A river runs through it: the 10 best cities in Europe to see from a boat or a bridge

Making the most of the water is still the fastest way to the centre of some great cities. Harriet O'Brien reports

1 The Seine, Paris

Integral to the sublime romance of Paris, the Seine curves through 10 of the city's 20 arrondissements, its banks dotted with some of the most famous landmarks of Europe. It was both to celebrate and protect this glorious waterway, with its elegant bridges and beautiful buildings, that the stretch between the Eiffel Tower in the west and Saint-Chapelle and Notre Dame cathedral in the east was added to Unesco's World Heritage list in 1991. From Easter to All Saints' Day (1 November) the city's river shuttle is in operation here, offering one of the finest ways to see this supremely stylish city. It's not a journey for those in a hurry, the leisurely trip takes about an hour and a half, although with a day pass (costing €11, about £7.85) you can hop on and off at any of the eight stops, including the Musée d'Orsay, Saint-Germain-des-Pres and the Louvre (for more information on the half-hourly service, call Batobus 00 331 44 11 33 99; www.batobus.com). This summer, for the third year, the Paris Plage has been created. The beach, complete with imported sand and deckchairs, is situated between the pont Notre-Dame and the pont d'Arcole, while a 28m swimming pool has been installed near the pont Marie.

Getting there: Among a number of travel companies providing good-value Paris packages, VFB Holidays (01242 240310; www.vfbholidays.co.uk) organises two-night breaks from £174 per person covering transport to the city by air or Eurostar, b&b hotel accommodation and a Paris museum pass. From 14 October, the company is offering special trips to see the exhibition Turner, Whistler and Monet: Impressionist Visions (featuring views of the Seine and the Thames) from £149 for two nights. It also arranges five-day cruises on the Seine from Paris to Honfleur and back.

2 The Neva, St Petersburg

An imperial masterpiece, St Petersburg remains very much the dream and vision of Tsar Peter I (later dubbed "the Great"). In the early 18th century he orchestrated the construction of this purpose-built capital on the banks of the river Neva, draining the surrounding swamps into a network of canals in the process. The result is still a jawdropping fusion of water and architecture, with magnificent panoramas of pillared mansions intensified through reflections. To view the city from its watery thoroughfares is to take in its true glory. From May to October riverboat tours depart from a number of piers including Anichkov Bridge at the corner of Nevsky Prospekt and Fontanka river, Ploshchad Dekabristov, near the bronze equestrian statue of Peter, and Griboedov Canal near Nevsky Prospekt metro station - for details see www.infoservices.com/stpete/98.htm.

Getting there: Steppes East (01285 651010; www.steppeseast.co.uk) organises luxury four-night trips to the city from £1,395 per person including flights from Heathrow, b&b accommodation at the sumptuous Astoria Hotel and entrance to a number of the city's most magnificent sights - such as the Peter and Paul fortress, the Grand Palace at Peterhof (accessible by hydrofoil) and the Yussupov Palace. Less costly accommodation can be arranged at a number of St Petersburg's stylish new b&bs, and the company also offers an elegant apartment on the Fontanka canal. This sleeps up to six people and costs £100 per person per night (for a minimum of four) including breakfast, a driver and a cook.

3 The Ljubljana, Ljubljana

A stroll along the gently bustling banks of Ljubljana river in Slovenia's capital presents a superb prospect of the atmospheric Old Town which is billed as "the new Prague". Lined with bars, cafés and restaurants, the river offers wonderful vistas of Baroque and Art Nouveau mansions interspersed with overhanging trees and foliage. There are graceful bridges to amble across, intriguing alleys to explore and a seemingly endless choice of churches and impressive galleries and museums to visit. In the summer and early autumn boat tours operate from Ribji trg pier near Ljubljana's Triple Bridge - for more details contact the Slovenian tourist office in Royston, Hertfordshire (0870-225 5305) or visit www.ljubljana.si.

Getting there: British Airways (0870-850 9850, www.ba.com) and easyJet (0871-750 0100; www.easyJet.com) fly to Ljubljana's airport at Brnik, 17 miles (27km) north-west of the city, from where buses leave hourly for the 45-minute journey into town. Here there is, as yet, a fairly slim choice of hotels - with high prices that are no guarantee of comfort or service (although otherwise costs in Ljubljana are very reasonable). The four-star Grand Union at Miklosiceva 1 (00 386 1 308 1270; www.gh-union.si) offers the closest approximation to luxury. Prices for double rooms at this Art Nouveau hotel start at €177 (about £126) per night with breakfast.

4 The Dnepr, Kiev

The Dnepr river flows from Russia into Belarus, and then cuts a great swathe through Ukraine and its capital, Kiev. River trips provide a striking perspective of this city, founded in the 5th century and, despite wars, fires and invasions, still containing some of the architectural treasures of the region. On one side the golden domes of the stunning Caves monastery at Pechersk rise above the foliage while the stupendous statue of Mother Ukraine glints on the horizon. On the opposite bank, great slabs of Soviet-style apartment blocks serve as monumental reminders of the recent past. Private boats can be hired from the central river station.

Getting there: Tourism in Kiev is as yet fairly undeveloped and language barriers can be frustrating so it is best to arrange travel here with a specialist to the region: Regent Holidays (0117-921 1711; www.regent-holidays.co.uk), for example, offers packages to Kiev and can advise on further guidance and contacts. The company organises three-night breaks from £349 per person including flights from London Gatwick airport and b&b accommodation at the new River Hotel Dneprovskiy, a well-appointed riverboat moored near the Podil district, a stroll or short funicular ride from the city centre.

5 The Vltava, Prague

The Czech Republic's longest river, the Vltava, cuts through the centre of this stunning city of turrets, spires and domes. The views from Karluv Most, or Charles Bridge, are famously breathtaking but even more so is a trip along the city's magnificent waterway, with the cream and golden hues of elegant baroque buildings mirrored on the surface. Tours, from hour-long trips to evening excursions with dinner, depart year round from Cechuv Bridge - for more information see prague.city-discovery.com/ or contact the Czech Tourist office (020-7631 0427; www.visitczechia.cz).

Getting there: The city's seemingly boundless popularity is evident from the number of airlines travelling there from across the UK: Prague is served by Czech Airlines (0870 444 3747; www.czechairlines.co.uk), easyJet (0871-750 0100; www.easyJet.com), Bmibaby (0870-264 2229; www.bmibaby.com), Jet2 (0870-737 8282; www.jet2.com) and British Airways (0870-850 9850; www.ba.com). With crowds descending all year round, hotel availability tends to be sparse - and expensive. For a good mid-range option try U Tri Bubnu, or the Three Drums (00 420 224 214 855; www.utribubnu.cz), a 15th-century townhouse close to the Old Town Square. Double rooms cost from €132 (about £94) per night including breakfast.

6 The Ill, Strasbourg

The principal city of France's Alsace region was strategically founded by the Romans on an island in the river Ill, close to its confluence with the Rhine on what is now the border with Germany. For all Strasbourg's current bureaucratic associations as the seat of the Council of Europe, its historic heart is a picturesque place of Gothic churches, gables, ancient battlements and atmospheric bridges. These are best seen either by strolling the banks of the Ill or joining a bâteau mouche tour, operating throughout the year from the landing stage of the Palais Rohan. For more details call the main tourist office (00 33 3 8852 2828; www.ot-strasbourg.fr).

Getting there: Rail Bookers (0870-730 0720; www.railbookers.com) offers three-night breaks at the Strasbourg Hilton Hotel from £276 per person. The price includes b&b accommodation and return train travel from Waterloo station in London via Paris, France.

7 The Danube, Vienna

The Danube slices this wedding cake of a city into unequal halves. The old town and most of the historic sights are south of the river, with the Danube Canal, which branches off from the main waterway, forming one of the borders of the ancient centre. While the sumptuous Schloss Schönbrunn, the sublime latticework of the Stephansdom church and other splendours of Austria's most famously romantic city are best viewed on foot, a number of river boat companies offer musical evening cruises and day trips along the Danube Canal and the river. The most celebrated of these is DDSG, or Blue Danube Shipping Company, (00 43 1 588 800; www.ddsg-blue-danube.at) whose one-day excursions take in views of Vienna as well as the Danube valley.

Getting there: Among several specialist tour operators offering cultural breaks to Vienna, Kirker Holidays (020-7231 3333; www.kirkerholidays.com) arranges three-night trips from £445 per person (until November), covering flights, transfers, b&b accommodation at the four-star K+K Palais and sightseeing guide. The company can also organise half-day cruises on the Danube from £35 per person.

8 The Rhône, Lyon

Ancient capital of Gaul, 19th-century centre of silk weaving, and now considered the gastronomic heart of France, Lyon sits at the confluence of the Rhône and the Soane. Conventionally tourists home in on the architectural riches of the central district and, for gourmet sightseeing at the least, stroll down the rue Mercière on Presqu'île. But for a fine outlook of the cityscape, take a ride on Lyon's rivers. Snaking through the town along both the Rhône and the Soane, you glide beneath at least 20 of the city's bridges, gazing up at the imposing cathedral of Saint-Jean and at the dramatic Fourvière Basilica, and passing great sweeps of Renaissance facades. Tours are operated throughout the year by Navig'inter (00 33 4 78 42 96 81, www.naviginter.fr).

Getting there: Inntravel (01653 617906; www.inntravel.co.uk) offers two-night breaks to Lyon from £232 per person until the end of September. The price includes flights from Heathrow or Gatwick and b&b hotel accommodation at the elegant Libertel Carlton in the heart of the city. Rail travel from Waterloo via Lille can also be arranged, and raised the price to £299.

9 The Thames, London

With the redevelopment of Bankside, the opening of the London Eye and the completion of the 183-mile (294km) Thames Path (which runs from the source of the river in Gloucestershire to the Thames Barrier in Docklands), Londoners have finally rediscovered the waterway that was once the great thoroughfare of their city. But for years tourists needed no such inducements and appreciated that the Thames offers wonderful panoramas and perspectives of some of London's finest and most historic sights. During the 1990s about two million visitors a year took cruises on this great waterway. The majority of these services operate between piers at Waterloo or Westminster and Greenwich, providing spirited commentary on the capital's architectural glories and its mercantile past as the boats sail slowly past such landmarks as the Houses of Parliament, the Globe Theatre, St Paul's and the Tower of London. One-way trips, lasting about an hour, cost £6.60 (children £3.30) on City Cruises (020-7740 0400; www.citycruises.com) and Thames River Services (020-7930 4097; www.westminsterpier.co.uk)

Getting there: For more information on London sights and transport contact Visit London (020-7234 5800; www.visitlondon.com). Details of the Thames Path are available from the National Trails Office (01865 810224; www.nationaltrails.gov.uk).

10 The Moselle, Trier

Once known as "the second Rome", Trier was founded on the banks of the Moselle in 16BC. For centuries Germany's oldest city remained one of the great political and cultural power centres of Europe, its fortunes faltering after Viking invasions in the 800s. By today's standards Trier is a small and compact place. Its Roman and medieval glories are best explored on foot before taking a soothing trip along the Moselle to view the historic city banks and meander on to sleepy villages surrounded by rich wine country. From Easter to October boats depart daily from the city docks at Zurlauben embankment for a four-hour trip to Bernkastel, passing vineyards, churches and semi-ruined fortresses - for more details contact Trier's tourist office (00 49 651 978080; www.trier.de).

Getting there: Moswin's Germany (0116-271 9922; www.moswin.com) offers short breaks to Trier from £285 per person including flights from Stansted to Frankfurt with transfers to the city and three nights' b&b at the centrally located Ramada-Treff hotel.

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