The journey between Amsterdam and Budapest traverses at least four countries — and millennia of history — but it’s only about a thousand kilometres less than the distance between Canberra and Adelaide. However, the landscape, both physical and cultural, is so rich that the river cruise is a congested two-week voyage.

There’s simply more of Europe to see these days, too. The fall of the Iron Curtain almost 30 years ago revealed many beautiful cities and spectacular landscapes, making places like Prague and Budapest some of Europe’s most popular destinations.

Moving around crowded Europe can be a battle. The least rewarding mode of travel is flying: security, cramped terminals, and dodgy weather can conspire to make it a nightmare. Driving gives you freedom but parking in most cities is either impossible or expensive. The rail network is excellent and deposits you right in the heart of the city but it’s a bit hard to step outside to take in the view.

So, it’s no surprise that European river cruising is rapidly growing in popularity. Once the domain of elderly Germans, it’s now booming for visitors from around the world — especially Australians. Indeed, river cruising is the fastest growing part of the Australian overseas cruise industry.

River cruises share some elements of ocean cruising but also have distinct advantages. You still only unpack once but you don’t have to worry about sea-sickness. You’re likely to find bicycles available on board to explore the stops along the way, as well as wireless internet and special departures catering to range of interests, such as the beautiful Christmas markets of Austria and Germany.

The vessels are long and narrow, because locks and bridges dictate so. You gain a perspective from the river that is impossible to find any other way, and you’re likely to dock conveniently in the very heart of the city, near the major attractions. I went aboard APT’s AmaBella on a 15-day cruise and my spacious suite had a very clever indoor/outdoor balcony that’s perfect for Europe’s fickle climate.

The Danube river weaves through Budapest under a criss-cross of historic bridges

The trip from Amsterdam to Budapest cruises four waterways. It begins by a bridge in Budapest; the capital of Hungary consists of the riverside hills of Buda on the western side of the Danube and the flatland of Pest on the east — they were only united in 1867. There’s much to explore from the imposingly Gothic riverside Parliament building, or the lanes and alcoves of the Fishermans Bastion and Citadel. From opera to the labyrinths, there’s a lot to experience indoors but it’s outdoors — especially at night — Budapest really shines.

The Danube is the thread that flows right through Europe. It rises in Germany’s Black Forest and flows into the Black Sea after a 2780km journey, passing through 10 countries and a wealth of history. Along its banks are many of Europe’s most important cities and some of its grandest scenery. Of course, most of the cities and the riverside communities owe their existence to the river so the Danube really weaves an historical thread of cultural continuity.

The Danube is the most romantic of rivers. There’s Vienna, the gem of Austrian civilisation where palaces, parks, museums, music, and artwork abound. We may know it for schnitzel, coffee, and cake, but the waltz is alive too, with hundreds of formal balls held each year from December to February. Then there are the beautiful Bavarian cities of Regensburg and Passau.

The Main, a tributary of the Rhine, is the next river on the journey, and Mainz is the town where modern civilisation was enhanced when Gutenberg invented the printing press. Another important city on the Main is Frankfurt, Germany’s economic heart.

rhine-scenery-700x400-wyza-com-auThe gorgeous scenery of the Rhine region is a major highlight of a European river cruise

Although it was first proposed some 1200 years ago, the 171km Rhine-Main-Danube Canal was only completed in 1992. It’s not just a vital link in the voyage but it takes you to nearby Nuremberg where layers of history — from the Holy Roman Empire to the Reformation and the Renaissance to the Nazi era — all overlap.

On its 1200km journey from its headwaters in the Swiss Alps to the North Sea, the Rhine River flows through Austria, Liechtenstein, France, and Holland, but it’s most closely identified with Germany and the wine of the Rhine region.

The Rhine takes you to Germany and likely stops in Cologne, with its imposing cathedral, and sparkling Rüdesheim. Castles stand like sentinels on many promontories while working boats and barges share the river.

Finally, you dock in Amsterdam where Van Gogh artworks and Anne Frank’s home are found. This canal-side city is the perfect end to the cruise, both for its own attractions and it’s convenience as a jumping-off point for the rest of Western Europe.

Whether the voyage is taken east to west or vice versa, there are significant highlights at the beginning and end of a journey across Europe. The towns and sights along the way fill the tapestry of a trip long regarded as an essential experience.

Have you taken a river cruise? Share your experiences below.

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