If you’ve ever seen a commercial for river cruises, you’ve likely been intrigued — who wouldn’t want to bring their hotel with them and cruise down some of Europe’s great waterways, with sparkling cities on either side of your ship? The appeal is clear, and it’s catching on: River cruises have become more popular than ever with almost half a million passengers sailing in 2015 and 23 new vessels launching in 2016.
“If you love ocean cruises, you’ll quickly fall in love with river cruises, too,” says Torstein Hagen, chairman and CEO of Viking River Cruises.
Wondering what a river cruise is like? I recently took an eight-day Danube Waltz cruise aboard the Viking Tor. Designed for those with an interest in geography, culture and history, my cruise was both relaxing and inspiring. Here’s a glimpse into what you can expect on a European river cruise.
1. Cruise on Europe’s greatest rivers
The beauty of river cruising is the opportunity to visit so many lovely cities, landmarks and countries, but unpack only once. You’ll sail into the heart of a destination to explore it up close and in depth. Onboard, you’ll be surrounded by first-class accommodations, enjoy exquisite dining, discover historic ports, and relax with classic evening entertainment. Many of the most popular river cruise ships have just a few decks and fewer than 200 passengers, which creates a truly intimate setting.
2. Meet the passengers
My cruise offered open seating at every meal, giving me the chance to mingle with other guests in a relaxed, casual atmosphere. Passengers come from across the globe, and there’s a true sense of camaraderie as the ship passes by beautiful castles, historic churches and medieval villages. Centuries of history become part of your collective memories as you think about the thousands of vessels that sailed the same routes.
3. Enjoy exquisite dining
Many cruise lines offer chef-inspired meals that combine local cuisine and wines with more traditional culinary choices. You often have the option to dine in the main dining room or at a more casual buffet in a lounge or other alternate location.
4. See the sites with complimentary excursions
You’ll have the option to take a local excursion at almost every port, giving you the opportunity to engage with a knowledgeable tour guide whose commentary will enrich your knowledge of history and the arts. Or, explore the cities on your own. Optional excursions are offered, including expansive city highlights, home visits, winery tours, and classical music concerts, as well as pre- and post-cruise extensions.
5. Discover eco-friendly cruising
When compared to cars, planes, and larger ocean cruisers, river cruise ships are one of the greenest ways to travel the world. Viking Longships, for example, feature sustainability upgrades, such as onboard solar panels and energy-efficient hybrid engines that also reduce vibrations for a remarkably smooth ride. Viking also pioneered organic herb gardens on the sun decks. For most of the sailing seasons, the gardens provide fresh herbs like rosemary, basil, parsley, chives and mint for onboard meals.
Are you sold yet? If so, here’s how to decide when and where to go on your river cruise:
When is the best time to go?
Summer is the most popular season for river cruising and you can enjoy sitting on the sundeck watching as the glorious landscape changes. In early fall, temperatures are a little cooler and there are fewer visitors to popular European destinations. Consider a river cruise to the famous European Christmas markets in November and December. You’ll have a chance to sip spicy hot mulled wine, ooh and aah over magical holiday decorations, and shop for unique, hand-crafted European gifts and tasty treats.
What’s a typical cruise itinerary like?
To give you a taste of what a specific itinerary can look like, here’s a glimpse at the Viking Danube Waltz cruise I took. The eight-day journey begins in Passau, Germany, with stops in Linz, Melk, Durnstein and Vienna, Austria; Bratislava, Slovakia; and three glorious days in Budapest, Hungary. Linz dates back to the 1st century as a Roman castle settlement and today serves as the capital of Upper Austria. Walk around the square and see the works of painter Gustav Klimt (“The Kiss” and “Woman in Gold”) in every shop window and on every imaginable souvenir. You’ll tour the 900-year old Melk Abbey, a Benedictine Monastery, still in use today with beautiful frescoes, courtyards and medieval manuscripts. The wide boulevards of the Ringstrasse in Vienna beckon with grand, elegant architecture. Highlights of this imperial city include St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Hofburg Palace, Vienna State Opera and the Gustav Klimt Museum. Like the locals, you’ll want to sit at an outdoor café, sipping coffee and savoring their famous Sacher Torte.
Sailing into Budapest at night with the Parliament, Castle and Chain Bridge lights all aglow is a site you’ll never forget. Budapest is actually made up of two cities, divided by the Danube: Buda and Pest. Take a walking tour of the Jewish quarter to the magnificent 19th century Dohany Street Synagogue, complete with the Raoul Wallenberg Garden and Tree of Life memorial to those lost in the Holocaust. The ship also docked close to the “Shoes on the Danube.” This 2005 Holocaust memorial pays tribute to those who were shot on that site by the Arrow Cross and fell into the river. Today, the 60-pair of permanently bronzed 1940s-style shoes are covered with flowers and candles.
Which cruise line should you choose?
Now that you’ve gotten a taste of what my Viking river cruise was like, here are some other lines that also offer river cruises across the globe:
- French America Line cruises down America’s waterways with luxury experiences and inspired itineraries. Celebrating the epicurean influences of la belle France, guests can explore the mighty Mississippi, Ohio River Valley, and Tennessee’s Wilderness Rivers. Fascinating port stops reveal the heart of Americana.
- American Queen Steamboat Company sails the Mississippi, Ohio and Tennessee rivers onboard an authentic paddlewheel steamboat. This is Mark Twain‘s America come to life with showboat-style entertainment and Dixieland jazz music. Shore excursions by “Steamcoach” explore the many towns and cities along America’s natural highways.
- Sail the rivers of Europe, Asia and Africa aboard one of AmaWaterways luxury cruisers. Enjoy spacious accommodations, excellent service, included excursions in every port, and nightly onboard entertainment. For divine dining, AmaWaterways is a member of Chaîne des Rôtisseurs, a prestigious international culinary society.
- Uniworld covers the world with luxurious river cruises in Europe, China, India, Egypt, Russia, Vietnam and Cambodia. Floating boutique hotels feature beautiful staterooms, a fitness center and wellness classes, onboard entertainment, impeccable service, and personalized excursions to create a sophisticated environment for an unforgettable adventure.
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Mira Temkin is a Highland Park-based travel journalist who writes about destinations, cruises, hotels and resorts across the globe as well as feature articles in general interest publications. She is a blogger for Orbitz.com, Food Wine Travel, UrbanMatter.com, and many other print and online publications. You can read more of her stories at miratemkintravel.com.