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8 best European river cruises

Enchanting voyages through France, Germany, Switzerland, Hungary, Serbia and beyond.

River cruises are a wonderful way to experience Europe, since you’ll sail straight through the heart of the continent. Whether you cruise down the Danube through Austria, Hungary and Serbia — where castles and charming towns emerge around every turn — or along the Rhine through Switzerland, Germany and Amsterdam — where dramatic mountains and heritage canals paint the landscape — you’ll be surrounded by serene, rolling landscapes, far away from the hustle of modern life.

We’ve spent hundreds of hours comparing routes, reading reviews and weighing the itineraries, shore excursions and onboard entertainment offered by each cruise line to bring you eight of the very best.

  • European river cruise lines have already begun to resume after pausing due to the pandemic. But be sure to confirm whether the country you’d fly into is allowing US visitors, since many currently are not.

8 best European river cruises

danube river village

Uniworld

  • Best cruise: Castles Along The Rhine
    • This eight-day cruise from Basel, Switzerland to Amsterdam, Holland feels like a fairytale, with France on one side of the river and Germany on the other. You’ll stroll the streets of romantic cities like Strasbourg, Boppard and Cologne, drinking wine and tasting your way through Alsace.

Uniworld is the ultimate all-inclusive luxury river cruise line. The food is gourmet, gratuity is included in your fare and the level of service is stunning. Fitness facilities and spas are available on board as you sail on thoughtfully curated routes, spanning in length from eight to 20+ days.

  • Family-friendly and themed cruises are available, including art, yoga and “Jewish heritage.”
  • Farm-to-table dining concept ensures food is fresh and wine selections are local.
  • Award-wining hospitality, including 2019 induction into “The British Travel and Hospitality Hall of Fame.”
cologne germany rhine river dusk

U by Uniworld: River cruises designed for millennials

  • Best cruise: Eastern Europe Escape
    • Explore vibrant cities in Austria, Slovakia, Hungary and Serbia. This cruise has fun themed excursions, like “Bohemian Dreamin” through the streets of Bratislava and a “Changing Gears” bike tour through Ada Ciganlija, a lakeside retreat in Belgrade.

At a slightly lower price point, U by Uniworld offers chic river cruises on boats that are part yacht, part boutique hotel. Each ship has a max capacity of 120 passengers, a lax dress code and only two restaurants — one of them is a tapas-style bar.

It’s less inclusive than the other cruise lines on this list — meals are limited to three per day, and you have to pay for booze by the glass. However, the crowd is younger and people who don’t drink much might appreciate the à la carte setup.

  • High-energy excursions are designed to introduce younger people to foreign cultures and concepts.
  • There’s no dress code — U by Uniworld embraces a “come as you are” mentality.
bridge amstel river bicycles amsterdam holland

AmaWaterways

  • Best cruise: Grand Danube Cruise
    • This spectacular 14-day cruise runs from Romania all the way to Germany, stopping in Bulgarian, Serbian and Croatian towns that seem completely removed from the nonstop grind of modern life. From the ancient fortress of Belogradchik to the famed wine region in Ilok, this cruise is a feast for the imagination.

Known for its active shore excursions like hiking and bicycle tours, along with cruise itineraries dedicated to tasting the flavors of each region, AmaWaterways offers beautifully curated experiences above the waves. Choose from routes through The Netherlands and Belgium or enjoy tantalizing Portugal. Indulge in the golf concierge program to get access to champion courses along the way.

  • A sightseeing tour is included at each port, complete with a “late starter” option for those that want to sleep in.
  • All cabins have at least one private balcony, while most have two.
bridge douro river portugal

Viking River Cruises

  • Best cruise: Rhine & Viking Shores & Fjords
    • Starting in the fishing town of Bergen, you’ll sail to Flåm, Stavanger and Kristiansand before going to Oslo and continuing on to Denmark, Amsterdam, the Netherlands, Germany, France and Switzerland on a route the actual Vikings would be jealous of.

Viking River Cruises prides itself on offering an intimate onboard experience for “the thinking person,” complete with curated libraries, guest lectures and a list of recommended films to watch beforehand to pique your excitement. Its ships cater to less than 200 guests and are designed with a clean Scandinavian touch, delivering a relaxing onboard atmosphere. You must be at least 18 years old to embark.

  • Regional cuisine and vintage wine from your destinations.
  • Shore excursions focus on enriching, educational activities like museums and historical sites.
budapest parliament danube river cruise

Crystal River Cruises

  • Best cruise: Danube Serenade
    • From Vienna to Budapest, embrace the riches of the Wachau Valley in luxury, sipping wine in the rolling hills of Durnstein and getting lost in Bratslavia’s cobblestone streets then heading back to the cruise ship for 5-star R&R.

Winner of the 2019 Condé Nast Readers’ Choice Award for Best River Cruise Line, Crystal prioritizes immersive visits at each port of call. With 24-hour butler service, gratuities included in your fare and on-demand movies in every cabin, you might mistake the boat for a luxury hotel. Complimentary shore excursions offer rich access to the culture and history of bucket-list destinations.

  • Michelin-inspired, farm-to-table dining inspired by the region.
  • Conversational lectures with visiting processors, and emphasis on social mingling.
evening cruise slovakia

Avalon Waterways

  • Best cruise: Once Upon Three Rivers
    • We love this 14-day cruise because you get to experience the Rhine, Moselle and Main Rivers, and because it includes two-night stays in Prague, Paris and London, in addition to all the other landmark cities it visits, like Nuremberg, Bamberg and Wurzburg . It’s the perfect cruise if you’re planning a bucket-list trip to Europe, because you get the main locations all in one voyage.

Avalon Waterways has bragging rights to the largest cabin windows in river cruising — they’re 30% wider than the industry standard. You’ll find warm, friendly hospitality without stuffy white-glove service.

Choose your cruise by region, country or even theme — beer appreciation river cruise, anyone? The sky’s the limit.

  • Book themed cruises through Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Holland, Hungary, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia and Switzerland.
  • Along with the Danube and Rhine, it’ll take you down the Moselle and Saône in France, plus the Rhône in the Mediterranean.
bridge amstel river bicycles amsterdam holland

Tauck River Cruises

  • Best cruise: Villages and Vintages: Cruising the Douro River Valley
    • This is an immersive cruise that spends all eight days in Portugal, for an authentic taste of a region that’s been making wine for over 2,000 years: The Douro River Valley. Learn how to make cocktails out of port wine, and dine on the legendary Quinta do Portal wine estate.

Emphasizing boutique ports and insight into daily European life, expect warm camaraderie aboard a Tauk river cruise. Private shore excursions are included with your fare — expect cooking demonstrations, sampling local cuisine and resident guides — as are gratuities.

You know the stress of trying to find the most authentic activities in foreign destinations? Well, you can relax because Tauck specializes in unique tours that get to the heart of each city or village you visit.

  • Airport transfers included, so you can navigate to and from the port with ease.
  • See Activity and Pace Levels for each cruise, so you know what level of physical activity to expect.
bridge amstel river bicycles amsterdam holland

European Waterways

  • Best cruise: The River Shannon
    • One of the only cruises through Ireland that we’ve seen, the Shannon Princess — which holds only five passengers — will take you through the heart of the Emerald Isle. From Glasson to Killaloe, you’ll tue in with the music, fables and handcrafted traditions of the Irish people along the way.

Experience Europe as sailors have seen it from almost the beginning of time — on barges, winding through quiet villages separated by the serene countryside. There won’t be more than 20 people aboard, including the crew and a chef that prepares gourmet meals tailored to each stop along the way. With European Waterways, you’ll visit ports that even luxury small ship cruises can’t access.

  • Each barge is designed to reflect the aesthetic and heritage of the river on which it sails.
  • Most of these cruises are scheduled between April and October.
  • You’ll meet at a hotel in a major European city to enjoy a champagne welcome before European Waterways shuttles you to the starting point.
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How we chose these cruises

When choosing cruises for this list, we looked at the quality of routes available from each cruise line, prioritizing well-paced itineraries with port stops at key destinations around the region. We favored companies that are known for delivering authentic, immersive experiences highlighting cultures of the towns and cities along the river.

We also considered onboard dining and weighed the number, variety and overall quality of restaurants against passenger reviews. Additionally, we assessed cabin amenities against each price point, looking for river cruise lines that are known to deliver the highest value.

Finally, we sought out customer reviews on travel websites and personal travel blogs, considering first-person experiences and each company’s overall reputation.

What’s included?

Complimentary Wi-Fi is available from all of the river cruise lines we’ve chosen for this article, so you can post breathtaking photos without delay.

Alcoholic drink policies and shore excursions are two other features to consider. To help you compare the price, we included rates for a seven-night cruise along the Rhine from each line.

CompanyAlcoholic drink policyShore excursions includedPrice
UniworldUnlimited premium liquor, wine and beer$
  • 7-night Rhine cruise from $2,000
U by UniworldAlcoholic beverages are a la cartYes — select shore excursions are included$
  • 7-night Rhine cruise from $1,750
AMA WaterwaysWine and beer are complimentary with lunch and dinnerYes — one sightseeing tour at each port is included$$
  • 7-night Rhine cruise from $2,350
Avalon WaterwaysWine and beer are complimentary with lunch and dinner$
  • 7-night Rhine cruise from $2,000
Viking River CruisesWine and beer are complimentary with lunch and dinner$$
  • 7-night Rhine cruise from $2,300
Crystal River CruisesUnlimited premium liquor, wine and beerYes — in each port, there are at least two complimentary excursions to choose from$$$
  • 7-night Rhine cruise from $5,300
TauckUnlimited premium liquor, wine and beer✔️$$$
  • 7-night Rhine cruise from $4,290

Prices obtained in February 2021.

How do I choose the best European river cruise?

It depends on your budget, where you want to go, how you like to spend your time and who you want to spend it with. Before booking your European river cruise, consider:

  • River. Make a list of the European countries and cities that you’d most like to visit, or any bucket list landmarks you’re hoping to see. Then choose the river that visits the highest amount of places on your list.
  • Itinerary. There are three-day European river cruises and itineraries that last 22 days or longer. Think about how long you want to call a stateroom home, and whether you’ll have enough energy to enjoy a longer trip.
  • Amenities. Some river cruises have high-speed Wi-Fi, fitness centers and butler service, while others are more bare-bones. Choose a river cruise that provides the creature comforts you need to feel at home.
  • Included perks. It you love drinking cocktails at night, choose a river cruise that includes complimentary alcohol. If you want someone else to plan your day-to-day itinerary, go for a river cruise that includes shore excursions in the fare.
  • Price. Upscale river cruises with Crystal are going to be priciest, while U by Uniworld has a lower price point targeted toward Millennials. Shop around if you have a strict bottom line.
  • Excursions. Go for Tauck if you’re looking for highly immersive excursions that prioritize authentic experiences and interactions with locals. Viking excursions have more of an educational feel, while Crystal will take you to glamorous cultural events like operas. Uniworld is known for amazing food and wine tours, while U by Uniworld organizes active hiking and biking adventures.
  • Demographic. Viking and Crystal tend to cater toward an older demographic, while U by Uniworld and Avalon attract a more youthful crowd. Scroll through travel forums and discussion forums to make sure you’ll be happy in the company of other passengers on board.

Where can I go on a European river cruise?

It may sound obvious, but the cities you’ll visit depend upon the river you’re cruising. Here are the key countries along each major river in Europe:

  • Rhine. Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Germany, France, Austria and the Netherlands
    • Popular with first-time European river cruises, because the route is filled with quintessential sites, from Medieval villages to fairytale castles and rolling vineyards.
  • Moselle. Northeastern France and Luxembourg
    • Since the Moselle joins the Rhine at Koblenz, you’ll usually see longer Rhine itineraries that include the Moselle.
  • Danube. Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Serbia, Croatia, Bulgaria and Romania
    • These cruises typically spend time in Budapest and Vienna, along with the iconic Wachau Valley
  • Rhone/Saone. France
    • The Rhone and Saone wanders through the gastronomical nirvana of Provence and Burgundy, which means these cruises are ideal for lovers of French food and wine.
  • Seine. France
    • Seine cruises go from Paris to the English Channel, with stops in Normandy, Rouen and Caudebec and ample opportunities for WWII tours.
  • Duroro. Portugal
    • The Duroro is known for 130-mile “River of Gold” cruises that start in Porto and head west to Vega de Terron, on the border of Spain.
  • Elbe. Czech Republic and Germany
    • You’ll start in Madgeburg or Melnik and stop in Berlin and Prague along the way.

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Traveling during COVID-19
The CDC continues to advise caution when traveling within or outside the US, However, it no longer requires self-quarantine or a COVID-19 test for fully vaccinated domestic travelers as of April 2021. International travelers need to get tested three days prior to flying out of the US and within three days after returning, even if you are fully vaccinated. It recommends that you delay travel if you’re not fully vaccinated to protect yourself and your family from getting or spreading the virus.

If you’re planning a trip outside the US, bear in mind that many countries have placed restrictions on US tourists. Check the US embassy website for updates before booking international travel.

Bottom line

European river cruises are a great way to get acquainted with the history, art and culture of a region, especially if you choose a line that specializes in immersive excursions. Before booking, read up on the best time to schedule your trip, especially if you want to save money upfront.

Frequently asked questions

What should I pack for a European river cruise?
Pack for the weather. Check average temperatures in the destinations you’ll be visiting, and pack apparel accordingly. You’ll also want to bring sunscreen and a hat for days spent enjoying time on deck.

Most river cruise lines ask passengers not to wear shorts or tank tops in the dining rooms, and shoes are always required. In some cases, you may want to bring cocktail attire in case there’s a formal night — check the information your chosen cruise company provides to learn about formal nights, themed parties and other special events while aboard.

How much is a river cruise in Europe?
Rates vary widely, depending on the company you cruise with and the perks included in the fare. In general, budget river cruises start around $200 per person, per night, while the most luxurious river cruises can reach up to $500 per person, per night.

However, getting the best value for your European river cruise isn’t necessarily all about snagging the cheapest price. Consider details like shore excursions, gratuities — budget lines will charge you 15% to 18% after disembarkation — and drinks onboard, which can add up fast. In the end, it might be worth splurging up front to get the best bang for your buck later on.

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