11 Best River Cruises in Europe For Your Bucket List

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If you haven’t yet been on a European river cruise, what are you waiting for? Compared to ocean cruises, river cruises offer smaller ships, fewer people, and intimate walking tours of the places visited.

We took our first river cruise in Europe in 2016 on the Elbe River. Sure, it’s a less popular river than the Danube or Rhine, but it changed how we thought of Europe as a travel destination.

Our week-long cruise was a discovery on how to get off the beaten track, spread the tourism wealth outside of the large iconic cities, and see a side of Europe that is harder to access if you’re traveling in other ways.

Since that first sailing, we’ve taken five cruises on six different rivers across Europe.

Below we’ve compiled a list of the best river cruises in Europe. Our list includes Europe’s best-loved rivers, some lesser-known rivers, and our favorites.

11 Best River Cruises in Europe

1. Upper Danube River

Budapest Hungary Aerial View
View over Budapest, Hungary and the Upper Danube River

Cruising the Upper Danube offers a journey through the heart of Europe. Starting in Germany and flowing through Austria, Slovakia, and Hungary, this river takes you to some of Europe’s most stunning cities like Vienna and Budapest.

The best time to cruise is late spring to early fall. Highlights include the Wachau Valley’s vineyards, Melk Abbey, and Bratislava’s charming old town. Expect beautiful landscapes, impressive architecture, and rich cultural experiences.

Why we love the Upper Danube River: This is your classic European river cruising experience and it offers a nice balance of big cities and small villages. Our favorite time to cruise the Upper Danube is December, during the Christmas Market season.

2. Lower Danube River

Downtown Bucharest, Romania
Wandering the lovely streets of Bucharest, Romania

The Lower Danube is less traveled but equally enchanting, winding from Hungary to the Black Sea through Eastern Europe. This stretch passes through Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Romania. Highlights include Belgrade’s fortress, the Iron Gates Gorge, and the Danube Delta’s wildlife.

The best season for cruising is spring or fall, avoiding the high summer heat. This route is perfect for those seeking a blend of nature and history, with fewer crowds than the Upper Danube.

Why we love the Lower Danube River: It is more off the beaten path, offering a different type of Europe to explore. It is appealing to us due to fewer crowds and more unknown stops versus the popularity of the Upper Danube.  

3. Rhine River

David Stock walking the streets of Rudesheim, Germany during a European river cruise
Walking the streets in picturesque Rudesheim, Germany on the Rhine River

The Rhine River cruise is a classic, known for its fairy-tale castles, ancient sites, and picturesque towns. Flowing from Switzerland through Germany to the Netherlands, the Rhine offers stops at Cologne, Strasbourg, and the Lorelei Rock. It is arguably the best European river cruise.

The best time to cruise is spring to fall, with summer offering the most vibrant scenery. You’ll experience medieval architecture, lush vineyards, and local culture along the way.

Why we love the Rhine River: We refer to the Rhine as the castle highway of Western Europe. There is no other stretch of river in Europe that compares. Like the Danube, it is also a fantastic option in December for German Christmas Markets. It must be said, however, that in any season it will be a busy experience due to its popularity.  We cruised the Rhine in peak summer and it was very crowded.

4. Elbe River

Elbe River Cruise Wittenberg Germany
The main square in Wittenberg, Germany on the Elbe River

Cruising the Elbe River is a journey through the heart of Central Europe, from the Czech Republic to Eastern Germany. Key stops include Prague, Dresden, and Wittenburg. Highlights include Prague’s old town, Dresden’s art collections, and the scenic Saxon Switzerland National Park.

Spring and fall are the best times to cruise, offering mild weather and fewer tourists. The Elbe offers a mix of urban and natural beauty, ideal for history and nature lovers.

Why we love the Elbe River: The very first time we took a river cruise in Europe was on the Elbe River. We like to do things in a more divergent way. Although we went to popular places like Prague and Dresden, we couldn’t believe how quiet Europe could be in the summer.

5. Main River

Lina and David Stock on a bike tour in Frankfurt while on a river cruise in Europe
Taking a bike tour through Frankfurt

The Main River, a tributary of the Rhine, offers a unique blend of big cities and quieter villages. Starting in Bamberg and ending in Mainz, the cruise includes stops in Würzburg, Frankfurt, and Miltenberg.

The best time to cruise is late spring to early fall. Expect to see baroque architecture, modern cityscapes, and classic medieval towns. The Main-Danube Canal also connects this river to the Danube, making for an extended adventure.

Why we love the Main River: This is the perfect cruise if you’re looking for a Germany deep dive and want to get out of the larger cities.

6. Moselle River

Lina Stock on a Moselle River cruise in Europe
Arriving in Cochem, Germany while cruising the Moselle River

The Moselle River is renowned for its meandering path through one of Germany’s top wine regions. Starting in France and joining the Rhine in Germany, key highlights include Luxembourg, the wine towns of Bernkastel-Kues, Trier’s Roman ruins, and Cochem’s Reichsburg Castle.

This river is best cruised in late spring to early fall and offers a relaxing journey through scenic vineyards, wine tastings, and historic towns, perfect for wine enthusiasts.

Why we love the Moselle River: The wine is incredible on this route. It’s also very off the beaten path, and, as a result, the villages along the way are not too crowded. We cruised in peak summer and were surprised at how quiet it was along the way. The Moselle River is a true gem among Europe river cruises.

7. Seine River

Main square in Rouen, France
The beautiful square in Rouen, France on our Seine River cruise

From Paris to Normandy, a Seine River cruise in Northern France immerses you in French culture and history. Highlights include Paris’s iconic landmarks, Monet’s gardens in Giverny, and the historic Omaha Beach in Normandy.

The best season to cruise is spring or fall, avoiding the summer crowds. Expect a mix of historic cities and serene countryside, with plenty of opportunities to explore French art, cuisine, and history.

Why we love the Seine River: We were not expecting to love the Seine, but we did! This river offered so many unexpected stops, stories, and history that weren’t on our radar. It offers an incredible balance of ancient and modern history, from Viking stories to the Normandy D-Day beaches, and truly everything in between.

8. Rhone River

Avignon, France at dusk from the Rhone River
Avignon, France at dusk from the Rhone River

The Rhone River flows through the heart of Provence, from Lyon to the Mediterranean Sea. Highlights include Lyon’s culinary scene, Avignon’s Papal Palace, and Arles’s Roman ruins.

Best cruised in spring or fall, this river takes you through vineyards, lavender fields, and historic local villages. The Rhone offers a delightful mix of natural beauty, gourmet experiences, and rich history.

Why we love the Rhone River: A true deep dive into the heart of France, there’s many reasons why this is one of the most popular rivers in France. The food and wine are spectacular right alongside the scenery.

9. Dordogne & Garonne Rivers

Vineyards at Saint-Emilion's in France along the Dordogne and Garonne Rivers
Vineyards at Saint-Emilion’s in France

Cruising the Dordogne and Garonne rivers in southwestern France provides a journey through Bordeaux’s wine country. Highlights include Bordeaux’s historic center, Saint-Émilion’s vineyards, and the medieval town of Libourne.

The best time to cruise is from late spring to early fall. Expect to savor world-class wines, picturesque landscapes, and small towns, all while exploring the rich heritage of this region.

Why we love the Dordogne & Garonne Rivers: These two rivers are another gem that is often left off first-time river cruiser’s lists. We actually prefer the lesser-known rivers, so don’t be afraid to book these routes! You get the amazing food and wine of France, without the crowds.

10. Douro River

Porto, Portugal seen from the Douro River
Porto, Portugal seen from the Douro River

The Douro River in Portugal is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that offers a scenic cruise through the country’s wine-producing region, from Porto to the Spanish border. Highlights include the terraced vineyards of the Douro Valley, the historic city of Porto, and the picturesque town of Pinhão.

The best season to cruise is late spring to early fall. Douro river cruises promise stunning landscapes, delicious wines, and a deep dive into Portuguese culture.

Why we love the Douro River: It’s a way to dive into Portugal that is different from the ever-popular road trip. There’s fantastic wine and food alongside beautiful architecture that is unique to Europe.

11. Shannon River

Lina and David Stock at Sean's Bar in Athlone, Ireland
Hanging out at the oldest pub in Ireland in Athlone.

The Shannon River cruise in Ireland is a serene journey through lush landscapes and historic sites. Key stops include the monastic site of Clonmacnoise, the lively town of Athlone, and the scenic Lough Derg.

The best time to cruise is late spring to early fall. Expect to experience Ireland’s natural beauty, rich history, and friendly hospitality, with plenty of opportunities for fishing, hiking, and exploring quaint villages.

Why we love the Shannon River: Simply because it’s so different from the other cruising experiences you can have across Europe. You won’t be cruising on a longship like the other rivers in Europe. Instead, you’ll be on a purpose-built barge, which in and of itself is a unique experience.

12. Volga River (BONUS)

David Stock walking through the Hermitage in St Petersburg, Russia
Enjoying special early access to the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia with Viking River Cruises

Cruising the Volga River from St. Petersburg to Moscow offers a fascinating glimpse into Russia’s rich history and culture. Highlights of this journey include the opulent palaces and museums of St. Petersburg, the medieval architecture of Uglich, and the historic charm of Yaroslavl. As you approach Moscow, you’ll witness the grandeur of the Kremlin and Red Square.

This section of the river is best cruised from late spring to early fall when the weather is pleasant. Expect to experience a mix of busy urban centers and serene countryside, with plenty of opportunities to delve into Russian traditions, cuisine, and history.

Why we love the Volga River: If you’re looking for something completely off the beaten path, cruising the Volga River in Russia is a fantastic option. The trip takes two weeks and shows you a side of the country you wouldn’t see on any other available tour. We cruised this route in 2016, and highly recommend this route once it is safe to do so again.

Europe River Cruising Tips & Advice

Lina Stock standing in front of the Avalon Waterways Imagery II river ship in Europe
Getting ready to board the Avalon Waterways Imagery II on the Moselle River

If you’re new to European river cruising, you may be overwhelmed by the options. Here is some advice on how to choose:

  • We’ve cruised with Viking River Cruises and Avalon Waterways. They are among the best river cruise lines in Europe offering hand-selected inclusions, shore excursions, exclusive access, and an occasional overnight stay on their routes.
  • The right river cruise looks different for everyone. Decide what you’re interested in, and what countries you want to see to get started.
  • Not all river cruise ships are the same. Some of the lines are more luxurious than others. Do some research and choose the company that best suits your budget.
  • If you’re open to the destination, don’t be afraid to choose a different river from the most popular journeys.

Protect Your Trip to Europe

Lastly, taking a vacation of any kind is an investment of your hard-earned money and the last thing you want is to risk a disruption or cancellation that ends with you losing that investment. This is one of the reasons we never leave home without travel insurance.

There are a lot of options out there for insurance, but we use and stand by Allianz Travel Insurance. Full disclosure, we receive financial compensation as ambassadors for their company.

That said, we’ve been purchasing plans through them for the past 7 years and they have never let us down. Canceled flights, delayed flights, lost luggage, rental car damage, and a global pandemic, they’ve been there for us.

We always renew their AllTrips Premier annual plan that covers all our trips over 12 months. For single trips, we recommend looking at their OneTrip Prime or OneTrip Premier plans.

This article is sponsored by Allianz Travel Insurance. As ambassadors we receive financial compensation. However, all opinions, stories, advice, and insane love for the river cruising in Europe are 100% ours, as always.

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About Lina Stock

Lina is an award-winning photographer and writer that has been exploring the world since 2001. She has traveled to 100 countries on all 7 continents. Member: SATW, NATJA, ATTA, ITWA

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