Why you should cruise the Rhine river

Castles on hilltops. Bustling metropolises. Bucolic vineyards. No river captures the breadth of the European river cruise experience like the Danube, which offers all these (and more) along one route stretching from Bavaria to the Black Sea. Options abound at every turn: Take a weeklong cruise, or extend your journey up to a monthlong expedition. Focus on a few regions that most interest you, or cruise the entire river. Stick close to the water, or go on excursions to farther-flung sites.

"The Danube has a lot of small-town charm and big-city interest—more variety than you'll find on other rivers," says Allison Walker, one of AAA's top travel agents. “River cruising suits every age and activity level. I have cruised with both my parents and my 20-something children. Cruisers can choose to take driven tours, easy walking tours, or sail and enjoy the sites. Or if a more active approach is preferred, hiking, or my personal favorite, biking, on a variety of excursions will satisfy every interest. It’s a great way to get out amongst the locals and the charming nooks and crannies of a village or larger town. ”

With so many choices, advice from experienced experts is invaluable. Read on for just a few highlights of Danube cruising, plus insights from Allison, who has 21 years of experience as a travel agent and has cruised the Danube three times with three cruise lines. 

David Pehle travel agent portrait photo

AAA Travel Agent David Pehle

Put together your own river cruise getaway with a AAA travel agent

Phone: 1-877-425-7012
Online: Submit a request
In person: Find your local branch

Stretching from Swiss mountains through German valleys to Dutch lowlands, the Rhine river takes travelers through a cross-section of Europe that has something for everyone. Urban centers of culture like Strasbourg and Cologne await to share their food, art, and architecture. Outside the cities, breathtaking landscapes like the Black Forest and the Rhine Gorge offer a more laid-back atmosphere, while history buffs can take in the sights from dozens of castles overlooking the river.

"Along the Rhine, you have everything from cathedrals to castles," says David Pehle, one of AAA's top travel agents. “History is around every bend and in every little village, from quaint towns that have Renaissance fairs to busy cities that are bustling with life. Amsterdam to Basel is the perfect river cruise for first-time river cruisers, as it has everything a first-time visitor to Europe wants to see.”

With so many choices, advice from a travel agent is invaluable. Read on for just a few highlights of Rhine cruising, plus insights from David's own experience on the Rhine.

David Pehle travel agent portrait photo

AAA Travel Agent David Pehle

Put together your own river cruise getaway with a AAA travel agent

Phone: 1-877-425-7012
Online: Submit a request
In person: Find your local branch

Fast facts

 

Length: 766 miles
The Rhine is Western Europe's second-longest river, though it's only the 11th-longest in Europe as a whole.

 

Countries: 6

Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Austria, Germany, France, Netherlands

 

King of the castles

Most rivers in Europe have at least a few castles, but the Rhine in particular is known for its concentration of them. A 40-mile stretch of the river known as the Upper Middle Rhine Valley boasts more than 40 castles, which has earned the valley official recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Fun fact

 

North American travelers probably think of Niagara Falls when thinking of large waterfalls, but in Europe, the Rhine is home to Europe's largest waterfall. The aptly named Rhine Falls are about 50 miles east of Basel and have an average flow rate in the summer of about one-fourth the size of Niagara Falls.

What to see

Amsterdam (Netherlands)

Many European cities claim to be the “Venice of the North,” but Amsterdam has the most impressive resume. Ringed by canals and teeming with charming old-fashioned bicycles, it has a restrained beauty all its own. Indoors, the city houses some of the world’s greatest art at the Van Gogh Museum, Rijksmuseum, and Hermitage.

 

DAVID SAYS: "Visit the Hermitage. Not only are there beautiful pieces of artwork inside, the entire building has a history that pre-dates it being a museum. Make sure to make your way down into the basement to view the original cooking kitchen where the original copper kettles are. Also, stop at the cafe on the first floor to grab a quick cappuccino and a fresh baked pastry."

Amsterdam bridge at sunset

Cologne (Germany)

Cologne, known as Köln in its native German, is the cultural capital of the Rhine, and the largest city directly on the river. The city's history reaches back 2,000 years to Roman times, though much of its architectural heritage had to be reconstructed after World War II. Its most prominent landmark is the 770-year-old Cologne Cathedral, which survived the bombing. Other sights include the city hall, which has been in use for 900 years; and the city's three surviving medieval-era gates. 

 

DAVID SAYS: "Cologne Cathedral is a must-see—breathtaking views of the facade and the history behind the whole structure. You can spend a whole afternoon looking around the cathedral, best viewed by a walking tour. Make sure to check out the nearby Romano-Germanic Museum, which is built around an ancient Roman floor mosaic."

Cologne Cathedral

Frankfurt (Germany)

Take a short detour up the Main river, one of the Rhine's tributaries, and you'll arrive in Frankfurt. Known today primarily as an air travel hub and Germany's financial capital, the city has a rich history. Holy Roman Emperors were crowned here for more than 200 years, and travelers can visit the Römerberg public square in Frankfurt's medieval old town to see where it happened. For a more modern experience, take in the skyline from the Main Tower's 656-foot-high roof.

 

DAVID SAYS: "Hike up 345 steps at the top of the spire of the Frankfurt Cathedral. After, grab yourself a stein of a locally made pilsner and enjoy the market square."

Frankfurt skyline in the evening

Heidelberg (Germany)

This college town is a change of pace from larger German cities. It's centered on Heidelberg University, one of the oldest universities in Europe, and is overlooked by the even older Heidelberg Castle. A great way to see the town is to follow the Philosophers' Walk, a path with great views famously trod by the university's professors through the centuries.

 

DAVID SAYS: "Start the city off at the beautiful castle. Touch the original wooden door from the 1400s and check out the 20-foot wine cask with a dance floor on top. Beautiful college town to shop in and stroll around."

Heidelberg by the river

Strasbourg (France)

Strasbourg is capital of the French region of Alsace on the border with Germany and is the result of centuries of Franco-German cultural mixing. The city's name is a good example: It's French of Germanic origin and means "town of the crossroads." One particularly scenic spot is the Petit France quarter, a walkable district filled with historic timbered buildings, canals, and footbridges.

 

DAVID SAYS: "Something that I thought was really interesting is the astronomical clock that is inside Strasbourg Cathedral. It was great to hear about the history of the city as well as this beautiful cathedral. I would recommend keeping your eyes open, and you may see the notorious white storks in the trees around the city."

Houses by the water in Strasbourg

The Black Forest (Germany)

Known as the Schwarzwald in German, the Black Forest is a wonderland of pine forests, bucolic villages, and pristine lakes. Visitors can try chocolate-cherry Black Forest cake, go cycling along scenic greenways, or venture into the nearby towns of Freiburg and Breisach.

 

DAVID SAYS: "Driving through the hills of the Black Forest with its farm houses and old-world charm was something almost out of a fairy tale. Enjoy a wonderful family-style meal at the Hohengasthaus Landwassereck."

Cottages in the Black Forest

Basel (Switzerland)

This Swiss city bordering both France and Germany is renowned for its numerous museums. They span the gamut from the Kunstmuseum, Europe's first public art museum; the Augusta Raurica, a 2,000-year-old Roman archaeological site; and the Dollhouse Museum, which displays thousands of teddy bears, dolls, and miniatures.

 

Architecturally, the city's best-known building is the Basel Minster, a church made of distinctive red sandstone. Visitors should also have a taste of Basler Läckerli, a kind of sweet spiced biscuit native to Basel. 

Basel Minster cathedral in Switzerland

Ready to explore the Rhine?

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What to eat

Stroopwafel (Netherlands)

Stroopwafels, Dutch for "syrup waffles," were first made in the 18th century in the town of Gouda, which is also the home of the famous cheese of the same name.

 

DAVID SAYS: "Two thin waffles with caramel in the middle. The best way to enjoy this snack is to get a fresh cappuccino and place it on top of the cup. Wait just a little bit for the caramel to melt and then eat away."

Dutch stroopwafels

Potato salad (Germany)

Potato salad in Germany ranges from dishes very similar to American potato salad, to more adventurous warm potato salads that include bacon.

 

DAVID SAYS: "Throughout Germany, the potato salad comes in all shapes, sizes and, of course, tastes. I ate some at almost every stop I made and not one was alike, but they were all delicious!"

German potato salad with bacon

Sauerkraut & sausage (Germany)

Enjoy a German classic in its native land with a bowl of sauerkraut and bratwurst.

 

DAVID SAYS: "At the Hohengasthaus Landwassereck, they had a small bowl of sauerkraut and sausage, but it wasn’t like our version. It was a bit sweeter with a tang at the end. It came along with a family-style meal that was served with fresh baked bread and a wonderful assortment of cheeses."

German sauerkraut and sausages
Where to stay & how to get around

Benefits of river cruising

Traveling by river is easier than traveling over land. Your ship isn't just a means of transportation—it's a hotel that floats, and "a wonderful way to see multiple cities all in one trip," as David puts it. On a cruise, travelers stay each night on the ship; on a cruise tour, travelers also spend some nights in on-shore hotels.

 

Water transportation also makes for more comfortable sightseeing than over land: All the terraced vineyards, hilltop castles, locks, and more can be viewed either from your room or a viewing deck, rather than being confined to a bus or train seat.

Research & optional excursions

When a river cruise docks at a destination, the tour often offers more than one choice for how to spend the day. Some excursions may be simple walking tours, especially for destinations that are right on the water. Others might have a charter bus take a group to a farther-flung attraction. Either way, transit will almost always be included with the package.

 

More ambitious travelers are also free to strike out on their own. "You can take a nice bike ride as much of these cities are flat so it makes for easy bike riding," David says. "Other options are the Metro, taxis, or simply walking around."

Dealing with currency

Travelers will encounter two currencies on a typical Rhine itinerary: the euro in the Netherlands, Germany, and France; and the Swiss franc in Switzerland. Though euros are widely accepted in Switzerland, it's not guaranteed, and any change will be in Swiss francs.

 

Since credit cards are widespread in these four countries, travelers may need little or no cash at all. For those who want to have some on hand for tips, snacks, or souvenirs, taking an ATM card to withdraw local currency as needed is likely more convenient than bringing dollars to exchange.

Other destinations to add to your trip

Lucerne

Lucerne has its share of history and striking architecture (with the most famous being the covered wooden Chapel Bridge over the Reuss river), but it's also the gateway to the beautiful landscapes of Lake Lucerne and the Swiss Alps. Want to see the Alps up close? Take a cable car or cogwheel railway up the mountain Pilatus. 

 

DAVID SAYS: "Lucerne, Switzerland is just an hour's train ride away from Basel. Beautiful scenery and a historic city to add to your amazing journey. Check out the many bridges, Old Town Lucerne, and the beautiful parks of the city."

Lucerne, Switzerland

The Danube

No river captures the breadth of the European river cruise experience like the Danube, which flows through 10 countries and four national capitals on a 1,700-mile journey from Germany to the Black Sea. Rhine cruise travelers can connect to the Danube via the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal (a modern engineering marvel worth seeing in itself).

 

Visitors can sample the brews and sausages of Bavaria, follow along to Vienna's melodies, see recent history in the Balkans, discover hidden treasures in Romania, and so much more. See our guide to cruising the Danube.

The Hungarian Parliament Building on the Danube

Paris & Brussels

The Rhine is well-situated for those who want to see the capitals of France and Belgium. Visit these two cities before heading to Amsterdam to begin your cruise, or after starting a Rhine cruise traveling north from Basel to Amsterdam.

 

DAVID SAYS: "Brussels is a two-hour train ride from Amsterdam that will lead you in to some amazing architecture, breweries, and top-rated food. Brussels has everything a foodie is looking for. Paris is a three-and-a-half-hour train ride from Amsterdam. What isn’t in Paris? From the Arc de Triomphe to the iconic Eiffel Tower. Paris is for foodies, romantics and of course, the history buffs.

Gargoyle overlooking Paris, with the Eiffel Tower in the background
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Ready to explore the Rhine?
Navigating all the options is no small task when considering a Rhine trip. A travel agent can help find the itinerary that's right for you, whatever your culinary, historical, artistic, and leisure goals. Get a AAA travel agent's help planning your personalized Rhine cruise by calling our dedicated travel agent phone line, submitting a request for assistance online, or finding a AAA branch near you.