A cruise down the Rhine River shines a spotlight on everything that’s great about river cruises in Western Europe. While you float along one of the most important waterways in the world, you’ll touch land in four different countries—the Netherlands, Germany, France, and Switzerland—visiting big cities such as Amsterdam and Zurich, smaller centers like Cologne and Strasbourg, and the tiny towns that give the river its heart and soul (but that big cruise ships could never get near), such as darling Riquewihr in France’s unique Alsace region.
I rolled down the river on AmaWaterways “Enchanting Rhine” itinerary, and got the inside scoop on the myriad charms of the Rhine River’s ports of call and castle-laden scenery. (Note: Adventures by Disney uses AmaWaterways for its family-friendly European cruise itineraries, but Ama is comfortable for families who like to travel on their own as well.)
Read on for the A to Z highlights as you sail from Amsterdam to Zurich (note that river cruises also do the reverse Switzerland to Netherlands trip).
Ready to set sail? Let’s roll!
A great intro to Europe and a river cruise, Amsterdam is an easy city to navigate both on water and on foot. Longboats dock next to the city’s transportation hub, Central Station, making it easy to hop on one of the tramcars that traverse the city (a full-day pass costs less than $10). Hop on at Central Station for a quick scenic spin around the city to the Museumplein where you can visit the stunning works by Rembrandt and other masters at the Rijks Museum, sparkling after a decade of renovations, and the impressionist treasures at the neighboring Van Gogh Museum. (With more time, invest in an IAmsterdam card to visit the city’s nearly 50 other museums and sites.)
Don’t miss the guided Amsterdam Canal Tour (offered by Ama as part of their complimentary excursions) that explores the city by canal boat.
Taste of the town: For a quick snack, keep an eye out for Oliebollen stands serving warm fried dough treats, including decadent apple-filled, cinnamon and sugar dusted, and cream filled options.
Cologne (Köln), Germany
The bustling city of Cologne is this itinerary’s first stop in Germany, and its stunning Gothic cathedral (Cologne Cathedral), which supposedly holds relics of the three Magi, is the main attraction in the middle of old town. I was delighted to arrive on a festival day, 11/11, which starts the Carnival season that winds all the way to Lent. The cobblestone streets were filled with costumed revelers, making the city feel a bit like New Orleans in Germany, in a very good way.
Taste of the town: Don’t miss mingling with the locals at bars and cafes to sample the city’s golden, lightly-hopped Kölsch (which means “from Cologne”) beer.
A quick evening stop in this town at the confluence of the Rhine and Mosel rivers unveils an architectural highlight of the Rhine: An epic monument to Kaiser Wilhelm I, who once called the city home. You’ll find the monument, along with beautiful Basilica St Castor at the end of the river promenade; just a few minutes stroll from the ship dock.
The Rhine Gorge
Castles! Fortresses! Ruins! More castles! The entire Rhine Gorge is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it’s an understatement to say that floating down this part of the Rhine River is a highlight of a river cruise; honestly, it’s the reason you went on this cruise in the first place. Over the course of nearly 5 hours, you’ll spot nearly 30 fortresses, castles, monuments, and ruins along 41 miles of picturesque river – each with “ooh” and “ahh” worthy views equal to Fourth of July fireworks. The river day is one where you’ll want your camera ready; be ready to pivot from the right side to the left side of the river. Tip: upper deck viewing and the front lounge are prime spots.
Activities in this quaint-as-a–gingerbread-village port include tasting the area’s famous Riesling at a cellar with an outstanding guide, but if it’s a sunny day, consider biking through the rural vineyards of Rudesheim instead, since this is one of the easiest and most scenic spots to bike along the Rhine (Ama leads complimentary guided bike tours here). In season (May through October), and in good weather, a cable car takes you to the top of the Niederwald Monument for views across the surrounding valley. Ramble down the cobblestoned Drosselgasse thoroughfare to find charming shops selling everything from music boxes (another local highlight is Siegfried’s Mechanical Music Cabinet Museum) to hand-crafted Christmas decorations.
Taste of the town: When you’re ready for a break, try a “Rudesheimer coffee” which features flaming Asbach brandy and a thick cap of whipped cream, or slip into a café for “berliners” (jelly donuts) and thick hot chocolate.
Speyer is a favorite port stop not only for its magnificent Romanesque cathedral (circa 1061), but also for its Judenhof, once the center of the Jewish community here, and the amazingly well-preserved medieval Jewish mikveh (ritual bath) dating back to 1104. It’s easy to explore on bike, which I did with an AmaWaterways guide, and the lovely main street is filled with shops and cafes.
Taste of the town: The annual Pretzel Festival in Speyer (takes place during July) dates back more than a century. Although there’s no hard proof that pretzels were actually created here, it’s still worth trying one of the massive dough twists (especially the ones topped with toasted cheese or filled with butter) at stands located throughout the old town.
Alsace has switched hands between Germany and France multiple times over the last 100 years, but make no mistakes, Strasbourg has a decidedly French soul, and a day spent here is filled with boulangerie, patisserie, chocolatiers, and crepes. It’s not all food, of course, the entire historic city center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Strasbourg’s Cathedral Notre Dame is a stained-glass-filled highlight with an astronomical clock that releases a parade of mechanized animals and apostles when the clock chimes 12:30. You’ll find outlets of some of Paris’ greatest stores, such as Printemps and Galeries Lafayette, for shopping, and postcard perfect views along the old city’s canals, too.
Taste of the town: There are two “don’t miss” culinary specialties: choucroute (piles of warm sauerkraut topped with sausage and pork), and tart flambée – wafer thin savory tarts covered in a béchamel-like cheese sauce, onions, and country ham. Accompany either with local dry Alsatian Riesling or a crisp Kronenbourg.
Riquewihr, France (also Breisach and Freiburg, Germany)
First, a bit of explanation about this port: Ships dock at Breisach, a small (16,000 people) port on the Rhine in Germany. Freiburg is a 12th century fortified city with a cathedral and old town hall; and you can visit both admittedly charming towns in one afternoon. The real jewel of the area, though, as confided to me by AmaWaterway’s co-owner Kristin Karst, is the Alsatian village of Riquewihr, surrounded by vineyards and filled with wine cellars and quaint shops. It’s often referred to as “one of the most beautiful villages in France,” as much for its 13th century stone gates as for the lovely winding cobblestone streets filled with candy-colored Alsatian architecture. Of course the swags of grapevines framing the historic walls lend a hand in the beauty as well.
Taste of the town: This is wine country, so stop into one of the many cellars offering tastings of the local Grand Cru.
Welcome to Switzerland! Be prepared to put aside your Euros for Swiss Francs, and for a bit of sticker shock: Switzerland is the most expensive country in the area. However, the small city has treats around every corner, including Market Square and the colorful 500-year-old Rathaus (town hall) filled with colorful murals and amazingly crafted small touches.
Taste of the town: The siren-smell of chocolate wafts from almost every store front in central Basel; this is your chance to snack on real Swiss chocolate either as a rich hot cocoa, delicate truffle, or a decadent pastry. (Note: No need to feel guilty, the Swiss consume the most chocolate in the world, almost 20 pounds per person every year!)
Yes, you’re correct, Zurich isn’t on the Rhine River. However, Amawaterways includes a post-cruise extension led by the ship’s cruise director who will accompany you on the train from Basel to Lucerne and then on a boat excursion to Zurich to explore the charming capitol city of Switzerland. Highlights include St. Peter, which has the largest church clock in the world, the Old Town, and the Fraumünster, which offers an exceptional 360 panoramic view of Zurich.
Taste of the town: Surely you wouldn’t come all the way to Switzerland and miss the rich, decadent cheese fondue? Nope, we didn’t think so.
Details: Cruising the Rhine with AmaWaterways
My cruise on the Rhine with luxurious AmaWaterways fell during shoulder season in November; I was able to see every port without crowds and even had a sneak peek at the Christmas Markets while I sipped spiced hot Gluhwein at most stops. In addition to the wonderful port excursions, Ama did a great job bringing the Rhine onto the comfortable deluxe ship.
Most evenings, local performers, ranging from stellar violinists in the Netherlands to a French chanteuse accompanied by an-acclaimed accordionist in Strasbourg, to R&B outside Cologne, come onboard for a one-night-only performance. It’s a fabulous sneak peek at what’s going on along the river.
Food and wine:
AmaWaterways is the only river cruise line with the Chaine De Rotisseurs designation, and every day they bring local ingredients on board to create special menus of regional delicacies for each country.
Think: Dutch poffertjes (doughy mini pancakes) for breakfast in Amsterdam, sauerbraten in Alsace, and schnitzel and suckling pig in Germany. All wine and beer at meals is included in the cruise price, and the selections also change to match the day’s port and locale. Special treats to match the scenery are also offered throughout the day, such as Rudesheimer brandy coffee while castle-spotting or bratwurst, beer, and pretzels for a German morning repast.