Cruising the Danube

It’s no secret that the Danube isn’t blue, despite the name of Johann Strauss’ popular waltz. (It’s more of a murky gray.) Still, there is a fascination and draw to the mighty river that has been the heartbeat of central Europe for centuries. River cruising is one of the fastest-growing sectors of the travel industry, and drifting through the tiny towns and villages of HungaryAustria, and Germany is a dream trip for many.

You can pinpoint the year when leisure cruising on the river began to grow, because in 1992 the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal was completed, the fruition of an idea put forth by Charlemagne in the 8th century. The long-awaited canal raises ships via locks over 1,300 feet over the Continental Divide in Bavaria, allowing ships to sail from Amsterdam to the Black Sea.

Earmuffs and scarves are required, but cruising the Danube during the Christmas market season is wonderfully festive.

The beautifully Baroque Melk Abbey. (Photograph by Photongatherer, Flickr)

Over Thanksgiving, my longtime beau and I took a river cruise on one of Viking’s sleek new Longships. Proving that river cruising is here to stay, Viking will have launched 16 of the new ships by the end of 2013. We did the “Romantic Danube” itinerary, which started in Budapest and deposited us in Nuremberg just as the Christmas lights were coming on. While many stretches — like the vineyard-dotted Wachau Valley in Austria – are picturesque, there are some areas that are simply industrial.

shopped in Budapest, and ate Original Sacher-Torte in Vienna, but here’s what I loved most (and least) about the other ports of call along the way:

Melk, Austria

Nearly all Danube river cruises will include a stop at Melk Abbey, a historic monastery that is now also a good-sized school. The tour can’t be missed, but for us, the highlight was walking back to the ship and stopping at the poinsettia-festooned bar at the tiny Hotel-Restaurant Zur Post for an afternoon pick-me-up. At around 4:00, groups of Austrian men began to pour in, downed espressos, told a few jokes, and went about their day. It was a slice of real Austrian life amidst the otherwise touristy throngs.

Passau, Austria

Christmas decorations in Regensburg. (Photograph by Resident on Earth, Flickr)

In beautiful, Baroque Passau, the Christkindlmarkt is set against the backdrop of St. Stephen’s Cathedral, home to the largest organ in Europe. I loved the warm Cafe Simon, fully decked out for the holidays and serving flaky, sweet apple strudel and gingerbread to take home. But the best thing we did was rent a bike for a few hours. Within five minutes, you’re on the Danube Bike Trail, which would take you to Linz and on to Vienna if you kept at it. On the return route to Passau, cyclists are treated to a great panoramic view of the “City of Three Rivers,” where the Danube, Inn, and Ilz rivers converge.

Regensburg, Germany

Here’s a hot tip: load up on sweet mustard in Regensburg. Next to the city’s famous Old Stone Bridge you’ll find the 900-year-old Wurstküche (“Sausage Kitchen”), where small jars of their famous mustard are ONE Euro each. Stocking stuffers found! And the mini sausage sandwiches, topped with sauerkraut and mustard, are the perfect snack. The hidden passageways and courtyards are beautiful, and Christmas markets are staged in the squares. So take my advice and skip the tourist-trap shop across the street selling Bavarian cuckoo clocks, and go for the mustard.

Nuremberg, Germany

Christmas ornaments at the Nuremberg Christmas market. (Photograph by Ruth Geach, Flickr)

Millions of people descend upon the Old World Christmas market on Haupmarkt square here each year. Though people will tell you that Nuremberg’s lebkuchen, or gingerbread, is the best, I found it had more in common with cardboard. If you do partake, skip the high-end bakeries and head straight to the grocery store on the main square, Norma-Rodi, where lebkuchen is more reasonably priced.

By the time we got to our last port of call, we were so sick of sausage and pretzels that we ordered huge salads and soups at local favorite Cafe Lucas. And, of course, a trip to Nuremberg wouldn’t be complete without a tour of the WWII sites with a knowledgable guide. Andreas Clemens was one of the best guides I have ever had. My entire group wanted to hear more, even after 4 hours.

Side Trip! Though I didn’t stop here on this cruise, I have to mention another favorite of mine: a beautifully preserved Medieval town an hour from Nuremberg called Rothenburg ob der Tauber. I love climbing to the top of the town hall for the best view and walking the length of the old city wall. And for some of the best Christmas shopping anywhere, nothing can beat Käthe Wohlfahrt, open year-round for handmade ornaments and other trinkets.

Annie Fitzsimmons is Intelligent Travel’s Urban Insider, giving you the dish on the best things to see and do in cities all over the world. Follow her travels on Twitter @anniefitz.

Comments

  1. gretchen
    florida
    September 20, 2013, 11:18 am

    We are taking the Danube cruise the 1st two weeks of November this year. Nuremberg to Budapest. Was wondering what to pack. Do we need to dress up? What is considered dressed up? Do they provide hairdryers? Do you need a bathing suit for anything?

  2. Tami
    Christmas on the Danube
    September 20, 2013, 1:07 am

    We are taking this cruise the first part of December. I am looking for a packing list. What kind of coat do you suggest

  3. Susan Winter
    Phoenix
    April 18, 2013, 8:05 pm

    We’re taking this cruise this December and can’t wait. We’re on one of the new Viking Longships – supposedly fabulous. Great info on the various ports and of course, Mustard tips! We are extending our cruise for two nights in Budapest and can’t wait to explore this country and the surrounding countryside. We have hired a private guide to show us the area and I look forward to some of the more quirky things – like the Marzipan Museum and of course, the Jewish Historical Center.

  4. Eva Greenwald
    Westport, CT
    February 10, 2013, 12:18 am

    I took the Romantic Danube cruise as a travel agent on the Avalon Tapestry in November 2012. Just wonderful scenery, spectacular architecture and food/wine, really brought history to life. Our cruise was also was a Jewish Culture tour which was amazing in Budapest, Vienna, Prague, Salzburg and Nuremburg. I am looking forward to more river cruises and bringing others with me!

  5. Gabriele Huber
    München
    December 19, 2012, 11:05 am

    Passau is a Bavarian town, i.e. not located in Austria :-))

  6. abdelatif cheboub
    algeria
    December 12, 2012, 8:07 am

    Hello there !
    It seems a good trip but how can enjoy with you on the next trips, I really want to be one of the tripers

  7. Gary McKay
    Wickham NB Canada
    December 11, 2012, 3:02 pm

    Just got back from this cruise on the Danube and anyone that has any interest in history this should be a must do. We had incredible service from AMA Waterways and would highly recommend the trip as they provided professional guides at every historic location along the route. The meals were fabulous and always reflected the local culinary of the country we were in. The opportunity to visit and enjoy the people and their cultures was inspiring. The scenery was breathtaking to say the least. We truly appreciated the security and that our room was traveling with us. Our trip originated in Prague, ended in Budapest covering some 600 km. with inspiration and history at every bend in the river.

  8. Donna Brandt
    Coral Springs, FL
    December 9, 2012, 9:29 am

    I was lucky enough to take this cruise a few years ago, and will be going again next year. Even though I am not a fan of cold weather this trip was amazing. You are so right about the mustard and sausages! I will be packing an extra bag this time just to bring some back! Thanks for your restaurant tips, I will be checking them out!