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The European Travel Experience Most People Don’t Know About

You've heard about ship cruises and river cruises, but barge cruises just might be the best way to experience Europe.

Discover Halong Bay Top Destinations Vietnam view of seascape. Cruise golden Sails liner ship wooden junk sailing rock islands the emerald waters of Ha Long Bay.VLADYSLAV DANILIN/Shutterstock

Why you should book a barge cruise

Once upon a time, barges transported goods all over Europe via an intricate network of canals. Now, these old vessels are being converted into floating boutique hotels, allowing travelers to cruise along the narrow waterways that crisscross the European countryside. Like river cruises, there is a barge cruise to suit every kind of traveler. But unlike river cruises, barge cruises are slow, traveling at an average speed of just four miles per hour, and they’re hyper-local, enabling you to discover areas that bigger cruises simply cannot access. They’re also much more intimate than other types of cruises since they carry a maximum of 20 guests.

And they’re growing in popularity. “We’re seeing a slow but steady uptick each year in bookings from barges across all price ranges, throughout all regions, and touching on all itineraries,” said Stephanie Sack of Barge Lady Cruises, a family-owned booking agency that represents 50 of the roughly 75 luxury barge cruises currently available in Europe. If you’re intrigued by this idea, you might be completely enamored by it once you read about the amazing options available to you.

walk along the canal of midi in Toulouse, Francethieury/Shutterstock

Canal du Midi, France

The most famous of the French canals, the Canal du Midi was built in the 17th century. It took 12,000 workers and 14 years to dig the 150-mile canal that stretches from Toulouse to the town of Sète in the Languedoc region of Southern France. Today, it’s listed as a UNESCO world heritage site and is the oldest working canal in the world. A barge cruise along the Canal du Midi, like this one on the Barge Beatrice, offers a truly historical experience, with visits to the walled city of Carcassonne, the Roman ruins and weekly market at Narbonne, and the medieval village Minerve.

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Gascony Saint Louis BoatCourtesy Madhvi Ramani

Gascony, France

For something a little more off the beaten track in France, try the Canal a la Garonne in Gascony. Much of the canal is lined with plane trees, making it perfect for quiet walks or bicycle rides along the towpath. The Saint Louis Barge, available through Barge Lady Cruises, is a great choice for this route. It’s actually one of the few barges with a woman at its helm. Plus, Captain Wendy used to be a graphic designer, and her eye for design is evident on the barge, from the hand-painted furniture to the little bouquets of flowers she arranges every morning. The boat has a fresh, modern feel, and stops include the sleepy town of Saint-Emilion, the wine-producing village of Sauternes, and Armagnac. Here are some other small European towns you never thought to visit (but should).

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spirit of scotland cruiseCourtesy European Waterways

The Caledonian Canal, Scotland

Check out Scotland’s dramatic landscape along the Caledonian Canal on the Spirit of Scotland Barge, available through European Waterways. It’s perfect for people who want to discover hiking trails, as well as those who would prefer to sit on deck sipping whisky and watching the lochs go by. Speaking of lochs (or lakes), the famous Loch Ness is on this route. You’ll also get to gape at castles like Cawdor Castle and Eilean Donan, the latter of which was featured in the James Bond film The World Is Not Enough. If you’re on the fence about this destination, you won’t be after you check out these 12 jaw-dropping photos of Scotland.

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Holland Dutch WaterwaysCourtesy European Waterways

Dutch Waterways, Holland

For those who prefer a serene landscape and want to travel on waterways more frequently used by commercial and tourist vessels, the Netherlands is the perfect choice. The Dutch Waterways are often lined with shops and homes, and you will get the chance to see plenty of people going about their lives as you float by. The best time to visit is spring. Why? It’s tulip season, so you’ll get to see Keukenhof Gardens—one of the world’s largest flower gardens—in full bloom. The modern, two-story Panache holds up to 12 people and fits the contemporary, social feel of this route.

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Magna Carta Boat, EnglandCourtesy Madhvi Ramani

The River Thames, England

Barge-cruising along the River Thames will introduce you to iconic historical spots, from the old colleges of Oxford University to the royal palaces of Hampton Court and Windsor Castle, as well as to small English delights, such as local pubs and teahouses. For fans of Downton Abbey, the Magna Carta, which accommodates eight guests, offers a special cruise shaped around the show that includes, of course, a visit to the place where it is set: Highclere Castle. If you want to see some of London’s most famous spots, here’s how you can avoid the line at popular tourist attractions.

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Burgundy Saroche BoatCourtesy Madhvi Ramani

Southern Burgandy, France

Burgundy is a wine lover’s paradise, and what better way to taste-test all the different wines that the region offers than to cruise with a sommelier? Captain Jason Ashcroft runs the Saroche with his wife, chef Dawn Coles, and together they create delectable local wine and food pairings. Other highlights as you cruise along the Canal de Bourgogne: a visit to a preserved 15th-century hospital, Hospice de Beaune; wine-tasting at a vineyard and truffle-tasting (and hunting!) at a local farm; and a jaunt through the markets of Dijon.

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La Vita Bella Boat, ItalyCourtesy Barge Lady Cruises

River Po and Bianco Canal, Italy

Italy is all about amazing food, art, and culture, and this barge cruise will give you a taste of all three. The route goes from the Venetian Lagoon, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and traverses the Canal Bianco, which intertwines with the River Po. Guests will be able to experience the grandeur of Venice as well as smaller, less-frequented cities such as Chioggia, Adria, and Ferrara. In Mantua, you will have the opportunity to take in a vast collection of artwork. The barge La Bella Vita, which sleeps up to 20 guests, offers plenty of opportunities for you to dine, converse, and connect with others over hearty dishes of Italian pasta, cheese, and meat, making it perfect for singles and social butterflies. Read more about why Italy is the country everyone wants to visit.

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provence france cruiseCourtesy Barge Lady Cruises

Provence, France

The Impressionist painters loved Provence, and with good reason. It’s a delight for the senses, with hilltop villages, quaint port towns, Roman ruins, and colorful sun-dappled landscapes. A typical barge cruise through Provence will take you to olive groves to experience olive-oil tastings, wineries that specialize in rosé, and lavender distilleries. You can also explore area’s rich culture and history, as well as do some shopping, in the cities of Arles and Avignon.

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germany cruiseCourtesy Barge Lady Cruises

Mosel River, Germany

The best time to take a barge cruise in Germany is in the fall, when the leaves are turning. Cruises along the Mosel River include visits to Germany’s oldest town, Trier, as well as to fairy-tale castles like Burg Eltz and to port towns including Koblenz. Discover Teutonic wines and cuisine onboard, and relax in beer gardens at various stops in quaint cities and towns along the way. Germany is just one of the 14 enchanting places around the world that look straight out of a fairy tale.

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ireland shannon princess cruiseCourtesy Barge Lady Cruises

Shannon Waterway, Ireland

The Shannon Princess, run by husband and wife team Chef Olivia Power and Captain Ruairi Gibbons, travels along the Emerald Isle’s countryside. Your cruise will take you to historical buildings such as Adare Manor, Portumna Castle, and Leap Castle, rumored to be Ireland’s most haunted house, as well as give you the chance to see little-visited villages and hamlets.

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Madhvi Ramani
A flexible and creative storyteller, experienced in producing a wide range of high-quality content. I am interested in food, travel, culture, politics, science and technology. Bylines include The New York Times, BBC, Washington Post, USA Today and others.