Among a certain segment of travellers, cruising is sometimes maligned: the dismal buffet and watered-down cocktails. Those kitschy lounge acts. The contrived shore excursions. But that, as they say, was then.
Cruising today, and especially river cruising, offers an entirely different experience, from celebrity chef-driven cuisine to stargazing lounges to bike rides along leafy canals.
River cruising is, in a way, ideal for those who don’t consider themselves cruisers: the ships are relatively small and intimate; land is always in sight, offering daily access to villages and towns; and dinners are elegant affairs at linen-topped tables, instead of noisy group melees.
Here are our five top picks for European river cruises, where the experience is the destination and the journey.
The Rhine has been immortalized for centuries: it inspired Richard Wagner to write his first opera, and the river’s famous Lorelei rock – supposedly helmed by a swirling-haired siren – has starred in poems, rock songs, and even as a Marvel Comics character.
Germany’s longest river is also one of Europe’s most beautiful cruise routes, particularly the 65-kilometre Middle Rhine, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site known as the “Romantic Rhine.”
During the Roman Empire, the Rhine was a strategic waterway, and looming over its banks are castles and crumbling fortresses that date back a thousand years.
The Rhine scenery is stunning – hilltop castles presiding over terraced, fragrant vineyards. Plus, there's Riesling-tasting galore, the Mechanisches Muskikkabinett (Mechanical Museum) in Rüdesheim and a stop in Heidelberg, Germany’s oldest university town.
Travel with: CroisiEurope. Celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2016, the family-owned CroisiEurope offers affordable prices, but amenities are on par with the highest-level ships: spacious decks, hotel-style beds, and elegant dining rooms with French menus developed by notable chefs Paul Bocuse and Marc Haeberlin.
The traditional fado songs of Portugal are soulful and poetic, much like cruising the country’s waterways. Explore the river Douro and sip aromatic port in the country’s birth city, Porto; explore the lively Spanish university city of Salamanca; and, ease into the evening to the mournful sounds of fado.
A cruise down the Douro glides past looming rock formations and the Valerian and Pocinho Dams, to Barca d’Alva, with an excursion to Castelo Rodrigo, surrounded by almond trees, and on to Pinhão and the Douro Wine District.
Along the way, sample Portuguese specialties like salt cod, caldo verde stew, and the country’s famous port wine.
Travel with: Viking River Cruises winds through Portugal on the Douro River, from the capital city of Lisbon to Porto and its Baroque cathedrals. Their Scandinavian-themed vessels also maximize scenery-watching, with panoramic windows throughout.
Best known for its centuries-old winemaking traditions, Burgundy is going through a rebirth, with wine-tasting salons that are spotlighting the latest oenological tech products and new farm-to-fork restaurants and upmarket B&Bs.
A cruise here floats lazily through the heart of Burgundy, stopping at family wineries like Domaine Briday in the northern Côte Chalonnaise, which is known for its white wines and the sparkling Cremant de Bourgogne.
Highlights include the Chateau de Rochepot, crowned by Burgundian multicoloured glazed tiles; the medieval wine capital of Beaune; and, above all, the barge’s slow pace. The full trip is around 75 miles, which you could cover in a morning drive in a rental car. Instead, this cruise can be spread out over six days, and the hypnotic movement of a barge is a powerful sedative, especially after a glass of Burgundy red.
Travel with: Eropean Waterways. There is a Company with collection of hotel barge cruises. For over 35 years, they has specialised in creating luxury barge holidays on some of the most beautiful waterways in Europe.
French Country Waterways. The oldest U.S.-owned barge company operating in France, French Country Waterways is the elegant godmother of the canals. The ship interiors are done up in dark-wood paneling, plush sofas with tasseled pillows, and a grand communal dining table, laden with heavy silverware and flickering candles.
It’s shortly after that first beer lands on the table, with views of the city’s famous bridges glinting beyond, that Kafka’s famous quote hits home: “Prague never lets you go. This dear little mother has sharp claws.”
After a couple of days in Prague, it’s hard to escape its grip, but the Danube awaits. The river’s history unfolds along the way, with stops at medieval Regensburg; the Benedictine Abbey of Melk, one of the largest monasteries in Europe; and Passau, which rises over the convergence of the Inn, Ilz, and Danube rivers.
The cruise culminates in Vienna – where you’ll sample the famous sachertorte and ink-black coffee – and Budapest.
Enjoy sausages and a beer (or five) at Historische Wurstkuchl, Germany’s oldest restaurant in Regensburg; an evening of opera in Vienna and crossing beneath the 1849 Chain Bridge in Budapest.
Travel with: Avalon Waterways. Launched in 2003, Avalon Waterways has among the newest ships on Europe’s waters, with ample rooms with sliding glass doors, a sky deck with whirlpool, and stylish dining quarters.
Few sights accompany the morning coffee better than the sun rising over Noregian fjords. Greet the first light of day on the deck, as your ship glides around a bend and Norway’s cliffs come into focus, rising like skyscrapers over the waters.
Travel with: Hurtigruten. On most other cruises, you’ll see the same passengers day in and out, but take the Hurtigruten ship and the faces change daily, since it also functions as a commuter route, with locals hopping on for short jaunts up and the down the coast.
And, don’t underestimate the allure of nostalgia: one of Hurtigruten’s most popular ships is the MS Lofoten – it launched in 1964, and little has changed since then. The ship celebrates the vintage era, with cargo loaded by traditional crane; gleaming wood and brass throughout, as well as oil paintings of coastal Norway; and sherry served on silver trays.
Explore more of Europe with the Rough Guide to Europe on a Budget. Compare flights, find tours, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to buy travel insurance before you go. Featured image: Pixabay / CC0