Looking to do a river cruise in Europe but confused by all the offerings? We understand. Our story, How To Choose A River Cruise, offers some help, but you still have to do the work yourself. Here, we make it easy for you. whether it’s your first time on a river cruise or you’re a veteran river cruiser.
We’ll start with popular cruises in the spring and proceed to popular river cruises in the summer, fall and winter. Yes, there are some wonderful river cruises in the cold parts of the year.
Here are the top 10 European river cruises for 2022 and 2023.
1. Tulip Time Cruises
One of the best river cruises in Europe is a themed voyage through Belgium and the Netherlands to witness the blooming of the iconic tulips. Also known as “Dutch Waterways” cruises, Tulip Time river cruises traverse a variety of smaller rivers; the Dutch Waterways are simply the inland seas and canals along the route.
This is an ideal cruise for mid to late Spring, with trips generally beginning and ending in Amsterdam. Departing from the Dutch capital, you’ll generally float through Antwerp, Arnhem, Ghent and Rotterdam. Don’t miss the wonderful windmills at Kinderdijk or the pottery and porcelain produced in Delft. You’ll see plenty of tulips on this voyage. And after a visit to the world’s largest floral park (Keukenhof Gardens), you’ll see first-hand why this is one of the best river cruises you can do in the spring – or anytime.
2. Douro Cruises
The Douro is one of our favorite cruising regions. The river is a hidden gem filled with stunning scenery, warm and friendly people, and charming towns bordered by vineyards, and of course, barrels of fine Portuguese wine.
If Lisbon and Porto are not your travel wishlist, they should be. And if you’re a wine lover, you’ll be extra enthusiastic about booking this trip. The Douro River Valley is one of the world’s oldest wine regions. It’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Center.
Of course, you may already know these things about the Douro, but here’s something you may not know. All cruising has to be done during the day on the Douro; after dark cruising is prohibited by law. That’s a plus in our book giving you plenty of daylight hours to take in the sites as you sail along the river.
A couple of the highlights? When cruising the Douro, you’ll transit the world’s deepest lock (Carrapatelo) and take an all-day tour to Salamanca, Spain.
Many of the cruises along the Douro start or end with an overnight stay in Porto, also a UNESCO World Heritage site. Enjoy wandering the streets and exploring the colorful and lively city.
3. Moselle Cruises
We’ve called it Europe’s Most Beautiful River – At Least During The Fall. That’s when the wine harvest takes place on the gorgeous Moselle.
The Moselle gives you the impression that you are sailing through a gorge, flanked by vineyards running up steep slopes. Your ship will dock in fairytale villages, such as Bernkastel and Cochem. Resplendent autumnal landscapes make the cruising pleasurable along the Moselle.
Typically roundtrip Amsterdam, Moselle River cruises transit the Rhine before “making a left” in Koblenz, Germany. On a river cruise along the Moselle during October of 2021, the wine harvest was in full swing, with workers plucking grapes from vineyards that seemed to run straight up the steep hillsides. The weather was stunning along the Moselle, with sunny days and blue skies. The Rhine, by contrast, was rainy and overcast as we cruised it (both ways) between Amsterdam and Koblenz.
You’ll have plenty of opportunities, whether on ship or ashore, to sample the Moselle’s magnificent white wines. The region is known for its supple grapes, and its environment is ideal for harvesting them.
On some Moselle voyages, you’ll visit Luxembourg on tours from Trier, Germany’s oldest settlement.
Even ship captains say the Moselle is a top choice. Cruising the Moselle two years ago, I visited the wheelhouse early one morning as Crystal Bach’s Captain Douwe was navigating the misty river. “It’s my favorite river,” said the captain, who added that he had been sailing for 48 years. He told me that when there is low water on the Rhine, he’ll sometimes deviate to the Moselle. He informs guests, of course, telling them that although the planned route needs to change, they would not be disappointed. “The Moselle is almost always a pleasant surprise for the guests,” he said to me.
4. Main Cruises
In 1992 the Main-Danube Canal opened, connecting the Main (pronounced mine) and Danube rivers and allowing travel between the North Sea and Black Sea. That’s why you’ll typically, but not always, cruise the Main on river cruises between Budapest and Amsterdam.
The Main spans more than 300 miles and is the longest river located entirely in Germany. The river begins in the Upper Franconia region of Germany; however, the Main is only considered navigable between Bamberg and Mainz. For an enjoyable and informative read about Bamberg, check out Aaron Saunders Viking Vidar Grand European Tour Day 7: Bamberg.
My memories of the Main are of cruising a narrow river through bucolic countryside, visiting beautiful Bamberg, in the north of Bavaria and a UNESCO World Heritage Center and exploring Wurzburg and its beautiful Alte Mainbrücke (the old Main bridge) with views of the fantastic Fortress Marienberg.
To cruise the Main, you might have to do a long cruise, between Budapest and Amsterdam, but in our book, it’s well worth it, and one of best river cruises in Europe.
5. Elbe Cruises
It’s notoriously shallow, like the Loire, but at least one operator has figure out how to navigate the river. Strasbourg-based CroisiEurope runs two paddle-wheelers on the Elbe River on trips primarily between Prague and Berlin. “Cross the cradle of Germanic culture and embark on a cruise to discover the heart of Europe,” the company’s website says.
CroisiEurope’s nine-day Elbe cruises call on Meissen, known for the fine porcelain; Dresden, called the “Florence of the Elbe,” because of its architectural monuments along the river; and Wittenberg, where you’ll visit Martin Luther’s house, a former Augustinian monastery that is now the Reformation Museum and listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
There are other calls along the way, but the crown jewel just may be Prague, with its iconic Old Town, Charles Bridge and Prague Castle. Certainly, the Elbe, as fickle as it can be (CroisiEurope’s website says the Elbe is an uncontrolled river that may require ship transfer), ranks among the best river cruises in Europe.
6. Danube Cruises
The Danube River is always our number one recommendation for people new to river cruising. That’s because this storied river features so many of Europe’s marquee cities – Nuremberg, Passau, Linz, Vienna, Budapest, Bratislava (as well as a slew of charming villages).
Europe’s second-largest river, flowing through 10 countries, the river is often referred to as the “Blue Danube,” immortalized in one of Austrian composer Johann Strauss’ most famous waltzes.
Typical itineraries sail between Budapest, Hungary, and Passau or Vilshofen, Germany. Some trips begin in Prague, with transfers to the Danube. Highlights of a Danube river cruise include visiting the Vienna Opera House or Mozart’s birthplace in Salzburg (and doing the “Sound of Music” tour).
A highlight for nearly everyone is spending extra time in Beautiful Budapest. With so much to offer it’s no wonder that the Danube ranks among the best river cruises in Europe.
7. Rhine Cruises
Why the Rhine for our best river cruises in Europe? Because second to the Danube, it is the river that people ask us about most. And no wonder. The Rhine, while industrial along some stretches, can be jaw-droopingly beautiful, particularly the Rhine gorge.
The gorge runs between Koblenz and Bingen, a distance on the river of about 40 miles. For more than a century, the gorge has been a popular river outing. During the mid-1800s, sightseeing cruises became increasingly important for revenues as cargo increasingly shifted to the newly developing railway systems throughout Germany.
The Lorelei is the most famous feature along the gorge. It’s worth taking a moment to talk about the Lorelei, which you’ll still pass during the daylight hours on many Rhine cruises. The Lorelei became a famous day outing following a poem penned by Heinrich Heine in 1824. Heine was inspired by a story about a beautiful woman betrayed by her lover, who accused her of bewitching men to their deaths. For her alleged crimes, she was sentenced to serve the remainder of her life in a nunnery.
On the way to the nunnery, she asked the three knights accompanying her if she could climb the Lorelei for one last look at her beloved Rhine. Gazing into the river, she thought she saw the lover who betrayed her and fell to her death. Her haunting story still echoes in the rock and the river below. In “Die Lorelei,” Heine depicted “the fairest of maidens … sitting up there … combing her golden hair,” luring seamen to their deaths with her spellbinding song.
Beyond the gorge, the Rhine River runs for more than 700 miles through the Netherlands, France, Germany, Austria, Liechtenstein, and Switzerland. It is known as being one of the best river cruises in Europe because of its stunning scenery and enchanting castles.
On a typical seven-night river cruise between Amsterdam and Basel, you’ll visit Cologne, Koblenz, Rudesheim, Speyer, Strasbourg, Breisach and possibly other ports of call. There’s lots of history here and plenty to see and do, which is the Rhine makes our list of best river cruises in Europe.
8. Seine Cruises
France is a wonderful river cruise destination, and if Paris is on your list, then you have to cruise the Seine. Many Seine river cruises operate between Paris and Rouen (or Honfleur, which only a few ships can do).
The Seine runs north through Paris and trickles into Normandy and the English Channel. This means there is an abundance of interesting places for you to visit. You can see Normandy’s D-Day beaches or visit Clause Monet’s famously lived city of Giverny.
All river cruises on the Seine offer all-day excursions to Normandy’s Landing Beaches like Omaha Beach. You’ll also get the chance to visit the Point du Hoc monument. Not to forget, the American Cemetery is on the list of places to see.
9. Rhone Cruises
The Rhone is one of our favorite rivers. We’ve heard the same from other travelers and even from river cruise company owners and employees. Why? One reason is that the landscape, cities and excursions are so good – as are the wines. What’s not to like? The excursions are also top notch. See Rhone River Excursions On AmaWaterways and Getting Active + Discovering France With Avalon Waterways.
For a smooth sail through Provence and Burgundy, a Rhone river cruise also ranks as one of the best river cruises in Europe for oenophiles and food lovers. All Rhone river cruises highlight the region’s super-rich wine heritage and include various tastings and vineyard visits.
10. Christmas Markets Cruises
We’re taking you from early spring and Tulip Time river cruises to winter. Many people like to cruise Europe during the warmer months. While it’s true that Europe can be chilly in the fall and spring, and downright cold in the winter, Christmas Market cruises are something that you won’t want to miss.
Christmas Markets have a long-standing history in European cities, and these markets are not limited to just one river. Nearly every river cruise line offers Christmas Market cruises. These cruises are offered on the Rhine and Danube rivers. Some of the best markets are in Germany, Switzerland, Hungary, Austria, and France.
Best European River Cruises of the Year
There you have it, a full list of best river cruises in Europe for you and your loved ones to enjoy. Still stuck? Get Get Our River Cruise Recommendations. It’s free, and it’s fun.
Bonus: Canal Cruising In France
There are river cruises, then there are barge cruises. The two are worlds apart, or at least waterways apart. River cruises take place on Europe’s major waterways on vessels that typically carry from 100 to 200 guests. By contrast, barge cruises operate on small canals (you could skip a stone across many of them) and typically carry no more than two dozen guests. To say that the experiences are similar would be a quite a stretch. Sure, they both operate on water, but they are markedly different modes of transport. How so? In this post we’ll take a look at 10 Reasons To Choose Luxury Hotel Barge Cruising.
Lisa Fitz says
One of my RG fav article so far!