15 of the Best European River Cruises

Explore France, Germany, and more on these European river cruises.

River cruise along Heidelberg, Germany
Photo: Freeartist/Getty Images

Much of the appeal of European river cruises, especially as we emerge from the pandemic with pent-up travel demand, is the small size of the ships, casual atmosphere, and accessibility. Unlike oceangoing ships that carry as many as 5,000 passengers, most river cruise ships accommodate around 150 guests, for a more intimate experience. Balconies, floor-to-ceiling windows, and open-air viewing are features of most river cruise ships, and some offer pools, spas, fitness areas, and jogging tracks.

Guests are kept busy (if they wish to be) with daily shore excursions, and most cruises offer several options depending on interests and activity levels. Bikes and walking tours are available in most ports, or guests can choose a leisurely day in a comfortable lounge enjoying the passing scenery.

"River cruises offer opportunities to step ashore in fairy-tale towns and fabled cities. You can immerse yourself in contemporary culture and learn something about the history of the towns along the continent's greatest rivers," according to Ralph Grizzle of River Cruise Advisor. "Sitting on the top deck of a ship under brilliant blue skies, you can gaze on fabled landscapes dotted with castles, villages, and vineyards. A flight of stairs down, and you have all the amenities of a modern hotel—restaurants, bars, fitness facilities, spas, internet access, and comfortable staterooms."

With a number of cruise companies and rivers to choose from, planning a river cruise can take some time. Consulting with a travel advisor is always a good idea, and there's plenty of information available online as well. These are the major companies offering the best European river cruises along with examples of their itineraries.


Viking Cruises, Portugal's River of Gold
Courtesy of Viking Cruises

Perhaps the best known of the river cruise companies, Viking promotes their "longships," which include large suites and inviting verandas for outdoor dining. Guests enjoy Viking's destination-focused dining as well as the variety of staterooms and itineraries with a wide range of prices.

Viking's 10-day "Portugal's River of Gold '' begins in Lisbon with a walking tour through its ancient streets before heading to Porto, home of the country's traditional wine, to board the ship and begin the cruise along the Douro River. Guests can explore Baroque palaces, vineyards, and lush scenery along the way, arriving in the World Heritage city of Salamanca, Spain on day six. The itinerary includes visits to Portuguese villages in Pinhão and Régua to sample local foods and wines before returning to Porto.


AmaWaterways, Taste of Bordeaux
Courtesy of AmaWaterways

Celebrating their 20th anniversary in 2022, this family-owned and operated cruise company focuses on excellent food and wine, tasteful décor, stateroom views, and innovation in their luxurious fleet. Fares include fitness classes, shore excursions, and all dining on board, including The Chef's Table specialty restaurant. New ships debut each year, and the spacious AmaMagna, launched in 2019, is nearly twice the width of traditional European cruise ships.

Wine lovers will want to experience the seven-night "Taste of Bordeaux," with visits to iconic chateaux, timeless vineyards, and delicious wine tastings while cruising the Garonne and Dordogne Rivers. Excursions include a tour of a medieval castle and tasting of Sauternes, a stop in Pauillac, gateway to the Medoc wine region, and a Saint-Emilion tour and tasting. Returning to Bordeaux, guests will explore this UNESCO World Heritage Site and capital of the wine world.

Uniworld Boutique River Cruises

Uniworld, Enchanting Danube
Courtesy of Uniworld River Cruises

Uniworld's one-of-a-kind vessels are inspired by the locales they visit, making their luxurious ships a destination in themselves. Billed as "the world's only authentic boutique cruise line," Uniworld offers in-suite butler service, world-class cuisine, and all-inclusive rates that cover premium spirits and wines as well as gratuities.

Their eight-day "Enchanting Danube" cruise aboard the S.S. Maria Theresa begins in Budapest with a choice of touring by bicycle or walking. A stop in Vienna includes a Mozart and Strauss concert at a Viennese palace, a city tour, and a taste of local delicacies. The cruise ends in Passau with a choice of bicycling, walking, or hiking to explore the city and a special captain's farewell reception and dinner.

Avalon Waterways

Avalon Waterways, Discovery on the Rhone
Courtesy of Avalon Waterways

Avalon features wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling windows with beds facing the views for ultimate enjoyment from their suites and staterooms. Large private bathrooms include full showers and L'Occitane bath amenities. Their deluxe beds and luxurious linens provide comfort in spacious, quiet quarters with ample closet space. Avalon offers "Active & Discovery" river cruises with activities for a variety of energy and fitness levels, from traditional sightseeing to action-packed experiences.

The "Active & Discovery on the Rhone" cruise begins in Lyon and heads south through the French countryside of Provence and ends in Port-Saint-Louis. On the way, Avalon Choice excursions include a culinary walk, cooking class, painting workshop, wine tastings, guided bike rides, and more, with Active, Classic, and Discovery level activities.


Tauck river cruise, Impressions on the Seine, view of the Eiffel Tower
Courtesy of Tauck

Started as a New England motor coach tour company, Tauck is a family-owned global travel firm offering tours and cruises to a wide range of destinations around the world. Their award-winning European river cruises are praised for their personalized service, exclusive destination experiences, luxurious cabins and suites, fine dining, and professional, caring staff.

"Impressions from the Seine: Paris to Normandy," an eight-day cruise, features stops in historic small villages and towns and a visit to the D-Day beaches of Normandy and the American Cemetery at Omaha Beach. A private visit to the home and gardens of Claude Monet at Giverny and a visit to the Impressionist Museum will please art lovers. Other highlights include a guided visit to Versailles, Louis XIV's magnificent palace and gardens, the Cathedrale de Rouen, and Joan of Arc Square.


Scenic River Cruises, Charming Castles and Vineyards of the Rhine and Moselle
Courtesy of Scenic River Cruises

Scenic offers both ocean and river cruises, all with emphasis on its fleet of "Space-Ships" and their meticulous design and spacious quarters. Guests enjoy personalized butler service and all-inclusive cruising. Ships offer a wellness area, massage services, gym, e-bikes, and onboard entertainment. Scenic's "FreeChoice" excursions offer something for all activity levels.

The "Charming Castles & Vineyards of the Rhine & Moselle" begins with arrival in Frankfurt and transfer to Mainz for boarding. Stops include Koblenz, where guests can take a walking or e-bike tour. There's a private classical music concert and tour of Reichsburg Castle along the way, as well as optional visits to the Mercedes-Benz factory or a walking tour of Strasbourg and its magnificent cathedral.

Emerald Cruises

Crois River Cruise, Large panoramic view of Lyon with Saone river
Nikada/Getty Images

Emerald offers both yacht and river cruises, with a range of cruises on the rivers in Europe. Founded in 2013, Emerald now features a fleet of nine "Star-Ships," with stylish suites, first-class amenities, and room for 180 guests. Most carry bicycles, and all staterooms are equipped with hiking poles. Excursions include the EmeraldPLUS program of special experiences to connect with their destinations, and EmeraldACTIVE offers faster-paced guided tours, bike rides, hikes, and activities.

The eight-day "Sensations of Lyon & Provence" cruise begins in Lyon and heads to a quaint village and then south again towards Tournon, with its 16th-century castle. Along the way, guests can choose a hike through vineyards, canoe trip, village walking tours, or wine tasting onboard.

Adventures by Disney River Cruises

Adventures by Disney, Danube river cruise
Chloe Rice/Courtesy of Adventures by Disney River Cruises

Partnering with AmaWaterways, Adventures by Disney offers cruises on the Seine, Rhine, and Danube Rivers, Disney style. Specially designed itineraries and Adventure Guides create experiences for parents, children, and teens, from active excursions to unique onboard activities. Adults-only dinners and wine tasting experiences along with teen programming, Disney movie nights, karaoke, trivia nights, and Junior Adventurer dinners provide entertainment for guests of all ages.

The eight-day Danube River Cruise starts in Budapest where excursions include a horse show at an equestrian park and a goulash-making competition for Adventurers. In Bratislava, Junior Adventurers can visit a petting zoo, and in the evening, there's family karaoke. A tour of Vienna and Schönbrunn Palace, marionette show, concert, and strudel making are options the next day. A day in Salzburg ends onboard with "The Sound of Music" film and singalong. After an Oktoberfest celebration and captain's farewell dinner, the cruise ends the next day.

CroisiEurope Cruises

Crois River Cruise, Skyline of Berlin (Germany) with TV Tower at dusk
Nikada/Getty Images

Established in 1976, Croisi offers cruises on rivers, canals, and seas with a fleet of oceangoing ships, canal barges, and river cruise ships. The company's innovative approach allowed them to be pioneers on several rivers in Europe including the Gironde, Loire, Po, and Elbe, basing their ships' design on the characteristics of the waterways.

CroisiEurope's seven-day "Hamburg to Berlin: Discover the Medieval Charms of Hanseatic Cities" cruise starts with guided tours of Hamburg and Lübeck, A UNESCO World Heritage Site. After a morning cruise, the ship will ride on the Scharnebeck twin ship lift, one of the highest in Europe, with a vertical lift of 125 feet. An optional visit to the Autostadt theme park, dedicated to German auto design, and an afternoon cruise fill day four. The next day, there's a tour of Magdeburg, known for its fascinating architecture and culture. The ship arrives in Berlin for a tour and festive evening.


A-Rosa cruise ship, Highlights of the Rhine
Courtesy of A-ROSA River Cruises

This German cruise company's distinctive ships are easy to recognize by the large red lips and rose on the bow. Their fleet of 12 ships was joined by the new A-Rosa Sena, a hybrid powered ship expected to cruise the northern Rhine almost silently and emission-free. Family-friendly amenities include a kids club, heated outdoor pools, and free passage for children ages 15 and under.

The six-day "Highlights of the Rhine" cruise begins in Cologne and cruises on to Rotterdam and then Amsterdam the following day. Options include a bus tour, canal tour, pedal boats, or private auto tour, each at an additional cost. A variety of ways to explore Utrecht the next day are available. On day six, the ship returns to Cologne.

Lueftner Cruises

Lueftner Cruises, Saar and Moselle Fairytales
Courtesy of Lueftner Cruises

This Austrian family business dates back more than 40 years and offers European river cruises on its fleet of 16 AMADEUS ships. Five-star service, facilities, and cuisine are their hallmarks, and their ships feature wide panoramic windows and a spacious sun deck.

The eight-day "Saar and Moselle Fairytales" cruise boards in Cologne and cruises down the Rhine to the Moselle and its tributary, the Saar River. The ship passes the Mosel vineyards and docks in the medieval town of Cochem for a guided walking tour. The next day, guests can tour the town of Bernkastel-Kues and enjoy a wine tasting or hike to the ruins of a castle for a stunning view. After a morning tour of Saarburg, the ship cruises along the Saar River with panoramic views of its massive loop. The ship stops in Luxembourg and then continues to Koblenz, where the Rhine and Moselle Rivers meet, before returning to Cologne.

Apt River Cruises

Apt River Cruises, Magnificent Europe
Westend61/Getty Images

This Australian-owned organization is the country's largest family-owned tour and cruise company, offering a variety of travel styles. Their Concerto River Ships, AmaVenita, AmaStella, and AmaReina, cruise on the Danube, Main, Rhine, and Douro Rivers with luxury accommodations and excursions. Apt charters the ships from AmaWaterways, but their itineraries and onboard programs are unique to Apt River Cruises. Apt's offerings include rail journeys, as well as small boat, yacht, and ocean cruises.

Their 15-day "Magnificent Europe" cruise begins in Amsterdam with a canal tour and cruises the Rhine, Main, and Danube Rivers before arriving in Budapest. The ship docks in Koblenz and takes a daytime cruise through the Rhine Gorge before landing in Miltenberg for a guided tour of the city. On day six, guests can choose a trip to Rothenburg or visit a family-owned farm for a home-cooked morning tea. The ship passes through the Main-Danube Canal that connects the Black Sea and the North Sea. In Vienna, there's a cocktail party and private orchestra recital or city tour before heading to Budapest for two days.

Nicko Cruises

Nicko Cruises, Travelling on the Elbe and Havel
Courtesy of Nicko Cruises

This German company offers 30 years of experience on Europe's rivers, and has a fleet of 26 river ships in addition to the expedition ship World Voyager and oceangoing Vasco Da Gama. The company's "time to discover" philosophy focuses on intensive travel experiences, shore excursions, and varied culinary offerings.

The eight-day "Traveling on the Elbe and Havel" cruise covers Germany's north on rivers and canals aboard the Frederick Chopin. Starting in Berlin, the cruise continues to Potsdam for a guided walking tour. A guided tour takes guests through Autostadt Wolfsburg, a park dedicated to the history of the automobile. In Hamburg, there's a city tour and harbor cruise before the cruise continues to the Baltic resort, Laboe, and ends in Kiel.

Teeming River Cruises

Teeming River Cruises, from canals of Venice to Renaissance infused Mantua
Jeff and Gina Paglialonga, Teeming River Cruises

Founded in 2017 with the goal of making European river cruises more economical and personalized, family-owned American company Teeming River Cruises developed a different river cruise model. Instead of pre-programmed group activities, guests create their own unique experiences with a complimentary city tour app for each destination. All-inclusive plans and group tours are not part of Teeming's itineraries.

Their cruise in northern Italy along the Po River, "From the Canals of Venice to Renaissance-infused Mantua," is a seven-day excursion starting in Venice where guests can discover St. Mark's Square and Doge's Palace. In partnership with CroisiEurope aboard the MS Michelangelo, the ship heads west to Vicenza and then on to Chioggia. Day four is spent in Verona, with its ancient amphitheater and Giusti Gardens. The next days are spent in Cremona and Mantua with disembarkation and a coach trip back to Venice.

Belmond - Afloat in France

Belmond, Afloat in France
Courtesy of Belmond

Belmond has another way to cruise some of Europe's rivers — on luxury barges with private chefs and excursions like truffle hunting, hot air ballooning, canoeing, and wine tasting. Seven barges make up Afloat in France, each with its own style and size. The elegant barges cruise the waterways of Burgundy, Provence, Alsace, Champagne, Languedoc, and Franche-Comté from April to October.

On the Belmond Napoleon, guests cruise the River Saône past châteaux, rural river towns, and expansive vineyards. Stops at Montmerle, Mâcon, and Tournus offer opportunities for wine tasting and exploring a Benedictine abbey. There's a walking tour of Chalon-Sur-Sâone and time to browse through St. Jean de Losne.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles