One of the most popular European river cruising destinations is the Rhine River. If you’re considering a scenic sail on this mighty waterway, we’ve rounded up some invaluable tips for a Rhine River cruise to ensure your voyage is a successful one.
Among the crucial things to consider are your itinerary (generally anywhere from three nights to two weeks), your cruise line (Viking is a major player, with 40 longships operating on the Rhine River), and the best time to cruise the Rhine River. Our comprehensive guide also includes advice on what to pack and smart clothing tips for a Rhine River cruise. Read on for how to make your cruise one to remember.
Europe's longest and most important river begins as a trickle of melted snow from the Rheinwaldhorn Glacier high in the Swiss Alps. It flows for around 800 miles to merge with the North Sea at Rotterdam, passing through six countries -- Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Austria, Germany, France and the Netherlands -- as it goes.
Prepare to see ancient castles and lush vineyards, explore the winding streets of sleepy medieval villages, revel in the charm of historical cities like Strasbourg and Mainz and enjoy the buzz of vibrant, modern ones like Cologne and Basel.
Be aware that the Rhine isn't bordered by fairytale castles from end to end. Most are clustered along the UNESCO-listed Rhine Gorge -- the Upper Middle Rhine River between the German towns of Koblenz and Rudesheim -- and while it is indeed spectacular, it's certainly not all this river is about.
The Rhine is a hardworking and bustling main artery through Europe. Its tributaries include the Moselle (which runs southwest past Luxembourg into France), the Neckar (flowing southeast at Mannheim to Heidelberg) and the Main (which runs southeast from Mainz through to Frankfurt). The Rhine is also linked to other great European rivers -- including the Seine, Elbe, Rhone and Saone -- via a network of canals; a major one is the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal, which starts east of Frankfurt and links the Rhine with the Danube.
The Rhine's importance means that not all of its scenery is pretty; much of it is, but you'll also have to allow for the odd glimpse of a factory or power station, particularly around more industrialized places like the outskirts of Basel.
In the peak summer months (mid-June through August), the weather is usually sunny and hot. The Rhine gets quite busy, however, with hundreds of cruise ships plying the river, which means more crowds (both cruisers and other tourists) at popular destinations. The summer also poses the greatest risk of low water levels, which can prove highly disruptive, resulting in last-minute changes to itineraries, missed excursions, and long bus rides when the river becomes impassable. Prices are also generally at their highest during this time.
More travelers are opting to sail during the shoulder seasons, in spring (late April to May) and fall (September to mid-October), when the weather is more temperate, the crowds are fewer and prices a bit lower. Off-peak cruises (early- to mid-April and mid-October through November) are the best bargains, but note that it can be chilly and rainy. The Rhine Gorge and other sections of the Rhine are particularly beautiful during fall when the leaves turn vibrant shades of red, bronze and yellow.
Another good time to go on a Rhine cruise is around Easter, when local markets feature brightly painted eggs, pretty wooden decorations and beautiful flowers.
Also consider planning a Rhine cruise during one of the region's spectacular "Rhine in Flames" events in the summer and fall. Generally linked to local wine festivals or other celebrations, these take place at different locations along the Middle Rhine and involve spectacular fireworks displays as well as festivals of music and dancing.
Late November to mid-December is another prime time for visiting, as the Rhine Christmas markets and holiday lights create a magical atmosphere.
From April to October, hundreds of riverboats cruise the Rhine every month -- that's not counting the excursion boats operating short hops along the river for people staying locally.
Some of the major cruise lines operating on the Rhine River include Avalon Waterways, AmaWaterways, Emerald Waterways, Riviera Travel, Scenic, Uniworld, Vantage Deluxe World Travel, Tauck and Viking River Cruises.
From short Rhine River cruises to comprehensive two-week sailings, there’s a Rhine River cruise itinerary to suit every type of traveler. For Americans, this could mean spending a short amount of time cruising, say four-five nights, paired with a longer land-based European vacation, or vice versa. The most popular options are:
Short Rhine River cruises: Short and sweet, these sailings last three, four or five nights. A typical three-night cruise will run roundtrip from Strasbourg to Koblenz, with an overnight at Rüdesheim, while a five-night trip might run from medieval Andernach to Cologne via Rüdesheim, Boppard (famed for its Roman walls), Koblenz and Bonn. If you’re new to river cruising, this is a great way of testing it as part of a longer European vacation.
Christmas Market cruises: Festive cruises are popular in November and December, when people flock to the banks of the Rhine to enjoy the region's spectacular Christmas markets, twinkling lights and soaring green spruce trees.
Look for itineraries featuring Cologne, Strasbourg, Rüdesheim am Rhein and Basel, which put on fabulous Christmas markets.
Seven-night Rhine River cruises: Seven-night/eight-day cruises typically run from Amsterdam (after an overnight onboard) to Basel via Cologne, Koblenz, the Rhine Gorge, Rudesheim, Mannheim and Strasbourg — or in reverse from Basel to Amsterdam. These cruises venture beyond the Rhine to take in the sights along the Moselle and Main rivers. Boarding and disembarkation points vary, with some going, for example, from Luxembourg to Amsterdam via Trier, Bernkastel-Kues, Cochem, Koblenz (via the Moselle), Mainz, Rudesheim and Cologne.
Others start or end in Frankfurt or travel along the Rhine and Rhone rivers from Amsterdam to Avignon, visiting The Netherlands, Germany and France en-route.
Longer Rhine River cruises: If you have more time, a 14-night river cruise takes you from Amsterdam to Budapest via Cologne, Rudesheim and Nuremberg, connecting to the Danube and on to Passau and other German stops, before visiting Melk and Vienna in Austria, Bratislava and Budapest.
Longer options include three-week North Sea to Black Sea sailings from Amsterdam to Bucharest. These span the Main and Danube rivers, as well as the Rhine, and travel through Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Serbia and Bulgaria.
One of the joys of a Rhine River cruise is the variety of shoreside experiences it offers. You can find yourself exploring the cobbled streets of a sleepy medieval village or taking in the sights of a vibrant city, enjoying a lazy afternoon wine tasting, strolling the banks of a tranquil canal or marveling at a splendid Baroque palace or spectacularly spooky Gothic cathedral. Here are just a few of the highlights.
Amsterdam, The Netherlands: The city of cyclists, lovely tree-lined canals, offbeat shops and cafes, and fabulous museums, Amsterdam has so much to offer that most river cruises starting or ending there allow two days to explore the city. Its most famous sites include Anne Frank's House, the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh Museum and the Stedelijk Museum, but this great city has more than 50 museums and offers many more unusual options. These include the boat-shaped NEMO Science Museum (a popular choice with kids since it’s interactive and hands-on), the STRAAT street art museum and even a museum devoted to cats, Het Kattenkabinet.
Basel, Switzerland: One of the best things to do in Basel is to eat. Since it's situated on Switzerland's borders with France and Germany, the city's many restaurants offer a vast range of European dishes. Don't miss the local delicacy, Basler Leckerli — spiced cookies made with kirsch, nuts and candied fruit. Where to walk it off? Head for the left bank of the Rhine, and you'll find top sights like the Cathedral, the Marktplatz (surrounded by meandering alleys lined with unusual craft shops) and the Rathaus (Town Hall) — all fairly close to one another. Don't miss a stroll around the lovely botanical gardens while you're at it.
Strasbourg, France: With its cobbled streets, timbered medieval houses and the gorgeous canal-laced Petite France at the heart of its Old Town, Strasbourg is one of the loveliest and most fascinating cities in France (and that's some contest). Its top attractions include the Strasbourg Cathedral, which dates from 1190 AD and, at 466 feet, is Europe's tallest medieval building, and the Rohan Palace, where Marie Antoinette once stayed.
Mainz, Germany: The enormous six-towered Cathedral of St. Martin, founded in 975 AD, is one of the world's finest examples of Romanesque architecture and an absolute must-see. Nearby, just off the main square of Domplatz, you'll find the Gutenberg Museum, which charts the history of printing and contains the famous 15th-century Gutenberg Bible, along with a reproduction of Gutenberg's original printing house.
Mainz also boasts a quaint medieval Old Town just south of the Cathedral, as well as fine Baroque churches, the 14th-century Gothic Church of St. Stephen (which features a beautiful stained-glass window created by Marc Chagall) and the remains of a Roman aqueduct.
Cologne, Germany: Cologne's twin-towered Dom is one of Europe's largest churches, and its towers offer glorious views over the city's rooftops for those fit enough to climb them. Afterward, sample a local Kölsch beer in its picturesque Old Town, and stop by House of Fragrances 4711 to see where the legendary eau de cologne was invented. The good folk of Cologne also love to party and hold a spectacular Carnival, known locally as Fastelovend and Fasteleer, which starts at 11:11 a.m. on the 11th day of the 11th month, comprises more than 600 events and carries on all winter, through to Ash Wednesday.
Rudesheim, Germany: This charming little Rhineland wine town is the gateway to the lovely Rhine Gorge. It's the place to be around Christmas when toffee apple-cheeked youngsters ride donkeys around its cobbled streets and its stall-lined squares -- twinkling with fairy lights and heady with the fragrance of pine leaves, cinnamon and gluhwein -- are simply magical. Don't forget to try a cockle-warming Rudesheimer coffee, a delicious concoction of whipped cream, sugar and local Asbach brandy. It should come served up in an enormous ceramic mug decorated with scenes from the Rhine (and trust me, it won't taste as good if it doesn't).
Be sure to pack a comfortable pair of shoes for walking ashore and, if your mobility is limited, be aware that many river stops involve climbing at least a few steps.
Even in summer, the weather can be iffy, so bring a raincoat or waterproof parka. Extra layers, such as a fleece and a scarf, are also recommended.
While dress is usually fairly casual on a river cruise, you will want to bring something a bit fancier for dinner — especially if you’re lucky enough to be invited to the Captain’s Table. A shawl or pashmina is also useful to keep you warm if the dining room gets chilly or outside on deck on breezy sail days.
A nylon tote or small backpack is a good idea if you plan to shop for gifts and souvenirs.
Take earplugs if you're a light sleeper and don't want to be awakened by early-morning rumblings as your boat sets off from its overnight stop and makes its way through locks.
Some river ships will supply binoculars in each cabin but check before you go. They’re great for close-up views of life on the riverbanks and to get a really good look at cliffside castles and other attractions, like the statue of Lorelei in the Rhine Gorge. Pack an adaptor, too, to accomodate your cell phone or other devices in case your ship doesn't cater to US two-pin sockets.