A Viking Cruise is one of the best ways to see Europe’s charms. Their cruises have great food, comfortable rooms and stop at some magnificent destinations
There really is nowhere else like Europe -- it manages to pack an enormous variety of beautiful landscapes, historic cities and unique cultures into what is really a very small space. In fact, there is so much diversity that it can be intimidating a little for a first time visitor to decide where to start. If you’re clever about it, there are ways to maximize your time there, and reduce the strain of decision making. One of the best of these is taking a river cruise.
We've grown to love Viking River Cruises. We trust the company, we know what to expect, and we love their laid back yet full itineraries. So when we saw that they were cruising the Danube, Main and Rhine Rivers, from Budapest to Amsterdam, for 15 days, we were thrilled! Cruising past the old medieval castles that dot the Rhine River, visiting small German villages (straight out of a fairytale) all while sampling some of the best German sausages, was how we planned on spending our time on this Grand European Cruise.
This is the route we chose, however it is just one of many possibilities. If you are tempted by the idea of a river cruise then it is important to do some research, and decide what sights you want to see on your trip. River travel is slow, so if you don’t find enough to interest you every day of the trip, you could find yourself getting bored between the highlights you are there for. That said, the beauty of the river cruise is that you get to see all the small lesser known towns that you might never otherwise even hear about. It’s a way of getting to know the countries you pass through in more detail, and thanks to the flexibility it provides, you get at least a few hours to explore those smaller towns.
The Basics of Cruising Through Europe
The Eurpean continent is home to several large rivers, and for centuries the various European people have been building everything from grand capital cities to quaint villages along their banks. For example, the Rhine starts up in the Swiss Alps, and heads north through Germany’s picturesque wine region before reaching the Netherlands. While the Danube passes through much of Eastern Europe before ending in the Black Sea.
Thanks to some clever engineering work, many of Europe's rivers are connected thanks to the Europa Canal, making it possible to cross the heart of Europe by boat. Doing so will take you pass some of the continent’s must see cities such as Budapest, Vienna and Amsterdam, but it also gives you a chance to see less well-known (but no less beautiful) places like Bamberg and Cologne. Between these places you are treated to some beautiful views and landscapes, as well as the sight of ancient castles which bring the region’s history to life.
For us, the Danube-Main-Rhine route was ideal. It would take us back to some of our favorite stops from previous visits, and show us some new things as well. Viking Cruises fitted our needs perfectly, as it ran this route and gave us the flexibility to either take a tour or explore independently every time we stopped. Their cruises tend to attract an older, more affluent crowd which suited us well. It meant that we met plenty of interesting people who had a strong appreciation of culture and gourmet cuisine, as well as providing us with plenty of interesting stories and tips about where to find the best wine in each place we stopped.
In all, it took us fifteen relaxing days to meander our way across Europe. Every day presented us with something new and interesting, but we especially loved that we got to visit so many German towns, as well as the delightful landscapes of the Rhine Valley. If you want to take a longer cruise and see some of the best that central Europe has to offer, this has to be one of the best routes to take. We did it in summer which just added to the relaxed atmosphere, but something tells me that the same trip in winter would be equally special. All those old German towns and castles would look even more dramatic when covered with mist or snow.
Our Stateroom Aboard Viking
While there was plenty of time each day to explore wherever you found yourself, you will of course spend a lot of time on the boat, so it’s important to make sure your floating home will meet your expectations. We were on the Embla, one of the company’s signature Viking Longships. Inspired by boats which the fearsome Vikings used when they sailed Europe’s seas and rivers, these have to be some of the most comfortable vessels we’ve been on.
Our room was compact (as is common on river boats), yet had all the amenities we needed including a fabulous bathroom and a very comfortable bed. Every single bedroom on Viking Cruise boats faces outwards meaning that nobody is ever stuck without a window. We had a balcony which let us take in the scenery in private if we didn’t feel like socializing. On board they had everything from a restaurant and bar, to shops and an rooftop sun deck, complete with herb garden and outside walking track.
The staff went out of their way to help, which made things all the more comfortable. I loved how after just one day, the staff had memorized our love of Negronis, Sauvignon Blanc and Rose wine. From that point onward they always made sure our glasses were full. The food was also fantastic! You could choose to dine either on the Aquavit Terrace – a glass walled deck with both indoor and outdoor seating – for a casual meal, or downstairs in the restaurant for a more substantial sit-down dinner. Every evening after the daily announcements by the cruise director, we would all head down to the restaurant for lovely meal featuring regional cuisine, paired expertly with wine from the regions we were passing through!
What really set the food apart was that everything tasted fresh and healthy – I guess that is one of the advantages of traveling in an area that is renowned for the quality of its cuisine. The chefs made everything taste delicious, and even the hearty meals like Boeuf Bourguignon somehow felt light (and delicious of course)! Some evenings there was a theme, something we are not usually very enthusiastic about. In keeping with the location of the cruise however, these were in no way tacky and instead provided a sophisticated insight into the local food.
On of our favorite parts of the trip was the German night -- where we were treated to assorted of Bavarian dishes which included sausages, pretzels, sauerkraut, German beer and all sorts of other delicacies. The crew members were dressed in lederhosen and dirndls, while the smell of traditional German food filled the air. It was great fun and one of the best meals we had on the cruise - not bad considering that they were competing with the many awesome restaurants each town had on offer. As we ate we were treated to ice cold German beer and listened to German music. Well done viking!
Ports of Call
As comfortable as the boat was, we did very much look forward to docking each day and exploring a new destination. Most of the towns on the cruise itinerary are located on the rivers -- meaning that much of the sight seeing we wanted to do was within walking distance of the boat. We found ourselves able to hop off and wander around in our own time, so we'd often find ourselves taking in a leisurely (and late) breakfast before starting the day.
We are usually independent travelers, so while Viking provides many complimentary tours and excursions we generally prefer to get out and see as much as we can on our own. That said, we did take advantage of some of the outings that Viking had set up. They provided free walking tours of each town, as well as their proper excursions. Each of these must be paid for and booked in advance (they fill up quickly!), but will show you some of the unique attractions each stop has to offer. We did some of the excursions in the smaller towns which we hadn’t visited before, and we were glad we did. In truth, the whole trip was one long highlight, but here are some of the best moments of the cruise.
Nicknamed the "Paris of Eastern Europe", Budapest is a city packed with charm and beauty. It is one of our favorite cities thanks to its abundance of historic architecture and interesting attractions. If you get the chance to go, don’t miss the thermal baths for which it is famous, and if you love food markets, the Grand Market is a must. Housed in a neo-gothic three-story building, you will find yourself overwhelmed by the delicious goulash, langos and strudels. Also make sure to walk around Fisherman's Bastion, for some incredible sightseeing and views of the famed Parliament building.
Vienna is of course another city celebrated for its charisma. Like Budapest, this was not our first time here so we set off on our own to take in some of the city’s endless array of sights at our own pace. We recommend you do the same and skip the organized tours. Just wandering the streets is the best way to get a feel for the city.
We spent our day getting to know the work of Gustav Klimt at the Belvedere Museum, before wandering the MuseumsQuartier followed by Schönbrunn Palace and St Stephan’s Cathedral. Our ship wasn’t scheduled to leave Vienna until midnight, so we asked the Program Director onboard the ship to make us reservations at one of our favorite restaurants; Figlmüller Wollzeile where we enjoyed the Schnitzel - a dish that originates in the city. It was the perfect way to say goodbye to Vienna.
After Vienna the Embla started to take us into new territory. Melk was the first of our pleasant surprises and we went on an organized excursion to the famous abbey. We could see it before we even left the boat as it towers over the river from its clifftop home. The Abbey dates back to the 12th century (although it has been added to and rebuilt over the centuries), and it is a dazzling spectacle of colors both inside and out. Choosing the excursion ensured that we saw everything and gave us a deeper understanding of what we were seeing.
Passau was our first taste of Germany on this cruise, and we opted for one of Viking’s walking tours. We did this so that we could experience the playing of the cathedral’s famous organ. This was scheduled for the end of the tour, and thanks to the flexibility of Viking, we were able to explore independently rather than shuffling around with the guide before meeting up with the group at the Cathedral. This meant that we got the best of both worlds.
Bamberg is a classic Bavarian town, with narrow cobblestone streets weaving through quaint medieval buildings. This turned out to be one of our favorite stops of the whole trip, as the whole place was so charming. We spent the afternoon wandering after a lunch of sausages of cold local beer.
Nuremberg is a place that has become famous for its association with World War Two. Hitler held many rallies here and built some of his biggest buildings in the city. It is also where the allies held their trials of Nazi officials after the war. What is perhaps lesser known is that the city also has a beautiful old town which can rival its impressive neighbors. The excursion on offer here focused on 20th century history, so we set off on our own to explore the older part of the city. The bus traveling back to the boat took us right through the area we would have visited on the tour, so we got a taste of it through the window.
Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany
If we thought Bamberg was pretty, we were in for a treat when we reach Rothenburg ob der Tauber. This town is not actually on the river so we had to take one of the Viking excursions in order to see it. If you are faced with the same choice, don’t even think about skipping it – it is worth every penny. The tour took us all over the walled old city which was filled with the most charming wood-timbered houses. We can safely say that this was our favorite stop of the whole cruise, and we'd love to go back around Christmas, as we can imagine that being there in the winter must be like walking through a fairy tale
The whole of Cologne is beautiful, but one thing dominates no matter where you are in the city. The enormous cathedral is mesmerizing due to its size but once up close it becomes even more impressive thanks to the intricate carvings, which cover almost every inch of it. This was another day where a Viking excursion was worth paying extra for, as the guide took us up onto the roof through parts of the building that are usually only accessible by the team working on its restoration. The view from the top was spectacular. Once we were back on the ground we dropped into the beer house for some Kolsch beer. Every time we finished our glass, we just had to make eye contact with the waitress and she would refill it.
The Netherlands is famous for its windmills, and having visited so many times it was hard to believe that we had never been to see them. Kinderdijk is home to some of the best (as well as having the country’s highest concentration of them in one place), so we loved getting the chance to find out what all the fuss was about.
Amsterdam is one of our favorite cities so it is always a pleasure to visit. This time it was particularly special, as we had chosen to make it our home for the immediate future. Arriving by boat having traveled up the Rhine made for a very special homecoming, and grabbing a taxi from where the boat moored really drove it home to us that we lived here now! There is a reason we love it so much, and if you pass through on a river cruise you absolutely have to stay for at least a day or two. The canals, the architecture, the history, craft beer and frites (french fries) all combine to make it a fascinating place to visit.
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