Who wouldn’t want to embark on a European river cruise? Imagine meandering through Germany, where turreted castles sit above charming old towns straight out of a fairy tale. Or floating through Normandy, whose swan-paddled landscapes were painted by Monet, and where history lessons pop up at every bend. Not adventurous enough? How about Bulgaria, where snow-capped mountains loom over ancient capitals and medieval forts?
Nowhere else in the world is better suited to river cruises than Europe. Whether drifting by picturesque fields of poppies, gliding past medieval hilltop villages, or docking in cities you’ve long dreamed about, river cruising immerses you in each destination. Unpacking once is part of the appeal. Waking up to a different view out your window each day is definitely another. There is no fuss or clogged roads as you go. You can lounge on a ship’s deck as a silvery river beckons you onwards past hilltop castles, gorges and sun-dappled hills.
River cruise itineraries
The seven best rivers are The Danube, The Rhine, The Moselle, The Seine, The Rhône, The Douro and The Volga.
All the big companies offer journeys along Europe’s main cruising rivers, leaving you with a good range of both destination and ship choices. The Upper Danube and The Rhine are river cruising’s traditional heartland. For a grand overview, nothing can beat the classic Amsterdam to Budapest journey from the North Sea to the heart of continental Europe. As you sail through the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Slovakia and Hungary, you can expect great cultural variety, a fine mix of urban and village visits, and superb scenery through the Rhine Gorges.
The Lower Danube
Those already familiar with western Europe might opt instead for the Lower Danube downstream from Budapest, which brings you through Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania. Sail through the dramatic Iron Gates gorges, admire snow-capped mountains and medieval citadels, and visit capital cities such as Belgrade and Bucharest.
New for 2024, Tauck is offering the Rhine Connoisseur from Montreux to Brussels. Onboard, there is a feast of culinary experiences that showcase wine, cheese and chocolate in Strasbourg, Belgium and Switzerland. Sip wine in the Lavaux vineyards at a local wine-making cooperative, or taste craft beer and local delicacies in Düsseldorf. Sample French fare in Strasbourg and local beer in Antwerp, or enjoy a chocolate demonstration in Brussels. Dine like royalty at Slot Loevestein, set on a private island exclusive to Tauck guests, and spend three nights at a luxurious Fairmont Montreux resort amidst spectacular scenery.
The Venetian Lagoon
Every waterway offers its own distinct pleasures, however. The Venetian Lagoon – sailed only by CroisiEurope and Uniworld – showcases the floating Italian city to spectacular effect, while the Douro River in Portugal takes you past baroque towns and steeply-terraced vineyards, with a side journey to the enchantingly beautiful Spanish university town of Salamanca.
These shorter cruises are more immersive and give you a more in-depth look at a single country, as do the river cruises in France. The Bordeaux region sees you puttering past world-famous vineyards, elegant châteaux and fortified market towns. The Seine takes you from Paris into a region rich in history and beloved by Impressionist painters. Meanwhile, Rhone cruises highlight Provence and Burgundy’s medieval towns, such as Avignon, and France’s gastronomic capital, Lyon.
Rivers less travelled
The inquisitive cruiser can find itineraries with CroisiEurope and boutique companies like Saga along rivers such as the Oder in Germany-Poland, Elbe in Germany-Czechia, Tisza in Hungary-Serbia, and the Meuse River in the Netherlands and Belgium.
The best European river cruise lines
- Uniworld Boutique River Cruise
- Scenic Luxury Cruises & Tours
- Viking Cruises
- Avalon Waterways
- Botanica Tours
Uniworld has a boutique feel with its hallmark opulent décor, artworks and details such as handcrafted beds and marble bathrooms. Food and wine aficionados will delight not just in the regionally-inspired cuisine on board but also on shore excursions to wineries, farmer’s markets, and village bakeries. Offering five-star farm-to-table dining with ingredients sourced fresh from every port, Uniworld’s opulent ships are tasteful in more ways than one. Each of the 12 Uniworld ships plying Europe’s enchanting waterways is accurately described as “a luxurious floating boutique hotel” with its own look and feel. The 130-passenger River Duchess is tranquil and elegant while the River Queen brings Art Deco to life throughout the ship in vibrant blue and white interiors.
Tauck prides itself on taking guests off the beaten track with exclusive excursions and experiences. Like the sound of an after-hours tour of the Vatican without the crowds or learning the art of making gelato at a 17th-century cooking school? That’s what Tauck is all about. Tauck’s spacious cabins and personalised service elevate their river cruises in Europe. It’s an incredible and jam-packed experience no matter what your age.
Scenic’s signature Space-Ships feature luxury suites with private butler service, staterooms with balconies, fine dining and casual restaurants. Scenic gives guests joining its five-star river cruises in Europe the ability to tailor everything from what they see and do, to the pace at which they do it. Love history? Gastronomy? Getting active out in nature? There are endless options available.
Norwegian-owned Viking has a minimalist yet chic Nordic design. Its Longships feature vast sundecks, light-flooded interiors and efficient but friendly service. Several of Viking’s river ships have been purpose-built to navigate the historic Seine River. Allowing them to dock in an exclusive spot in the centre of Paris, that’s neatly positioned for travellers. Viking’s European river cruise itineraries take in some of the prettiest (and tastiest) spots with tours through Lyon, Provence and the Rhineland. Also exceptional is a 17-day, 7-country ‘Capitals of Eastern Europe’ itinerary. And just try to resist the ‘Tulips and Windmills’ cruise beginning and ending in Amsterdam – especially in spring.
Avalon Waterways is known for its epic Panorama Suites which boast full-scale windows and balconies wider than any other vessel. Beds directly face the views, so you don’t even have to get up to start sightseeing. Just open your eyes to discover where you’ve arrived next. Avalon offers a variety of river cruises in Europe. But why not try something different and explore the vineyards of Portugal on an 11-day cruise. Or head down the Danube River to delve into the delights of Bulgaria. Avalon’s new ship, Alegria, is cruising Portugal’s Douro River.
Other luxury companies are APT, Botanica Tours and CroisiEurope. APT’s best ships offer suave service, a choice of dining, and bicycles for port days. Other features include a sun deck, heated swimming pool with swim-up bar, fitness centre and beauty salon. Specialist offshoot Botanica Tours operates garden-themed river cruises. CroisiEurope, Europe’s biggest rivercruise company, sails alternative rivers, such as the Loire in France and Guadalquivir in Spain.
Luxury European river cruises
A decade ago, river cruises were genteel, mid-range holidays, but times – and rivers – have changed to provide much wider choice and greater luxury. The likes of private balcony suites and butler service are now almost standard on river ships, and some feature heated swimming pools, sundeck bars and in-room espresso machines, too. The dining experience is now first class. Casual alternatives have been introduced to offer bistro fare, light buffets or café dishes while ships have upped their fine-dining and degustation menus and wines. A much greater focus on local food now better reflects the regions through which river ships sail. You can enjoy German sausages and dumplings, or French specialities such as the Marseille fish stew bouillabaisse, escargots and great cheese platters showcasing the likes of Roquefort and Saint-Nectaire.
Impressive shore excursions
Europe has a fabulous history commemorated in ancient ruins and medieval villages, elegant Renaissance squares and sumptuous palaces. While distances are compact, the riverbanks are cluttered with castles, cathedrals and turreted towns. You’ll enjoy the modern style, buzzing neighbourhoods and great shopping.
Shore excursions are ever-increasing in variety and energy. Many excursions will satisfy the gourmet, with options including guided tours with culinary specialists in cities such as Bordeaux, Paris or Vienna. Also trending are tastings at prestigious cellar doors, breweries and Michelin-star restaurants. In the Bordeaux region, an excursion to famous brandy-making town Cognac gives you the chance to blend your own at a prestigious family-owned producer. Excursions are increasingly active, too, as the expectations of retirees change and the average passenger age declines. Many ships now carry e-bikes and Nordic walking sticks for those who want to get out into places such as Provence’s lavender fields or the Moselle region’s vineyards. Organised excursions might take you hot air ballooning, kayaking, hiking or whitewater rafting.
This article originally appeared in Signature Luxury Travel & Style magazine. Subscribe to the latest issue today