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8 best river cruises in Europe, from the Douro to the Danube

Get to know the the continent’s waterways, as well as the towns and cities on their banks, with these relaxing cruise holidays

Chris Wilson
Tuesday 27 June 2023 10:34 BST
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<p>Some of Europe’s most famous waterways provide the backdrop for river cruises</p>

Some of Europe’s most famous waterways provide the backdrop for river cruises

Europe is a continent built on its rivers, with many having played a vital role in the formation and development of its most important cities. From the Thames to the Tiber, they are a ever-flowing reminder of the continent’s long and varied history.

The opportunity to sail along these rivers, among the world’s most beautiful and peaceful waterways, is a temptation that’s easily given in to. Of course, a river cruise is about more than just spending time floating on the water (although that option is available, should you wish). It’s about the towns, cities and landmarks along the way.

These trips will take you on a relaxing and slow-paced journey to vineyards and valleys, tours and excursions, returning each night to your own floating hotel. Each day offers quick stops to discover some of the continent’s most important culture at your own pace.

The Independent has rounded up eight of the best Europe river cruise packages, from epic continental crossing and to the finest Christmas markets to explore.

Capitals of Eastern Europe, Viking River Cruises

The Danube runs through Budapest, Bratislava, Belgrade and Vienna

Viking River Cruises’ Capitals of Eastern Europe itinerary is a 16-night trip covering the main cities on the Danube. It sets sail from Vienna, the elegant and sophisticated Austrian capital, and it finishes in Constanta, Romania, before a quick final journey over land to Bucharest to end your trip with a two-night stay.

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On the way you’ll visit a host of towns in Hungary, Serbia and even Bulgaria, but on this trip the bigger cities are the main attraction. Vienna is followed by Bratislava – where Baroque palaces meet a typically Eastern European Old Town – and then Budapest. The Hungarian capital is a highlight: from festooned “ruin bars” and thermal baths to a spectacular neo-Gothic parliament building, the city has a wide variety of architecture, activities and things to do.

How to book

The tour lasts for 17 days, starting from £3,795pp. This price includes return flights, one excursion in each port of call and all meals. vikingrivercruises.co.uk

North Rhine & The Netherlands, TUI

Boppard is one of the towns that Rhine river cruise ships stop at

Alongside the Danube, the Rhine is one of Europe’s main cruise rivers. Many operators have several Rhine packages; TUI’s offering covers a stellar range of cities for a very affordable price. It’s ships have two dining options (a bistro and a more formal restaurant) with al fresco seating, as well as a wellness and activity area on the top deck. No excursions are included, but this does give you free rein to choose whatever activities you like.

The first two days are spent in Amsterdam, where you’ll have ample time to wander its canals and green spaces, such as the Vondelpark, or visit attractions such as the Anne Frank museum, Van Gogh museum and Rijksmuseum.

Days three and four bring you to Rotterdam and Dusseldorf. You can enjoy the port area in Netherlands’ second city or simply marvel at its dramatically different modern architecure, while Dusseldorf provides a variety of museums and concerts alongside a lively Old Town. On days five to seven, you’ll visit four picturesque riverside cities and towns: Bonn, Koblenz, Boppard and Oberwesel. There are waterfront bars and restaurants galore, and each has its own slice of history (think of a Beethoven museum in Bonn and a memorial to the ruler who united Germany in Koblenz).

How to book

From £1,219pp for this seven-night trip, including three meals per day (you can add coffees, alcohol and other drinks on an all-inclusive basis for an extra £20 per night) and return flights. tui.co.uk

The Douro, Riviera Travel

Porto sits on the banks of the Douro

A trip along the northern Douro river can offer views to rival even the most idyllic of Algarve beaches. This trip starts in Porto, where bars and restaurants line the banks in the Ribeira (Riverside) district, but it is worth climbing the various hills to see other areas and sites, such as the cathedral and Dom Luis I Bridge.

After setting off along the Douro, your first two stops are Pinhao – a picturesque wine town, famous for being at the heart of the Port-producing region of the country – and Castelo Rodrigo, a 12th-century walled village located in the highlands. Day four will see you visit Salamanca, the Spanish sandstone city famous for its cathedrals and university.

The next two days are spent in Peso da Régua and Lamego – two small hillside towns – before returning to Porto on day seven. The cruises ends here but the holiday isn’t; this package also contains a three-night stay in Lisbon. After travelling to the capital by coach, you’ll visit the nearby towns of Coimbra (day eight) and Sintra (day 10), while you’ll have a day in the capital sandwiched in between; while in Lisbon, take in the city’s unique Manueline and Pombaline architecture while wandering through its grand squares, and visit Sao Jorge castle or the city’s famous Time Out Market.

How to book

This 11-day cruise is priced from £2,128pp, including all meals on board, excursions, airport transfers and coach travel where necessary. rivieratravel.co.uk

The Rhone, Scenic Cruises

The Rhone stretches through Lyon and several French towns

Scenic Cruises’ luxury Rhone sailing takes you through some of the best sections of southern France, starting in Lyon. The regional capital has 2,000 years of history, so it’s blessed with a Roman amphitheatre right through to a Renaissance Old Town. Your first trip will take you north along the Saone river to Macon, a famous wine region in Burgundy.

The next two towns, Vienne and Viviers, offer spectacular views of the Rhone before you arrive in Avignon for two nights. You can enjoy a private concert at the Palais des Papes – once a Papal residence – as well as a cooking class onboard, but a visit to the city itself is worth it to wander its narrow streets and charming squares, starting with the Place de l’Horloge. Your final day takes you to Arles, at the mouth of the Rhone – from here, you can travel home, stay in the city or carry on towards Marseille.

How to book

Prices start at £1,863pp for the eight-day cruise. The package includes 20 meals, the premium concert experience, cooking lessons and 19 shore activities, ranging from walking tours to wine tastings. scenic.co.uk

Holland & Belgium, Avalon Waterways

Ghent is one of five cities on the Holland & Belgium route

Avalon’s eight-day cruise of the Low Countries is an excellent way to experience some of the region’s best cities in a relaxing way. It starts and ends in Amsterdam, where you’ll have a number of nights to wander its scenic network of canals lined with beautiful 17th-century buildings.

When you move onto Belgium, you’ll visit Ghent, Brussels and Antwerp on consecutive days. More tranquil canals await you in Ghent, and those who enjoy being by the water can continue this in Antwerp’s waterfront area. Brussels has more than its fair share of landmarks and museums (all centred around Grand Place, main square and Unesco Heritage Site), but the Royal Museum of Fine Arts (Antwerp) and St Bavo’s Cathedral (Ghent) are definitely places to visit during the other stops. Day six will take you to Rotterdam before you head back to the Dutch capital.

How to book

From £1,635pp. Meals and some activities are included; there are additional excursions in each destination that can be purchased. avalonwaterways.co.uk

Danube Delights, Emerald Cruises

Passau sits on the confluence of three rivers

This trip from Emerald Cruises takes you along the famous river to Regensburg. It starts with two nights in Budapest, with a traditional Hungarian folklore show and tour of Buda Hill on offer, along with any solo sightseeing you’d like to do. Days three and four take you to Bratislava and Vienna, where you can enjoy cycling tours and hikes.

Krems and Durnstein are the last two stops in Austria before you head to Passau, the German “City of Three Rivers”. At the confluence of the Danube, Inn and Ilz rivers, the city is home to an impressive cathedral and Old Town. After disembarking at Regensburg, you make your way to Munich, where a good plan is to spend time exploring the Bavarian capital before you fly home.

How to book

From £1,995pp for this eight-day cruise, which includes five guided tours, 20 meals and complimentary wine, beer and soft drinks served with lunch and dinner on board. emeraldcruises.co.uk

Christmas Markets on the Rhine, Ama Waterways

Cologne is one of several cities that is famous for its Christmas Markets

There’s something quite special about experienceing Christmas celebrations on a river cruise through Europe. On this AmaWaterways voyage, you sail the Rhine, boarding in Amsterdam and with a first stop in Cologne. The Gothic cathedral provides the backdrop for one of the country’s best Christmas markets, where you’ll find dozens of stalls selling festive items, many of it handmade. Other markets include the more elaborate Heinzels Wintermärchen in the Old Town and the Markt der Engel (a more rustic affair in the city’s Neumarkt square). For those who want to mix in a bit of sightseeing, the Museum Ludwig and Roman-Germanic Museum can give you a taste of arts and history.

Next on the itinerary you’ll visit the German towns of Heidelberg and Speyer, where more markets await, before arriving in Strasbourg, France. Here you’ll find an eclectic mix of French and German culture, a warm festive spirit and plenty of opportunities to wander the markets that are spread throughout the town. Wander further afield and you’ll find Petite France, a pretty district known for cobblestone streets and canals. Holidaymarkers return to Germany for the penultimate stop in Breisach, before disembarking in Basel (though you can always stay in Switzerland for a taste of Swiss Christmas markets).

How to book

From £2,254, including meals and some activitie; flights and airport transfer not included. amawaterways.co.uk

European Sojourn, Viking River Cruises

The European Sojourn ends in the Romanian capital, Bucharest

This ultimate itinerary bisects Europe to take passengers from Amsterdam to Bucharest, via sections of the Rhine, Main and Danube among other European rivers. Along the way, passngers will visit some of Europe’s principal cities – think Budapest, Amsterdam and Vienna – smaller (but just as beautiful) riverside settlements such as Passau and Bamberg, and lesser-known towns including Vidin and Kolocsa.

Hidden gems range from Melk, an Austrian town in the underrated Wachau Valley wine-making region, Osijek, the fourth-largest city in Croatia, and Kinderdijk, a Dutch village famous for its set of 19 windmills. With 23 days, eight countries, 20 towns and cities, and at least 10 Unesco World Heritage Sites, there’ll be plenty to see as you traverse the length of central Europe.

How to book

From £5,395pp, including flights, 19 guided tours, all meals, transfers and amenities. vikingrivercruises.co.uk

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