From the mountains of Germany’s Black Forest, where it slices through 10 countries across Europe’s heart to the Black Sea, the Danube breathes life into the grandiose glories of imperial empires and kingdoms that shaped these lands in times past.
Two millennia ago, this artery formed the frontier of the Roman Empire and was the lifeblood of the Austro-Hungarian realm ruled by the all-powerful Hapsburg dynasty, while in more recent times its route behind the Iron Curtain through Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary served as a fascinating insight into Communist rule and the legacy of Ottoman rulers before that.
The Danube is acclaimed as the only river in the world to flow through four capital cities: Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest and Belgrade on its path through Austria, Slovakia, Hungary and Serbia, adding a unique flavour to its appeal, which has grown to make it the most popular river for UK cruisers, overtaking the Rhine.
This is a waterway inextricably linked to music, forever immortalised by Johann Strauss in the Blue Danube Waltz. Its other abundant cultural riches include grand statuesque palaces and imperious castles that vie with chocolate-box medieval towns and spellbinding scenery.
Sailing past the Gothic splendour of Budapest’s majestic parliament building and the distinctive towers of the Fisherman’s Bastion lookout opposite is an undisputed highlight of Danube cruises, while the night-time view of the city’s illuminated skyline has to be one of the best sights on any river.
The Danube is Europe’s second-longest river after Russia’s Volga, and cruises are generally split between the Upper Danube running westwards between Budapest and Regensburg in Germany and the Lower Danube leading eastwards between Budapest and Romania.
Travelling through Bratislava and Austria, past Vienna and the gently rolling hills of the gorgeous Wachau Valley with its historic settlements, vineyards, cycle paths and hiking trails, the Upper Danube is the most popular stretch of the river and where the majority of river vessels sail.
Along this tract of waterway lies the ruins of Kuenringer Castle, also known as Durnstein castle. Clinging to a hilltop, it is best known as the place where Richard the Lionheart was incarcerated in 1192.
For the musically inclined, Salzburg can be visited on day trips from Linz. Here, guests waltz into the city to immerse themselves in the life and classical mastery of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who was born and lived here, or to soak in the feel-good vibe from Oscar-winning classic The Sound of Music which was filmed in and around the city.
The Lower Danube, with its staggering mountainous backdrop and dramatic Iron Gate Gorge, carries the added fascination of exploring Eastern Europe’s former Communist nations: Croatia, Bulgaria, Romania and Serbia.
As well as stopping at the capital of Belgrade, many cruises offer additional insight into Serbia. Visit Djerdap National Park where one of the country’s – and indeed the continent’s – most important archaeological sites is located; one of Europe’s oldest settlements. Plunge further on into Romania and experience the lush biodiverse wilderness of the Danube Delta, where the river flows into the Black Sea attracting a rich proliferation of birdlife.
The best Danube cruises
Take your time
Most cruises along the Upper Danube tend to be for a week, but a new nine-night voyage with Scenic enables guests to enjoy a more in-depth experience. Starting in Nuremberg, Bavaria’s second-largest city, the medieval walls and cobbled streets of the Old Town resonate with the aura of the Middle Ages explored on walking tours that also delve into its torrid Second World War history. Discover the region’s Jewish heritage in Regensburg and Budapest and gain an insight into the brutal regime at the wartime Mauthausen Concentration Camp near Linz.
Tick off two countries in one go on a cross-border ebike ride along the Inn River at Passau from Germany to Austria or follow the same route along the river on a kayaking tour. Guests can try sausage-making in Regensburg, torte-baking in Linz and even turn their hands to making potato dumplings in Bratislava.
How to do it: The ten-day Danube in Depth voyage (0808 301 8277; scenic.co.uk) between Nuremberg and Budapest includes stops at Vienna, Bratislava and Melk; departs April to October. From £3,795pp including flights, suite with butler service, excursions, a private classical concert, drinks and gratuities.
Explore the kingdoms of the Danube
An imperial evening featuring a gala dinner and classical music performance at a Viennese palace that once hosted composers Beethoven and Schubert is one of the exclusive highlights of a new Tauck cruise-and-stay. The trip begins in Bavaria with two nights in Munich and two on the shores of Lake Riessersee, where a cogwheel train ride whisks you to the summit of Zugspitze, Germany’s highest mountain.
During the one-week sailing that follows, a traditional Bavarian lunch at the Benedictine Weltenburg Abbey near Vilshofen – whose monastic brewery dating from 1050 is thought to be the oldest in the world – gives guests a chance to sample amber nectars. From Linz, hop across the border into the Czech Republic to visit the riverside gem Cesky Krumlov where the stone streets brim with beautifully preserved Baroque, Renaissance and Gothic architectural treasures.
How to do it: The 11-night Danube Kingdoms package (0800 810 8020; tauck.co.uk) comprises a four-night stay in Bavaria and one-week sailing from Vilshofen to Budapest; departs May to October. From £5,590pp including shore excursions, gratuities and drinks. Excludes flights.
Traverse the Iron Gorge
Hungary’s evocative history and traditions come to the fore on a new Viking Cruises sailing along the Upper and Lower Danube that spends two days in Budapest. Passengers can explore the haunting history of the Jewish Quarter, dominated by its grand synagogue and Jewish Museum, or visit so-called horse-country outside the capital where Hungarian riders show off skills handed down generations.
Serbia’s capital Belgrade is one of Europe’s oldest cities and tours of the graceful Royal Palace give a taste of aristocratic life over the centuries. Meanwhile, during a behind-the-scenes visit to the country’s National Theatre, home of the Serbian Opera, visitors are treated to an exclusive operatic performance.
The dramatic scenery of the Iron Gate Gorge wows as you sail towards Bulgaria, the river cutting through the Carpathian and Balkan Mountains. Here you can spot Roman remains on the Serbian banks of the river and the immense rock sculpture of Dacian king Decebalus on the Romanian side.
How to do it: The 16-night Capitals of Eastern Europe cruise (0800 319 6660; viking.com) sails between Bucharest and Vienna, calling at Bratislava, Vukovar in Croatia, Pleven in Bulgaria and Constanta in Romania; departs April to November. From £4,695pp including flights, drinks with meals, an excursion in each port and gratuities.
Old world meets new ship
Amadeus River Cruises’ latest ship, Amadeus Nova, is the first of a new generation of more sustainable river craft that will be sailing into Europe’s historic heart along the Danube in 2024. The hybrid diesel-electric vessel claims to cut its carbon footprint by reducing emissions and virtually eliminating pollutants, while solar panels provide electrical power.
Due to launch in the spring, the ship’s Danube sailings will visit grand Baroque Melk Abbey which, since the 11th century, has been home to a community of Benedictine monks. A walking tour of Bratislava reveals the Slovak capital’s old city walls and the summer residence of the archbishop, while trips outside the city reveal the magnificence of the 18th century Schloss Hof Estate, once owned by Hapsburg Empress Maria Theresa.
How to do it: The eight-day round-trip Danube Rhapsody sailing (0800 035 6411; amadeus-rivercruises.co.uk) from Passau includes stops at Emmersdorf, Budapest, Vienna and Linz; departs April. From £1,614pp including drinks with meals, Wi-Fi and use of onboard bikes. Excludes flights.
Burn it all off
There can’t be many better ways to work off the fine wines and dining of Danube river cruises than to join the latest fitness craze. AmaWaterways’ ship AmaMagna is double the width of nearly all other river cruise vessels on the Danube and this extra space has enabled it to install a pickleball court where players can run off calories in friendly (or competitive) knockabouts.
On an itinerary between Budapest and Vilshofen, discover the enchanting appeal of Austria’s Wachau Valley where travelling through the verdant sweeping hills provides an abundance of pretty postcard views. The region benefits from its own microclimate which enables apricots to grow in abundance to produce jams, chutneys, sweets and skin creams, which guests can sample during a stop at Krems. If you like to keep active, opt for energetic options such as hiking up Budapest’s Castle Hill, touring Vienna by bike and cycling along Linz’s famed Cultural Mile to admire the striking architecture.
How to do it: The one-week Magna on the Danube cruise (0800 520 2250; amawaterways.co.uk) departs regularly between February and December. From £1,612pp including drinks with meals, excursions, bike tours and Wi-Fi. Excludes flights.
Spend Christmas in Vienna
September marks the launch of Viva Cruises’ third river ship Viva Enjoy, which carries 190 passengers. The three restaurants include the main venue, Riverside, the alternative Bistro and Moments speciality restaurant.
The new ship will spend the remainder of 2024 on the Danube where sailings include a festive voyage over Christmas that should capture the continental yuletide spirit. The sailing promises to get off to an atmospheric start in Vienna, where the legacy of the city’s imperial past has blessed it with a host of romantic backdrops that lend themselves to its yuletide markets and swathe of special events.
Christmas Eve is spent amid the spiritual surroundings of Melk Abbey, while on Dec 25, you arrive at the town of Linz, noted for the striking Baroque buildings lining the city square. Boxing Day is spent in Passau, where guests can stride off festive excesses on a walking tour.
How to do it: The five-night Danube Christmas market cruise from Vienna to Regensburg (0330 818 7271; viva-cruises.com) calls at Durnstein and Melk; departs December 22. From £995pp including drinks, Wi-Fi and gratuities.
Anyone looking to cruise solo should try Avalon Waterways’ Danube sailings where single supplements have been waived on selected departure dates. Among these are Active & Discovery sailings which feature an extensive choice of excursions at each stop offering Classic, Discovery or Active options. At the Hungarian castle town of Visegrad sure-footed enthusiasts can hike up to Count Dracula’s prison tower where Vlad the Impaler was incarcerated or take a canoeing trip along the picturesque Danube Bend where the river dramatically curves.
A visit to the Hapsburg dynasty’s private art collection in Vienna is the Classic option for the Austrian capital, while the Discovery alternative is a morning walking tour complete with breakfast in a Viennese café. For something Active, cyclists can discover the city highlights on a bike tour. At Engelhartszell you can also hop on a bike to a local trappist monastery or visit the Rococo-style Engelszell Abbey to explore its sensory garden and stone labyrinth. Be sure to sample the cheese and beers made by the resident Trappist monks.
How to do it: The one-week Active & Discovery Danube cruises (0330 808 4747; avalonwaterways.co.uk) sail between Budapest and Vilshofen; departs May to September. From £3,203pp based on single occupancy including drinks with meals and Wi-Fi. Excludes flights.
Take the kids
Uniworld’s Generations voyages are aimed at families and this Danube sailing promises plenty of kids’ appeal with special activities and excursions aimed at younger cruisers. Join a magical history tour of Vienna on a fascinating romp through the centuries at the Time Travel Museum or absorb imperial life at the Schonbrunn Palace where youngsters can dress up as princes and princesses.
In Passau, families can join a geocaching guide on a treasure hunt or spend the afternoon messing about on the water with canoes and paddle-boards on the River Ilz. Colouring book fans can visit the renowned family-owned Faber-Castell headquarters near Nuremberg to see its famous wooden pencils being made and explore the grounds dominated by its medieval-style castle.
How to do it: The nine-night Authentic Danube & Prague Generations package (0808 168 9231; uniworld.com) includes a one-week voyage from Vienna to Nuremberg and a two-night stay in Prague; departs Aug 7. From £3,599pp including excursions, Wi-Fi, gratuities and drinks. Excludes flights.