Of all European river cruise itineraries, the ultimate is probably the Grand European Tour, which runs from Budapest to Amsterdam. Dan and I had fallen in love with river cruising during our Rhine River cruise, so when Viking Cruises invited us to take this one for purpose of review, we couldn’t resist. Five countries in two weeks, without changing hotels? Heck, yeah!
Cruise days are full, so I kept a daily river cruise journal along the way. I have now turned our trip into a series of cruise review articles to show what you can expect every day. You’ll find the links throughout the article.
What happens on a river cruise?
We’ve only been on Viking cruises so far, but we understand that the daily routine is generally similar. Every port of call begins with a guided tour of the city (included), after which you have leisure time to do whatever you fancy until the ship sails.
As for the lunchtime meal, some passengers return to eat on the ship. Others, including ourselves, prefer to stay in town and buy their own noontime meal. In our opinion, few things 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 culture.
At some stops, you may be able to join an additional tour. These special interest tours usually have a limited appeal, so they charge a nominal additional fee to cover the cost. It’s a creative way to keep the basic price low, yet still add extra value to passengers. (Note: For the 2015 season, prices ranged between 29 and 64 euros per person.)
One thing about this cruise itinerary: Be prepared for a lot of scenery, culture, UNESCO sites, history and food. If you enjoy things like this, you will really enjoy the river cruising experience.
Read more: 24 Reasons to Take a River Cruise
This is Viking’s map of their Grand European Tour itinerary:
As seasoned travelers, we can’t emphasize this strongly enough: Arrive in town early. Flight delays happen. Baggage goes astray. Jet lag makes you fuzzy-brained and sleepy during the day.
Arriving early gives you time to adjust to the time change. Plus, you won’t risk the ship sailing without you or your luggage.
Flying in early also means you’ve time to see more of the city at your leisure. You could buy the pre-cruise extension, like 2 nights in Budapest or 3 nights in Prague. Not only do you have time to adjust your internal clock, you also have additional tour options. Or you could do your own thing, as we did.
Tip: We stayed at the Budapest Marriott Hotel, which was on the Danube. It was also conveniently near where our ship was docked.
Also note that cruise and tour itineraries are subject to change without prior notice. They do the best they can to adjust, sometimes busing you to your next stop to ensure you stay on schedule.
- If there has been heavy rain upriver, your ship may not be able to fit under some bridges due to high water level.
- The river will be too low if there hasn’t been any rain. Your ship may not be able to navigate without risking damage by hitting the bottom.
- If there is an event in town, you may not be able to tour certain areas. This happened to us in Budapest and Passau, where we couldn’t get into notable churches. Another time, we had to leave town early, so as to make it through a region before a regatta took place.
It’s disappointing, but don’t get upset and let it ruin your fun. Things like these affect their bottom line, so I promise you they would avoid it if they could.
Days 1 and 2 – Budapest, Hungary
Viking offerss a light buffet lunch for those who arrive before the 3pm check-in. The first official activity on the Grand European Tour is held mid-afternoon. Their unofficial guided walk around the area is a great way to beat jet lag, should you be arriving the day of the cruise.
Our Program Director promised that our first meal on board would be special, and it was. We were offered a traditional Hungarian menu, accompanied by local wines and beers. And for those of you who are selective about what you eat, be encouraged. Viking always offers a few standards, like grilled salmon and steak.
Read more: Boarding in Budapest
Tokaj and Bulls Blood are probably the best-known Hungarian wines. Hungary’s Tokaj wine region is so phenomenal that it is a bona fide UNESCO site. Unfortunately, while the country produces a number of excellent wines, most of the regions are unknown in the States.
Tip: If you enjoy good wine, pick up a few bottles of good wine at your first port. You can try a new one with dinner each night. Viking doesn’t charge a corkage fee.
The second day 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 visited Pest’s National Opera House and historic Heroes’ Square, then crossed the river to Buda. There, our tour took us along Castle Hill to Fishermen’s Bastion and Matthias Church before returning to the ship for lunch.
In the afternoon, you have a choice to make. Would you like to explore Budapest on your own or join an optional tour? Your choices are:
- 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 began with a Welcome Reception. Consider it an official opportunity to chat with your Program Director and traveling companions.
The evening departure results in some phenomenal photographs. Evening cruising through Budapest on the Danube is spectacular. See our Budapest photos here.
Days 3 and 4 – Vienna, Austria
Viking has updated their itinerary since our cruise, dropping a day in Bratislava in favor of two days in Vienna. As much as we enjoyed Slovakia’s capital, we left Austria’s capital feeling as though we hadn’t seen enough. Props to Viking for listening to passenger feedback and adding more time in Vienna.
The Historic Centre of Vienna is a UNESCO site and there is plenty to see. We did see some of the city’s baroque architecture on our morning tour. Our guide made sure we saw the world-famous Opera House, St. Stephan’s Cathedral and Hofburg Palace, among other things.
Read more: One Day in Vienna on a Viking Cruise
Many of our fellow passengers spent the afternoon exploring Vienna on their own. We preferred to join the optional afternoon tour to Schönbrunn Palace. It is called the “Versailles of Vienna” due to its massive size (1,441 rooms!), and it qualifies as a UNESCO site as well.
After dinner, we were treated to 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 + Melk, Austria
Most cruising is done overnight, unless it’s through a picturesque area. This morning we enjoyed 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. It features Austria’s finest Italian baroque architecture. Melk Abbey also has wonderful frescoes, as well as a library that holds an extensive collection of medieval manuscripts.
Read more: Melk Abbey, the Danube Jewel of Austria
Day 6 – Passau, Germany
Passau lies where the Inn, Ilz and Danube Rivers meet. Our guided walk along the town’s narrow streets took us through Old Town and past many traditional patrician houses. Lying at the confluence of three rivers, Passau often experiences flooding, and one of the sights is where previous floods have left their mark.
We also saw the New Bishop’s Residence and the impressive baroque St. Stephen’s Cathedral with its ornate interior. If you arrive at noon, you can be treated to a special noontime concert on Europe’s largest church organ (17,000 pipes).
Then, time to explore Passau on our own.
Read more: What to Do With One Day in Passau, Germany
Day 7 – Regensburg, Germany
Regensburg is a wonderfully preserved medieval city. It’s full of medieval architecture, dark and narrow lanes, and strong fortifications, and that’s what makes it a UNESCO site.
We had a chance to 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.
Read more: What to See in Regensburg Old Town
Day 8 – Nuremberg, Germany
Our morning was spent on board, cruising to Nuremberg. Dewi, our program director, offered a morning talk about the European Union, but Dan and I skipped it. We sat on our private stateroom balcony, sipping coffee and watching the passing scenery.
The afternoon options included a walking tour of the Old Town area. Highlights were the Albrecht Dürer House and Main Market Square. We drove by Zeppelin Field (the Nazi parade grounds of the 1930s) and the Palace of Justice, site of the infamous Nuremberg Trials.
World War II buffs can take an optional tour of the Documentation Center instead.
Day 9 – Bamberg, Germany
We spent 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 actually accomplish his dream.
Once arriving in port, we were taken on a walking tour of Bamberg’s medieval city center. Bamberg has a magnificent 11th-century cathedral. However, it’s best know for its picturesque city hall, built on a tiny island in the middle of a river.
When our guide released us to explore this UNESCO site on our own, a few of us asked for one final stop. Schlenkerla is a historic brewpub in Bamberg, Germany and is renowned for its smoked Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier.
The Franconia region may be known for its wine, but Bamberg is famous for its distinctive, smoke-flavored beer. Truth be told, it was the highlight of Dan’s and my visit.
Read more: What to Do in Bamberg, Germany, in One Day
Day 10 – Romantic Road excursion to Rothenburg + Würzburg
We joined Viking’s optional Romantic Road excursion to Rothenburg ob der Tauber. The motorcoach ride was scenic but it was drizzling and hard to see through the wet windows.
Rothenburg is a medieval town with charming half-timbered houses, a turreted city wall and impressive Gothic and baroque architecture. It ranks among one of the most picturesque in all of Germany. If you have a camera, you should really consider taking this tour.
Passengers who didn’t take the tour spent the day in Wurzburg.
After a traditional German lunch in a Rothenburg restaurant, we returned to Würzburg. The town is best known for the Bishops’ Residenz, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. This is one of Germany’s largest and most ornate baroque palaces. It’s over-the-top elaborate, and hard to believe someone actually lived like this.
Anyway, another delicious dinner on board. Viking had planned an evening glassblowing demonstration but had to put it off because the glassblower missed the ship. Oops.
Day 11 – Wertheim, Germany
Wertheim is located at the confluence of the Main and Tauber Rivers. It’s a typical, small German town, with roots that date back to the 7th century. Wertheim is renowned for its glassblowing tradition.
Our walking tour included a visit to the historic marketplace and our guide pointed us to glassblowing studio that we could visit. Many passengers spent their free time in glass shops buying souvenirs. Dan and I preferred to leave the main drag and explore the old town’s 1100-year-old back streets. You can see our photos here.
Down time in the afternoon. Time to relax on the sun deck with other passengers and watch the scenic vineyards of Franconia sail by. Dinner included some of the area’s wines.
Tonight, we finally got our glassblowing demonstration. He was quite entertaining and kept us all laughing, especially when he drafted audience participants. The whole evening was super fun!
Day 12 – Upper Middle Rhine Valley + Koblenz, Mosel and
Today was all about hilltop castles along a stunning stretch of the Rhine River, so special that the Upper Middle Rhine Valley has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There were plenty of oohs and aahs on the Sun Deck as we passed the dozens of castles and vineyards along its banks.
This was our second time in the Rhine Gorge and we enjoyed it just as much. The views are incredible and the associated commentary is fascinating!
The ship stopped in Braubach for a tour of one-of-a-kind Marksburg Castle. This castle is in perfect shape; it’s the only Rhine fortress that has never been destroyed. Definitely a must-see.
Since we were there on our previous cruise, we joined the optional Moselle wine tour, along with a couple dozen other passengers. We headed along along the Mosel River, which offers a landscape of terraced vineyards punctuated here and there by typically German towns.
After stopping to stretch our legs, we continued on to the Mosel winery. They took us into the inner sanctum of wine production and showed how they produced their wines. Then, of course, we sampled a few of their best.
Our ship docked in Koblenz until late evening. This is the picturesque town where the Moselle and Rhine converge. We had
Read more: Cruising for Rhine Castles and Mosel Wine
Day 13 – Cologne, Germany
Cologne is Germany’s fourth largest city. Our morning walking tour through Old Town passed St. Martin’s Church, the Renaissance city hall and the remnants of an ancient Jewish mikveh (a ritual bathhouse). Our tour ended at the Dom, Germany’s largest cathedral and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The rest of the day was free to enjoy Cologne. I made sure we went to the Chocolate Museum….
The Captain’s Farewell Reception was a blast – we had a “Taste of Germany” buffet dinner, complete with live oompah music. And being that it was a buffet, the chef made sure to come over to help us figure out which dishes were on our diet. We had mentioned it once, at the beginning of our cruise, and the entire staff never needed to be told again. They kept it in mind every time we ordered.
Anyway, we joined the optional Prost! Tour after dinner so we could experience Brauhaus culture and drink Cologne’s famous Kölsch beer. We’d done it on our Rhine cruise and it was just as fun this time.
Read more: One Day in Cologne
Day 14 – Kinderdijk, Netherlands
We sailed along the Rhine all morning. and Viking had plenty of activities to keep us entertained. We enjoyed sampling Dutch cheeses and jenever (a distilled juniper liquor), and trying our hand at sjoelen (Dutch table shuffleboard).
After lunch, we docked in Kinderdijk (UNESCO!) for an afternoon tour. This is a fascinating experience, both for the photo ops and the opportunity to learn about windmills first-hand. We had done this on our last cruise, and the best part was climbing into a working windmill to explore its mechanisms and living quarters.
If you’re claustrophobic, have mobility challenges, or have already visited a real Dutch windmill, there’s an alternate tour. Passengers who would prefer an alternative can join a tour to watch Dutch cheese making. Holland is famous for Edam, but the cheese farm we visited specializes in Gouda. Of course, the best part was sampling the many varieties in their shop….
We enjoyed a final dinner on board and our last evening together as we cruised on to Amsterdam.
Day 15 – Amsterdam, Netherlands
Our cruise ship docked sometime after midnight. We left late and could have 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), and I assume that’s because most people have planes to catch. If you wish you can join the next round of passengers on the afternoon walkabout.
Or you can do what we did, and spend more time in Amsterdam. There’s a lot to enjoy in the city: neighborhoods, restaurants, museums and exciting nightlife. But whatever you do, make sure to take a canal cruise. It’s ranked as the best things to do in Amsterdam. Find some good ones here.
Tip: We can personally recommend the Renaissance Amsterdam Hotel, which is a few blocks from Centraal Train Station. Or if you prefer something a little further out, the Bilderberg Garden Hotel was also nice. Both are near a tram stop.