One of the hottest trends in European travel over the last few years has been river cruises on the continent's great waterways. While these excursions are similar in nature to those on the high seas, they have some significant differences. If you think you will have leisurely days on board simply watching the scenery go by, think again. On a European river cruise, there is a port of call every day to explore, usually via shore tours that are included as part of the overall package.
'European river cruises are a good way to get an overall glimpse of the European continent without having to haul your luggage from place to place or board a bus for extended periods. Most last seven to 10 days, although longer excursions can last 14 days and more, particularly if they traverse two or more rivers such as the Rhine and the Danube.
High season for European river cruises runs from approximately April through October, although some specialty excursions, such as those that visit German Christmas markets, run from late November through December. Most offering cater to a general audience, but specialty tours are also available such as wine cruises on the Douro River in Portugal, the Rhone and Saone in France and the Rhine and Moselle in Germany.
If you're a first timer in Europe, a cruise down these rivers is a great way to get to know the continent. Most Rhine River cruises start in Amsterdam or in Basel, Switzerland, and take in stops such as Koblenz, at the confluence of the Rhine and the Moselle, and at Cologne with its famous Gothic cathedral and Roman museum, along with St. Goarshausen, a quaint town near the famous Lorelei Rock. Along the way you will see terraced vineyards and the famous Rhine River castles built by local barons. Veering off to the west is the Moselle River which flows from France and Luxembourg. Here passengers can visit more vineyards and the Roman ruins at the German town of Trier. The Main River flows into the Rhine from the east, and a short excursion up the Main brings passengers to the cosmopolitan city of Frankfurt with its combination of modern and historical attractions.
As possibly the most famous river in Europe, the Danube River provides not only beautiful scenery, but possibly the most historical of all of the river cruises in Europe. Most excursions start and end at Passau in Germany's Black Forest and pass through Austria, Slovakia, Serbia, Croatia, Bulgaria and Romania. Stops here include Vienna with its famous Schoenbrunn Palace and Spanish Riding School with the Lipizanner horses and Budapest, the twin cities in Hungary that traverse the river.
The largest river cruise company in Europe is Viking River Cruises, which offers a wide variety of itineraries. Other popular tour operators include Avalon Waterways, Uniworld River Cruises and Tauck River Cruising.