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The Mac Daddy of all river cruise itineraries in Europe is the Grand European Tour from Budapest to Amsterdam. Since Dan and I had taken on a Rhine River cruise (Basel to Amsterdam) a few years ago, how could we resist Viking's invitation to take this one?
Cruise days are full so I kept a daily river cruise journal along the way. I have turned our trip into a series of articles, one (or more) for each day, to show what you can expect. (I've included the links below.)
The general pattern on river cruises is that every port of call begins with a guided tour (included), after which you have leisure time until the ship sails. As for lunch, although some passengers return to eat on the ship, many others—including ourselves—prefer to stay in town and buy their own noontime meal. Nothing on board can match ordering local food in a local restaurant with local patrons. To us, it adds another layer to the experience of being in another country.
At some stops, the ship also offers optional tours with a limited appeal, so they are at a nominal additional cost. (For the 2015 season, these prices ranged between 29 and 64 euros each.)
One thing about this tour: Be prepared for a lot of scenery, culture, UNESCO sites, history and food. These are all prime topics in European river cruise itineraries … so if that suits your taste, you will really enjoy European river cruising.
Days 1 and 2 – Budapest, Hungary
Day 1: Our Grand European Tour begins in mid-afternoon with an organized walk in Budapest. The meal tonight', they promise, will be a traditional Hungarian dinner accompanied by local wines and beers. We are quite fond of Bulls Blood, a red wine that is popular overseas, and are really looking forward to sampling more of the country's other wines. It's sad that most are unknown in the States; Hungary's Tokaj wine region is so phenomenal that it is a bona fide UNESCO site.
Day 2 begins with a morning tour of Budapest. Many of the city's attractions are recognized as World Heritage Sites, such as Buda Castle Hill, Banks of the Danube, and Andrassy Avenue. We will visit Pest’s National Opera House and historic Heroes’ Square, then cross the river to Buda, where our tour will take us along Castle Hill to Fishermen’s Bastion and Matthias Church before we return to the ship for lunch.
In the afternoon, you have the choice of exploring Budapest on their own or joining one of three optional tours:
- Dohány Street Synagogue and Jewish Budapest (tour highlighting Budapest’s colorful Jewish past and present)
- Spa Experience (Budapest is famous for its therapeutic thermal waters and has the spas to prove it)
- Hungarian Horsemen: Lazar Equestrian Park (trip to see a horsemanship exhibition).
The second evening in Budapest begins with a Welcome Reception, where we will get acquainted with our Program Director and traveling companions. They promise an evening departure which will result in some phenomenal photographs. Evening cruising through Budapest on the Danube is said to be spectacular.
Day 3 – Bratislava, Slovakia
It’s a long way to Bratislava. We will spend our morning sailing the through some of the most scenic parts of the Danube. I'm sure Dan's going to be plenty busy with his camera.
After lunch passengers will be able to join a walking tour through Slovakia’s charming capital, Bratislava, to see attractions like the medieval fortifications at Michael’s Tower, baroque Jesuit Church and Gothic St. Martin’s Cathedral. (Obviously the city's been around for quite a while.) The tour also passes by several baroque palaces from the Hapsburg Dynasty and a few of Bratislava's humorous bronze statues.
We won't be on that tour, however. There is an optional tour to visit a local family in their home. We will enjoy a chat about life in Slovenia over afternoon tea and cake. The ship departs late in the evening so we hope to make it into Bratislava's old town afterwards to see what we can and get some nice photos.
And yes, of course we'll find some local fare to sample as well.
Day 4 – Vienna, Austria
We've long wanted to visit Austria and we will get an opportunity today when we tour its capital, Vienna. The Historic Centre of Vienna is a UNESCO site and there is plenty to see. We will see some of the city’s baroque architecture, including the world-famous Opera House, St. Stephan’s Cathedral and Hofburg Palace, then return to our ship for lunch.
Many fellow passengers will spend their free time walking around Vienna this afternoon. We, on the other hand, will join the optional afternoon tour to Schönbrunn Palace, a UNESCO site as well. It is called the “Versailles of Vienna” due to its massive size (1,441 rooms!).
After dinner we will enjoy a classical concert (think Mozart and Strauss, not classic rock) performed by a Viennese orchestra. (That's another optional tour; no need to endure it if you're not a fan.)
Day 5 – Wachau Valley and Melk, Austria
This morning we enjoy some scenic cruising through the Wachau Valley, heart of Austria’s wine country. The Wachau is a stretch of the Danube Valley between Melk and Krems, and is of such unsurpassed beauty and historic importance that it has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Melk's crown jewel is its abbey, an incredibly ornate 900-year-old Benedictine monastery featuring Austria’s finest Italian baroque architecture. So we will tour Melk Abbey and see its wonderful frescoes as well as a library with an extensive collection of medieval manuscripts.
Day 6 – Passau, Germany
Passau lies where the Inn, Ilz and Danube Rivers meet. Our guided walk along the town’s narrow streets takes us through Old Town and past many traditional patrician houses. We see the New Bishop’s Residence and visit the impressive baroque St. Stephen’s Cathedral with its ornate interior. We will also be treated to a special noontime concert on Europe’s largest church organ (17,000 pipes).
Then, our guide will leave us time to explore Passau on our own.
Day 7 – Regensburg, Germany
Regensburg is a wonderfully preserved medieval city, full of medieval architecture, dark and narrow lanes, and strong fortifications; that's what makes it a UNESCO site. We tour the town’s market, city hall and the splendid St. Peter’s Cathedral, discover many 13th- and 14th-century patrician houses, and see ancient Roman, Romanesque and Gothic buildings.
Day 8 – Nuremberg, Germany
Our morning is spent on board. Viking offers a morning talk about the European Union as we cruise our way to Nuremberg. The afternoon walking tour of the Old Town area will include the Albrecht Dürer House and Main Market Square as well as Zeppelin Field (the Nazi parade grounds of the 1930s) and the Palace of Justice, site of the infamous Nuremberg Trials.
Or, for World War II buffs, Viking offers an optional tour of the Documentation Center instead.
Day 9 – Bamberg, Germany
We spend the morning cruising through the 106-mile long Main-Danube Canal and passing through some of its 16 locks. Charlemagne first thought of continuous river travel from the North Sea to the Black Sea in 793, but it took until 1992—a whopping 1200 years—to accomplish.
We also enjoy a walking tour of Bamberg’s medieval city center. Bamberg has a magnificent 11th-century cathedral and a picturesque city hall built on a tiny island in the middle of a river. We will also enjoy this UNESCO site on our own and maybe even sample some of the town’s distinctive smoke-flavored beer before returning aboard.
Day 10 – Würzburg, Germany and optional Romantic Road excursion
Morning: In the morning we'll join Viking’s optional excursion to Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Rothenburg ob der Tauber, which includes a scenic motorcoach ride along the famous “Romantic Road.” Rothenburg is a medieval town with charming half-timbered houses, a turreted city wall and impressive Gothic and baroque architecture.
Afternoon: After a traditional German lunch in a local restaurant, we will continue our day of sightseeing in Würzburg. We are looking forward to seeing Würzburg’s Bishops’ Residenz, one of Germany’s largest and most ornate baroque palaces and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. After another delicious dinner on board Viking will host an evening glassblowing demonstration on board.
Day 11 – Wertheim, Germany
Wertheim is located at the confluence of the Main and Tauber Rivers. During our morning walking tour we will experience life in a typical small German town. Our walking tour includes a visit to the historic marketplace and a glassblowing studio where we learn about Wertheim’s glassblowing tradition.
We can relax on board in the afternoon while we sail past the scenic vineyards of Franconia and enjoy some of the area's wines.
Day 12 – Koblenz, Mosel and Upper Middle Rhine
Today, we will relax atop our ship as we cruise past hilltop castles along a stunning stretch of the Rhine River. This is so special that the Upper Middle Rhine Valley has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Thus, there will be plenty of cameras on the Sun Deck as we pass the dozens of castles and vineyards along its banks. This will be our second time in the area and we are really looking forward to it. The view is stunning and the associated commentary is fascinating!
After lunch it will be possible to tour one-of-a-kind Marksburg Castle, the only Rhine fortress that has never been destroyed. As a result, it is in perfect shape. However, we were there on our last cruise so this time we will travel up the Mosel by bus to sample some local wine. Our ship will be in Koblenz until late evening, the picturesque town where the Moselle and Rhine converge.
Day 13 – Cologne, Germany
Cologne is Germany’s fourth largest city. Our morning walking tour through Old Town passes St. Martin’s Church, the Renaissance city hall and the remnants of an ancient Jewish mikveh (a ritual bathhouse). Our tour ends at the Dom, Germany’s largest cathedral and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The rest of the day is free to enjoy Cologne. I think we might visit the Chocolate Museum….
The Captain’s Farewell Reception will be a Taste of Germany buffet dinner. Afterward, we will leave the ship for the optional Prost! Tour. This will be a chance to experience Brauhaus culture and try Cologne's famous Kölsch beer.
Day 14 – Kinderdijk, Netherlands
We will sail along the Rhine all morning. Therefore, Viking will keep us busy sampling Dutch cheeses and jenever (a distilled juniper liquor), and trying our hand at sjoelen (Dutch table shuffleboard).
After lunch, our ship will arrive in Kinderdijk (still another UNESCO World Heritage Site!) for an afternoon tour. This is a fascinating experience, both for the photo ops and the opportunity to learn about windmills first hand. We will even have an opportunity to enter a working windmill for a tour of its mechanisms and living quarters.
Passengers who would prefer an alternative can join a tour to a nearby cheese farm.
Finally, we will enjoy dinner on board and our last evening together as we cruise to Amsterdam.
Day 15 – Amsterdam, Netherlands
Our cruise ship docks sometime after midnight. For us it will end after one last enjoyable breakfast, once again with local breads, cheeses and other specialties. No Amsterdam tour is included on the itinerary (even though its canals are yet another UNESCO site) but before we fly home we will spend two additional nights in Amsterdam and enjoy the city’s neighborhoods, museums and exciting nightlife.