One of the world’s most popular river cruising destinations is the mighty Rhine River. Europe’s longest and most important river begins as a trickle of melted snow from the Rheinwaldhorn Glacier high in the Swiss Alps. It first becomes the Rhine proper at Reichenau, where it flows north to Lake Constance — a major water supply for Germany — and then heads through Schaffhausen to Basel, where Switzerland meets France and Germany. A Rhine River cruise is a wonderful experience indeed. Prepare to see ancient castles and lush vineyards, explore the winding streets of sleepy medieval villages, revel in the historic grandeur of lovely old cities like Strasbourg and Koblenz and enjoy the buzz of vibrant, modern ones like Cologne and Basel. Just remember, that not all of its scenery is pretty; much of it is, but you’ll also have to allow for the odd glimpse of a factory or power station, particularly around more industrialised places like Basel.
Best Time for a Rhine River Cruise
The Rhine can be hot and busy in the peak summer months, so for sun worshippers this is a great time to sit on the top deck. Some travelers prefer to cruise in the cooler weather of spring and autumn. A great good time to go is Easter, when local markets feature brightly-painted real eggs, pretty wooden decorations and beautiful circlets of flowers to hang outside your door.
Another good time is during one of the region’s spectacular “Rhine in Flames” events in the summer and fall. Generally linked to local wine festivals or other celebrations, these take place at different locations along the Middle Rhine and involve spectacular fireworks displays and much jollification, music and dancing. After joining in the fun ashore, passengers take to the river for the best view of the late-night pyrotechnics. December is another prime time for visiting, as the Rhine Christmas markets are quite magical and simply not to be missed. For details of river cruises tying in with these events — and for general Rhine cruise information — useful websites to visit include www.gorivercruise.com and the German Tourist Board site www.germany.travel.
Rhine River Cruise Itineraries
These sailings last three, four or five nights and are a great alternative to a city break, as your “hotel” travels with you and shows you a range of places instead of just one. A typical three-night cruise will run round trip from Strasbourg to Koblenz, with an overnight at Rudesheim, while a five-night trip might run from medieval Andernach to Cologne via Rudesheim, Boppard (famed for its Roman walls), Koblenz and Bonn.
Christmas Market Cruises
Short cruises are super popular in November and December, when thousands head to the banks of the Rhine to enjoy the region’s spectacular Christmas markets. If you love sugar and spice and all things nice — and want a festive experience straight off a Dickensian Christmas card — you should definitely go. Make sure any Christmas markets cruise you choose spends time in Cologne. It’s a great place to be at Christmastime, as it has seven markets to choose from, each with a different theme. A small floating market set on a riverboat and selling mainly Christmas tree trinkets might be the most convenient for river cruisers, but the prettiest is set around Cologne Cathedral, a 10 minute walk from the riverbank.
Rudesheim also has a fabulous Christmas market, set in its atmospheric medieval quarter and tavern-lined Drosselgasse, which features more than 120 stalls and attracts artisans from 12 European countries. At its heart is a large nativity scene with exquisitely painted lifesize statues. At every turn, you’ll find something to delight the senses like handmade wooden birdhouses, doll-like nutcrackers, intricate clockwork toys, and fragrant stalls selling salt-studded giant pretzels, cinnamon-dusted stollen and heartwarming gluhwein.
Seven-Night Rhine River Cruises
These typically run from Amsterdam to Basel via Cologne, Koblenz, the Rhine Gorge, Rudesheim, Mannheim and Strasbourg. These cruises have time to go beyond the Rhine to take in the sights along the Moselle and Main rivers. Boarding and disembarkation points vary, with some going, for example, from Luxembourg to Amsterdam via Trier, Bernkastel-Kues, Cochem, Koblenz (via the Moselle), Mainz, Rudesheim and Cologne. Others start or end in Frankfurt or travel along the Rhine and Rhone rivers from Amsterdam to Avignon, visiting Holland, Germany and France en route.
Longer Rhine River Cruises
A 14-night river cruise could take you from Amsterdam to Budapest via Cologne, Rudesheim, Nuremberg, Passau and other German stops, before visiting Melk and Vienna in Austria and travelling along the Danube to Budapest in Hungary. Longer cruises include a 22-night North Sea to Black Sea sailing from Amsterdam to Giurgiu in Romania. These span the Main and Danube rivers, as well as the Rhine, and travel through Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Serbia and Bulgaria.
Popular Rhine River Ports
Amsterdam, the city of cyclists, has lovely tree-lined canals, offbeat shops and cafes, and fabulous museums and art galleries. Most river cruises starting or ending there allow two days to explore the city. Its most famous sites include Anne Frank’s House, the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh Museum and the Stedelijk Museum. Amsterdam has more than 50 museums in all and offers many more unusual options. These include the boat-shaped NEMO Science and Technology Museum (a popular choice with kids, as it’s interactive and hands-on), to museums for those with more, ahem, distinct tastes — museums devoted to sex and erotica. Go to Amsterdam’s Museum page for a list of all their museums.
A good thing to do in Basel is eat. Since it’s situated on Switzerland’s borders with France and Germany, the city’s many restaurants offer a wide range of European dishes. Don’t miss the local delicacy, Basler Leckerli — spiced cookies made with kirsch, nuts and candied fruit. Where to walk it all off? Head for the left bank of the Rhine, and you’ll find top sights like the Cathedral, the MarktPlatz (surrounded by meandering alleys lined with unusual craft shops) and the Rathaus (Town Hall), all pretty close to one another. Don’t miss a stroll around the botanical gardens while you’re at it.
Cologne’s twin-towered Dom is one of Europe’s largest churches, and its towers offer magnificent views over the city’s rooftops for those fit enough to climb them. You can recover over one of many local beers sold in the kellers of Cologne’s picturesque Old Town, and then head off to the city’s fabulous chocolate museum to taste another of the city’s specialties. The people of Cologne also love to party and hold a spectacular Carnival, known locally as Fastelovend and Fasteleer, which starts at 11:11 a.m. on the 11th day of the 11th month, comprises more than 600 events and carries on all winter, through to Ash Wednesday.
The huge six-towered Cathedral of St. Martin, founded in 975 AD, is one of the world’s finest examples of Romanesque architecture and an absolute must-see. Nearby, just off the Domplatze main square, you’ll find the Gutenberg Museum, which charts the history of printing and contains the famous 15th-century Gutenberg Bible, along with a reproduction of Gutenberg’s original printing-house. Mainz also has a wonderful quaint medieval Old Town just south of the Cathedral, as well as fine Baroque churches, the 14th-century Gothic Church of St. Stephen (which features a beautiful stained glass window created by Marc Chagall) and the remains of a Roman aqueduct.
This Rhineland wine town is gateway to the lovely Rhine Gorge, and it’s the place to be around Christmas, when toffee apple-cheeked youngsters ride donkeys around its cobbled streets and its stall-lined squares — twinkling with fairy lights and heady with the fragrance of pine leaves, cinnamon and gluhwein — are simply magical. Don’t forget to try a cockle-warming Rudesheimer coffee, a delicious concoction of whipped cream, sugar and local Asbach brandy. It should come served up in an enormous ceramic mug decorated with scenes from the Rhine.
With its cobble-stone streets, timbered medieval houses and the gorgeous canal-laced Petite France at the heart of its Old Town, Strasbourg is one of the loveliest and most fascinating cities in France. Its top attraction is the Cathedrale de Notre Dame, which dates from 1190 AD and, and is Europe’s tallest medieval building. Look out also for the Rohan Palace, where Marie Antoinette once stayed.
What’s To Like About Rhine River Cruises?
- Castles. You’ll see lots of them along the Rhine river, especially between Rudesheim and Koblenz, Germany. Be sure to be out on deck.
- Culture. With cities like Heidelberg, Strasbourg, Cologne, Amsterdam and more, you’ll get a good dollop of city life and culture on your Rhine River cruises.
- Bicycling. In many places along the Rhine river, there are good bicycling paths and dedicated bike roads. Straddle a saddle and enjoy the ride.
- Beer and wine. Have a Cologne Kolsch before or after checking out the impressive Cologne Cathedral (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), or stroll the “world’s merriest street,” known as the Drosselgasse, to find a Weingarten in Rudesheim, Germany.
Top Rhine River Cruise Companies
On an AmaWaterways Rhine Cruise, you will enjoy an extensive lineup of included tours. In many cases, you will have a choice of excursions, such as standard tours, bike tours, hikes and Special Interest Tours. They always include a large variety of activities so that you can choose how you want to explore. No matter your preference, your days will be full of discovery and wonder. Some features of an AmaWaterways cruise include:
- Spacious river view staterooms and suites range from 160 square feet to 350 square feet and most include the revolutionary signature twin balconies—a French balcony and a full outside balcony.
- La Chaîne des Rôtisseurs dining experience—featuring all meals on board, including exquisite multi-course dinners and bountiful breakfast and lunch buffets
- Multiple dining venues, including the one-of-a-kind exclusive Chef’s Table specialty restaurant featuring a unique tasting menu with perfectly paired wines for intimate dining experiences
- Entertainment-On-Demand and Ship-Wide Wi-Fi – all staterooms offer a flat screen monitor featuring moves, news, TV, and music.
- In-room internet access and ship-wide Wi-Fi are also complimentary
- Choice of complimentary shore excursions in every port that are led by expert guides. AmaWaterways offers choices for tours for gentle, regular, and active walkers.
- Expertly guided shore excursions with choices to tailor your experience as you like
- Exclusive Special Interest and Culinary Tours are included excursions to experience local culture in a unique way
- Adventurous guided bicycle and hiking tours, as well as options to bike on your own with complimentary bicycles and helmets
- Enriching onboard programs, including lectures, theme dinners, cooking demonstrations, onboard music performances and afternoon/evening piano music
- Experienced and dedicated Cruise Manager who accompanies you throughout your entire journey, both on land and on your cruise
- With a high staff-to-guest ratio on our ships, our team is fully dedicated to providing each guest with the highest level of genuine service with a smile
- Wellness Program offering a variety of exercise classes; discussion groups with a focus on healthy eating and relaxation.
Each ship in the Avalon Waterways fleet features an intimate dining room, a relaxing Main Lounge with panoramic views, a reception and internet workstation area, and a small fitness center and hair salon. Up top, an expansive sun deck allows guests to stroll and enjoy the fresh air, or relax in a deck chair and take in the ever-changing scenery. Staterooms comes equipped with Avalon’s signature Open Air Balcony, a French-style balcony that opens wall-to-wall to turn staterooms into a giant veranda. Staterooms features hotel-quality beds, satellite TV and bathrooms with full-sized showers. Ships also have complimentary WiFi Internet access, an expansive sun deck and fitness equipment. Then there is the early-riser’s breakfast, the full main dining room breakfast, and finally a late-riser’s breakfast. There are usually two options for lunch (including an outdoor grill), and two for dinner, including the Panorama Bistro, which serves tapas-style, Mediterranean dishes for up to 24 people in a section of the main lounge. On board, complimentary regional wines, beer and soft drinks are offered during lunch and dinner.
CroiseEurope has more itineraries on the Rhine than any other company. Most travel to and from Strasbourg and only include the middle portion of the Rhine River without traveling to either Basel or Switzerland. You’ll also find mini cruises with CroisiEurope – something you won’t find with most companies. Inclusions on CroisiEurope include complimentary beer and wine served with lunch and dinner, and an open bar throughout each voyage. The only items that aren’t inclusive are Champagne, wines on the wine list, and fine brandies. The line also includes all onboard entertainment and port taxes.
Emerald Waterways has a few packages for the Rhine River. There are only two packages for the Rhine River between Basel and Amsterdam and one is combined with the Moselle River from Koblenz to Trier. Another package combines the Rhine, Main and Danube rivers between Amsterdam and Budapest.
One distinguishing feature of all Emerald Waterways‘ vessels is the retractable roof over the Pool and Cinema area, which allows for an open-air space when weather permits. And when the weather isn’t so accommodating, the area can be enclosed. And an additional feature is that the pool and its surrounding area is transformed into a cinema in the evening for guests to enjoy night-time movie. With Emerald Waterways, you won’t find much variation among its ships. All are built with the same specifications and layout. All staterooms feature flat-panel televisions and infotainment centers, safes, wireless internet access, complimentary bathrobes and slippers, mini fridges and oversize beds.