River cruising in Europe is, simply put, one of the most enjoyable ways to explore the continent. Imagine sitting on the deck, enjoying a glass of wine, anticipating the next charming town or historical city to stop in and explore. Whether you're looking for incredible natural landscapes, history-filled towns, great wine or medieval villages, there's something for everybody on a European River Cruise.
Perhaps the biggest challenge is choosing which of Europe’s rivers! Would you prefer to start with one of the more popular ones, like a cruise on the Danube or a cruise on the Rhine, or one of the lesser known ones, like a cruise on the Elbe or Volga?
Table of Contents
Cruising The Danube
Facts & Statistics About The Danube
- It passes through 4 European capitals, including Budapest, Belgrade, Vienna, and Bratislava
- The Danube is 2,860 km in length, making it Europe's 2nd longest river, and the world's 30th-longest river
- 30 of its 300 tributaries are navigable, amounting to 2,415 km
- It has a drainage area of 198,735 km2
Location & Countries along the Danube
The mighty Danube is the second-longest river in Europe and has been one of her most important waterways since the days of the Roman Empire. Its importance as a trade route is unsurprising, as the Danube flows through ten countries - Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova, and the Ukraine - more than any other river on the planet. It's also the only major European river to flow East to West, highlighting both its uniqueness and importance in connecting the European continent.
With over 2,000 km of navigable waterways, there are numerous itineraries to choose from when cruising the Danube. Generally they are divided into the Upper Danube, Middle Danube, and Lower Danube.
Cruises along the Upper Danube generally run from Regensburg, Germany, to Budapest, and often will include a trip to Prague on either end of the journey. Covering this stretch of the Danube will allow you to cross four European countries, combining the three beautiful capital cities Vienna, Bratislava and Budapest. An Upper Danube cruise is usually 6 to 8 days long.
The section of the Danube that is called the Middle Danube is from Gate of Vienna to the Iron Gate, in the Pannonian Plains/Carpathian Basin, flowing through Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, and Serbia. Here the Danube looks more like a flatbed river, with around half the speed of the Upper Danube, with low banks and a bed that reaches a width of more than 1.5 km. Only in two stretches - at Visegrad (Hungary) and at the Iron Gates - does the river flow through narrow, canyon-like gorges.
Cruises on this section of the river will generally start in the Middle Danube in Budapest, through Croatia, Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria and into the beautiful Danube Delta before the river empties into the Black Sea. Between Serbia and Romania, this cruise will sail you through The Iron Gates, a stunning landscape and one of the can't miss highlights of a Lower Danube river cruise as you make your way to the Black Sea.
Best Time to Cruise the Danube
As previously mentioned, the Danube is perhaps the most-cruised river in Europe, so if you choose to cruise during the peak months of July to September, expect it to be busy. At Wheel & Anchor we like to recommend exploring the shoulder season for especially popular destinations and regions, and for the Danube that would mean either embarking in June or October. This can also be a great cruise for your Christmas holiday, as the cities and towns along the river boast some of Europe's most famous Christmas markets.
Why the Danube is Special
It's not hard to see why the Danube is so irresistible to cruising fans. It offers the chance to explore multiple countries and cities, including four capitals - Budapest, Belgrade, Vienna, and Bratislava. The spectacular architecture, storied history, and romantic feel make it a particularly popular program for first-time cruisers.
That said, the immense popularity of the river among cruisers does mean it can feel a bit overcrowded and more like a mass tourism experience than some of Europe's lesser-known rivers, but if you pick your timing properly you can still experience the magic that has captured the hearts of so many travellers and cruising fans.
Another element of the Danube that is worth mentioning is that it flows through both Eastern and Western Europe, thus offering the chance to see the similarities and differences in life and history between the regions and countries within them.
If you're a really committed cruiser, you can combine the Rhine with the Danube and cruise all the way from the North Sea near Amsterdam all the way to the Black Sea, which would take you roughly 3 weeks.
Highlights of a Danube River Cruise
Known as the Queen of the Danube, the picturesque capital of Hongria is renowned for its joyous atmosphere, its shopping opportunities and, most of all, its thermal baths! This city is a popular winter destination, as well as a wealth of culture and architecture to discover in summer when the weather is good enough to wander the streets.
Key sites & sights to see in Budapest include:
- The Hungarian Parliament Building - The iconic Gothic Revival building you've seen in so many photos of the Danube (including the one at the top of this section!) is not to be missed.
- The Basilica of St. Stephen - Another iconic landmark in Budapest, the Basilica is the largest Catholic church in Budapest and contains a number of relics of the faith, including the mummified right hand of Saint Stephen.
- The Great Market Hall - A UNESCO World Heritage site for its authenticity in retaining its original function as the oldest and largest indoor market in Budapest, feeding Hungarians since the 19th century.
- Buda Castle - Another of Budapest's UNESCO sites, this 18th century castle is architecturally stunning and also home to the Hungarian National Gallery.
- Fisherman's Bastion - Simply the best place to see a sunset over the Danube in Budapest.
- The Gellért Bath and Spa Centre & the Szécheny Baths - We always like to recommend at least one spot for a little TLC when travelling, and Budapest is famous for the more than 100 hot springs that feed the city's baths and spas.
- The Great Synagogue - The largest synagogue in Europe, and among the largest in the world. Its construction dates back to 1859, and is home to the Hungarian Jewish Museum & Archives.
You absolutely must take the time to experience Viennese coffee culture, an elevation of coffee culture that puts Starbucks to shame: older, more refined, with better coffee and absolutely delightful pastries! What's more, Vienna is one of the most romantic cities in the world with its old palaces and classical music culture.
Key sites & sights to see in Vienna include:
- The Schönbrunn Palace & Schönbrunn Gardens - This castle is one of the most visited place in Vienna and a UNESCO site since 1996.
- St. Stephen's Cathedral - This gothic cathedral was featured in many films and video games with its iconic colorful tile roof.
- Vienna State Opera - One of the most prestigious opera in the world, this impressive building offers guided tours.
- Hofburg Palace - The Hofburg is the biggest palace in Vienna. This huge building becomes romantic at night when the facade lights up!
- Rathaus - The balcony of this ancient official building was built specifically for Hitler's use back in 1938. Today, its history is brightening up as the square in front of the Rathaus is used for events such as Christmas markets, circuses and festivals.
- Naschmarkt - Like the Great Market Hall in Budapest, a visit to the Naschmarkt in Vienna is a chance to get a taste of some local flavours and a sense of what it would be like to live in Vienna.
- The Parliament - The impressive building and noble architecture housing the Parliament is still in use today and can be visited!
***Gordon's extra special Vienna tips: I've spent a lot of time in Vienna, having lived here for several years and also while writing 'The Heart of Hospitality', a book about what makes hospitality in Austria so excellent. If you have some time in Vienna, I highly recommend a visit to Cafe Demel - it's all about tortes and the pastries are to die for. I also recommend going to Figlmüller, the home of schnitzel and where you can have one of the largest schnitzels you've ever seen. Lastly, if you're there for a night you really should go to a Heurigen just outside the city centre to drink the young wine from the vineyards and listen to the live music.
At the crossing of three rivers, near the German-Austrian frontier, Passau is a testament to the many cultures that have occupied the area. This old town is nestled in the rolling hills of Bavaria, and it's often hard to decide there whether a city stroll or a nature hike is the more attractive during a stop on your Danube river cruise.
Key sites & sights to see in Passau include:
- Three Rivers Meeting Point - The Danube, Inn and Ilz meet there, and this wonderful scenery is the one thing to not miss in Passau. You can admire the view from the Innpromenade alongside the water, or higher up if you're willing to walk up the hills around the city.
- St Stephen's Cathedral - You can listen to one of the biggest church organs in the world by going to one of the short concerts that are held in this beautiful cathedral every day. Churches have existed on this site since the 8th century, but the current one dates back to the 17th century.
- Mariahilf Monastery - Passau is also a religious site, attracting many pilgrims. The monastery is worth visiting and displays once again the diversity of cultures that have influenced and shaped Passau's history.
- Schaibling Tower - You'll find this landmark easily as the white tower stands out beautifully on the edge of the river. It dates back to the 14th century and was a part of the salt trade that was so important to Passau's economic development.
- Old Town Hall - This neo-gothic spire next to the Danube is an easy meeting point, as it's visible from almost everywhere in the city. The Rathaus (town or city hall) has been in this location since the 14th century, but has been renovated several times.
- Veste Oberhaus - This Roman fortress has an interesting history, dating back to the 13th century, and now hosts an art museum and an open air theatre. But the main point of interest is the view on the rest of the city and the rivers, which is one of the best in Passau.
- Passau Glass Museum - This museum goes back through the history of glass making with the largest collection of Bohemian glass in the world, with a collection spanning from 1650-1950.
Cruising the Douro River
Facts & Statistics About The Douro
- The Douro navigates between Portugal and Spain, oftentimes materialising the border between the two countries
- The Douro is 897 km in length, making it the 3rd-longest river of the Iberian Peninsula
- It has a drainage area of 79,096 km2
- Most of the Douro is not suitable for navigation, due to strong rapids, silting and the presence of deep gorges
Location & Countries along the Douro
The Douro might not be the most famous of European rivers, but that doesn't make it less fascinating. The perfect way to explore hispanic culture, it flows past many medieval towns and UNESCO world heritage sites. This is an opportunity to see a piece of old Europe, less affected than most places by the influence of modern American culture.
Most Douro cruises sail between Porto, a major Portuguese city on the Atlantic coast, and Vega de Terron, a smaller town right at the Spain border. During the cruise, you'll encounter a variety of landscapes, from stunning canyons to hills covered in Porto's renowned vineyards, as well as mountains and river valleys teaming with wildlife. A Douro cruise usually lasts between 6 and 8 days, with a lot of time to explore the many historic sites around the river.
Best Time to cruise the Douro
It can get very hot in Portugal in the middle of summer, so in general the shoulder season is the best time to visit the Douro Valley. While the cruising season begins in May, October is perhaps the ideal time - cooler temperatures, the grapes have been harvested, and the hordes of tourists have left the area.
Why the Douro is Special
The Alto Douro region is one of the world's oldest wine-making regions, thought to predate the Roman cultivation of Bordeaux in the 1st century A.D. As such it has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Sipping a delicious Tinta Roriz or a glass of port here is thus a fine historical and cultural experience! The region qualified for UNESCO status by meeting 3 of the 10 criteria (the designation requires at least 1):
- The primary product, port wine, has long been world famous for its quality.
- The cultural landscape is of a traditional European wine-producing region and shows the evolution of this human activity over time.
- The components of the landscape represent the full range of activities associated with winemaking – terraces, quintas (wine-producing farm complexes), villages, chapels, and roads.
Wine-making in the Douro Valley is a tradition that endures, and so any traveller there will have the opportunity to experience wine tasting in one of the many pretty villages sprinkled all over the landscape. Of course, with great wine comes great food, and the area is known for its delicious restaurants as well!
But a Douro cruise is not only for foodies and wine lovers, as the nature all around the river is enough to leave anyone speechless. Some parts of the area are even protected in order to preserve the populations of wildlife (particularly birds) living near the Douro. Medieval towns and historic palaces also await you on shore!
Highlights of a Douro River Cruise
Visit the quintas
Quintas are wine producing estate, which could be a winery or a vineyard.The Quinta classification of Port vineyards in the Douro is a system that grades the terroir and quality potential of vineyards in the region to produce grapes suitable for the production of its famous Port wine.
The wine terraces themselves are beautiful. The Cistercian monks who revived viticulture in the Middle Ages ran out of flat agricultural land so they began cultivating the surrounding slopes in order to meet a growing demand for their full-bodied wines. The result is the picturesque terraces reminiscent of rice paddies in Bali or northern Vietnam.
Some options for your visit to a quinta:
- Quinta do Castro - Like most of the quintas in the region, the history of this winery goes back to Roman times. Enjoy some excellent port and premium and super-premium wines here, as well as take a dip in the swimming pool overlooking the river and the wine plantations.
- Quinta da Pacheca - You can stay at this wine hotel that is also one of the oldest estates to bottle its own wine in the Douro region.
- Quinta de la Rosa - This winery and hotel currently has around 55 hectares under vine and produces around 90,000 litres of port and 300,000 litres of table wine each year. It's located about 100 km from Porto near a lovely little town called Pinhão.
- Quinta Nova Nossa Senhora do Carmo - The estate has 120ha over the Douro river, along 1.5 km on the right bank, in the heart of the Douro (subregion of Cima Corgo). This quinta has a story that dates back more than 250 years, with preserved structures and the cellar original building from 1764.
Standing between the Douro river and the sea, Porto is an old merchant city that's still full of life and colour today. Old medieval walls, churches, many beautiful bridges over the Douro create a spectacular old cityscape, but it is also full of very modern restaurants and beach destinations on the sea front. The city has kept its history and culture intact while still becoming a "place to be" for young Portuguese people and the many tourists who come here to explore.
Key sites & sights to see in Porto include:
- Cais de Ribeira - The UNESCO designated Old Town of Porto will undoubtedly be packed with tourists, but deservedly so. You are guaranteed to find some great drinking and dining experiences here, but in an intimate environment that is still home to locals of Porto.
- Livraria Lello - Open since 1906, this is among the most beautiful bookstores in the world, and whether you're a bibliophile or not, it's worth a visit. It is said to have inspired J.K. Rowling when she was writing her world-famous Harry Potter series.
- Porto Cathedral - Dating back to the 12th century, this is the most important church in Porto and an iconic piece of the city's architecture.
- The Vinothérapie Spa by Caudalíe - In keeping with our tradition of incorporating relaxation into travel, this little gem is an oasis of well being where you can lay back in natural hot spring waters!
- Porto Wine Cellars - Surely you wouldn't dream of coming to Porto and abstaining from the wine and the port. The Porto Wine Cellars are an opportunity to see those full wooden barrels and learn about (and taste!) the wine and port-making traditions of the region.
- Luís I Bridge - One of the many bridges worth visiting in the city, this metal one was completed in 1886 and is an industrial symbol for Porto. It also affords a beautiful view of the Douro river from the top level.
- Foz do Douro - Further from the city center, this is where the Douro enters the ocean. It is one of the most affluent areas of Porto, and has very romantic promenade bordered with restaurants that leads to a lighthouse.
The Spanish city of Salamanca, a UNESCO world heritage site, is included in most Douro cruises as this is one of the biggest places of history in the whole of Europe. Christopher Columbus and Miguel de Cervantes both came here. The records of the Spanish Inquisition are still kept in those architecture-perfect halls. And these are just two examples of the massive historical weight of Salamanca.
Key sites & sights to see in Salamanca include:
- Plaza Mayor - This huge square is Salamanca's city center and the place to start your discovery of the city. At night, the whole plaza lights up and becomes even more beautiful!
- University of Salamanca - The university is the city's proudest institution and takes up a lot of place in the old town and around.
- Old Town streets - Salamanca's old town feels like a maze with so many streets and shop crammed together, and is a UNESCO world heritage site.
- Clerecia Church Towers - The main interest in visiting the tower is the stunning point of view from the top!
- Gardens of Huerto de Calixto y Melibea - This little green oasis is situated on the ancient walls and offers a great view on the city below.
- Salamanca Tapas - If exploring Spain, eating Tapas is a must. The Novelty Café in Plaza Mayor is the oldest one in town and the perfect resting place.
- Tormes River - Salamanca is sitting on the Tormes River. The green shores offer a beautiful walk with views on the ancient Roman stone bridges.
Even more about the Douro
Curious about what else you might find on a cruise along the Douro? Check out some of our stories from our team of travel writers:
Cruising the Volga River
Facts & Statistics About The Volga
- Countries: Russia
- The Volga is 3,692 km in length, making it Europe's longest river
- It has a drainage area of 1,380,000 km2
- Most of the river is completely frozen for about 3 months during the winter
- Her delta is 160 km in length, with around 500 smaller channels and streams
Location & Countries along the Volga
The Volga is the longest river in Europe and flows through the main populated area of Russia before ending in the Caspian Sea. The most common cruises on the Volga will take you on a 1,700 km journey from Moscow to St. Petersburg, or vice versa. Taking the water route rather than driving or going via train allows you to see the hidden parts of the country that you are otherwise less likely to visit. Cruising the Volga takes about 12 days.
The Volga has always had an important place in Russian history. As the main waterway between Russia's biggest and most important cities, the Volga is still the center of Russian activity. The Volga holds a special place in the Russian art scene as well, having inspired many books, songs and paintings.
Best Time to Cruise the Volga
Given that the Volga is completely frozen during the frigid Russian winter, your options for cruising the Volga will be between mid-March and mid-December. In the spring there can be a great deal of flooding from all the melting snow and ice, so if you're trying to avoid the crowds, the fall may be the most opportune time to go. That said, you want to be on the right side of the weather in Russia, summer, while busy, is unquestionably the best from a temperature perspective.
Why the Volga is Special
When most of us think of travelling Russia, river cruising is generally not a strong association. You may be surprised to discover that the interlinked waterways allow ships to get all the way to the Mediterranean from as far away as the Baltic Sea and Arctic Ocean.
What's more, the Volga is the perfect way to discover Russia as you'll experience the change in landscape and scenery between the huge cities of St. Petersburg and Moscow, and small wooden villages, colorful church domes, and still untouched forests of rural Russia. A delightful mix of nature and history, cruising the Volga will let you see the two sides of Russia: the rural simplicity and the grandeur of her historic towns.
Highlights of a Volga River Cruise
St. Petersburg is the cultural capital of Russia and the country's second biggest city. The main word to describe St. Petersburg is "grandeur". Everything from the size of the buildings to the history of the town is impressive and underlines Russia's important place in European history and the modern world today. The city of St. Petersburg was designed from the start by Tsar Peter the Great as a display for the world to understand the superiority and status of Russia, so everything was basically intended to make the traveller's jaw drop in awe.
Key sites & sights to see in St. Petersburg include:
- The State Hermitage Museum - Boasting 2.7 million works of art, the Hermitage’s extensive collection literally paints a picture of the nation’s captivating past. Founded in 1764, it is also one of the oldest museums in the world. Odds are you will have a hard time spending enough time here.
- Catherine Palace - This incredible Rococo palace is representative of the wealth and extravagance of the Romanov family. Completed in 1756, the palace’s blue and white facades feature over 100 kilograms of gold, including gilded atlantes, caryatids, and pilasters. The palace’s interior is similarly spectacular, comprising a series of opulent halls and private rooms.
- Peterhof Palace - A gorgeous series of palaces and gardens commissioned by Tsar Peter the Great to rival the glamour of the Palace of Versailles in France.
- Peter and Paul Fortress - Located on the banks of the beautiful Neva River, this towering fortress dominates the skyline of St. Petersburg. Established in 1703 by Peter the Great, it served as a burial-vault for the members of the Romanov dynasty. It also has held high-profile enemies of the state in its prison cells, including Crime and Punishment author Fyodor Dostoevsky and Lenin’s right-hand man, Leon Trotsky.
- The Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood - Sometimes just called Church on the Blood, its name commemorates the place where Alexander II was fatally wounded in an assassination attempt in 1881. Designed by Alfred Parland in the style of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Russian churches, the Cathedral is a unique masterpiece. Its interior features 7,500 square meters of mosaics covering almost all of the walls and ceilings.
- Yusupov Palace - This eye-catching palace features one-of-a-kind rooms, a private theatre, and breathtaking mosaics. While passing through the palace’s exquisitely
decorated interior, you'll be told the true story of the murder of Rasputin.
- Podvor'ye Restaurant - This is a log-house restaurant serving traditional Russian cuisine, and is arguably one of the most well-known Russian restaurants in the world, boasting famous patrons including Prince Charles and Jacques Chirac.
***If exploring St. Petersburg is high on your list, consider joining Wheel & Anchor for our Baltic Seafarer program, where we'll visit Stockholm, Helsinki, The Åland Islands, St. Petersburg, Tallinn, and more. We'll mostly follow the route of Baltic Sea cruises but we'll take local ferries and transportation so we can soak in more of the cities and towns and get a real taste of the region.
Moscow is the biggest city in Russia and its historic capital. The Kremlin and Red Square are world-famous and are still the heartbeat of Moscow and Russia. Moscow is all chock-full of architecture, art and history, and it's definitely somewhere worth taking time to visit. Visiting the world-renowned ballet and looking up at the golden domes of the 600+ churches in Moscow, you'll feel the majesty of the place deep in your bones.
Key sites & sights to see in Moscow include:
- The Moscow Kremlin - Historically the seat of Russian power, it was a residence of the Tsars until Peter the Great, and then has been the official residence of the president of the Russian Federation since 1991.
- The Moscow Metro - There are not many places on the planet where we would recommend making a point of exploring the subways, but Moscow is without question an exception here. Ornate, spectacular, flat out beautiful. However, whatever you do, avoid rush hour - Moscow is home to nearly 12 million people. Every station has a unique design and tells you something about the political environment of the time.
- Red Square & Lenin's Mausoleum - Central to the city geographically and to the country historically and politically, you and your camera must make a visit to the Red Square and Comrade Lenin.
- Cathedral of Christ the Saviour - The most important Russian Orthodox church in Russia is also the second-tallest Orthodox church in the world, and just a hop, skip, and a jump away from the Kremlin. It signifies the gratitude of Russians for God saving Russia from Napoleon's armies, and also acted as a memorial to the sacrifices of the Russian people. Stalin ordered it destroyed in 1931, but in the year 2000 the Cathedral was rebuilt thanks to donations from the Russian people.
- The Bolshoi Theatre - This theatre is home to opera and ballet performances, the latter of which are some of the finest and most demanding in the world.
- Vorobyov or Sparrow Hills - Get the best view of Moscow from one of the highest points in the city, rising some 80m above the Moskva River.
- GUM Department Store - It is rare you'll hear us recommend visiting a mall, but the GUM Department Store is not your average mall experience. Sitting in the heart of Red Square since 1893, it includes luxury shops, gourmet food stores selling wine, chocolate, and other classic Soviet products.
***If seeing Russia by train is more your thing, consider joining Wheel & Anchor for the Trans-Siberian Railway in September 2020! We'll do a pre-tour extension in St. Petersburg, before taking a local train to Moscow, where we'll board the Tsar's Gold Private Charter for our journey across Siberia to Beijing.
In the middle of the Onega lake, the second largest lake in Europe, Kizhi Island is a UNESCO site and hosts an open air museum and unique landscapes. Imagine beautiful untouched forests and green hills, with wooden churches and domes sprinkled all over. Walking (or sailing) around Kizhi Island is like stepping back into a very unique 16th century experience.
Key sites & sights to see in Kizhi Island include:
- Kizhi Museum Reserve - The main attraction of the Island is the reserve, where dozens of old log buildings from the 18th and 19th century were moved from villages further away to avoid destruction.
- Church of Transfiguration - The most famous church on the island, the legend says that it was built by hand and using only wood, without any metal, not even nails! The legend also says that the architect refused to build anything else after that, so that the Church of Transfiguration would remain unique in the world... and it most certainly is.
- Yamka - The pretty village of Yamka near the lake hosts historic, well-maintained houses as it is one of only two remaining settlements here, down from 14 in the 16th century.
- Veronica’s Veil Chapel - Dating back to the 17th century, this chapel has a beautiful view point over Kizhi Island.
- Church of the Resurrection of Lazarus - This is the oldest wooden church in Russia, dating back to the 14th century, and one of the most beautiful buildings on Kizhi.
Cruising the Rhine
Facts & Statistics About The Rhine
- Countries: Germany, France, Switzerland, Netherlands, Austria, Liechtenstein, Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg
- The Rhine is 1,165 km in length, making it Europe's 12th longest river, and the longest in Germany
- It has a drainage area of 198,735 km2
- The Rhine begins high in the Swiss Alps
- The Middle Rhine Valley between Bingen and Koblenz is home to almost 40 castles in a 60km stretch
Location & Countries along the Rhine
From a mountain lake high in the Swiss Alps, at an altitude of 2,346m, one of the longest rivers in Europe begins to flow eastward as a narrow stream. The Rhine is then divided into 4 sections - The Upper Rhine, High Rhine, Middle Rhine, and Lower Rhine. Most cruises will navigate all four sections, but we'll give you a brief explanation of each of them.
The High Rhine runs east to west and starts in the foothills of the Alps and is not really navigable due to fast water and rapids. The rest of the Rhine runs north to south, and thus you can go either way. The Upper Rhine is the section between Basel, Switzerland and passes through the Alsace in France, becoming the Middle Rhine in Bingham through Bonn, the former capital of West Germany, and then from Bonn all the way to roughly the border of the Netherlands, where it becomes a delta that flows to the North Sea.
Best time to cruise the Rhine
The cruising season is spring to fall, but it can get a bit crowded during the high season from May to September. In this area of Europe, the shoulder season can still be sunny enough, and with lower prices, so April or October can be good options to enjoy a cruise on the Rhine without fighting crowds. At the start of Spring, you might even enjoy "Tulip Time" as you approach Netherlands, the perfect time when the flowers start to open.
For a completely different take on the Rhine, you can also book a cruise during the winter. Despite the cold, you'll find Christmas markets and beautiful views on the snowy mountains.
Why the Rhine is Special
The Rhine is most known for the castles, though a Rhine river cruise also gives you the chance to cover many different countries and a number of different landscapes. In fact, central Europe has a very diverse set of landscapes, and cruising the Rhine is a good way to try and discover that diversity of scenery and people.
You can cruise from the rolling hills of Germany's Black Forest region to the deep canyons in the Middle Rhine, where you'll see the steep banks with all the picturesque vineyards. From there you'll sail into the lowlands through northern Germany, where you'll hit spectacular cities like Cologne and Dusseldorf.
And of course the other thing that makes the Rhine special and particularly tasty is the number of wine regions you'll cruise through, including 7 wine regions in Germany alone, to say nothing of the amazingly high number of opportunities for cheese tasting. From Amsterdam to Switzerland, expect platters of delicious cheese on every street corner!
Highlights of a Rhine River Cruise
Rüdesheim am Rhein
Rüdesheim am Rhein is a town centered around wine making and situated in the Rhine Gorge in Germany. The whole area is peppered with UNESCO sites and medieval castles, and the city of Rüdesheim am Rhein itself is a perfect stop to discover classic German architecture and culture.
Key sites & sights to see in Rüdesheim am Rhein include:
- Niederwald Monument - This historical monument commemorates the unification of the German Empire following the end of the Franco-Prussian War. You can take the cable car to get a special view of the Rhine and the vineyards while on your way to visit the monument.
- Drosselgasse - Perhaps the most charming 144 metres of a street you'll ever come across. It's the heart of Rüdesheim's old town and is famous for its lively restaurants and music.
- Siegfried’s Mechanical Music Cabinet - Automats, music boxes and such are very present in German culture. This museum hosts many fun and pretty mechanical wonders!
- Eibingen Abbey - Nuns still live and work in the vineyards in Eibingen Abbey. You can listen to vespers or go see a concert in the Abbey.
- Burg Ehrenfels - This medieval castle dates back to the 13th century and overlooks the city from the hillside. It has been deteriorated though several wars and is now partially in ruins. The grape variety Ehrenfelser is named after the castle, so it would only be appropriate to sample some local wine after visiting here.
- Niederwaldtempel - This little temple was built in 1790 and was a source of inspiration for many great intellectuals during the Romantic era, counting Brentano, Beethoven and Goethe among its visitors. It also might be the best view on the city of Rüdesheim and the Rhine itself.
The Castle Stretch
The picturesque castle stretch in Germany is often the most popular part of a Rhine cruise. The river flows deeper here, with the gorge rising on either side. In medieval times, building castles on top of those hills over the water was a good defensive strategy, and today we can enjoy the spectacular views of these impressive fortifications without leaving the ship.
These castles were built to be fortresses, and were used for centuries. Most of them were partly destroyed during the First and Second World Wars, but most were rebuilt and refurnished to enable travellers to see what life was like back then.
- Marksburg Castle - This is arguably the best castle to visit in Germany because Marksburg Castle avoided destruction during the Wars, and is today the best preserved castle in the country. The rooms have been kept furnished, so you can still see cannons pointing towards the river, the armoury, and even the old beds used by the people in medieval times.
- Rheinfels Castle - This castle is one of the biggest on the way, but is now a ruin. Still, it's a powerful experience to walk those destroyed walls and to learn more about medieval history.
- Eltz Castle - This one looks a lot more like the fairytale castle you might expect! The bridge leading to it in particular feels very Cinderella-y. The rooms are warmly furnished in the old style, just as if people from medieval times still lived there.
Situated in France right at the border with Germany, Strasbourg is a lovely town with French cobbled streets, German houses, and food that combines the best of both culinary cultures. The Rhine flows right through the middle of the town and as a result the streets were organized around the water. By night especially, walking around Strasbourg's old city center is like walking through an idyllic scene straight out of Disney.
Key sites & sights to see in Strasbourg include:
- Cathedral of Strasbourg - Mixing gothic and roman architecture, Strasbourg's cathedral is one of the best in France. The detailed front work in particular is breathtaking.
- Vauban Barrage - This bridge is not only a beautiful building, it was also built as a fortress and is a must for anyone interested in 17th century history.
- The Petite France neighborhood - The most Alsatian thing you'll ever see: half-timbered houses ooze the character and charm of the region and tiny restaurants offer filling foods and drinks. Prepare to be completely enchanted.
- Maison des Tanneurs - A gastronomical must-do in the region is choucroute, a dish made of sauerkraut and ham. Finish it off with a plum pie and Streusel on top!
- Place Kléber - In front of Strasbourg's beautiful cathedral, the Place Kleber is the heart of the city. This is also where you'll find the Christmas market in winter, one of the biggest in the country.
- Ponts Couverts - In order to enter the Petite France neighborhood, you'll have to walk on one of the three fortified bridges, easily recognized by the defensive towers on either end.
- Alsatian Museum - This museum will give you the whole picture of the region's history as it walks you through reconstructed scenes from Alsatian culture, showing among other things how wine was made here in the 17th century.
Another option: Cruise the Moselle River and the Rhine
Facts and Statistics about the Moselle
- Countries: France, Luxembourg, Germany
- It is 545 km in length, flowing across northeastern France and western Germany
- It has a drainage area of 28,286 km2
Location & Countries along the Moselle
The Moselle -or Mosel- starts out in the French mountains to flow through Luxembourg and ends up in the town of Koblenz in Germany, where it throws itself in the Rhine river. Those two rivers are often combined in a cruise but they encompass different experiences. While the Rhine focuses on castles and impressive gorges, the Moselle is a smaller and quainter river. Along the Moselle, the landscape is mostly made of vineyards, villages and medieval towns, with a few castles on top as well. Cruising the Moselle and the Rhine often takes 8 to 10 days and is a good opportunity to get a taste of the diverse landscapes you can find in Germany.
Best Time to cruise the Moselle
The good thing about cruising the Moselle is that you'll find it is considerably less crowded than the more popular Rhine river. From June to September, you'll have the best weather, but the shoulder season (April, May or October) is still warm enough to enjoy a cruise. In fall, the landscape takes on beautiful colors.
Why the Moselle is Special
The Moselle is all about small charming villages, hairpin bends and wine. The Romans started growing grape here in the 1st century, and the vineyards are still there today, making for a rich and tasty wine culture in the region. But what makes the Moselle special is the villages on the way. Here you won't find big towns or buildings, but cobbled streets and half timbered houses. In summer (July to October), the grape harvest and several other festivals bring new life to these villages.
Highlights of a Moselle River cruise
Built by the Romans, Trier is the oldest town in Germany. After the fall of the Roman empire, the Italian-style architecture remained while new medieval buildings were built. Since then, both the intricate Roman style and the heavy stone medieval constructions are side by side in the streets of Trier. Today, this unique blend is protected by a city wide UNESCO designation.
Key sites & sights to see in Trier include:
- Porta Nigra - This old city gate built by Romans is likely to be one of your first stops in your tour of Trier's Roman history. It is an iconic feature of the city and very well-preserved.
- Hauptmarkt - This market place is at the heart of the medieval part of Trier. The buildings lining the cobbled place are picture-perfect, and the market is still full of shoppers and vendors during days when the market is running.
- Cathedral of Trier - This impressive building is a jumble of many different eras and architectures, and is beautiful inside and out. It is also the oldest church in Germany, and is home to some very important Catholic relics.
- Trier Imperial Baths - This old bath complex is now out of use but you can still explore the boiler rooms and the tunnels for a look at this most important part of Roman culture. On the same theme, the Barbara baths are also a massive ruin to see in Trier.
- Trier Amphitheater - This is where lions and gladiators used to fight for the Roman's pleasure, and you can even visit the cellars where they were kept just before arriving on "stage".
- Basilica of St. Paulinus - This Rococo church was built by the Romans, then destroyed and rebuilt again in the majestic style of today.
- Mariensäule- You can see this 40m column from almost anywhere in the city. If you get the chance to walk up to it, you'll get a breathtaking point of view on Trier and the Moselle flowing by.
Koblenz is where the Moselle and the Rhine meet. The confluence of the two rivers made the place a seat of political power throughout history. The Teutonic Order was established there, then the city was held by France, Prussia and France again ... but all this glorious history is nothing next to the beautiful rolling hills and points of view on the Moselle and the Rhine that Koblenz offers!
Key sites & sights to see in Koblenz include:
- Ehrenbreitstein Fortress - This fortress situated high above the Rhine has a bloody history and is the second largest you can find in Europe. To get to Ehrenbreitstein Fortress, the use of the cable car is recommended. Not because it's that hard to walk there, but because of the incredible views you'll get as the cable car carries you above the Rhine. One of the cable cars even has a glass floor!
- Deutsches Eck - At the confluence of the Moselle and Rhine stands a large statue of Kaiser Wilhelm I, the first German Emperor.
- Basilica of St. Castor - This beautiful two towers basilica is a UNESCO world heritage. Take a look inside at the magnificent vaults.
- Schloss Stolzenfels - A few minutes walk outside of Koblenz, this castle is one the few fairytale looking castle in Germany. That's because the original stronghold was destroyed by war, and it was decided to make something pretty out of it when it was finally rebuilt in the 19th century.
- Electoral Palace - This impressive building is worth taking a look at, but the main point of interest is the walk in the beautiful gardens. Monuments to Father Rhine and Mother Moselle are hidden among the greenery there.
- DB Museum Koblenz - This train museum is a big attraction as you can see old locomotives as well as wagons still equipped for luxury journeys from the 20th century.
Cochem is sometimes referred to as a Disney town because of its fairytale romantic atmosphere. Indeed, the 5,000 person village of Cochem features colourful houses lining the Moselle's banks, with a princess-worthy castle standing on top of the green hill above. This is a great spot for a glass of Riesling from one of the 4,000 winemakers who can be found along the Moselle River.
Key sites & sights to see in Cochem include:
- Reichsburg Cochem - The medieval castle standing on the hill above Cochem, later rebuilt in the fairytale style, is open for tourists.
- Old Town - The cobbled streets of old town are charming and surrounded in very German looking half timbered houses and buildings. At the center of it all, Marktplatz might be the prettiest stop.
- Moselpromenade - A peaceful walking path hugs the Moselle, taking you through a beautiful park where the best view on Cochem can be found.
- Enderttor and Martinstor - These two ancient city gates still stand in between the colorful houses, you can't miss them while touring the old town of Cochem!
- Cochem Chairlift - In summer, this chairlift will take you to a beautiful point of view up on Pinnerkreuz. The ride itself offers incredible views on the Moselle and Cochem.
- Moselland Museum - This museum reconstructed scenes from rural life in the Moselle region and is a great way to learn more about the local culture and traditions.
- Historische Senfmühle - Wine is not the only thing produced in Cochem, there's also a famous mustard mill still running today! You can visit, taste and sample at Historische Senfmühle.
Cruising the Seine
Facts & Statistics About The Seine
- Countries: France
- The Seine is 777 km in length, making it the second-longest river flowing completely in France, after the Loire river
- It has a drainage area of 78,700 km2
- There are 37 bridges in Paris that connect the banks of the Seine, the most famous being Pont Neuf, the oldest standing bridge across the Seine, the Pont des Artes near the Louvre, and the Pont de l'Alma near the Eiffel Tower
Location & Countries along the Seine
The Seine is historically one of the most important rivers in Europe, due to its role in the development of the city of Paris and France as a whole into one of the principal economies and military powers of Europe. It was also France's principal link to trade via the English Channel via Rouen for many years, before being surpassed by Le Havre in recent years.
The Seine is still used by businesses to ship stone and other building materials, and other goods including cars. It also plays an important role in France's energy grid, as water from the Seine is used for cooling down nearby electric and nuclear power stations.
Today the Seine remains la rivière de paris, associated with the city's romantic reputation, painted a thousand times over and then some by the scores of artists inspired by the beauty of both the city and the river.
Best Time to Cruise the Seine
As the capital city of one of the most touristed countries on the planet, the high season in Paris can be very crowded. Once again, the shoulder season might be the best time to cruise the Seine to give you as much respite as possible from the crowds of tourists. Fall, in particular, offers spectacular scenery due to the changing colours of the landscape. It's best not to go too late in the Fall, however, as winter in Normandy is not recommended. It can get very cold and windy, particularly as you get closer to the coast.
Why the Seine is Special
A cruise along the Seine affords you the opportunity to see a number of iconic Parisian landmarks from the perspective of the river, including the Eiffel Tower, the Cathedral of Notre-Dame and the Sainte Chapelle, the Louvre, the Palais de l’Institut, the Hôtel des Invalides, Place de la Concorde, Ecole Militaire, the Monnaie (the Mint), the Grand Palais of the Champs Elysées, the Eiffel Tower and the Palais de Chaillot.
In fact the architecture along the Seine is so outstanding that the banks of the Seine have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991.
The opportunity to visit the battlefields of World War II in Normandy is another important reason to cruise the Seine.
Highlights of a Seine River Cruise
Paris is far too obvious to list as a highlight of a cruise along the Seine (which is not to say it's not a highlight...but you know what we mean), so here's a few other ideas to whet your appetite for the Seine:
Normandy is forever famous for her beaches and the dramatic action that took place there during the Second World War. While those represent a darker chapter in this region's history, there is of course much more to see as well, including some spectacular art and architecture in cities and towns like Les Andelys and Rouen.
Key sites & sights to see in and around Normandy include:
- Étretat Cliffs - Worth a visit in particular for the photographers out there to get a shot of the famous cliffs that have captured the imagination of many a traveller.
- Les Andelys - This town is the gate to Normandy and boasts many remnants from Roman times, as well as Château Gaillard, an impressive castle built by Richard the Lionheart.
- Bayeux and the Bayeux Tapestry - Many visitors to Normandy stop to take in the Bayeux Tapestry, a spectacular piece of medieval art some 70 metres long that depicts the Norman conquest of England in 1066.
- Omaha D-Day Landing Beach and Museum - The allied invasion of Normandy in June 1944 was one of the key turning points of WWII and one in which Canadians played an instrumental role in, though with heavy casualties.
- Mont Saint-Michel - A short distance away from the Seine in Normandy, this iconic place is one of the most visited town in France.
The city of Rouen is the capital of Normandy and was one of the largest and most prosperous cities in Europe in the Middle Ages. History, art and architecture buffs will find all they desire and then more in this beautiful French city.
- Cathedral of Rouen - The biggest landmark in the city, this cathedral was painted over 30 times by Monet.
- Gros Horloge - Today Gros Horloge is a busy shopping street, but one relic from medieval times is still there: an archway with a big colorful astronomical clock on top of it.
- Old Market Square - At the end of the street Gros Horloge, this market square is where Joan of Arc was burned in 1431. She's an important part of Rouen's culture and history and many of the tourist attractions and souvenirs are Joan of Arc-themed.
- Old Town - Rouen's old part of town has been well preserved since medieval times, with cobblestoned streets and timber framed houses. Some have been here so long that they're even leaning a little to the side.
- Palais de Justice - The city suffered a lot though the war, and if you look carefully enough, you'll see the scars of bombing attacks on the facade of this massive building. They have purposefully not been repaired, so that the people of Rouen and her visitors will not forget the horrors of the war.
- Historial Jeanne d'Arc - As noted earlier Joan of Arc was tried in Rouen and this light and sound show walks you through her life and death.
- Jardin des Plantes - These gardens date to the end of the 17th century and you'll find flowers there from all around the world. The gardens are particularly beautiful in summer when most of the flowers are in bloom.
Honfleur is often the last place you'll visit on a Seine Cruise as it sits right next to the sea. Although Honfleur is starting to grow into a bigger town, it has retained all the charm of a little village with its timbered houses, pretty harbours and cobbled streets. At night, the lights and ambience of the town give it a romantic air.
- Normandy Bridge - The massive Normandy Bridge jumps over the Seine river and is a landmark that is impossible to miss. It's the last bridge crossing the Seine before it pours into the ocean. At over 2 km long (2,143.21m), it is one of the longest cable-stayed bridges in the world.
- Sea front - The part of old town lining the sea front is where you'll find the best of Honfleur. Tasty restaurants, art galleries, souvenir shops, museums and more...
- Musée Eugène Boudin - It's often said that impressionism was born in Honfleur with the painter Eugène Boudin. You can see some of his paintings in this museum.
- Maisons Satie - Another famous artist from Honfleur is the composer Erik Satie. Discover his music by taking the musical tour of Maisons Satie!
- Naturospace - A tropical greenhouse full of butterflies is a nice break away from the weather of Normandy that can sometimes be quite chilly.
- St. Catherine Church - The roof of that church has the shape of an inverted boat hull. Explore also the charming neighborhood around St. Catherine Church as well!
Cruising the Loire River
Facts & Statistics About The Loire
- Countries: France
- The Loire is 1,012 km in length, making it the longest river in France, the 20th longest river in Europe, and the 171st longest river in the world
- It has a drainage area of 115,271 km2
- There are over 300 chateaux in the Loire Valley, giving it the nickname 'France's Valley of the Kings'
Location & Countries along the Loire
Almost all of the cruises on the Loire river start in Nantes, a big city near the Atlantic Ocean. The Loire river then flows towards the mainland, tracing the steps of French royalty. The Loire goes all the way to Orléans, but most river cruises turn back at the end of the Castle stretch around the beautiful city of Tours.
The importance of the Loire as a trade route peaked before the French Revolution. The river was central to commercial movement, and the cities on its banks were busy ports. In the 17th and 18th century canals were constructed to connect the Loire to the Seine, thus allowing which allowed commercial goods and traffic to make it all the way to Paris. Today however these connecting canals are too small and narrow for the massive modern shipping vessels, so for the most part they are relatively unused. The result of the shift in trade elsewhere in France has led the Loire countryside to retain its rural, Old World charm.
Best Time to Cruise the Loire
The sailing season on the Loire runs from April to October. Spring in France is warmer than in Canada so the weather is quite decent, with the warm becoming hot through the late summer. Into Autumn it cools off fairly quickly, and it can be a little rainy in the shoulder season.
It's worth noting that if you do decide to visit France in the summer, remember that the French are quite committed to their summer holidays, and you may find that many of the shops and restaurants are closed, in August in particular.
There are also a few cruises along the Loire on offer over the winter holiday season for those looking to experience the Christmas Markets in the various cities and towns of France.
Why the Loire is Special
The fabulous chateaus of the Loire Valley are the prime draw for this cruise. There's a castle for every taste, from ancient stone fortresses to elegant fairytale castles of French royals. Some castles lie in ruins, while others have been refurbished as if they're still lived in today. Many have guided tours so you can learn about the history of the castles and the region. Beyond the castles and chateaus, you'll find many beautifully sculpted gardens full of flowers, as well as jousting shows in the summer. Add in the food and fabulous wine from the Loire Valley, and you can see why it's such a popular river to cruise.
A few castles not to miss are the famous castle of Chenonceau, built on a bridge over the water, the castle of Chambord, which is perhaps the region's most famous castle, and the castle of Chaumont for its world renowned gardens. Of note also is the Clos Lucé castle, where Leonardo Da Vinci used to live and filled today with many of his inventions.
Of course, this French region is not all about castles. On your way, you'll see several medieval towns, vineyards and good restaurants in the biggest towns. As for wine from the Loire Valley, the region is particularly famous for its Sauvignon blanc and Vouvray, which pairs delightfully with goat cheese, rillettes (a kind of paté), and a baguette for a délicieux déjeuner.
Highlights of a Loire River Cruise
This quaint medieval town has everything from cobbled streets to castles and ramparts, but is most of all known for the salt marshes all around it. Salt is in every souvenir shop in Guerande! Between the old town and the marshes, there's a lot to do and see there.
Key sites & sights to see in Guerande include:
- Walk the Ramparts of Guerande - These are massive ramparts built during the war for Brittany's inheritance. You can walk on top of them, and even see the markings left by the stonecutters.
- Old Town - Not much has changed there since the 15th century, so every street is filled with charming old houses and shops. Antiques, decoration, and of course salt... you can find anything in Guerande's shops.
- Maison Georges Larnicol - This shop is one of the best in France and that's where you can taste Kouign amann, a very buttery cake made only in this region of France.
- The Salt Marshes of Guerande - Although these landscapes have been heavily manipulated by men, they still have a strange wild beauty. It's fascinating to learn about the harvesting of salt through a guided tour, but walking on the little roads between the marshes is a unique experience as well!
Nantes used to be a French seat of power back when the dukes of Brittany ruled it. Today, it's a big city divided in three parts by the Loire, but somehow it managed to stay charming despite its recent growth. Nantes has a very bohemian atmosphere. Just walking along the river Seine will get you through some of the places that make Nantes an artistic and innovative center.
Key sites & sights to see in Nantes include:
- Les Machines de l'Ile - In the center island of Nantes, a theatre company builds huge mechanical machines inspired by Jules Vernes and Leonardo Da Vinci. The most famous one, an elephant, is often seen walking around the docks.
- The Castle of the Dukes of Brittany - In the old part of Nantes, this big castle is an interesting place to visit to learn more about this region's history.
- Place du Bouffay - The oldest part of Nantes is also the livelier one, with shops and restaurants aplenty. On the Place du Bouffay, you'll see some of the older houses, including one piece of a room just sticking out of the wall in mid-air. The square itself has a bit of a dark history, as it was used for a number of executions leading up to and during the French Revolution.
- Jules Vernes Museum - Born in Nantes, Jules Vernes was a literary giant from France and has had a huge influence on modern culture.
- Les Anneaux - On the center island, an artist installed those giant rings several years ago, and soon enough it became so famous that they were left there. At night, they light up and flash colors on the water.
- Printing Museum - The history of printed press is a fascinating one that literally changed the course of European and Western history. If you like old machines you'll definitely want to visit this museum where you'll get the opportunity to operate these ancient machines.
- Trentemoult - Further away from the city center, Trentemoult is an artsy and colorful neighborhood that used to be a fishing village. The ground floor of all of the houses here are empty because of how often the Loire flooded the area.
Further away inland, Tours is a smaller but beautiful city. It's often flooded with tourists in the summer months as it's the perfect base to explore the Loire Castles all around. The town itself is a delight to walk around, with car free cobbled streets and many wine and food shops.
Key sites & sights to see in Tours include:
- The Old Town of Tours (Vieux Tours) - Narrow streets, renaissance buildings and tiny shops selling local delicacies are all crammed up in the medieval part of Tours. Utterly charming and classically characteristic of the Loire River Valley.
- Place Plumereau - At the center of the old town, this large square is covered with cafés and people enjoying drinks and ice creams outside, whatever the weather. It has been named one of the best places in France to have an aperitif.
- Musée du Compagnonnage - The "compagnons" is an important part of French history and one that is still surrounded by many myths. This museum will help you learn more about this 16th century guild that aimed to preserve historic craftsmanship in stone, wood, and more, and had a secret process for taking new apprentices in.
- Halles de Tours - This indoor market will fill your belly with all the local delicacies, from wine to chocolate, cheese, oysters and charcuterie...a perfect place to sample a wide range of French cuisine.
- Hôtel Goüin - This renaissance building was built in the 15th century, and has been recently restored. It is an iconic building in Tours and is one of the most beautiful in town.
- Loire à Vélo - Biking the Loire has become a must-do activity, and there are over 900 km of biking roads built along the river. The path is well-made and mostly flat, which makes it easy to cycle and take in the beauty of the Loire Valley.
- La Ginguette - Situated on the edge of the river, La Ginguette is a historic café. With board games, an open air ballroom dance floor, and little lanterns bobbing over the river, this is the perfect place to listen to french music and relax and soak in the ambience of Tours.
Even more about the Loire
Cruising The Rhône River
Facts & Statistics About The Rhône
- Countries: Switzerland, France
- The Rhône is 813 km in length and is the only major European river that flows directly into the Mediterranean Sea
- It has a drainage area of 148,268 km2
Location & Countries along the Rhône
The Rhône is yet another of Europe's most historically important waterways, as it was the principal trade route connecting the cities of Arles, Avignon, Valence, Vienne and Lyon to the Mediterranean ports of Fos-sur-Mer, Marseille and Sète.
Starting from the Rhône Glacier in Switzerland, the Rhône flows towards Lyon, France's second biggest city, before going south towards the beautiful lavender fields of the region of Provence. Most cruises end at Port-Saint-Louis, a town situated between the Mediterranean Sea and the Camargue region, a wetland known for its unique landscape and wildlife.
Best Time to Cruise the Rhône
The high season from June to September can be very busy on the Rhône. Luckily, as the Rhône flows mainly in the south of France, you can still find warm weather in the shoulder season in April or October.
On the other hand, Provence's lavender fields bloom in summer only from June to August, so if you're intent on seeing these landscapes, it might be worth braving the crowds.
Why the Rhône is Special
Although most Rhône cruises sail through only one country (France), it's the kind of cruise where you'll feel like you're waking up somewhere entirely different each morning. The river goes through several French regions and covers a wide diversity of landscapes, starting from the mountains in the Alps, through urban cityscapes like Lyon, then south through the forested hills of Ardèche, crossing the famous lavender fields in Provence, before finally emptying out into the Mediterranean Sea. Some cruises will even take you to the Camargue's wetland, where you can see flamingoes on the water.
Life and culture in the south of France is also very different from what you'll find in the northern part of Europe, and has a very different character than what you'll find in Paris as well. Here things are slower and sunnier. Staying for hours sitting around a meal and sipping wine on the terrace of a restaurant is normal and most definitely encouraged.
Highlights of a Rhône River Cruise
In the 14th century, the Popes fled Rome and came to Avignon where they built the famous Palais des Papes. And this is just one example of the many things that made Avignon into what it is today, a city full of history, culture and art.
Key sites & sights to see in Avignon include:
- Palais des Papes - This building isn't just another church. It's so huge you could actually fit several churches in there, and is a very important part of French history.
- Place du Palais - The big square in front of the Palais des Papes is surrounded by several historical buildings and is often the center of events, particularly in summer.
- Pont Saint-Bénézet - This bridge is known worldwide as the "Pont d'Avignon"! Historically, it was the bridge that defended the entry into Papal territory.
- Les Halles Market - This covered market place is where you'll find all the local delicacies: olive oil, dried tomato dip, aromatic herbs, cheese, wine, charcuterie, and much more!
- Le Pont du Gard - This incredible three level bridge is in fact part of a Roman water system that used to be 50 km long.
- Île de la Barthelasse - This big island on the Rhône is part of the city of Avignon but is not very populated as the Rhône floods the island too often in winter. It's a peaceful place covered with bike lanes and orchards that you can access through the bridge Daladier or the ferry.
- Rue des Teinturiers - This winding street on the edge of the Vaucluse Canal is one of those picture pretty places you can find only in the south of France. Water wheels, old houses and small bridges complete the picture.
Already a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its historical, cultural, and architectural significance, Lyon has added gastronomic capital of France to its already prestigious reputation.
Key sites & sights to see in Lyon include:
- The Musée des Beaux Arts de Lyon - After the Louvre, this is the best place to see fine arts in France. Famous European painters, antiques and Egyptian relics can be found in this museum.
- Parc de la Tête d’Or - With greenhouses, botanical wonders and many local and exotic animals, this huge garden is the perfect place for a peaceful stop.
- Vieux Lyon (Old Lyon) - This renaissance neighborhood kept the architecture of the booming silk industry era when merchants from all over Italy and Flanders came to Lyon and built grand houses.
- The Traboules of Lyon - Running between and underneath buildings towards the Rhône, these old passageways are unique architectural features, typical of Old Lyon.
- Fourvière Basilica - This magnificent building overlooking Lyon from the top of the hill will catch your eye as soon as you set foot in the city, and makes for one of the best views of the Rhône river passing through Lyon.
- Institut Lumière - The Lumière brothers invented the cinematograph and introduced movies into our lives. Visit this museum built inside their old family home to learn more about them and the particular style of French film-making.
- Presqu’île - On the little bit of land between the Rhône and the Saône rivers, the Presqu'île is crammed with restaurants, shops, museums and markets.
Arles is a city with history stretching back to the Roman times, and is one of the most charming cities in Frances' Provence region. Visiting Arles and its surroundings is the perfect mix of history and natural beauty, and Arles considerably less busy than her more well-known cousin, Nice. Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Picasso, and even Julius Caesar have visited Arles...perhaps you should as well?
Key sites & sights to see in Arles include:
- Arènes d'Arles (Amphitheatre of Arles) - This huge arena is Arles' main attraction, and it is only a few decades younger than its more famous cousin in Rome. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and in excellent condition given its 2,000 years of history.
- Théâtre Antique d'Arles (Arles Roman Theatre) - This open air Roman theatre was built during the reign of Augustus Caesar in the 1st century, and is amazingly still used today. It's a magical venue to watch a performance or concert in.
- Van Gogh Heritage - Van Gogh lived in Arles and painted the city many times over. This is also where he infamously cut off his ear! You can take a fascinating short walking tour of the city to see some of the sites and inspirations for his art, as well as visit the Fondation Van Gogh.
- Place du Forum - Although there's not much left of the Roman forum now, today the Place du Forum is a lovely shaded square filled with restaurants and cafes, again made famous by some of Van Gogh's paintings.
- Cryptoporticus - These unique tunnels under the old forum still support the city above. Apparently, they were used to house slaves back when the Greeks occupied the city in the 6th century.
- Thermes de Constantin - Baths were a big part of Roman life, and if you visit these you'll still be able to see how they were organised and constructed. The Thermes de Constantin date back to the 4th century and are the best-preserved Roman baths in the city.
- Camargue Nature Park - Next to Arles, the Camargue is a protected wetland covering some 100,00 hectares, the largest in France. Wetlands, rice paddies, wild horses, salt pans and flamingoes can be seen from a car or a bike in this protected Nature Park and UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Even more about the Rhône
If you're interested in seeing what France looks like from the perspective of the Rhône river, Wheel & Anchor will be embarking on a 7-night cruise down the Rhône in the first part of our Tastes of Eastern France program happening in October of 2020.
Or for more ideas about what you'll find should you choose to cruise the Rhône, check out some of the stories from our blog:
Cruising The Elbe River
Facts & Statistics About The Elbe
- Countries: Germany, Czech Republic
- The Elbe is 1,165 km in length, making it Europe's 15th longest river
- It has a drainage area of 148,268 km2
- There are 5 major tributaries of the Elbe: the Vltava, Havel, Ohre, Saale, SchwarzeElster and Mulde
Location & Countries along the Elbe
The Elbe River flows northwest from the Czech Republic through Germany, finally draining into the North Sea. The Elbe rises on the southern side of the Krkonoše (Giant) Mountains near the border of the Czech Republic and Poland before making a wide arc across the northwestern Czech Republic (known as Bohemia) and enters eastern Germany roughly 40 km to the southeast of Dresden. Above Hamburg the Elbe splits into two branches; these rejoin farther downstream, and the river then broadens into its estuary, the mouth of which is at Cuxhaven, where it flows into the North Sea.
Best Time to Cruise the ELBE
With its shallow waters and bridges, the Elbe is very vulnerable to level changes. If the water runs too low or too high, cruises often have to get a bus around condemned areas. This adventurous side of an Elbe river cruise makes it a less traveled destination, which is perfect to avoid a crowded river even in summer!
Although winters are often freezing in this part of the world, the cities along the way are famous for their Christmas markets and magical atmosphere around the holidays.
Why the Elbe is Special
The Elbe is one of the roads...err, rivers less-travelled in Europe, because it is much shallower than her more famous sisters. On the other hand, this alternative route to the more popular Rhine is a fascinating part of the world. With towering cliffs, a few castles and many medieval villages and towns, the Elbe cruise offers a relaxing path through parts of Central Europe that many travellers never get to see.
The majestic cities of Berlin and Prague, included in most cruises on the Elbe river, are the jewels on top of the pretty cake for any history buff or Europe fan.
Highlights of an Elbe River Cruise
Dresden is the second-largest city along the banks of the Elbe after Hamburg, and is one of the most beautiful as well. Although much of it was destroyed during the Second World War, the Germans poured their hearts and souls into rebuilding it to its former glory. Dresden is famous for its Baroque architecture.
Key sites & sights to see in Dresden include:
- Frauenkirche church - The church was completely destroyed during World War II and for 50 years its ruins were a war memorial. After the reunification of East and West Germany in 1990, donations poured in to have it rebuilt.
- Dresden Castle - Construction began in 1535, making it one of the oldest buildings in Dresden, though it too was destroyed in WWII and subsequently rebuilt. This beautiful renaissance castle has served as a residence for electors and kings of Saxony for centuries, and today it is home to the Dresden State Art Collections.
- The Augustus Bridge - There has been a bridge over the Elbe here since the 12th century, today connecting the historic city center of the north bank to the south bank.
- Canaletto's view - The famous Italian painter of city views painted Dresden in 1748 from just over the aforementioned Augustus Bridge
- Zwinger Palace - Built by Augustus the Strong at the beginning of the 18th century, this palace is a fabulous example of a Baroque palace with gardens for court festivities.
- The Semperoper - The opera house of the Sächsische Staatsoper Dresden and the concert hall of the Staatskapelle Dresden, located along the banks of the Elbe is world-renowned for its acoustics and is considered one of the finest opera houses in Europe. Originally built in 1878, like almost everything in Dresden it was reduced to rubble in WWII before being fully restored in 1985.
The many steeples and spires that give Prague its nickname of 'The City of a Hundred Spires' make for a majestic view as you cruise into the city. Romantic and historic, Prague is charming whatever the weather, under sun or snow!
Key sites & sights to see in Prague include:
- The Charles Bridge - This historic bridge crosses the Vltava river. Construction began in 1357 under King Charles IV, and finished in the beginning of the 15th century.
- The Old Town Square - A significant piece of Prague's history since the 12th century, this square has a number of historical and architectural marvels, including the Old Town Hall and the Church of Our Lady before Týn, as well as the Baroque Church of St Nicholas, the Rococo Kinský Palace, the Gothic House at the Stone Bell and the monument to Jan Hus.
- Prague Castle - Travelers all come to see this breathtaking castle! This huge building has a fascinating history and is today the official home of the president.
- St Vitus Cathedral - This is the largest and most important Catholic church in the Czech Republic, and is the seat of the Archbishop of Prague. It is part of the aforementioned Prague Castle complex.
- The Prague Astronomical Clock - This amazing piece of engineering is over 600 years old, making it among the oldest astronomical clocks in the world today.
- Koruna Farmer's Market - Markets are always a great way to get to know a place through its people and foods. In Prague, enjoy local specialties like pickled vegetables, sausages and many kinds of breads and cakes.
- Petrin Park - You can access this peaceful garden by walking up the hill or by taking the funicular. Once there, you'll enjoy one of the best views on the city of Prague!
This royal city on the confluence of the Elbe and Ohre Rivers is one of the most
picturesque in the Czech Republic.
Key sites & sights to see in Litoměřice include:
- St. Stephen's Cathedral - The most iconic place in the city, this early Baroque cathedral stands on top of a hill overlooking the city. We're generally fans of a great view here at Wheel & Anchor and this is no exception.
- Old Town Hall - On the main square in old town, this big white building is the oldest Renaissance building in the town and is now a museum where you can learn more about the history of the city.
- Litoměřice City Walls - Those gothic city walls are still standing around the old part of town. The inner walls date back to the 14th century.
- Velké Žernoseky Winery - Winemaking in this region dates back to the 10th century, and have been produced in this cellar since the 13th century. Both red and white varieties are grown here, including Riesling, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Grüner red early and Gewurztraminer for whites, and St. Laurent, Blue Portugal and Pinot Noir for reds.
- Peace Square - The centre of the town since the 13th century, it's a lovely spot full of cafes and restaurants, and surrounded by beautiful examples of gothic architecture. A perfect spot for a cappuccino or a glass of wine.
Even more about the Elbe
If you'd like to join a group of travellers to cruise the Elbe, Wheel & Anchor will be sailing from Berlin to Prague in September 2020. Or for more ideas about what you'll find should you choose to cruise the Elbe, check out some of the stories from our blog:
Cruising the Po River
Facts and Statistics about the Po
- Countries: Italy
- It is 652 km in length, making it Italy's longest river
- It has a drainage area of 70,091 km2
- Its delta is among the most complex of any European river, with at least 14 mouths, usually arranged in five groups (from north to south): the Po di Levante, Po di Maestra, Po della Pila, Po delle Tolle, and Po di Goro e di Gnocca. Of these mouths, the Po della Pila carries the greatest volume of water and is the only navigable one (this is the one you'll be cruising on)
Location & Countries along the Po
The River Po flows eastward across northern Italy from its source in the stunning hillsides of Pian del Re, before emptying out in the Venice Lagoon. Travellers cruising the Po get a unique opportunity to see the countryside and towns of northern Italy, including stops in Venice, Turin and Verona.
Best Time to cruise the Po
It would be a shame to see Italy in winter for the first time, as most of Italy's charm comes from the sunny landscapes and great food that you can eat outside. Luckily, summer in Italy tends to draw itself out and it's absolutely possible to see Italy at its best even outside of the crowded high season.
The end of summer or start of fall (September and October) might be the best time to cruise the Po as you'll find less tourists but still warm weather fit for ice cream sampling.
Why the Po is Special
It's well known that Italy is the heart of ancient culture and art. And indeed, cruising Italy is like the easiest treasure hunt, you'll find ancient stones around every bend!
But Italy is not only about history or architecture, it's also about learning to enjoy the good things in life. Essentially: food and wine. A cruise on the river Po will always include a lot of tasting the many typical Italian dishes! Pizzas, pastas, truffles, ice creams, perfectly cooked fishes, vegetables dripping with the best olive oil ... don't forget to pack comfortable pants!
Highlights of a Po River cruise
Verona is of course most famous as the scene of the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. But, before that, it was one of the most important cities of the Roman Empire and is known for its many stunning historic buildings.
Key sites & sights to see in Verona include:
- Arena di Verona - This amphitheatre is better preserved than the famous Colosseum of Rome, and as such you can not only visit this arena, but also still listen to concert and shows there.
- Piazza Delle Erbe - This piazza is everything an Italian square should be with its marble statues, fountains, cafes and historic buildings all around!
- Castle Vecchio - This 14th century castle now holds a museum to explain about the history of the building and the city. Even more remarkable than the castle itself, the bridge leading to it is a work of art, standing out with its structure of red bricks. Take the time to see it from the bank, but also to walk the many stairs inside the bridge itself to access great view points on the river and castle.
- Piazza Bra - The largest plaza in the city, and one of the largest in all of Italy, the Piazza Bra sits right in front of the Arena di Verona and a number of other notable landmarks, making it the perfect starting place for a tour of Verona. The Piazza and the streets around it are full of little shops and delicious restaurants.
- Lake Garda - Not far from Verona, Lake Garda is the largest lake in Italy and a picture perfect oasis of blue waters and small villages.
- Casa di Giulietta - It's said that this is where the main events of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet happened. You can see the famous balcony outside, and get more information about the play and the city in the tiny museum inside the building.
Turin - or Torino - used to be the capital of Italy. Now, the city plays an important role in the Italian industry. Next to the many historical buildings and majestic palaces, it makes for a brilliant mix of new and old!
Key sites & sights to see in Torino include:
- Mole Antonelliana - You can't miss this iconic building with its spire standing far above any other building. At night, the basilica lights up and can be seen from very far away. Inside the tower of Mole Antonelliana you'll also find the National Cinema Museum, a must-see for any cinema buff.
- Palazzo Reale - The Royal Palace of Turin is one of the many grand palaces in the city, and offers guided tours.
- Palazzo Madama - Another impressive palace that also houses the collections of the Museo Civico d’Arte Antica, Turin’s municipal museum of ancient art. It's worth taking a look inside at the breathtaking and luxurious staircase.
- Basilica di Superga - This beautiful basilica is perched on top of a mountain east of Turin and you can see it from almost everywhere in the city. From the basilica itself, the view on Turin and the river is stunning, leading French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau to describe it as "I have before me the most beautiful sight that can strike the human eye."
- Cathedral of St. John the Baptist - This cathedral holds one of the most hallowed Catholic artifacts, a piece of cloth believed to be Jesus' shroud.
- Porta Palatina - This 1st century Roman gateway is one of the better preserved of its kind you'll find in not just Italy, but the entire world.
Ferrara is known as the City of the Renaissance and her city centre was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995. It sits along the Po Delta in the Emilia Romagna region of Italy, which gives it both stunning natural landscapes and cultural interest.
Key sites & sights to see in Ferrara include:
- Explore the city walls - The medieval walls of Ferrara are some of the best-preserved in Europe. You could walk the entire length of the walls if you like, or if you're short on time check out the southern walls along Via Quartieri or the western side along Via Gramicia.
- Castello Estense - A moated castle with a rich history, built in the 12th century and then fortified in the 14th century to protect the wealthy House of Este from a revolt by the citizens of Ferrara over a tax increase.
- Cattedrale di San Giorgio (Cathedral of Saint George) - You'll find it in the UNESCO-designated city centre, though unfortunately this 12th century cathedral is currently closed for restoration.
- National Archaeological Museum - This archeological museum situated in the historic part of town holds many finds from close by ancient sites.
- Via delle Volte - Take a step back in time down this medieval street with many overhead passageways and decorative vaults and arches. Most of the buildings and structures there were built between the 13th and 14th centuries and have been very well preserved.
- Walk along the Canal - The small man-made canal linking the river Po and Ferrara is adorned with bridges and peaceful cobbled walkways.
- Chiesa di San Cristoforo alla Certosa - This big church and cemetery complex are made out of the typical red stone of the region and contain a sublimely beautiful interior.
Cruising the Garonne River
Facts and Statistics about the Garonne
- Countries: France, Spain
- It is 602 km in length
- It has a drainage area of 56,000 km2
- The Garonne is connected to the Mediterranean via the Canal du Midi, starting in Toulouse
Location & Countries along the Garonne
The Garonne river starts in the Spanish Pyrenees, then flowing into France towards the city of Toulouse before going back towards the Atlantic Ocean. It meets the Dordogne river in the Gironde estuary right before the sea. A Garonne cruise is often combined with forays on the Dordogne river and the Gironde estuary to give the traveller a complete overview of the area around the city of Bordeaux, which is of course world-famous for its amazing vineyards.
Best Time to cruise the Garonne
The weather is generally warm in this area from May til October, so it's almost always nice. Still, the best months to go on a Garonne cruise might be September and October. This region of France is a favourite holiday destination for the French, so July and August are particularly busy. By the middle of September and into October, cruises will be more affordable. Most importantly, however, it's harvest season and you'll get a chance to see the chateaus and the vineyards at the height of activity, producing some of the world's most sought-after wines.
Why the Garonne is Special
Landscape wise, the Garonne is milder and less striking when compared to rivers like the Danube or the Rhône. It flows through quiet rural France, peaceful countrysides, and the two major cities of Bordeaux and Toulouse, with some beautiful views on the Atlantic Ocean. The point of cruising the Garonne is to discover French culture, and that will happen mostly through wine and food on this itinerary. There's a reason the chateaus like Chateau Margaux or Haut-Medoc of this area are renowned around the world!
While you'll discover the finest of wines on your way, you'll also get to see (and taste) a more rural side of the country as the Garonne flows through small villages, many of them still with vibrant and busy markets. Indeed, vegetables, a hundred types of cheese, meat, oysters, live animals from the farm, and more are available daily in the big markets in this region.
Highlights of a Garonne River cruise
The port city of Bordeaux is often called "Little Paris" because of its bustling and busy vibe. Like Paris, it holds its share of ancient magnificent buildings and new modern neighborhoods. Of course, Bordeaux is also a culinary city. Its specialty are canelés, a small round pastry with vanilla, cinnamon and rhum inside.
Key sites & sights to see in Bordeaux include:
- Quais de Bordeaux - The car free area on the edge of the Garonne is a peaceful green place to walk on and admire the many bridges over the river. The beautiful and historic 18th century buildings along the water earned the Quays UNESCO World Heritage designation in 2007.
- Water Mirror - Part of the Place de la Bourse, the water mirror is one of Bordeaux's most well-known attractions. The center is a thin pool of water - the world's largest water reflecting pool - that you can walk on on a hot day and that reflects the surrounding buildings beautifully.
- Cité du Vin - This modern building is a museum where you can learn just about anything wine related, though particularly about wine from the Bordeaux region. Once you've had your fill of wine education, the bar on top offers both great wine and beautiful views on the river and the city.
- Esplanade des Quinconces - The iconic statue at the center of this place is what draws most of the travellers there. This huge 12-hectare square, one of the largest in Europe is also where many concerts, markets, fairs, and sporting events happen, so it's often very busy in summer.
- La Grosse Cloche - This is one of the oldest belfries in Europe, and its gateway used to be used as a prison. Its bell was cast in 1775 and weighs some 7,750 kg. Today, the big bell on top of it only rings on select days, such as Bastille Day, VE Day, and Remembrance Day, and also the first Sunday of each month.
- Porte Cailhau - Dating back to 1494, this monument was built to commemorate a military victory by Charles VIII, and is also a remnant of the old city walls. You can go up its castle-like tower to get a great point of view of the Garonne river.
- Grand Théâtre - The best way to discover this masterpiece from the 18th century is to go see a play or an opera there, but it's also worth checking out at night, as the lit-up facade is magnificent.
Situated on the Gironde estuary close to the Atlantic Ocean, Blaye is a small wine town close to many of the renowned chateaus of the area.
Key sites & sights to see in Blaye include:
- Blaye's Market - Twice a week (Wednesday and Saturday), Blaye's huge market attracts locals from all over the area. You'll find all the local delicacies there, including delicious goat cheese, asparagus and sugary pralines, and of course, wine!
- Citadelle de Blaye - Now partially in ruin, the Citadel was built to defend the town in the 17th century, and you can still walk around the medieval village hiding inside the ancient walls. It is part of a UNESCO-designated series of buildings constructed bySébastien Le Prestre, Marquis of Vauban. The view on the Gironde estuary from the top of the Citadel is not to be missed!
- Taste Côtes de Blaye - The town is well known for the red wine bearing its name, and you'll find several opportunities to taste it while in Blaye. The vineyards here were planted by the Romans over 2,000 years ago, and has a unique terroir that allows for the production of both red and white Bordeaux wines. The most prominent reds are Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Malbec, while the whites are primarily Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon.
- Chateau des Rudel - This 12th century fortress is now in ruin, but still a good example of what a medieval castle looked like, as it is quite well-preserved.
- Take the ferry to Lamarque - Several times a day, a ferry crosses the Gironde estuary to land in Lamarque, a small rural village surrounded by vineyards and the entry gate to the famous Médoc wine region. A great way to get in another day of wine tasting.
Arcachon is often included in a Gironde river cruise so that travellers can have a good look at this side of the Atlantic Ocean. It is one of the most popular sea resorts in France for its beautiful villas, sandy beaches, and delicious oysters.
Key sites & sights to see in Arcachon include:
- Head to the beaches - Arcachon has several unique beaches, including ones in the bay, directly on the Atlantic Ocean, and some manmade ones specifically for swimming. Long, white, and often windy, there's also some great surfing spots here.
- Dune du Pilat - The biggest sand dune in Europe, this spot attracts crowds year round. The views over the ocean and surrounding area from the top are spectacular.
- Visit an Oyster Farm - Arcachon is well known for its oysters, and if you're curious about this delicacy it's possible to visit an oyster farm while in town. Pair them with some delicious white wines from the Bordeaux region for the full foodie experience.
- Ville d'Hiver (Winter Town) - This peaceful neighborhood is full of extravagant 19th century mansions and villas, and is a great place to stroll around on a hot day.
- Cap Ferret - This forested area is an oasis of walking trails, small villages, sandy gold beaches and fishing boats. Great seafood restaurants as well! You can also find some of the best views of the Bay of Arcachon from the lighthouse here.
- Visit Île aux Oiseaux (Bird Island) - Wooden cabins are standing alone on the water in the middle of Arcachon's Bay, surrounding a wetland area where over 150 different species of birds come to rest or hibernate.
- Casino d'Arcachon - In Winter Town, the impressive Chateau Deganne was converted into a casino in 1904. A great spot for a little fun, and where you may also find some events going on.
Cruising the Main River
Facts and Statistics about the Main
- Countries : Germany
- The Main river is 525 km in length and the longest river entirely lying in Germany
- The Main is the longest tributary of the Rhine river
Location & Countries along the Main
Two headstreams, the White Main and the Red Main, join in Franconia to form the Main. The river then flows through the valleys of German Highlands and beautiful Bavaria before ending up in the Rhine. The Rhine-Main-Danube Canal is a man made construction linking the Rhine and the Main with the Danube farther south. For all those reasons, a Main cruise rarely stands alone and is often preceded or followed by excursions on the Rhine or the Danube.
Best Time to cruise the Main
The summer months of June, July and August are the warmest and as a road less travelled, you might not even feel crowded on the Main river in high season. It's worth noting that Bavaria is also exceptionally beautiful in spring when the flowers bloom and the hills are at their greenest, although it's also a time of frequent rains.
Why the Main is Special
The landscapes along the Main river are not as popular as some of the other more frequented rivers, but it's an oversight that will only profit the travellers going there anyway. You'll be able to enjoy incredible sceneries without the crowds and the noise, and that's something often hard to find.
As in many parts of Germany, you'll get to see some fairytale castles and pretty medieval towns, but what makes the Main special is the landscape in the background. Vast untouched forests, rolling hills dotted with bright flowers and the picture pretty houses in the typical German style are everywhere around the Main!
Highlights of a Main River cruise
Frankfurt is often known by travellers for the airport, but the city itself is much more than that. The tallest skyscrapers in Germany compete with museums, art centers and ancient churches.
Key sites & sights to see in Frankfurt include:
- Museumsufer - In this area of Frankfurt the banks of the River Main are lined with 12 museums on everything from movies to German culture, with the historic art museum Städel at the centre.
- Main Tower - This modern skyscraper has a public viewing space on top, where you can get a stunning view of the Main and the Rhine. This 56 storey building is the 4th tallest building in all of Germany, and is named after the River Main.
- Römerberg - This square in the oldest part of the city is surrounded on all sides by picture perfect medieval houses and buildings. It's been the administrative centre of Frankfurt since the 15th century.
- Old Sachsenhausen - Until not that long ago, Sachsenhausen was a village separated from Frankfurt, serving as the fish, fruit and vegetable supplier for the city. Now it's a beautiful neighborhood of cobbled stones and little shops, and a great spot to try some Frankfurt apple wine.
- Frankfurt Cathedral - This red gothic cathedral stands tall over the city and is definitely worth a look, especially for the amazing frescoes inside. It is the largest religious building in Frankfurt.
- Eiserner Steg - This elegant metal bridge over the Rhine river is perfect for a romantic stroll and a good view on the city, and offers one of the best views and photo spots of Frankfurt's skyline.
- Kleinmarkthalle - This huge indoor market sells local specialties and fresh produces, but also food from all over the world. A great place to try the local flavours, including the famous 'Frankfurt Green Sauce'.
The city of Bamberg is sometimes called the "Rome of Franconia" because of its grandeur and the number of historic buildings you can find there. Beyond that, it's also considered one of the most beautiful towns in this area of Germany.
Key sites & sights to see in Bamberg include:
- Altes Rathaus - This iconic bridge and house suspended over the river is on every postcard from Bamberg, and is a beautiful combination of Gothic, Rococo, and Baroque artistic influences.
- Klein Venedig - On river Regnitz's left bank, old fishing houses and a few boats seem to have been untouched for centuries. This area is known as 'Little Venice', and also has a number of beautiful gardens along the river.
- Neue Residenz - This huge palace is open to visits and the guided tour will take you through more than 40 rooms containing a gorgeous collection of old German and Baroque paintings, as well as 17th and 18th century tapestries.
- Sandkerwa - The oldest part of Bamberg, Sand, is not only very pretty, it's also full of life by day or by night when the lights from the timbered houses are mirrored on the river. There is a festival held here every August - a kerwa - to celebrate the the anniversary of the Elisabethian church, drink local smoked beer and have a good time.
- Rosengarten - A classic renaissance garden, with elegant statues appearing out of the rose beds everywhere you look.
- Altenburg - This fortress on top of the highest hill in the city is a great way to get to know the history of the area, but also where you can find the best point of view on the city and the river.
Situated at the meeting point of the Main and the Rhine, this ancient city holds many remnants of Roman architecture as well as the most numerous array of typical German houses and colorful buildings.
Key sites & sights to see in Mainz include:
- Mainz Cathedral - Founded in the 10th century, this huge sandstone cathedral is the most remarkable building in Mainz. It has survived 7 fires and several lightning strikes in its 1,000 year history. Make sure you get a look at the treasury of religious artefacts.
- Mainz Markt - Three times a week the Mainz's market sells all the local delicacies in the area around the Mainz Cathedral. It is one of the oldest markets in Germany and considered to be one of the most beautiful.
- Kirschgarten - This small place surrounded by half timbered colorful houses might be the best place to take a picture in all of Mainz. The square dates to the 14th century, while most of the houses are from the 16th to 18th centuries.
- Gutenberg Museum - This is one of the oldest printing museums in the world, named after the man who invented the printing press and changed European history. You can see some remaining copies of the Gutenberg bible here, the first book ever printed on the press.
- Rheinufer - The promenade along the Rhine is one of the most pleasant area of the city, especially in summer when locals are sitting on the benches and small ice cream stands are found around every bend.
- Schillerplatz - This majestic plaza is lined with Baroque and Rococo grand palaces. The unusual fountain in the middle is also worth a look.
- Museum of Ancient Seafaring - This is a fascinating place to explore if you love boats and rivers (and since you're here reading about river cruising, we're guessing you do!). Several full size replicas of ancient boats that used to sail the Rhine are particularly stunning.
Cruising the Canal du Midi
Facts and Statistics about the Canal du Midi
- The Canal du Midi is made up of 360km of navigable waterways connecting the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea
- It has 328 structures - locks, aqueducts, bridges, tunnels - connecting everything together
- It was built between 1667 and 1694 and designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996
Location & Countries along the Canal du Midi
Ok, so the Canal du Midi isn't a river, and you can't really cruise it in the traditional cruise ship sense ... but it deserves a spot on this list for its unique and quality experience. The Canal du Midi is a network of canals connecting the Atlantic Ocean with the Mediterranean Sea through the Languedoc region, and you can explore all of that while relaxing in low barges.
Best Time to cruise the CANAL DU MIDI
The high season on the Canal du Midi route can be overcrowded with tourists, foreigners and locals alike, coming to explore this highly historically fascinating region. Heatwaves are also common in June, July or August. On the other hand, the shoulder season is a perfect time to cruise the Canal du Midi, especially in the fall when the plane trees lining the Canal put on their golden coats.
Why the Canal du Midi is Special
Boating on the Canal du Midi is different from cruising a big river, but it has a special and unique charm. The boats themselves will look like nothing else you've seen if you're used to cruising. The houseboats and low lying barges have warm open decks and you'll feel closer to the water when inside. You'll also see several impressive locks on the way, and the ingenious mechanisms allowing the boats to go through without a bump.
When out of the boat, you'll get to discover one of the most beautiful French region: the Languedoc. The Languedoc is famous for two things: its wine production and its fascinating history. Romans, Celts, Crusaders, French Royalties ... many bloody battles were fought in the area and some of the legends and myths brought by those civilisations are still very much a part of daily life today.
Highlights of a Canal du Midi cruise
Linking the Garonne and the Canal du Midi, Toulouse is one of the biggest cities in the country. Often called the "Pink City" because of the color of the bricks used on many of its buildings, Toulouse is one of those big European cities with the perfect artful mix of ancient architecture and modern lifestyle.
Key sites & sights to see in Toulouse include:
- Place du Capitole - This is the heart of the city and the perfect place to start exploring Toulouse. The big pink buildings are visually impressive, and the City Hall that lines the square is a beautiful example of Neoclassical architecture, dating back to its construction in 1750. Inside you'll find the Théâtre du Capitole, one of France's top Opera venues.
- Saint-Sernin Basilica - This huge Romanesque church - the largest in not just France but all of Europe - is made even more interesting by the many relics viewable in the crypt. Built between the 11th and 12th centuries, it received UNESCO designation in 1998.
- Church of the Jacobins - This is one of the biggest Gothic-style churches in the country, and contains relics of the famous Christian philosopher Thomas Aquinas. Constructed in the 13th century, it inspired the style of many of France's Gothic cathedrals.
- Cité de l'Espace - Less about past history and more about the future, this theme park is all about space exploration. It has full scale models of some of the most famous human space constructions, including the Ariane 5 and Mir Space Station among others.
- Pont Neuf - Started in 1544 and completed in 1632, Pont Neuf is the oldest bridge in Toulouse. Pont Neuf's elegant architecture crossing the Garonne is best seen from further away down the river.
- Taste Cassoulet - Cassoulet is a local dish using Toulouse specialty sausage, a lot more meat and beans. There's nothing like Cassoulet to warm you up in the winter, served with a delicious glass of local wine!
Carcassonne is one of the better preserved cities from medieval times. The city has grown outside of the ancient ramparts, but the old part of town inside is mostly untouched and can make the traveller feel like he's gone back a few centuries.
Key sites & sights to see in Carcassonne include:
- La Cité - This is the stunning medieval citadel seen in the photo above. The old part of town inside the citadel walls seems untouched, a fairytale blend of winding alleys and cobbled streets with ivy and flowers growing up the stone houses. This town has a history spanning 2,500 years and numerous occupations, and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997.
- Castle Comtal - The castle that used to defend the City offers fascinating guided tours and can be found within the citadel. There's even jousting shows in the summer! It's also worth a walk along the unbelievably thick ramparts around the city to cap off your visit to the castle and citadel.
- Basilica of St. Nazarius and Celsus - The original church built here was thought to have been built in the 6th century, and it underwent several reinventions over the years, reflecting the passage of different architectural influences.
- Lower City - Built outside the walls of the City, you'll find the more modern, but still pretty, area of Carcassonne. Modern is relative of course - it still dates back to the Middle Ages. You'll find many shops, cafés and restaurants here.
- Lastours - Up on the hills, 4 castles in ruins are the last remnants of old wars between sects and religions. The area has a bizarre magical atmosphere that you may pick up on as you learn about the heavy history of the place.
- Museum of the Inquisition - The Inquisition is an important part of French history. In particular this museum captures the darker part of the Inquisition, with a focus on the old torture methods and instruments used to persecute enemies of the Catholic Church.
Béziers is a smaller city but also one of the oldest towns in the whole of Europe. Taking the time to visit Béziers is a sure way to learn more about the area's eventful history, and an opportunity to taste some more fabulous wines from the Languedoc region.
Key sites & sights to see in Béziers include:
- Saint-Nazaire Cathedral - Situated on top of the hill overlooking Béziers, this cathedral is magnificent inside and out. If your legs can take you up the narrow staircases, you'll even get a stunning view on Béziers and the countryside surrounding the town.
- Jardin des Evêques (Bishop's Garden) - At the feet of the cathedral, the gardens are standing on the slope towards the river. It's slightly hidden down a little alleyway as you enter the Cathedral, and the traveller who knows will be rewarded with some of the prettiest views in the city.
- Fontcaude Abbey - This beautiful piece of Roman architecture has, as do many buildings in the region, a violent history. Built in the twelfth century, it was even set on fire in the 16th century during the religious wars, but has been beautifully restored since then.
- Musée du Bitterois - This museum about Béziers is fascinating, covering the archeology, ethnology, and natural history of the region. In particular, it has a powerful section on the massacre of the Cathars, the bloodiest event of the city's history.
- Pont Vieux - This narrow stone bridge is as old as it gets, but still standing across the River Orb. The best vantage point is from the shore or from the Pont Neuf, the newer bridge facing it. You'll see it many of the postcards of the region and it's a photo opportunity you won't want to miss.
- Mas La Chevalière - This Mas (big southern house) is one of the best options for wine tasting you'll find in Béziers and the Languedoc region. Perhaps most well known for their Chardonnays, you'll also find Pinot Noir, Rosé, Syrah-Granache, and a collection of excellent Chablis wines.
- Fonserannes Lock - Doubtless you'll see many locks throughout a Canal du Midi cruise, but this one is the opportunity to get a good look at one from land and see how the boats are lifted up.
***If doing something a little different and sailing on houseboats along the picturesque Canal du Midi is up your alley (canal?), Wheel & Anchor will be boating the Canal du Midi in October 2020, which you can do on its own or as an extension to our Tastes of Eastern France program!
Even more about the Canal du Midi
Or, for more ideas about what you'll find should you choose to cruise the Canal du Midi, check out some of the stories from our blog:
All in all, it's hard to make a wrong decision when it comes to choosing a European river cruise. Perhaps its better considered as where you should begin your exploration - would you like one of the bigger, more famous rivers like the Rhine or the Danube, or the waters less-travelled of the Elbe or Canal du Midi?
At Wheel & Anchor we don't have a particular ship in the race; we tend to land more on the side of 'let's go and experience them all'. And apart from the river and ship, the other thing to consider is the people you're with!
If you'd like to cruise Europe's rivers with a group of other likeminded travellers, seeking to learn more about the histories and cultures of these storied nations while also indulging in the most delicious wine and tastiest treats on offer, then you're invited to join us! We are cruising a few of Europe's rivers in the coming months (as well as others worldwide) and we will be planning future cruise programs on the basis of member interest.
We hope you found this piece informative and useful, and we'll leave you with a few thoughts from our team of travel writers...cheers!
Questions, comments, feedback? Which is your favourite river to cruise in Europe? Let us know what you think in the comments below!