The 9 Best River Cruise Ships in Europe

by Donna Heiderstadt

The 9 Best River Cruise Ships in Europe

by Donna Heiderstadt

Whether you come to Europe to walk down cobblestone streets, gaze up at centuries-old castles, sip wine in world-famous vineyards, or admire thousands of years worth of history, culture, and art — there’s no denying a river cruise is one of the easiest (and most cost-effective) ways to see it all. You’ll sail right through some of the most iconic landscapes on the continent, waking up in a new port each day. In some places, you’ll even dock right near the town’s main attractions and then tour them by bus.

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Scenic Diamond by Rheinstein Castle / Scenic
Crystal Mozart in Budapest
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Crystal Mozart

Line: Crystal River Cruises

Known for its luxury ocean ships, Crystal Cruises launched Crystal River Cruises in 2016 with its first ship, Crystal Mozart. Aside from being the largest river ship to cruise through Europe, the 154-passenger ship has luxe touches you won’t find on many river ships, including skylights, a pop-up bar, a spa with separate men's and women's saunas, and bathrooms with TV screens in the mirrors.

Itinerary: Crystal Mozart's extra width limits it to sailing the Danube River, but the itinerary is a memorable one. You'll sail on a 10-day round trip from Vienna and cruise through scenic Wachau Valley with calls on Dürnstein, Melk, Passau, Bratislava, and Budapest.

Line: Crystal River Cruises

Known for its luxury ocean ships, Crystal Cruises launched Crystal River Cruises in 2016 with its first ship, Crystal Mozart. Aside from being the largest river ship to cruise through Europe, the 154-passenger ship has luxe touches you won’t find on many river ships, including skylights, a pop-up bar, a spa with separate men's and women's saunas, and bathrooms with TV screens in the mirrors.

Itinerary: Crystal Mozart's extra width limits it to sailing the Danube River, but the itinerary is a memorable one. You'll sail on a 10-day round trip from Vienna and cruise through scenic Wachau Valley with calls on Dürnstein, Melk, Passau, Bratislava, and Budapest.

Viking longship in Dürnstein
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Viking Longships

Line: Viking River Cruises

Viking River Cruises first launched its 190-passenger Viking Longships in 2012, and now it has more than 40 ships in this class. Each ship showcases spare Scandinavian design, with open, airy spaces and light woods and textiles, as well as light-filled atria and glass elevators. No matter the European itinerary you choose, you'll be treated to local cuisine that matches the region, such as Wiener schnitzel on Danube itineraries.

Itinerary: Eight longships sail on the Rhine River, with a 12-day itinerary that covers five countries. The trip begins with pre-cruise stays in Bruges and Amsterdam and ends in Basel. During their journeys, the ships call on windmill-, castle- and cathedral-rich ports, such as Kinderdijk, Cologne, Koblenz, Rüdesheim, Heidelberg, Strasbourg, and Breisach.

Line: Viking River Cruises

Viking River Cruises first launched its 190-passenger Viking Longships in 2012, and now it has more than 40 ships in this class. Each ship showcases spare Scandinavian design, with open, airy spaces and light woods and textiles, as well as light-filled atria and glass elevators. No matter the European itinerary you choose, you'll be treated to local cuisine that matches the region, such as Wiener schnitzel on Danube itineraries.

Itinerary: Eight longships sail on the Rhine River, with a 12-day itinerary that covers five countries. The trip begins with pre-cruise stays in Bruges and Amsterdam and ends in Basel. During their journeys, the ships call on windmill-, castle- and cathedral-rich ports, such as Kinderdijk, Cologne, Koblenz, Rüdesheim, Heidelberg, Strasbourg, and Breisach.

Avalon Tapestry II
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Avalon Tapestry II

Line: Avalon Waterways 

Some of the cabins on Avalon Waterways’ 128-passenger Avalon Tapestry II have a full wall with a floor-to-ceiling window that slides open so you can get a sweeping view of your surroundings outside. Better yet, the beds face the windows, so you can wake up to river scenes.

Itinerary: Avalon Tapestry II cruises eight-day Paris-to-Normandy itineraries on the Seine River that have something for foodies, art lovers, medieval history buffs, and World War II historians alike. You’ll stop at Monet’s Gardens in Giverny, Normandy’s landing beaches, the half-timbered houses of Rouen, and Vincent Van Gogh’s gravesite all before returning to Paris.

Line: Avalon Waterways 

Some of the cabins on Avalon Waterways’ 128-passenger Avalon Tapestry II have a full wall with a floor-to-ceiling window that slides open so you can get a sweeping view of your surroundings outside. Better yet, the beds face the windows, so you can wake up to river scenes.

Itinerary: Avalon Tapestry II cruises eight-day Paris-to-Normandy itineraries on the Seine River that have something for foodies, art lovers, medieval history buffs, and World War II historians alike. You’ll stop at Monet’s Gardens in Giverny, Normandy’s landing beaches, the half-timbered houses of Rouen, and Vincent Van Gogh’s gravesite all before returning to Paris.

River Royale Category 2 Stateroom
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River Royale

Line: Uniworld

Uniworld designed its 130-passenger River Royale specifically for the tricky-to-navigate, low tidal rivers in France’s fabled Bordeaux wine region. The ship has an ornate design fit for a queen, complete with frilly, cushy furniture, intricate wall art, and heated bathroom floors.

Itinerary: You’ll get to slow down and, of course, sip the reds of this vineyard-heavy region on a leisurely eight-day itinerary sailing round trip from the city of Bordeaux. Port stops along the Garonne and Dordogne rivers include Cadillac, Pauillac, Libourne (for Saint-Émilion), and Blaye.

Line: Uniworld

Uniworld designed its 130-passenger River Royale specifically for the tricky-to-navigate, low tidal rivers in France’s fabled Bordeaux wine region. The ship has an ornate design fit for a queen, complete with frilly, cushy furniture, intricate wall art, and heated bathroom floors.

Itinerary: You’ll get to slow down and, of course, sip the reds of this vineyard-heavy region on a leisurely eight-day itinerary sailing round trip from the city of Bordeaux. Port stops along the Garonne and Dordogne rivers include Cadillac, Pauillac, Libourne (for Saint-Émilion), and Blaye.

AmaVida in Porto
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AmaVida

Line: AmaWaterways

Launched in 2013, this 106-passenger passenger ship from AmaWaterways cruises the scenic terraced vineyards of Portugal's Douro River, offering wine-tasting themed itineraries to sample the region's many vineyards. After a long day of touring, you can melt into the heated swimming pool on deck and have dinner alfresco, or simply watch the scenery from your cabin's balcony.

Itinerary: Choose the 11-day itinerary, and you'll start with a three-night stay in Lisbon. After seeing the capital city’s tiled streets and hilly neighborhoods, you’ll start a round-trip sailing from Porto along the Douro River, calling on Régua, Barca d’Alva (for Salamanca, Spain), Vega Terrón, Pinhão, and Entre-os-Rios.

Line: AmaWaterways

Launched in 2013, this 106-passenger passenger ship from AmaWaterways cruises the scenic terraced vineyards of Portugal's Douro River, offering wine-tasting themed itineraries to sample the region's many vineyards. After a long day of touring, you can melt into the heated swimming pool on deck and have dinner alfresco, or simply watch the scenery from your cabin's balcony.

Itinerary: Choose the 11-day itinerary, and you'll start with a three-night stay in Lisbon. After seeing the capital city’s tiled streets and hilly neighborhoods, you’ll start a round-trip sailing from Porto along the Douro River, calling on Régua, Barca d’Alva (for Salamanca, Spain), Vega Terrón, Pinhão, and Entre-os-Rios.

Amadeus Provence Pool Deck
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Amadeus Provence

Line: Amadeus by Luftner Cruises

The 124-passenger Amadeus Provence, by Austria-based Amadeus by Luftner Cruises, will debut in 2017. Standout features include a swimming pool on deck and walk-in closets in the cabins. The budget-friendly line is known for attracting an international crowd and serving up high-quality food and wine.

Itinerary: This ship's Rhône River itinerary is ideal for wine lovers who want to get a taste of France’s Burgundy wine region. The eight-day Rhône and Saône itinerary takes you through the south of France. Beginning and ending in Lyon, the itinerary includes stops in Viviers, Macon, Avignon, Arles, and Tournun.

Line: Amadeus by Luftner Cruises

The 124-passenger Amadeus Provence, by Austria-based Amadeus by Luftner Cruises, will debut in 2017. Standout features include a swimming pool on deck and walk-in closets in the cabins. The budget-friendly line is known for attracting an international crowd and serving up high-quality food and wine.

Itinerary: This ship's Rhône River itinerary is ideal for wine lovers who want to get a taste of France’s Burgundy wine region. The eight-day Rhône and Saône itinerary takes you through the south of France. Beginning and ending in Lyon, the itinerary includes stops in Viviers, Macon, Avignon, Arles, and Tournun.

MS Elbe Princesse
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Elbe Princesse

Line: CroisiEurope

The 80-passenger Elbe Princesse, the latest from CroisiEurope, is one of only two paddle-wheeler ships in Europe. The innovative design allows it to navigate the low waters of the Elbe. There's usually an international crowd on the French-speaking cruise line, so expect to listen to announcements and tours in multiple languages.

Itinerary: The ship cruises nine-day itineraries on the Elbe and Vltava rivers from Berlin to Prague (and vice versa), where you’ll get full days in port. The itinerary highlights historic towns such as Magdeburg, home to the Cathedral of Saints Catherine and Maurice; Wittenberg, the seat of the Protestant Reformation; and Litomerice, one of the oldest Bohemian cities.

Line: CroisiEurope

The 80-passenger Elbe Princesse, the latest from CroisiEurope, is one of only two paddle-wheeler ships in Europe. The innovative design allows it to navigate the low waters of the Elbe. There's usually an international crowd on the French-speaking cruise line, so expect to listen to announcements and tours in multiple languages.

Itinerary: The ship cruises nine-day itineraries on the Elbe and Vltava rivers from Berlin to Prague (and vice versa), where you’ll get full days in port. The itinerary highlights historic towns such as Magdeburg, home to the Cathedral of Saints Catherine and Maurice; Wittenberg, the seat of the Protestant Reformation; and Litomerice, one of the oldest Bohemian cities.

Scenic Opal
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Scenic Opal

Line: Scenic

One of Scenic’s newest ships, the 169-passenger Scenic Opal is a luxurious experience, with a vitality pool on the sun deck, personal GPS-guided commentary devices for each guest, and spacious cabins that have an all-weather sun lounge. Plus, shore excursions, unlimited wine and spirits, in-cabin minibar, gratuities, and butler service are all covered in your fare.

Itinerary: Even if you’ve already cruised the more popular upper Danube, you can still explore a completely different side of the river on the lower Danube from Bucharest to Belgrade on a nine-day sailing. You'll pass through the Iron Gates — a narrow gorge between the Carpathian and Balkan Mountains — and visit Europe’s largest white pelican colony as it calls on ports in Romania, Bulgaria, and Serbia.

Line: Scenic

One of Scenic’s newest ships, the 169-passenger Scenic Opal is a luxurious experience, with a vitality pool on the sun deck, personal GPS-guided commentary devices for each guest, and spacious cabins that have an all-weather sun lounge. Plus, shore excursions, unlimited wine and spirits, in-cabin minibar, gratuities, and butler service are all covered in your fare.

Itinerary: Even if you’ve already cruised the more popular upper Danube, you can still explore a completely different side of the river on the lower Danube from Bucharest to Belgrade on a nine-day sailing. You'll pass through the Iron Gates — a narrow gorge between the Carpathian and Balkan Mountains — and visit Europe’s largest white pelican colony as it calls on ports in Romania, Bulgaria, and Serbia.

ms Esprit
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ms Treasures and ms Esprit

Line: Tauck

Tauck's 118-passenger ms Treasures and ms Esprit (part of the Jewel Class) have suites with double French balconies and marble baths with full-size tubs. All staterooms are stocked with Molton Brown toiletries, and all but the lowest categories have one French balcony.

Itinerary: In April — peak viewing time for the annual color show of tulips, daffodils, and hyacinths — the ships sail eight-day itineraries through Holland and Belgium (northbound from Antwerp and southbound from Amsterdam). The ships lead excursions to Bruges, Ghent, and the world-famous Keukenhof Gardens in Amsterdam, and also call on Maastricht and Kinderdijk.

Line: Tauck

Tauck's 118-passenger ms Treasures and ms Esprit (part of the Jewel Class) have suites with double French balconies and marble baths with full-size tubs. All staterooms are stocked with Molton Brown toiletries, and all but the lowest categories have one French balcony.

Itinerary: In April — peak viewing time for the annual color show of tulips, daffodils, and hyacinths — the ships sail eight-day itineraries through Holland and Belgium (northbound from Antwerp and southbound from Amsterdam). The ships lead excursions to Bruges, Ghent, and the world-famous Keukenhof Gardens in Amsterdam, and also call on Maastricht and Kinderdijk.

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