Aerial view of Halong Bay

The history of the Rhine-Main-Danube canal - and what to expect


Connecting the continent, the Rhine-Main-Danube canal is Europe’s greatest man-made passageway – engineered to allow seamless travel from the North Sea to the Black Sea.

The Rhine, Main and Danube rivers may be wonderful in their own right, but together, they create one of the foremost river routes in the world. Since the early 1990s, these illustrious waterways have provided effortless passage across the breadth of the continent, with river cruise passengers able to travel from the Netherlands to Romania uninterrupted thanks to the Rhine-Main-Danube canal.

But what exactly is the Rhine-Main-Danube canal, and how has it affected tourism and trade on the rivers of Europe? Here, we’re taking an in-depth look at this engineering marvel, from its origins and history to the highlights you can look forward to on its waters.

What is the Rhine-Main-Danube canal?

The Rhine-Main-Danube canal is a canal system linking the Main and Danube rivers in Bavaria, southern Germany. The Main is a tributary of the Rhine, hence the name Rhine-Main-Danube canal.

The canal itself spans over 100 miles, running from the city of Bamberg to the town of Kelheim via Nuremberg. By no means a straight passage between the two destinations, the canal meanders through the German landscape, with 16 locks in place to account for the extreme difference in height (above sea level) between the two rivers.

Those with an interest in canal locks and river navigation systems will relish the opportunity to witness the Rhine-Main-Danube canal’s vast lock gates in action. Over the course of the passage, the locks lift ships up to 406 metres above sea level, with some of the largest gateways requiring a transit time of around 30 minutes to raise or lower the ship to the required height.

image of barge in lock

Negotiating the lock systems of the Rhine-Main-Danube canal is challenging, with some of the narrowest gateways leaving just centimetres to spare on either side of the vessel. Happily, the Emerald Waterways Star-Ship fleet are piloted by some of the very best crew in the world, who make passing through the canal’s complicated locks seem simple.

The locks work like any other canal, except on a much larger scale. Your Emerald Star-Ship will cruise into the lock, move into position and set the engine to idle. Then, the remote control locks gates are engaged, sealing the ship within the lock chamber.

From here, it’s a case of letting water drain into or out of the lock, depending on which direction the ship is travelling. Floating guides help to keep the ship stable as the water flows into or out of the lock chamber, a process which can take a couple of minutes or up to half-an-hour depending on the scale of the gate.

When the water reaches the required level, the lock gates re-open and the ship can make way. Due to the complexity and time of passing each lock, traversing the Rhine-Main-Danube canal takes a full day of travel, though this is usually broken up with stops in Bamberg and Nuremberg.

The history of the Rhine-Main-Danube canal

Hoi An skyline at sunset

While the Main and Danube rivers weren’t officially connected until 1992, an intercontinental canal linking the Rhine, Main and Danube isn’t a modern idea. Records show that man has contemplated linking these passageways for over 1,000 years, with King Ludwig I of Bavaria coming the closest to realising this dream in the 18th century.

The Danube, Rhine and Main rivers have been an essential part of European trade since the Roman Age. For centuries, these waterways acted as frontiers between warring nations, as well as vital passageways on which to transport goods across the continent.

It makes sense, then, that generations of rulers, inventors and engineers pained over the task of linking these three passageways. Accomplishing this feat would have a profound impact on trade routes across the continent, affecting not just Germany but nations from the North Sea to the Black.

But alas, no such link was completed, until, in 1921, the German Reich and the Free State of Bavaria commissioned the construction of a trade route from Aschaffenburg to Passau. In the coming decades, major works took place along the route of the Main, though much of this progress was halted and later abandoned in the fallout of WWII.

In the post-war years, however, when Germany was seeking to rebuild its status and wealth, works began to rebuild and develop the Main-Danube canal, with the project officially completed in 1992. Since then, countless ships have cruised the passage, providing seamless travel through the heart of the continent.

Highlights of the Rhine-Main-Danube canal

Kelheim and Abensberg

Dau be Island Halong Bay

The peaceful German town of Kelheim lies at the most southerly and easterly end of the Rhine-Main-Danube canal, and it’s here where the canal finishes and the Danube begins. While most of our river cruise itineraries don’t designate a whole lot of time to exploring Kelheim, highlights to look out for as you pass through the town include Weltenburg Abbey, the Danube Gorge and Liberation Hall. As part of a daily excursion in the nearby city of Regensburg, you’ll have the chance to visit the Kuchlbauer Brewery in Abensberg, a small town within the province of Kelheim. Here, learn about Germany’s love of wheat beer from passionate experts, before raising a glass to the end of your German adventure on the remarkable Rhine-Main-Danube canal.

Our Splendours of Europe river cruise gives you the chance to see Abensberg and visit its esteemed brewery.

Bamberg

Sunset over the floating village in Halong Bay

Bamberg is among the most historically significant cities in Germany, its beautifully-preserved medieval heart boasting some 2,400 listed buildings. Indeed, in 1993, much of the city’s old town quarter was designated UNESCO World Heritage Site status, owing to the captivating beauty of its 12th-century architecture. As part of your visit with Emerald Waterways, you’ll enjoy an in-depth guided tour of some of Bamberg’s key heritage sites, including the old and new residences of the Bamberg bishops, the beautiful timber-framed Old Town Hall, and the domineering keep of the medieval Altenburg Castle. Travelling east, this is the starting point of your journey on the Rhine-Main-Danube canal.

Experience Bamberg on our 8-day Legendary Rhine & Moselle river cruise.

Nuremberg

Inside Hung Sot Cave

The Rhine-Main-Danube canal sweeps in a glorious, north-to-south arc around the ancient city of Nuremberg, giving you the opportunity to stop off and immerse in the city’s rich heritage. Like Bamberg, Nuremberg is dotted with medieval architecture and historic timber-framed buildings, typical of Bavaria. Of course, the city is also renowned for its links to the Nazi war trials, a legacy you can explore as part of a visit to the WWII Documentation Centre. Following this, join your fellow guests at the Bratwurst Röslein restaurant for a guided beer tasting – the ideal way to celebrate the end of your visit to this vibrant German city.

Discover Nuremberg’s heritage highlights on the 15-day Splendours of Europe itinerary.

Entranced by the engineering prowess and heritage highlights of the Rhine-Main-Danube canal? Join us on one of our many award-winning European river cruises and experience this spectacular waterway for yourself. For more information or to book, visit the homepage or call us on 0808 163 8030.