Europe is absolutely blessed with beautiful rivers, ripe for exploration and offering an array of unforgettable experiences. Every major waterway possesses its own unique personality, navigating the stunning valleys and flatlands of the continent, and providing its own distinct experiences for guests travelling the waters for the first or the fiftieth time.
Whether you wish to cruise atop relaxing waters flanked by gorgeous vineyards; delve into the very heart of medieval Europe; or explore the culinary capital of the world; there’s the river cruise to take you there. Dissecting some of the oldest, most enigmatic and most enchanting towns, cities and regions the continent has to offer, there’s new experiences to enjoy every day.
And herein is the major problem, finding the river which best suits your personal tastes and holiday wish list. Which river boasts the greatest blend of culture and culinary flair? Which river provides the most relaxing passage through Europe? And which offers the greatest step back in history?
To help you identify which of Europe’s rivers is best suited to your party’s tastes, we’ve highlighted the experiences afforded by some of the continent’s most wonderful waterways.
Best for: Awe-inspiring capital cities and cultural exploration
Europe’s second-longest river, the Danube winds through the borders of nine different countries. The river has shaped the continent’s evolution, with major civilisations strategically settling on the waterway’s banks. The Danube runs through four European capital cities – Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest and Belgrade – offering passage to some of the continent’s most vibrant cultural cities.
These ancient cities are rich with culture to be explored, architecture to admire and old traditions to enjoy. Take a trip back in time to the Renaissance era in Vienna, a city still shaped by the genius of former residents Beethoven and Mozart. Boasting exquisite palaces and religious sites; every turn in Vienna opens up a new cultural chapter, with a whole district of the city dedicated to museums.
Lovingly known as the Queen of the Danube, Budapest is one of the continent’s most enjoyable and rewarding cities to explore on foot. Of course, the first thing you’ll notice pulling into this ancient city, dissected by the Danube, is the amazing Hungarian Parliament Building, set back on the banks of the waterway.
The third largest parliament building in the world, this proud old house is complete in a Gothic Revival style, topped by an impressive Renaissance dome.
It’s not just the capital cities on the Danube which are worth visiting, the waterway winds through delightful lesser-known regions, towns and cities. A popular stop on the Danube is the Austrian city, Melk, complete with famed Benedictine abbey, peering out over the Danube. Closing in on its 1,000th birthday, Melk Abbey is one of Europe’s most historically significant buildings; serving as a monastic school and the resting place for members of Austria’s first ruling dynasty, the House of Babenberg.
As an important trade route of the times, the Danube was home to many of the continent’s most significant medieval cities. The waterway continues to flow past the best preserved of these, Regensburg, a UNESCO-recognised World Heritage Site which sits on the confluence of the Danube, Naab and Regen rivers. Regensburg Cathedral is the undoubted star of the city, with its Gothic peaks emerging over the horizon as you approach from the waters of the Danube.
Click here for the full selection of Danube river cruises from Emerald Waterways.
Best for: Fairy tale scenery and historic architecture
Symbolic of German power and efficiency, the Rhine journeys through fascinating parts of Germany’s geography and history. From the fairy tale castles which pop up with surprising regularity on the banks of the Rhine to the mystical beauty of the Black Forest; The Rhineland explores the Germany of half-timbered houses and Brothers Grimm tales.
Perhaps the continent’s most famous stretch of river, the Rhine Gorge is a dramatic valley landscape home to charming towns, a unique microclimate, and species not found elsewhere in the region. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Rhine Gorge’s 40-mile route is home to an astonishing number of ancient castles, many of which exhibit architectural traits of Rhine romanticism.
But perhaps the best-loved and most enigmatic castles along this stretch of water is Pfalzgrafenstein Castle (known as ‘the Pflaz’,
for those struggling over the pronunciation), a former toll castle dominating the entirety of the tiny Falkenau Island. The beautiful white-walled castle takes up the appearance of a ship docked on the banks of the river. Today, ‘the Pfalz’ serves as a museum, having been restored to its 14th-century glory, so that means no electricity or working toilets.
A city which beautifully combines the historic with the modern, Cologne is one of the largest and most cutting edge cities in Germany. Although much of the city was sensitively rebuilt following World War II, the city’s dominating force is Cologne Cathedral. The Roman Catholic cathedral is Germany’s most-visited landmark, earning the title of Northern Europe’s largest Gothic church. With two spires reaching high into the air, the ornate church absolutely demands your attention.
Click here for the full selection of Rhine river cruises from Emerald Waterways.
Best for: Beautiful scenery and extraordinary wine regions
Starting life as part of the frozen Rhône Glacier high up in the Swiss Alps, the river slowly melts and winds through the body of France, before emptying into the Mediterranean. Europe’s eclectic scenery unfolds across this majestic waterway journey, opening up exquisite and unforgettable views along the way.
The Burgundy and Beaujolais wine regions, home to some of the world’s best-loved vintages, are both dissected by the peaceful Rhône. A river cruise atop this unique waterway is perfect for wine lovers looking to learn the secrets of the grape. Quintessentially French panoramas stretch from every angle in the Beaujolais region, with row upon row of wine-producing vines interrupted only by the peaceful white dots of farm buildings, and the occasional traditional village. The perfect place for a glass or two of your favourite vintage.
The jaw-dropping sights aren’t restricted to nature and viticulture; the Rhône passes by the ancient walled commune of Avignon. Incredibly well-preserved, the city provides a wonderful insight into Medieval Europe. When visiting Avignon, the trip is not complete without paying homage to Palais des Papes, the historic palace of the city which served as the seat of Western Christianity during the 14th century, housing six successive popes.
The Rhône also offers plenty of modern culture, most notably in France’s second city, Lyon. Widely recognised as the culinary capital of the world, Lyon’s cuisine is a blend of traditional peasant foods given a uniquely modern twist by young, aspirational chefs. Find yourself a bouchon (a traditional Lyonnais restaurant), sample the finest foods the continent has to offer, and drink in views of the astounding Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière.
Click here for the full selection of Rhône river cruises from Emerald Waterways.