Choosing a Rhine, Main or Danube Europe River Cruise

Scenic view from atop Miltenberg Castle on the Main River.

Scenic view from atop Miltenberg Castle on the Main River.

Confused by all the hype for a Europe river cruise? Here’s a quick rundown to help.

Exploring Europe on the Rhine, Main and Danube Rivers

Imagine towering cathedrals, castles perilously perched at the edge of cliffs and medieval monasteries. Ancient cities and imperial powers that once ruled the banks of Europe’s greatest rivers; the Rhine, Main and Danube. There’s no better way to explore the history, culture and cuisine of these grand destinations than on a Europe river cruise. What differentiates each river cruise itinerary? This overview explains what distinguishes each of these three distinct rivers and the experiences along their paths to help you choose your itinerary.

Rhine River Overview

The Rhine River forms in Switzerland and begins its downhill journey from Swiss Alps becoming navigable in the Swiss city of Basel. As the river flows northward (yes, northward!) towards the North Sea, it hugs the western edge of Germany’s famous Black Forest.  Seven-night northbound Rhine River cruises heading to Amsterdam usually begin in Basel, Switzerland.  You can count on at least five city visits along the way. And the same for the reverse itinerary.

On route to Amsterdam, the Rhine flows through France, the famous Alsace wine region. While you stroll through this medieval city, be sure to sip some of the fine wines produced only in Alsace.

The next major city heading north is Mainz, Germany where the Rhine meets the Main (pronounced Mine) River. If your cruise stops in Mainz, check out the Gutenberg Museum that houses a replica of the 15th century Gutenberg printing press and two original Gutenberg bibles.

Rüdesheim, a charming village with eclectic little shops, cafés and landscaped paths that extend along the waterfront. Don’t miss the slightly quirky (and a little creepy) Siegfried’s Mechanical Musical Instrument Museum, one of the largest collections of mechanical music instruments and music boxes in the world.

Rüdesheim, Germany is one of the bookend cities on the stretch called the Romantic Rhine.

Rüdesheim, Germany is one of the bookend cities on the stretch of the river called the “Romantic Rhine.”

After Rüdesheim, this area of the river is called the Upper Middle Rhine but more well known as the “Romantic Rhine.”  Storybook castles seem  to appear around nearly every bend.  Between Rudescheim and Koblenz, river ships cruise past stately cliffside castles, crumbling Roman ruins and steep slope vineyards.  Cameras ready.  Over 35 castles in 3-4 hours.

Recently, this 40-miles stretch of the Rhine Gorge was named a UNESCO World Heritage site. Towering cliffs lead to the narrowest part of the Rhine at the fabled Loreley Rock. Hundreds of ships over the centuries have met their fate here from the swift current and sharp horseshoe turn.

The famous Loreley Rock marks the narrowest and once the most dangerous part of the Rhine river due to the swift current.

The famous Loreley Rock marks the narrowest and once the most dangerous part of the Rhine river due to the swift current.

Past the Rhine River Gorge and just past Koblenz, where the Mosel River meets the Rhine, the scenery becomes more industrialized. On the approach to Cologne, the river widens and boat traffic increases towards the Netherlands. The river divvies up and the main waterway flows towards Rotterdam and the North Sea. The tributaries merge into the Amsterdam-Rhine canal for the remaining forty-five miles to Amsterdam.

Main River Overview

The Main River is sandwiched between the Rhine and the Danube and a mere 326 miles long.  Most cruises that include the Main River are part of a Rhine or Danube river cruise itinerary.

The headwaters begin in Bavaria, Germany, just above Mainz. The river flows westward toward cosmopolitan Frankfurt, through rolling, pastoral countryside and steep vineyards until it reaches the beautiful medieval city of Bamberg.

Expect activities on a Main river cruise to include the option to explore ancient towns and villages, sip new vintages at local wine tastings or just kick back and watch as the scenery slips by. Don’t be surprised if you lose your sense of direction. The Main River bends and curves as small grassy promontories jut out into its path, nearly the entire length of this small river.

Europe's Continental Divide on the Main-Danube Canal. It's the highest navigable stretch of water in the world.

Europe’s Continental Divide on the Main-Danube Canal. It’s the highest navigable stretch of water in the world.

One of the highlights of being on the Main River is passing the Continental Divide.  I thought that the huge cement sculpture was the actual position of the divide, but it’s the little cement block just to the right that is the official marker.

When your river boat docks in some of these smallest of towns, be sure to go ashore and walk around as much as you can. In some towns you’ll find memorial brass plaques embedded in the sidewalk to indicate homes from which Jewish families were abducted and sent to concentration camps. Roman monuments that have stood the test of time can be found nearly everywhere in every city.

Bamburg, on the Regnitz River, is often included when you're on the nearby Main River.

A visit to pretty Bamburg, on the Regnitz River, is often included when you’re on the nearby Main River.

As the Main River passes through Bamberg it merges into the new Main-Danube canal. Built in 1992, the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal makes it possible to travel the entire 2,200 miles of the Rhine, Main and Danube rivers from the North Sea to the Black Sea, through fifteen countries along the waterway.

Danube River Overview

If you’re not humming the melody to this Johann Strauss waltz by the end of your Danube cruise, well, there’s something amiss. Depending upon your location and sunlight, there is some truth to the fabled blue color. The mighty Blue Danube river flows nearly 1,780 miles from the southwest corner of Germany to its delta in the Black Sea. Along the path, the Danube passes through ten countries including the Ukraine. Nine, not including the Ukraine, are on major river cruise lines’ itineraries. Industrialized northern cities, rolling countryside dotted with towering castles and the rugged wilderness of the Iron Gates gorges in Serbia transport you from modern and medieval times to ancient Roman battlefields.

The Danube really does look blue, especially towards sunset.

The Danube really does look blue, especially n sunset.

From the north in Austria, the Danube meanders through the UNESCO-designated Wachau Valley, one of the most charming and picturesque regions on the river. Only twenty-five miles long, cities in the Wachau Valley include Melk with its imposing, gold-color Melk Abbey.  Look up from Durnstein and see the castle ruins where Richard the Lion-hearted was imprisoned.

Cruising the Danube through the Wachau Valley reveals where Richard the Lionhearted was imprisoned.

Cruising the Danube through the Wachau Valley reveals where Richard the Lionhearted was imprisoned.

As the Danube twists and turns on its southbound journey, the glittering cities of Vienna and Budapest give way to the sharp contrast of war-torn towns and villages of Croatia and Serbia, whose bullet-ridden buildings are a constant reminder of recent fighting.  Cruises to Bucharest, Romania (nicknamed the Paris of the South) end in Rousse, Bulgaria or Giurgiu, Romania.

View of the sprawling Budapest Parliment Building from across the Danube on the Pest side.

View of the sprawling Budapest Parliment Building from across the Danube on the Pest side.

Danube river cruises vary in length from seven days to over two weeks. Spring and fall seasons bring cooler temperatures, less humidity and fewer tourists. An early spring thaw in the Alps can cause flooding on the Danube, just as not enough rain can bring river traffic to a grinding halt. Be prepared for whatever Mother Nature might have in store and experience one of the grandest inland waterways in the world.

CONCLUSION

Combine a cruise on all three rivers and journey through the heart of Europe. Nearly a 4-week voyage, a cruise from Amsterdam, Netherlands to Bucharest, Romania (or vice versa), sails through nine countries and two-dozen cities and towns.

Don’t wait to long to reserve your cruise. Prime summer dates sell out nearly a year in advance. An early spring or late fall cruise will have the lowest prices, but bring a warm jacket, gloves and hat. The lower Danube is wide and windy while the northern Rhine can be cold and damp. No matter what season you choose, time spent gliding along the calm, European waterways will be a vacation to remember.


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