Seven surprising European river cruises to try in 2023

These European river cruises are giving the Danube and Rhine a run for their money, thanks to technological innovations and recently opened waterways.

Honfleur town in Calvados, France, situated at the mouth of the Seine and the English Channel.

Photograph by Getty Images
By Colin Nicholson
Published 25 Jan 2023, 08:00 GMT

The Main, Germany

The first attempt to link the river Main (and with it the Rhine) to the Danube dates back to Charlemagne, King of the Franks. However, thanks to heavy rains and a collapsed river bank, the project was abandoned and not actually completed until 1992. 

Today, as you leave the skyscrapers of Frankfurt behind, the medieval cities and towns of Franconia appear before you, tucked in between vineyards producing some of the best Frankish wine.

Würzburg in northern Bavaria has a rococo palace with trompe l’oeil to rival Versailles, and further west, Bamberg is another buzzing university town with higgledy-piggledy half-timbered houses between Baroque gems. Here the Main joins the Rhine–Main–Danube Canal to Nuremberg, where excursions include trips to the site of the infamous rallies, and the walled city itself, before you head on to Passau.

How to do it: Tui offers Main cruises from April to October from £1,079 per person including flights.

The Elbe

Despite its length (680 miles), the Elbe is incredibly shallow. At Děčín, just outside Prague, you board a ship with pump jets that suck water into the hull and spit it out again so you can sail in 4.2 feet of water — passing through the baroque town of Litoměřice — until you arrive in Saxon Switzerland, a remarkable landscape of sandstone pillars. 

Equally remarkable is Dresden, flattened shortly before the end of the war. Party chiefs wanted to raze the ruins to create a Communist idyll, but had no money. So its late renaissance architecture has only been rebuilt in the past few years, including the Frauenkirche cathedral, reconstructed from thousands of shattered pieces. The porcelain factories of Meissen follow, then Wittenberg, the seat of the Reformation, where you leave the ship for the palaces of Potsdam and Berlin.

How to do it: Viking offers the Elegant Elbe cruise from March to November from £2,345 per person including flights. 

The Czech town of Litoměřice, by the Elbe river.

The Czech town of Litoměřice, by the Elbe river.

Photograph by Alamy

The Saône and Rhône

Lyon sits on two rivers, and modern cruise ships can navigate both. Sail up the Saône 
— with less than four inches to spare under some bridges — to the rolling vineyards of Beaujolais Nouveau. Then turn round and head down the Rhône into a much older world — and not just in vintages, though you have the famous, steep Burgundy vineyards on either side (with the requisite wine tastings). 

The first stop is Vienne, with its Roman amphitheatre and temple, both in better shape than Avignon’s famous bridge, leading to the Pope’s palace of the 14th century at the next stop. 

At Pont du Gard, you can walk along the top of the Roman aqueduct, while the colosseum and theatre in Arles host a plethora of outdoor events. This historical city sits on the Rhône delta, where the Camargue’s wild horses roam free and streams of flamingos take off like planes at an airport.

How to do it: Ama offers the Colors of Provence cruise from March to December from £2,104 per person (not including flights). 

The Gironde, Dordogne and Garonne

For Claret-lovers, the winelands of Bordeaux are best imbibed by boat, as each of the three waterways around the city is lined with famous vineyards. Head north down the Gironde estuary and you pass the Médoc region on your way to Pauillac, where a tour of one of the 115 chateaux demystifies the winemaking process. Returning via Blaye, with its 17th-century citadel, you turn east along the Dordogne to head to Libourne and  Saint-Émilion.

Sail south up the Garonne, past fishermen’s cottages, and you’re in Cadillac and Sauternes, with its famous dessert wines. 

The rivers are full of navigational hazards, and one is the mascaret, a spectacular wave that can be observed at the change between the low tide and the high tide. Sometimes 75 surfers ride it abreast. 

Then it’s back to Bordeaux itself, a city where once grey facades gleam again and trams take you to a new museum devoted to wine.

How to do it: Viking Cruises offers the Chateaux, Rivers & Wine cruise from March to November from £1,845 per person including flights.

A street cafe in the port city of Bordeaux, France.

A street cafe in the port city of Bordeaux, France.

Photograph by Alamy

The Seine, France

The minute you set sail from Paris, you’re immersed in the landscape of the impressionists: barges under lines of poplars; gentle hills broken up by limestone cliffs. The first stop is Monet’s garden at Giverny, a short cycle from the mooring — the artist diverted the Epte river from its path to fill his lily pond.

Then it’s on to see Honfleur, a town full of galleries and the natural arches under the cliffs at Étretat. Returning via medieval Rouen, it is back to the impressionists and the cathedral Monet painted so evocatively, so many times, before you return to Paris.  

How to do it: Uniworld offers the Paris and Normandy cruise from April to October from £3,419 per person including Eurostar tickets.

The Douro

This is a cruise all about wine. Leave Porto’s elegant iron bridges and pretty-coloured houses behind, and the mountainsides of pine and cork trees are lined with vineyards.

Start with local young Vinho Verdes, then, as the gorge steepens, move on to the deeper reds of that area.

A must is the trip to the sandstone city of Salamanca in Spain, with its bands of  ‘La Tuna’ student singers, who also serenade you on board as the ship turns round.

Heading downstream, dock in the charming village of Pinhão, where barques were loaded with barrels three-quarters full, so they would float if the boat sank on this treacherous river. 

To stop the wine oxidising, British sailors added brandy, thereby creating port, which you can enjoy in the many distilleries in and around Porto.

How to do it: Ama offers the Enticing Douro cruise from March to December from £2,577 per person (not including flights).

Left: Top:

Real Clericia De San Marco church in Salamanca, Spain.

Right: Bottom:

The Douro Valley in Portugal.

photographs by Getty Images

The Lower Danube

Passau to Budapest is the classic Danube cruise. But for a rawer, more visceral dive into recent history, Budapest is where to start your journey east. Docking in the Croatian town of Vukovar, you see the scars of the siege of 1991, while in Belgrade, NATO’s 1999 bombing raids are still clearly visible. In the park, old ladies sell 500 billion dinar notes dating from the days of hyperinflation. This might all sound pretty dark, but there’s a spiritedness to the people here, and the ship hosts deft displays of folk dancing onboard, the girls swinging from the boys’ necks.

At the dramatic Iron Gates gorge, where historically ships would be towed by locomotive through the fast-flowing straits, you cross the Carpathian Mountains, before following the Romanian-Bulgarian border towards Bucharest, with its art nouveau 
gems among Communist carbuncles.

How to do it: Ama offers the Gems of Southeast Europe cruise from March to December from £1,894 per person (not including flights). 

Published in the Cruise 2023 guide, distributed with the Jan/Feb 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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