European nations have been shaped by the rivers that carve a distinctive route across the continent, their waters flowing with the history of thousands of years. These waterways bear witness to Europe’s tumultuous path into the 21st century – a confluence of powerful empires dating back two millennia, underpinned by trading riches and defined by a legacy of conflicts and plague.
As the dark clouds of this modern-day contagion start to lift and travel restrictions are rolled back, exploring the rivers of Europe is more appealing than ever. This type of cruise was enjoying a seemingly unstoppable boom before the pandemic struck in 2020, with millions of pounds invested in sleek, new – and, in some cases, revolutionary – river craft designed to elevate this market to another level.
New itineraries and debut port stops, coupled with activity-based and experiential excursions (wine tasting, cookery classes, cycling tours), were luring an increasingly youthful audience to complement the more mature guests traditionally attracted to river cruises. Now, industry leaders are confident that three things in particular will resonate with British travellers: the small size of river cruise vessels (accommodating, on average, 150 to 200 guests); the proximity of embarkation points to the UK, allowing for train transfers or self-drive; and the flexibility of on-board service.
With continued confusion around Foreign Office rules on international sea cruises, rivers may be the way many return to the water. “This is one of the best options for getting back to cruising,” says Giles Hawke, UK chief executive of cruise operator Avalon Waterways. “The river cruise experience is tailored to customers who want more space, which is offered by river ships, and I think we will see a desire for more outdoorsy activities.”
His line is among those leading the charge with more adventurous excursions: its Active & Discovery cruises put an emphasis on pursuits, from £2,288pp for a week on the Rhône.
What's new for 2021?
River cruise companies including Tauck and Arena River Cruises are introducing new vessels that will hit the water this year and next – Viking has six new river vessels planned for Europe. New self-drive options are available from Uniworld for Rhône, Seine and Bordeaux departures, with prices starting at £2,204pp for a week-long Seine cruise.
AmaWaterways offers Eurostar transfers for voyages on northern European waterways and APT has introduced “No Fly” Eurostar travel on two Amsterdam departures, with a 15-day Western Front Explorer voyage on Dutch and Belgian waterways from £3,495pp.
As travel restrictions across Europe relax, cruise lines are generally restarting sailings in single countries, such as France and Portugal, before adding more destinations later in the summer. Portugal’s Douro river is one of Europe’s rising stars, its winding route through the rocky gorges of the Douro Valley sparking demand from visitors curious about the history of port production in this region and in nearby Porto. Seven-night cruises with Emerald Cruises cost from £1,845pp.
The lure of the continental Christmas markets this winter also remains strong. A new name due to arrive in the market is TUI River Cruises, which is offering festive voyages from £680pp for five nights. But it is destinations that remain a key driver of choice when deciding what to book.
The Rhine and the Danube
These rivers reign supreme for an unparalleled mix of landmark cities and outstanding scenery. The Rhine cuts through the heart of Europe, passing a procession of medieval masterpieces – Strasbourg, Koblenz, Rüdesheim and Cologne – and the Rhine Gorge, crowned with a string of hilltop castles.
Cruises along the Danube, which flows from Germany’s Black Forest to the Black Sea, tend be split between the Lower Danube from Budapest to Romania – which cuts a spectacular path though the Carpathian and Balkan Mountains as part of the Iron Gate Gorge – and the Upper Danube from Budapest towards Germany. The latter is more popular, passing three capitals – Budapest, Bratislava and Vienna – plus the rolling hills and castles of Austria’s pretty Wachau Valley.
These rivers are where you will find the biggest choice of sailings and ships, including AmaWaterways’ AmaMagna, which is twice the width of other river vessels and sails the Danube from £2,623pp for a week. German line A-Rosa launches the eco-friendly, battery-powered E-Motion ship next May on the Rhine: from £1,190pp for a week.
The rivers of France
Amadeus River Cruises is offering eight-day Seine voyages combining the bright lights of Paris with the gentle landscape of Normandy from £1,181pp. The promise of top gastronomy and fine wines is fuelling demand for explorations of Provence along the Rhône and into Burgundy on the Saône. Scenic is offering a Tastes of Southern France voyage following this format from £3,645pp.
Set sail for 2022
If this year sounds tempting, 2022 promises even more. Passengers can look forward to three special events at ports of call. The first is the Oberammergau Passion Play, staged by the inhabitants of the eponymous village in Bavaria every decade since 1634. After last year’s production was delayed, it was rescheduled for next summer and is included on Danube voyages offered by Viking River Cruises from £3,945pp for nine nights.
The second is Munich’s Oktoberfest. Having been cancelled two years in a row, celebrations will be even more boisterous this year. It features on nine-night Rhine sailings with Tauck from £4,840pp.
Finally, Floriade Expo – the floral extravaganza held every decade in Holland – will be a highlight of cruises along the Dutch and Belgian waterways (commences April 14). One-week sailings with Riviera Travel cost from £1,779pp.
Reader Service: View our pick of the best european river cruises