Best Europe River Routes—The Upper Danube, The Most Popular Europe River Cruise Route
By Hank Schrader, USMA ’71, Europe Destination & Europe River Cruise Specialist
This blog is designed to provide you comprehensive information about sailing on a rivership on the Upper Danube—the most popular river cruise route in Europe. We are providing you a chance to experience this wonderful trip by using some of the many photos we have taken during our 5 trips on this route.
So, let’s visit this magical river together and learn all about its’ wonderful sights and ports!
Overview of the Upper Danube and the Main-Danube Canal
The Danube is 1,170 miles, making it the second longest river in Europe after the Volga River in Russia. This is a river of legends, serves as a borderline between several countries, has four capital cities on or near its banks and romantic sights of medieval castles, baroque churches and abbeys and rococo palaces. There are 2 routes on the Danube—both are usually 7 day cruises. The upper portion is primarily in Austria and Hungry. The lower segment is in the Balkans.
The Upper Danube route is a 7 day cruise that usually starts from Nuremberg or Passau and ends up in Budapest, Hungary (or the reverse route, sailing upstream starting in Budapest), using the Main-Danube Canal (106 miles long with 16 locks) and the upper Danube. This area has rolling hillsides, lush vineyards, and medieval castles. If you sail this route, you will usually get to visit 4 countries (Germany, Austria, Slovakia and Hungry), 2 or 3 capital cities (Vienna, Bratislava and Budapest), castles, Abbeys, wine-sloped terraces and even quaint villages--it is a great voyage!
Sailing to the capital cities is wonderful, it is not the only good reason to sail this route. The other highlights include sailing the Wachau Valley, perhaps a visit to Salzburg, Austria and the 900 year old Melk Abbey.
This is the most popular Europe river cruise route for first time river cruisers—we have done it 5 times and would sail it again—it is just the right mix of large cities, quaint villages, with castles and abbeys appearing suddenly among the vineyards or forests. Along with these sights, the night time cruise in Budapest with its lights is an experience of a lifetime.
While this is the standard route, several variations start out of Vienna and do a round trip loop or just sail up to the small village of Vilshofen in Germany, avoiding the Main-Danube Canal. This is especially true of the two Giants on the Danube—the double wide AmaMagna and Crystal Mozart, which are too wide to fit into the locks of the Main-Danube Canal.
Here are some of the major stops on this route (sailing direction is downstream):
The old walled city of Nuremberg is one of my favorite places in all Germany. It has an impressive castle, is crisscrossed by a river and has some cool old buildings. The central market square, with its, beautiful fountain, is another great place to see. It is also famous for its Christmas markets—we have visited several times and love the hustle and bustle of the season.
The town of Regensburg is located on the northern most point of the Danube River. It started out as a Roman town, has a medieval stone bridge the crusaders crossed on their way to the Holy Wars (which is guarded by an impressive watch tower), and has a good old town area. Anne’s favorite hat maker is here, so we find this one of our favorite Bavarian towns.
Built on a tapering peninsula of land, the old town portion of Passau is located right at the German and Austrian borders. Three rivers join here—the Danube, the Inn, and the Ilz. On the high left bank of the Danube (sailing downstream), a fortress dating back to the 1400’s, overlooks the old city center. There are several impressive churches worth a visit.
Melk & Dürnstein, Austria
Melk is famous for its impressive, huge abbey and collection of rare books and manuscripts. The abbey was initially built in the 11th century and has been updated several times, and the last major improvements to this baroque structure were completed from 1702 to 1736.
Later as you cruise through the one of the great scenic waterways of Europe, the Wachau Valley, you will arrive in the charming village of Dürnstein (about 600 population). The blue tower of the Abbey, the cute little shops and the castle ruins on the hillside (where Richard Lionhearted was held in prison for ransom), make this a favorite of many river cruisers.
The Wachau Valley
The Wachau Valley has to be the one of the best segments for just enjoying the upper Danube. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site, so there are no bridges to interrupt the views. Unlike the Rhine River Gorge, with castles dotting almost every hill, the region has only three or four great castles. But the quaint villages, sometimes dominated by a fortified church complex, and the steep vineyards provide a relaxing and fun sailing experience—the castles are not missed.
While we chose to sail the river, you could also bike through this wonderful place. Bicycle tours on the Danube are quite common on many river cruise lines and the 20 mile bike ride along the Danube in the Wachau Valley is a highlight for many—it may be one of the best cycling rides in Europe.
Vienna is the capital city of Austria (it once the capital city of the Austro-Hungarian Empire), is a city of impressive palaces, great museums and good food. It is also known as home for the great composers of classical music and many go to concerts in Vienna while on their cruise.
The capital city of Slovakia is a fun place to visit. Located at the border of Austria and Hungary, this is a newer country (it declared independence in 1993) in Europe. For much of its history, it was in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and then a part of the Czechoslovakia. The symbol of Bratislava is the fortress that overlooks the city. It is also known for its whimsical bronze figures, which delight cruisers in the old town area.
By far the most impressive city on the Danube, Budapest, the capital of Hungary, is a town we love to visit. It is really two towns—the high town of Buda that overlooks the banks of the Danube and Pest on the flat land. They are united by several bridges but the Chain Bridge is the most important and is a symbol of the city. Both sides have some awesome structures—among them Buda Castle and Fisherman’s Bastion (Buda side) and the Parliament building (Pest side). Once you visit, you will want to come back.
Two Great Side Trips
Along this route, there are two great cities that are optional trips on some lines or can be included. They are not actually on the Upper Danube but are easily accessible by coach (bus) during your Danube cruise. Both are awesome, so let’s see what it might be like to visit both Salzbug, Austria and Cesky Krumlov. Here are two great photos, that may make you want to include these two medieval towns as an addition to your cruise.
My Final Thoughts
What an experience—the Danube River is awesome and deserves to be sailed by you—it is the best way to see this area of Europe. This river will give you views and experiences you will never forget.
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HANK is a certified Western European Destination Specialist (DS) who has been traveling to Europe for 48 years. He is also an Accredited Cruise Counselor (ACC), conferred by the Cruise Line International Association (CLIA). This recognized expert in cruise and leisure travel is a retired Army Officer, and taught World Geography for 8 years. He is a `71 graduate of West Point and has earned 2 master’s degrees. His other Certifications:
AmaWaterways River Cruise Specialist
Viking River Cruise Specialist
Scenic River Cruise Specialist
Emerald Waterways Specialist
Avalon Waterways Specialist