River cruises are a great choice for a European honeymoon or a romantic getaway. Medieval ruins, hillside farms, and dramatic cathedrals make for a scene straight out of a storybook, and Europe’s rivers are full of fascinating stops.
There are several rivers that crisscross Central Europe, so deciding which one to tour can be tough. Let us make it a bit easier with our side-by-side comparison of Rhine vs. Danube River cruises.
Rhine vs. Danube River Cruise Overview
The Rhine River spans 765 miles. It flows northwest from Basel, Switzerland to Amsterdam in the Netherlands and passes through Austria, Germany, and France before spilling into the North Sea. Along the way, passengers will make stops in major cities like Zurich and Cologne, as well as small idyllic towns like Rudesheim, Strasbourg, and Freiburg
The Danube River is much longer, at 1770 miles. It runs from the Black Forest Mountains in southwest Germany through Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Moldova before it empties into the Danube Delta in Romania and Ukraine on its way to the Black Sea.
There are two portions of the Danube River: the upper Danube, which flows through Germany, Austria, Slovakia, and Hungary; and the lower Danube, which travels southeast from Hungary and flows through the Balkan states. The most popular routes take passengers from Nuremberg to Budapest (or from Budapest to Nuremberg) along the upper Danube. Popular lower Danube routes start in Budapest and finish in Istanbul.
Both the upper and lower Danube routes are popular, and a variety of river cruise operators offer tours ranging from just a few days to over a week. Several cruise operators offer 14-night cruises that cover the entire length of the Danube. The main capital cities you’ll stop at on a Danube River cruise are Budapest, Belgrade, Munich, Bratislava, and Vienna.
Rhine vs. Danube River Cruise Things to See
Both rivers flow through some of Europe’s most breathtaking scenery. Lazily float past acres of bucolic countryside between visits to historic cities, taking in the views of crumbling castles and cathedrals. Some of Germany and Austria’s most popular attractions can be seen by traveling along either river, depending on the itinerary. However, the Rhine and Danube each have their own unique attractions.
You may begin your voyage along the Rhine River in Amsterdam where you can see legendary Dutch art in the Rijksmuseum as well as the Anne Frank Huis Museum. If you want to spend a day or two in Amsterdam, most cruises will let you extend your trip with a pre-cruise land package, like Avalon Waterways’ Romantic Rhine package that includes 1 night in Amsterdam.
A field full of ingeniously designed windmills awaits you at Kinderdijk, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the gothic architecture in Cologne (or Koln, in German) is a backdrop any photographer would love.
The Rhine Gorge (another UNESCO site) is a gorgeous stretch between Koblenz and Bingen that’s lined with over 40 exquisite castles and set against a backdrop of vineyards. Near the start of the gorge, you’ll get the chance to wander through the picturesque old-timey town of Braubach and see Marksburg castle, the 12th-century fortress that managed to stay standing throughout two world wars despite heavy artillery all around it. Historic battlefields are a major draw for history buffs and are a major feature of Rhine River tours.
Some Rhine River cruises add detours that extend your trip further. Extended cruises up the Moselle and Main Rivers are a popular option that adds France, Belgium, and the Czech Republic to your tour.
Upper and lower Danube itineraries tour different areas, but both routes tend to be more scenic, rural, and green. There are plenty of stops that feature superb biking trails through acres of pasture. A voyage along the Danube River also gives passengers a peak at Eastern European history and culture, something that was hidden behind the Iron Curtain until 1991. Conflict in the Balkans until the early 2000s kept this area inaccessible even longer, making lower Danube River tours especially unique.
On a lower Danube River cruise you’ll start in either Budapest or Bucharest. Both are beautiful cities with fascinating histories and stunning architecture. When you pass through the Iron Gates, a massive gorge with 130-foot-high cliffs that separates Serbia and Romania, you’ll see the giant stone carving of Decebalus, the last ruler of modern-day Romania. If you want to immerse yourself even further in Eastern European culture, Avalon Waterways’ Balkan Discovery cruise includes 2 nights in Transylvania.
Upper Danube River cruises start in either Budapest or Regensburg, Germany. You’ll traverse major cities like Vienna, Passau, and Bratislava. Music lovers might find this route especially interesting and want to spend a few days taking in a show or two. AmaWaterways offers a 7-night Melodies of the Danube cruise that includes 2 nights in Budapest pre-cruise and 3 nights in Prague post-cruise.
Serious river cruisers can tour both rivers in one trip. The Rhine, Danube, and Main Rivers converge in the Europe Canal, and several cruise operators offer connecting tours here like Viking River Cruise’s 15-day Grand European Tour.
Rhine vs. Danube Christmas Market Cruises
Christmas market tours are a specialty of Europe and are extremely popular every year. While both rivers flow through charming European cities and towns that come alive during Christmas time, the Danube might deliver that Old Town holiday cheer you’re after.
The towns you’ll visit on a Danube River Christmas market cruise are smaller and have retained some of that 18th-century charm. Viking River Cruises’s Christmas on the Danube tour highlights the most festive towns in Hungary, Austria, and Germany.
Rhine vs. Danube River Cruise Cuisine
The local cuisine is very similar on Rhine and Danube cruises. Think flakey pastries and warm, filling meals like goulash, stews, sausages, and schnitzel. You might have a bit more variety on the Danube, especially if you take a longer cruise that passes through more regions.
Of course, no trip to Central Europe is complete without having your fill of beer and wine. The Rhine flows through Germany’s world-famous Riesling valleys. Danube routes take you to Wachau Valley, a small wine region in Austria specializing in Gruner Veltliner, a white wine that’s much drier than sweet Rieslings.
Rhine vs. Danube River Cruise Drawbacks
River tours are fun, safe, and beautiful, but there are a few factors that can make or break your trip. For starters, it’s important to know that the Rhine River and the Danube River can both be subject to low water levels in the late summer or early fall, making it impossible for ships to pass.
On the other hand, snow melting off the Alps contributes to high water levels in the late spring, which can throw off your cruise plans if levels are too high to pass underneath the bridges. Most tour companies have plans in place in case this happens, but traveling outside of the off-seasons can help you avoid any unpleasant changes to your itinerary.
Also, sections of the Rhine River can be crowded with other river cruises as well as day cruises to the Gorge. It’s also a very popular trade route and sections of it are fairly industrial, so some less-than-stellar views are unavoidable.
Rhine vs. Danube River Cruise Conclusion
A voyage along either river promises to be an unforgettable experience. Whether you decide to go with a Rhine River cruise or a trip up the Danube will depend on your preferences and interest. If quieter attractions, fewer crowds, and nature are more appealing than buzzing metropolises, a Danube River cruise might be for you. If you want to see some of history’s most interesting landmarks, a Rhine River cruise is best for you.
Let us know which one you prefer!