Brugge, Belgium

One week in Europe is never enough, is it? And yet, many river cruise itineraries are exactly that long. Come day seven, you’ll wish you had arranged a trip extension. Yes, some river cruise lines offer pre- or post-cruise land programs, but, if you’re cruising from Lyon (on the Rhône), Paris (on the Seine), Amsterdam, or Mainz (both on the Rhine), it’s easy enough to create your own itinerary. Here are three destinations that make for the perfect pre- or post-cruise trip.

Lake Geneva Region from Lyon

If your Rhône River cruise begins or ends in Lyon, consider a side trip to Switzerland’s Lake Geneva Region. Here, you’ll find snow-capped mountains, pristine lakes, charming towns, and a tranquil wine region.

Getting there: Take a two-hour train ride from Gare de Lyon Part-Dieu (the primary railway station in Lyon) to Geneva’s central station, Cornavin. From there, you can hop on an SBB train and continue to Lausanne (45 minutes) and Vevey (75 minutes). (You’ll want to work your way back to Geneva, since you will likely fly home from Geneva Airport.) You can also make this a pre-cruise trip by flying into Geneva, exploring the region, and taking the train to Lyon for your sailing.

Where to stay: In Geneva, splurge on a room at the Mandarin Oriental, which is located right on the Rhône River (rates from $474 per night). Alternatively, consider a stay at the budget-friendly Hôtel Suisse, which is within walking distance to the lake (rates from $125 per night). In Lausanne, the posh Royal Savoy Hotel & Spa mixes classic architecture and contemporary design with terrific lake views (rates from $300 per night). In Vevey, step back in time when you book a stay at Hotel des Trois Couronnes, a majestic lakeside palace that dates to 1842 (rates from $250 per night).

What to see and do: In Geneva, stroll the lakefront promenade where the Jet d’Eau — a large fountain and one of the city’s most famous landmarks — sprays water 450 feet into the air. Then, make your way through Old Town and explore the area (it’s quite hilly, so wear comfortable and supportive shoes). In Lausanne (which is also hilly), visit the 13th-century Lausanne Cathedral and the Place de la Palud. Afterwards, enjoy a leisurely lakefront stroll through Port of Ouchy to the Olympic Museum. If you love wine and panoramic views, book a guided excursion to the Lavaux Vineyard Terraces (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), where family-owned vineyards like Domaine Christophe Chappuis have produced local grape varieties such as Chasselas (a flavorful white) and Gamaret (a lush red), for centuries. In Vevey, walk along the and snap a selfie with The Fork, a gleaming 26-foot-tall utensil standing upright in the lake. Post-selfie, head to Chaplin’s World, a museum that chronicles the life of Charlie Chaplin (the iconic performer spent the last 25 years of his life in Vevey).

Where to eat: If the weather is nice in Geneva, enjoy a glass of wine or pint of beer paired with light bites on the terrace of Cottage Café (small plates from $4). In Lausanne, sample local wines, cheeses, and charcuterie at Ta Cave (menu ranges from $13 to $85). For an indulgent lunch, head to Tom Café at the Olympic Museum (main courses from $14). When it’s time for dinner, book a table at Brasserie de Montbenon for savory French cuisine and sweeping sunset views (entrées from $28). In Vevey, enjoy a splendid lakeside meal on the patio at Le 3C at Hotel des Trois Couronnes.

Brussels & Bruges from Amsterdam or Paris

Belgium is easily accessible by train from both Amsterdam (to the north) and Paris (to the west). This small nation is sandwiched between France and the Netherlands and is known for its beer, frites, waffles, and chocolate. Four nights split between Bruges (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and cosmopolitan Brussels is more than enough time to experience the alluring charm of the two cities.

Getting there: If your cruise disembarks in Amsterdam, take a Thalys high-speed train or Intercity (IC) train from Amsterdam’s Central Station to Antwerp Central Station or Brussels Midi station and transfer to a train to Bruges. (We recommend saving Brussels for last, since you’ll probably fly home from there.) Travel times vary based on connections, but it shouldn’t take you longer than three hours total. If you’re traveling from Paris, take the high-speed Thalys train to the Brussels Midi station (about 90 minutes). From there, transfer trains to Bruges (about an hour).

Where to stay: In Bruges, the upscale Hotel Dukes’ Palace is — as its name suggests — the former 15th-century home of aristocracy; the property offers a mix of historic and contemporary details and features (rates from $160 per night). In Brussels, it’s hard to find a better property than the chic and luxurious Hotel Amigo, which is located right off of the Grand-Place (rates from $250 per night).

What to see and do: Although Bruges is a walkable city, consider cruising down the winding canals to get a closer look at the splendid medieval architecture, the beautiful weeping willow trees, and the graceful white swans. Stand in the center of the Market Square (known as Markt) and take a panoramic photo of the ornate buildings that date back about 600 years. Afterwards, visit the Church of Our Lady to see Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child. If you’re traveling with a significant other, head to Minnewaterpark and share a kiss atop Lovers Bridge. In Brussels, Grand-Place in Old Town is the star, and it’s dotted with decorative houses, outdoor cafés, and the Hotel de Ville (Brussels City Hall). It also makes for a perfect spot for beer-drinking and people-watching. If you’re looking for a photo op, head to the Instagram-worthy Royal Galleries of Saint-Hubert and Place du Grand Sablon (bonus: both sites are home to several chocolate shops, so be sure to sample some before you leave).  

Where to eat: For a romantic dinner in Bruges, reserve a table on the terrace (or, when it’s cold out, in one of the cozy dining rooms that date to the 15th century) at Cafedraal, which serves up fresh seafood and French-Belgian cuisine. In Brussels, enjoy a savory lunch at L’Entrée des Artistes (everything under 30 euro; about $33). For an afternoon pick-me-up, head to Little Delirium Café to sip beer and mingle with locals.

Heidelberg from Frankfurt/Mainz

A Rhine River cruise that starts or ends in Mainz (near Frankfurt) affords you the opportunity to enjoy, experience, and explore the charms of Heidelberg, which is about a one-hour train ride from Frankfurt. This beautiful and historic city is home to a photogenic castle, a 230-year-old bridge, a vibrant university, and the lively Hauptstrasse (a pedestrian zone lined with shops, restaurants and bars) — all of which can be easily explored in two-nights.

Getting there: Trains run frequently to Heidelberg from both Mainz and Frankfurt (some are direct, while others require a connection in Mannheim).

Where to stay: You’ll find clean, modern rooms at the budget-friendly Leonardo Hotel Heidelberg City Center, which is just a short 10-minute walk from Hauptstrasse (rates from $66 per night).

What to see and do: Take the funicular up to the magnificent 16th-century Heidelberg Castle, which is constructed of red sandstone. Don’t miss the Fassbau (also known as the Barrel Building), where you can see the Great Barrel, which holds an astounding 220,000 liters of wine. Alternatively, admire the castle from afar as you cross the Alte Brücke (Old Bridge), which is also made of red sandstone. Explore the scenic hillside pathways of Heiligenberg, where you’ll pass through picturesque vineyards and acres of forest. In late November and most of December, Heidelberg’s Old Town (also known as Altstadt) is home to one of Germany’s most festive Christmas markets.

Where to eat: Although it’s popular and noisy, Vetter’s Alt Heidelberger Brauhaus is worth the visit. Here, you can sample strong classic and seasonal beer (Vetter 33 is the world’s strongest, with a 33% alcohol content). Pair your drink with sausages, cheese, and other local dishes. Traditional German specialties are also on the menu at Zum Rotten Ochsen, which is housed in a building that dates back to 1703 (mains from 13 euro; about $15). 

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