The Rhine River is one of the longest in Europe and the amount of amazing destinations along its banks is extensive. Over 820 miles, everything from clifftop castles in the Upper Middle Rhine Valley to the canals of Amsterdam are just some of the places you'll experience as the Rhine makes its way through the Netherlands, France, Germany and Switzerland.
If scenery, history, food or wine are on your must-see list, look no further than the Rhine. And chances are high that you'll get a taste of the Rhine River's coolest destinations whether you opt for a short Christmas market cruise or a one- or two-week itinerary. To help you plan your cruise vacation, take a look at some of the best Rhine River cruise destinations and some lesser-known gems you can visit along the way.
You'll want to be out on deck when you cruise into the Rhine River's most picturesque destination, the Upper Middle Rhine Valley. The 40-mile stretch of river between Bingen and Koblenz in Germany is a UNESCO World Heritage site and the banks are lined with more than 40 castles and fortresses.
If history isn't quite your thing, have no fear -- this is an oenophile's dream destination, too. The Upper Middle Rhine Valley is flanked by lush vineyards that make up Germany's most renowned wine-growing region. Alongside sips of riesling, expect commentary on the many points of interest in the region, including legendary Lorelei Rock where a siren is said to have lured passing sailors with her haunting songs.
Amsterdam is a popular destination to begin or end a Rhine River cruise. Ships dock right in the heart of the cultural and colorful Dutch capital that's home to -- depending on estimates -- over 800,000 bicycles. Amsterdam is a maze of canals that make for perfect days wandering the city center (or checking it out by bike, if you can handle the two-wheel traffic).
The Anne Frank House is the city's most popular attraction, where poignant exhibits include the Jewish schoolgirl's wartime diary. You'd also do well to stop by the Van Gogh Museum or to view Dutch masterpieces at the Rijksmuseum, including Rembrandt's "The Night Watch."
Many springtime Rhine sailings around Amsterdam feature bulb sailings past acres of tulips that only enhance the beauty of this destination.
One of the best-known Rhine River destinations is Cologne, Germany. You can't get lost in the city, as the UNESCO-listed cathedral's 515-foot spires dominate the skyline (and are visible from all cruise docking spots). The Cologne Cathedral took more than 600 years to build and the panoramic views from the top of the south spire make the climb up 509 steps worth the effort. Afterward, enjoy a locally brewed beer at one of the waterfront bars along the Rhine -- hoppy and slightly bitter kolsch brews are the norm around Cologne. If that's still not enough, check out the Cologne Chocolate Museum.
Rhine River cruise destinations frequently include Strasbourg, the intriguing capital of France's Alsace region, which borders Germany and Switzerland and has been shaped by different cultures over time. Although it's the smallest region in France, Strasbourg has been called the principal city of Europe, as the European Parliament and other important E.U. institutions are based here. Strasbourg highlights include the charming Petite France district, where canals are lined by half-timbered buildings, and the lop-sided one-towered cathedral with a remarkable astronomical clock that features moving figures.
One of the best Rhine River destinations to round out your travel photos is at Kinderdijk, which has the Netherlands' biggest concentration of historic windmills. Here, you can get a close-up view of 19 windmills, including the chance to look inside some of them, watch a movie and learn how the Dutch manage to live on land that sits below sea level. The gift shop at the entrance is a great place to buy another famous Dutch symbol -- a pair of wooden clogs.
When American author Mark Twain visited Heidelberg he said: "I have never enjoyed a view which had such a satisfying charm about it as this one gives." And the destination is still enchanting Rhine River cruisers with history and charming streetscapes. The Heidelberg Castle is an imposing landmark over the city and contradicts the belief that lightning never strikes twice -- it was struck in both 1537 and 1764. Heidelberg is also home to Germany's oldest university, Heidelberg University, and is famous for studentenkuss, or student kiss -- candies first created in the 19th century that make a great souvenir. You can try them at Cafe Knosel in the city center.
Breisach is the gateway to Germany's dense and mountainous Black Forest -- the fabled setting for the Grimm brothers fairy tale "Hansel and Gretel." Typical shore excursions in this Rhine River destination are equally fantastical. You're likely to visit a cuckoo clock workshop and a get taste of authentic Black Forest cake (schwarzwalder kirschtorte in German).
Other tours are more somber, including visits to poignant World War II sites in the Colmar Pocket, one of the last regions in France occupied by German forces. Tales from legendary battles here include that of 19-year-old American soldier-turned-actor Audie Murphy, who single handedly held off an entire German platoon.
One of the smaller Rhine River cruise destinations is the delightful German wine-making town of Rudesheim. You can walk or take a land train to bustling Drosselgasse street where cozy bars serve local riesling and Rudesheimer coffee made with cream and brandy. One of the more unusual local Rudesheim attractions is Siegfried's Mechanical Music Cabinet Museum, where exhibits range from tiny music boxes to fairground organs. Wrap up your day with a scenic cable car ride above the vineyards to the impressive Niederwald monument overlooking the Rhine.
Situated on the confluence of the Rhine and Moselle, the 19th-century Ehrenbreitstein fortress -- one of Europe's largest castles -- towers over Koblenz. The best way to get there is on the cable car that runs across the river. Ships dock near the impressive equestrian statue of Emperor William I and from here it’s a short stroll to several fountains that form the centerpiece of the town’s squares.
Some itineraries leave the Rhine at Koblenz to meander along the Moselle tributary and stop at Cochem. This postcard-perfect town is topped by a medieval castle where you can see a giant suit of armor, and the old town is filled with traditional half-timbered black and white houses.
One of the lesser-explored Rhine River cruise stops is Speyer. A former Roman settlement, it is one of Germany's oldest towns and noted for is large Romanesque-style cathedral. Speyer also has a rich Jewish heritage with a traditional mikveh bathhouse dating back to 1128.