When people are deciding on their first or next river cruise destination in Europe, it often helps if the itinerary is anchored by at least one or two larger European cities, blockbuster destinations like Amsterdam, Budapest, Prague or Vienna that are on many travelers' bucket lists.
But while those are certainly the places that help sell the sailing, they often aren't the places that make it. When it comes to river cruising in Europe, honestly, it's the smaller towns and villages and more remote stretches of river that really shine.
Why is that? Well, first off, while the large cities are certainly a feast for the senses and have plenty to offer, they can actually be almost too much to fully take in during the short time river cruise itineraries often devote to them. My advice to anyone who really wants to get to know these major European metropolises is to spend more time at the start or the end of the trip to take a deeper dive, or to return to those cities that resonated most for more in-depth exploration. What river cruise lines often offer is a solid taste or general overview of these cities, but as anyone who has been to these places can attest, they often have many more layers beyond the sightseeing tours and even in-depth excursions.
I personally never felt like I truly got the feel for any of these major river cruise hubs until my third or fourth visit, once I had already checked off the general tours of the major sites and was able to either explore more on my own or opt for more off-the-beaten path excursions like a market visit, a Jewish history tour or a bike tour that exposed a more local or niche part of the city experience.
On the flipside, the smaller towns and villages that fill in the remainder of river cruise itineraries are often the pleasant surprises that thrill and delight passengers, many of whom had never even heard of places like the charming Austrian town of Durnstein in the Wachau Valley or the picture-perfect German village of Cochem on the Moselle.
Smaller ports are much easier to digest than big cities and offer a more meaningful escape from the hustle and bustle many people are trying to avoid on holiday. Along with the scenic landscapes river cruises glide through, they contribute to some of the most restorative and rewarding moments on any given river itinerary.
So why don't river cruise lines just skip the big cities altogether? Well, first off, these are often the most logical embarkation/disembarkation points for international flight arrivals and departures. And beyond that, people want what they know. And what they know are the major European cities, places they can identify with because they have heard and read about them extensively.
The lesser-known locales are harder to sell on their own. Perhaps as river cruise passengers increasingly uncover these hidden gems, and as the lines look to offer more of them in their growing effort to create unique and diversified itineraries, we might ultimately see some itineraries that focus almost entirely on smaller ports. And from where I stand, that wouldn't be a bad idea.