Danube river cruise holidays: What to see & do on…

Image Credit: Shutterstock

Danube cruise vacations are loved by the British thanks to grand palaces, classic evenings and the performance of white horses – that’s all you need to know.

The Danube is the gateway to five capitals and the only river in the world after which a waltz is named.

The river may not be as blue as Johann Strauss would have us believe, but the Danube is a fascinating waterway that flows through seven countries on its way from the Black Forest in Germany to the Black Sea in Romania.

The most popular river cruise – a week between Budapest in Hungary and Passau, Vilshofen or Nuremberg in Germany – covers only part of the river. You need two weeks to travel from Germany to Romania.

Whichever itinerary you choose, get ready for a fabulous journey through many of Europe’s wonderful capitals.

Weekly cruises visit Bratislava, Budapest and Vienna or the capitals Slovakia, Hungary and Austria and often stay overnight in the last two.

This means that you can not only see Budapest’s breathtaking waterfront lit up after dark, but also visit a classic evening with Mozart and Strauss in Vienna. The top-end cruise lines include this in the price; with others it’s an extra extra.

Budapest is beautiful, but Vienna is the crown jewel on the Danube with its spectacular palaces – the Hofburg in the center of the city, from which the Habsburgs ruled Austria for 700 years, and Schönbrunn, their summer residence – and great architecture.

– READ MORE: World of Cruisings Port Guide for Budapest –

The Spanish Riding School’s Lipizzaner horses are a big draw, but the performances usually only take place on weekends and are booked well in advance so it is not easy to see a show on a river cruise. The horses can still be seen during training and when visiting the stables.

On Riviera Travel’s “The Blue Danube” cruise, guests start and end in Budapest, but have the option of adding a Prague tour extension that extends the short vacation from 8 to 11 days.

You have three days to explore the magical city. There is a beautiful medieval old town with winding cobblestone streets, fine stone buildings and elegant squares, while the classic Charles Bridge offers a wonderful view. The trip includes a guided tour to Hradcany, Prague’s spectacular castle and cathedral complex, and there is also the option to visit the local Lodi Brewery – the only boat brewery in Europe!

Danube Cruises: Riviera Travel’s Prague extension includes a guided tour to the Hradcany, Prague Castle and the cathedral complex. Image Credit: Shutterstock

Routes on the Upper Danube also stop in Linz in Austria for excursions to Salzburg (some cruise ships offer alternative tours to Cesky Krumlov, a pretty town in the Czech Republic) and Passau. Just go ashore to see St. Stephen’s Cathedral, which is home to the largest cathedral organ in the world.

Most also visit Melk, home of a magnificent Benedictine abbey, and the small village of Dürnstein in the Wachau. If your boat has bicycles, you may be able to cover the 20 miles between the two. It’s mostly flat, but you still need to be pretty fit.

Sail the Lower Danube to the Black Sea to visit the Serbian capital, Belgrade, which includes the mausoleum of former Yugoslav leader Marshal Tito and Sveti Sava, the largest Orthodox church in the world. Most cruises start or end in Bucharest, the capital of Romania, a surprisingly elegant city with wide, tree-lined boulevards.

– READ MORE: Which river cruise is the best? –

Ports behind the former Iron Curtain are less well known and usually require a bus transfer from the river. Popular tours include trips from Roussé to frescoed churches and the town of Veliko Turnavo, the capital of Bulgaria when it was under Ottoman rule.

From Vidin, also in Bulgaria, there are tours to Belogradchik, a former Ottoman rock fortress. From Kostolac, Serbia, visit the ruins of the former Roman city of Viminacium. From Vukovar in Croatia there are wine tasting tours or trips to the old town of Osijek.

Czech Krumlov
Danube Cruise: Some shipping companies also offer tours to Cesky Krumlov, a pretty town in the Czech Republic. Image Credit: Shutterstock

All cruises sail through the spectacular Iron Gate Gorge, which separates the Balkans and the Carpathian Mountains and narrows at one point to just 150 meters. If you’re coming from the east, you’ll come through huge locks that lift boats nearly 27 meters in 60 minutes. A 12 meter high statue of King Decebalus marks the entrance.

Mention Vienna and you probably think of Mozart, white Lippizaner and coffee houses, but if you dig a little deeper you will discover a story of Romans, sieges, empires and the Grand Empress Maria Theresa, mother of Marie Antoinette, who died in the French Revolution.

– READ MORE: World’s Best River Cruise Ships for 2021 –

Guides tell the story on tours of the city, but the time travel attraction is a fun way to learn more. It takes you back to the 1st century AD, when the Romans arrived and built a garrison in the middle of what is now the Inner City, and to the dark days of 1938 when Austria was annexed by Nazi Germany.

In between, you find yourself in Vienna in the midst of the plague that struck the city in 1679, “flies” to the top of St. Stephen’s Cathedral and “lands” in the middle of one of two sieges when the Ottoman Turks tried to conquer the city. You will also learn more about the history of the Habsburgs, meet Mozart and Strauss and join elegant dancers at a Viennese ball.

Did you know already?

After the Battle of Vienna at the end of the 17th century, the retreating Ottoman Turks left sacks of coffee beans that the Austrians found and used to open the city’s first coffee house. Apocryphal? Probably, but it’s a good story.

Schönbrunn Vienna
Danube cruise: Mozart himself performed at Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna. Image Credit: Shutterstock

Do not miss…

  • The view of Budapest from the Fishermen’s Bastion on the hilly side of the city (it’s a steep climb or by funicular) followed by an authentic Hungarian goulash for lunch.
  • Salzburg, the city of Mozart’s birth, loves his composer’s son very much. You can buy Mozart chocolates, Mozart lighters, and even Mozart queen ducks.
  • A drive through the beautiful Vienna Ringstrasse, which was built on the former city walls. It’s fabulous by day but beautiful at night when the buildings are all lit up.
  • The Parliament Palace in Bucharest. It was built by the former Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, has more than 3,000 rooms and is the second largest administrative building in the world after the Pentagon in Washington.
  • Coffee and cake in the lovely Sacher Hotel in Vienna. This is the home of the original Sachertort, which comes with a generous helping of whipped cream.
  • The ruins of Dürnstein Castle, where Richard the Lionheart was imprisoned in 1192 on his way home from the Third Crusade.

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