One of the best parts about taking a river cruise is that your home-away-from-home is docked right in the center of things, giving you the luxury of hopping out and exploring when there's free time. And there will be plenty. Here's how to make the most of it and explore a port town solo.
1. Chat with the locals.
River cruises typically offer a complimentary walking or bus tour to get you acquainted with the town you're visiting, giving you a quick overview of the history and landmarks, so you can make mental notes of what you want to explore when you have some free time. Take advantage of the guides leading these -- they're usually locals or have lived in the region for a while -- and pick their brain about what you are interested in seeing. Whether you're curious about the top thermal baths in Budapest or where to go wine tasting in Bordeaux, they should have solid recommendations. Don't forget to chat up the staff on the ship, too, since they will be very familiar with the region if not from there.
2. Locate a landmark.
If you're on a short time frame and only have a few hours to explore a port town -- typically the case if you're only there for the day and have a morning excursion -- one of the best ways to easily explore worrying about getting lost is to start at a walking or shopping street. In Budapest, for example, there's the pedestrian shopping street Váci street that runs parallel to the Danube and leads to the indoor Central Market Hall. In Bordeaux you can find the Rue Sainte-Catherine, the longest shopping street in Europe, just a 10 minute walk from the river Garonne. Again, your guide or cruise concierge should be able to tell you where the main streets are.
3. Go for a riverside bike ride.
Your river cruise ship will usually dock in the heart of the city, or at least not too far from it. While some destinations are easy to get to on foot or by bus, biking is a great way to cover more ground and see the sights more quickly. Some river cruises offer complimentary bikes onboard, perfect for jumping right onto the bikeways running along the river. Many European towns also now have bike share programs, sometimes with some free minutes. Just grab one near the docks and drop the bike off at other stands around town when you're done.
4. Take a (somewhat) self-guided tour.
If you're on a river cruise (like Scenic Cruises) that offers GPS-enabled devices, you can use it to point out and learn more about landmarks onshore. Scenic's devices, for example, even offer directions and routes for walking and biking tours, so you can take a mapped-out tour at your own pace. You'll be able to take any detours that catch your whimsy, but don't have to spend too much precious time cobbling together an itinerary. Some ships also have maps and guidebooks that delineate good walks in the destinations you'll be visiting.
5. Go the distance.
On the off chance that your ship isn't within walking distance of the city center, don't feel like you have to stay stuck aboard the ship. Some river cruises offer bus transfers to a meeting point in the city with scheduled return times, or the concierge can arrange a taxi or point you in the direction of affordable public transportation options. Just be sure to keep an eye on the time and get back on board well before disembarkation.
This mentality goes the same for eating off board. A few river cruises offer all-inclusive packages, and while dining and drinking on board helps get the most bang for your buck, this doesn't mean you shouldn't sample the local cuisine. Go and try wiener schnitzel and Sachertorte cake in Vienna or bratwursts in Nuremberg. Your taste buds will thank you.