European River Cruise: Explore Castles, Cathedrals, and Fairytales

Centuries ago, life in Germany, Hungary, and Austria revolved around the Rhine, Main, and Danube rivers. Essential for travel, trade, and sustaining life, these ancient waterways gave rise to thriving cities, many of them supporting vast castles and towering cathedrals. Today, it requires a leisurely pace to fully absorb the beauty around every riverbend; hopping on and off planes, trains, and automobiles simply won’t do. Take a European river cruise aboard a luxury riverboat and settle into the slow, dreamy pace of life that matches the storybook scenery that surrounds you.

Romance on the Rhine

Where else would you begin your fairy tale-worthy cruise than in Germany, the land that inspired the Brothers Grimm? Start your adventure in Cologne before taking off through the Rhine Gorge, known for its steep hills topped with castles and ruins that tower above the river. Dare to believe the enchanting tale of the Lorelei, a mythical siren whose song lured sailors to crash against the rock that now bears her name. This is just the first of the many tales that come to life while you cruise down the Rhine River.

Pass castle after castle until you arrive in Frankfurt, the jumping off point for excursions to charming Heidelberg, the ancient university town where the operetta “The Student Prince” was set. It’s centerpiece is Heidelberg Palace, a red sandstone gem that dominates the Old Town, and is set on a green hillside with breathtaking views of the winding Rhine. The Renaissance structure is considered a ruin but still retains its glory despite being ravaged by war and struck by lightning twice.

Continuing south, the town of Marktheidenfeld draws you in with artisans, fine wine, and rich music, while Würzburg offers one of Europe’s grandest castles: Würzburg Residence. This Baroque palace could give Versailles a run for its money, with its miles of marble, gilding, and frescoes drawing awe from the moment you step inside. In fact, Napoleon himself stayed here three times.

Drifting Down the Danube

You won’t know where the time went as you finally make your way through the Main-Danube Canal and into the region’s second great river. The Danube River will carry you from Germany near the Czech Republic, where you can take a shore excursion to explore Český Krumlov, a medieval town built around a 13th-century castle. This area (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) is notable for its authenticity—thanks to centuries of peace, very little of it has required restoration. Proceeding along the Danube you’ll soon enter Austria’s magnificent Wachau Valley. Studded with castles and monasteries, it’s a gorgeous prelude to Vienna, the capital of Austria and one of the world’s greatest cultural capitals.

By taking a European river cruise, you can explore the major cities but also enjoy the small towns and villages that tend to be overlooked by larger tours. Getting to know these provincial cities draws you into the life of the locals and gives you a unique perspective of the European countryside. It all may feel like a passing dream when your tour comes to end, but rest assured, it is all quite real—a proper fairy tale come true.