Before my first river cruise experience, I was dubious. I had bought into the misconceptions and prejudices and in the process dismissed this fun travel style without ever having tried it. That was a mistake, because almost immediately on my first river cruise I knew I was in love and had found a new travel style to complement the many other ways I travel and experience the world. A great itinerary to start off your own river cruising experiences is on the mighty Danube, thanks to its accessibility and how many beautiful and interesting cities and regions these cruises typically sail through.
This post has been written in cooperation with the #CruiseSmile campaign, supported by the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA). Every week in October, they are giving away a cruise to one lucky winner. To enter, simply upload your “cruise smile” selfie at and share the entry with friends. For more chances to win, post your photo on Twitter and/or Instagram using #CruiseSmile and #sweepstakes and share your #CruiseSmile with friends to earn even more entries into the sweepstakes. Today the featured cruise is a and while I haven’t cruised with them in particular, I have cruised the beautiful Danube and so today I thought I’d share just a few of my favorite moments sailing the Danube, just one of many European rivers that can be explored by ship.
Regensburg impressed me almost immediately with the brightly colored homes and businesses that line the river and dot the old historic core. While people have lived along the banks of the Danube here since well before the last Ice Age, it wasn’t until medieval times and the construction of a stone bridge linking Europe with the east that the town really came into its own. That was 1,000 years ago and the bridge is still there, ushering in visitors and locals alike. And it’s thanks to that bridge that one of the city’s oldest businesses came about, and is still there today making some of the best sausages in Germany. Every German city prides itself on their sausages, but in Regensburg they really are something special. When that old stone bridge I mentioned opened and the influx of people started to trickle into town, small businesses erupted around it, including an old sausage shop that has been serving delicious Regensburg sausages for as long as the bridge itself has been around. The kitchen is still in operation today and the only item on the menu are those famous sausages, smaller than you might expect and served three to a bun along with the shop’s special sweet mustard. There’s no better snack than enjoying these hot, delicious bites just like folks have been doing for an astonishing 900 years.
Located in Lower Bavaria, the city is known for its university and student life; in fact about a fifth of the town’s 50,000 residents are students. But it’s as far away from being a traditional college town as you can get. Beautiful alleyways and side streets, they all seem to lead up away from the river. And with good reason, the Danube has caused serious flooding in the city over the centuries including in 2013, one of the worst Passau has ever seen. Passau is also easy to reach if you’re not taking a river cruise, especially by train and many folks include the town in their explorations of Bavaria. I loved just strolling through the maze of streets that comprise the old town; wandering from one place to the next. But I also loved learning more about one of the city’s proudest traditions – gingerbread. Well, we call it gingerbread but a great German Lebkuchen is unlike anything I’ve tasted before, made from a variety of different ingredients including honey, spices such as aniseed, coriander, cloves, ginger, cardamom and allspice, nuts including almonds, hazelnuts and walnuts, or candied fruit. It’s delicious and an important part of the Christmas holidays in Passau, but can be found throughout the year.
It’s hard not to love Vienna any time of year, but during the summer months the city truly comes alive. Exploring the incredible history of the city, enjoying a glass of wine along the river and touring the many museums around town are all highlights, but for something a little different be sure to visit the Prater Amusement Park and the famous Ferris Wheel at its center. Believe it or not, this is one of the oldest Ferris wheels in the world, dating back to the time of the Hapsburgs in 1897. Since then it has become one of Vienna’s most beloved symbols and has been featured throughout pop culture, most famously in the book and movie “The Third Man”. Add to this a gentle amble along the Danube itself, and you have the makings of a day in Vienna you’ll never forget.
One of the great benefits of sailing the Danube is what you see along the way, and one of the many highlights is without a doubt the UNESCO recognized Wachau Valley. Just 25 miles long, the Wachau Valley has been inhabited since prehistoric times, the rolling bends and access to fresh water too attractive to ignore. Remnants of castles, churches and villages dating all the way back to the Dark Ages pass by as your ship gently floats along the Danube. Towns like Dürnstein and Melk are what we think all of Europe should look like. Picture perfect communities nearly hidden away by the mountains, doing things not unlike they were done centuries ago. The Danube in this part of the world wasn’t just a convenience, it was life. It connected the world in ways unattainable otherwise and it’s no exaggeration to say that very stretch of river I enjoyed sailing down has been pivotal in the formation of Western civilization. Plus it’s pretty, so there’s that.
Budapest is one of those cities that everyone seems to love and if they haven’t visited yet, then it sits in a place of prominence of their bucket list. As I discovered, this lofty reputation is well earned, and my time exploring this gorgeous and intriguing city was a highlight of my time on the Danube. One of the many not to miss experiences in town is a visit to the Budapest City Park. Just about every tourist to Budapest will at some point find themselves in the City Park, a massive space that was transformed in the 19th century for the millennium celebrations. Museums, monuments and a pond that turns into an open-air ice rink in the winter, this greenspace is the pastoral heart and soul of the city. Nearby is another famous sight, the Széchenyi Medicinal Baths. Many people may not know that Budapest is home to many thermal spas and pools, creating a culture of soaking and relaxing in these natural wonders. The granddaddy of the spa complexes though is the Széchenyi facility, adjacent to the city park. Forget the medicinal benefits, I was immediately captivated by the architecture and design of this beautiful early-20th century complex. Still in use today, thousands of locals and tourists alike descend on the spa every year to relax and to feel better, all thanks to the natural healing waters. Even if you don’t have time for a quick soak, it’s worth it to walk around both inside and out to see the beautiful design of the spa itself.
For me, sailing the Danube wasn’t just a nice trip, it was an important one. Yes, I had the opportunity to visit many fun and interesting places, but it also changed how I view river cruising forever. Since my first river cruise I’ve taken several more with plans to add to that list in future years. It’s not how I choose to travel on every vacation, but it is in my rotation and is a style I enjoy much more than I ever thought possible.