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A Viking Longship in Avignon, France

The Ultimate Rhône River Cruise Guide

A Viking Longship in Avignon, France
Cruise Critic contributor
Rebecca Toy

Feb 24, 2024

Read time
8 min read

The Rhône River stretches through southern France's rich culinary region, with Provencal food and famous wines battling for your palate's attention. Yet the Rhône serves up more than divine dishes. Roman ruins, medieval walled cities, unexpected wilderness, and striking Mediterranean landscapes are a feast for all senses.

Rhône River cruises sail between Lyon and Avignon, with multiple days in Lyon. These eight-day cruises include seven complimentary tours and a wide range of additional daily excursions. Other itineraries add time in Paris and Normandy or a section of the Rhine with motorcoach or air travel in between.

With so many tantalizing options, most Rhône cruisers' biggest dilemma is deciding how to spend their time. This ultimate Rhône River cruise guide will reveal the ports, adventures beyond, and tips for you to make the most of your time on this historic and scenic waterway.

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Lyon Lies at the Junction of the Rhône and Saone Rivers

Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourviere

Overview: Poised at the edge of food-famous Provence, the wine-drenched Beaujolais region and at the junction of the Rhône and Saone rivers, Lyon offers a sampling of everything the Rhône offers. Once the global hub of the silk trade, Roman ruins, Renaissance architecture, and modern arts round out this vibrant city.

Don't Miss: The included tour with Viking focuses on Vieux Lyon, the city’s old quarter. The 19th-century Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourviere perches above the city, but the views aren't the only draw; a gorgeous mosaic interior survived religious revolution. The region's famous, hearty bouchon restaurants wait below on the cobblestone streets. Between them are a warren of covered alleyways, or traboules, remnants of the silk trade's need for protected paths. Viking's local guides know which seemingly benign Renaissance doors lead to the whimsical winding ways.

Independent Meanderings: History lovers will appreciate the 1st-century Gallo-Roman amphitheater and museum, an easy walk down from the Basilica. Outside the old town, the three-story Les Halles food market is a festival of delicious eats. Other options include exploring Lyon's fabric dynasty at the Textile Museum and the tragic and moving stories from World War II at the Resistance and Deportation History Center.

Further Afield: Many optional shore excursions cover winemaking and food tasting, but a Beaujolais and truffles tour focuses on field-to-table experience. Start at a family-owned organic goat milk farm complete with a wine and cheese tasting. Then it's off to hunt for truffles before delighting in the host's home-cooked three-course lunch. Finish it all off with wine tasting at a classic Beaujolais winery.

Hidden Gems and Insider Tips: As the day ends, grab a cheap funicular ticket from the self-service machine and head up to the Basilica's overlook. After taking in the golden hour view, head down through the gardens as the sun sets.

Vienne Offers Extraordinary History, Culture & Gastronomy

Enjoy the local tipple as you sail this delicious river (Photo: 5 second Studio/Shutterstock)

Overview: Once a key outpost in Julius Caesar's Roman empire, Vienne saw the flow of commerce and culture at its confluence of the Rhône and Gėre rivers. Intact ruins and a Gothic cathedral survived continual wars between Burgundy, Provence and Rome.

Don't Miss: Vienne is older than Lyon and packs its history into an easily walkable center. Viking's included tour takes in the Cathedral of St. Maurice. Watch for the headless statues, casualties of France's religious wars in the 16th century and the rare zodiac frieze above the exit. The 1st-century Temple of Augustus and Livia and remains of ramparts, aqueducts, and thermal baths fill the area. The 4th-century Roman theater on the hillside seats more than 13,000 and hosts a modern jazz festival every July.

Independent Meanderings: Vienne has bespoke shopping, delightful pastries and chocolatiers. Hemmed in by the river, the hillside, and two regional highways, exploring the old town's perfectly contained narrow streets is easy. Splurge on some goodies and then grab a coffee or Aperol Spritz next to the temple, reflecting on the centuries of people who have enjoyed the same routine.

Further Afield: While there are no optional excursions available out of the city from Vienne, grab a glass of wine to set sail with. The valleys ahead are stacked with stone villages, steep hills covered in vineyards, chateaus, locks, low bridges and, often, children on the shore waving and yelling, "Bonjour!"

Hidden Gems and Insider Tips: One of the included walking tours will take groups on a steep, twenty-minute incline to the church, Chapelle of Notre Dame de Pipet. Panoramic views overlook the town with the Roman amphitheater directly below.

Tournon-sur-Rhone is a Gorgeous Rhone Village Surrounded by Vineyards and Forests

Tain-l'Hermitage and Tournon, France

Overview: This medieval town complete with a modest castle has a relaxed village atmosphere in a narrow valley with forested and vineyard hills rising on either side.

Don't Miss: Viking's included Tournon tour, which takes you on a steam train through the Doux forest and valley. This French historic monument cuts a course inaccessible to vehicles, rumbling through the wilderness before a hand-cranked turnabout sends the train back to Tournon.  

For those wanting a more active excursion, a guided trek winds through the birthplace of syrah, through leafy vineyard views of the Rhône, the town's castle, and your ship. The tour ends with a wine tasting in Tain-l'Hermitage. 

Independent Meanderings: With so much to do in the area, it is easy to overlook the town itself. Consider a gentle stroll around the plaza, by the castle, and across the pedestrian suspension bridge for a sense of this beguiling town.

Further Afield: A day-long excursion out of Tournon takes in the scenic Ardeche River. Stops at a lavender oil distillery and botanical garden explore the region’s lavender harvest. Pass by the region's gorge, the "Grand Canyon of Europe," before visiting the medieval village of Vogue snuggled between the river and its cliffs.

A quick stop in the village of Viviers pairs with Tournon for ships sailing either direction. The free tour is worth a post-dinner walk in this relaxed, beautifully-preserved 5th-century town set in gentle mountains.

Hidden Gems and Insider Tips: If you're taking the train, grab a jacket; the journey into the forest is breezy. For those on the vineyard route, make a quick detour to the famous chocolate manufacturer based in the small town of Tain-l'Hermitage Valrhona, when walking back to the ship. The samples at the door will have your mouth watering.  

• Want to know more about first time river cruising? Check out our comprehensive guide.

Arles is as Pretty as a (Van Gogh) Painting

Arles offers some of mainland Europe's prettiest countryside (via Shutterstock)

Overview: In a region full of Roman gems, Arles stands out. Once the capital of Roman Gaul, the UNESCO World Heritage Site's striking ruins echo the famous sites in Rome. Arles stands at the edge of the wild preserves in Camargue, and its distinctly Mediterranean feel -- all glowing sunflowers and tall cypresses -- may have you sitting and enjoying the sunlight as Vincent Van Gogh did.

Don't Miss: The arena in Arles has two surviving levels of arcade arches, giving a strong impression of how the more than 20,000 fans took in dramatic and often gruesome battles and chariot races in this 1st-century structure. A Roman theater, circus, Romanesque church, and the hospital that treated Van Gogh round out the complimentary tour.

Independent Meanderings: Easel signposts mark a Van Gogh trail, indicating where the artists painted and captured life in Arles. The tourist information center has maps and sells museum passes.

Further Afield: Outside of Arles, Viking guests can take an afternoon tour to a quarry's large-scale art installation before visiting Les Baux, a famously curated village restored to picture perfection. Day-trippers looking for a unique and widely unknown French experience should head to Camargue, a world of traditional gardian cowboys and Mediterranean villages. Visit migrating flamingos in the nature preserves and spy pink salt flats from the moodily medieval walls of Aigues-Mortes.

Hidden Gems and Insider Tips: Whatever adventure you choose, try to be up for the ship's approach to Arles, as the journey into port feels timeless.

Avignon is Sophisticated, Stylish and Steeped in History

Avignon reflects onto the Rhone (Photo:FenlioQ/Shutterstock)

Overview: Defined by rebellious popes who rejected Rome to make a home in France, Avignon today is more than just a history lesson. Sophisticated shops and a university town energy keep this famous spot as desirable now as it was to the papacy in the 14th-century.

Don't Miss: While this walled city holds many wonders, the Palace of Popes is a must. Tour tablets provided at the start give visitors a room-by-room sense of what the mostly bare behemoth would have looked like in luxury. Viking’s included tour includes the palace, a trip to the central square and Market Hall. 

Independent Meanderings: There are many options away from the busy palace area. For a particularly bohemian stroll, wander Rue des Teinturiers. The "Street of Dyers" follows a stream packed with cafes, galleries, fabric shops, and the 1800s water wheels that once powered the city and is just a short stroll from where the ship docks.

Further Afield: An optional half-day excursion takes wine lovers to the historic Chateauneuf-du-Pape wine region, the summer residence of the Avignon popes. Others visit the Roman Empire's iconic Pont Du Gard Aqueduct. The three-tiered waterway once channeled 44 million gallons of water daily. For those that would rather be in the water, a morning kayak tour starts north of Avignon. The five-mile paddle back takes you directly under the remains of the UNESCO World Heritage Site's medieval bridge.

Hidden Gems and Insider Tips: Follow the signs for the Pope's Promenade up from the Palace to a shaded city park at the city's peak. Gardens, ponds, and tasty treat vendors make a peaceful stop. Then head down the opposite side for lingering views of the Pont d'Avignon and a brief walk along the city ramparts.

Updated February 24, 2024
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