Europe’s rivers are the arteries of the continent, connecting great cities with charming small villages. Whether following ancient trade routes or sailing past stone castles with a glass of wine in hand, each river offers a unique perspective on European travel. Here’s everything you need to know about 10 of the most popular European rivers for cruising.
Europe’s second longest river curves through 10 countries from Germany to Ukraine before flowing into the Black Sea. Danube itineraries vary widely depending on which part of the river you travel, but common ports include Passau, a medieval city where three rivers meet; Vienna, a great capital of music and coffee culture; and Budapest, with its wonderful thermal baths. During the holiday season, the Danube is a prime river for Christmas market cruising.
The Rhine flows from Switzerland through Germany and the Netherlands to the North Sea, dotted along the way with medieval cathedrals and castles viewable from the ship. Common ports include Strasbourg, with its mix of French and German cultures; Cologne, dominated by its gothic Cathedral; and Basel, known for the highest concentration of museums in Switzerland. Christmas market cruises are also popular along the Rhine.
The Rhône is an ancient trade route linking the Mediterranean to Celtic Gaul. Rhône river cruises are all about exploring the food, wine, and culture of southern France. Common ports include Tarascon, where Van Gogh painted his Sunflowers; Lyon, with its secret passageways and ancient Roman theater; and the walled city of Avignon.
Linking Spain and Portugal, this river is best known for the winemaking region of the Douro River Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But three other UNESCO sites lie along the Douro river cruise route: the old city of Salamanca, Spain, the prehistoric rock art sites in Portugal’s Côa Valley, and the historic center of Porto.
A tributary of the Rhine, the Main changed European river cruising when it was canalized in 1992 to connect the Rhine with the Danube. Flowing through central Germany, the Main River showcases medieval villages and castles in Bavaria, Baden-Württemberg, and Hesse. Common ports include Frankfurt, a bustling metropolis; Würzburg, with its UNESCO-designated Baroque palace and gardens; and Bamberg, with its UNESCO-designated and well-preserved medieval old town.
The Seine, France’s most important commercial waterway, begins at a town (appropriately named Source-Seine) about 20 miles northeast of Dijon. The river then flows through Paris, and other common ports include Giverny where you can visit the home of Claude Monet; and the villages along the Normandy Coast where you can tour the historic Normandy beaches and cemeteries.
The Dordogne River flows through the Bordeaux region of France which makes it the perfect river for wine enthusiasts. Common ports include Blaye with a lovely coastal road, Libourne with charming markets, and Saint-Émilion with its ethereal monolithic church. From the ship, watch for the carrelets (fishing huts on stilts) which line the riverbanks.
The Garonne also flows through the Bordeaux region, including the city of Bordeaux itself. The Garonne takes you to the Sauternes appellation where the unique microclimate and “noble rot” produce semi-sweet white wines. Cadillac, another common port, is known for its 16th century castle, but the charmingly ornate Église Saint-Martin is also worth a visit.
The Po flows more than 400 miles across Italy; passengers embark from Venice and sail through the Venice Lagoon en route to Chioggia, a small fishing village with a popular weekly market. Common excursions include Bologna, known for its impressive food culture; Verona, the city of Romeo and Juliet; and the Venice Islands.
Rather than a specific river, cruises through the Netherlands and Belgium sail on a network of canals and inland waterways offering a close-up look at life in the lowlands. Common ports include Amsterdam, the metropolitan starting point for many voyages; Kinderdijk, with its stunning view of 19 classic windmills; and Brussels, where you can feast on the world’s best chocolate. Cruises in this region are popular in spring when the tulips are in bloom.