Vineyards hiking in Rudesheim on an absolutely gorgeous day.
Extraordinary Experiences on River Cruises
Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “The purpose of life is to live it, to taste it, to experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.” Now, instead of “life,” imagine she said “travel.” Therein lies the ultimate goal of most savvy travelers - to richly and authentically experience the destination they are visiting.
Perhaps nowhere is this easier than on a river cruise - you’re effortlessly delivered to a new destination practically daily, with myriad opportunities for onshore activities and excursions. It’s easy to pick your own pace, whether you’re feeling active or prefer to sleep in and greet the new day slowly. Let’s peek at what you might expect to find for activity options on a river cruise in Europe.
What Types of Shore Excursions Are Offered on a River Cruise?
Let’s start with what type of traveler you are. Are you ready with a list in hand of all the experiences you want to have on your Europe river cruise, from day-long sightseeing to miles of cycling? Or, are you a late riser who wants to maximize your rest time and still have plenty of daylight left to enjoy your surroundings? The good news is that most luxury river-cruise operators cater to all travel styles. There are typically choices of gentle-, regular- and active-paced tours.
Part of our group chose a bike tour in Cologne. Pictured is the magnificent
Cologne Cathedral in the background.
Active Tours: Biking and Hiking
These typically fall under the category of biking and hiking. Cycling is a wonderful way to get outside the city or village center and explore the enchanting countryside. Your cruise line will likely offer exclusive, guided tours on two wheels, perhaps pedaling along the Danube between Durnstein and Melk in Austria’s Wachau Valley or winding through the medieval street of Rouen in France’s Normandy region near the Seine. From Cologne’s Old Town and Cathedral along the Rhine, to the wooded hills and shoreline poplar trees of Passau, Germany, the cycling opportunities are endless in these regions of Europe.
If you prefer your active sightseeing on two feet instead of two wheels, opt for a guided hike that gets you a touch of fresh air and leads you to vantage points you wouldn’t have discovered on your own. Trek all the way up to the Veste Oberhaus in Germany for views over Old Passau. Stroll up the Philosopher’s Path for a panoramic view of Heidelberg, along the Neckar River. Take an easy walk from the ship to Strasbourg, France’s charming Old Town. Or, venture to Richard the Lionheart’s former site of captivity, Durnstein Fortress. Go beyond the typical European landmarks and architectural masterpieces - when you hike, or simply meander, out in nature, you’ll be treated to rewarding views off the beaten path.
If you’re river cruising with friends, or have met guests onboard who have similar interests - or, if you’re simply hoping to meet like-minded folks - opt for a special-interest tour. Love to cook? Learn to knot a “bretzel” in Wertheim, Germany. Love a good pub? Try the bratwurst and local brews at the oldest brewery in Nuremberg. Go on a food tour in Antwerp, tasting authentic Belgian waffles and chocolates. Visit a museum or famous landmark after hours when the crowds have dissipated. Zip through the streets of Bordeaux in a vintage sidecar. These carefully curated experiences put an extra-special touch on your vacation.
Enjoying a wonderful glass of wine with some old and new friends.
Who Will I Be With During My Shore Excursions?
For the most part, upscale river-cruising companies will place their guests in small groups. You’ll move onshore with a group of like-minded guests, interested in the same experiences and sightseeing you are. Plus, with a smaller group, you’re better able to maneuver at top landmarks and sights and pop into more intimate settings, perhaps a behind-the-scenes vineyard tour or lunch at a tiny, family-run eatery in a riverside village. This way, too, you can get to know your fellow passengers - travel experiences are even richer when shared. Along the way, you’ll be guided by an expert, English-speaking guide - most likely a local who is knowledgeable about the history and culture of your destination.
Does this all sound enticing? Don’t settle for simply passing through your destination - experience it with all your senses by picking and choosing the excursions that speak both to your personal interests and your particular travel style. I can help you decide which outings those are - let’s chat.
The markets are so magical that it's impossible to fully describe the experience.
During my recent Rhine River cruise, I had the good fortune of visiting Cologne (the Dom!), Heidelberg (the castle!) and Strasbourg (the storybook old town!). As utterly delightful as these destinations were, I knew they’d be even more magical at the holidays, when the traditional Christmas markets spring to life. For those among you who have your heart set on a bucket-list Christmas market cruise through Europe, I can assure you, these cities will not disappoint. Here we’ll take a look at the spectacular Christmas festivities in Cologne, Heidelberg and Strasbourg - knowing that beyond these, there are countless holiday market destinations where you can sip spicy glühwein, munch on delicious gingerbread and shop for hand-carved ornaments to your heart’s content.
Home to not just one, but seven atmospheric Christmas markets, Cologne is a veritable winter wonderland. For the most iconic experience, head straight to the Cathedral location - extra credit for climbing to the top of the Dom to look down on the sparkling lights and red tents of the picturesque market square. This is the largest of all the markets in the city, with more than 130 festively decorated stands, a brilliantly lit fir tree, more than 100 free stage events and an array of delicious local delicacies.
In Cologne’s Old Town, you’ll find another delightful Christmas market, between the Heumarkt and the Alter Markt. Learn the story of why the market is called the “Home of the Heinzelmännchen” - legendary little creatures who were believed to do all the necessary house chores until they were turned off by a curious housewife. One of the best parts of this particular market is the open-air skating rink - whether you’re lacing up skates or simply watching others glide by. You can even watch a curling match, while enjoying a pint from the Allgäuer Büble Alpe.
The Village of Saint Nicholas market is a perennial favorite, held in Rudolfplatz in the shadow of the centuries-old Hahnentoburg gate. The historic half-timbered houses, including one set up to be a children’s toy workshop, along Nicholas Street, Village Street and Market Street, are lovingly decorated and illuminated, making for a magical setting.
Nutcrackers are one of my favorite items to shop for.
Five festive markets light up the streets and neighborhoods of Heidbelberg: Kornmarkt, Marktplatz, Universitätsplatz, Anatomiegarten and Bismarckplatz. Below the city’s 17th-century castle, cobblestone streets are lined with wooden stalls selling traditional, handcrafted toys and ornaments, while an ice-skating rink in the city square attracts young and old. Wander any of the markets to pick up steaming mulled wine, local sweets, unique trinkets, glass-blown gifts and more.
Bismarckplatz is at the entrance to Old Town, getting visitors in the mood for a romantic stroll through the historic center of the city. At the Anatomiegarten, a small Christmas booth town pops up in the Advent season. Universitätsplatz lights up as the largest square of the whole Heidelberg Christmas Market - pick up mulled wine and bratwurst while the grandkids ride the carousel. Over at Marktplatz, the highlight is the giant Heidelberg wooden barrel with a capacity of 120,000 liters, and at Kornmarkt, you’ll see illuminated fir trees and tents set up to create a festive holiday ambience.
It’s all about the light of Christmas in Strasbourg, the capital of the Alsace region and home to one of the oldest, most revered Christmas markets in the world. Traditional half-timbered homes are decked out in twinkling lights, cozy huts are lined up in the squares along the La Grand Ile and the Great Christmas Tree in the Place Kleber beckons all to its brilliantly lit boughs.
Believe it or not, Strasbourg has been home to Christmas markets since 1570, so they know how to impress. Browse more than 300 stalls in more than 10 different markets for handmade gifts, freshly baked treats and ornaments and crafts that are made in workshops before your very eyes. There’s a changing “guest country” market each year, so you can learn and buy from the traditions of a different destination.
Exploring Christmas markets means stopping for some delicious treats.
With so many market options, where does one begin? The biggest and most popular are:
Smaller markets include Place du Marché aux Poisson, Place du Temple Neuf, Place Saint Thomas, Place des Meuniers, Place Benjamin-Zix and Place Grimmeissen.
Ready to go? Let’s chat - these Christmas markets are sure to make for an especially memorable holiday season for you and yours.
River cruising the Rhine Gorge
The Main Differences Between Ocean and River Cruising
You love to cruise and you’re ready for something different. And while you’re interested in a river cruise, you’re likely wondering, “How is it really different from an ocean cruise?” Let’s look at what you can expect, particularly if you have been on an ocean mega-ship in the past, from the size of your stateroom to the experiences you’ll have onshore.
River Cruises Provide a More Intimate Onboard Setting
With just 200 or fewer passengers, riverships offer a convivial, friendly and intimate setting. Given the niche destinations (The Rhine, The Elbe) and sometimes themed voyages (wine, cuisine), you’ll likely sail with member like-minded passengers, guests who become fast friends as you share the experiences of the day over cocktails or dinner. While it means you won’t be battling crowds to get a good spot by the pool, it does mean you won’t have as many amenities as a resort-style ocean ship - instead, you’ll have smaller restaurants, a tiny spa, small fitness center and perhaps a computer center. (This does mean your river cabin may be smaller than what you would experience on an ocean ship, but you’ll likely be spending so much time exploring the area, you won’t even notice. Plus, what most cabins lack in size they make up for with creative design and the addition of balconies.)
Oasis of the Seas is one of the largest cruise ships in the world
River Ships Offer Creative Dining Options
Aboard an ocean cruise ship, you can expect enough dining venues that you could eat at a different one each night. On a river ship, prior to COVID, you could expect buffet-style breakfast and lunch in the main restaurant, with maybe a few items available a la carte, with a served evening meal. On many vessels that has now changed and a la carte will be the main option with full service provided. This doesn’t mean less food and only that the style of service has changed. More and more river ships are also offering a second dining venue, with a more specialized menu, and/or private dining options. You may find breakfast and lunch options in the lounge or out on the deck, in addition to the main dining room, to change things up a bit. No matter where you eat, rest assured the smaller passenger count means that the cuisine is heavily regionally inspired and fresh ingredients from onshore are incorporated as much as possible.
River Cruises Offer Lower-Key Entertainment
The entertainment on a river cruise isn’t in the flashy style of ocean cruises. That means no Broadway-style shows or karaoke. Instead, you may be treated to locally inspired folk dance performances or choir concerts for a quick after-dinner show. There may be one-off cooking demonstrations or wine tastings, or perhaps an educational talk by a wildlife naturalist or a local historian.
River Cruises Offer Access to More Ports
Let’s face it: size matters. When it comes to cruise ships, the modern river vessels can reach places the ocean mega-ships simply can’t. Their smaller, more nimble size means more off-the-beaten-path destinations for you and more authentic shoreside excursions. It also means you won’t be moored out in an industrial port - you’ll likely dock right in town, just a short walk or bus ride away from the center of town.
I was privileged to sail the maiden voyage of the AmaSiena
River Cruises Offer More Destination-Driven Itineraries
While ocean-going mega ships can serve as a vacation destination unto themselves (the pools and waterslides! the shows! the limitless dining!), river cruises tend to focus less on the ship and more on the ports visited. You’ll visit a destination each day, sometimes even two ports in one day, and cover several countries within a week’s time. That’s a lot of vacation packed into one incredible week off! Plan on a lot of walking as you learn each new city’s history and culture, check out the local cafes and shops or take a motor coach tour to a nearby castle. Many river cruise lines also offer more active options, including cycling, golf, music recitals and cooking classes onshore.
The fares for ocean cruises often come with some nickel and diming for all the extras by which you’ll be tempted. Alternatively, most river-cruise fares include just about everything - while this may make it seem more expensive, it’s a lot less to balk at at the beginning, knowing what’s to be included, instead of being faced with an unpleasantly large bill at the end of your vacation. You can expect fares to include wine, beer, soft drinks, dinners in specialty restaurants, Wi-Fi and standard tour options in each port.
Ready for your river cruise? Let’s chat.
Expert chefs prepare the most delicious soups.
River-Cruise Dining: What to Expect
Are My Meals Included on a River Cruise?
In general, you can expect that all meals onboard will be included. In addition, if you are on a shore excursion that takes place during a regular mealtime, i.e. lunch, that meal is typically included, as well.
What About Drinks?
Most upscale river cruise lines will serve unlimited, complimentary beer, wine and soft drinks with lunch and dinner. There are certain operators, including Uniworld, that offer an all-inclusive open bar (premium-brand spirits and Champagne may incur an additional fee). Typically, you can expect coffee and tea stations available throughout the ship around the clock. Breakfast usually means unlimited sparkling wine and fresh juice. Many European ships will include tea time and perhaps a daily cocktail hour with complimentary wine, beer and spirits. Some cruise lines will offer beverage packages that include alcoholic and soft drinks - the value of such packages really depends on how much you care to indulge.
What Kind of Cuisine Can I Expect?
Upscale European river-cruising fleets, especially, pride themselves on serving traditional and regionally inspired cuisine that showcases your destination. Expert chefs prepare locally sourced meals with the freshest ingredients. Expect expansive breakfast buffets with hot and cold, as well as made-to-order, items. Lunch is usually a three-course affair, and dinner four courses. If there’s a captain’s dinner or some other specialty meal, you can expect up to six courses.
Some fleets, including AmaWaterways in Europe, take the culinary experience up a notch - each of their Europe ships is a member of La Chaîne des Rôtisseurs – a prestigious international culinary society. If you’re sailing with AmaWaterways and consider yourself a foodie, don’t miss the exclusive Chef’s Table specialty restaurant (included in your fare), where you can witness the chef preparing your exquisite multi-course meal.
A choice of entrée is always available with careful attention
paid to dietary needs and preferences.
What Are the Dining Options and Are There Multiple Seatings?
Unlike the mega, ocean-going ships, on a European river-cruise vessel, most meals are one seating, due to the smaller number of passengers and a smaller chef team creating multiple courses in a tight galley.
There is typically one main restaurant onboard, where breakfast and lunch are served (most likely buffet-style), as well as a wait-staffed dinner. If you prefer a light option for lunch or dinner, some ships offer a lounge setting with a smaller menu.
Take your time in the morning if you wish - breakfast is typically available starting as early as 6 am with light early-bird offerings until the main dining room opens. Once open, breakfast is served for about two hours. Sometimes the breakfast and lunch time frames are shifted earlier to accommodate shore excursion departures. Expect lunch from noon to 2 pm and dinner from about 7 pm to 9 pm. It is appreciated if you arrive on time and plan to place your full order for all courses at the start of the meal.
I personally always leave room for the delicious desserts.
Calories on vacation don't count.
Where Do I Sit When Dining on a River Cruise?
River-cruise dining rooms offer free seating, so you’re not hemmed in by table assignments. Dine with new friends and old, as you wish. Tables for two are a bit harder to come by, so you can expect to be seated with four, six or eight other diners. Of course, as the Covid-19 pandemic progresses, all lines will have their own physical-distancing protocols in place, so this may affect with whom and where you sit. When the weather is pleasant, some vessels offer alfresco dining areas on the open decks.
What If I Have Dietary Restrictions?
Speak up! Mention your dietary requirements at the time you reserve your river cruise and we’ll ensure that it is noted. There are plenty of vegetarian dishes on the menus and at the buffets and most menus are marked to show which dishes contain allergens such as gluten, nuts and dairy. If you are vegan, no-salt, fat-free, low-carb, just let me know.
Hungry yet? Rest assured, you will dine amply and well on a European river cruise. Let’s chat.
Travel Advisor Specializing in River Cruising