Both rivers, the Danube and the Rhine, have wonderful offerings in scenery, culinary options, castles, cathedrals, and vineyards. Historical European cities are within reach along the riverbanks of each river — the Rhine features Basel, Strasbourg, Heidelberg (a short drive away), Cologne, and Amsterdam; while the Danube highlights Budapest, Vienna, Belgrade, Cesky Crumlov (a day-tour), and Nuremburg.
Cruise lines such as Scenic, Emerald, Viking, Uniworld, AmaWaterways and Avalon, showcase both rivers with itineraries from seven to 10 days. Their moorings are often close to the main sights so passengers can hop off and walk into the cities.
Differences between the Rhine and Danube
Along the Rhine, vineyards blanket the hillsides while fairytale castles and fortresses line the cliffs by the Middle Rhine, but it is a busy river with plenty of working vessels and barges. With 68 locks and lots of low bridges, there are also plenty of fascinating feats of engineering to observe, although traversing locks frequently takes place after dark.
At night, the Danube’s views of beautifully lit waterfronts are a memorable feature. Sailing into Budapest with its grand palaces bathing in a golden glow is a cruise memory to treasure. In the Bavarian city of Passau, it’s possible to see three colors in the meeting of different rivers — the more brown than blue Danube, the green Inn and the black Ilz.
Distinctive highlights on each river
On the Danube, waltz into Vienna for a classical music concert where the air is filled with the music of Johann Strauss. By day, visit the Spanish Riding School to see the Lipizzaner horses. In Salzburg, most cruise lines celebrate the Sound of Music and Uniworld features a private concert in the Mirabel Chapel with Elisabeth Von Trapp, daughter of Maria and Baron Von Trapp.
In Rüdesheim am Rhein, take the aerial gondola over vineyards for sensational valley views and visit Siegfried’s Museum of Mechanical Music with its collection of wacky instruments. Racing enthusiasts can experience the Hockenheim Formula 1 track in Mannheim, while design lovers should head to the Vitra Museum, in Basel, to enjoy the contemporary architecture collection and classic 20th century furniture.
Typical scenery on each
As the romantic Danube meanders through the Wachau Valley, enjoy the cultural landscape of green hills, dotted with red-roofed houses, and the Benedictine Abbey that rises high above the town of Melk. Several cruise lines supply bikes for a guided 32km tour, mainly on the flat, from Melk to Durstein for a more immersive experience.
On the Rhine, the 700-year-old Marksburg Castle marks the start of the scenic Rhine Gorge where rows of vines cling to steep valleys. There are more than 40 castles and fortresses, as well as churches and spires, to admire along the 58-mile route and cruise directors always give a commentary of fascinating historical facts for guests watching from the sundeck.
Local culinary or wine specialties
You can have your choice of cake and eat it too along the Danube — Vienna’s graceful Demel salon, in the Kohlmarkt, is a must pilgrimage for Sachertorte and apple strudel on the shaded terrace. Elsewhere in Austria, coffee houses are in a class of their own, so join Salzburg’s people to read the newspapers and enjoy the best coffee and cakes in the City of Mozart.
River cruise lines usually include regional wine and beer with lunch and dinner but, when stopping off along the Rhine, visit traditional beer halls in Cologne and sample the dry to sweet Rieslings in Koblenz and Strasbourg.
Past history on each river
Some of Europe’s earliest human life is recorded along the Danube Valley where the Vinčas (5700–4500 BC) were a sophisticated Neolithic culture. The Ancient Greeks traded along the lower Danube and Julius Caesar’s ships patrolled its waters where military posts grew into Roman settlements, including Aquincum (Budapest) and Vindobona (Vienna).
In 2020 in the Bavarian village of Oberammergau, the Passion Play comes to life, as it has every ten years since 1634, where by law it is performed by the local inhabitants born there. A few river cruises (e.g., Tauck) offer the opportunity to attend this production.
Sailing along the Rhine is a lesson in medieval history and, in Wittenburg, Monk Martin Luther, believing the church had too much power, nailed his 95 theses to the door of Castle Church, starting the 16th century Protestant Reformation. Cruise lines such as Tauck and Uniworld feature lectures and tours linked to ancient and medieval history, as well as the Second World War.
In Vienna there are 25 markets with elegant squares transformed into magical scenes and the city’s elegant buildings are a blaze of lights, decorations and finely dressed shop windows.
In Linz, the Baroque main square’s market is filled with the scent of gingerbread and Linzer Torte and a Nativity play is performed every half hour in the fairyland Volksgarten.
Both rivers offer a multitude of specialties of their region, and most river cruisers pick one of these two important rivers for their first river cruise. One word of caution; early spring and late summer frequently yield to high or low river levels, necessitating itinerary changes or cruise cancellations. We at Getaway Dreams Come True Travel will assist you in choosing the appropriate river and river cruise line and ship based on your interests. Call us at 724.752.2655to schedule your River Cruise planning session. You may wish to view our blog posts: