Cruising the Rhine
If you love the idea of a cruise but aren’t thrilled at the prospect of spending days at sea, don’t worry – you could always cruise the River Rhine and enjoy a holiday on water that gives you spectacular scenery and majestic cities without the need for your sea legs.
Stretching for 766 miles from the Swiss Alps to the North Sea, the Rhine is one of Europe’s longest rivers, and has variously served as a crucial trade route, line of defence and political border in the days since the Roman Empire.
Today, the imposing castles and fortifications that line the river are one of the features that make the Rhine so popular as a visitor destination, whether you’re cruising along its length or just enjoying outdoor activities in the many major cities – and six countries – that the river passes through.
Like any holiday on the Continent, the first step is to get yourself across the Channel. Options vary, but cruise companies will often include a flight, train, coach or ferry to the cruise boarding point within the price of your holiday.
One popular starting point for Rhine cruises is the Dutch capital, Amsterdam, which hardly requires an introduction.
If you get chance before sailing off, take half a day to explore the cobbled streets and 16th century merchant houses, or choose one of the city’s famous museums or galleries to visit. If you can’t wait to hit the water, a canal trip on a glass-topped boat is a good way to get yourself in the cruising mood.
Our Places We Like article on Amsterdam includes more detailed tips about some of the city’s top – and quirkiest – attractions.
Next stop on the itinerary might well be the German city of Cologne, rebuilt after being almost entirely destroyed in the Second World War.
Today, the city is a beguiling mix of old and new, with its delightful Old Town (Altstadt) hosting the Gothic cathedral, Kölner Dom – Germany’s most visited landmark – as well as the twelve famous Romanesque churches.
If Modernist architecture is more your thing, you may enjoy the striking Cologne Opera House (Oper Köln) – designed by the German architect Wilhelm Riphahn, and currently in the midst of a massive restoration programme.
Rüdesheim and the Rhine Gorge
Past the ancient fortified city of Koblenz – another popular starting point for Rhine cruises – you come to the delightful town of Rüdesheim, famous for its winemaking, and part of the UNESCO-designated Rhine Gorge World Heritage Site.
Admire the ruined Ehrenfels Castle that sits on the steep eastern bank above the town, take in the restaurants and street entertainment along the buzzing Drosselgasse, or enjoy the cable car ride to the Niederwald Monument for panoramic views over the town and river.
Miltenberg and Speyer
As you leave the gorge and enter the Rhine’s broader section, the historic towns just keep coming. Some cruise options leave the Rhine at Mainz, taking you along the River Main past Frankfurt to the picture-postcard town of Miltenberg. Half-timbered buildings are everywhere, while the Hotel Zum Riesen – one of Germany’s oldest inns – looks like it could almost be built from Lego, with its steep gables and colourful façade.
Alternatively, your cruise might carry on up the Rhine to Speyer, a city that was founded by the Romans and features another World Heritage Site in the shape of its imposing Romanesque cathedral.
Beyond, the Rhine soon becomes the border between Germany and France, where the city of Strasbourg will more than likely form your next stop-off.
Here you have the canal-lined medieval centre, or Grande Île, to explore (yet another World Heritage Site), as well as the towering Strasbourg Cathedral to admire – once the world’s tallest building, and still the highest medieval building in Europe.
Beyond Strasbourg, many cruises stop off at Breisach, a pretty little town in its own right, but mainly a handy stopping-off point for an excursion into the Black Forest. Prepare to embrace all the tourist stereotypes as you sample the famous gateau or pay a visit to Germany’s largest cuckoo clock shop.
Finally to the Swiss city of Basel, and the end point for many Rhine cruises. A large conurbation straddling the Swiss, French and German borders, Basel is a buzzing city that combines historic attractions – such as the famous red sandstone Münster (Minster) – with modern architectural masterpieces from the likes of Renzo Piano, Zaha Hadid and Frank Gehry.
Of course, after already packing in so much of Europe’s most delightful scenery, you may just fancy a relaxing mooch around Basel’s charming old town or some retail therapy in the big-name department stores. Still, whatever your preference, you can be reassured that Basel is packed with enough culture, heritage and attractions to ensure that your experience of cruising the Rhine truly ends on a high.
Photo credit: Falk Schaaf
Read more about the Rhine on the German National Tourist Board website.