The best Danube River cruises encompasses the southernmost and easternmost portion of Europe, which can be a lengthy trip that runs between Amsterdam and Eastern Europe and takes in the Rhine, the Main and the Danube rivers, as well as the canal and lock system that connects all three. You can also take a cruise just on the Danube River. They can be quite varied in cruise length and cruise in both directions (upstream or down), usually between Budapest and an upstream port. A three-night river cruise on the Danube might travel from Budapest to Vienna, while a seven-night cruise might run between Nuremberg and Budapest.
The Danube River consists of three sections; the Upper, Middle and Lower. Many cruises focus on the first two sections, but you can cruise the Lower section through Eastern Europe, too. These cruises usually start in Budapest, traveling through Croatia, Serbia and Bulgaria before finishing at the Black Sea in Romania.
- Many Danube River cruise itineraries start in Budapest and depart after dark, setting the scene for a stunning river cruise. At night, the city’s architecture is illuminated, and you’ll pass the neo-Gothic parliament building, Fisherman’s Bastion and St. Stephen’s Basilica. All are truly breathtaking at night.
- The Wachau region is one of Austria’s best-known wine-producing areas, and the village of Durnstein is often visited on Danube River cruises. Vineyards there, which run along the flat riverbanks and up the steep hillsides, produce primarily white wines. (Gruner veltliner and riesling are the most popular of Austria’s whites.)
- Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Haydn and the Strauss family all called Vienna home during their respective careers, and all have former residences turned museums there. But better than seeing the places where the music was composed is to hear a performance of the music itself. There is no shortage of opportunities to hear Romantic waltzes and classical symphonies performed in beautiful Viennese spaces, both indoors and out.
- Whether you’re after traditional Hungarian goulash, Austrian schnitzel or Bavarian pretzels, sampling the local cuisine is a must on a Danube River cruise. Many of the local markets, like Budapest’s Central Market Hall provide the opportunity to do just that.
- On a Danube River cruise, seeing old Europe roll by from the top decks of river cruise ships is a top reason to take the trip, and Danube River cruises don’t disappoint. The beautiful cities, lush forested hills and tiny villages you sail by all seem close enough to touch, and many of the stops along the way offer their own brilliant panoramic perspectives of the river and its surrounding countryside.
What Time of Year is Best For Your Danube River Cruise?
March – May
Springtime in Europe can get quite rainy, and there’s often still a chill in the air; bring layers. The spring months can lead to flooding on parts of the Danube, due to the snow melting in the mountains. If the water gets too high, riverboats aren’t able to pass under narrow bridges or through certain locks. In those cases, river cruise lines often transport passengers to sites by bus.
The summer months can be hot and crowded in central Europe, but on the flip side, you have longer daylight hours to sight see. Bring loose, breathable clothing for city walks, and look for river cruises that have dipping pools to cool off. Buses are often over air-conditioned, so you’ll want to bring a light sweater. If the summer is extremely warm, water levels can get low; if there’s not enough water to sail safety, river cruise lines will again transport passengers to sites by bus.
September – November
The nights are shorter and the temperatures lower, but fall is an ideal time to visit. Water levels have generally straightened out, the crowds are gone, the fares are cheaper, and there’s a nice chill in the air. Bring layers.
Late November – December
Christmas Markets in the cities along the Danube make a cruise at this time of year downright magical. Yes, it’s cold, but there are gluhwein and cheer to keep you toasty. Shoppers will love it. Bring winter coats, hats, gloves and other ways to stay warm — it does snow.
Short Danube River Cruises
If you’re limited by time or budget, you can test the river cruise waters, so to speak, with shorter cruises. For instance, Avalon Waterways runs a three-night cruise from Budapest to Vienna, Austria.
Week Long Danube River Cruises
Seven-night cruises usually run from Nuremberg (after an overnight on board) to Budapest. Port cities include Passau and Regensburg, Germany, and Melk and Vienna, Austria.
Lower Danube River Cruise
You can cruise the Lower section through Eastern European countries. These cruises usually start in Budapest, traveling through Croatia, Serbia and Bulgaria before finishing at the Black Sea in Romania.
Longer Danube River Cruises
If you want to spend more time on the Danube, you can find cruises that last anywhere from eight to 16 days, giving you a more extensive lineup of port calls. Some cruise lines even offer almost month-long journeys that encompass not only the Danube but also the Main and Rhine rivers, allowing you to sail all the way from Bucharest, Romania, to Amsterdam.
Christmas Market Cruises
Europeans do Christmas markets better than anybody else, which might be why these cruises are so popular. Whether you’re craving gingerbread cookies, handmade wood carvings or just hot sausage, you’ll get your fill of old-world Christmas and maybe create new traditions with your family. These Danube River cruises sail in November and December and book fast, so plan early.
Best Danube River Cruises
With ships that sail the Danube, the Rhine, the Ganges, and more, this all-inclusive river cruise line delivers a luxurious experience with a sense of place. It is like being on a floating five-star hotel, with the added benefit of visiting multiple amazing locations. And the excursions like the wine-tasting outings in Austria’s Wachau Valley or visits to Normandy’s D-Day beaches, are carefully planned and executed.
Sailing Europe’s storied rivers, the award-winning Longships offer a variety of stateroom categories and true two-room suites with full-size verandas. Onboard amenities include a restaurant, bar and lounge, library and expansive sun deck. The ships feature an elegant Scandinavian design and “green” features, such as solar panels, an onboard organic herb garden and energy-efficient hybrid engines for a remarkably smooth ride. River cruises range from 8 to 23 days, with itineraries featuring Europe’s Rhine, Main, Danube, Seine, Rhône, Douro, Moselle, Elbe, Dordogne, Garonne and Gironde Rivers; Russia’s Volga, Neva and Svir; Egypt’s Nile; China’s Yangtze; and Southeast Asia’s Mekong.
On a Tauck river cruise, you’ll wake up each morning having something unique to look forward to… something extraordinary, every single day. For 90+ years, Tauck has gone past the usual sights to bring you exclusive access, carefully planned events and exclusive insights on river cruises, land tours and small ship cruises. Joined with amazing partners like filmmaker Ken Burns, nature’s premier storyteller BBC Earth, the National Park Service, and even European royalty to create one-of-a-kind travel experiences – with one up-front price, virtually everything included. Premier accommodations. And extraordinary moments that last lifetimes, filled with fun. Because how you see the world matters.
With itineraries designed to maximize cultural interaction—and the lowest per-diems available in cruising—our River Cruises are the most discovery- and value-rich way to traverse Europe’s waterways. Aboard their
46- to 164-passenger privately-owned vessels, you’ll visit iconic capitals and small towns, while unpacking just once. And on land, you’ll explore in a group of no more than 47, with a local Program Director fostering unforgettable discoveries and camaraderie every step of the way. It’s unique benefits like these that have earned them the title of “Best River Cruise Line for Enrichment” from the editors of Cruise Critic and why Condé Nast Traveler readers have voted them #1 “World’s Best River Cruise Line” five years in a row.
Built on over 28 years of expertise of serving luxury customers, Crystal River Cruises carefully crafted itineraries follow the Danube, Rhine, Main and Moselle rivers with Crystal’s award-winning finesse, venturing into the heart of iconic destinations adorned with castles and palaces, vineyards and forests, monuments and art. Come aboard and discover the celebrated Crystal Experience, a perfect balance of ambiance and attitude presenting moments of a lifetime, all day, every day. Intimate and comfortable luxury found aboard each ship in the Crystal River fleet.
Best Danube River Cruise Ports
Overlooking Durnstein is a ruined castle in which Leopold V, duke of Austria, kept King Richard the Lionheart of England captive following a dispute during the Third Crusade. Some river cruises that stop in Durnstein offer a guided hike up the hill to the high, rocky ridge where the castle ruins offer a commanding view of the surrounding, heavily-vineyarded countryside. The hike is relatively strenuous. The port itself, situated along the banks of the Danube, is picturesque, fairly flat and has plenty of tourist offerings tucked away along its handful of quaint, cobbled streets. Common excursions include tours of the town combined with tastings of regional wines. There are also plenty of cute shops selling souvenirs and local foods.
Meaning simply “white church” in German, the tiny Austrian village of Weissenkirchen is named after its fortified 14th-century Gothic-style church. The church did double duty as both the town’s place of worship and as a stronghold to protect villagers from incursions by the Ottoman Empire’s Turkish armies. The church’s imposing defensive tower was added in 1531. The port of Weissenkirchen is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s a beautiful little town surrounded by ancient vineyards. And, if that weren’t enough, there’s a super-cool motor-less ferry between Weissenkirchen and St. Lorenz that utilizes the Danube River’s current to make its way across.
Krems an der Donau, Austria
At the western end of the Wachau Valley is Krems, the prettiest of the large towns in the region. Like the smaller Danube river ports of Durnstein and Weissenkirchen, Krems boasts medieval architecture, including Steiner Tor, a 15th-century city gate that’s the symbol of Krems. But what Krems is best known for in the world of river cruise excursions is its wine tours. If your cruise line offers an optional excursion to a vineyard in Krems, be prepared to sample some lovely white wines. Austria is known for its award-winning Riesling and Gruener Veltliner varietals, in particular, and Krems is also known for being the primary producer of Marillenschnaps, an apricot brandy.
Upriver from the lovely sights and sips on offer in the Wachau Valley lies Grein, sits a charming little resort town on a bend in the Danube River. Grein is yet another picture postcard of an Austrian town with the requisite castle on a hill where you’re best off taking a wander, doing some shopping and admiring the views. As you walk through town, a couple of architectural landmarks stand out. The first is Greinburg Castle, dating from the late 15th century. It’s a living landmark, as the family who owns it still use it as a residence. They do allow visitors in to see the place. Other architectural landmarks worth noting include the Rathaus (Town Hall) and its Stadttheater (City Theater), which was built into the former granary of the town hall in 1791. It’s the oldest town theater in Austria still in its original condition. The theater holds regular performances and is open every day between May and the end of October.
South along the Danube in Hungary, before the great blue river passes into the Balkan Peninsula, there’s a town called Kalocsa. The town is known primarily for its production of Hungarian paprika, the bright red spice made from dried chili peppers; the region in which it lies is agrarian. Kalocsa has a rich history as one of the oldest towns in Hungary, dating back about 1,000 years. Unfortunately, much of the town was destroyed by a fire in 1875, but there’s still a number of sights to see. As Episcopal see of one of Hungary’s Catholic archbishops, the town boasts an 18th-century Archbishop’s Palace containing frescoes and a bible annotated by the protestant reformer Martin Luther. There’s also an 18th-century Cathedral and a couple of museums devoted to the region’s folk arts, such as Kalocsa embroidery. There’s even a museum dedicated to paprika.