You Can Visit up to 6 European Capitals on a Single River Cruise — Here’s How

by  Donna Heiderstadt | Oct 9, 2023
iStock/arcady_31

Is a Danube River cruise on your list of dream vacations? If so, your voyage will take you to some of Eastern Europe’s most captivating cities. Having just returned from my second sailing on this legendary waterway — which is 1,700 miles long and flows through 10 countries as it connects Northern Europe with the Black Sea — I know firsthand that cruising the Danube is a relaxing and efficient way to experience a living collage of history, art, and architecture across multiple cities. Among them: a whopping six European capitals. 

These include well-known hot spots such as Vienna, Austria, and Budapest, Hungary, as well as sleeper cities such as Belgrade (the capital of Serbia), Bratislava (the capital of Slovakia), and Bucharest (the capital of Romania). You can visit some or all of them — as well as Prague (the capital of the neighboring Czech Republic) — on an Upper Danube, Lower Danube, or full Danube sailing. 

I sailed the Lower Danube in October 2019 and the Upper Danube in September 2023. Either itinerary will put you front and center in a succession of appealing cities, so here are my tips for visiting six of the region’s capitals on a river cruise.

UPPER DANUBE

On seven-night Upper Danube itineraries between Budapest and cities in Germany’s Bavaria region, such as Passau, Vilshofen, and Nuremberg (or vice versa), you’ll visit three uniquely beautiful European capitals. 

Budapest, Hungary:

Baths in Budapest / Konoplytska/iStock

If you have a choice to begin or end your cruise in this elegant city, opt for the former — and I’ll tell you exactly why in a moment. Budapest is the hub of Danube River cruising and has much to offer — so much, in fact, that my fourth visit was just as enthralling as visits one, two, and three.

With most upstream (northerly) cruises, such as my recent seven-night “Melodies of the Danube” itinerary aboard AmaWaterways’ AmaSonata, you’ll have two days to experience the incredible architecture, historic thermal spas, and lively wine-bar scene of the Hungarian capital. Be sure to explore both Buda and Pest, since the capital is divided by the Danube. Buda, the hilly medieval side, is home to 13th-century Buda Castle, neo-Gothic St. Matthias Cathedral, and the white-turreted Fishermen’s Bastion. Pest, more sprawling and modern, is the city’s architecturally elaborate commercial heart with a variety of restaurants, wine bars, and shops. 

It’s easy to walk from Pest (where your ship will dock) across the landmark Chain Bridge and ride the Castle Hill funicular up to the historic buildings and viewpoints of Buda. Then, after crossing the bridge back to Pest, turn left toward the circa-1902 Hungarian Parliament Building. You’ll need to book tickets in advance to tour the inside, but just seeing its Gothic-Revival spires and domes from the riverfront is a treat. Along the way, don’t miss the Shoes on the Danube. This memorial art installation of iron shoe sculptures represents the pairs that thousands of Hungarians, including more than 800 Jews, were forced to leave on the river bank when they were executed at the water’s edge in 1944 during WWII.

Budapest is also known for the Széchenyi Baths, a series of thermal pools set in and around a palace-like canary yellow building that dates to 1913. It’s located in City Park and a cool way to get there is on the vintage M1 subway, the oldest electric underground railway in Europe, which opened in 1896. Take it from Vörösmarty tér near the river to the Széchenyi Furdo stop or get off at monumental Hosok Tere (Heroes Square) and walk to the baths through the park. 

Depending on your interests, you can also visit the Dohany Street Synagogue (the largest in Europe), the Hungarian State Opera (located on elegant Andrassy Avenue), or the Great Market Hall (built in 1897). As sad as you’ll be to leave, that’s when the magic happens. By embarking in Budapest, you’ll experience the most stunning sail away in all of river cruising: gliding past the gleaming Hungarian Parliament Building seemingly illuminated in 14-karat gold. 

Bratislava, Slovakia:

SCStock/iStock

Much smaller in scale, Bratislava is easily explored on foot. Having the expertise of your ship’s local guide will help put into perspective the complex history of the Slovakian capital. The original capital of the Slovak Republic in 1939 before it fell under Nazi rule, the city became a capital again in 1993 after the “Velvet Revolution” split the former Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. 

From the Danube, it’s a short walk to Bratislava’s Old Town, which is rich with history and full of pastel-hued charm. It’s known as the “Coronation City” because it served as the capital of the Kingdom of Hungary in the 16th century and saw 10 kings crowned there between 1563 and 1830. Bratislava Castle, a large white fortress, can be reached via a hike from Old Town and offers sweeping views.

In Old Town, top sights include the 15th-century St. Martin’s Cathedral, the Old Town Hall set on the main square, and the blue façade and bell tower of Art Nouveau-style St. Elizabeth’s Church. Slovakia also produces some lovely wines and excellent beers, so enjoying a glass or two in a local pub or café is a great way to absorb local culture. 

As you walk back to your ship, it will also become apparent why Bratislava’s New Bridge, constructed in 1972, is nicknamed UFO. The circular observation deck that tops it has definite flying saucer vibes and is especially hypnotic at night as you cruise past it on your way to the next port of call.

Vienna, Austria:

iStock/arcady_31

The Austrian capital has so many incredible sites that it’s impossible to enjoy them all in one day. River cruise ships dock at Handelskai and the U-Bahn (the U-1 line) is within easy walking distance, as is the circa-1897 giant Ferris wheel in the Prater amusement park, with its red caboose-like cars offering stunning city views. Here are my suggestions for a day of independent exploration in Vienna based on your interests.

If you’re a history buff, delve into all things Hapsburg by visiting Hofburg Palace, the center of imperial Viennese life since the 13th century that’s also home to the Sisi Museum and Imperial Apartments (commemorating all things Elisabeth (nicknamed Sisi), wife of Emperor Franz Josef. You can also head to Schönbrunn Palace, located a short U-Bahn ride outside the city center and surrounded by acres of manicured gardens. Don’t miss St. Stephen’s Cathedral, a Gothic landmark that’s the tallest church in Austria; the stately buildings along the Ringstrasse, which include the Rathaus (Town Hall) and the Austrian Parliament Building; and the ornate facades of the pedestrian shopping zone known as the Graben.  

Art lovers have a wealth of options, but I rank the collection at the Belvedere Museum high on my list, not only because it has some of the best-known works of Austrian painter Gustav Klimt (including “The Kiss”), but also because it’s set in a beautiful Baroque palace. If edgier artwork is more your thing, the Leopold Museum has an unrivaled collection of Expressionist paintings and drawings by Egon Schiele. 

Café culture is a huge part of the Viennese lifestyle and if you’re a foodie you can spend your day sampling local delicacies — from Austrian wines and beers (seek out some old-school cellar wine bars and taverns) to sausages, Wiener schnitzel, and the chocolate-apricot-jam confection known as the Sachertorte (its birthplace: the historic Café Sacher Wien). 

PRE- OR POST-CRUISE BONUS CAPITAL

Now for the bonus capital. While not located on the Danube, this city can be visited from Austria or Germany pre- or post-cruise, either independently or as an add-on tour to your river cruise. 

Prague, Czech Republic:

Aerial view of the Old Town pier architecture and Charles Bridge over Vltava river in Prague, Czech Republic / DaLiu/iStock

With its elaborate fairytale-style architecture and delicate spires, the capital of the Czech Republic has been described as “Disneyland for adults,” especially if you’re an adult who loves beer. Czechs consume more of the hoppy brew per capita than any other country and a visit here isn’t complete without tossing back a few pints in a beer hall as you nibble on doughy knedliky (boiled dumplings).

With two or three days to explore, you can see most of the main sights. These include hilltop Prague Castle, the largest castle complex in the world, and Old Town Square, an ornate gathering spot with multiple churches and a medieval astronomical clock that comes to life every hour. But the Prague landmark that will prove most hypnotic is the Charles Bridge. This 14th-century span across the Vlatava River is lined with 30 intriguing statues of saints, some blackened and weather-worn but crowned with gilded halos.

There’s a sublime magic to Prague’s unique Bohemian spirit. Franz Kafka was born here, Mozart lived and composed here, and the quirky Church of Loreto is decorated with an excessive number of Baroque cherubs. This capital city is a must-visit before or after an Upper Danube sailing.

LOWER DANUBE

Most seven-night Lower Danube cruises also depart from Budapest, allowing you time to enjoy the sights and experiences detailed above. In addition, you’ll visit four other countries — Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Romania — and two lesser-known capitals. I cruised the region in 2019 on Viking’s 10-night “Passage to Eastern Europe” itinerary and enjoyed discovering what these capitals have to offer.

Belgrade, Serbia:

Skadarlija in Belgrade / iStock / Makinwa

Belgrade isn’t necessarily on most Americans’ radar, which makes a visit here on a downstream (southerly) Danube cruise a great opportunity to discover its rich history and monumental architecture. Serbia has made an effort over the past decade to up its tourism game and you’ll discover that just like most cities along the Danube, Belgrade has an atmospheric Old Town, a must-see church, and a century-spanning fortress. It also has a notable café and bar culture with buzzy cocktail lounges helmed by Gen Z mixologists, and is home to the Nikola Tesla Museum, a draw for those into science.

Serbia, once part of the former Yugoslavia and an independent country since 2006 following the fallout from the 1990s Balkan War, uses the Cyrillic alphabet, making navigating it a bit challenging. Taking your ship’s guided tour in the morning and then exploring Old Town on your own after you’ve got your bearings is a good strategy. 

Most tours include a visit to Kalemegdan Fortress (aka Belgrade Fortress). This massive fortification strategically built and expanded from the 2nd and 18th centuries at the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers is composed of an Upper Town, Lower Town, and an expansive park.

Another tour highlight is the multi-domed, white-marble Church of St. Sava (Sveti Sava). Located atop Vracar Hill, it’s the largest Orthodox church in the Balkans and the second largest in the world. Construction began in 1935 and after lengthy delays during and after wartime the impressive exterior was completed in 2004. The interior, however, is still a work in progress although completion is in sight. Clad in gilded mosaics — don’t miss the ornate subterranean crypt, decorated with intricate glass mosaics and gold chandeliers — it’s a treasure worth seeing.

Bucharest, Romania:

iStock/Pilat666

The capital of Romania is perhaps best known for the 24-year rule of Communist dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu, as well as the massive Palace of Parliament he ordered built in 1984. Executed in 1989, Ceaușescu never saw his vision completed, but it stands, all 3.5 million square feet of it, at the center of a city that now embraces a democratic, multi-party political system. 

The Palace, with its Stalinist architecture and more than 3,000 interior rooms, isn’t the only intriguing sight in this increasingly cosmopolitan city and the surrounding Transylvania countryside. Bucharest boasts many wonderfully restored buildings dating to the 15th to 18th centuries, earning it the nickname “Little Paris,” and architecture buffs will revel in the mix of Neoclassical, Art Nouveau, and Byzantine styles. 

Cismigiu Gardens, a public park, is a lovely place to enjoy a stroll, and Old Town, where buildings date back 300 to 500 years, is the spot to wander amid narrow streets lined with restaurants and bars serving both traditional Romanian and international cuisines. Landmarks here include the ornate 18th-century Stavropoleos Church and Curtea Veche (Old Princely Court), once the residence of Vlad Tepes, more famously known as Vlad the Impaler (the inspiration for the fictional Dracula).

For full immersion into the region’s medieval lore, arrange a pre- or post-cruise tour through Transylvania. Top sights include 14th-century Bran Castle, a towering stone landmark better known as Dracula’s Castle, although neither Vlad the Impaler nor author Bram Stoker are known to have visited. For true Vlad the Impaler vibes you’ll need to visit his birthplace Sighisoara (the yellow house where he was born is marked Vlad Dracule). If you can, overnight here, because once the sun sets this charming and colorful UNESCO World Heritage Site transforms into a misty stage for your wildest Dracula fantasies.

Danube Itinerary Options:

Most river cruise lines in Europe sail both the Upper Danube and Lower Danube, generally from March through October and then during the Christmas market season from mid-November to late December. In addition to AmaWaterways and Viking, you can book a Danube cruise with AvalonWaterways, CroisiEurope, Emerald, Riverside, Scenic, Tauck, and Uniworld.

If you have the time and would love to experience most of the Danube River on a single cruise, you can opt for the 18-night “Portraits of Eastern Europe” sailing with Uniworld, which cruises from Nuremberg to Bucharest and also visits Prague. Another deep dive is the 15-night “Danube Delta Discovery” itinerary with Scenic, which cruises from Bucharest to Vienna and visits five capitals.

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