, while truffle hunting in the south of France on a Viking shore excursion, I realized that perhaps I should consider another profession. But it was fascinating to learn how these prized (and expensive) culinary delights were grown and foraged. This is one of the many types of “Working World” experiences you can have when traveling on a Viking river cruise. It’s an inside look at how a local lives, something you cannot exactly recreate on your own. Whether it’s being invited to a home of a local Romanian farmer to learn about their crops or trying your hand at blowing glass in a German artisan’s workshop, these roll-up-your-sleeves types of shore excursions go beyond the norm.
What many will appreciate are the behind-the-scenes, after-hours access that comes with tours to historic sites on a Viking river cruise. A private concert in a Viennese palace? Check. A peak behind the curtain with Viking's "Privileged Access" to see hidden collections and experience world-famous sights such as Göttweig Abbey and Versailles? Check.
More independent travelers have plenty to pique their interest, too. Some tours provide the option to wander on your own, which is one of my favorite ways to get to know a place. Hop the organized bus ride into the center of town while hearing a quick background of the area from a local guide, and then you’re off. Whether it’s shopping for souvenirs, sipping coffee in a café like a local or ticking off every notable thing in the guidebook, some tours allow you to customize things to your own liking.
Unlike ocean cruises, where distances are much bigger and most ships are locked in to a 9-5 at each destination, on a river cruise, ports are just a short distance from each other, and it only takes a few hours to sail between them (on some cruises, you can even cycle to the next port to meet your ship). This allows river cruises to linger in port until later in the evening, allowing visitors to have dinner in town or even explore local nightlife.
While on board, evening entertainment is usually a more relaxed environment with live musicians playing a range of favorite songs in the lounge as you catch up with new friends over nightcap. In cities like Budapest, Porto and Vienna, river cruises often stay late in the evening or even overnight. This gives guests the opportunity to have dinner ashore, attend a theater performance or even go further afield without worrying about the ship leaving before they return.
But, perhaps the best advantage of a river cruise is that you are often docked right in town, whether that's Vienna, Budapest, Porto or Paris, or any of the smaller towns and villages along the way. A short stroll from the ship delivers you to quiet neighborhoods, bustling food markets or important landmarks. Many ships have bikes that guests can borrow to go further afield or simply exercise in nature.
Some of my best memories from river cruises have been wandering the streets of Arles, imagining the days of Van Gogh who often painted there, and stumbling upon wall after wall of colorful tiles, a national treasure, in hillside Portuguese towns. There’s just something special about the serendipity of it all. Being able to regale your day of surprises, that perhaps no one else ever saw, over dinner gives you an intimate understanding of a place that is unique to you.
Sometimes, you can out your new-found knowledge to work, too. On a Seine River cruise, a cheesemonger to some of Paris' top Michelin restaurants once gave me and several guests a crash course on the ins and outs of France’s most expensive and rare cheeses. Of course, there was plenty of wine and bread to pair with it, too. Armed with the knowledge he shared, I was madly scouring the markets for the best deals and wine pairings the next day. From then on, whenever a cheese cart rolls up to my table in a fancy restaurant, I feel all the wiser having been schooled by an expert.
Large cruise ships tend to dock at faraway ports requiring alternate transportation to reach most sights, but the beauty of a river cruise is that you can walk most places. In fact, the smaller size of a river cruise ship means you will often strike up conversations with others on board. Why not sample the local beer at a Passau brewery or try your hand at fondue in Basel with new friends?
One thing is for sure. You won’t get bored on a river cruise. The experience is what you make it, but there is something for every type of traveler. Whether planning your own adventure or tapping into the pre-planned cultural immersion, you’ll return home with a greater connection to and affection for the places you visit.