The top 6 regions for river cruises in Europe

Many cruise guests who love to cruise but want a more low-key, intimate, and leisurely cruising experience with – dare we say it – fewer young children around opt for European river cruises. It’s a chance to experience the spectacular scenery of European rivers easily.

After the endless activities and lively atmosphere of the giant ocean cruise ships, river cruises seem tame by comparison. But this could suit you perfectly.

River cruises are a fantastic way to travel the immense network of beautiful European rivers. It’s an easy way to visit towns and cities for cultural, historical, and gastronomic immersion in the region of your choice.

Choosing one of the many river cruises in Europe means you are guaranteed to see some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world. You visit the local towns of a country, not just its major port cities, making the whole experience more intimate.

Here we answer the most common questions cruise guests ask.

How do river cruises differ from ocean cruises?

Size – river cruise ships are much smaller than ocean cruise ships

If you are used to the largest cruise ships at sea that carry from around 2000 up to 6000 passengers at a time, you will understand that the size of vessels for river cruises is vastly smaller than for ocean cruises. This means that:

  • Fewer passengers and a more intimate experience
  • A more personal service, however, fewer activities and amenities on board
  • Smaller cabins, but still with everything you need for a comfortable vacation
  • Your cruise ship can navigate the narrowest rivers and reach destinations unique to European river cruises.

Dining & Entertainment – less choice but good quality

On large ocean cruise ships, there is a vast array of dining venues to choose from, with different dining experiences from a la carte, buffet, fast food, casual eateries, and specialty restaurants. On board most river cruise ships, there is one dining room with a small menu and fixed dining times. There is also no room service.

The entertainment on board a big cruise ship varies significantly from ship to ship, but you will often find big Broadway productions, musicals, stand-up comedians, and dance shows. River cruising means the entertainment is most often destination presentations or local musicians and dancers from the region you visit.

Amenities and Venues

River cruise ships are small, with fewer common areas. Only one or two river cruise companies offer splash pools on board and small fitness centers. There are no casinos, theaters, or shopping malls. You will not find kids’ clubs, and there is often one large lounge and one bar area. The focus of river cruises is the destination.

Destinations – explore unique villages and towns on European river cruises

River cruising comes into itself when it comes to destinations. Europe has an abundance of castles, forts, churches, wine-growing regions, unique local artisans, and a vast array of cultures and cuisines. River cruises in Europe focus mainly on the historical sights of art and religion, culture, and food experiences.

Ocean cruises on large cruise ships take you on the open seas from country to country in regions such as the Mediterranean, the Greek Isles, or Scandinavia. You can even cruise between continents on longer voyages, such as from North to South America. And even to remote regions on expedition cruises such as the Antarctic.

On the other hand, river cruises take you to smaller ports, often docking close to town centers. You choose your region by the river – it’s a beautiful way to explore inner Europe.

Shore excursions – is there a choice, and can you do an independent tour?

It is rare to stay on board the cruise ship when you have docked. Quite simply, there is not much to do on board when everyone else is on land.

This doesn’t mean you must follow the shore excursion organized by the cruise line. Very often, there is at least one excursion that is included in the price of your cruise. Indeed many river cruises offer all-inclusive packages, so you do not have to think about purchasing any extras once you are booked and on board.

But this also means that if you choose not to join the excursion, you will miss out and will not be offered an alternative. The excursion often includes an excellent walking tour with a local historical guide. There will also be the opportunity to have free time during the day.

But by all means, do your own thing, and explore in your own time. Not everyone wants to follow the crowd when river cruising and visiting new places. However, we recommend you take a good guidebook and stay on the beaten path to ensure you return to the ship in plenty of time.

And if you are more independent, look for cruise lines that offer cruise-only prices instead of package prices; there are a few to choose from. See more information below.

All-Inclusive – most of the time

With ocean cruises on board large cruise ships, you will often find a basic price covering your accommodation in your cabin, all meals in the main dining room or buffet restaurant, taxes, and gratuities.

And while some large cruise lines offer all-inclusive (such as Celebrity Cruises with their wifi, gratuities, and beverage package “always included” campaigns), most of the time, you will pay extra for drinks, excursions, some entertainment, and wifi on board.

River cruises almost all the time offer an all-inclusive package. That means that you rarely have to think about buying anything extra. It is there from the moment you book. This all-inclusive also extends to booking your flights and pre/post hotel packages with transfers if you wish.

Some companies are now offering river cruises with “cruise only” prices worth looking at. Especially if you do not need alcohol packages, do not intend to join in cruise excursions, and do not need help booking flights, hotels, and transport.

A little note, though, to look closely at your chosen cruise’s start and end points. Sometimes cities are not as close to major airports as many large cruise ports that service ocean cruise ships.

For example, the port of Passau, commonly used for a Danube river cruise, is located on the Austrian border, 160km from Munich airport or 300km from Vienna airport. Sometimes is good to have bus transfers booked with the cruise line to ensure a seamless river cruise experience.

What are the top 6 regions for a European river cruise?

1. Rhine

After the river Danube, the Rhine is the second longest river and one of the great rivers of Europe. Most often, river cruises along the Rhine start or end in Basel, Switzerland. The upper river in the Rhine Valley is particularly spectacular, with much of the scenery being a UNESCO world heritage site. Expect grand palaces, castles, vineyards, villages from the old world, and wild orchards on Rhine river cruises.

2. Danube

The longest river in Europe offers such pretty views that it is often referred to as the most romantic waterway. Cruises on the blue Danube river start from various points such as Passau, Vienna, and Budapest, so take the opportunity to explore these great cities before you start your cruise. See the classic sights of medieval towns, elegant architecture, and beautiful landscapes.

3. Rhône

The Rhône is synonymous with French wine country, and a cruise on this river promises a gastronomic delight.

The Rhône stretches from the Swiss alps and Lake Geneva in Switzerland and down through France, ending in the Mediterranean Sea. You will have fantastic excursion opportunities on Rhône river cruises, including towns such as Avignon, train journeys in the Doux Valley, and visits to Lyons and Provence.

Choose your cruise by carefully looking at the excursion options to ensure you don’t miss out on as many breathtaking natural wonders as possible.

4. Seine

Best known as the river that winds through the French capital, Paris, the Seine is nearly 800 km long and starts in Dijon and ends in the English channel. Expect the focus of Seine river cruises to be art, history, and wine. We recommend a river cruise from Paris to Honfleur in northern France, where excursions to bucket-list destinations such as Versailles and the Normandy coast are possible.

5. Loire

At the mention of Loire, we think of the romantic and picturesque Loire Valley with fairy tale castles. This region is undeniably one of the most beautiful in Europe. It is the longest river in France and boasts cities such as Nantes, Amboise, and Le Puy on its banks.

You will find that a cruise on the Loire will take you back in time. It is a quieter, more shallow river with much less visible commercialism. An excellent way to explore the Loire is to cruise aboard Croisi paddlewheel cruise ships, explicitly designed to operate in the more shallow Loire.

6. Duoro

The Duoro river is perhaps one of Europe’s lesser-known European rivers. It starts in central Spain and flows into northern Portugal. The mouth of the river Duoro is at Porto. Famous for producing red wines and port in the many vineyards, this cruise is a wine-lovers dream and a unique way to see the delights of small towns in Spain and Portugal.

What is the best month to take a European river cruise?

The best time of year to go on European river cruises is with a departure date from late May to early October. However, if you are looking for a specific themed river cruise, then the Christmas markets cruises from Vienna or Budapest are lovely.

What to expect on board European river cruises

A European river cruise offers a tranquil way to see beautiful European landscapes, focusing on the destinations along the way. Life on board is generally peaceful, with fewer activities and amenities than on an ocean cruise. You will often dock very close to the towns you visit, often within walking distance of the cruise ship.

A casual dress code

The dress code on board European river cruises is smart casual. You may find your packing list easier than packing for an ocean cruise, as there are no formal or themed nights. Most guests are dressed casually on evenings when there may be a captain’s table. Remember, cabins are smaller, and there is less room for your belongings than a cabin on board a huge cruise ship.

Guests mingle

Expect to meet friendly fellow guests in the lounge and at dining. Unless you specifically say so when booking, you will be seated with other guests, and this is one of the best things about river cruising – it’s much more intimate than ocean cruises.

Great cuisine & wine

You can expect excellent food, most often with local cuisine from the area you visit, and fine wine. The itineraries are packed with daily tours as you stop every day.

Smooth sailing

The cruise is very smooth, and it’s a rarity that you will suffer seasickness on a river cruise.

What are the most famous European towns and cities a river cruise departs from

There are many starting points for European river cruises depending upon which cruise company you choose and the region you want to cruise to. Some popular locations where you climb on board are Paris, Bruges, Passau, Lucerne, Munich, Basel, Bordeaux, Budapest, Amsterdam, Vienna, and Sintra.

Which cruise line has the best European river cruises?

Our favorite cruise lines offer great ships and a range of unbeatable itineraries. Choose one of these, and you be offered a wide selection of the best river cruises in Europe:

Viking River Cruises

Viking River Cruises is probably the best-known brand for river cruising. They have lots of ships and a vast number of excellent itineraries to choose from. The ships are modern yet still offer a classic sailing experience.

Ama Waterways

This family-owned company has been operating for over 20 years. They stand apart from other river cruise companies by offering real balconies on some of their ships as an addition to the traditional Juliet balconies. They also have a dedicated wellness program and offer a specialty dining option in addition to the main dining menu. On some ships, there is a specialty dining option called Chefs Table.

Emerald Waterways Cruises

Emerald Waterways are trying to attract a younger crowd to river cruises in an industry traditionally for older folk. The modern, fresh decor on their ships, plunge pools, and panoramic windows make this a 4-star experience you should consider.

Uniworld River Cruises

Uniworld market itself as offering boutique river cruises. You get a 6-star experience with a glamorous cruise ship, focusing on quality and luxury. This prestigious cruise line comes at a premium so expect to pay a high price for traveling in authentic style.

Croisi Europe

Croisi Europe is a very long-established French river cruise company. They are experts in the river cruise market and offer traditional cruises and many specially designed ships for specific destinations. Expect a mix of French and international guests on board. They even provide a cruise-only option if you want to eliminate the beverage package and excursions from your package.

Avalon Waterways

Avalon river cruise ships are part of the Globus group, a Swiss-based tour operator. They offer many excursions to suit your interests, and you can tailor-make your river cruise with the excursions that interest you the most.

The Rhine cruise from Amsterdam to Basel is beautiful. And you can combine this with a train trip to Lucerne in Switzerland, then onto stunning Lake Como in Italy.

They also have great expansive panoramic windows in their cabins to maximize your view, and even some cabins with balconies.

Are there any river cruises available in the U.K.?

Absolutely! There is a rich selection of rivers and canals to cruise in and around Great Britain. Famous rivers include the Thames, Avon, and Trent. Most charming of all we think, though, is Britain’s canals. Look at Llangollen Canal on the Welsh-English border or the beautiful countryside along the Kent and Avon Canal.

Should I book my flight, hotel, and transfer package independently or with the cruise line?

If you are booking a European river cruise, you need to compare the package price the cruise line offers with how much it would cost you to book a cruise, flights, hotel, and transport separately—the convenience factor and what you want out of your vacation.

Consider if you want to spend more days at your start and end destination, especially if you are traveling from further afield, such as the USA or Australia. Perhaps you want to start your river cruise from Amsterdam, for example, but spend three days in the city as it’s your first visit to the Netherlands. Or visit Paris after your river cruise ends to see wonders such as the Eiffel Tower, Louvre Museum, Sacré-Cœur, and Notre Dame.

In this case, you may find booking your flights and hotel worthwhile. Check with the cruise line if you can book transfers to your origin port even if you do not book a flight and hotel package with them.

Many river cruise companies are more flexible than ever in attracting guests back to the cruise market following the height of the pandemic.

Do I need to use a travel agent?

Alternatively, you can ask a travel agent for help and guidance. While we usually prefer booking our cruise directly with the cruise company for complete control over our bookings, a good travel agent promising a personalized service may offer a good package for flights, hotels, transport, and cruise.

Meet the author: Sarah has created and booked hundreds of travel itineraries for thousands of customers during a career in the travel industry that spans 20 years. Having worked hand in hand with cruise lines, hotels, airlines and tour operators worldwide, she offers inspiring & detailed insights in the world of travel and tourism.

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