From April's tulips to December's Christmas markets, hundreds of riverboats glide along Europe's historic waterways, making a river cruise one of the best ways to explore the mainland.
River cruise lines such as Avalon, Uniworld, Tauck, Viking River Cruises, AmaWaterway and Scenic River cruises, have been busy investing in new river vessels in recent years -- and continue to do so -- to incorporate more of today's contemporary features, such as spacious two-room suites, cabins with full balconies, Wi-Fi, alternative eateries, gyms, spas, swimming pools and museum-worthy art collections.
Beyond the hardware, what makes a river cruise so different from an ocean cruise is the intense emphasis on the places visited. Most day feature a new port, sometimes two, with guided tours included. River itineraries in Europe feature a diverse mix of sophisticated metropolises -- such as Vienna, Paris, Amsterdam and Budapest -- and picturesque villages like the Rhone's Provence, the Danube's Durnstein and the Rhine's Cochem.
Intrigued? Here are eight essential reasons to take a European river cruise. And if you have a river cruise experience to share, we'd love to see your photos and read your stories in Cruise Critic's River and Canal Cruises forum.
River cruising offers great vacation value, with meals, entertainment (think Austrian string quartet, not Las Vegas-style revues), tours and, often, local wines with dinner included in the fares. Tauck River Cruising does an especially good job offering compelling shoreside activities, such as private concerts and chef-led excursions to food markets. And it offers a little bit extra.
Indeed, shore touring is central to the concept of river cruising -- and nearly always included in the cost of the cruise. Tours vary; some are traditional city and village walks, while others feature active or experiential options (meals in private homes, cycling tours, wine tastings). One big plus: They use technology that makes it easy for you to follow along. Avalon, AmaWaterways and Tauck, among others, issue passengers with personal headsets, which plug into wireless receivers so that all can hear their guides, perfectly clearly, no matter the distance or venue.
River vessels rarely spend full days out on the rivers, but when passing through particularly beautiful stretches like the Danube's Wachau Valley and the Rhine's River Gorge, cruise lines feature daytime cruising and often fun, themed meals and entertainment. On a recent trip on Viking's Viking Prestige, crewmembers hauled out beer steins, period costumes and special decorations, transforming the sun deck as we cruised along Austria's Wachau.
In between tour-packed days in port there are lectures, cocktail parties and, of course, meals onboard. Even a sole sea day can be hectic, kicking off with an early mimosa party as you sail by castles on the Danube, with a round of mini-golf, a movie showing, talk by an historian or a relaxing spa treatment. You might find you’re so busy, you even turn your TV on.
Uniworld is offering the most upscale onboard ambience on Europe's rivers. S.S. Antoinette features a sun deck with wrought iron chaises and ultra-plush pillows, the glamorous Leopard Bar and a beautiful indoor pool and spa. As well, its variety of silk-walled mini-suites offers a haven from the usual beehive of activity. Still, on the ship design front, S.S. Antoinette has some nifty competition from other lines, such as Ama, Viking and Scenic.
All of the major river lines are investing in new technology to improve operating efficiency, safety and environmental sensitivity, and Viking River plays a leading role. Among the biggest achievements of its fleet are "a state-of-the-art propulsion system [that] delivers a quieter, vibration-free, more environmentally friendly ride. Passengers probably won't notice what's going on below the waterline, but the hybrid, diesel/electric engines save an estimated 20 percent on fuel."
A-Rosa is making big strides, too, with ships equipped with shore-power connectivity, which means they tap into a port’s electricity supply, where available instead of running on emissions. In 2022, the line’s first E-motion class debuted, a hybrid vessel that can also run off battery-power some of the time to reduce its carbon emissions.
Cyclists are given great respect in Western Europe, with huge, tree-lined paths and smoothly paved lanes set aside just for them. Like many other riverboats, AmaWaterways' Amacello carries a fleet of bikes that can be taken out (at no charge) in port if you're eager for a more active option than the typical city tour. Especially adventurous? You can ride along the riverside and meet the ship at the next port.
As river lines like Avalon, Scenic, Uniworld and Viking River update ship designs, standard cabins have gotten more spacious, featuring hotel-style beds and marble bathrooms that, while compact, are still practical. Suites are also becoming more popular and prevalent onboard. Avalon has launched several all-suite ships, and Viking River's Longship design includes two-room suites.
If you're prone to seasickness or worry you might experience it, fear not. You're not going to get seasick on a European river cruise. Or any river cruise for that matter.
European waters, however, offer a tranquil, slow-travel experience for travelers keen to soak up the region's rich landscape, history and gastronomy.