River cruises provide an easy way to travel to the heart of Europe. Board a well-appointed ship, unpack your bags once and settle in for a relaxed voyage to Old World cities and medieval villages, grand castles and cathedrals, and scenic vineyards and farms. Ships usually dock in the center of town, making exploration easy and convenient whether you join one of the included shore excursions or set out on your own.
Read on to learn about the attractions and landmarks featured on cruises of Europe’s top rivers, or click any link below to go directly to a specific river.
Flowing from the Black Forest to the Black Sea, the Danube River leads to fascinating Old World cities and picturesque villages on its route through 10 countries.
Many Danube itineraries start in Nuremberg, a well-preserved medieval city in Germany. Its Imperial Castle was one of the most important fortifications of the Holy Roman Empire during the Middle Ages and provides great views from its hilltop perch.
To the south is Regensburg, originally a Celtic settlement and then a Roman garrison. Here you can see an old Roman gate and stop for a bite at The Wurstkuchl (Sausage Kitchen), one of Germany’s oldest restaurants. In Passau, you might be treated to a concert on the 17,774-pipe organ in St. Stephen’s Cathedral.
After your ship crosses the border into Austria, it will likely stop at Melk, where most passengers head for the 900-year-old Benedictine abbey that sits above the town. Be sure to check out the ceiling frescoes and the enormous library filled with thousands of books.
Austria’s Wachau Valley is one of the most scenic parts of the Danube, lined with terraced vineyards and picture-perfect villages like Durnstein, centered around a pretty blue and white church tower. Many Danube River itineraries include an excursion to Salzburg, where you can seek out the mustard-yellow home where Austrian composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born in 1756 and stroll through Mirabell Park, a filming location for “The Sound of Music.”
In Vienna, visit the imperial Hofburg Palace and St. Stephen’s Cathedral -- its roof is covered in a colorful pattern of 230,000 glazed tiles -- and see the opera house and the Ringstrasse, a broad avenue lined by stately buildings.
Bratislava is the heart of Slovakia, and it’s the only national capital that borders two other countries, Austria and Hungary. It has an attractive Old Town and baroque palaces. Farther east is the Hungarian capital, Budapest, divided by the Danube. Passengers usually visit the Fisherman’s Bastion, a large terrace that overlooks the city and river, as well as the ornate parliament building and Heroes Square, one of the city’s most visited sites.
In Belgrade, Serbia’s capital, popular attractions include the 1920s-era Royal Palace and Knez Mihailova, the pedestrian-only, main shopping street. Upon leaving Belgrade, Danube riverboats sail through the Iron Gates, a spectacular gorge that forms the boundary between Serbia and Romania.
The Danube runs along the border between Romania and Bulgaria before it empties into the Black Sea. In Bulgaria, your ship may stop at Vidin, where river cruise guests usually head to Belogradchik to view the unusual rock formations on the western slopes of the Balkan Mountains. Another destination for outings is Veliko Tarnovo, which served as Bulgaria’s medieval capital and offers the Tsarevets Fortress and inviting cobblestone streets to explore.
Bucharest, about 40 miles from the Romanian river port of Giurgiu, often is incorporated in Danube itineraries. Top sights in the capital include the Patriarchal Cathedral, its whitewashed exterior adorned with richly colored mosaics, and the 1,100-room Palace of the Parliament, said to be one of the world’s largest administrative buildings.
On a Rhine River cruise, you’ll travel through a landscape of vineyards, castles and medieval towns. The stretch known as the Upper Middle Rhine is thought to be the most scenic, home to more than 40 fortifications such as Castle Katz, perched high on a bluff above the river in St. Goarshausen. It’s near the Rock of Lorelei, where the mythical siren was said to have lured sailors to their deaths with her irresistible singing.
Cologne is famed for its Gothic cathedral whose twin spires soar above the rooftops. The Rhine meets the Mosel River in Koblenz, where walking tours take you down narrow lanes and to picturesque squares, fountains and Romanesque churches. While your ship is docked in Rudesheim, you can stroll the pedestrian-only Drosselgasse, lined with restaurants, shops and wine taverns.
Many Rhine itineraries include an excursion to Heidelberg, a well-preserved medieval city that’s home to Germany’s oldest university. The ruins of a red sandstone castle tower over the old town center.
Breisach, which was almost completely destroyed in World War II and then restored to its original historic character, is a starting point for excursions to the fabled Black Forest. Black Forest clockmakers have been renowned for their craftsmanship since the 17th century, and Rhine River travelers usually can join an outing that takes them to a cuckoo clock workshop.
Ships often cross over the German border to call at Strasbourg in the Alsace region of northeastern France. The neighborhood known as La Petite France is a picturesque place for a walk, with half-timbered homes dating to the 16th and 17th centuries.
The 340-mile Mosel River, also spelled as Moselle, runs through Germany, Luxembourg and France. Mosel sailings usually are combined with cruises of the Rhine River, which it joins in Koblenz, a German city that traces its history to the Roman military fortification established here in the year 8 B.C.
Another port call in Germany is Cochem, where a favorite attraction is Cochem Castle, or Reichsburg. The centuries-old edifice fell to ruin but was rebuilt on its Gothic foundations in 1868 by Berlin businessman Louis Ravené and used as his family’s summer home.
Winding south along the Mosel, you’ll arrive at the old winegrowing town of Bernkastel, where walking tours show off the elaborately timber-framed, gabled homes and picturesque squares. Continue on to Trier, Germany’s oldest city with the remnants of Roman baths and an amphitheater that once held 20,000 spectators.
Remich in the tiny nation of Luxembourg serves as a starting or ending point for many Mosel voyages. It’s a hub for the region’s wine industry, nestled amid vineyards and forests.
The Main River is a tributary of the Rhine, and it’s contained entirely within Germany. Trips along the Main (pronounced “Mine”) usually are combined with sailings on the Rhine or the Danube, to which it connects via the Main-Danube Canal. Panoramic river cruise itineraries navigate all four waterways.
Stops along the Main include Miltenberg, a postcard-worthy Bavarian town of narrow alleys and half-timbered homes. One of these decorated structures is the Gasthaus zum Riesen, said to be one of Germany’s oldest inns; records show that it operated as a hostelry as far back as 1411.
Wurzburg is home to the Wurzburg Residenz, a palace that combines German and Austrian baroque styles and French chateau architecture. Equally noteworthy is the Marienberg Fortress, which started as a small eighth-century fort and was expanded through the Middle Ages and Renaissance to become the grand edifice that now dominates the city from its hilltop perch.
During an outing in Bamberg, you’ll see the old, frescoed Altes Rathaus, or town hall, built on an artificial island in the Regnitz River near its confluence with the Main. According to local lore, the bishop of Bamberg refused to grant land to the citizens for the construction of a town hall, so they drove stakes into the river to create a small isle upon which the building could be erected.
Elbe River cruises travel through Germany and the Czech Republic. Learn about the life of Martin Luther in the German city of Wittenberg, where he taught at the university and preached at St. Marien Church. Meissen is best known for its factory that has produced fine German porcelain since the 1700s, as well as for the 15th-century Albrechtsburg Castle, which sits on a hill above the Elbe.
The Royal Palace of Dresden was beautifully reconstructed after being severely damaged in World War II. Today it houses the famed Green Vault, said to contain one of Europe’s largest collections of treasure, including a 41-carat green diamond. Potsdam is the site of another royal residence, the rococo Sanssouci Palace; it’s notable for its terraced gardens, carved out in 1744.
In the Czech Republic, join a walking tour in Litomerice, a picturesque town of Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance buildings. Elbe River departures frequently include a stay in Prague, where you can stroll through the Old Town, visit Prague Castle and view the 15th-century astronomical clock at the town hall.
The majority of Seine River cruises travel round trip from Paris, where guided tours highlight the French capital’s iconic sights like the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, the Eiffel Tower and the Arch of Triumph.
From Paris, ships sail west on the Seine. During a port call at Conflans, guests can either visit Chateau Malmaison, former home of Napoleon and Josephine Bonaparte, or roam the town of Auvers-sur-Oise, where Vincent Van Gogh lived.
You’ll then continue to the region of Normandy. Tour the home and gardens of Impressionist painter Claude Monet in Giverny. He lived here for 43 years and was an avid gardener who saw a living canvas in his property, planting it with an artist’s eye. Or, visit 18th-century Chateau de Bizy, called “Normandy’s Versailles.”
The most renowned sight in Les Andelys is Chateau Gaillard, a stronghold built by Richard the Lionheart in the last years of the 12th century. A magnificent Gothic cathedral is a must-see landmark in Rouen, a city that is closely connected to the story of Joan of Arc. The young warrior was imprisoned and burned at the stake here, and she’s honored at a museum that opened in 2015, Historial Jeanne d’Arc.
In Caudebec-en-Caux, passengers can set out for D-Day landing sites along the beaches of Normandy, the Normandy American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer or the pretty port town of Honfleur.
The Saone River flows through France’s Burgundy wine region, joining the Rhone River in Lyon. Typically, both rivers are combined in a single itinerary.
Learn about the area’s viticulture in locales like Beaune. It’s also known for the Hospices of Beaune, a 15th-century charity hospital complex renowned for its intricately detailed, colorful roofs. Near the town is the Chateau de Savigny-les-Beaune, which houses an eclectic collection of aircraft, racing cars and motorcycles.
Lyon is France’s gastronomic capital, and its culinary reputation can be traced to the “Mères Lyonnaises” of the mid-19th century. These women, originally cooks for wealthy families, started their own restaurants and quickly gained recognition for their simple but flavorful fare. Tour the indoor food market known as Les Halles, stroll the maze of medieval alleys in the old quarter and see the 19th-century Fourviere basilica, which looms over Lyon and is visible from many points in the city.
The Rhone River starts at the Rhone Glacier in the Swiss Alps, flowing through Switzerland and into southeastern France, where it empties into the Mediterranean Sea. It joins the Saone River in Lyon, where travelers can explore the historic section that’s now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, tour the Basilica of Notre Dame or learn about the silk-weaving industry that once thrived here. River cruise itineraries usually incorporate both the Rhone and the Saone in one trip.
This part of France is rich in Roman history, and Vienne offers several architectural examples from the era. An amphitheatre built in A.D. 40 seated 11,500 people and now hosts an annual jazz festival, while the Temple of Augustus and Livia was converted to a church in the fifth century.
A 16th-century castle dominates Tournon, set amid Cotes du Rhone vineyards. Across the river is Tain l’Hermitage, where guests can sample the confections of high-end chocolate maker Valrhona. Walking tours of Viviers wind past the village’s pale stone buildings to a Romanesque cathedral, its interior hung with Gobelin tapestries.
Nine popes lived in the walled city of Avignon in the 1300s, and their former papal residence is said to be the world’s largest Gothic palace. More than 25 rooms are open to the public.
The Provencal town of Arles was one of Vincent Van Gogh’s favorite places; he was captivated by the special quality of the light here. It has several impressive Roman sites such as an ancient amphitheater. From Arles, guests can travel to a local olive farm and to Les Baux de Provence. Situated on a rocky outcropping, Les Baux is part of an organization called The Most Beautiful Villages in France, which strives to preserve the character and culture of rural communities with fewer than 2,000 inhabitants.
Ships that operate in the Bordeaux region of southwestern France navigate the Garonne and Dordogne rivers and the Gironde estuary. Itineraries focus on Bordeaux’s winemaking heritage, with visits to vineyards, wine estates and cellars.
During a port call in Cadillac, for example, passengers can travel to Sauternes, famed for its amber-colored dessert wines. Excursions also might visit Roquetaillade Castle. Built on the remains of fortifications erected by Charlemagne, it has been in the same family since 1306. Pauillac is the heart of the Medoc wine region, and guests usually head to a chateau for tastings.
When your ship calls at Blaye, board a motorcoach for a drive along the scenic Route de la Corniche Fleurie past old stone houses to the Citadel of Blaye. Designed by 17th-century architect the Marquis of Vauban, it forms part of the fortifications known as “Vauban’s bolt.” It was built at the Gironde Estuary to protect the city of Bordeaux from enemies approaching from the Atlantic Ocean.
From Libourne, guests can travel to Saint-Emilion, a small medieval town that’s one of Bordeaux’s oldest wine appellations; Romans planted grapevines here as early as the second century. Saint-Emilion also is home to a 12th-century monolithic church, parts of which are underground. Another attraction in the area is Chateau d’Montaigne, once home to Renaissance philosopher Michel de Montaigne.
Some itineraries overnight in the port city of Bordeaux, offering an opportunity to see some of its stunning buildings at night, like the Place de la Bourse and the Grand Theatre.
Douro River cruises traverse the northern part of Portugal, exploring its wine regions and pretty towns. Travelers typically begin their Douro itineraries in either Porto, where they board the ship, or to the south in the capital city of Lisbon, where they enjoy a hotel stay and sightseeing before transferring by motorcoach to the riverboat.
At the mouth of the Douro River, Porto has been a longtime center for the port wine trade. Guests can sample the fortified beverage in one of the wine caves in Vila Nova de Gaia, across the river from Porto’s city center. Guided tours also might visit the Sao Bento train station to reveal one of Porto’s artistic treasures -- beautiful panels of blue and white tiles, called “azulejos,” that depict scenes from Portugal’s past. They were installed in the Beaux-Arts building in the early 20th century.
Sightseeing tours in Lisbon highlight the Belem district and its 16th-century Jeronimos Monastery, an outstanding example of Portuguese Manueline architecture with its intricately carved decorative stonework. Visitors also can roam the maze of steep, cobbled streets in the charming Alfama neighborhood, which is Lisbon’s oldest quarter, having survived the earthquake that wrecked most of the city in 1755. It’s filled with small plazas, colorful buildings and shops selling handcrafted items.
A port call in Regua provides an opportunity to tour Casa de Mateus near Vila Real. Built in the first half of the 18th century, the palace is a fine example of Baroque architecture. Some might recognize it from the label that adorned flask-shaped bottles of Mateus rosé, a popular wine in the early 1970s. The formal gardens contain elaborate displays of topiaries, manicured hedges and tiered pools.
South of Regua is Lamego, famed for a shrine called the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Remedies, which sits at the top of a long series of zigzagging steps decorated with tilework.
Farther east along the river, travelers spend time in the 12th-century walled village of Castelo Rodrigo, set on a hill and laced with narrow medieval lanes. Passengers usually travel across the border to Spain to visit Salamanca, where sightseeing excursions take in the golden sandstone architecture and the campus of the University of Salamanca; founded in 1218, it is one of Europe’s oldest universities. Some itineraries include a flamenco show in Salamanca.
Dutch & Belgian Waterways
From mid-March to mid-May, river cruise companies offer sailings that showcase the springtime scenery of the Netherlands and Belgium. On “tulip time” cruises, you’ll see vast fields of brilliant tulips and perhaps visit a family-run farm. A highlight is Keukenhof Gardens, an 80-acre park in Lisse planted with more than 7 million bulbs for vivid displays of tulips, daffodils, hyacinths and other flowers. Many river operators also line up tastings of local specialties in stops along the route, like Gouda cheese and Belgian chocolates and waffles.
Trips usually start in Amsterdam, where you might take a canal cruise past picturesque gabled homes, tour one of its many museums (such as the renowned Rijksmuseum) or visit the home of the young diarist Anne Frank.
On the Meuse River, Rotterdam offers a contemporary, cosmopolitan experience; much of the city was destroyed in World War II. Photoworthy sights include the Erasmus Bridge, constructed of light blue steel and nicknamed “The Swan” by locals, and the quirky Cube Houses -- tilted at odd angles -- near the Blaak train station. Rotterdam also serves as a gateway to Delft, famed for its hand-painted blue pottery.
Veere, on an estuary known as the Western Scheldt, once was the hub of Scotland’s wool trade with the Low Countries. Scottish merchants established roots here, and you can see their 16th-century homes.
From Rotterdam and Veere, guests can join excursions to the Delta Works, a massive chain of dams, locks and dikes that was named one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World by the American Society of Civil Engineers. Also important in the centuries-long Dutch effort to control surrounding waters are the hydraulic works and beautifully preserved windmills of Kinderdijk, a UNESCO World Heritage Site featured on tulip time cruises.
In Hoorn, tour the Halve Maen, a replica of the Dutch East India Co. ship that explorer Henry Hudson captained on his 1609 journey to present-day New York Harbor. Walking tours take in the city’s historic cheese warehouses.
While in Belgium, ships call at Antwerp, where you can visit Grote Markt, a pretty square in the medieval center edged by guild houses, and tour the former home of Flemish Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens.
Ghent is a city of well-preserved Middle Ages architecture. Philip of Alsace built Gravensteen -- or the Castle of the Counts -- in 1180, determined to create something larger and more impressive than the stone manors of the increasingly influential local aristocrats. Other Ghent landmarks include the Graslei, a row of historic buildings along the Leie River, and Belfry Hall with its 54-bell carillon.
The Po River flows across northern Italy, from the Cottian Alps to the Adriatic Sea near Venice. You can extend your Po River vacation with motorcoach touring and hotel stays in cities like Milan, Rome and Florence.
Cruises begin in Venice, the canal-laced city that’s also known as “La Serenissima.” Wander down the narrow streets and across bridges and squares, and past Venetian Gothic palaces that blend Moorish and Byzantine styles. St. Mark’s Basilica, the Doge’s Palace and the Bridge of Sighs are featured on tours. Nearby Burano Island is famed for its lace-making industry and its brightly colored buildings.
The fishing village of Chioggia occupies a small isle at the southern end of the Venetian Lagoon. Sometimes called “Little Venice,” it has a few canals, colorful fishing boats and a bustling wholesale fish market. A broad avenue, Corso del Popolo, runs down the length of the island and hosts shops, restaurants and sidewalk cafes.
River cruise ships then travel west along the Po River. During a stop at Polesella, passengers can head to Bologna or Ferrara. Bologna is the culinary capital of northern Italy, where you can explore markets, food halls and specialty shops and maybe even join a cooking class. Ferrara was the seat of the House of Este dynasty from the 13th through the 16th centuries, and the imposing Castle Estense -- complete with moat, drawbridges and towers -- was a symbol of their power.
You can choose a Po River vacation that combines a sailing with land touring and hotel stays. In the fashion capital of Milan, check out the high-end retailers of Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, a 19th-century, glass-domed arcade that’s said to be the world’s first shopping mall. Guided tours also highlight Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper,” painted on a wall of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie. In Verona, the setting for the star-crossed lovers of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” photograph Juliet’s balcony at a house on Via Cappello.
Top attractions in Florence include Michelangelo’s David at the Galleria dell’Accademia, the statue-filled Piazza della Signoria and the massive Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore (or Il Duomo) that dominates the skyline. One of the most enduring symbols of Rome is its Colosseum, which was completed around A.D. 80 and could hold up to 73,000 spectators. Also take in the Sistine Chapel, St. Peter’s Basilica and the other marvelous sights of Vatican City, established as an independent papal state within Rome in 1929.
From its source in the Valdai Hills, about midway between St. Petersburg and Moscow, the Dnieper River flows through Russia, Belarus and Ukraine to the Black Sea. River cruise ships typically sail the portion within Ukraine, between Kiev and Odessa, spending a significant amount of time in those two cities.
One of the most brilliant sights in Kiev is St. Sophia’s Cathedral, an onion-domed structure of white, gold and green hues. Together with the 11th-century Monastery of Caves, it comprises a UNESCO World Heritage Site. South of the city is the Pirogovo Museum of Folk Architecture and Life, a collection of wooden buildings brought here from various regions of Ukraine. During free time in Kiev, travelers can stroll Khreshchatyk Avenue, a broad shopping boulevard lined by chestnut trees and stately buildings.
In Odessa on the Black Sea, guests see the 19th-century opera house and the Potemkin Stairs -- 192 steps that connect the seaport to the city center. Akkerman Fortress was a formidable stronghold whose construction began in the 13th century. Other Odessa lures include its beaches, catacombs and the art museum housed in Potocki Palace.
In between these two cities, travelers on Dnieper River cruises visit a folk art center in Petrykivka to learn about the decorative, floral Ukrainian painting style that originated in the town. Attend a show of Cossack horsemanship and acrobatics in Zaporozhye. The city of Kherson was founded by Prince Grigory Potemkin on the orders of Catherine the Great, and among its attractions are the sandstone St. Catherine’s Cathedral and a craft market.
At nearly 2,200 miles long, the Volga is the longest river in Europe and has served as a major route of trade and settlement in Russia. In addition to sailing the Volga, river vessels traverse the Moscow Canal, Onega and Ladoga lakes and the Svir and Neva rivers.
Two fascinating cities, Moscow and St. Petersburg, bookend these cruises. Sightseeing tours in Moscow stop at the immense Red Square, anchored at one end by the candy-colored domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral. GUM department store takes up most of the square’s eastern edge; built in the 1890s, it had 1,200 shops under its vaulted glass ceilings by the time of the 1917 Russian Revolution. Itineraries may make time for the Kremlin Armoury, which holds a spectacular collection of ceremonial dress, silver and gold items, armor and carriages.
Top sights in St. Petersburg include the Hermitage museum complex, housed in the Winter Palace and other buildings, and Peterhof Palace, often called the “Russian Versailles.” Tour the sky-blue and gold-trimmed Catherine Palace, summer residence of the tsars, and Peter and Paul Fortress, established on the Neva River by Peter the Great. Nevsky Prospekt, used as a setting for works by Dostoevsky and Gogol, is St. Petersburg’s main avenue. It’s lined by grand buildings built between the 18th and early 20th centuries and functions as the hub of the city’s shopping, entertainment and nightlife.
Elsewhere on the Volga, ships call at Uglich, best known for the blue-domed church built on the spot where Prince Dmitri, son of Ivan the Terrible, was murdered in 1591. Yaroslavl is a city of wide, tree-lined streets and parks; don’t miss the Church of St. Elijah the Prophet, its interior richly decorated in frescoes.
During a call at the island of Kizhi in Lake Onega, guests will tour an open-air museum of wooden structures such as the 22-domed Church of Transfiguration, built in 1714. The reconstructed 18th-century village of Mandrogi on the Svir River also brings Russia’s past to life with a collection of traditional wood buildings; shops offers crafts for sale, and a vodka museum is said to contain 2,800 different types of the distilled beverage.