The number of river cruise ships sailing in Europe has been rapidly growing for most of this century, and river cruises continue to be a very popular way to see cities and towns inaccessible to ocean-going ships.
Today, travelers can cruise over a dozen different rivers in Europe. Most river cruise lines sail similar itineraries and include shore excursions in each port of call. The price differential between the river cruise lines is usually due to the level of service, cabin size, and onboard amenities.
This article explains some of the differences in the 13 primary cruise ship rivers and their itineraries. Although each river is discussed individually, note that many river cruise itineraries cover more than one river. For example, if someone has about 3 to 4 weeks of vacation time and enough money, they can sail all the way between Amsterdam and the Black Sea on the same ship. River cruise lines offer other combinations, but they involve moving on land from one river to another.
The Danube River: Central Europe
The source of the Danube River (Donau in German) is in the Black Forest of Germany, and it flows almost 1,800 miles east through central Europe towards the Black Sea, passing through or touching the border of Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Moldova, and Ukraine.
River cruises sail the length of the navigable Danube between Regensburg and the Black Sea, but most itineraries focus on one of the two most spectacular sections—either between Passau and Budapest or between Budapest and Bucharest. The navigable Danube has 19 locks, with 15 of them between Regensburg and Vienna.
Passau to Budapest River Cruise
This Danube River cruise covers some of central Europe's most gorgeous river scenery in the UNESCO World Heritage Site Wachau Valley, plus it stops in three of the continent's most fascinating capital cities—Vienna, Bratislava, and Budapest. Other ports of call include towns like Linz (for tours to Salzburg), Melk, Krems, or Durnstein.
Most ports are marvelous walking destinations, and river ships stop right in the heart of the town and include a walking tour and free time to explore.
Budapest to Bucharest
Travelers love this river cruise itinerary because it gives them the opportunity to visit eastern European countries where travel for North Americans has just become very popular and accessible in this century. The citizens of Hungary, Serbia, Romania, and Bulgaria welcome tourists and love to share their corner of the world with travelers.
As the Danube continues its way to the Black Sea, travelers first explore amazing Budapest, with most ships spending either one or two days at the dock to allow their guests adequate time to see the city. The ship next stops in Kalocsa, the "Paprika Capital of the World", before moving on to Belgrade, the capital of Serbia. It is one of Europe's oldest cities and still carries remnants of the destruction of its last war in the 1990's. As the ship moves downriver, guests explore a Roman archaeological site, museums of ancient history, the Iron Gates of the Danube, and miles of lovely scenery. Most of the river ships do not sail all the way to the Black Sea, but end at a small town near the Romanian capital of Bucharest. Passengers are bused between the river and Bucharest, and the cruise tour includes time to see the city.
The Main River: Germany
The Main River (pronounced "mine") in Germany is the longest river that lies entirely in Germany. It flows west and joins the Rhine River near Mainz. The Main River is 327 miles long, but only 246 miles are open to traffic, and this navigable section of the river has 34 locks. The Main River cruise ports of call are Bamberg, Wurzburg, Wertheim, and Miltenberg. Each of these towns features interesting history, walking tours, and picturesque streets and architecture.
Most river cruise travelers primarily see the Main River as a link between the Rhine and Danube Rivers. However, ships could not sail from the North Sea to the Black Sea until the Main-Danube Canal was completed in 1992, and it took 32 years of construction. Ships pass through 16 locks on the 106-mile transit of the canal. The Main-Danube Canal starts near the Danube River near Regensburg and travels north by Nuremberg to Bamberg. River cruise ships often feature day-long tours of Nuremberg while their ship passes through several of the locks, saving time for everyone.
The locks of the Main-Danube Canal (and elsewhere on the Danube and Main Rivers) are important to cruise travelers because the size of the locks dictates the size of river ships. Anyone who wonders why a river ship is so narrow will understand when they see the size of the locks. The low bridges over these same rivers control the height of the river ships.
The Rhine River: Switzerland to the Netherlands
The source of the Rhine River is in Switzerland, and it flows over 800 miles generally northwest before dumping into the North Sea near Rotterdam in the Netherlands. River ships sailing only on the Rhine move between Basel, Switzerland (near the border of France, Germany, and Switzerland) and Amsterdam. The Rhine has 12 locks, 10 of which are downstream from Basel. All 10 of these are between Basel and Mainz where the Main River joins the Rhine.
The cruise between Basel and Mainz features stopovers at Strasbourg and Heidelberg. Many visitors find Strasbourg particularly interesting since part of the city is in France and the other (across the Rhine) is in Germany. Heidelberg is not quite on the river but is very nearby. This university town is lively, and the city has a marvelous castle.
The Rhine River cruise region between Mainz and Koblenz is one of the most scenic in Europe. The breathtaking castles lining the Upper Middle Rhine Valley make it a traveler's favorite. Many people take a European river cruise just to see these magnificent old castles. The Loreley (Lorelei) Rock is also found along this section of the river. Cruise travelers have many opportunities to see the "castles on the Rhine" since they are also included on cruises between Amsterdam and Danube River ports or on Moselle/Rhine/Main/Danube River cruises.
One cute town with lots to offer Rhine River cruise travelers is Rudesheim, which is between Mainz and Koblenz. It offers a fun "party" street, a mechanical musical instrument museum (way more fun and interesting than it sounds), a cable car to the top of a hill with great views of the river and surrounding vineyards, and a giant German monument.
Another popular stopover on the Rhine River is at Cologne, Germany. As river ships approach the city, the huge cathedral soon comes into view, and a visit to the cathedral and its square is a popular site in the city.
The only other stop for most ships sailing the Rhine River towards Amsterdam is at Kinderdijk to see its 19 windmills, most dating back to the 18th century. Along with tulips, windmills are an iconic symbol of the Netherlands, and the most picturesque are at Kinderdijk.
The Moselle River: France, Luxembourg, and Germany
The Mosel (German) or Moselle (French) River begins in France and passes through Luxembourg and Germany before flowing into the Rhine River at Koblenz. The Moselle has 28 locks, but only 12 are on the section of the river used by river cruise ships. The Moselle is 255 miles long, but river cruises only sail on the last 100 miles before it enters the Rhine.
The Moselle River is one of Europe's most scenic, with a river valley that twists and turns as it makes its way towards the Rhine. The hillsides are covered with vineyards, most growing grapes for Germany's famous Riesling. Ports of call include Cochem, Bernkastel, and Koblenz. All three of these towns are delightful to explore, and ships dock near the town centers. A highlight of Cochem is its spectacular castle, and cruise ship guests all love the views of the river from its towers.
Some of the river cruise lines' most innovative itineraries include the Moselle River. For example, Moselle River cruises often start in Luxembourg or in Trier, Germany. However, cruise lines sometimes include a few days in Paris before the cruise begins and then transport guests to the ship via the TGV train from Paris to Metz or Remich and then on to Trier via bus. It's an exciting way to start a cruise!
The Moselle River is included on river cruise tours between Paris and Prague, Amsterdam and Basel, or Paris to Budapest.
The Elbe River: Germany
The Rhine and Danube Rivers are the most popular rivers to cruise in Germany, but those who are fascinated by 20th-century history or by Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation will love an Elbe River cruise between Prague and Berlin. The 680-mile long Elbe has seven locks, but five are in the Czech Republic upstream from where river cruises embark in Melnik and the other two are downstream from where the ships disembark at Magdeburg for the drive to Potsdam and then Berlin. The Elbe eventually flows into the North Sea near Hamburg.
Elbe River cruise tours include hotel stays in Prague and Berlin, two of Europe's great cities. Most of the cruise is in eastern Germany, and cities like Dresden, Meissen, and Wittenburg all have their own special charm. After being almost completely destroyed during World War II and now rebuilt, Dresden is a marvelous city to visit, with one of the world's great museums. Meissen has its fine porcelain, and Wittenburg has Martin Luther and the Reformation. Seeing the improvements in these eastern German cities since the reunification of the country in 1990 is impressive.
The Elbe River is often shallow, so cruise lines sailing the Elbe use smaller ships with a shallower draft for these cruises.
The Seine River: France
Almost all Seine River cruises sail roundtrip from Paris, heading downstream and north towards Le Havre and Honfleur, where it enters the English Channel. The 483-mile river has 34 locks, but 29 are upstream from Paris. Paris is a beautiful city and a perfect place to begin a French river cruise vacation.
Ports of call visited between Paris and the sea might include Vernon, Les Andelys, Conflans, and Mantes-la-Jolie. Monet's famous Giverny garden is near Vernon. A highlight for many travelers is an all-day excursion to the Normandy beaches of World War II.
Many river ships turn around near Rouen, which is 75 miles from the sea and navigable by ocean-going ships. Others go 27 miles further downstream to Caudebec-en-Caux. Most cruise lines spend one or two nights in one of these two cities, which allows their guests to have a day on the Normandy beaches and to explore the charming coastal town of Honfleur.
The Rhone River: France
France also has river cruises in the southern part of the country. One of these is a Rhone River cruise in the Provence region between Lyon and Arles or Avignon. The 500-mile Rhone River has 13 locks, and 12 of these are between Lyon and where the Rhone empties into the Mediterranean Sea. The source of the Rhone River is the Rhone Glacier in Switzerland.
Some Rhone River cruise tours begin with a few days at a hotel in Paris and then include a transfer to Lyon to begin their cruise. It's not a surprise that many of the highlights of one of these cruises include food or drink. Wine and cheeses abound, and a tour of the Valrhona chocolate factory in Tournon is an unforgettable experience for all chocolate lovers. History buffs will love Avignon and its importance to the Catholic Church, and they'll also love exploring the walled-city of Viviers and the Roman Pont du Gard near Avignon.
Most river cruise lines have combination tours that include Rhone River cruises along with one on the Saone, Seine, or Bordeaux region of France. Extensions to Paris, Nice, or other cities in Provence or the French Riviera are also easily done.
The Saone River: France
The 300-mile long Saone River is a tributary of the Rhone River, merging in Lyon. Since river ships can only sail about 80 miles upstream from Lyon through Macon up to Chalon-sur-Saone, cruises usually include time on the Rhone River also. Although the Saone has 51 locks, only 3 are impacted by river cruises.
Macon is a city in the south Burgundy region of France, so it has some fine wines and opportunities to taste them. This ancient city dates back to 200 BC, and the town also has several museums and historic attractions. Many of the interesting parts of the old city are on the Saone River.
Chalon-sur-Saone is also in Burgundy, and many local activities revolve around food and wine.
Bordeaux Waterways: France
The fourth region of France with river cruises is Bordeaux, which is southwest of Paris. Ships explore the Bordeaux region on three rivers—the Dordogne, Garonne, and Gironde. The city of Bordeaux is the heart of the cruise, which primarily showcases the superb wines of the region.
These three rivers are not as scenic as those in other parts of Europe, primarily because they are subject to huge fluctuations with the tides (especially the Gironde). In addition, the land is very flat. The vineyards offer some beauty, but many cannot be seen from the rivers.
Some ocean ships can sail from the Atlantic Ocean up to the city of Bordeaux, but a bridge prevents them from going further. Bordeaux is a gorgeous French city and is fun to explore, even for those who don't like wine.
In addition to the city of Bordeaux, ports of call might include Cadillac, Libourne, Pauillac, Saint Emilion, and Blaye. Seeing the many famous vineyards and wine cellars near Pauillac and Saint Emilion is memorable for all who love wine and historic cities. Travelers will have their friends talking if they take a selfie front of a Saint Emilion shop that sells bottles of wine for thousands of dollars each.
Some cruise lines even offer an optional tour to the city of Cognac, where guests have the opportunity to blend their own. Another fun activity is to go truffle hunting with a farmer and his dog (pigs aren't used anymore).
The Douro River: Portugal and Spain
Until a few years ago, even experienced travelers did not know about the Douro River as a cruise destination. This 557-mile long river starts in Spain, but most of its navigable waters are in Portugal, and the river flows into the Atlantic Ocean at Porto. The Douro River has 15 dams that generate hydroelectric power, but only five are on the navigable section, and all of these also have locks to enable ships to go up and down the river. Because of its rapids, the Douro was once very dangerous for ships to travel, but it has always been used to transport valuable goods downstream. The first valuable was gold mined in the mountains, but wine eventually replaced the gold.
The Douro River valley is spectacular as the river winds its way down the mountains toward the sea. Once ships leave Porto and sail upriver, the scenery changes rapidly as the river narrows and cliffs are steeper. Only a few small towns are visible, although vineyards fill the slopes. The region is settled, but there is not much to be seen by just walking from the ship. Buses are needed to take guests sightseeing and to visit the historical and cultural sites. This is an amazing river cruise destination, so don't let the bus time scare you.
Ships sail up the Douro from Porto to Spain, turn around, and sail back down. They are not allowed to sail at night, but different shore excursions are offered upstream and downstream, so it doesn't seem repetitive.
Douro River ships are specifically built to sail this river and are smaller since they need to navigate the sharp turns in the river and the smaller locks. Some river cruise lines feature 7-day cruise-only vacations, embarking and disembarking their ships in Porto. Others have cruise tours that include two or three nights in Lisbon, a transfer to Porto, and then a 7-day cruise.
The Volga River and Other Russian Waterways
A cruise on Russian rivers and waterways between St. Petersburg and Moscow is the best way to see parts of Russia on a cruise. Many will travel to St. Petersburg on a Baltic cruise and are amazed at the beauty and fascinated by the history and culture of this great city. Some of these travelers want to learn more about Russia, and this river cruise itinerary fits the bill.
The Volga River, which is Europe's longest, is the major river on this cruise. Its source is in central Russia and it empties into the Caspian Sea. Ships sailing from St. Petersburg embark on the Neva River, sail through Lake Ladoga and then onto the Svir River, which joins with the Volga-Baltic Waterway before entering the Volga River. The Volga system features many reservoirs, so often ship passengers feel they are on an ocean rather than a river. The last body of water is the Moscow Canal, but thanks to the lock system, Moscow is connected with the Baltic Sea at St. Petersburg and the cities on the Volga downstream to the Caspian Sea.
This cruise is usually 12-13 days and includes overnights (or more) in both St. Petersburg and Moscow. Other ports of call include small towns on the Svir River that are perfect for shopping, trying different kinds of vodka, or experiencing a Russian banya (sauna and bath house). Ships also stop at Kizhi Island to see traditional wooden homes and churches, and at historic towns down the Volga River like Yaroslavl and Uglich that provide a look at the culture and life outside of the major cities.
The tour guides on this river cruise recognize that travelers are very interested about their lives in Russia, so they feature many lectures and free-flowing discussions on different topics while the ship is sailing. Since the cruise is only in one country, the entire focus can be on Russian food, drink, clothing, schools, churches, politics, and everyday life. And, since Moscow is far inland, it's an unexpected treat to visit on a cruise.
The Dnieper River: Ukraine
The 1,333-mile Dnieper River is Europe's fourth longest and sails from Russia through Belarus and Ukraine before flowing into the Black Sea. It has many hydroelectric dams and is very important to the Ukraine economy.
Cruises sail between Kiev and Odessa, so the entire cruise is in the Ukraine. These two cities are so important over half of an 11-day cruise is spent there. Kiev is the capital of Ukraine and is one of Europe's oldest cities, offering many historic sites and a major cathedral. Odessa sits on the northern shore of the Black Sea, not far from where the Dnieper River enters the Sea. Unlike Kiev, Odessa was not founded until the 18th century by Russian Empress Catherine the Great.Today, it is a transportation hub and its beaches attract many tourists.
Other Dnieper River ports visited on the cruise are Kremenchug, Dnipro, and Zaporozhye, which is the ancestral home of the Cossacks. It's not surprising that Cossack horsemen put on a show similar to the one in Puszta, Hungary since Cossacks settled both regions.
Due to the political unrest in the Ukraine, many river cruise lines have postponed running their ships on the Dnieper River. Viking River Cruises is the only major river cruise line that caters to English-speaking guests that currently has Dnieper cruises scheduled.
Spring Tulip and Windmill Cruises: Netherlands and Belgium
A river cruise in the Netherlands and Belgium encompasses parts of well-known rivers like the Rhine and lesser-known rivers such as the Issel, Nedderrijn, and Schelde (or Scheldt). Some of the cruises are also on waterways such as the Amsterdam-Rhine Canal or Ijssel Lake.
A spring tulip time cruise in the Netherlands and Belgium is a marvelous cruise for flower lovers, but also for those who appreciate quiet villages, windmills, and history. Travelers fascinated by the power of water will enjoy learning about how the Dutch have reclaimed much of their land from the sea and also how they keep the sea from flooding that precious land. The waterways of the Netherlands and Belgium have about 40 locks, all of which are important for flood control rather than height differences. (Don't worry, river cruises don't pass through all of them.)
Many of these cruises are roundtrip from Amsterdam, and a day touring this famous city is often included in the tour before the ship sails.
The best time to see the tulip fields and world-famous Keukenhof Gardens is from late March to mid-May, so river cruise lines operate at full strength during this time. Most of the ships that sail the waterways of the Netherlands are 7 or 8 days long, while those that sail around the Netherlands and Belgium are usually 10-14 days.
A few cruise lines also sail the Netherlands and Belgium in the fall months, but you won't see any tulips blooming in the fields at that time of year.