River cruises provide an easy way to travel to the heart of Europe. Board a well-appointed ship, unpack your bags once and settle in for a relaxed voyage to Old World cities and medieval villages, grand castles and cathedrals, and scenic vineyards and farms. Ships usually dock in the center of town, making exploration easy and convenient whether you join one of the included shore excursions or set out on your own.
Read on to learn about the attractions and landmarks featured on cruises of Europe’s top rivers, or click any link below to go directly to a specific river.
Flowing from the Black Forest to the Black Sea, the Danube River leads to fascinating Old World cities and picturesque villages on its route through 10 countries.
Many Danube itineraries start in Nuremberg, a well-preserved medieval city in Germany. Its Imperial Castle was one of the most important fortifications of the Holy Roman Empire during the Middle Ages and provides great views from its hilltop perch.
To the south is Regensburg, originally a Celtic settlement and then a Roman garrison. Here you can see an old Roman gate and stop for a bite at The Wurstkuchl (Sausage Kitchen), one of Germany’s oldest restaurants. In Passau, you might be treated to a concert on the 17,774-pipe organ in St. Stephen’s Cathedral.
After your ship crosses the border into Austria, it will likely stop at Melk, where most passengers head for the 900-year-old Benedictine abbey that sits above the town. Be sure to check out the ceiling frescoes and the enormous library filled with thousands of books.
Austria’s Wachau Valley is one of the most scenic parts of the Danube, lined with terraced vineyards and picture-perfect villages like Durnstein, centered around a pretty blue and white church tower. Many Danube River itineraries include an excursion to Salzburg, where you can seek out the mustard-yellow home where Austrian composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born in 1756 and stroll through Mirabell Park, a filming location for “The Sound of Music.”
In Vienna, visit the imperial Hofburg Palace and St. Stephen’s Cathedral -- its roof is covered in a colorful pattern of 230,000 glazed tiles -- and see the opera house and the Ringstrasse, a broad avenue lined by stately buildings.
Bratislava is the heart of Slovakia, and it’s the only national capital that borders two other countries, Austria and Hungary. It has an attractive Old Town and baroque palaces. Farther east is the Hungarian capital, Budapest, divided by the Danube. Passengers usually visit the Fisherman’s Bastion, a large terrace that overlooks the city and river, as well as the ornate parliament building and Heroes Square, one of the city’s most visited sites.
In Belgrade, Serbia’s capital, popular attractions include the 1920s-era Royal Palace and Knez Mihailova, the pedestrian-only, main shopping street. Upon leaving Belgrade, Danube riverboats sail through the Iron Gates, a spectacular gorge that forms the boundary between Serbia and Romania.
The Danube runs along the border between Romania and Bulgaria before it empties into the Black Sea. In Bulgaria, your ship may stop at Vidin, where river cruise guests usually head to Belogradchik to view the unusual rock formations on the western slopes of the Balkan Mountains. Another destination for outings is Veliko Tarnovo, which served as Bulgaria’s medieval capital and offers the Tsarevets Fortress and inviting cobblestone streets to explore.
Bucharest, about 40 miles from the Romanian river port of Giurgiu, often is incorporated in Danube itineraries. Top sights in the capital include the Patriarchal Cathedral, its whitewashed exterior adorned with richly colored mosaics, and the 1,100-room Palace of the Parliament, said to be one of the world’s largest administrative buildings.
Elbe River cruises travel through Germany and the Czech Republic. Learn about the life of Martin Luther in the German city of Wittenberg, where he taught at the university and preached at St. Marien Church. Meissen is best known for its factory that has produced fine German porcelain since the 1700s, as well as for the 15th-century Albrechtsburg Castle, which sits on a hill above the Elbe.
The Royal Palace of Dresden was beautifully reconstructed after being severely damaged in World War II. Today it houses the famed Green Vault, said to contain one of Europe’s largest collections of treasure, including a 41-carat green diamond. Potsdam is the site of another royal residence, the rococo Sanssouci Palace; it’s notable for its terraced gardens, carved out in 1744.
In the Czech Republic, join a walking tour in Litomerice, a picturesque town of Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance buildings. Elbe River departures frequently include a stay in Prague, where you can stroll through the Old Town, visit Prague Castle and view the 15th-century astronomical clock at the town hall.
The Main River is a tributary of the Rhine, and it’s contained entirely within Germany. Trips along the Main (pronounced “Mine”) usually are combined with sailings on the Rhine or the Danube, to which it connects via the Main-Danube Canal. Panoramic river cruise itineraries navigate all four waterways.
Stops along the Main include Miltenberg, a postcard-worthy Bavarian town of narrow alleys and half-timbered homes. One of these decorated structures is the Gasthaus zum Riesen, said to be one of Germany’s oldest inns; records show that it operated as a hostelry as far back as 1411.
Wurzburg is home to the Wurzburg Residenz, a palace that combines German and Austrian baroque styles and French chateau architecture. Equally noteworthy is the Marienberg Fortress, which started as a small eighth-century fort and was expanded through the Middle Ages and Renaissance to become the grand edifice that now dominates the city from its hilltop perch.
During an outing in Bamberg, you’ll see the old, frescoed Altes Rathaus, or town hall, built on an artificial island in the Regnitz River near its confluence with the Main. According to local lore, the bishop of Bamberg refused to grant land to the citizens for the construction of a town hall, so they drove stakes into the river to create a small isle upon which the building could be erected.
The 340-mile Mosel River, also spelled as Moselle, runs through Germany, Luxembourg and France. Mosel sailings usually are combined with cruises of the Rhine River, which it joins in Koblenz, a German city that traces its history to the Roman military fortification established here in the year 8 B.C.
Another port call in Germany is Cochem, where a favorite attraction is Cochem Castle, or Reichsburg. The centuries-old edifice fell to ruin but was rebuilt on its Gothic foundations in 1868 by Berlin businessman Louis Ravené and used as his family’s summer home.
Winding south along the Mosel, you’ll arrive at the old winegrowing town of Bernkastel, where walking tours show off the elaborately timber-framed, gabled homes and picturesque squares. Continue on to Trier, Germany’s oldest city with the remnants of Roman baths and an amphitheater that once held 20,000 spectators.
Remich in the tiny nation of Luxembourg serves as a starting or ending point for many Mosel voyages. It’s a hub for the region’s wine industry, nestled amid vineyards and forests.
On a Rhine River cruise, you’ll travel through a landscape of vineyards, castles and medieval towns. The stretch known as the Upper Middle Rhine is thought to be the most scenic, home to more than 40 fortifications such as Castle Katz, perched high on a bluff above the river in St. Goarshausen. It’s near the Rock of Lorelei, where the mythical siren was said to have lured sailors to their deaths with her irresistible singing.
Cologne is famed for its Gothic cathedral whose twin spires soar above the rooftops. The Rhine meets the Mosel River in Koblenz, where walking tours take you down narrow lanes and to picturesque squares, fountains and Romanesque churches. While your ship is docked in Rudesheim, you can stroll the pedestrian-only Drosselgasse, lined with restaurants, shops and wine taverns.
Many Rhine itineraries include an excursion to Heidelberg, a well-preserved medieval city that’s home to Germany’s oldest university. The ruins of a red sandstone castle tower over the old town center.
Breisach, which was almost completely destroyed in World War II and then restored to its original historic character, is a starting point for excursions to the fabled Black Forest. Black Forest clockmakers have been renowned for their craftsmanship since the 17th century, and Rhine River travelers usually can join an outing that takes them to a cuckoo clock workshop.
Ships often cross over the German border to call at Strasbourg in the Alsace region of northeastern France. The neighborhood known as La Petite France is a picturesque place for a walk, with half-timbered homes dating to the 16th and 17th centuries.