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15 Reasons River Cruises Are Europe’s Best-Kept Secret

On a river cruise, you can unpack once in a comfortable floating apartment while the wonders of destinations such as Austria, France, Germany, Hungary, Portugal, and Spain roll by your window on wave-free waters (so no seasickness, score!). Best of all, there's a river cruise for every taste, interest, and pocketbook.

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Belgique-Escaut-Flandres-museeCourtesy CroisiEurope

Fun for families

We know, river cruises have a reputation for skewing, let’s say, older. But in reality, there are several cruise companies that not only welcome families, but have created special trips just for them. For example, CroisiEurope’s Family Club allows children under 16 to cruise for free on Portugal and Venice trips and reduced price on Croatia journeys, and even includes a second cabin next door for a family of four (two parents with two children, 5 years and older). During the cruise, kids enjoy supervised activities when they’re not out exploring ports with their families, and they can even perform the cruise’s closing show.

Adventures by Disney offers specially crafted itineraries for families, including a new Paris cruise, complete with cooking classes, cultural immersion activities, and local entertainment aboard AmaWaterways ships; Tauck also offers Family Only cruises for kids 7 and up; and Uniworld’s Generations Collection offers special menus, activities, and 25 percent off for kids 4 to 17.

Don’t miss these family vacations that even jaded teens will love.

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Solo TravelerCourtesy Tauck

Solo travelers welcome

If you want to see Europe on your own but aren’t sure about trekking through the continent solo, river cruises are a perfect option, offering camaraderie as well as flexibility. River cruises are an especially a good choice if you select one that waves single supplements, like Tauck does with its Solo Traveler Savings program. On board, escorted trips provide instant companions, or if you want to spend time on your own, simply step off at dock and explore your destination; since you’ll check off and on the ship with your key card, the ship will always know if you’re not on board. Tauck adds that cruise directors make sure solo guests feel secure and looked after.

Before you strike out on your own, don’t miss these safety tips for solo travelers.

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Gourmet GetawayCourtesy Scenic

Gourmet getaways

One of the top treats of a European vacation is sampling the local delicacies. River cruises, as opposed to large ocean liners, focus on regional specialties, offering themed meals and regional ingredients from the country you’re visiting.

Scenic Luxury Cruises truly immerses guests in European gastronomy with cruises that include culinary lessons at the unique on board Culinaire cooking school, which also offers the opportunity to shop with a chef at a local market and then transform the ingredients into a delicious meal. There’s also a six-course chef’s table dinner at the ship’s Table la Rive, and on the fabulous Bordeaux food-and-wine focused cruise, wine-centric activities including a sunset tasting at Château Soutard in Saint-Emilion; a tour of Château Franc Mayne and its Roman ruins; tasting at Chateau Gruaud-Larose, an estate with vineyards from the 18th century.

For more local delicacies, these are the cooking school vacations foodies will love.

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Yoga on SundeckCourtesy AmaWaterways

Health and wellness

Does the thought of all that delicious (albeit heavy) cuisine make you feel sluggish? Then you might be happier on a health-focused Wellness Cruise with AmaWaterways. The award-winning river cruise line focuses on a healthy approach to river cruising with refined menus that include gluten-free and other special diet options, nutritional information sessions with a dedicated coach, and group exercise classes that incorporate morning stretches, jogging, yoga, cardio/core strengthening, resistance band workouts, and circuit training while onboard. In addition, guests can take advantage of the six guided bike tours and two hiking excursions that are included in each river itinerary. AmaWaterways always carries 25 complimentary bicycles aboard all European ships for guest to use on their own or on those escorted bike tours.

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Tauck Riberboat in BudapestCourtesy Tauck

Culture, culture, culture

According to a recent study from Topdeck Travel, 91 percent of respondents are planning to travel in 2018, and the overwhelming majority (49 percent) are planning to travel to Europe. For many, the draw of Europe is the culture, with art and museums at the top of the list. River cruises bring you right to a city, so you can pop into a cultural center one day, and another city and destination the next. One option: AmaWaterways, AmaDolce 14-night Taste of Bordeaux, Bilbao to Paris, which will not only deliver you to the wonders of Paris—think Louvre, Musee D’Orsay, Notre Dame—but also to the modern wonders of the Guggenheim in Bilbao, all without having to unpack.

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Wine With LunchCourtesy Emerald Waterways


European vacations can get expensive quickly when you add in hotels, transportation, dining, entertainment, and tours. River cruises offer all of that, plus incredible views, for the price of a traditional hotel room. One especially good option is Emerald Waterways, which has won “Best River Cruise for Value” from Cruise Critic for three years running. Emerald’s fares cover not only the cost of the regular sailing, but also all gratuities, port charges, airport transfers, wine or beer with lunch and dinner, and a tour every day.

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Allemagne Elbe Meissen chateau Albrechtsburg velosCourtesy CroisiEurope

Biking and hiking

We know, you’re on a boat, so how are hiking and biking a highlight of a river cruise?

Several cruise lines focus on getting active off the ship. As you know, AmaWaterways carries two dozen bikes on sailings and offers complimentary hiking and biking expeditions on every cruise. Scenic has special Active Adventures Scenic Cruises, which has a partnership with Treks Travel bike tours for cycling-centered itineraries where guests bike 15 to 60 miles per day on special road bikes—so you get off at one port and get picked up at another one down the river.

CroisiEurope also offers a number Cruise and Bike combination tours along the Loire, Garonne, Saone and the Rhone, Rhine, and Danube rivers.

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Drum Circle on U by UniworldCourtesy U by Uniworld

Millennial specials

If you think young budget travelers have to hopscotch from hostel to hostel to see Europe, think again. U by Uniworld is for Millennial travelers and the first river cruise line of its kind. The cruises offer amenities specifically for the Millennial age group, with short itineraries for young professionals without a lot of vacation time and ships that dock in European destinations coinciding with popular events like Oktoberfest, and dock overnight so guests can stay out late and not worry about missing the ship. Prices are lower than other trips to provide Millennials with an affordable way to see the world, and activities include mixology classes, silent discos, and even a beer house tour in Cologne.

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Scenic RomanceCourtesy Scenic


Lush vineyards, medieval castles, beautiful villages, rolling hillsides—honestly, what’s not romantic about a European river cruise? And don’t forget gourmet meals with local wines and some of the most iconic spots in Europe. A few options for special’s couples getaways include Scenic’s Romantic Rhine & Moselle; CroisiEurope’s Romantic Rhine Valley; and AmaWaterways’ Romantic Danube River Cruise.

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Viking HolidayCourtesy Viking

Holiday magic

Charming villages covered with twinkling lights, Christmas markets filled with unique gifts and crafts, special winter treats from hot spiced wine to gingerbread to chestnuts. There are few experiences as festive as a holiday cruise down the rivers of Europe. Plus, if you want to celebrate Thanksgiving, Christmas, or New Year’s onboard a river cruise, you’ll be greeted with special holiday feasts and beautifully decorated ships. Viking’s Christmas Market Cruises, which sail from late November to late December, help spread the cheer with onboard festivities: You can bake gingerbread cookies with the executive chef, decorate the ship’s Christmas tree, and enjoy live, regional holiday music from a local ensemble.

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Stunning SceneryCourtesy Emerald Waterways

Stunning scenery

Although it’s a given that you’ll be able to spy Europe outside your longship’s stateroom window, there are certain views in Europe that you can only get on a river cruise. One great example: The castles along the Rhine river gorge in Germany. On a stretch of 40 miles, the river is flanked on both sides with 40 castles, a UNESCO World Heritage site with more castles than any other spot in the world. (Look for Rhine River itineraries in Germany for this special stunner).

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MassageCourtesy Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection


The calm river waters are probably already sending you into a state of relaxation, but for extra pampering, you’ll also want to try out onboard massage and beauty treatments on AmaWaterways, Scenic, UniWorld, Avalon, and Viking ships; wine bars; hot tubs; heated pools; and yoga classes on select ships.

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Durnstein Wine TastingCourtesy AmaWaterways

Special interests and skill workshops

Want to learn how to take great photos? Want to tour a vineyard with a winemaker? Always wanted to try your hand at painting? River cruises offer special interest activities and itineraries for no extra cost.

For example, on EmeraldPLUS Programs offer Portuguese tile painting workshops on their Secrets of the Douro, and on the Highlights of Netherlands and Beauty of Belgium cruise (also known as the “Tulip Cruise”), you can try painting clogs after a visit to Keukenhof Gardens in Amsterdam. Uniworld offers Floating Paint and Wine Workshops on four different European itineraries.

AmaWaterways offers special Wine Cruises with Wine Hosts from Le Vigne Winery in Paso Robles, California, and Wolffer Estate Vineyard in Sagaphack, New York, among several others.

On Scenic’s National Geographic cruises, a Nat Geo expert will give talks throughout the week and join guests on shore excursions, and a Nat Geo photographer will also help guests hone their photography skills so you get pro photos of your journey.

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Music on River CruiseCourtesy Tauck

Music all around

Some of the greatest musical traditions in the world originated in the cultural capitals of Europe. On a river cruise, there are myriad opportunities to enjoy classic sounds in their home territory, when musicians and dancers come aboard for special evenings in port. According to Cruise Critic, Crystal River Cruises will hold Signature Events during upcoming cruises with musical performances in iconic destinations such as Vienna’s Belvedere Palace and Rudesheim’s Monastery Eberbach.

Check out this vacation guide based on your personality.

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Friends on River CruiseCourtesy Emerald Waterways

Forging friendships

With an average ship carrying fewer than 200 people, river cruises’ small sizes mean you’ll have an opportunity to easily meet your fellow cruisers in a way you wouldn’t while staying in multiple hotels on a European trip. You’ll automatically have things in common—the ship, the itinerary—and things to discuss each day since you’ll be exploring the same ports. Depending on which cruise line you chose, you may also end up with a chance to meet Europeans on lines such as Croisi, which is popular with Europeans, or travelers from all over the world on Emerald or Scenic, perhaps even gaining new inspiration for your next river cruise.

Melissa Klurman
Melissa is an intrepid explorer and award-winning travel journalist with more than 25 years of experience. She covers topics ranging from family travel and Disney to honeymoons and romantic beaches, and everything in between.