Of all the available destinations in which to take a river cruise, Europe remains the epicentre of the river cruising world. The concept of river cruising as we know it today was largely born here, and there are currently more passenger ships plying the waterways of Europe than any other destination in the world.
Part of Europe’s success as a prime river cruising destination is the fact that the continent has more navigable rivers than anywhere else in the world.
Primarily, most European river cruises will take place on one of nine rivers: the Danube, Rhine, Main, Moselle, Neckar, Elbe, Seine, Soane, and Rhone.
Recently, river cruises have begun along Italy’s Po River, though river cruising here has historically been hampered by low water levels and increased sediment compared to other European waterways.
Europe, though, offers an almost mind-boggling array of countries, traditions, historical sights, and unexplored, off-the-beaten-path villages just waiting to be discovered.
In France, both river cruising and barging are common along the Seine, Soane and Rhone rivers. Cruises can center around Paris and its environs, or venture further afar to the historic beaches of Normandy or some of the region’s most astonishing ruins, like the medieval Chateau Gaillard, constructed under the orders of Richard the Lionheart.
Many river cruises in France make a point of visiting Giverny, which was home to famed artist Pablo Picasso, while others operate theme cruises dedicated to highlighting the rich variety of wines this region produces.
Further north, the Netherlands and Belgium are renowned for their classic spring “Tulip Time” cruises that explore the historic capitals of Amsterdam and Brussels along with a whole host of smaller – but no less enjoyable – locales. There’s nothing like wandering the cobblestone streets in the historic city of Ghent or partaking in some of the delicious cheese named after the Dutch town it originated in, Edam.
If you have time to spare, it’s well worth taking a 14-day voyage from Amsterdam down to Budapest, Hungary in order to discover the breathtaking array of sights and tastes that Germany, Austria, Slovakia, and Hungary have to offer. Some voyages even take you as far as Bucharest, Romania and the fabled Black Sea.
Germany offers some of the most diverse river cruise destinations in Europe, from the historically significant city of Nuremberg to the medieval city of Regensburg, home to the country’s oldest continually-operating sausage house. No trip to Germany is complete without tasting traditional dishes like bratwurst with sauerkraut or indulging in one of the country’s fine Rieslings or beers.
Further along the Danube, few things can compare to taking a stroll through the culturally-rich city of Vienna, Austria, which still feels like the epicentre of Europe it was well over a century ago. Other sailings can take you to the city of Linz, or even tiny Melk, famous for the massive monastery that bears its name and towers over the town. And even if you don’t call on the quaint village of Durnstein, you can still see the remains of the castle situated high above the town where Richard the Lionheart checked in for an unexpected stay in 1192.
A further journey down the Danube brings visits to Hungary, passing under Budapest’s beautiful Chain Bridge and imposing Parliament. Damaged in the final days of World War II, the scars left by the invading Russian and fleeing German armies can still be seen to this day.
Further east, the Romanian city of Bucharest and the Danube’s famed “Iron Gates” await cruisers. Don’t forget to charge the batteries in your camera; this is one memorable moment you don’t want to miss!
One of the fastest-growing destinations in Europe lies in Portugal along the Douro River. Famed for its port wine production, river cruises departing from Porto and traversing the Douro River Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, are one-of-a-kind adventures for those seeking beautiful scenery, excellent culinary traditions and plenty of history. What first began largely as an experiment a few years ago has exploded in popularity, with more river cruise lines than ever offering sailings in 2013.
If you’ve never been river cruising before, Europe is one of the best destinations with which to get your feet wet. If you’ve sailed to Europe a hundred times already, chances are there’s still more that remains undiscovered. After all, there’s enough treasures and historic sights “on the continent” to last a lifetime.