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European river cruises - which ones are the best?

10 November 2016 ( 07 March 2017 )

Planning on taking a river cruise but not sure which one is best for you? We list the most popular European river cruises to help you decide.

View of Bratislava old town cityscape on the Danube river in Slovakia, European river cruises

Cruise some of the world's most beautiful waterways. Find out more about river cruises here

What could be more special than taking a cruise down a European river to see the best that our neighbouring countries have to offer? 

With entertainment-packed nights followed by day after day of awe-inspiring sights and experiences, a journey down the waterways of Europe promises to be a life-changing event.

Millions of people hop on ships to explore the cities and countryside of Europe each year. It’s now easy to travel independently, and early bird deals like Saga’s allow you to snag yourself a real bargain if you act quickly.

So, special offers aside, what river cruise might suit you best? We’ve put together a quick guide that could give you some helpful pointers. 

Whether you love immersing yourself in history or living for the moment, read on to discover some great holiday ideas…

Danube river cruises

The Hungarian parliament building on the river Danube

Spice up your life with the rich variety on offer from a Danube river cruise. This famous river, immortalised by Johann Strauss in 1866, flows through 11 countries including Romania, Croatia and Slovakia.

For a quick introduction, consider a river cruise that visits Prague and the Danube, which takes in some of the most stunning cities and natural landscapes that Europe has to offer. 

You’ll see both sides of the Hungarian capital, Buda and Pest, sail through the UNESCO cultural landscape of the Wachau Valley, and finally alight in Prague, where you’ll have two days to explore its Bohemian art and multi-faceted architecture.

However, if you really want to get a fuller flavour of the Danube’s countries, then consider the Saga's Danube Delta Odyssey. This trip extends beyond Austria and Hungary to include Croatia’s Vukovar, Serbia and Romania.

Few rivers can match the sheer variety that the Danube has to offer. Find out more here

Elbe river cruises

The river Elbe with Augustus Bridge, Hofkirche, Royal Palace and roofs of old Dresden, Saxony, Germany, European river cruises

“What is this life if, full of care,

We have no time to stand and stare.”

So goes the poem by William Henry Davis, which suggests we should make time to gaze on nature’s beauty. And the river Elbe is the perfect place to experience this. If you hold the natural world in high regard, then there are a few river cruises that should suit you perfectly.

Embark on an Elbe river cruise that takes you from Hamburg to Berlin, via the stunning scenery of the Elbe between Lauenburg and Wittenberge. 

This UNESCO Biosphere Reserve boasts tranquil woodland, statuesque towers of rock, and a wealth of wildlife including cuckoos, storks and cormorants.

If it’s historic countryside you crave, then Saga's Passage through Pomerania boasts a wealth of wonders. 

Its route includes everything from the modern beauty of Berlin – world-famous for iconic sites like the Brandenburg Gate and Checkpoint Charlie – to the UNESCO-recognised medieval old town of Stralsund near the Baltic. 

Discover the Elbe, a river which winds through natural splendour and cities steeped in history. Find out more here

Douro river cruises

The Douro river running alongside terraced vineyards, European river cruises

Portugal’s ‘River of Gold’ flows through the country’s famous wine region, where terraced vineyards meet beautiful sun drenched countryside.

Choose a Douro river cruise that takes you through scenic Portugal, visiting remarkable historic buildings, from a 12th century monastery and hilltop sanctuaries to the grand Mateus Palace and Gardens.

As well as the beautiful countryside and vineyards, many Douro river cruises also visit Portugal's second largest city after Lisbon, Oporto. This culturally rich city is famous for its extravagant bridges and the production of port wine.

Discover more about Portugal's 'River of Gold', the Douro. Find out more here

Spanish and Portugese waterways

The Guadalquivir River Seville, European river cruise

A river cruise along the lesser known Spanish and Portuguese waterways enable you to witness the Gems of Andalusia, taking you past the Doñana Natural Park, where you can see a range of birdlife including herons, buzzards and bustards. 

You’ll also see an equestrian show at a traditional Spanish estate on the final evening of your cruise, as well as the striking scenery on the banks of the Guadalquivir River and the majesty of the Algarve coastline.  

Cruise some of the world's most beautiful waterways. Find out more about river cruises here

Dutch river cruises

Dutch waterway in Holland with tulips and windmill alongside, European river cruises

Explore Holland’s capital and enjoy an expert introduction to Dutch art at the height of its popularity. 

Saga's short and affordable Amsterdam and the Golden Age of Dutch Art cruise is a real steal – simply arrive in Amsterdam, pick up your Museum Card, and then spend a couple of days touring the collections of iconic artists including Van Gogh and Seurat.

The next day, travel to Haarlem and learn about the works of Steen and Hals. You’ll have an art historian by your side during the guided tours to accentuate your journey with expertise.

The Keukenhof Gardens

The Keukenhof Gardens, Holland, European river cruise

See the jaw-dropping colour explosion that is the Keukenhof Gardens, and then sail along the waterways admiring the serene flatness of the Dutch lowlands and their charming windmills in Zaandam.

Set sail on a wonderful river cruise through the Belgian and Dutch waterways. Find out more here

Music themed river cruises

Budapest opera house, Hungary, European river cruises

Few things can stir the soul like soaring strings, the bombast of brass or a sensational guitar solo. 

If you are mad about music, then you should definitely consider a cruise trip through Europe that includes shows from accomplished musicians each day.

If your heart has been captured by classical, then you should choose to cruise the Danube with stop-offs for concerts in stunning locales such as the Budapest Opera House or Vienna’s Annakirche. 

You’ll also enjoy regular on-ship recitals.

But if you prefer the smooth grooves of jazz musicians, then there’s plenty for you too. Saga offer a cruise through stunning Portuguese countryside on the Douro, or alternatively you can see the romance of the Rhineland. 

Both trips provide a jazz host and band for the ship, along with five nightly performances for the week.

Discover a fairy-tale world of hilltop castles, wooded hills and lush vineyards on a Rhine river cruise. Find out more here

Architecture themed river cruises

Bran 'Dracula's' Castle, Transylvania, Romania, European river cruises

Tour Europe’s most majestic cities and marvel at man-made works with river cruises along the Danube that have a strong focus on architecture. 

Taking a cruise along the Great Capitals of the Danube will allow you to see a mind-boggling range of European capitals and towns that exemplify European history in architectural form.

You’ll see Budapest with its fin de siècle finery that is accessorised with everything from Baroque to Art Nouveau buildings. Then there’s the imperial grandeur of Vienna, where Gothic meets modern in the former seat of the Habsburg royal family.

Bratislava and Belgrade, meanwhile, each promise a glimpse into the architectural style of the Communist Soviet era, amidst some traditional 18th century national buildings and some more that date back to the Roman era. 

Throw in the Ottoman influence at the southeastern reaches of the Danube, and you truly have access to all the ages!

If you prefer mixing some history with a dash of mythology, why not try Saga’s Transylvania and the Danube? You’ll visit this Romanian region, which is home to Gothic fortresses including Bran Castle, the home of the Dracula legend. 

Just don’t forget to pack some garlic for the trip!

Mystery river cruises

The lounge bar on-board the Rex Rheni River cruise ship

You’ll no doubt have noticed that there is plenty of adventure to be enjoyed if you take a cruise down a European river. 

But if you have the kind of untameable spirit that takes everything in its stride, why not take the Rex Rheni’s Mystery Cruise?

Your cruise itinerary is revealed day by day, so you will have the added enjoyment of surprise treats and anticipation. 

The journey calls in at four ports that are completely new to Saga Cruises, and you will also stop off at some popular favourites from our other river holidays. 

What’s more you will take part in five surprise excursions – who knows what fun will be had?

Europe’s famed waterways provide an excellent way to see all the diversities that our continent has to offer. 

Discover more about the benefits of river cruising and find the right cruise for you


The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.