My husband and I traveled with another couple for our first European River Cruise. I’d been wanting to do one of these cruises for years, so when the opportunity came up to go with our friends we jumped on it. It was less than three weeks from the time we made the decision, to the time we were flying to Budapest!
We decided to do five days in Budapest before boarding the cruise ship and four days in Paris after disembarking in Amsterdam. We are so glad we added the extra nights on both ends. Budapest is a fantastic city and Paris is more than I could have ever imagined!
We were contacted by Avalon the day before we left the U.S. regarding the water levels on the Danube. Apparently, they were having issues and we were not going to be getting on the ship in Budapest, rather we would be transported by bus to Bratislava, Slovakia for our day tour there, and then driven to Austria to board a ship there, where the water levels were higher. They offered us the option to cancel the entire cruise if we wanted, for a refund, but we were already in Los Angeles (we live in Arizona) and the four of us decided to go anyway.
We flew out of Los Angeles and on our flight out and on our return, we had a 24-hour layover in Istanbul, Turkey. Both times, we took an overnight bag on the plane (because our luggage was checked through) for one night in a hotel and stayed downtown at the DoublTree by Hilton, Old Town. It’s just a few blocks from the Grand Bazaar, one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world. It was literally a five-minute walk from the hotel!
The location was great – close to shops, restaurants, and sights. On our flight to Europe, we arrived at night so we walked into the city for dinner, visited some shops (everything was open) and got to see the exteriors of the beautiful Hagia Sofia mosque, and The Sultan Ahmed Mosque (the Blue Mosque). They weren’t open to see the interior, but walking around the area was beautiful and peaceful and there were a lot of people out enjoying the evening. On our return flight to Los Angeles, we had another 24 hours in Istanbul, and because our flight left in the late morning so we visited the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Market before we departed. It was a real treat to be able to include this short visit on our trip.
When we arrived in Budapest, we checked into the Kempinski Hotel Corvinus for the five days before our cruise. The hotel was GORGEOUS! Located on the Pest side of the Danube, it was convenient to public transportation, shops, restaurants, etc. We did a lot of walking throughout the city, visited many sites on our own, and were thrilled to find so many fantastic restaurants!
The tour of the Hungarian Parliament Building was outstanding, I’d definitely recommend adding it to your list of things to see! The ceilings are gold! We walked over the Széchenyi Chain Bridge to the Buda side and took the Buda Hill Funicular to the top of Castle Hill. You get a great view of the city from there! Once on the Buda side we visited Matthias Church, walked around the town and took lots of pictures.
On some of our other days we went to the Gellért Thermal Bath (great experience!), walked part of Andrássy út (a boulevard dating back to 1872), shopped and had lunch in the Central Market Hall, my husband and my friend’s husband visited the House of Terror museum and found it extremely interesting and eye-opening!, we saw the Shoes on the Danube memorial, the husbands went to a Ruin Pub (Google it), we took the Budapest Metro (the oldest electrified underground railway system on the European continent!), we had lunch at the famous Gerbeaud Café (we should have skipped the lunch as it was so-so and just should have eaten dessert!). It’s really a great city and we’ll definitely go back.
Through EatWith.com we booked a walking tour of a real Hungarian market - Bosnyák téri Vásárcsarnok - a place frequented by the locals, not tourists, and also spent the evening at the home of a local resident who cooked the four of us a meal using recipes passed down through his family. What a fantastic experience!
Here are the restaurants we visited while in Budapest:
ÉS Bisztró - at our hotel (Kempinski Hotel Corvinus), for dinner
Fekete - for breakfast
Madal Café - for coffee
Börze – for lunch. Wonderful!
Antré – for breakfast. Beautiful little place.
Urban Betyár – for dinner. Fantastic!!!
The night before our bus departure (which would have been the day we were getting on the boat but couldn’t due to the water levels), we changed hotels from the one we were already in (the Kempinski Hotel Corvinus) to the one provided by Avalon Waterways (the Sofitel Budapest Chain Bridge). The breakfast was fantastic, the staff was wonderful, and the lobby was nice, but the room was not so great. It was conveniently located near the Chain Bridge, and we were only there for one night, so it worked out just fine, but I would have been disappointed if we had to stay at the Sofitel longer than one night.
The next morning, we lined up and got on the buses headed to Bratislava and Vienna. I actually enjoyed the bus trip because I love to see areas outside of the city centers. The buses were modern and comfortable, with experienced drivers. The guides provided narration as we traveled and pointed out sites we might be interested in.
Bratislava was great. I would love to go back and explore more of the city. The old walls, the little shops, the cobbled streets. It was great for pictures and we enjoyed hearing the guide give us the history of the city. Make sure to buy some of the honey wine they’re famous for!
We arrived in Vienna late afternoon that same day and boarded the ship. The Vista and its staff made a great first impression. The ship was gorgeous, well appointed, with beautiful lounge and dining areas, comfortable rooms, and plenty of places to relax and enjoy the view. The staff was friendly and attentive.
Our room was directly across from our friend’s room, located at the very back of the ship. We loved being the last room in the corridor, as we had quick access to the rear lounge, most of the time having it all to ourselves! The 24/7 coffee machine was a big hit with us - lattes at any hour of the day!
The tours of each town we stopped at started early, most of them beginning between 8:30 and 10:30 AM. This doesn’t sound early for a tour, but when you have to get up, shower and get ready and have breakfast before taking off, it winds up being a very early start to the day. The tours in all the cities we visited were informative, educational, and worth going on. Even with the walking tours, there was plenty of time to explore on our own once they were over.
We did a classical music concert in Vienna, rode bikes (provided by Avalon!) in Dürnstein, Austria, visited the magnificent Benedictine Abbey in Melk (it’s a must see), opted to take the excursion to Český Krumlov in the Czech Republic (another fantastic little city), went shopping in Regensburg, Germany, toured the Würzburger Residenz in Würzburg, Germany – a breathtaking 18th century palace boasting one stunning room after another, you will walk through the place with your mouth gaping open – a tour I would highly recommend, a walking tour of Miltenberg (the half-timbered houses are so Bavarian!, visited Siegfried's Mechanical Museum (a showcase of approximately 350 self-playing, mechanical music instruments spanning 3 centuries) in Rüdesheim am Rhein, Germany, marveled at the cathedral in Cologne, and then headed to Amsterdam for the final leg of our tour where we took a canal boat cruise, walked through the red light district, visited a diamond factory, saw wooden shoes being made, and toured windmills.
After Amsterdam, we spent four nights in Paris and came back to do one last night in Amsterdam before flying back home. What a trip!
The only negative thing I can think of regarding the cruise was the fact that most of the sailing was done at night. I understand not wasting cruise days for travel when they can travel at night when everyone’s sleeping and wake up in the next city on your tour the next morning, but the commercials and brochures and videos show couples watching the beautiful European villages go by while sipping wine on their balconies, and that’s just not the case. I would have liked to have more daytime travel.
I also want to make a quick comment about the internet on the ship. I'm hopelessly addicted to the internet. I'm a blogger (www.salenalettera.com), I am active on Instagram, I'm a frequent emailer, and I like to read news and Google to my heart's content, no matter where I am in the world. And I have to say, the internet was great. I was able to do everything I needed to, there was only one service interruption, which was promptly fixed, and the front desk even loaned me a laptop computer because the tablet I brought with me was more difficult to blog from than I had anticipated. It was much easier to use the actual keyboard on a laptop.
Several people have asked me about the weather this time of year. For me, it was perfect. I hate the heat so the cool temperatures suited me just fine. Some villages were quite cold, 38-40 degrees Fahrenheit, some days it was overcast, and a few days we had drizzly rain, but it didn't affect our experience negatively. My husband brought a fleece vest, several long sleeved shirts, and one of those super-thin but warm puffer jackets and all of that worked well for him. I just had a couple of thin sweaters, a few pashminas, and a long, duster-style sweater "coat" - not really a coat, just a heavier sweater material. I layered when it was cooler and was able to take things off as it warmed up.
My only other advice....wear comfortable shoes. There is a TON of walking!!! I am overweight and out of shape, but I still walked an average of 5 miles per day. One day we did 6.7 miles!! The pace of the groups was easy to keep up with and if you're really challenged with walking, or use a cane, or just find it hard to keep up, they do have a "gentle walker" group you can join. It's the same tour, to the same places, just a little slower paced. The upside to all the walking? Even with all the eating I did, the desserts I had, and the lattes I consumed, when I got home, I was 13 pounds lighter!
This was a fantastic river cruise and I'd recommend it to anyone. It was a great first-time river cruise experience. Can't wait to do another one!
I loved the cabin. We brought large luggage, so there wasn't really a great place to stow them, but we managed. There was plenty of hanging closet space, shelves for other items, drawers at the desk for my cosmetics, and plenty of room in the bathroom for the things I needed to keep in there. It could have had better lighting, but I like a very bright space and always appreciate the ability to turn on more lights if needed. We slept with the balcony door open on several nights to let the cool air come in, so that was nice. During our trip, we had to change ships, and although the second one was just as nice, it did not have a computer to use in the common lobby area, and the decor was slightly different - I liked the colors in my room on the first ship better than the second. Which, to most people, is a very insignificant detail. :)
I loved EVERYTHING about Budapest! So much so, I can't wait to get back to this city. The Parliament Building is fantastic, a definite must-see. We were in Budapest for 5 days before the cruise started so we were able to walk around and see quite a bit. We stayed on the Pest side, which has a lot more activity than Buda. We would have liked to visit the Budapest History Museum but the day we went the lines were INSANE so we passed. My husband and I went to the Gellért Thermal Bath and really enjoyed it. He went to the Terror Museum, we walked around the parks, we visited local markets, we found a great laundromat (needed to wash a few items!), discovered a lot of great restaurants, met a local through EatWith.com who cooked us dinner in his own home. Really great city!
We weren't in Bratislava very long but I loved every minute of it. It has a city center that is photo worthy at every turn, with winding stone streets to take you past the little shops and restaurants. We did have a few snacks here but did not eat a meal. I enjoyed the shops, bought some of their famous honey wine, and took lots of pictures. It's a charming village.
An amazing display of talent! Singers and musicians. Extremely enjoyable night.
My husband an I used the bicycles provided by Avalon to ride around the town. Very enjoyable!
I really enjoyed this town. There were lots of shops, I bought a great purse. I'm not sure this qualifies as a good review of the town for most people, but the shops were interesting, lots of things to look at, etc. Lunch at The Sausage Kitchen was fantastic. Don't miss this place! Housed in a building that was built in 1135 AD, it claims to be the oldest continuously open public restaurant in the world. Go for the sausages!!
The Würzburg Residence palace is an absolute MUST SEE! It is one of the most beautiful buildings I've been inside of, with a rich history. Do some research before you go and make sure you put this on your list of things to see. After the tour, take a little walk through the town back to the ship. We really enjoyed this tour!
In this city, we went to Siegfried's Mechanical Museum where you can view some of the approximately 350 self-playing, mechanical music instruments spanning 3 centuries. A VERY interesting tour with happy, uplifting tour guides! How can you not be happy around musical instruments that play themselves? Make sure not to leave the town before having their famous Rüdesheim Coffee. Delicious!
The Cathedral is worth seeing. Do a self-tour or go with the group. It's a pretty amazing structure with a wonderful history.