Updated: Sep 18, 2021
Danube River cruises can be considered the Godmother of all European river cruises! These departures encompass the majority of river cruise sailings and the Danube is oft described as the most picturesque river to sail with numerous medieval and imperial jewels along the way.
The second longest river in Europe, the Danube begins in Germany’s Black Forest region and traverses ten countries including Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Moldova and the Ukraine. A good portion of the river, about one third, is located in Hungary; perhaps you’ve heard Budapest’s nickname, “Queen of the Danube”? The Danube consists of three sections: upper, middle and lower. Most river cruises sailing the first two sections visit Germany’s Nuremberg, Regensburg and Passau, Austria’s Melk and Vienna and Budapest, Hungary. If you prefer traveling through Eastern Europe – namely Budapest, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania – via the lower section – there are certainly excellent sailings to choose from. Keep in mind however that the images you see of Danube sailings are more than likely from departures west of Budapest sailing to Germany and Austria. This does not mean that the Eastern sailings won’t provide a lovely vacation, but you do need to be prepared to dock in industrial settings and travel an hour or so to the point of interest on the itinerary. The one exception is in Serbia where you dock in a charming location and are walking distance to the beautiful town.
What is Sailing the Danube River Like?
The Danube River is a gorgeous setting both by day and by night providing a feast of lush natural landscapes, old-world cities, charming villages, food and wine experiences and more! Most sailings depart Budapest in the evening setting the stage for a gorgeous photo opportunity: Budapest is stunning when it’s all aglow at night and will certainly make for a memorable beginning of your cruise. You’ll sail past the parliament building, Fisherman’s Bastion and St. Stephan’s Basilica – their illuminated facades reflect off the water, creating an otherworldly feel.
Sailing from Budapest, you will pass through Austria’s famed Wachau region, which is west of Vienna and is a UNESCO “world heritage landscape” due to how beautifully preserved the entire area is in terms of its history, architecture and the like. The Wachau region boasts terraced vineyards, castles, abbeys and postcard-perfect villages; sightseeing and experiental opportunities in this region include wine tours, guided bike tours, historic abbey visits and more.
Alternating between sailing during the day and in the evening provides travelers a wonderful opportunity to experience the best of the Danube River. One of the most interesting experiences of Danube River sailings includes the traversing of numerous locks. If opting to sail the Western section between Nuremberg and Budapest, you will pass through the Main-Danube Canal with sixteen locks to travel through! If traveling in high season you may actually experience some traffic and in some extremely narrow spots, bump into the walls; if you know to expect it, it can be part of the adventure!
On the other end of the spectrum, travelers considering cruising on the Danube should know that docking in port entails pulling up extremely close to another river vessel, sometimes more than one, side by side. I remember being quite shocked to see the captain maneuver the ship so incredibly close – within inches – from the next ship! You will have to cross over and between ships to get to your pier, which can be fun, as you get a glimpse into the life of another ship.
If you’re intent on avoiding crowds, consider traveling off-season or during shoulder-season. The Danube’s attractions are quite popular, and for good reason! To get the most of your experience and to enjoy more of a local flavor, try avoiding the main summer months. If traveling during high-season is your only option, don’t fear! Part of my job as a travel designer/advisor is to assist you in finding off-the-beaten-path locations including lesser-known cafés and sites. Of course your cruise director can offer excellent suggestions as well, should you need advice while sailing.
Another important consideration other than crowds is weather. Spring and autumn do carry the chance of cooler temperatures with the chance of rain although this isn’t guaranteed. The main question in deciding when to visit is whether large crowds are more of a nuisance or are cooler temps and having to bring an umbrella along on your excursions should you need it. When I say crowds, I mean crowds. The Danube is very popular and make no mistake, lots of other tourists will be vying for the same sites you are. Personally, I opt for traveling during the off or should-season and risk the weather to gain the chance of a more local, peaceful experience.
Please keep in mind that, while infrequent, your river cruise sailing may be affected by either low or high-water levels. Should your cruise be interrupted by such weather conditions, the cruise lines may need to transport you to one or more destinations by means other than sailing. There are certain sailing months that may be affected: these include spring departures and those in August. If this were to occur and would negatively impact the enjoyment of your trip, please consider traveling outside of these time frames. Keep in mind that this certainly isn’t a hard and fast rule and predicting such weather conditions is outside of the knowledge of your travel advisor or even the cruise line. With this being said, river cruising is a truly beautiful way to explore Europe! Innumerable sailings have sailed without interruption, to the great delight of many travelers.
If you are a single traveler or someone traveling with a friend, but prefer a separate room, you are not destined to pay a single supplement! There are special river cruise sailings that eliminate the single supplement making cruising as a single a more affordable option.
Multiple river cruise lines sail the mighty Danube and a good travel advisor can help you sort through the many options, to reveal the sailing that’s best suited to your personality, interests, travel dates and overall desires. Cheers to experiencing all the majesty and grandeur the Danube River has to offer!
For more information, contact Lisa at Bella Europa Travel: bellaeuropatravel.com or by phone, 1-203-433-2173