River cruises provide an easy way to travel to the heart of Europe. Board a well-appointed ship, unpack your bags once and settle in for a relaxed voyage to Old World cities and medieval villages, grand castles and cathedrals, and scenic vineyards and farms. Ships usually dock in the center of town, making exploration easy and convenient whether you join one of the included shore excursions or set out on your own.
Read on to learn about the attractions and landmarks featured on cruises of Europe’s top rivers, or click any link below to go directly to a specific river.
Ships that operate in the Bordeaux region of southwestern France navigate the Garonne and Dordogne rivers and the Gironde estuary. Itineraries focus on Bordeaux’s winemaking heritage, with visits to vineyards, wine estates and cellars.
During a port call in Cadillac, for example, passengers can travel to Sauternes, famed for its amber-colored dessert wines. Excursions also might visit Roquetaillade Castle. Built on the remains of fortifications erected by Charlemagne, it has been in the same family since 1306. Pauillac is the heart of the Medoc wine region, and guests usually head to a chateau for tastings.
When your ship calls at Blaye, board a motorcoach for a drive along the scenic Route de la Corniche Fleurie past old stone houses to the Citadel of Blaye. Designed by 17th-century architect the Marquis of Vauban, it forms part of the fortifications known as “Vauban’s bolt.” It was built at the Gironde Estuary to protect the city of Bordeaux from enemies approaching from the Atlantic Ocean.
From Libourne, guests can travel to Saint-Emilion, a small medieval town that’s one of Bordeaux’s oldest wine appellations; Romans planted grapevines here as early as the second century. Saint-Emilion also is home to a 12th-century monolithic church, parts of which are underground. Another attraction in the area is Chateau d’Montaigne, once home to Renaissance philosopher Michel de Montaigne.
Some itineraries overnight in the port city of Bordeaux, offering an opportunity to see some of its stunning buildings at night, like the Place de la Bourse and the Grand Theatre.
The 340-mile Moselle River, also spelled as Mosel, runs through Germany, Luxembourg and France. Moselle sailings usually are combined with cruises of the Rhine River, which it joins in Koblenz, a German city that traces its history to the Roman military fortification established here in the year 8 B.C.
Another port call in Germany is Cochem, where a favorite attraction is Cochem Castle, or Reichsburg. The centuries-old edifice fell to ruin but was rebuilt on its Gothic foundations in 1868 by Berlin businessman Louis Ravené and used as his family’s summer home.
Winding south along the Moselle, you’ll arrive at the old winegrowing town of Bernkastel, where walking tours show off the elaborately timber-framed, gabled homes and picturesque squares. Continue on to Trier, Germany’s oldest city with the remnants of Roman baths and an amphitheater that once held 20,000 spectators.
Remich in the tiny nation of Luxembourg serves as a starting or ending point for many Moselle voyages. It’s a hub for the region’s wine industry, nestled amid vineyards and forests.
The Rhone River starts at the Rhone Glacier in the Swiss Alps, flowing through Switzerland and into southeastern France, where it empties into the Mediterranean Sea. It joins the Saone River in Lyon, where travelers can explore the historic section that’s now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, tour the Basilica of Notre Dame or learn about the silk-weaving industry that once thrived here. River cruise itineraries usually incorporate both the Rhone and the Saone in one trip.
This part of France is rich in Roman history, and Vienne offers several architectural examples from the era. An amphitheatre built in A.D. 40 seated 11,500 people and now hosts an annual jazz festival, while the Temple of Augustus and Livia was converted to a church in the fifth century.
A 16th-century castle dominates Tournon, set amid Cotes du Rhone vineyards. Across the river is Tain l’Hermitage, where guests can sample the confections of high-end chocolate maker Valrhona. Walking tours of Viviers wind past the village’s pale stone buildings to a Romanesque cathedral, its interior hung with Gobelin tapestries.
Nine popes lived in the walled city of Avignon in the 1300s, and their former papal residence is said to be the world’s largest Gothic palace. More than 25 rooms are open to the public.
The Provencal town of Arles was one of Vincent Van Gogh’s favorite places; he was captivated by the special quality of the light here. It has several impressive Roman sites such as an ancient amphitheater. From Arles, guests can travel to a local olive farm and to Les Baux de Provence. Situated on a rocky outcropping, Les Baux is part of an organization called The Most Beautiful Villages in France, which strives to preserve the character and culture of rural communities with fewer than 2,000 inhabitants.
The Saone River flows through France’s Burgundy wine region, joining the Rhone River in Lyon. Typically, both rivers are combined in a single itinerary.
Learn about the area’s viticulture in locales like Beaune. It’s also known for the Hospices of Beaune, a 15th-century charity hospital complex renowned for its intricately detailed, colorful roofs. Near the town is the Chateau de Savigny-les-Beaune, which houses an eclectic collection of aircraft, racing cars and motorcycles.
In Tournus, passengers spend time at St. Philibert Abbey, a Romanesque church. Walking tours of Macon take in the Wooden House, a charming, half-timbered Renaissance home.
Lyon is France’s gastronomic capital, and its culinary reputation can be traced to the “Mères Lyonnaises” of the mid-19th century. These women, originally cooks for wealthy families, started their own restaurants and quickly gained recognition for their simple but flavorful fare. Tour the indoor food market known as Les Halles, stroll the maze of medieval alleys in the old quarter and see the 19th-century Fourviere basilica, which looms over Lyon and is visible from many points in the city.
The majority of Seine River cruises travel round trip from Paris, where guided tours highlight the French capital’s iconic sights like the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, the Eiffel Tower and the Arch of Triumph.
From Paris, ships sail west on the Seine. During a port call at Conflans, guests can either visit Chateau Malmaison, former home of Napoleon and Josephine Bonaparte, or roam the town of Auvers-sur-Oise, where Vincent Van Gogh lived.
You’ll then continue to the region of Normandy. Tour the home and gardens of Impressionist painter Claude Monet in Giverny. He lived here for 43 years and was an avid gardener who saw a living canvas in his property, planting it with an artist’s eye. Or, visit 18th-century Chateau de Bizy, called “Normandy’s Versailles.”
The most renowned sight in Les Andelys is Chateau Gaillard, a stronghold built by Richard the Lionheart in the last years of the 12th century. A magnificent Gothic cathedral is a must-see landmark in Rouen, a city that is closely connected to the story of Joan of Arc. The young warrior was imprisoned and burned at the stake here, and she’s honored at a museum that opened in 2015, Historial Jeanne d’Arc.
In Caudebec-en-Caux, passengers can set out for D-Day landing sites along the beaches of Normandy, the Normandy American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer or the pretty port town of Honfleur.