European River Cruises for Beginners

In this article:

Wondering what all of the river cruising buzz is about?

These fast-selling cruises are booked well in advance and are quite different from an ocean cruise. UK cruise journalist Jane Archer gives readers the lowdown on everything in European river cruising — from destinations, onboard entertainment and balcony options to whether or not you’ll need to pack your finest fashions for your upcoming river cruise vacation.


Where can I go on a river cruise in Europe?

River cruise glides effortlessly through narrow waterways and under low bridges in Europe

Just about anywhere:

  • Rhine River cruises often begin in Amsterdam, the Dutch city famous for storybook canals and colorful neighborhoods, before cruising through Germany, where castles and Gothic Cathedrals dot the riverbanks.
  • Danube River cruises take you through countries such as Austria, Slovakia, Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania, with stops in grand European capitals, such as Vienna and Budapest.
  • Rhône and Seine cruises in France visit world-class sights such as Notre-Dame Cathedral, the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower in Paris with stops in quaint medieval towns as well as the historic beaches of Normandy.
  • Bordeaux cruises visit France’s famous wine region and Douro River cruises in Portugal visit the city of Porto, where guests can sample its sweetest export (Porto wine).
  • Russian river cruises navigate the waterways that connect Moscow and historic St. Petersburg with enough time in port — often multiple days — to take in both cities at an unhurried pace.

What’s a river cruise ship like?

Several passengers enjoying a pool and jacuzzi experience while voyaging on a river cruise

The pace on a river cruise is slower than many of the major ocean cruise lines, and the emphasis tends to be on what’s going on outside your window over what’s happening on board.

A river ship can never be the same as an ocean-going vessel because size is limited by the rivers, especially in Europe where boats have to go through locks and under bridges, so the dining and entertainment options on board are fewer. Having said that, new builds from the likes of U.S. river cruise firms Viking, Uniworld, AmaWaterways and Avalon, as well as Australian tour company Scenic Tours, are doing their best to blur the lines. The vessels might be smaller – think 100-200 passengers on average – but increasingly include multiple dining rooms (older vessels typically have just one), plus swimming pools, and cabins and suites with balconies.

How long do you have in port? Are there “sea days” on a river cruise?

Unlike ocean cruise itineraries, which include days at sea where you may see nothing but water, river cruises sail through the heart of a country, passing villages, towns and cities that were built up along the waterways in the days before cars. Expect to see plenty of countryside, vineyards, gorges and castles. Most days you’ll be ashore for a morning into the afternoon and cruise the rest of the time, though some ships stay a whole day and often overnight in marquee cities, such as Vienna, Budapest, St. Petersburg and Paris.

What’s included in the fare?

Several passengers enjoying a dining experience while voyaging on a river cruise

Many river cruise lines include so much in the cost of the cruise that you can almost afford to leave your wallet at home. Prices are typically inclusive of accommodations and food. And some lines even throw in daily excursions; wine, beer or soft drinks with meals; gratuities and WiFi.

Should you splurge on a cabin with a balcony?

Passengers enjoying a luxurious experience while voyaging on a river cruise

Welcome to the great river cruising balcony debate. While highly desired real estate on ocean cruises, up until six years ago, balconies weren’t widely popular or available on river ships typically known for their smaller cabins.

Most new vessels, like Viking River Cruises newest ships, have walk-out balconies of one design or another. On Scenic and Uniworld they convert into sun lounges. Avalon dubs them “inside” balconies, as cabins have a wall of glass that opens wide to allow the sun in. AmaWaterways’ newest river vessels have split balconies, with one half inside the cabin and the other half outside, so you have a private place to sit no matter the weather. Your river cruise vessel might alternatively have French balconies, with a floor-to-ceiling window that opens to a rail so fresh air can come in but you can’t get out.

Are there formal nights on river cruises?

Beautiful evening sky seen from the deck of a river cruise on formal night

No. River cruising is very relaxed. Wear whatever is comfortable during the day and pack something slightly dressier for the evenings. Expect a captain’s welcome and farewell cocktail where you might not want to show up in flip-flops and a baseball cap.

What is the entertainment like on board a river ship?

European riverboats have a resident pianist who provides background music at teatime and after-dinner music in the lounge. He or she will tickle the plastic “ivories” of an electronic piano, playing tunes from the likes of Elvis. (Yes, it can be as cheesy as it sounds but it can also be a lot of fun!) On some evenings, local singers, dancers and classically trained musicians perform for passengers (they hop on and off the ship at the locks). During the day, there might be cooking demonstrations, wine or beer tastings and craft seminars (I’ve even seen a glass-blower talk about his trade on board).

What is a typical itinerary?

A river cruise ship sails along the waterways in Europe

Most river cruises are seven days or more and sail from point A to B — as opposed to ocean round-trip cruises from a single port of departure. Popular itineraries are 15-day journeys through Europe, sailing from Amsterdam to Budapest (or vice-versa), along the Rhine, Main, Main-Danube Canal and the Danube. Add another few days and you can sail all the way to the Black Sea.

A one-week Amsterdam-to-Basel voyage (or vice-versa) along the Rhine, which sometimes includes the smaller Moselle, may cruise through Germany, Luxembourg, Switzerland and France; it’s a big seller. Several companies have combi-cruises – a week each on the Rhine and Rhône or Rhône and Seine in France.

What is there to do in port?

River cruises can fit the narrowest waterways in Amsterdam

Mostly you’ll be in port for a morning or afternoon, with a day or two in big cities such as Paris and Budapest. At each stop, there’ll be a guided tour of the town or city, either included in the price of your cruise or at an extra cost, depending on your cruise company. Most of those with included tours have alternative excursions for passengers who’ve taken the cruise before — maybe morning coffee and cake in a Viennese coffee house or cycling the bike-friendly streets of Amsterdam. Of course, you are always free to do whatever you want.

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