For many river cruisers (first-timers and repeaters alike), a sailing along the Upper Danube is a must. It is consistently one of the best-selling river cruise itineraries for a reason: It offers access to some of Europe's most iconic capital cities as well as scenic intermissions that consist of gliding past charming castles and picture-perfect historical towns.
The classic Upper Danube departures contain some selfie-worthy, must-see monuments as well as opportunities to go beyond the crowds. Most of the river cruise lines make sure passengers will see all the highlights, which are outlined below, but it's also good to be armed with some under-the-radar, insider tips about the destinations that can help anyone make a classic Upper Danube river cruise their own.
The striking Hungarian Parliament Building is one of several attractions on the Pest side of Budapest. Photo Credit: TW photo by Michelle Baran
Upper Danube's crown jewels
The typical Upper Danube itinerary runs between Regensburg, Germany, and Budapest. Many river cruise lines will also add a 2.5-hour transfer to or from Prague, Czech Republic, at the start or end of the itinerary.
The Danube is the second-longest river in Europe after the Volga in Russia, and along its winding path many important cultural and historical events took place. After sailing along the Upper Danube, passengers walk away with a better and fuller grasp of European history, both Eastern and Western, and that is a big part of the draw.
The Upper Danube wouldn't be what it is without Vienna and Budapest. These two cities are the blockbusters of the sailing.
Upper Danube river cruises typically start or end in the Hungarian capital of Budapest, to the south of which begin Lower Danube itineraries. It is not uncommon for passengers to plan an extended stay in the former communist city, which was the result of an 1873 union between Buda on the west side of the Danube and Pest on the eastern side. A defining structure of Budapest is the Hungarian Parliament Building, a massive and ornate structure right on the river. Tours of the Parliament Building are available (sometimes offered as an excursion by river cruise lines), and it is particularly stunning when it is lit up at night. In addition to the dashing Parliament Building, another defining attraction is Buda Castle. The building of the castle spanned centuries, and it's a great place to try to get a better grasp of Budapest's long and complicated history, hopefully with the help of an engaging and knowledgeable guide.
Caste Hill, where Buda Castle is located, is home to several other well-known sites, including Fisherman's Bastion, a neo-Gothic terrace that is quite a sight to behold with its gray spires and intricate statues and carvings. Budapest is also known for its many thermal spring-sourced baths, the most popular and probably most Instagrammed of which is the Szechenyi Thermal Baths. Whichever baths travelers choose, they tend to be a great place for people-watching and for getting a more intimate look at locals and visitors alike.
About midway through an Upper Danube sailing is another highlight: Vienna. No trip to the Austrian capital is complete without a visit to the Schonbrunn Palace, a royal summer residence of the Habsburg Monarchy, which ruled Austria from the 16th to the 20th century. A visit to this elaborate palace and its equally elaborate gardens is often included in river cruises that stop in Vienna. Another popular, and very touristy, stop on the Vienna tour is the Spanish Riding School, where some lines will treat passengers to encounters with the famous Lipizzan horses.
A horse carriage outside Vienna’s Schonbrunn Palace, summer residence of Austria’s Habsburg monarchs. Photo Credit: TW photo by Michelle Baran
Vienna was home to some of classical music's most revered composers, including Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms, and their lives and legacies are showcased throughout the city. There are ample music-themed walking tours available to those who want to take a deeper dive into Vienna's musical past, and river cruise lines will often treat passengers to a classical music evening performance while they are in town.
Vienna is also known for its coffee shop culture. Asking locals for their opinion on the best place to grab a slice of the city's famous dark chocolate Sachertorte is likely to bring on myriad opinions. For an elevated Sachertorte experience, the Cafe Sacher Wien inside the luxury Sacher Hotel won't disappoint. Balance that cake with a quintessential Viennese sausage stand experience by heading to Bitzinger in the centrally located Albertinaplatz, which is made easy to find by the rabbit (yes, the rabbit) sitting atop the roof.
When Prague is included in an Upper Danube itinerary, it really rounds out the trifecta of big-ticket Danube destinations. Most tours of the Czech capital include a visit to the ninth-century Prague Castle as well as a jaunt through the touristy and hopping medieval city center. Here, it's fun to get lost among the narrow streets, where shops sell tourist trinkets, sweet snacks and, oddly, a variety of massages. Most visitors end up on Charles Bridge, which crosses over the Vtlava River and is an ideal place to be at sunset, when the bridge is humming with tourists and locals.
For those interested in Eastern Europe's Jewish past, there is a lot to dig into in Josefov, or Prague's old Jewish neighborhood, which is home to the Old Jewish Cemetery, the Old New Synagogue and the Spanish Synagogue, among several other historically significant Jewish sites.
The Danube's lesser-known charms
Beyond Budapest, Vienna and Prague, Upper Danube itineraries are filled with a variety of ports. Lesser known though they may be, they really complete the Upper Danube experience.
Often the start or end of an Upper Danube river cruise is Regensburg, which has been designated a Unesco World Heritage Site for its numerous buildings dating to the Middle Ages. One of the city's most notable features is the Regensburg Cathedral, a distinctly Gothic structure with its double soaring spires (think a pointier version of Notre Dame in Paris).
Budapest’s Szechenyi Thermal Baths is ideal for people-watching. Fed by two thermal springs, the bathhouse is more than a century old. Photo Credit: TW photo by Michelle Baran
Some river cruise lines will embark or disembark Danube cruisers just south of Regensburg in the German town of Vilshofen (or more formally, Vilshofen an der Donau, which translates to Vilshofen on the Danube). Here, pastel-colored buildings line cobblestone streets, making for a great introduction to the kind of charming towns one can expect to encounter along the river.
About 80 miles southwest of Regensburg is the German town of Passau. River cruise ships dock just outside the city's Old Town, the centerpiece of which is St. Stephen's Cathedral, with its turquoise domed towers. Passau's Old City is on a peninsula that comes to a narrow point where three rivers converge — the Danube, the Inn and the Ilz. There isn't that much to do in this little town, and port calls here are usually not more than a few hours, but it's a pleasant place for a morning or afternoon stroll.
Another 50 miles southwest and across the Austrian border is Linz, from which river cruise lines tend to offer two excursions (both entail a long drive to and from and often cost extra). One option is usually to go to the Austrian town of Salzburg. The birthplace of Mozart and the place where some famous scenes from the film "The Sound of Music" were shot, Salzburg is usually a must for the music fans onboard. It also happens to be a very pretty city that sits at the base of the Alps and has a distinctly Alpine feel to it.
If you have already been to Salzburg or are simply looking for something quite different, the other option is usually Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic, a walled city encircled by the Vltava River and anchored by a 13th-century castle, all of which are a feast for the eyes. A guided tour is usually included with the river cruise excursion, and then passengers are set free to explore on their own. There is no shortage of cute shops and eateries to stick your nose into, including several dining venues along the water.
Though it is the capital of Slovakia, most river cruises don't spend much time in Bratislava, it's usually a half-day tour at most. So, if there isn't much time allotted here, head directly to the central Old Town. On the outskirts of Slovakia, large and stark apartment complexes that defined much of the residential development during communist times in Eastern Europe serve as a good opportunity to discuss communism and the impact it had. Good tour guides will usually use this as an opportunity to go into some explanation and will offer to respond to questions about communism.
Between Linz and Vienna, passengers will be introduced to the scenic Wachau Valley, a landscape that has been designated a Unesco World Heritage Site for its castles and monasteries, historic towns and villages and for rolling hills of vineyards, which produce well-respected riesling and gruner veltliner varieties.
Vienna’s Naschmarkt, a collection of food stalls and fast-casual eateries, is worth veering off course for. Photo Credit: TW photo by Michelle Baran
Here, river cruise lines often make a point of introducing passengers to the regional wines with tastings onboard or off the ship. The Wachau Valley is also where passengers have the opportunity to bike between two ports of call, Melk (home to an 11th-century Benedictine Abbey) and Durnstein (where passengers are given the chance to visit medieval castle ruins). The 20-mile path is often a highlight of the trip, winding through and past vineyards and idyllic villages. In fact, as biking becomes more popular in general on river cruises, it is increasingly common for lines to also offer bike tours of the many ports of call mentioned above, which is a really fun way to explore these cities and towns.
All told, the Upper Danube sets a high standard for river cruising, and its formula for success is that it has such a wide range of sites and experiences to offer. There are plenty of other amazing river cruise itineraries in the world, but this one is one of the gold standards.
Most river cruise lines offer several variations of Upper Danube itineraries with a wide range of itinerary lengths and prices available. Cruises typically run between March and September, and river cruise lines also offer Christmas market cruises along the Danube.