A Danube Cruise is a relaxing way to see some of Europe's most beautiful and historic cities. You're tied to this ancient trade route but you'll never be short a view of a castle, a medieval town to explore or a vineyard to stroll though, and you're passing though some of Europe's most famous capitals as well.
The river runs though Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Serbia and Romania so there are hundred of potential itineraries. This one cruises the most scenic section.
These great rivers have so many ports to visit that even a journey of a single day gives a sense of the history of such a great and important trade route. And that is what this river represents, a great slinking, dragging, proud trade route though Europe, all her important cities, or those with the greatest wealth at least, line the banks in their historic glory, all pointed spires and crowded, yet beautiful architecture.
Kelheim is the Danube's first main port yet more journeys start at Regensburg, the river's oldest city, with the river's oldest and most ancient stone bridge. Built in the 12th Century the bridge splits the river, now just wide enough for proper river traffic, into 16 stone arcs, a fitting start to the journey.
The Danube gathers another two rivers into itself at Passu, which is also the first large town along the river's route. Passau is built around the bottom of a hill, on which sits the Veste Oberhaus – the fortress of the Bishop, and is surrounded by the rivers on most sides. The Bishop didn't just have a great Bavarian fortress though, he also had the Gothic gloriousness, St. Stephen's Cathedral, which, until 1994 had the world's largest organ. Organ concerts are held daily between May and September.
Between Passau and Linz, Austria's third largest city - one that sprawls over both sides of the Danube - the river is lined with pretty villages. Until you reach a sudden bend: the surprising Schlögener Schlinge loop, where it feels like you have turned so far you're going back the other way. This hair-pin river turn is comes along just after Neuhaus.
The river then rushes through Linz, where Hitler spent his youth, but then slows down again so that it can irrigate the wine region of Wachau, where the hills are so steep that the white grapes are grown in terraces. Stop off to taste the local sweet Rieslings and peppery Gruner Veltliners sold in boutique wineries along the river's gorge.
On its meander between Melk and Krems, the river carves through a broad, hill lined valley famous for orchards as well as vineyards. Melk Abbey is a beautiful Baroque sight and has towers and architecture worth disembarking for, as well as an ancient library and walls hung with paintings of Austrian heritage and nobility, and if you do stop here, you must also venture down the medieval lanes and alleys of Krems and drink the Riesling the local people are so proud to produce. If you have only time for one day on the river this is the Danube at its most scenic and there is easy access from Vienna, which should probably be your next significant stop on your journey down river - but not before you pass a portion almost as lovely as this one, where castles perched on the rivers bend, including the lovely Schonbuhel Castle, follow every corner turned.
Vienna is where, if you are cruising with a line rather than at your own leisure, you will want to spend more time than their itinerary allows for. You'll spot a Baroque church to the right, an Art Nouveau masterpiece to your left and be tempted by the strings of Strauss calling you from a concert hall, or the smell of coffee and fresh baking from a cafe. So do as much as you can, not missing the Hofburg, but remember that this as a journey rather than a city hop and return to experience more than just the graceful buildings that line the river and the at once delicate and historically permanent bridges that you pass under.
Slovakia's capital Bratislava follows Vienna; a city changed from capital, to suburb of Vienna, and back again, and the architecture of the city's centre is accordingly beautiful and historic as are its stories. Strolling round the old town, with its medieval gate, cobbled streets and Baroque and 18th-century rococo buildings and street cafés, is like strolling round in a fairy tale.
The most historic and scenic section of the Danube ends in Budapest, a city too many people neglect when travelling the Grand Tour, yet with as much heavy history as any other. Entering the twin cities all lit up in the evening, lights reflecting off the river, is a pleasure of the old fashioned variety. Budapest is older than it's European look projects – its Turkish thermal baths are a testament to that – but it's also modernising, so expect familiar foods as well as traditional flavours. Buda is the older section, where you can find the taverns and castles, where are Pest has the modern monuments and museums.
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